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20.9.08

Waxwing philosophical: a hermeneutic interpretation of Pale Fire

Pale Fire, my favorite book, my Lit 202, its literary allusion thick as thieves; lit-critical flypaper, in which no commentator has the last word (we are all Kinbote now). By topsy-turvy coincidence it sparked blogcommentary on philosophical ruminations (the most relevant here, TheValve: Uncruel Beauty?), and a blogpost series (not intended as such to start with, just turned out that way) 3 years ago, in which I explored some of its many aspects, on Nabokov generally (1, 2) and Pale Fire specifically (3, 4, 5, 6, 7), culminating in "The Antinomy of Criticism", aligning Aunt Maud and Prof Botkin with Maud Bodkin. But now it's time to up the ante, beyond lit-critical interpretation, and to bring it full circle. Today we have the naming of parts.

We begin with Brian Boyd, in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years:

It is Shade who points out that Kinbote is "the author of a remarkable book on surnames”—a hint if there ever was one. According to Nabokov's dictionary, Webster's Second, a kinbote is a bote or compensation "given by a homicide to the kin of his victim." Jack Grey, the man who kills Shade, certainly does not give Kinbote to Sybil, nor would she want him. The only way the name make the sense that Nabokov indicates it ought to have is if Shade, in compensation for the shock of fictively killing himself off, presents Sybil with the maddening but supremely colorful Kinbote, whose attacks on Sybil, if reflected through one more mirror so that we can read them the right way around, are of course a tribute to her staunch loyalty. And "Botkin" is just as apt. Webster's Second records one meaning of bodkin—or as Kinbote insists, "botkin”—as "a person closely wedged between two other persons," like Kinbote trying to thrust himself between John and Sybil Shade. Its main meaning, of course, is a stiletto, and in this sense it evokes Hamlet's "When he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin" and the suicide that will remove the figmentary interloper between the two Shades as soon as he has finished his commentary and index.

In the service of identifying Kinbote with Botkin, and Shade as sole author of Pale Fire (a judgment subsequently revised), Boyd is echoing Kinbote's technique of argumentation as seen in a digression in the commentary to line 71 [C71]:

[of Shade's parents] ...a bird had been named for him: Bombycilla Shadei (this should be "shadei," of course). The poet's mother, nee Caroline Lukin, assisted him in his work and drew the admirable figures of his Birds of Mexico, which I remember having seen in my friend's house. What the obituarist does not know is that Lukin comes from Luke, as also do Locock and Luxon and Lukashevich. It represents one of the many instances when the amorphous-looking but live and personal hereditary patronymic grows, sometimes in fantastic shapes, around the common pebble of a Christian name. The Lukins are an old Essex family. Other names derive from professions such as Rymer, Scrivener, Limner (one who illuminates parchments), Botkin (one who makes bottekins, fancy footwear) and thousands of others. My tutor, a Scotsman, used to call any old tumble-down buildings a "hurley-house." But enough of this.

Professor Hurley, English department head at Wordsmith, who opened C71, is a rival commentator enlisted by Sybil Shade, one of two that she proposes to assist in the editing of the poem "Pale Fire"; per the Foreword:

Instead of answering a month-old letter from my cave in Cedarn, listing some of my most desperate queries, such as the real name of "Jim Coates," etc., she suddenly shot me a wire, requesting me to accept Prof. H. (!) and Prof. C. (!!) as co-editors of her husband's poem. How deeply this surprised and pained me! Naturally, it precluded collaboration with my friend's misguided widow.

I propose that Profs. H. & C. correspond to Hermogenes and Cratylus in Plato's dialogue of the latter name. Need I mention that the point of this dialogue is the making of names, and that Pale Fire is set at Wordsmith University? The above are sidebars to the crux, C894, the rock upon which theories of ultimate authorship and of the novel's "reality" founder, seeming to cede Kinbote's objective existence among witnesses—and if skepticism about Kinbote's reportage is to reject this evidence, where doe it end? But aside from this, its function within the matrix of the novel has been a tough nut to crack; Cratylus sheds light upon much of what's going on here.

C894 recounts the episode in which a German lecturer visiting Wordsmith from Oxford remarks upon Kinbote's likeness to King Charles, the deposed monarch of Zembla, Kinbote's denials leading to consideration of etymologies of resemblances and names, and is the first indication of Botkin, another prospective double. The whole episode, largely reported dialogue, mirrors Socrates' arguments:

Soc. [...] I should say rather that the image, if expressing in every point the entire reality, would no longer be an image. Let us suppose the existence of two objects: one of them shall be Cratylus, and the other the image of Cratylus; and we will suppose, further, that some God makes not only a representation such as a painter would make of your outward form and colour, but also creates an inward organization like yours, having the same warmth and softness; and into this infuses motion, and soul, and mind, such as you have, in a word copies all your qualities, and places them by you in another form; would you say that this was Cratylus and the image of Cratylus, or that there were two Cratyluses?
Crat. I should say that there were two Cratyluses.
Soc. Then you see, my friend, that we must find some other principle of truth in images, and also in names; and not insist that an image is no longer an image when something is added or subtracted. Do you not perceive that images are very far from having qualities which are the exact counterpart of the realities which they represent?
Crat. Yes, I see.
Soc. But then how ridiculous would be the effect of names on things, if they were exactly the same with them! For they would be the doubles of them, and no one would be able to determine which were the names and which were the realities.


Beyond this, though, we have larger implications regarding the source for the name of the poem itself, Shakespeare's Timon of Athens: "The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction / Robs the vast sea; The moon's an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun ..." (gender-mangled in Zemblan translation; cf the introduction of images in Cratylus: Soc. First look at the matter thus : you may attribute the likeness of the man to the man, and of the woman to the woman ; and so on? ... And conversely you may attribute the likeness of the man to the woman, and of the woman to the man?). But thievery is not the sole point to be taken from this:

Soc. I should imagine that the name Hermes has to do with speech, and signifies that he is the interpreter (ermeneus), or messenger, or thief, or liar, or bargainer; all that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language; as I was telling you the word eirein is expressive of the use of speech, and there is an often-recurring Homeric word emesato, which means “he contrived”—out of these two words, eirein and mesasthai, the legislator formed the name of the God who invented language and speech; and we may imagine him dictating to us the use of this name: “O my friends,” says he to us, “seeing that he is the contriver of tales or speeches, you may rightly call him Eirhemes.” And this has been improved by us, as we think, into Hermes. Iris also appears to have been called from the verb “to tell” (eirein), because she was a messenger.

Note that this also expands and folds in the part played by Iris Acht (King Alfin's flame) in the proceedings. But the list of Hermes' referents—interpreter, messenger, thief, liar, bargainer, contriver—all have resonance within Pale Fire.

To return to Boyd's quote above, a hint if there ever was one:
Shade [addressing the German visitor]: "Professor Kinbote is the author of a remarkable book on surnames. I believe [to me] there exists an English translation?"
"Oxford, 1956," I replied.

The excerpts from Cratylus above are taken from the translation of Benjamin Jowett, in Dialogues of Plato, Oxford 1953; the only contemporaneous reference I've found (but not seen) is Richard Robinson (of Oxford), ‘A Criticism of Plato’s Cratylus’, The Philosophical Review LXV:3, July 1956. (For an overview of the dialogue, see Stanford's Encyclopedia.)

Cratylus is an ur-text of hermeneutics (Aristotle refers to it, though as being suspect, and not in On Interpretation). Kinbote seems to cast himself as Plato to Shade's Socrates (in the latter case there may be a physical resemblance). It leads me to wonder to what extent Nabokov was addressing the evolution of hermeneutics; for example, in his writings of this period St. Augustine seems a pervasive influence in other ways, but also had something to say about rules of interpretation in On Christian Doctrine. Does our visiting German lecturer stand in for Herder-Schleiermacher-Heidigger-Gadamer?

2 Comments:

Blogger johnr said...

I've said before and I will again that there is an uncanny connection between VN and Graves' White Goddess.

Seeing Boyd's thoughts on Luke only reinforces that.

From some old notes:

Somewhere I've read N puts important stuff in brackets.

"Other names derive from professions such as Rymer, Scrivener, Limner (one who illuminates parchments), Botkin (one who makes bottekins, fancy footwear) and thousands of others" (100).

Lew (Lugh, Luke) Law Gyffes British sun god (as in Apollo) was called the Golden Shoemaker. He shot an arrow through the leg of the Wren between the ligament and the bone. The Wren is Bran is the alder king is the erl king is Dionysos."

I find it hard to ignore these allusions both in Lolita and Pale Fire.

14/10/08 23:43  
Blogger nnyhav said...

I will at some point pull The White Goddess off the Bookshelf of Good Intentions, but in a less timely manner than in my response to your comment (sorry!)--the recent release of VN's Verses & Versions has put his Eugene Onegin in front of it once again.

4/12/08 21:50  

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