Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0015764, Mon, 3 Dec 2007 12:41:02 -0500

MR answering RSG's Fine THOUGHTS; Shade & Hazel, etc.
Omnibus post from Matt Roth:

I appreciate Sam Gwynn's insight and skepticism. I will try to respond to a
number of his points here.

RSG: "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 Shade's?"

MR: I did not say in my post that Shade is mad, though I am still intrigued
and sometimes even convinced by elements of the MPD theory. While it is
true that Nabokov foregrounds the psychological problems of Hermann and
Humbert, I don't know that we can say that this makes it unlikely that he
would fail to do so in another case. Nabokov is not so limited that he
couldn't do something new. Indeed, I find it rather delicious that while we
focus on Kinbote's psychoses, we may be overlooking the complexities of John
Shade. By the way, I find it interesting that the names of both Hermann and
John Shade could be translated to mean "Mr. Man." (I am thinking of how
"John" is used as a generic masculine name, as in a "John" who visits a
prostitute, or "John Doe.") Recall as well that Hermann references the
"versipel" myth when he talks about the hair inside him growing out (see my
post "versipel in despair") and John Shade has a versipel for a muse.

RSG: "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."

MR: A country girl's shy kiss, in other words? "little lad forced by a
wench / With his pure tongue her abject thirst to quench" doesn't seem
innocent to me. You seem to be agreeing with Kinbote's interpretation, but I
think Kinbote's reading is supposed to strike us as absurd. If it's just a
first kiss being described in the metaphor, then how can it be sufficient to
address the "intimations of immortality" that you see in his fits?

RSG: "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."

MR: True, Dr. Colt diagnoses them thus, but it's a laughable diagnosis. If
my child were blacking out every day, I think Dr. Colt's diagnosis would
prompt me to seek a second opinion. This is almost as bad a diagnosis as
the "Cerbral Sclerosis" Dr. Ahlert supposedly diagnosed in Kinbote. Perhaps
I should have said "unexplained" rather than "undiagnosed," since Dr. Colt's
diagnosis is no explanation.

RSG: "The suggestion, made humorously, about "eating . . . the pulpous
pony-tailed girl" is from Kinbote, who is explaining his vegetarianism."

MR: I don't believe that Kinbote views John Shade as a cannibal. I do,
however, assert that there is a pattern of allusions and, in this case, a
direct reference, that associate John Shade with cannibalism--that is,
devouring one's own. In this case, Kinbote is setting his vegetarianism
against John Shade's carnivorous nature. In doing so, he jokingly associates
meat-eating with cannibalism. The fact that it's a joke, and that it only
applies to John Shade via a transitive syllogism (a=b, b=c, a=c), does not
mean that it cannot be seen as part of a larger theme.

RSG: [re: "inferno of 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."

MR: My thoughts on this and King Lycaon can be found by looking at my Sept.
12 2007 post titled "WIP/THOUGHTS: Nabokov, Ovid, Dante (
)." The fact that it is Kinbote's metaphor does not remove from it the
association with John Shade, since it is the Shades' car that is being


Carolyn asked whether VN ever talked about John Shade. In SO, he calls
Shade one of his "responsible characters" and says that he thus gives him
some of his own traits--presumably his feelings about Freud, jazz, students,
etc. This could be taken as proof, I suppose, that John Shade is perfectly
normal and sane, but I don't make too much of it. John Shade is outwardly
quite a proper, amiable, scholarly fellow, but even "responsible" people
have their inner demons.

A couple of people have recently asserted that John Shade is not a nice man
and that he acts insensitively towards Hazel, or even "loathes" her. I find
myself in the odd position of defending him against this charge while at the
same time asserting that he had some form of an incestuous relationship with
Hazel. While I understand the charge that he is insensitive to Hazel and
that he does in fact focus too much on the physical, I believe this reflects
his own guilt after the fact of her suicide--his feeling that because she
was "all him" and none of Sybil he was responsible for Hazel's feelings of
alienation and depression. When Shade shows us himself sobbing in the men's
room, we are supposed to see both his pity and his own feelings of
culpability. He simply wants his daughter to be loved and treated like
other girls--and he knows that Hazel knows that this doesn't seem to be
happening. Remember that our picture of Hazel is formed via Shade with the
full knowledge that she has killed herself. The present colors the past.
When Shade talks about Hazel in the poem, he is focused on those facts which
explain her suicide. Had Hazel not committed suicide, Shade's portrait of
the same period in her life would probably be very different. For example,
Shade would not have described himself, Sybil, and Hazel as constituting a
"three-act play"--a Greek tragedy--had things not ended tragically.


Carolyn asked me why I think Shade flinches at his five fingers. On a
literal level, he is flinching because he is afraid he will cut himself as
he trims his cuticles. But I admit that there may be secondary connotations
to this flinching that I cannot explain. Nor can I explain why Shade
chooses those five people. I have always read it as Shade simply being
whimsical, showing off his fanciful nature. But I will admit that as whimsy
it falls a bit flat for me, so I would be happy to understand a higher
purpose. As for skin trimming itself, I have toyed with the idea that this
is related to Shade being a "skin changer," but I'm not particularly
satisfied with that explanation. Still, isn't it interesting that Aunt
Maud, John Shade and Hazel (psoriatic fingernails) all seem to have had
nail-grooming issues? Why have we been supplied with that information?


Anthony Stadlen wrote: "What about Shade's count: 4,000? If that's what
celebration means." I have always wondered about this. If by this number
Shade means that he and Sybil have had sex 4000 times, that's something like
once every four days of their marriage. Does that seem likely? Also, can
anyone tell me whether or not John and Sybil have separate beds or bedrooms?
"your pillow has been creased / By our two heads" makes me think that they
do not sleep in the same bed.

Matt Roth

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