Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003496, Tue, 17 Nov 1998 12:15:10 -0800

Demented Rulers, booties, Kinbote & Caligula
From: Mary Bellino <iambe@javanet.com>

What significance Nabokov may have attached to Botkin (besides the
connection with Hamlet's 'bodkin') is an excellent question, but I
rather doubt he had Caligula in mind. The belief that Caligula was
insane goes back to a passage in Philo Judaeus' _Legatio ad Gaium_ (1st
cent CE); he says that Caligula's mind became unhinged after an illness
in 37 CE. Philo had ample reason to dislike Caligula, having led a
delegation that tried unsuccessfully to obtain his support in removing
the anti-jewish Agrippa I from the throne of Palestine.Since the 1930's
Philo's view has come under increasing criticism from scholars. I am not
however suggesting that Nabokov was listening to this clash of tiny
swords from the battlefield of classical scholarship; certainly it is
fair to say that Nabokov, if he thought of Caligula at all, probably
assumed that he was nuts.

But aside from this there is very little common ground between Caligula
and Kinbote.Caligula died before he was thirty; Kinbote (if we are to
believe his doctor) may not have even begun to suffer delusions until he
was old enough for cerebral arteriosclerosis to set in.Caligula spent
his childhood in army camps (this is the source of the nickname 'Little
Boots') and was not in line for the throne -- no idyllic palace
childhood for him. There is little resemblance even in the type of
'dementia' -- Caligula was viciously cruel and demanded to be treated
like a god; Kinbote, unless he is denigrating Gradus, is really a rather
soft-hearted person who takes the trouble to arrange "toilet facilities
in an attractive setting" for the Goldsmith's cat. When he actually
tries to be unkind (to Sibyl, for example) his inept attempts generally
fail; if not kind, he is at least harmless. What Kinbote wants is love
(or at least attention), not worship. Caligula as far as we know did not
suffer from delusions, although it is quite true that he had constant
(legitimate) fears that he would be assassinated, and tended to murder
anyone he had the slightest suspicion of. He was ultimately killed, but
by trusted members of his own guard.

The only possible connection I can see that might have served Nabokov's
purposes is that Caligula spent some of his childhood near the Rhine,
and as emperor he furthered Rome's attempt to annnex Britain. He might
therefore fit into German/Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian schema that Priscilla
Meyer has delineated in _Find What the Sailor has Hidden_. It would be
interested to ask Professor Meyer if she can think of any other points
of contact with Nabokov's "bibliography" for _Pale Fire_.

Mary Bellino