Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0015755, Sun, 2 Dec 2007 22:33:20 EST

Re: THOUGHTS on Taing Metaphors Literally
In a message dated 12/2/2007 10:33:59 AM Central Standard Time,
> MR: Sam, I understand your point here, but I do think the fact that John
> Shade is a character in a novel by Nabokov makes a difference in the way we
> read and interpret his poem. If he were real--or if we were residents of New
> Wye--I agree that it would be inappropriate to assume too much about his
> imagery and metaphors. However, John Shade's status as a fictional
> character gives us both rights and obligations as interpreters that we would
> not otherwise possess. Because we know that Nabokov authored both John Shade
> and John Shade's poem, I believe we are encouraged to view the poem as a
> window into the life of John Shade--to see both what it reveals and what it
> is hiding.

I agree with this--in theory. But Nabokov is rarely reticent about the
deviant psychologies of his first-person narrators, c.f. Despair and Lolita. We
might as well say that Humbert was no practicing pedophile at all but, instead,
a fantacist who invented Lolita out of his own repressed desire (never
fulfilled) for nymphets. Or that Hermann Hermann woke up the next day and discovered
he'd dreamed the whole thing. Kinbote is a case in point: if Nabokov is
"up-front" about Kinbote's madness, why would he go to such efforts to conceal

This is a wholly different approach than I take, say, with James > Wright's
> autobiographical poem "At the Executed Murderer's Grave." Though
> that poem begins "My name is James A. Wright," I'm only interested in how
> James A. Wright functions as a persona in that poem, not with how it may
> reveal something about the actual man who wrote that poem.

This sounds very New Critical to me. To cite but one example, Eliot appears
nowhere in "The Waste Land," but critics have been using the poem to find the
poet for a long time now (read T. S. Eliot's Personal Waste Land and accounts
of the John Peter controversy). Personally, I am interested in how James
Wright's longtime fascination with "losers" is a reflection of his own
personality--just as I'd read a New Critical set-piece like Ransom's "The Equilibrists" as
revealing the conflicting forces of sex and "honor" in the poet's own psyche.
I wouldn't, though, as many have done, deconstruct a poet's figurative
language to find, as in the case of Emily Dickinson, chronic masturbation, sexual
abuse, or, as in the case of "Alone and in a Circumstance,"
L) the delights of the outhouse. One doesn't have to be a Freudian to do
this, by the way, and many poets--Yeats, Plath--invite the reader to look at the
personae as reflections of the poet him- or herself.

With John Shade, > however, I am intensely interested in seeing how the poem
> might enlighten us
> about actual events in New Wye--and I think Nabokov wants us to treat John
> Shade and his poem this way, even though he would not want us to treat
> Vladimir Nabokov and _Pale Fire_ in like manner.

What you seem to be saying above contradicts your last clause. If Nabokov is
the "real" author of the poem, then speculations about what it reveals
autobiographically should fall on him, not on his invented poet. If Nabokov
thoroughly probed the mind of a pedophile (Humbert) and a homosexual (Kinbote), why
would he be so circumspect in dealing with Shade, assuming there was anything
to be circumspect about?

> When John Shade compares his fits to being sexually molested, I find that
> comparison bizarre and troubling enough that it at the very least raises a
> question in my mind about what may have happened to John Shade--especially
> given the fact that the reason for his fits is undiagnosed. By itself, the
> metaphor is not conclusive evidence of anything. However, if there is
> sufficient corresponding evidence then it becomes much more likely that
> there really is something significant in that metaphor.

The metaphor (or simile) in 161-62 is indeed sexual but doesn't necessarily
signal molestation. "Little lad" is vague as far as age is concerned, as is
"wench"--a 12- year-old boy being "frenched" by a knowledgeable 14-year-old
girl, for example. And a kiss (sometimes) is just a kiss, not the whole shebang.
Besides, VN had already published a novel about molestation, with the sexual
roles reversed.

About his "fits," Shade says, "That blackness was sublime." He also says
that the spells left him "corrupted, terrified, allured." The "shame [that]
remains" obviously intensified the alienation he felt as a child--the ordinary
problems of being physically ugly and uncoordinated and never fitting in (like
Hazel, for instance). Still, he adds that "The wonder lingers." These spells
were Shade's own intimations of immortality, and he doubtless credits them as
having made him a poet.

And his fits aren't "undiagnosed." Dr. Colt pronouces them "mainly growing
pains." Maybe it isn't exactly a scientific diagnosis, but most of what I've
read about growing pains (which typically occur between the ages of 8 and 12)
is pretty vague too as to their cause.

While I cannot fully> sign onto Jim Twigg's notion that Aunt Maud is the
> "wench," and I don't
> agree with Carolyn that Shade's five fingers represent lovers, I continue to
> believe that John Shade is a much more complex and troubled character than
> most traditional readings of the novel allow.

Isn't Shade complex and troubled enough already for several fictional
characters? Without going into the clinical details, I find him at least as
complicated as, say, Nabokov's beloved Ivan Ilych--a "normal" man (no artist) who has
to go through an extraordinary spiritual ordeal. Wouldn't any "normal" parent
whose child committed suicide be troubled? Shade is troubled enough to write
a poem that both he and Sybil feel (if we're allowed to trust Kinbote's
account of his breaking into their kitchen while Shade is reading a passage) is an
appropriate tribute to Hazel. If Shade is, as someone said, being cruel to
Hazel, isn't he just paying himself (and Sybil) back for all of their hopes, in
her childhood, that she would turn out "normal"? Shade found a way of growing
out of his own painful childhood; Hazel didn't.

> On another note: Now that we're all focusing on Shade's "fortress of an
> apple." I would invite everyone go back and read that section of the
> foreword and to notice how Shade is framed here as not only carnivorous, but
> cannibalistic (recall the pulpous serving girl who licks her pencil).

The suggestion, made humorously, about "eating . . . the pulpous pony-tailed
girl" is from Kinbote, who is explaining his vegetarianism. Yes, I know, VN
wrote it . . . .

Then > note the close proximity of this to the "inferno of ice" passage and
> its (I
> allege) relationship to Dante's encounter with the cannibal count, Ugolino
> (two shades trapped in one hole in the ice).

This is Kinbote's metaphor, not Shade's. Kinbote may be alluding to Dante's
Cocytus (where there a many others besides Ugolino, who, true, gnaws on the
neck of Ruggieri and may or may not have prolonged his life by eating the bodies
of his dead sons--Dante is tactful about the matter), but he is probably just
describing the smell of burning rubber from Shade's spinning tire, something
I noticed myself when I lived in colder climes.

Then note the reference soon > after the apple passage noting the
> "inbreeding" male intellectual types.

Again, Kinbote's phrase. Shade attended the same college where he taught, as
did, one would assume, many of his colleagues. A study of the faculty at my
own undergraduate college once stated that "we are inbred to the point of

> Combine this with Shade's shaving passage in Canto Four and its remarkable
> likeness to the image of King Lycaon in Ovid. Strain into an old fashioned
> glass and serve.

First, I can't find any "remarkable likeness" to Lycaon in Shade's shaving
passage. Line numbers? True, Lycaon is "marvelous hairy about the face," but
lots of men are. Myself, I gave up shaving thirty years ago and grew a beard;
I like meat but know several bearded vegetarians (like Kinbote, more or less).
And Lycaon is not specified as a cannibal by Ovid (like some of Homer's
notable characters). Lycaon serves the human stew to Jove as a test of his
godliness; Ovid doesn't say that the king is sopping his own biscuits in the same
gravy. After Lycaon's "metamorphosis" he is described as having arms that
change into legs, something that would have added additional difficulty to Shade's
hated daily ritual.> If only he'd lived long enough to see the advent of the
> double-bladed disposable razor . . . or the triple-bladed disposable razor
> . . . or the quadruple-bladed (I kid you not) disposable razor . . . .

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