Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027357, Mon, 17 Apr 2017 14:22:51 +0300

Demonia, L disaster, Revelation & Terra in Ada
The action in VN’s novel Ada (1969) takes place on Demonia (Earth’s twin planet also known as Antiterra). In his book Afiny i Ierusalim (“Athens and Jerusalem,” 1938) Lev Shestov says that every man, like Socrates, has at his side a demon and wonders from what worlds this mysterious being has come to us:

Видно, ко всякому человеку, как к Сократу, приставлен демон, в решительные минуты властно от него требующий таких суждений и действий, смысл которых для него непонятен и навсегда скрыт. Но если такой демон существует в природе и если даже самые бесстрашные люди не смеют отказать ему в повиновении, то как не полюбопытствовать, откуда, из каких миров пришло к нам это загадочное существо? Но спрашивать никому неохота. Знают, что есть кто-то (а может быть, и что-то: вперед неизвестно, как о демоне говорить полагается, как о ком-то или о чем-то), кому дано или кто присвоил себе право предъявлять к людям ничем не мотивированные требования, – и этим вполне удовлетворяется. Демон предписывает, люди слушаются. И все рады, что нашлась, наконец, власть вяжущая и решающая, освобождающая от «свободы воли», что можно, даже должно, необходимо остановиться – α̉νάγκη στη̃ναι.

It seems that every man, like Socrates, has at his side a demon who, in decisive moments, demands of him judgments and acts whose meaning remains incomprehensible to him and forever hidden. But if such a demon exists in nature and if even the most courageous of men dare not disobey him, how can one not ask whence, from what worlds, this mysterious being has come to us? But no one greatly desires to ask this. People know that there is someone (or perhaps even something: it is not known in advance how the demon should be spoken of, whether as a thing or as a being) that has received or has arrogated the right to present to men completely unmotivated demands, and they are satisfied with that. The demon prescribes, men obey. And all are happy that a power should finally be found which binds and decides, which delivers us from freedom of the will, and that one can, one should, one must stop — "cry halt before Necessity." (Part One, III)

Part One of Shestov’s book Na vesakh Iova (“In Job’s Balances,” 1929) is entitled Otkroveniya smerti (“Revelations of Death”). According to Van Veen (the narrator and main character in Ada), Revelation can be more perilous than Revolution:

Revelation can be more perilous than Revolution. Sick minds identified the notion of a Terra planet with that of another world and this 'Other World' got confused not only with the 'Next World' but with the Real Word in us and beyond us. Our enchanters, our demons, are noble iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings; but in the eighteen-sixties the New Believers urged one to imagine a sphere where our splendid friends had been utterly degraded, had become nothing but vicious monsters, disgusting devils, with the black scrota of carnivora and the fangs of serpents, revilers and tormentors of female souls; while on the opposite side of the cosmic lane a rainbow mist of angelic spirits, inhabitants of sweet Terra, restored all the stalest but still potent myths of old creeds, with rearrangement for melodeon of all the divinities and devines ever spawned in the marshes of this our sufficient world. (1.3)

The notion of a Terra planet appeared on Demonia after the so-called L disaster in the middle of the 19th century:

The details of the L disaster (and I do not mean Elevated) in the beau milieu of last century, which had the singular effect of both causing and cursing the notion of 'Terra,' are too well-known historically, and too obscene spiritually, to be treated at length in a book addressed to young laymen and lemans - and not to grave men or gravemen. (1.3)

The Antiterran L disaster seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski (the author of “The Double,” 1846) and other members of Petrashevski’s circle on January 3, 1850 (NS), in our world. In Preodolenie samoochevidnostey. K stoletiyu rozhdeniya F. M. Dostoevskogo (“The Conquest of the Self-Evident. To the Hundredth Anniversary of F. M. Dostoevski’s Birth”), the first essay in “Revelations of Death,” Shestov mentions Dostoevski’s dvoynoe zrenie (double vision) and wonders if angel smerti (the Angel of Death) visited the writer at the foot of the scaffold:

Одним из таких людей, обладавших двойным зрением, и был, без сомнения, Достоевский. Когда слетел к нему ангел смерти? Естественнее всего предположить, что это произошло тогда, когда его с товарищами привели на эшафот и прочли ему смертный приговор. Но естественные предположения едва ли здесь уместны.

Dostoevski was undoubtedly one of those who possessed this double vision. But when did the Angel of Death visit him? The most natural thing would be to suppose that it happened at the foot of the scaffold when sentence of death was read out to him and his companions. However, it is probable that "natural" explanations are out of place here. (I)

According to Shestov, the Angel of Death visited Dostoevski much later, after his return from Siberia:

Итак, не в тот момент, когда Достоевский стоял на эшафоте и ждал исполнения над собой приговора, слетел к нему страшный ангел смерти. И даже не тогда, когда он жил в каторге, среди обрекавших других и ставших обречёнными людьми. Об этом свидетельствуют "Записки из мёртвого дома", одно из лучших произведений Достоевского.

So it was not while he was waiting for the execution of his sentence that Dostoevsky was visited by the Angel of Death. Neither was it while he was living in the Siberian camp, among men who intervened in the destinies of others and themselves became the sealed of destiny; The House of the Dead, one of his finest works, shows this. (ibid.)

However that may be, the second time the Angel of Death visited Dostoevski on January 28, 1881 (a month before the assassination of the tsar Alexander II). In his essay on the 25th anniversary of Dostoevski's death, Prorok Russkoy Revolyutsii (“The Prophet of Russian Revolution,” 1906), Merezhkovski speaks of Demonocracy (as opposed to Theocracy):

В первом случае "государство" понимается как царство Божие, как теократия, то есть безгранично свободная, любовная общественность, отрицающая всякую внешнюю насильственную власть и, следовательно, как нечто не похожее ни на одну из доныне существовавших в истории государственных форм; во втором случае "государство" разумеется как внешняя насильственная власть, как царство от мира сего, царство дьявола - демонократия.

Demon (“The Demon,” 1823), Angel (“The Angel,” 1827) and Prorok (“The Prophet,” 1826) are poems by Pushkin. In the latter poem Pushkin mentions shestikrylyi seraphim (a six-winged seraph). The name Shestov comes from shest’ (six). In Canto Two of his poem Pale Fire John Shade (one of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions the talks with Socrates and Proust in cypress walks and the seraph with his six flamingo wings:

So why join in the vulgar laughter? Why
Scorn a hereafter none can verify:
The Turk's delight, the future lyres, the talks
With Socrates and Proust in cypress walks,
The seraph with his six flamingo wings,
And Flemish hells with porcupines and things?
It isn't that we dream too wild a dream:
The trouble is we do not make it seem
Sufficiently unlikely; for the most
We can think up is a domestic ghost. (ll. 221-230)

In his Commentary Kinbote quotes in full Shade’s poem “The Nature of Electricity:”

The dead, the gentle dead—who knows?—
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man’s departed bride.

And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley’s incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.

Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.

And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell.

Science tells us, by the way, that the Earth would not merely fall apart, but vanish like a ghost, if Electricity were suddenly removed from the world. (note to Line 347)

After the L disaster electricity was banned on Antiterra but, to Van’s surprise, is freely used on Terra:

The unmentionable magnetic power denounced by evil lawmakers in this our shabby country — oh, everywhere, in Estoty and Canady, in ‘German’ Mark Kennensie, as well as in ‘Swedish’ Manitobogan, in the workshop of the red-shirted Yukonets as well as in the kitchen of the red-kerchiefed Lyaskanka, and in ‘French’ Estoty, from Bras d’Or to Ladore — and very soon throughout both our Americas, and all over the other stunned continents — was used on Terra as freely as water and air, as bibles and brooms. Two or three centuries earlier she [poor mad Aqua, the twin sister of Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother Marina] might have been just another consumable witch. (1.3)

According to Van, Aqua’s real destination was Terra the Fair:

But her real destination was Terra the Fair and thither she trusted she would fly on libellula long wings when she died. (ibid.)

In Canto Three of his poem Shade speaks of IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for Hereafter) and mentions “Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp:”

How to locate in blackness, with a gasp,
Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp. (Pale Fire, ll. 557-558)

Speaking of Terra, Shestov is the author of Apofeoz bespochvennosti (“Apotheosis of Groundlessness,” 1905). Btw., “apotheosis” is mentioned in Ada at least twice:

'All bright kids are depraved. I see you do recollect -'

'Not that particular occasion, but the apple tree, and when you kissed my neck, et tout le reste. And then - zdravstvuyte: apofeoz, the Night of the Burning Barn!' (1.18)

‘It happens to be the only one in color. The willows look sort of greenish because the twigs are greenish, but actually they are leafless here, it’s early spring, and you can see our red boat Souvenance through the rushes. And here’s the last one: Kim’s apotheosis of Ardis.’ (2.7)

Kim Beauharnais (the kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis who set the barn on fire and who spied on Van and Ada) seems to be a son of Arakadiy Dolgoruki, the main character and narrator in Dostoevski’s novel Podrostok (“The Adolescent,” 1875).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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