Finding faith at the headsman’s block

An exploration of faith symbolism in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Invitation to a Beheading”


If I had intentionally sought to write a piece on faith imagery in literature, Vladimir Nabokov would not have been my first choice. It’s unlikely he would have made it into the top ten.

C. S. Lewis is the obvious choice, and a good one. For more subtle treatment of faith symbolism in literature, G. K. Chesterton, Madeline L’Engle, Flannery O’Connor and Emily Dickenson all would be more natural choices. And for someone who painted in faith outside the confines of religious orthodoxy, Ralph Waldo Emerson would be my first stop.

If I had set out intentionally to write something on Vladimir Nabokov, faith imagery wouldn’t have been the most obvious topic. Nor would his work “Invitation to a Beheading,” his last novel written in Russian, which pales in popular acclaim next to “Lolita” (1955) and “Pale Fire” (1962), have been the obvious choice. Yet, it was in reading a copy of “Invitation to a Beheading” that I picked up at a used book store that I found some of the most beautiful and sincere faith imagery I’ve encountered.

To understand why this was so surprising (perhaps it isn’t to you), I needed some background on Nabokov’s faith and relation to God. But, nailing Nabokov down on the question of faith, or any system of belief, is no easy matter. For someone raised in an Orthodox household, in a totalitarian state, some absolute system(s) of thought might be expected. But, perhaps it was those influences that made Nabokov so resistant to any absolute confines or labels for his philosophy, his faith and his beliefs in general.

Two answers to a 1964 interview by Playboy (it was a text-only online transcript … I was really just there for the article) reflect Nabokov’s resistance to any semblance of “ism.” On the topic of governments, Nabokov has “modest desires”:

“Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me. My desires are modest. Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size. No torture and no executions.”

Nabokov was no man of ideology. His opposition to the totalitarian state comes through clearly in “Invitation” and in his public statements. But, he has no use for republicanism over communism, capitalism over socialism, or any ism over any other ism. His desires are simple, unfettered by formal structure.

In response to the question “Do you believe in God?” Nabokov offered equally sincere, and equally nebulous, wisdom.

“To be quite candid—and what I am going to say now is something I never said before, and I hope it provokes a salutary little chill: I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.”

Nabokov is not saying there’s no God, as some have surmised. He’s saying the enormity and meaning of God cannot be captured in simple prose or verse. Descriptive text is inept at capturing the answer to “Do you believe in God?” Only deeply symbolic imagery will come close.

Some also have assumed Nabokov was atheist or have put particular emphasis on his apparent agnosticism because of his frequent criticism of religion – which also comes through in “Invitation.” In “Pale Fire” he said “All religions are based on obsolete terminology,” and in his “Stories” he proclaimed “Religion is boring and alien to me and relates no more than a chimera to what is to me the reality of the spirit.”

On the surface these might seem an attack on faith, or God him/herself. But, like his Playboy answer, they are not an indictment against faith, but rather an affirmation that faith and God are too complex to be adequately expressed through religion. The reality of the spirit is too rich to be expressed within the walls of a church.

While I do not share Nabokov’s dim view of religion – I find deep comfort and a closeness to God in the liturgy and prayer of the Episcopal Church – I do appreciate his affirmation that the true basis of faith can only be imagined at within the confines of any human-made structure. To understand his stance on religion, it’s illustrative to read his comments on his mother’s relationship to the Orthodox Church. He seems to have drawn his formative influences from her, and in his autobiography he describes his mother as going to church only for Lent and Easter, and having a “healthy distaste for the ritual of the Greek Catholic Church and for its priests.”

But this does not mean Mrs. Nabokov lacked faith – just that she had a disdain for structure, which she seems to have passed on to her son.

“She found a deep appeal in the moral and poetical side of the Gospels,” Nabokov wrote of his mother, “but felt no need in the support of any dogma.”

Far from lacking faith, in “Speak, Memory,” Nabokov describes his mother as being deeply spiritual, and sensing a meaning of God that cannot be confined to any single church or religion:

“Her intense and pure religiousness took the form of her having equal faith in the existence of another world and in the impossibility of comprehending it in terms of earthly life. All one could do was to glimpse, amid the haze and the chimeras, something real ahead, just as persons endowed with an unusual persistence of diurnal cerebration are able to perceive in their deepest sleep, somewhere beyond the throes of an entangled and inept nightmare, the ordered reality of the waking hour.”

Nabokov shares his mother’s view that “real” life exists beyond this deceptively unreal worldly existence, beyond the chimeras of worldly concern and pride. “The cradle rocks above an abyss,” he wrote in his autobiography, “and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

In that “brief crack of light,” Nabokov tells us his mother clung passionately to the simplicity of the Greatest Commandment: “To love with all one’s soul and leave the rest to fate, was the simple rule she heeded.”

This central theme of love as the basis of faith, even to the point of defying social norms and self-interest, is reflected in “Invitation” in the relationship between Cincinnatus, who has been condemned to die, and his estranged wife, who has long and shamelessly made him a cuckold. In contemplating a pre-execution reunion with the woman who’s done nothing but hurt him, Cincinnatus can’t help but feel love for her:

“What will you say to me? In spite of everything I loved you, and will go on loving you – on my knees, with my shoulders drawn back, showing my heels to the headsman and straining my goose neck – even then. And afterwards – perhaps most of all afterwards – I shall love you, and one day we shall have a real, all-embracing explanation, and then perhaps we shall somehow fit together, you and I, and turn ourselves in such a way that we form one pattern, and solve the puzzle.”

Cincinnatus at the headsman’s block bears strong correlation to Christ at the cross. He goes on loving the one who betrayed him. He goes willingly to the block. He loves, to death, and even more after death. And when those he loved finally join him, the puzzle pieces finally come together, just as we are made whole and perfect in Christ after death.

Cincinnatus’ crime also echoes the Gospel, and the great crime Christ committed of offending the social order, and overturning all our worldly priorities. Cincinnatus has been condemned to lose his head for the crime of “gnostical turpitude,” described as “the most terrible of crimes.” Like Jesus and the Pharisees, Cincinnatus has committed the unforgivable crime of defying an authoritarian order that requires strict adherence not only to matters of law, but also to social norms. Those who do not conform are simply too dangerous to be allowed to live.

But, it’s not simply defiance and non-conformity. It’s the elevation of thought beyond the constricted view of the temporal, which has no sense of the beautiful, eternal reality beyond the chimeras. Cincinnatus, unlike Jesus, attempts to blend in – but he simply cannot stop seeing the unseen. He lives a life in the opaque realm of spirituality, deep and dark with meaning, while spirituality cuts through the translucent lives of all around him, passing through but not transforming:

“Cincinnatus, who seemed pitch-black to them, as though he had been cut out of a cord-size block of night, opaque Cincinnatus would turn this way and that, trying to catch the rays, trying with desperate haste to stand in such a way as to seem translucent.”

In the privacy of his cell, beyond the reach of those who cannot conceive of “that which cannot be seen,” Cincinnatus awakens to his spiritual being. Like a child waking from a dream, his earthly being contemplates leaving the comfort of sleep to enter the real awakened life:

“But how I don’t want to die! My soul has burrowed under the pillow. Oh, I don’t want to! It will be cold getting out of my warm body. I don’t want to … wait a while … let me doze some more.”

I picture the many times I’ve stood beside my daughters’ beds in the morning, coaxing them from the comfort of sleep to enter the day, to enter the active part of their life. Nabokov takes me further, to picture Christ standing beside my death bed, coaxing me from the familiarity of this life into the real work and reward of life unencumbered by this body – my worldly bed of dreams.

Nabokov takes this imagery further, from the metaphor of a child in bed to a passage of magical realism in which Cincinnatus “undresses” from his body, stripping off this bodily life, one layer at a time, until, like a man who’s found the comfort of undress after a long day’s work, his soul finds peace by stripping itself of his body:

“He took off his head like a toupee, took off his collarbones like shoulder straps, took off his rib cage like a hauberk. He took off his hips and his legs, he took off his arms like gauntlets and threw them in a corner. What was left of him gradually dissolved, hardly coloring the air. At first Cincinnatus simply reveled in the coolness; then, fully immersed in his secret medium, he began freely and happily to …”

Cincinnatus was cut off by the appearance of his jailer. We never know what joy he was about to freely and happily enjoy without his body. But, the point is clear: Our true joy is found in spirituality, divorced from the cares of the temporal world. Much nearer his execution, Cincinnatus experiences a deeper sense of connection to the eternal in this bodily divestment:

“I had a strange sensation last night – and it was not the first time – : I am taking off layer after layer until at last … I do not know how to describe it, but I know this: through the process of gradual divestment I reach the final, indivisible, firm, radiant point, and this point says: I am! Like a pearl ring embedded in a shark’s gory fat – O my eternal, my eternal … and this point is enough for me – actually nothing more is necessary.”

The great “I AM” of our existence, our union with God, the pearl of our existence, is hidden within the “gory fat” of this life, a life that, like a shark, calls us to devour with selfish and thoughtless compulsion.

Cincinnatus’ ability to step outside his body and its cares, even while trapped in his symbolic and real prison cell, speaks to our ability to not only envision, but to grasp and live the Kingdom of God while yet walking this world. But, outside of these lucid moments, when he can step out of and see beyond his body, Cincinnatus seeks to see life outside the prison – symbolically, to see the eternal while yet living.

He stacks furniture in his cell, repeatedly climbing the precarious stack in vain efforts to see through the lone window, high above the cell floor. At his apex, before falling, he cannot see out of the window. He sees only a simple inscription, left by some long-dead prisoner: “You cannot see anything. I tried it too.” In spite of his lucid moments, the cell of this life still holds him back.

As you may expect by now, Cincinnatus’ true vision of true life is not achieved until he makes it to the headsman’s block – or, more specifically, when his head leaves his body at the block. From the time Cincinnatus begins the walk from his cell to the block – recalling the long walk to Golgotha – the narrative again drifts gently into magical realism. The cell begins to disintegrate as he walks through the door. Walls crumble. Floors give way. Furniture falls away. Everything of this world – its cares, its burdens and its lies of what’s important – crumble and fade as he walks to his victory at the block.

Nabokov declines to offer graphic detail of the beheading. In fact, we’re left with the axe still dangling in the air, as magical realism takes Cincinnatus away, mid-execution. Dangling between life and death – like we all must live and die – Cincinnatus walks away from the block, even as the crowd cheers and winces at the scene of his bodily death:

“Everything was coming apart. Everything was falling. A spinning wind was picking up and whirling: dust, rags, chips of painted wood, bits of gilded plaster, pasteboard bricks, posters; an arid gloom fleeted; and amidst the dust, and the falling things, and the flapping scenery, Cincinnatus made his way in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him.”

Freed from the “flapping scenery” of this life, Cincinnatus meets kindred spirits. Victory is his – and will be ours.

Were Nabokov to read this, he’d very likely pronounce me a fool. I haven’t written it with any naïve expectation that I’ve unlocked the Russian-American author’s inner thoughts and feelings. What I’ve transcribed are my feelings, my beliefs, gleaned from reading his work. Just as his writing was influenced by his faith, I’m sure my reading has been influenced by mine. I’m happy to have taken from it what I did: Live life with reckless love; Search for the pearl of your being; Look forward with joy to the completion of our being, which we glimpse in this life and achieve only by dying to ourselves.

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