Consciousness is something we each develop to the degree we feel and think for ourselves. Insofar as we merely accept the emotional and intellectual commonplaces of others, we remain dead.
“Bend Sinister” is a dramatic fantasy of modern man menaced by the rising tyrant State which, under the familiar slogans of Equality and Community, extinguishes the free intelligence and all normal human relations.
The book argues for a political system that will allow individuals to get on with their own lives uninterrupted by the state. Of course politics does not always oblige. Hitler’s ambitions shifted the course of 20th century history and Bush’s empirical pretensions may do the same to our young twenty-first.
“I detest the mass mobilization of minds that war requires, the air of crisis everyone is supposed to breathe” wrote Nabokov at the height of World War II. This is the very nature of dictatorship, as it deprives its citizens of their freedom of choice, to inculcate in them a sense of crisis and unite them against some designated opponent: the Jews, the Arabs, the Communists, the Fascists, the anti-American left, right or centre. The notion that all good citizens should rally around the flag to attack is in itself just another form of social dictate.
Far from accepting that everything should be directed toward a common purpose, Nabokov’s masterpiece champions the right of minds to follow their own curiosity wherever it may lead. As one character in the novel declares, “curiosity...is insubordination in its purest form” an attitude that in today’s America would draw you a prison term for anti-American activity.
The Bush’s administration notion that individual differences should be limited for the sake of an abstract common good or goal—from defeating terrorism, to putting up a united front against a phantom menace is a reductio ad absurdum, which can only be likened to Stalin's terror, Hitler's lunacy or other smaller, more insignificant and less lethal parodies.
If we were to take from Nabokov his freedom, the Russia of his childhood, his family, his sight, he will still remain great; take from Bush his missiles, and he will be nothing more than the powerless, insignificant, easily dismissed language-challenged, Bible preaching simpleton. It is not the first time that an obscure and unlovable but obstinate man has gnawed his way into the bowels of power.
“Bend Sinister” defends the freedom of the individual mind not only against dictatorships abroad but against the coercion of mass culture, mass propaganda or mass mobilization at home.
“If the state is to be saved, if the nation desires to be worthy of a new robust government that can protect its people, then everything must be changed; popular commonsense must prevail, and simple words, intelligible to man and beast alike, and accompanied by fit action, must be restored to power,” wrote one obscure Soviet bureaucrat in the 1930s.
What the current administration is attempting to pass off as patriotism is, in fact, the worst form of propaganda, the propaganda of current ideas, easily digested brain food, fashionable worries, answerable extremes. The alternative advanced by the President today, with its grizzly dip into the torturous past requires that things should be kept simple—brought down to the lowest common denominator—a policy that would denude the world of its splendid particulars. The US Government accepts consciousness as something to be handed out in small doses, to the select few willing to play along.
Even in his most political novel, conceived in the heat of war, Nabokov turns from the problem of the moment to the strength and mystery of consciousness: the power of one’s mind and heart and soul as he resists the political pressure brought to bear on him; the novel’s own resistance, in the name of consciousness, against the group thought that levels individual human mind.
Nabokov presents the dictator’s notion in the novel that we should trim our minds and thoughts to the minds of others as the greatest travesty of humanity. In the name of freedom we must refuse to take these underlings seriously. Denying the irreplaceable uniqueness of individual consciousness, Bush and the American media are advocating the unreal. We, as people of the world should treat them as such, reducing them to preposterous mechanisms around which our kaleidoscopic cultures can extend the limits of truth they refuse to take into account.
Daniel Estulin is a political commentator living in Spain and author of four books on communication skills. He can be reached at: email@example.com