The Finding and Making of “Saints & Symbols”

Patterns, datasets, and Vladimir Nabokov


in Features • Illustrated by Bhavna Ganesan


When I read Sebald or Nabokov I am seated in my apartment in New Hope or maybe walking in Norwich, or the Congo, or Ithaca, or Zembla  ­— or Eden. Are fictional worlds based on real worlds more real than totally invented worlds or worlds where the writers are the characters? I may as well stay in New Hope — reading, writing, imagining that I rise from an inanimate loop, bringing about an awareness of myself, my creations, and their perception of patterns and meaning — and throw it out there for you to deconstruct and build your own meaning and understanding. Like Mary Shelley, my monster will read Goethe and Milton and chase its creator to the Artic demanding answers or recapitulate Adam asking God for a mate when he was also asking for, though he didn’t know it, an explanation of everything. The explanation was provided by his new custom-made partner who wandered out of the bower, traded words with Satan, ate a forbidden apple, and got them both kicked out of paradise — in exchange for that knowing. Don’t blame Eve if the great candy apple tree is smack dab in the middle of the garden or if its hidden nature is crab apples. Entropy dictates that one’s chances of lying about naked in the bower forever is highly unlikely. What is knowledge but strings of patterns derived from data and information, and the whole point of having a pattern matching and meaning apparatus is to use it.

The age of artificial intelligence — where computers are fed enormous datasets to find meaningful patterns so complex, we can’t even fathom how they were derived — is upon us, and in a very small way I helped it along because of my passion for finding patterns and meanings. When I was about seven, I kept a bar graph chart comprised of data on who was the star detective on each episode of The Mod Squad. I wanted to know who the best crime fighter actually was: Pete, Link, or Julie (only rarely did Captain Greer leave the station house to make the arrest). I remember the entire decade of 1970s baseball as a meta-reality of statistics, patterns, and baseball cards, though I hardly remember an actual game or play. I got a Ph.D. from Temple University in molecular biology, for decoding fruit fly heat shock proteins that arise at higher temperatures to help keep the mess of stressed proteins properly folded and active. During my post-doc at Harvard Medical School, I worked on how protein levels were regulated, and indirectly on HIV and cancer. They call me a scientist.

I started looking for patterns in horse charts to win at the races but would get distracted and bet on the most muscular horse, or the one who most recently relieved himself. I became fascinated with stocks and bet on them. So, call me an investor though I wasn’t very good. I took classes to learn arcane accounting and financing languages to better find patterns in financial statements. I became a management consultant who looked for data and patterns that suggested solutions for life sciences companies to best position their science, clinical development, and marketing of drugs, devices, and diagnostics. I worked for IBM which developed pattern matching which eventually was called Deep Blue and then Watson. It played chess, Jeopardy, and could find patterns in the Bible. I suggested they give away the pattern matching for free for the prestige factor and just sell related services, but the company was so enormous I’m not sure who I told, and they ignored whatever they heard or didn’t hear.

I was the CEO of Cognia, a New York and Edinburgh-based company that in partnership with researchers at the University of Edinburgh, developed and used natural language processing to find patterns in unstructured scientific literature. The computer was trained to look for mentions of proteins (or their genes) and all the synonyms or near synonyms (e.g., protein, polypeptide, specific names, homologs in different species) and “facts” about those proteins (e.g., names, weight, other proteins they interact with, functions, cellular and tissue locations) with references. The patterned objects or sets of related objects were extracted and quality checked by other computer programs helped along by rows of Ph.D. level curator-monks in New York, Edinburgh, Scotland and St. Petersburg, Russia. The facts were then loaded into relational, structured databases that enabled biological research. We also built a write tool for scientist-users to annotate their data sets and add more facts, as well as visualization tools that allowed connections and maps of facts and meanings to be made. We made strides in the discipline of natural language processing, but the computer programs were not good enough to read the unstructured text, so we burned too much capital paying the salaries of the monks. But I never gave up the ghost, and my current day job is finding and helping develop next the generation companies that use AI to find patterns in pathology and radiology images, molecular and clinical data sets, and other “real-world” data to help in the discovery of drug targets and precision medicine solutions.

I’ve spent most of my life looking for connections, patterns, and meaning in science and business, and this passion extends to art, literature, and philosophy. Our ability to generate meaning from the patterns we find within and between all these disciplines is amazing. I’m not concerned that the history of philosophy and science, especially since relativity and quantum tell us we cannot be certain about anything let alone ascribe and explain meaning. Martin Heidegger felt poetry was most appropriate for discussing truth, as the natural process of pulling information, analyzing it, and pushing it back out might best be achieved without potentially false forced ontology. John Keats loved the “negative capability” of Shakespeare — that he was comfortable putting his characters and readers in ambiguous situations and not feel a need to reason out unsatisfactory canned solutions “without any irritable reaching for fact or reason.” 

That’s quite a set-up for how I became entwined with Vladimir Nabokov and John Keats. Published in The New Yorker in 1948, Nabokov’s masterpiece short story, “Symbols and Signs” is about reference and the ability and limitations of people to process patterns and meaning. The story’s main character — always off-stage — is a young man who is confined in a sanitarium as he suffers from what Nabokov inventively labeled an incurable disease called “referential mania.” The condition is described by his ignoring people but seeing all inanimate objects as referring to (and conspiring against) him. On his birthday, his elderly Russian immigrant parents intended to bring him a gift basket of jars of fruit jellies, which they hoped would have no reference or meaning, and therefore have no chance of upsetting him. The story uses negative capability, making use of riddles, uncertainties and unrevealed plot points that allow the reader to wrestle with situations and ideas. Some of the symbols and signs seem like bridges to nowhere, and perhaps Nabokov was lovingly teasing our endless quest to find patterns and generate meaning. Indeed, I had always assumed that the jelly sequence did have encoded meaning — and if we searched appropriately, we would figure it out. I argue it’s almost impossible to encode NO meaning, especially in a story about meaning, so I’m fairly certain subconsciously or consciously — that the father (and Nabokov) knew he was NOT able to encode NO meaning. Or maybe . . .  just maybe . . . the father had a plan to use the jelly gift to convey a message to his lost son.

A few months after reading “Symbols and Signs,” I was reading John Keats’ poem “The Eve of St. Agnes” and noticed a sequence of unusual fruit jellies among a fancy buffet and was reminded of the father’s gift.

“…plum, quince, crab apple” derive from “candied apple, quince and plum.” 

I assumed this was widely known, considering the attention paid to “Symbols and Signs” for 74 years including the 33 essays in Yuri Leving’s edited collection, An Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov’s Puzzles, Codes, “Signs and Symbols”. The match is based on the sequence (though inverse sort of almost like complementary DNA strands), the story’s use of triplets, and a range of supporting data linking both writers. Nabokov mentioned he was a lover of Keats in his lectures on literature and translated at least some of his poems into Russian. He carpooled with Aileen Ward, a leading Keats biographer, when at Wellesley and made other Keats references in his stories, e.g., making use of another Keats poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” as a pun in the novel Pale Fire: “Red Sox beat Yanks 5-4 On Chapman’s Homer.” Several Nabokov scholars (Professors Stephen Blackwell, Brian Boyd, and Eric Naiman) generously corresponded with me, and agreed with the seeming primacy of my finding and the likelihood of its validity. Though who could be sure? Indeed, a deeper search of blogs and listservs shows the jelly connection had been noted previously by Jansy Mello in 2016 — and maybe there are others as well.

If the jelly match is indeed valid, what might it suggest? The poem “St. Agnes Eve” is built in an incredibly difficult Spenserian rhyming pattern with wonderfully colorful language and flow. As you read it, you feel as if you are listening to a song. Keats creates a spectacular sensory extravaganza filled with rich sights, sounds, and tastes. Derived from legend, custom, and with hints of Romeo and Juliet, a young hero, Porphyro, risks life and limb to run through the moors and past hateful enemies in a hostile land to gain access to Madeline, so he can win her heart and take her away as his bride. Actually, Porphyro convinces an old woman to provide him access to the closet in the fair maiden’s room where he ogles her as she undresses and as she sleeps under the spell of St Agnes’s Eve. As Madeline was following the legend’s arcane directions, she dreamt of her future husband. Indeed, she dreamt of an ideally beautiful Porphyro. When he wakes her up mid-dream via lute serenade (!), she glimpses the real living Porphyro, and finds him not as dreamy as her ideal version, blurting out that he looks “pallid, chill, and drear!”. In the end, after some modest cajoling, they do run off together (although that is not 100% clear).

The poem is wonderfully structured, the imagery complex, and the whole setting horrifyingly real yet fantastically other-worldly and spellbinding. Thematically it is concerned with an unlikely romantic match and the interplay between the real vs the ideal. Yet neither I nor the Nabokov experts — nor even Nabokov, Keats, Wittgenstein, Heidegger — no one — can be sure of what the connection between the story and the poem truly means. I got a burst of heavenly inspiration and embedded my finding and thoughts into a new short story with additional meanings infused and implied called “Symbols, Signs and Saints”, which was published on The Nabokovian (the website of the International Nabokov Society).

“Signs, Symbols & Saints” assumes the parents consciously or subconsciously wish for what’s “best” for their son — to help him get healthy followed by a life of achievement with a marriage and family. First, the father (and me, the author,) does not wholly buy into Nabokov’s claim that the boy’s condition is incurable — indeed how could Nabokov or the scientists within the story know the fate of all sufferers? The parents plan to bring the young man home from the sanitarium, so maybe they could help him live a better life. Second, if the father is to reach the son, he must overcome his own invisibility. As a human being he is not of interest to the son, so to communicate with him he must speak in inanimate object “sign-speak”. Third, though it is an open question how much meaning can be encoded or what was possible to trigger with this jelly (or any symbol), considering the sensitivity of the son’s reference and meaning “apparatus,” we can assume a great deal was possible and from the father’s point of view, it is worth trying something. Lastly, the father must encode a curative notion, and he chooses to instill into his symbolic gift this small reference to Keats’s poem about a hero going out into the fierce world in search of a bride.

This young man is a hopeless romantic— or more accurately, that’s how the story’s protagonist (the father) saw him. Notably, this makes him like Keats himself, Frankenstein’s monster, and Adam, i.e., all longshots to find a mate and/or ever be happily married. Porphyro’s story is a projection of that wish — a hero quests to face grave danger to win a bride. The father hopes against all odds that this symbol gift will trigger the boy to leave his room and go on his own adventure to create a more normal life.

Nabokov also writes his characters to the top of their intelligence (Principle 15 of 27 Essential Principles of Story by Daniel Rubin). The typical stereotype wrongly takes the limited intellect of immigrants for granted, especially when they don’t speak the language of their new land and are beaten down by circumstances. Despite his genius with language, Nabokov would know this better than most as he was exiled from Russia to Germany to France and then to the USA. He writes with great empathy about the parents’ struggles with the shame of their lowly status (jealousy of a successful uncle) and the father’s inability to communicate; he sits toothless as his wife, the better English speaker always answers their landline phone (yes, phones were a common household utility and connected to a wall back in the 20th century as opposed to in every person’s hand or pocket). I assume this Russian immigrant family is intelligent and well-read (like my grandparents and my colleague, Greg Goldmacher, who translated the three Keats trigger words in “S, S & S” into Russian). Indeed, Nabokov states that the parents puzzled out the son’s diagnosis prior to the prestigious referential mania article being published. Even the description of the son and his very diagnosis suggests Frankenstein-monster-like arrogance and intelligence. He is also a reference to Luzhin, another brilliant but mentally ill, alienated Nabokov character from The Luzhin Defense. If the parents are well-read, then it is possible that they know Keats’s work. Professor Blackwell mentioned to me that Nabokov translated “Belle Dame Sans Merci,” which is also encoded as the lute song within “The Eve of St Agnes,” Or forget about translation — maybe the mother read them aloud in the original to improve the English of the father and entertain the son.

Great literature exposes universal thoughts and feelings, regardless of the time and place of the characters. That’s why it works to place a complex Keats take on an English legendary dream world, expressed as poetry into Nabokov’s chess-like compact fictional 20th century New York City. My story is a collage of my words with verbatim sections and passages lifted from Nabokov and Keats, and mainly written from the son’s point of view. It is replete with Wittgenstein symbols, Mikhail Tal’s king as an offensive weapon tactic, and chess notation for his character moving. When the boy reads the jelly sign, he is triggered to adventure (real or not — who is to say?). When he hears Madeline’s judgment on his form, which he translates and speaks in Russian, the spell is broken, and he is hurled back to the present and the sanitarium — but he is also at least somewhat more fully human for having engaged. He is also more real than an object in a scientific paper. Maybe it’s literary heresy to meddle with a short story after 74 years, but Nabokov, an expert chess puzzle creator, is so brilliant he likely knew this ending was possible and that it could exist at least in a multi-universe glimmer in the father’s (and very rarely the son’s) mind.

My mind matched that jelly pattern almost immediately — like a machine — as it loves puzzles and connections, influences, and patterns and has been arranged and trained for these sorts of events. I assume one day machines will somehow “get” how much “fun” it is to be seven and watch The Mod Squad with a plan and a magic marker or hang on every word of Keats. For me, who was blessed enough to know the feeling of being the first to clone and figure out the purpose of several novel genes, the joy I experienced finding the pattern in “The Eve of St Agnes”, was identical and best described by Keats in his “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken.” I also have a personal sense of the meaning of these patterns and their context as many of my short stories — from “The Cube” to “The Can Collector” to “Maelstrom’s Escape” — involve sensing, figuring out patterns, and finding the courage to engage with the world every day. Linked to my own battles with anxiety, I care deeply and take careful note of how real and imagined mentally ill characters navigate their worlds. What is knowledge but strings of patterns derived from data and information, and the whole point of having a pattern matching and meaning apparatus is to use it? I stand with Milton and Shelley, Keats and Nabokov — and their characters. •


David M. Rubin has a Ph.D. in molecular biology. His recent stories, poems, and essays appear in After Dinner Conversations, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Café Irreal, The City Key, Corvus, ffraid, Ginosko Literary Journal, Last Stanza (2022 Pushcart Nomination for Traumerie), Maudlin House, Moss Piglet, The Nabokovian, and The Smart Set. He hopes to create connection @Six18sFoundry and