Vagueness in Invitation to a Beheading

After our recent discussion regarding the supposed presence of totalitarian criticism in Invitation to a Beheading, I started thinking about the main reasons that made it hard for me to experience this novel as a product mainly aimed at verbally attacking totalitarian systems.

My first thought was that there are many things in the narration that are left unsaid, unspecified, vague. There is no context that explains to the reader why the theatrical world Cincinnatus C. lives in is the way it is. There is neither temporal indication, nor spatial one. It seems to me there is no real reference undoubtedly aimed at criticizing neither the Communists, nor the Nazis. The protagonist’s crime is never properly explained or substantiates, and he is never revealed the day he will die. It is thus hard to pinpoint whether Nabokov targets a real-life totalitarian regime, and at first I thought this made the criticism less effective.

Then I read this sentence: “But how can I begin writing when I do not know whether I shall have time enough, and the torture comes when you say to yourself ‘Yesterday there would have been enough time.” (46, online version) This made me think of Cincinnatus as someone stuck in a limbo, and there lies his cause of suffering. This connects with the vague tut/tam (here/there) in the Russian version, and the Tamariny Sady (Tamara Gardens). There becomes an ideal concept more than a spacial one, it is a place of freedom, a place of specificity and exactness.

I therefore started thinking about totalitarian systems and their manipulation of knowledge to create blind devotion and mass conformity: they need to get rid of specific knowledge and replace it with vagueness, for instance through slogans and a fixed ideological agenda. And maybe this was what Nabokov had in mind when writing this novel, and in its vagueness lies the strong criticism towards totalitarianism. The solution is writing, is creativity, is mental emancipation. And maybe it’s just me, and probably I should write my essay about this, but this really reminded me of another Czech author: not Kundera, but Havel, with his “the Power of the Powerless”. The system distorts and limits the truth by reducing it to a slogan like “workers of the world, unite!” and the only way out is to stop accepting the lie and embrace truth, and specific knowledge.

One thought on “Vagueness in Invitation to a Beheading

  1. I thought your distinction between specific and vague was very interesting. What, in your opinion, constitutes “specific” knowledge, and how is Cincinnatus an emblem of such a type of knowledge within the text?

    Your post reminds me of a section from Alter’s essay: “…Nabokov’s antirealist method has the effect of probing to the roots of real experience: his totalitarian state is not in any sense a disguised description of an actual regime…” (52). Part of me wonders if the lack of verisimilitude you find so frustrating in “Invitation” is just Nabokov being Nabokov in the sense that he was wont to readily deny any allegations that his work was political. Then again, Cincinnatus’s existence is necessarily a political one because it inherently involves a struggle against a force that denies the right to self-expression (hence your discussion of “specific knowledge.” These questions strike me as a bit paradoxical, but you’ve initiated a very important discussion.

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