atmosphere of damnum infectum in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 09/14/2021 - 06:10

Describing Judge Goldsworth’s house, Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions the atmosphere of damnum infectum in which he was supposed to dwell:


In the Foreword to this work I have had occasion to say something about the amenities of my habitation. The charming, charmingly vague lady (see note to line 691), who secured it for me, sight unseen, meant well, no doubt, especially since it was widely admired in the neighborhood for its "old-world spaciousness and graciousness." Actually, it was an old, dismal, white-and-black, half-timbered house, of the type termed wodnaggen in my country, with carved gables, drafty bow windows and a so-called "semi-noble" porch, surmounted by a hideous veranda. Judge Goldsworth had a wife, and four daughters. Family photographs met me in the hallway and pursued me from room to room, and although I am sure that Alphina (9), Betty (10), Candida (12), and Dee (14) will soon change from horribly cute little schoolgirls to smart young ladies and superior mothers, I must confess that their pert pictures irritated me to such an extent that finally I gathered them one by one and dumped them all in a closet under the gallows row of their cellophane-shrouded winter clothes. In the study I found a large picture of their parents, with sexes reversed, Mrs. G. resembling Malenkov, and Mr. G. a Medusa-locked hag, and this I replaced by the reproduction of a beloved early Picasso: earth boy leading raincloud horse. I did not bother, though, to do much about the family books which were also all over the house - four sets of different Children's Encyclopedias, and a stolid grown-up one that ascended all the way from shelf to shelf along a flight of stairs to burst an appendix in the attic. Judging by the novels in Mrs. Goldsworth's boudoir, her intellectual interests were fully developed, going as they did from Amber to Zen. The head of this alphabetic family had a library too, but this consisted mainly of legal works and a lot of conspicuously lettered ledgers. All the layman could glean for instruction and entertainment was a morocco-bound album in which the judge had lovingly pasted the life histories and pictures of people he had sent to prison or condemned to death: unforgettable faces of imbecile hoodlums, last smokes and last grins, a strangler's quite ordinary-looking hands, a self-made widow, the close-set merciless eyes of a homicidal maniac (somewhat resembling, I admit, the late Jacques d'Argus), a bright little parricide aged seven ("Now, sonny, we want you to tell us -"), and a sad pudgy old pederast who had blown up his blackmailer. What rather surprised me was that he, my learned landlord, and not his "missus," directed the household. Not only had he left me a detailed inventory of all such articles as cluster around a new tenant like a mob of menacing natives, but he had taken stupendous pains to write out on slips of paper recommendations, explanations, injunctions and supplementary lists. Whatever I touched on the first day of my stay yielded a specimen of Goldsworthiana. I unlocked the medicine chest in the second bathroom, and out fluttered a message advising me that the slit for discarded safety blades was too full to use. I opened the icebox, and it warned me with a bark that "no national specialties with odors hard to get rid of" should be placed therein. I pulled out the middle drawer of the desk in the study - and discovered a catalogue raisonné of its meager contents which included an assortment of ashtrays, a damask paperknife (described as "one ancient dagger brought by Mrs. Goldsworth's father from the Orient"), and an old but unused pocket diary optimistically maturing there until its calendric correspondencies came around again. Among various detailed notices affixed to a special board in the pantry, such as plumbing instructions, dissertations on electricity, discourses on cactuses and so forth, I found the diet of the black cat that came with the house:


Mon, Wed, Fri: Liver

Tue, Thu, Sat: Fish

Sun: Ground meat


(All it got from me was milk and sardines; it was a likable little creature but after a while its movements began to grate on my nerves and I farmed it out to Mrs. Finley, the cleaning woman.) But perhaps the funniest note concerned the manipulations of the window curtains which had to be drawn in different ways at different hours to prevent the sun from getting at the upholstery. A description of the position of the sun, daily and seasonal, was given for the several windows, and if I had heeded all this I would have been kept as busy as a participant in a regatta. A footnote, however, generously suggested that instead of manning the curtains, I might prefer to shift and reshift out of sun range the more precious pieces of furniture (two embroidered armchairs and a heavy "royal console") but should do it carefully lest I scratch the wall moldings. I cannot, alas, reproduce the meticulous schedule of these transposals but seem to recall that I was supposed to castle the long way before going to bed and the short way first thing in the morning. My dear Shade roared with laughter when I led him on a tour of inspection and had him find some of those bunny eggs for himself. Thank God, his robust hilarity dissipated the atmosphere of damnum infectum in which I was supposed to dwell. On his part, he regaled me with a number of anecdotes concerning the judge's dry wit and courtroom mannerisms; most of these anecdotes were doubtless folklore exaggerations, a few were evident inventions, and all were harmless. He did not bring up, my sweet old friend never did, ridiculous stories about the terrifying shadows that Judge Goldsworth's gown threw across the underworld, or about this or that beast lying in prison and positively dying of raghdirst (thirst for revenge) - crass banalities circulated by the scurrilous and the heartless - by all those for whom romance, remoteness, sealskin-lined scarlet skies, the darkening dunes of a fabulous kingdom, simply do not exist. But enough of this. Let us turn to our poet's windows. I have no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel. (note to Lines 47-48)


Kinbote’s landlord, Hugh Warren Goldsworth is an authority on Roman Law and distinguished judge. In Roman Law damnum infectum is loss not yet suffered but threatened or apprehended, as when a neighbor's building is likely to collapse onto one's property. Ancient Romans called gold or silver that has not been turned into coins, jewelry, plate or other usable objects aurum infectum or argentum infectum. In the first line of his Oda (“Ode,” 1826) Baratynski mentions gory zlata i srebra (heaps of gold and silver):


Ни горы злата и сребра,
Ни неги сласть, ни сила власти
Душой желанного добра
Нам не дадут, покуда страсти,
Волнуя чувства каждый час,
Ненасытимы будут в нас.


Блаженство полное ни в чём
Нам не даровано богами,
Чтоб, руководствуясь умом,
Его создать могли мы сами,
Всегда тая в себе самих
Прямой источник благ своих.


Neither heaps of gold and silver,

nor the sweetness of mollitude, nor a position of power

will give us good craved by the soul,

until the passions that excite

our feelings every hour

remain insatiable in us.


The full bliss in nothing

was given to us by the gods,

so that, employing our intellect,

we might create it ourselves,

always keeping within us

a direct source of our boons.


In his Introductory poem (1824) to “Ruslan and Lyudmila” (1820) Pushkin mentions the learned cat that walks to and fro along a golden chain around the green oak and tsar Kashchey who nad zlatom chakhnet (languishes over gold). In Pushkin’s poem Zhenikh (“The Bridegroom,” 1825) Natasha at the wedding feast relates what purports to be a dream and mentions srebro da zlato (silver and gold) all over the izba (log cabin) that she entered in the woods:


«Мне снилось, — говорит она, —
Зашла я в лес дремучий,
И было поздно; чуть луна
Светила из-за тучи;
С тропинки сбилась я: в глуши
Не слышно было ни души,
И сосны лишь да ели
Вершинами шумели.


И вдруг, как будто наяву,
Изба передо мною.
Я к ней, стучу — молчат. Зову —
Ответа нет; с мольбою
Дверь отворила я. Вхожу —
В избе свеча горит; гляжу —
Везде сребро да злато,
Все светло и богато».


In Chapter One (VII: 11) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin mentions zoloto (gold):


Высокой страсти не имея
Для звуков жизни не щадить,
Не мог он ямба от хорея,
Как мы ни бились, отличить.
Бранил Гомера, Феокрита;
Зато читал Адама Смита
И был глубокой эконом,
То есть умел судить о том,
Как государство богатеет,
И чем живет, и почему
Не нужно золота ему,
Когда простой продукт имеет.
Отец понять его не мог
И земли отдавал в залог.


Lacking the lofty passion not to spare

life for the sake of sounds,

an iamb from a trochee —

no matter how we strove — he could not tell apart.

Theocritus and Homer he disparaged,

but read, in compensation, Adam Smith,

and was a deep economist:

that is, he could assess the way

a state grows rich,

what it subsists upon, and why

it needs not gold

when it has got the simple product.

His father could not understand him,

and mortgaged his lands.


According to Kinbote, his knowledge of money is limited to the abstract billions of a national debt. In Chapter Five (Five: XVI) of EO Pushkin describes the monsters in Tatiana’s dream and mentions poluzhuravl’ i polukot (something half crane, half cat):


Опомнилась, глядит Татьяна:
Медведя нет; она в сенях;
За дверью крик и звон стакана,
Как на больших похоронах;
Не видя тут ни капли толку,
Глядит она тихонько в щёлку,
И что же видит?.. за столом
Сидят чудовища кругом:
Один в рогах с собачьей мордой,
Другой с петушьей головой,
Здесь ведьма с козьей бородой,
Тут остов чопорный и гордый,
Там карла с хвостиком, а вот
Полужуравль и полукот.


Tatiana comes to, looks:

no bear; she's in a hallway;

behind the door there's shouting and the jingle

of glasses as at some big funeral.

Perceiving not a drop of sense in this,

she furtively looks through the chink

— and what then? She sees... at a table

monsters are seated in a circle:

one horned and dog-faced;

another with a rooster's head;

here is a witch with a goat's beard;

here, prim and proud, a skeleton;

yonder, a dwarf with a small tail; and there,

something half crane, half cat.


According to Kinbote, Gradus (Shade’s murderer) is a half-man who is half mad:


I have considered in my earlier note (I now see it is the note to line 171) the particular dislikes, and hence the motives, of our "automatic man," as I phrased it at a time when he did not have as much body, did not offend the senses as violently as now; was, in a word, further removed from our sunny, green, grass-fragrant Arcady. But Our Lord has fashioned man so marvelously that no amount of motive hunting and rational inquiry can ever really explain how and why anybody is capable of destroying a fellow creature (this argument necessitates, I know, a temporary granting to Gradus of the status of man), unless he is defending the life of his son, or his own, or the achievement of a lifetime; so that in final judgment of the Gradus versus the Crown case I would submit that if his human incompleteness be deemed insufficient to explain his idiotic journey across the Atlantic just to empty the magazine of his gun; we may concede, doctor, that our half-man was also half mad. (note to Line 949)


Shade’s poem is almost finished, when the author is killed by Gradus. Kinbote is certain 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”):


Another pronouncement publicly made by Prof. Hurley and his clique refers to a structural matter. I quote from the same interview: "None can say how long John Shade planned his poem to be, but it is not improbable that what he left represents only a small fraction of the composition he saw in a glass, darkly." Nonsense again! Aside from the veritable clarion of internal evidence ringing throughout Canto Four, there exists Sybil Shade's affirmation (in a document dated July 25, 1959) that her husband "never intended to go beyond four parts." For him the third canto was the penultimate one, and thus I myself have heard him speak of it, in the course of a sunset ramble, when, as if thinking aloud, he reviewed the day's work and gesticulated in pardonable self-approbation while his discreet companion kept trying in vain to adapt the swing of a long-limbed gait to the disheveled old poet's jerky shuffle. Nay, I shall even assert (as our shadows still walk without us) that there remained to be written only one line of the poem (namely verse 1000) which would have been identical to line 1 and would have completed the symmetry of the structure, with its two identical central parts, solid and ample, forming together with the shorter flanks twin wings of five hundred verses each, and damn that music. Knowing Shade's combinational turn of mind and subtle sense of harmonic balance, I cannot imagine that he intended to deform the faces of his crystal by meddling with its predictable growth. And if all this were not enough - and it is, it is enough - I have had the dramatic occasion of hearing my poor friend's own voice proclaim on the evening of July 21 the end, or almost the end, of his labors. (See my note to line 991.) (Foreword)


According to Kinbote, his tutor, a Scotsman, used to call any old tumble-down building "a hurley-house." Earlier in his Foreword Kinbote says that there is a very loud amusement park right in front of his present lodgings, hence “damn that music” (a phrase that brings to mind “the atmosphere of damnum infectum”). Actually, Kinbote writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword (in that order) to Shade’s poem in a madhouse in Quebec (not in "Cedarn, Utana").


It seems that Kinbote is wrong when he says that only one line remains to be written, because, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). In Baratynski’s poem Ne podrazhay: svoeobrazen geniy (“Don’t imitate: a genius is unique,” 1828) the third line reads: Doratov li, Shekspirov li dvoynik (Whether Dorat’s or Shakespeare’s double):


Не подражай: своеобразен гений
И собственным величием велик;
Доратов ли, Шекспиров ли двойник,
Досаден ты: не любят повторений.

С Израилем певцу один закон:
Да не творит себе кумира он!
Когда тебя, Мицкевич вдохновенный,
Я застаю у Байроновых ног,
Я думаю: поклонник униженный!
Восстань, восстань и вспомни: сам ты бог!


According to Baratynski, every time he sees inspired Mickiewicz at Byron's feet, he thinks: "rise up, the humble worshipper, rise up and remember that you are a god yourself!" In his Sonet (“A Sonnet,” 1830) Pushkin mentions pevets Litvy (the bard of Lithuania), i. e. Adam Mickiewicz (the author of “The Crimean Sonnets,” 1826, and “The Odessan Sonnets,” 1826), among famous sonneteers:


Scorn not the sonnet, critic.



Суровый Дант не презирал сонета;
В нём жар любви Петрарка изливал;
Игру его любил творец Макбета;
Им скорбну мысль Камоэнс облекал.

И в наши дни пленяет он поэта:
Вордсворт его орудием избрал,
Когда вдали от суетного света
Природы он рисует идеал.

Под сенью гор Тавриды отдаленной
Певец Литвы в размер его стесненный
Свои мечты мгновенно заключал.

У нас ещё его не знали девы,
Как для него уж Дельвиг забывал
Гекзаметра священные напевы.


Scorn not the sonnet, critic.



Stern Dante did not despise the sonnet;

Into it Petrarch poured out the ardor of love;

Its play the creator of Macbeth loved;

With it Camoes clothed his sorrowful thought.


Even in our days it captivates the poet:

Wordsworth chose it as an instrument,

When far from the vain world

He depicts nature's ideal.


Under the shadow of the mountains of distant Tavrida

The singer of Lithuania in its constrained measure

His dreams he in an instant enclosed.


Here the maidens did not yet know it,

When for it even Delvig forgot

The sacred melodies of the hexameter.

(tr. Ober)


In his essay “E. A. Baratynski” (1911) Bryusov points out that some critics accused Baratynski of envy of Pushkin and put forward a hypothesis that Baratynski was a model of Salieri in Pushkin’s little tragedy “Mozart and Salieri:”


Очень любопытны, между прочим, замечания Б. о различных произведениях Пушкина, к которому он, когда писал с полной откровенностью, далеко не всегда относился справедливо. Б., конечно, сознавал величие Пушкина, в письме к нему лично льстиво предлагал ему "возвести русскую поэзию на ту степень между поэзиями всех народов, на которую Петр Великий возвел Россию между державами", но никогда не упускал случая отметить то, что почитал у Пушкина слабым и несовершенным (см., например, отзывы Б. о "Евгении Онегине" и пушкинских сказках в письмах к Киреевскому). Позднейшая критика прямо обвиняла Б. в зависти  к Пушкину и высказывала предположение, что Сальери Пушкина списан с Б. Есть основание думать, что в стихотворении "Осень" Б. имел в виду Пушкина, когда говорил о "буйственно  несущемся урагане", которому все в природе откликается, сравнивая с ним "глас, пошлый глас, вещатель общих дум", и в противоположность этому "вещателю общих дум" указывал, что "не найдет отзыва тот глагол, что страстное земное перешел". Известие о смерти Пушкина застало Б. в Москве именно в те дни, когда он работал над "Осенью". Б. бросил стихотворение, и оно осталось недовершенным.


In Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would):



Когда бы все так чувствовали силу

Гармонии! но нет; тогда б не мог

И мир существовать; никто б не стал

Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;

Все предались бы вольному искусству.



If all could feel like you the power of harmony!
But no: the world could not go on then. None
Would bother with the needs of lowly life;
All would surrender to free art.

(Scene II)


Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name seems to be Botkin (nikto b in reverse). 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 (Hazel Shade’s “real” name). In his poem Dve doli (“Two Lots,” 1823) Baratynski says that Providence offered human wisdom a choice between nadezhda i volnenie (hope and agitation) and beznadezhnost’ i pokoy (hopelessness and repose):


Дало две доли провидение
На выбор мудрости людской:
Или надежду и волнение,
Иль безнадежность и покой.

Верь тот надежде обольщающей,
Кто бодр неопытным умом,
Лишь по молве разновещающей
С судьбой насмешливой знаком.

Надейтесь, юноши кипящие!
Летите: крылья вам даны;
Для вас и замыслы блестящие,
И сердца пламенные сны!

Но вы, судьбину испытавшие,
Тщету утех, печали власть,
Вы, знанье бытия приявшие,
Себе на тягостную часть!

Гоните прочь их рой прельстительный;
Так! доживайте жизнь в тиши
И берегите хлад спасительный
Своей бездейственной души.

Своим бесчувствием блаженные,
Как трупы мёртвых из гробов,
Волхва словами пробужденные,
Встают со скрежетом зубов,

Так вы, согрев в душе желания,
Безумно вдавшись в их обман,
Проснётесь только для страдания,
Для боли новой прежних ран.


There is a hope (nadezhda) that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.