So there’s this story by Nabokov called Symbols and Signs. It is an amazing story, although like lots of Russian lit it is dense and seemingly random, but upon consideration it is to my palette rather provocative and deeply meaningful. It is featured in the New Yorker this week on line.
To ruin the story, it is about a character we do not meet, and not like Godot, but like any sad lost character like stolen children through history rather famously considered with pied pipers leading them away by the droves or in and Irish ballads of stolen children, this one is about a son who was born “deranged” who had a condition of some kind of paranoia, Referential Mania. A condition where Nabokov describes this young man as seeing everything around himself as a veiled reference to himself. As no one exists but him, and all actions and artifacts in the world allude to him and convey tangible if not invidious message.
From childhood he carried this delusion of seeing meaning in everything like what’s-his-face does in “Beautiful Mind” with delusions of secret messages hidden in magazines. Yet after describing this as a grievous illness he decorates the beach of his story with the shells of planted information. He describes the ten jellies the parents bring, the look of strangers on the train and the bird fallen and drowned on the ground with the details of importance.
I was moved to see that we all assign meaning. And we all assign meaning as it concerns us. Further not seeing his now suicidal son sets the tension of the narrative to be fully conveyed by this apparent subtext. A set or series of metaphor from which we are left to derive, like the son, meaning from subtle symbols. He became a cipher assigned permanent translation duties to tell himself these terrible whispers from all things around. Gong from man’s assumption of no meaning to the converse assigning meaning to everything. And latent, painful language that he must endure.
It is a story of meaning embedded not seen. As we each draw conclusions that suit or diminish us from the subtle messages time leaves us. Each of us reading the tea leaves at the bottom of our cups, finding message s that impact no one else’s and that no one else can understand.,