seven deadly sins, forty Arabian thieves & thousand and second highway accident in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 04/19/2019 - 18:38

In Canto Three of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) describes IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter) and mentions gods, including the big G:


While snubbing gods, including the big G,

Iph borrowed some peripheral debris

From mystic visions; and it offered tips

(The amber spectacles for life's eclipse) -

How not to panic when you're made a ghost:

Sidle and slide, choose a smooth surd, and coast,

Meet solid bodies and glissade right through,

Or let a person circulate through you.

How to locate in blackness, with a gasp,

Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp.

How to keep sane in spiral types of space.

Precautions to be taken in the case

Of freak reincarnation: what to do

On suddenly discovering that you

Are now a young and vulnerable toad

Plump in the middle of a busy road,

Or a bear cub beneath a burning pine,

Or a book mite in a revived divine. (ll. 549-566)


According to Shade (an atheist whose God died young), “no free man needs a God.” Unlike Shade, Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) believes in God. In his note to Line 549 (“While snubbing gods, including the big G”) Kinbote quotes his conversation with the poet who mentioned seven deadly sins (and Kinbote mentioned the thousand and second highway accident of those scheduled for Independence Day in Hades):


Here indeed is the Gist of the matter. And this, I think, not only the institute (see line 517) but our poet himself missed. For a Christian, no Beyond is acceptable or imaginable without the participation of God in our eternal destiny, and this in turn implies a condign punishment far every sin, great and small. My little diary happens to contain a few jottings referring to a conversation the poet and I had on June 23 "on my terrace after a game of chess, a draw." I transcribe them here only because they cast a fascinating light on his attitude toward the subject.

I had mentioned - I do not recall in what connection - certain differences between my Church and his. It should be noted that our Zemblan brand of Protestantism is rather closely related to the "higher" churches of the Anglican Communion, but has some magnificent peculiarities of its own. The Reformation with us had been headed by a composer of genius; our liturgy is penetrated with rich music; our boy choirs are the sweetest in the world. Sybil Shade came from a Catholic family but since early girlhood developed, as she told me herself, "a religion of her own" -which is generally synonymous, at the best, with a half-hearted attachment to some half-heathen sect or, at the worst, with tepid atheism. She had weaned her husband not only from the Episcopal Church of his fathers, but from all forms of sacramental worship.

We happened to start speaking of the general present-day nebulation of the notion of "sin," of its confusion with the much more carnally colored ideal of "crime," and I alluded briefly to my childhood contacts with certain rituals of our church. Confession with us is auricular and is conducted in a richly ornamented recess, the confessionist holding a lighted taper and standing with it beside the priest's high-backed seat which is shaped almost exactly as the coronation chair of a Scottish king. Little polite boy that I was, I always feared to stain his purple-black sleeve with the scalding tears of wax that kept dripping onto my knuckles, forming there tight little crusts, and I was fascinated by the illumed concavity of his ear resembling a seashell or a glossy orchid, a convoluted receptacle that seemed much too large for the disposal of my peccadilloes.

SHADE: All the seven deadly sins are peccadilloes but without three of them, Pride, Lust and Sloth, poetry might never have been born.

KINBOTE: Is it fair to base objections upon obsolete terminology?

SHADE: All religions are based upon obsolete terminology.

KINBOTE: What we term Original Sin can never grow obsolete.

SHADE: I know nothing about that. In fact when I was small I thought it meant Cain killing Abel. Personally, I am with the old snuff-takers: L'homme est né bon.

KINBOTE: Yet disobeying the Divine Will is a fundamental definition of Sin.

SHADE: I cannot disobey something which I do not know and the reality of which I have the right to deny.

KINBOTE: Tut-tut. Do you also deny that there are sins?

SHADE: I can name only two: murder, and the deliberate infliction of pain.

KINBOTE: Then a man spending his life in absolute solitude could not be a sinner?

SHADE: He could torture animals. He could poison the springs on his island. He could denounce an innocent man in a posthumous manifesto.

KINBOTE: And so the password is – ?

SHADE: Pity.

KINBOTE: But who instilled it in us, John? Who is the Judge of life, and the Designer of death?

SHADE: Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.

KINBOTE: Now I have caught you, John: once we deny a Higher Intelligence that plans and administrates our individual hereafters we are bound to accept the unspeakably dreadful notion of Chance reaching into eternity. Consider the situation, Throughout eternity our poor ghosts are exposed to nameless vicissitudes. There is no appeal, no advice, no support, no protection, nothing. Poor Kinbote's ghost, poor Shade's shade, may have blundered, may have taken the wrong turn somewhere - oh, from sheer absent-mindedness, or simply through ignorance of a trivial rule in the preposterous game of nature - if there be any rules.

SHADE: There are rules in chess problems: interdiction of dual solutions, for instance.

KINBOTE: I had in mind diabolical rules likely to be broken by the other party as soon as we come to understand them. That is why goetic magic does not always work. The demons in their prismatic malice betray the agreement between us and them, and we are again in the chaos of chance. Even if we temper Chance with Necessity and allow godless determinism, the mechanism of cause and effect, to provide our souls after death with the dubious solace of metastatistics, we still have to reckon with the individual mishap, the thousand and second highway accident of those scheduled for Independence Day in Hades. No-no, if we want to be serious about the hereafter let us not begin by degrading it to the level of a science-fiction yarn or a spiritualistic case history. The ideal of one's soul plunging into limitless and chaotic afterlife with no Providence to direct her –

SHADE: There is always a psychopompos around the corner, isn't there?

KINBOTE: Not around that corner, John. With no Providence the soul must rely on the dust of its husk, on the experience gathered in the course of corporeal confinement, and cling childishly to small-town principles, local by-laws and a personality consisting mainly of the shadows of its own prison bars. Such an idea is not to be entertained one instant by the religious mind. How much more intelligent it is - even from a proud infidel's point of view! - to accept God's Presence - a faint phosphorescence at first, a pale light in the dimness of bodily life, and a dazzling radiance after it? I too, I too, my dear John, have been assailed in my time by religious doubts. The church helped me to fight them off. It also helped me not to ask too much, not to demand too clear an image of what is unimaginable. St. Augustine said –

SHADE: Why must one always quote St. Augustine to me?

KINBOTE: As St. Augustine said, "One can know what God is not; one cannot know what He is." I think I know what He is not: He is not despair, He is not terror, He is not the earth in one's rattling throat, not the black hum in one's ears fading to nothing in nothing. I know also that the world could not have occurred fortuitously and that somehow Mind is involved as a main factor in the making of the universe. In trying to find the right name for that Universal Mind, or First Cause, or the Absolute, or Nature, I submit that the Name of God has priority. (note to Line 549)


In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character) hoped to deduce the existence of a Supreme Being from his sense of sin:


At this solitary stop for refreshments between Coalmont and Ramsdale (between innocent Dolly Schiller and jovial Uncle Ivor), I reviewed my case. With the utmost simplicity and clarity I now saw myself and my love. Previous attempts seemed out of focus in comparison. A couple of years before, under the guidance of an intelligent French-speaking confessor, to whom, in a moment of metaphysical curiosity, I had turned over a Protestant’s drab atheism for an old-fashioned popish cure, I had hoped to deduce from my sense of sin the existence of a Supreme Being. On those frosty mornings in rime-laced Quebec, the good priest worked on me with the finest tenderness and understanding. I am infinitely obliged to him and the great Institution he represented. Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. To quote an old poet:


The moral sense in mortals is the duty

We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty. (2.31)


According to Humbert Humbert, Lolita (who was hospitalized in Elphinstone) was abducted from him on the Independence Day 1949. Describing his stay in Elphinstone, Humbert Humbert mentions a heterosexual Erlkönig in pursuit:


Mrs. Hays in the meantime had alerted the local doctor. “You are lucky it happened here,” she said; for not only was Blue the best man in the district, but the Elphinstone hospital was as modern as modern could be, despite its limited capacity. With a hetero­sexual Erlkönig in pursuit, thither I drove, half-blinded by a royal sunset on the low­land side and guided by a little old woman, a portable witch, perhaps his daughter, whom Mrs. Hays had lent me, and whom I was never to see again. (2.22)


One of the leitmotifs in Shade’s poem is the beginning of Goethe’s Erlkönig (1782):


Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.


Who rides so late through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.


Shade’s poem is almost finished when the author is killed by Gradus. In its unfinished form Shade’s poem has 999 lines. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”).


Coda rhymes with soda. During their second trip across the USA Humbert Humbert and Lolita have breakfast in the township of Soda:


We had breakfast in the township of Soda, pop. 1001.
“Judging by the terminal figure,” I remarked, “Fatface is already here.”
“Your humor,” said Lo, “is sidesplitting, deah fahther.” (2.18)


A little earlier Lolita draws Humbert Humbert’s attention to the three nines changing into the next thousand in the odometer:


“If he’s really a cop,” she said shrilly but not illogically, “the worst thing we could do, would be to show him we are scared. Ignore him, Dad.”
“Did he ask where we were going?”
“Oh, he knows that” (mocking me).
“Anyway,” I said, giving up, “I have seen his face now. He is not pretty. He looks exactly like a relative of mine called Trapp.”
“Perhaps he is Trapp. If I were you - Oh, look, all the nines are changing into the next thousand. When I was a little kid,” she continued unexpectedly, “I used to think they’d stop and go back to nines, if only my mother agreed to put the car in reverse.”
It was the first time, I think, she spoke spontaneously of her pre-Humbertian childhood; perhaps, the theatre had taught her that trick; and silently we traveled on, unpursued. (ibid.)


“The thousand and second highway accident of those scheduled for Independence Day in Hades” brings to mind E. A. Poe’s story The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade (1845), with an old saying for epigraph: “truth is stranger than fiction.” The tale depicts the eighth and final voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, along with the various mysteries Sinbad and his crew encounter; the anomalies are then described as footnotes to the story. While the King is uncertain — except in the case of the elephants carrying the world on the back of the turtle — that these mysteries are real, they are actual modern events that occurred in various places during, or before, Poe's lifetime. The story ends with the king in such disgust at the outlandish tales Scheherazade has just woven, that he has her executed the next day.


Sinbad the Sailor is a character in “A Thousand and One Nights,” a collection of fairy tales in Arabic. As she speaks to her husband (who visited her at her Côte d’Azur Villa Disa), Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) mentions forty Arabian thieves (an allusion to Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, a story in “A Thousand and One Nights”):


"What are your plans?" she inquired. "Why can't you stay here as long as you want? Please do. I'll be going to Rome soon, you'll have the whole house to yourself. Imagine, you can bed here as many as forty guests, forty Arabian thieves." (Influence of the huge terracotta vases in the garden.) (note to Lines 433-434)


According to Humbert Humbert, Lolita was theoretically willing to enjoy "The Arabian Nights:"


I decided that at Beardsley (the site of Bearsley College for Women) I would have access to works of reference that I had not yet been able to study, such as Woerner’s Treatise “On the American Law of Guardianship” and certain United States Children’s Bureau Publications. I also decided that anything was better for Lo than the demoralizing idleness in which she lived. I could persuade her to do so many things - their list might stupefy a professional educator; but no matter how I pleaded or stormed, I could never make her read any other book than the so-called comic books or stories in magazines for American females. Any literature a peg higher smacked to her of school, and though theoretically willing to enjoy A Girl of the Limberlost or the Arabian Nights, or Little Women, she was quite sure she would not fritter away her “vacation” on such highbrow reading matter. (2.3)


Lolita (whose mother died under the wheels of a truck) liked to study the photographic results of head-on collisions:


On especially tropical afternoons, in the sticky closeness of the siesta, I liked the cool feel of armchair leather against my massive nakedness as I held her in my lap. There she would be, a typical kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove. Her eyes would follow the adventures of her favorite strip characters: there was one well-drawn sloppy bobby-soxer, with high cheekbones and angular gestures, that I was not above enjoying myself; she studied the photographic results of head-on collisions; she never doubted the reality of place, time, and circumstance alleged to match the publicity pictures of naked-thighed beauties; and she was curiously fascinated by the photographs of local brides, some in full wedding apparel, holding bouquets and wearing glasses. (2.2)


Humbert Humbert’s childhood love, Annabel Leigh, is almost a namesake of E. A. Poe’s Annabel Lee. According to Humbert Humbert, Annabel's mother was born Vanessa van Ness. In Canto Two and then again at the end of his poem Shade mentions Vanessa atalanta, a butterfly that seems to be the poet's psychopompos (guide of souls, a creature who escorts the soul of a newly deceased from Earth to the afterlife):


But it's not bedtime yet. The sun attains
Old Dr. Sutton's last two windowpanes.
The man must be--what? Eighty? Eighty-two?
Was twice my age the year I married you.
Where are you? In the garden. I can see
Part of your shadow near the shagbark tree.
Somewhere horseshoes are being tossed. Click. Clunk.
(Leaning against its lamppost like a drunk.)
A dark Vanessa with crimson band
Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand
And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white.
And through the flowing shade and ebbing light
A man, unheedful of the butterfly--
Some neighbor's gardener, I guess--goes by
Trundling an empty barrow up the lane. (ll. 985-999)


In his poem Annabel Lee E. A. Poe mentions “kingdom by the sea:”


I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love―
I and my Annabel Lee―
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.


At the end of his Commentary Kinbote mentions his recovered kingdom:


"And you, what will you be doing with yourself, poor King, poor Kinbote?" a gentle young voice may inquire.

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of two other characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned Melodrama with three principals: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out - somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door - a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (note to Line 1000)


coda + sin + ogon’ + Botkin + god + noch’ + korova + bok = soda + incognito + kon’ + bog + doch’ + Nabokov + rok


ogon’ – fire

Botkin – Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’s real name (an American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda)

noch’ – night

korova – cow

bok – side

kon’ – horse; chess knight

bog – God

doch’ – daughter

rok – Fate