‘Signs and Symbols’ by Vladimir Nabokov

I worked in mental health for nine years. For double that time I’ve had a mental illness that I felt was best managed by working in mental health settings. It is not hyperbolic to say that no encounter with a therapist, as a patient, nor with a patient, as a practitioner, helped me understand mental illness so much as ‘Signs and Symbols’ by Vladimir Nabokov. I recently read a relative’s psychiatric records from the 1950s and the main symptom the doctor was concerned about was the patient’s bibliophilia. They recommended that he read less. Nabokov knew acutely the experiences of plenitude and penury. It was key that plentitude came first. Had Nabokov just kept his associations in his head, and not on the page, then his life experience would have been markedly different. There’s a type of mania called apophenia, which involves the sufferer making incessant spontaneous connections between unrelated phenomena. Nabokov takes a brand of this, and describes the condition more solipsistically as ‘referential mania’. This story reminds me again of how obsessed we are with functionality. I once stood in a boardroom where graphic designers discussed for hours the shape of a bird’s tail that was due to appear on a book cover. Transplant that conversation to a bus stop, give it no outcome and witness how it’s interpreted. The world puts us in our boxes and in our little jars. The boy that the parents visit at the asylum in ‘Symbols & Signs’, who has made several attempts on his life, wants to ‘tear a hole in his world and escape’. But for me, the fissures are already there. Human beings are the tears in the world. And it is the categorisations that make this story heartbreaking. A tear can be seen from both sides of the surface. There is a confluence to it but Nabokov shows us how looking out from the tear and looking into it are essentially two different languages.

First published in The New Yorker, 1948 [as ‘Symbols and Signs’], and collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, 1958 and Collected Short Stories, 1995.

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