Death in Pnin

pg. 20 “I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego.”

pg. 68 “In a set of eight tetrametric quatrains Pushkin described the morbid habit he always had— wherever he was, whatever he was doing—of dwelling on thoughts of death and of closely inspecting every passing day as he strove to find in its cryptogram a certain “future anniversary”: the day and month that would appear, somewhere, sometime upon his tombstone. ” ‘And where will fate send me’, imperfective future, ‘death,'” declaimed inspired Pnin, throwing his head back and translating with brave literality, ” ‘in fight, in travel, or in waves? Or will the neighboring dale’— dolina, same word, ‘valley’ we would now say— ‘accept my refrigerated ashes’, poussiere, ‘cold dust’ perhaps more correct. ‘And though it is indifferent to the insensible body … ‘”

pg. 135 “… no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.”

pg. 136 “The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.”

These quotes, and our discussion in class today, made me think of this article I read recently in a new light (in case the link doesn’t work, it’s called “What Does It Mean to Die?” from the New Yorker). By the definitions of death Nabokov posits, is Jahi McMath alive? And is Pnin alive beyond the novel as he drives away from those who torment him?

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