A colleague once told the story of how as a child he had felt a kind of terror when looking in the mirror. He could not understand what he – that is to say, his I – had to do with that there, as he put it. This thought sent him into a state of shock, shaking and trembling in his room. Later, as a teenager, he had felt something similar, even more terrifying, about what words have to do with things. Children often have deep philosophical thoughts, I said – my index finger may have been up in front of my nose – after someone remarked that he must have been a very deep child. He turned to me. What about you? Surely you've had such thoughts as a child? But nothing came to me. I do not remember much these days anyway and seldom think of the past.

Perhaps he did not really remember it either. He mentioned that a similar experience was described by Vladimir Nabokov. And in fact his experience corresponds in every detail to one of Nabokov’s early stories, Uzhas, translated as Terror. A nameless narrator (for once this fact has some significance) finds, after having worked at his desk until deep in the night, that he has become disacquainted from himself, and for a prolonged moment he stares at his countenance in the mirror as one would at an old friend who has changed beyond recognition. And the more keenly I examined my face – those unblinking alien eyes, that sheen of tiny hairs along the jaw, that shade along the nose – and the more insistently I told myself This is I, this is So-and-so, the less clear it became why this should be I, the harder I found it to make the face in the mirror merge with that I whose identity I failed to grasp.

He proceeds to share other, related anxieties, such as the realization that he will some day die. Only in the presence of his mistress – a simple, happy girl – does he feel calm, except once when he briefly becomes terrified by there being another person in the room with me; I am terrified by the very notion of another person. These familiar forms of alienation pave the way for a supreme terror, which comes over him after he has moved to a new city, having left his mistress behind. For many nights he cannot sleep. One morning, as he steps out onto the street, he suddenly sees the world such as it really is, devoid of human significance, the way a word loses its meaning when you repeat it often. I was on my own and the world was on its own, and that world was devoid of sense. What remains is a mere something — not even a creature, for that too is a human concept, but merely something moving past. His anguish only subsides when he is given a telegram that reports the immanent death of his mistress. Plain human grief leaves no place for deep philosophical thoughts.

In an appended note, Nabokov remarked that the story, written around 1926 in Berlin during the happiest years of his life, preceded Sartre’s La Nausée, with which it shares certain shades of thought, and none of that novel’s fatal defects, by at least a dozen years. But it does share some of that novel's fatal defects. It is hard not to feel that in Nabokov’s story, as in all of Sartre’s literary work, episodes serve only as illustrations of philosophical points. If there were stock stories, just as there are stock photographs of depression (tired young woman with her hands in her hair) and marital trouble (couple turned away from each other), then ‘Terror’ could serve as a stock story for solipsism, or the feeling that the thinking, perceiving subject does not belong to the world. Later, as his condition deteriorates, he falls into what has been called ‘the Myth of the Given’; compare Ludwig Wittgenstein's remark ‘So in the end when one is doing philosophy one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound.’ (Philosophical Investigations, §261) His problem is finally resolved only by recognising the Other, and recognising the Other through the realization that she – his you – will die.

© 2009–2024, Martijn Wallage