NABOKV-L post 0022229, Wed, 7 Dec 2011 07:28:09 -0500

Pale Fire, the poem, as myth, 2
On Dec 5, 2011, at 8:49 AM, Roth, Matthew wrote:

> On its face, the syllogism is clearly a joke. I don’t see why we should think that Shade doesn’t know that it’s a joke, nor do I see any compelling evidence that Shade honestly believes himself to be immortal.

> There are legitimate cases to be made against a theory of secondary personalities, but this passage is one that reveals itself most fully and marvelously only in the context of a reading where Shade and Kinbote share a body.

Yes, and the main point to be made against the [MP?] theory is that it is logically incompatible with the author's own declaration that Kinbote is an alter ego of Botkin. While I think that there is substantial material that support an interpretation of Shade transforming into Kinbote, one still has to wonder how one can reliably use a theory which is fundamentally flawed to explain the meaning of Shade's Syllogism, or anything else in the poem.

Gingko Press has just published a stand alone box version of the poem, and in doing so has raised the issue of the poem's autonomy. I belong with those who believe that the poem is autonomous. What that means is that a basic, and thorough, understanding of the poem is to be found within the poem itself without recourse to the enveloping superstructure. Partly this belief is due to the fact that VN tried to publish it that way, but mostly because the vast majority of the piece doesn't seem to require the outside support; and so I am inclined to believe that none of it does, and that is by design; i.e. the poem is for Kinbote just a series of jumping-off points, prompts, for the telling of his own exploits.

As far as Shade's intent is concerned, it is the same as VN's: to make as intriguing a poem as possible, and part of that intrigue involves deceit. Shade's Syllogism, explicitly being cast as a logical argument while being logically flawed, is comic by being self-contradictory; and ironic in that it makes the reader ask what is the intent or meaning of the assertion. But this doesn't preclude that the intent isn't the plain sense of the words themselves rendered in an ironic, deceitful fashion.

The words of the English Linguist, the tableau of the ant and cicada skin, Shade's "A cicada sings", [even the empty emerald case] are all examples of, not just double meanings, but instances where one meaning clearly obscures the other. VN says somewhere that art like nature often involves deception. He also said that deception was the key to composing good chess problems. These coverings help to produce a more complicated piece and one with a surprising twist. Need I add that

In life, the mind
Of any man is quick to recognize
Natural shams.

It's the unnatural ones that take time to decipher.
Also, while triumphant, Shade is ashamed that his immortality is paid for with his daughter's death.
And he is hiding that: The wonder lingers and the shame remains.

Without these hidden meanings the role of the English Linguist is problematic. He seems central to the story, yet all he seems to do is deliver a somewhat corny macaronic joke. Without these obscured meanings Lafontaine's fable seems laboriously imported and not all that necessary to the tale.

The general notion that only the exceptional, the heroic, survive death is straight out of Greek Mythology, the Elysian Isles; and Pale Fire, the poem, is filled with Greek allusions. [The values expressed seem to me to comport well with VN's outlook, as I understand it.]

As for the issue of Shade's belief in his own immortality
one needs only consider the nail-paring scene and its context.
That Shade really is imitating Atropos is to be seen in the following stanza about Aunt Maud after her stroke.
It's a continuation of Shade's meditation on death and decay that eventually culminates in the query:
Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
Then comes Shade's Syllogism which answers what seems to be a rhetorical question.
Most are unlucky, few escape.
Shade then goes on to describe life on earth as a cosmological prison, albeit temporary.

I am going to repost here my original brief exposition of these ideas with some small revisions.

Hopefully this clarifies everything!

On Nov 28, 2011, at 8:11 PM, Jansy wrote:
> If there's any freedom and hope left, it's up to her father to explore and to recover.

... I have been writing a little essay on a new interpretation of Pale Fire that oddly touches upon this point.
In this interpretation Hazel is destined to die young in order to provide a theme, story, and motivation for Shade's Magnus Opus, Pale Fire.
Through composing this work Shade believes he has, or will become, immortal.

other men die; but I / Am not another; therefore I’ll not die.

Even though the mind searches for an ironic interpretation of this line,
I have never been able to find one. It's notable that it is logically incorrect,
but this merely guarantees that we try to clarify the meaning even more!
From the beginning Shade has been making claims that he later modifies in bathetic ways,
so the reader may well anticipate another bathetic retreat here, but where is it?

This line is one of two instances where Nabokov hides alternate meanings in plain sight,
like a purloined letter.
The other is where the English Linguist utters:

je nourris
Les pauvres cigales—meaning that he
Fed the poor sea gulls!

Of course this really means: I feed the poor cicadas.
The cicada in Lafontaine specifically sings;
The ending of a stanza at the beginning of Canto Two: A cicada sings;
both link cicada to singing.
Shade is a poet, a kind of singer, obsessed with his own immortality.
The English Linguist appears and foretells that Shade will get his wish.
He gets a daughter, nine months later.
Progeny is a kind of immortality.
Half of your genetic code survives: a kind of soul.
But while the Shades presumably wanted a child,
(I think they were wedded thirteen years is it?)
Hazel herself though, isn't the immortality that the English Linguist is granting.
Rather she is the means to literary fame (ovidian immortality).

Lafontaine was wrong:
Dead is the mandible, alive the song.

When Shade sees the ant and cicada tableau on the pine's trunk
he realizes that he is the cicada, he sings, and Hazel is the fated, gum-logged, ant.
His wish for immortality though still has been granted,
but through the gift of a theme and the experience of grief.
And so he sets out to compose Pale Fire.

When he announces near the beginning of Canto Two, A cicada sings,
is he referring to Hazel's soul, or to himself, who is about to start to sing his song in ernest,
in more detail?

Two interpretations; one obscuring the other.
It's Hazel's soul is more easily come-to. More of what the reader wants to think at this point.
Now consider: any line or passage wants some kind of meaning.
But usually just one suffices.

That Shade believes himself to be immortal, or is to become so
is particularly to be seen in the nail-pairing tableau
where he is pretending to be Atropos, of the Greek trio of gods representing Fate,
or The Fates, The Moirae. Shade either pretends, believes, or anticipates
that his nail-paring affects the lives of each finger's associate.
Shade's life has been played-with. Now it's his turn.

This whole analysis might be termed a mythic reading of Pale Fire.
Shade's hubris is that he imagines himself to be a great artist deserving of immortality.
The last weeks of Shade's life has been a forced reliving, and embellishing, of his daughter's death,
surely to memorialize her, but mostly to memorialize himself.
Eventually the contradictory mixture of grief, guilt, artistic pride,
and the pleasure that derives from artistic creativity overwhelms Shade and drives him insane.
How very Greek!
Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors:,
Visit Zembla:
View Nabokv-L policies:
Visit "Nabokov Online Journal:"

Manage subscription options: