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") a
nd 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 described.
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 Sh
ade 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.