Westworld’s Nabokovian Roots

Before you read this:

I feel weird about writing a long stream of consciousness thing that isn’t an academic essay. This post could easily be 20 pages long, there is so much more that could be included that I have omitted because this is a blog post and I don’t have time to write a whole thesis. Feel free to comment with more observations about the connections between Nabokov’s work and Westworld and the significance of those connections. There is so much more to discuss. Also…

This post contains Westworld spoilers. Do not read if you have not seen all 9 episodes of  Westworld that are currently available. Go watch all 9 episodes of Westworld and then come back here. This post also contains Lolita spoilers, but you should have read Lolita by now.

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In the second episode of HBO’s new series, Westworld (whose 10 episode first season comes to an end this Sunday) a park employee pitches a new immersive narrative. He promises excitement, adventure, and a chance for guests to discover themselves. Then Robert Ford, creator of the park (played by Anthony Hopkins), delivers the speech that made me fall in love with this show:

“The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties. The details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one noticed before. Something they fall in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

I love this speech because it reveals the show’s self reflexivity, and as a literature student, I am hard wired (heh, apt metaphor) to sniff out self reflexivity and write essays about it. If you have been following this show at all, you already know about the fan theories, the subreddit, the Youtube analyses. Viewers correctly predicted all of the twists in Westworld by paying attention to the differences between two logos, subtle cuts between scenes, the colour of a character’s shirt, and half of the letters of a potential anagram (more on this later). I, like many other viewers, came back to this show for the subtleties. The details. How Nabokovian.

Vladimir Nabokov’s novels are full of details. Tiny subtleties that predict major plot points, reveal a kidnapper’s identity, and destroy a perfect crime. Some details are only discoverable if the reader can understand three different languages, or if they are familiar with a separate obscure text. My favourite example of a subtle, meaningful detail in a Nabokov novel comes from his most famous one. Near the beginning of Lolita, Humbert Humbert visits Hourglass Lake, the place where Clare Quilty is first referenced just as a friend makes an offhand comment about Humbert’s waterproof wristwatch. When Quilty is revealed to be Lolita’s kidnapper towards the end of the novel, 300 or so pages later, Humbert narrates,

Do you really want to know who it was? Well, it was—”

And softly, confidentially, arching her thin eyebrows and puckering her parched lips, she emitted, a little mockingly, somewhat fastidiously, not untenderly, in a kind of muted whistle that name that the astute reader had guessed long ago.

“Waterproof.”

Details. And a comment on the associative, disorganized nature of memory. Details and attention to memory aren’t the only connections between Westworld and Nabokov’s body of work. Nabokov takes up Russian literature’s obsession with doubling, seen in Westworld with loops of existence, Ford’s younger robot self, and of course, “Bernarnold.” The name “Dolores” is significant in both texts, as Westworld’s oldest host and as Humbert’s young nymphet:

“She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

The connection that interests me most between Nabokov’s novels and Westworld is the relationship between author and text, or author and characters— the concept of the author as God of his creations (because of Ford’s god complex and how good Anthony Hopkins is at enacting it). Many of Nabokov’s narrators are also writers. As explained by the fictional John Ray Jr. PhD in the forward to Lolita, Humbert is the author of the manuscript entitled “Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male.” Pale Fire is character Charles Kinbote’s flawed commentary on fictional John Shade’s 999 line poem. Hermann, the protagonist of Despair, composes his narrative from a hotel room after the events he’s writing about have already occurred (up until the 10th chapter in which he switches into diary mode and chronicles events as they are happening). Despair contains small details, hints as to when Hermann is writing, clues that suggest that Herman is aware of the outcome of his story. I’m just going to copy and paste two passages from another website now, because this clearly is not an academic essay and I can do what I want:

“throughout the novel Nabokov very skilfully combines a timescale that includes the narrative present, with Hermann’s reflections on his own account of events, plus flashes forward in time. Yet in order to retain the reader’s interest, Nabokov must not give away too much of the story which is yet to come – so Hermann’s ‘premonitions’ are masked as psychological curios or mere eccentricities. But they are actual pointers to the fact that he knows what will happen because he is giving his account in retrospect.

For example, early in the novel, when Hermann visits the countryside allotment with Lydia and Ardalion (Chapter Two) he feels that the locale is ‘familiar’. It is familiar to him, because it is where he has just killed Felix before starting to write his narrative.”

and

“Nabokov offers a playful and complex game of literary hide-and-seek to the reader, planting clues in his text for the reader to enjoy and decipher.

He always plays fair by the rules of narrative logic and gives readers a chance to work out the subtlest of clues. For instance Hermann is caught out in his crime because he leaves Felix’s walking stick (which also bears his name) in the car he has abandoned in the countryside – but both the stick and its signature have been mentioned previously, planted deep within the narrative for the attentive (or eagle-eyed) reader to spot.” (www.mantx.co.uk/2016/03/07/despair/)

So, details again, and hints to another point in time. If you’re not yet familiar with the “two timeline theory” Westworld fans have been speculating about since the second episode of the series, the idea is that the events in the show that involve William and his soon to be brother in law, Logan, take place 30 years earlier than the events involving Anthony Hopkins’ Ford, Maeve’s storyline with Felix and Sylvester, and the Man in Black. There is also much speculation that Ed Harris’ Man in Black is William 30 years in the future. So time and memory and separate timelines, common to Westworld and Nabokov’s novels. But back to this God of the text idea…

In Nabokov’s novels, the fictional writers, Humbert, Hermann, Kinbote, others, all believe that they are in control of their narratives. But they are not in control. Nabokov himself, the real author, is always present, always has the ultimate authority over the text. I’m inserting a link to a book on Nabokov’s fiction in which author Julian W. Connolly goes into great detail about some of the ways Nabokov’s authorial presence asserts itself in his texts.

Nabokov also often uses anagrams to communicate authorial presence/authority. In Lolita, Vivian Darkbloom (Quilty’s female writing partner) is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov. From Connolly’s book again:

“It has become commonplace throughout Nabokov scholarship to speak of the author’s self-encodement via full or partial anagrammatization of his name. The most oft-quoted examples are the ealier mentioned Blavdak Vinomori, as well as Mr. Vivian Badlook (King, Queen, Knave), Vivian Darkbloom (Lolita), Vivian Bloodmark (Speak Memory), Baron Klim Avidov (Ada), Adam von Librikov (Transparent Things), Van Bock (Strong Opinions), and V. Irsin (Look at the Harlequins!).” (22)

Before Westworld revealed that Bernard is actually a robotic recreation of Arnold, and before the show revealed Arnold’s last name, several Reddit users speculated that “Bernard Lowe” would be an anagram for “Arnold Weber.” In episode 9, in a flashback, “Weber,” Arnold’s surname, is posted on his office door. Just as a feud often arises between the author characters in Nabokov’s novels, and the true author, Nabokov himself, Westworld seems to be hinting at a feud between the park’s two creators, Arnold and Ford. Arnold, who is not physically in the present world of the show (as far as we know), possibly the true creator of the hosts and Westworld, has been communicating with Ford and Dolores. His presence is asserted in the show’s current timeline through a character whose name is an anagram of his own. Following my Nabokovian logic, Arnold is in control, he is the real author, despite Ford’s apparent dominion.

Nabokov punishes his characters for failing to adhere to his own strict sense of morality. For Nabokov, life is not art. Hermann tries to commit the perfect aesthetic crime and is punished for it. He is a bad artist because he can’t recognize how different he looks from his supposed double. He is a bad person because he tried to enact a work of art IRL. Humbert uses art to justify sexual abuse. He is punished for it. From Terry Patrick Anderson’s thesis found here:

“Nabokov’s concern is with the inherent problems of the creative process in what often is an artistically insensitive society coveting only banality and meretricious art. Complete escape is necessary; but as Nabokov warns, this retreat from reality must be only temporary; the artistic person must not lose control of his ability to return to that reality from which art originated. Art can be man’s saviour, but if one reaches that paraphasia where one can no longer clearly discern life’s reality, one is destined to failure both as an artist and a human being.” (11)

Nabokov wrote his novels before art and media became utterly immersive. Before video games, the Internet, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. In Westworld, characters who fail to separate life and art (or artificial intelligence, I’m equating the hosts with art now as they are artfully constructed creations or characters) are not portrayed as sinful. The audience is made to sympathize with the hosts and regard characters who mistreat them as cruel. Logan and Sylvester, two characters who are able to separate the hosts from “real” people, are played as insensitive antagonists to William and Felix, characters who see the hosts as “real” and want to help them gain freedom. It appears as though conflating life and art is not a sin to Arnold, Westworld’s author/creator. But Arnold is not the “real” creator of Westworld. Arnold is a character. Westworld was written and created by husband and wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. They are the Nabokov of Westworld even though “Bernarnold” carries the anagram trademark. They have complete control. So it makes sense to me that their artistic morality, what they hold as sinful, differs from Nabokov’s. Writing a novel is an individual pursuit. Filmmaking is collaborative. It makes sense that what is perceived as sinful by an lone writer (whose books have been grossly misinterpreted) would be different from what is sinful to a pair of married filmmakers engaged in the process of making immersive art/media. It seems as though Ford and Arnold are punished because of their inability to collaborate (we have to wait for episode 10 to be sure). But I’m predicting that some kind of fight between the two of them lead to Arnold’s death and that eventually Ford’s downfall will be his refusal to compromise or collaborate. Self reflexivity. This show is at least in part about storytelling itself, about how to construct a narrative. In film, narrative construction is impossible without collaboration.

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