A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film. Otherwise the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish. (p. 2)
I recalled these words often as I read Italo Calvino's luminous little book Mr. Palomar. For what Mr. Palomar does is precisely what Nabokov cautions against: he breaks the veneer of reality with all the grit of a philosopher and the naivete of a child. He considers the waves, his front lawn, a gecko who climbs on his window at night, the stars, and the cheeses in a favorite cheese shop, drawing from each of these his own, idiosyncratic conclusions about the universe, his place in it, and ours.
A stone, a figure, a sign, a word reaching us isolated from its context is only that stone, figure, sign, or word: we can try to define them, to describe them as they are, and no more than that; whether, beside the face they have shown us, they also have a hidden face, is not for us to know. The refusal to comprehend more than what the stones show us is perhaps the only way to evince respect for their secret; trying to guess is a presumption, a betrayal of that true, lost meaning. (p. 97)
On speaking or keeping silent:
Whether he should refrain from expressing his ideas is more debatable. In times of general silence, conforming to the silence of the majority is certainly wrong. In times when everybody says too much, the important thing is not merely to say what is right, which in any event would be engulfed in the flood of words, but to say it on the basis of premises and consequences, so that what is said acquires the maximum value. (p. 103)
On the difficulty of having knowledge, especially of the habits of a flock of starlings:
Mr. Palomar has not yet managed to understand. The explanations offered are all a bit dubious, conditioned by hypotheses, wavering among various alternatives; and that is only natural, since these are rumors that pass from mouth to mouth, while even science, which should confirm or deny them, is apparently uncertain, approximate. Things being as they are, then, Mr. Palomar has decided to confine himself to watching, to establishing down to the slightest detail what little he sees, sticking to the immediate ideas that what he sees suggests. (p. 62)
If the possibility of acquiring knowledge is as bleak as Mr. Palomar concludes, then why bother undertaking an investigation like his in the first place? Here Mr. Palomar does discover something:
Each individual is made up of what he has lived and the way he lived it, and no one can take this away from him. (p. 125)
Is Nabokov right to say that the only way to fully inhabit the present is to refrain from breaking through the surface of things? I'm not so sure. Perhaps, after all, the best way to be is to shatter the tension, to descend open-eyed, like Mr. Palomar, among the impossible fish.