Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0022165, Sat, 12 Nov 2011 16:11:26 -0200

The Word (Nabokov,1923) Aleph (Borges,
1960) and Zembla's infinite mirrors
There's a vision that VN must have shared with the Argentine writer J.L.Borges, who wrote, in "Matthew 25:30,"#

"From the unseen horizon,/ and from the very center of my being,/ an infinite voice pronounced these things-/ things, not words. This is my feeble translation,/ time-bound, of what was a single limitless Word: 'Stars, bread, libraries of East and West,/playing cards, chessboards, galleries,skylights,/cellars,/ a human body to walk with on the earth,/fingernails, growing at nightime and in death,/ shadows for forgetting, mirrors which endlessly/multiply,/falls in music, gentlest of all time's shapes/.../algebra and fire,.../days more crowded than Balzac, scent of the honey-suckle,/love, and the imminence of love, and intolerable/remembering/dreams like buried treasure, generous luck,/and memory itself, where a glance can make men/dizzy' - /all this was given to you."(here, parts of the poem as translated by Alastair Reid,Copyright by Grove Press,Inc. 1967 "Jorge Luis Borges- A personal anthology").

This "magic world/word" is a pronounceable Thing and it reappears in J.L.Borges's more famous short-story, "The Aleph." ## when we hear about how language rules force both writers, while they disclose their mystic vision, to get lost in a time-bound succession of infinitesimaly small details.
Such a predicament is mentioned by the characters in Borges's stories and also by Nabokov's narrator in "The Word" [New Yorker fiction -- December 26, 2005 & January 2, 2006 issue] was originally published in Russian in the "Rul" (7 January,1923).*

"...Then a miracle occurred. One of the last angels lingered, turned, and quietly approached me...His visage, the faintly smiling outline of his lips, and his straight clear forehead reminded me of features I had seen on earth...All the familiar sounds that came separately into contact with my hearing now seemed to blend into a single, perfect melody...He came up to me...I could not look at him....I began recounting my sorrows. I wanted to explain how wondrous my land was, and how horrid its black syncope, but I did not find the words I needed. Hurrying, repeating myself, I babbled about trifles, about some burned-down house where once the sunny sheen of parquet had been reflected in an inclined mirror. I prattled of old books and old lindens, of knickknacks...It seemed to me that any minute-any minute!-I would get to what was most important, I would explain the whole sorrow of my homeland. But for some reason I could remember only minute, quite mundane things..." You understand, though, my kindhearted, my gray angel. Answer me, help me, tell me, what can save my land?"...Embracing my shoulders for an instant with his dovelike wings, the angel pronounced a single word, and in his voice I recognized all those beloved, those silenced voices. The word he spoke was so marvellous that, with a sigh, I closed my eyes and bowed my head still lower. The fragrance and the melody of the word spread through my veins, rose like a sun within my brain; the countless cavities within my consciousness caught up and repeated its lustrous edenic song. I was filled with it...I shouted it, I revelled in its every syllable...Oh, Lord-the winter dawn glows greenish in the window, and I remember not what word it was that I shouted."
Read more http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/26/051226fi_fiction2#ixzz1dVGH9MaM

Another interesting point is related to the nature of the "Aleph," as detailed by Borges in a post-script to his story, arises while he mentions Sir Richard Burton, The Arabian Nights and ancient magic mirrors It brings out a new angle to consider Gradus=Death in Pale Fire, because of the existing link bt. Jakob Gradus and the Zemblan expert mirror-maker, whose name is a mirror-image of Gradus's, when we keep in mind that Zemblan, according to Conmal, is "the tongue of the mirror."
Zembla is a name like the one that indicates the narrator's native land in "The Word" - refracted by an angel's single & all-encompassing pronouncement, and by an individual's crude attempt to render it in human language. Zembla is related to the magic power of mirrors and other luminous points, such as the Aleph, and to the infinite succession of Arabian stories and oriental mysticism. Zembla, as I understand it, serves not only as an emblem of homeland and death but of an intuited "hereafter" in Nabokov..

Sudarg of Bokay's mirror is of "cheval glass, a triptych of bottomless light, a really fantastic mirror, signed with a diamond by its maker, Sudarg of Bokay. She turned about before it: a secret device of reflection gathered an infinite number of nudes in its depths, garlands of girls in graceful and sorrowful groups, diminishing in the limpid distance, or breaking into individual nymphs, some of whom, she murmured, must resemble her ancestors when they were young - little peasant garlien combing their hair in shallow water as far as the eye could reach, and then the wistful mermaid from an old tale, and then nothing."
It's also worth recollecting Kinbote's comments, on Shade's variations when he returns to Pale Fire's first verses:: "The exquisite melody of the two lines opening the poem is picked up here. The repetition of that long-drawn note is saved from monotony by the subtle variation in line 132 where the assonance between its second word and the rhyme gives the ear a kind of languorous pleasure as would the echo of some half-remembered sorrowful song whose strain is more meaningful than its words. Today, when the "feigned remoteness" has indeed performed its dreadful duty, and the poem we have is the only "shadow" that remains, we cannot help reading into these lines something more than mirrorplay and mirage shimmer. We feel doom, in the image of Gradus, eating away the miles and miles of "feigned remoteness" between him and poor Shade. He, too, is to meet, in his urgent and blind flight, a reflection that will shatter him."


* - The year before Nabokov wrote this story was marked by his father's murder in the Berlin Philharmonic Hall

**- A poet makes comments about his poem, as told by the narrator in a story by JLBorges: "And what do you tell me of thad find of mine: white-celeste? This picturesque neologism insinuates the sky, which is a very important factor in the Australian landscape. Without this evocation, the colors of the sketch would be much too somber [...] he read me four or five pages of his poem. He had made corrections in accordance with a depraved principle of verbal ostentation: where he had formerly written azurish, he now put azuritic, azuritish , and even azury. The word lacteous proved not ungly enough for him: in the course of an impetuous description of a wool washer, he preferred lactary, lactinous, lactescent, lactiferous..." I couldn't avoid thinking about Stan Kelly-Bootle's comments on neologisms and adjectivations in English, referred to Nabokov's viatic, mollitude, "dulcitude" and other argute inventions [Cf. Nab-L postings in October 2011, with the subject "Antidulcinist"].

# - Matthew 25:30 - Jorge Luis Borges
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness:
there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The first bridge on Constitution. At my feet
the shunting trains trace iron labyrinths.
Steam hisses up and up into the night
which becomes, at a stroke, the Night of the Last Judgment.
From the unseen horizon,
and from the very center of my being,
an infinite voice pronounced these things-
things, not words. This is my feeble translation,
time-bound, of what was a single limitless Word:
"Stars, bread, libraries of East and West,
playing cards, chessboards, galleries, skylights, cellars,
a human body to walk with on the earth,
fingernails, growing at nighttime and in death,
shadows for forgetting, mirrors which endlessly multiply,
falls in music, gentlest of all time's shapes,
borders of Brazil, Uruguay, horses and morning,
a bronze weight, a copy of Grettir Saga,
algebra and fire, the charge at Junin in your blood,
days more crowded than Balzac, scent of the honeysuckle,
love, and the imminence of love, and intolerable remembering,
dreams like buried treasure, generous luck,
and memory itself, where a glance can make men dizzy-
all this was given to you and, with it,
the ancient nourishment of heroes-
treachery, defeat, humiliation.
In vain have oceans been squandered on you, in vain
the sun, wonderfully seen through Whitman's eyes.
You have used up the years and they have used up you,
and still, and still, you have not written the poem."
Art of Poetry, The

To gaze at a river made of time and water
And remember Time is another river.
To know we stray like a river
and our faces vanish like water.

To feel that waking is another dream
that dreams of not dreaming and that the death
we fear in our bones is the death
that every night we call a dream.

To see in every day and year a symbol
of all the days of man and his years,
and convert the outrage of the years
into a music, a sound, and a symbol.

To see in death a dream, in the sunset
a golden sadness--such is poetry,
humble and immortal, poetry,
returning, like dawn and the sunset.

Sometimes at evening there's a face
that sees us from the deeps of a mirror.
Art must be that sort of mirror,
disclosing to each of us his face.

They say Ulysses, wearied of wonders,
wept with love on seeing Ithaca,
humble and green. Art is that Ithaca,
a green eternity, not wonders.

Art is endless like a river flowing,
passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
and yet another, like the river flowing.

(copied from a blog in the internet)

## - The Aleph: "O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a King of infinite space." Hamlet, II, 2
"But they will teach us that Eternity is the Standing still of the Present Time, a Nunc-stans (as the schools call it); which neither they, nor any else understand, no more than they would a Hic-stans for an Infinite greatness of Place." Leviathan, IV, 46
"...My home, my ancestral home..." he kept repeating...He hesitated, then with that level, impersonal voice...he said that to finish the poem he could not get along without the house because down in the cellar there was an Aleph. He explained that an Aleph is one of the points in space that contains all other points"[...] "Truth cannot penetrate a closed mind. If all places in the universe are in the Aleph, then all stars, all lamps, all sources of light are in it, too."
[...] "Let me warn you, you'll have to lie flat on your back. Total darkness, total immobility, and a certain ocular adjustment will also be necessary. From the floor, you must focus your eyes on the nineteenth step....In a minute or two, you'll see the Aleph -- the microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists, our true proverbial friend, the multum in parvo!" ... I shut my eyes -- I opened them. Then I saw the Aleph"
[...] "I arrive now at the ineffable core of my story. And here begins my despair as a writer. All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass? Mystics, faced with the same problem, fall back on symbols: to signify the godhead, one Persian speaks of a bird that somehow is all birds; Alanus de Insulis, of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere; Ezekiel, of a four-faced angel who at one and the same time moves east and west, north and south. (Not in vain do I recall these inconceivable analogies; they bear some relation to the Aleph.) Perhaps the gods might grant me a similar metaphor, but then this account would become contaminated by literature, by fiction. Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal. In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive."
[...] "Out on the street, going down the stairways inside Constitution Station, riding the subway, every one of the faces seemed familiar to me. I was afraid that not a single thing on earth would ever again surprise me; I was afraid I would never again be free of all I had seen. Happily, after a few sleepless nights, I was visited once more by oblivion."
[...] Postscript of March first, 1943 ...I want to add two final observations: one, on the nature of the Aleph; the other, on its name. As is well known, the Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Its use for the strange sphere in my story may not be accidental. For the Kabbala, the letter stands for the En Soph, the pure and boundless godhead; it is also said that it takes the shape of a man pointing to both heaven and earth, in order to show that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher; for Cantor's Mengenlehre, it is the symbol of transfinite numbers, of which any part is as great as the whole...Incredible as it may seem, I believe that the Aleph of Garay Street was a false Aleph. Here are my reasons. Around 1867, Captain Burton held the post of British Consul in Brazil. In July, 1942, Pedro Henríquez Ureña came across a manuscript of Burton's, in a library at Santos, dealing with the mirror which the Oriental world attributes to Iskander Zu al-Karnayn, or Alexander Bicornis of Macedonia. In its crystal the whole world was reflected. Burton mentions other similar devices -- the sevenfold cup of Kai Kosru; the mirror that Tariq ibn-Ziyad found in a tower (Thousand and One Nights, 272); the mirror that Lucian of Samosata examined on the moon (True History, I, 26); the mirrorlike spear that the first book of Capella's Satyricon attributes; Merlin's universal mirror, which was "round and hollow... and seem'd a world of glas" (The Faerie Queene, III, 2, 19) -- and adds this curious statement: "But the aforesaid objects (besides the disadvantage of not existing) are mere optical instruments. The Faithful who gather at the mosque of Amr, in Cairo, are acquainted with the fact that the entire universe lies inside one of the stone pillars that ring its central court... No one, of course, can actually see it, but those who lay an ear against the surface tell that after some short while they perceive its busy hum... The mosque dates from the seventh century; the pillars come from other temples of pre-Islamic religions, since, as ibn-Khaldun has written: 'In nations founded by nomads, the aid of foreigners is essential in all concerning masonry.'"/Does this Aleph exist in the heart of a stone? Did I see it there in the cellar when I saw all things, and have I now forgotten it? Our minds are porous and forgetfulness seeps in; I myself am distorting and losing, under the wearing away of the years, the face of Beatriz."
El Aleph, 1945. Translation by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni in collaboration with the author. Extracted from a blog in the internet.

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