The Lesson of Nabokov’s Father

This summer I happen to be tutoring a young, upwardly mobile Chinese woman. In trying to explain to her, in the limited vocabulary of an ESL lesson, my understanding of democracy, I could do no better than cite the example of novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s father. With compliments to Richard Rorty, I’d like to share this story and my interpretation.

Nabokov’s father, so the story goes, was a nobleman and liberal politician in pre-Soviet Russia. He died defending his political rival from an assassin’s bullet. This, Rorty notes, is the action of a true liberal. How so? As I understand it, Nabokov’s father valued the democratic process above all else. He rather die than allow another’s voice (even that of his political rival) to be silenced.

What ideas about the world could underpin such a belief?   First, there’s immense faith in the wisdom of the community, i.e. a recognition that all knowledge is social and that open debate and discussion is the best way to generate such knowledge. There’s also a willingness, to use a term from my last post, to disavow the role of the “subject who knows.” Instead of dictating policy, Nabokov’s father, through the promotion of democratic institutions, sought to create an environment in which policy could be cultivated. The most important thing was to get the conversation going and to keep it going, even if it meant getting killed.

I think the story of Nabokov’s father, and the great epistemological humility which underlies it, are something everyone should consider. The core idea– of respect for process rather than per-determined product– can also be applied to realms of action far removed from politics. As an example, consider rhetorical ethics, a theme which underlies much of this blog. What is the goal when we speak or write? Do we seek to make our mark upon the world like some petty vandal? Or do we seek to work with others, through reflection, and careful, respectful listening, to construct new knowledges? Nabokov’s father would believe the latter. And I certainly agree.

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