He knows that history professors do not love history because it is something that comes to pass, but only because it is something that has come to pass; that they hate a revolution like the present one because they feel it is lawless, incoherent, irrelevant -- in a word, unhistoric; that their hearts belong to the coherent, disciplined, historic past. For the temper of timelessness, the temper of eternity-thus the scholar communes with himself when he takes his walk by the river before supper-that temper broods over the past- and it is a temper much better suited to the nervous system of a history professor than are the excesses of the present. The past is immortalized; that is to say, it is dead; and death is the root of all godliness and all abiding significance.This might be the only twentieth-century short story that has ever made me want to cry. Perhaps it hits a little close to home, or that it hits close to a mythic, imagined home--Carson McCullers wrote, "we are homesick most for the places we have never known." Pnin is an example of the former for me; I have been convinced for years that Nabokov wrote books specifically for academic Russian expatriates living in the United States, and that no one else can really understand his jokes and subtexts. But that's just my prejudice.
- Thomas Mann, "Disorder and Early Sorrow"
"Disorder and Early Sorrow" is a perfect moment--a scene frozen in a paperweight, preserved in amber. The encroaching financial havoc of Weimar is visible, lurking on the periphery, but the Cornelius family isn't doing badly; they're sticking to each other, they can afford to have a party even if a beer is 1% of Abel's salary. Even the latent Freudian conflict at the heart of the story seems to lack the trauma and bitterness we associate with such things. There are no violent emotions, no offenses that can't be made okay with a kiss. The war is barely a memory.
But this is 1925. Within a decade, Nazi thugs will make Professor Cornelius' idealistic individualism irrelevant--and make the "Germanic ideal" a much more sinister project. Within two decades, the quaintly volkisch Max Hergesell will probably be lying dismembered in a ditch outside of Tobruk, the Professor will be reduced to scavenging for black-market sugar, and Snapper will be among the cannon fodder of the Eastern Front. Within three, the prematurely aging Ingrid will be spending her declining years amidst the yellowing wallpaper and dusty parquet of the Warsaw Pact.
Like the books and pamphlets of the eighteenth century, this story appeals to me because of its innocence of the imminent and irreversible transformation of its world. Which brings me back to Cornelius' meditations on the temperament of a history professor. The words of the past are dead--but they never die a natural death. They are preserved, instead, as so many Snow Whites in a cave; eternally young, eternally uncorrupted.