Reading more Nabokov on the flight home from Montreal, and reading even more Nabokov on the airport shuttle at night — by the light of my ipod held face down over the printed word, caressing it every few seconds to renew the light and make the volume wobble erratically, bent over the book cursing my lack of a flashlight — I suddenly remembered the game my academic parents used to play in the 1970s: with what great figure of the past would you most like to have dinner?
It could be a meme, and no doubt is. With what great figure of the past would you most like to have dinner: pls answr on yr blog. But what occurred to me whenever I heard the game played as a child was only how insufficient a dinner would be. What would I say to Nabokov over dinner? “I’m a great fan of your work”? What a humiliating beginning for both of us. How ridiculous. I have never understood people who rush up to writers and actors on the street, introduce themselves, and express appreciation — this, as far as I’m concerned, is as low as autograph hunting, and cannot lead to a meaningful exchange. And dinner could be little more. From way back in the 70s, I always thought that what had to be envisioned, far from a dinner party, was being marooned on an island — with Plato, with Shakespeare, with Nabokov, whomever. The conversation would start with what to do: build a shelter or try to catch and slaughter one of the small wild pigs native to the woodland. It would proceed naturally from there, for several weeks or months until we were rescued.
I would have liked to have had dinner with Levinas, but only because I have specific questions I’d like to ask. I want to know whether my interpretation of a number of passages is correct. This is a careerist desire on my part, and has nothing to do with the eros I feel when reading the great thinkers. That could only be satisfied by beginning with huts vs. pigs, and continuing for some time.