Re: Brown Study

Submitted by MARYROSS on Thu, 10/24/2019 - 13:08

Re: Brown Study


This is a continuation of an idea I proposed in a comment on in Alain Champlain’s post, “Tea With Ancestors.”  Since it is rather long, I don’t wish to hijack Alain’s insightful take on Shade’s poem lines 365-366 (Submitted by Alain Champlain on Sun, 10/20/2019 - 16:22) 


[...] and you would be
In your own study, twice removed from me,”


And my alternate (not at all exclusive) interpretation:


The word "you" is in "your." And, if "you" would be "b", then line 366 would read "In brown study, twice removed from me."  "Brown study" means in deeply absorbed thought, as in shutting out the rest of the world. Therefore "twice removed" not only physically, but mentally. I believe this kind of word-play, where the solution is contained within the sentence is called a Cryptic Crossword (?) 



“Brown study” made me think of the lines 964-66 of Shade’s poem:


  […]  The brain is drained

And a brown ament, and the noun I meant

To use but did not, dry on the cement


The definition of “ament” is “catkin,” but it is also a person who is out of their mind:


1890–95; < Latin āment- (stem of āmēns out of one's mind, mad), equivalent to ā- a-4 + ment-; see mental1



Just as a person is out of one’s usual mind in a trance-like “brown study”, an “ament” is a person out of their mind. This sets up the dichotomy of interpretation for John Shade’s swoons – is he crazy or in a rapt mystical state?


I searched the Nabokov Listserve and found that Jansy Mello mentioned this in 2006:


I'm certain that Nabokov must have had, at least at the back of his mind, the word "ament" as related to the existing pathology: "a-mentia" ( the particle "a" indicates "absence" and "ment" refers to "mind" ). The sentence speaks of "drained brain and brown ament".

Still, "ament", as it is used in this verse, literally means "catkin" ( bisexual "Botkins" lurking somewhere, too?) but they also slide towards the netherlands ( not Holland, certainly) as ' "Amentet" ( or "Ament"), patron of the gates of the underworld, a woman dressed in the robes of a queen": Here Ament is the consort of Aken and she greets the souls of the newly dead, offering them bread and water. Just like our poet, newly dead some thirty lines later...

So much for Shade's "fantastically planned/ Richly rhymed life"!

Wikipedia informs: Catkins, or aments, are slim, cylindrical flower clusters, wind-pollintated and without petals, that can be found in many plant families.They contain unisexual flowers. Often one plant has only male catkins, while another has female, but it is also possible for a plant to contain both male and female catkins. Oak, birch, willow, alder and poplar are catkin-bearing.



Here is more from Wikipedia that I think is of interest:


In many of these plants, only the male flowers form catkins, and the female flowers are single (hazeloak), a cone (alder) or other types (mulberry).


>So, the hazel tree has long strings of male catkins, but the female flowers are single. This description seems reflected in Kinbote’s promiscuous male sexuality and Hazel’s de facto celibacy. In Zembla “Catkin Week” is celebrated; is that to honor the male genitalia?


>Kinbote says that he resembles Hazel in some ways. The way he resembles her is as a mirror reflection, a primary motif of PF.


>The hermaphrodite is an image used in alchemy to denote the combination of the male and female elements. Alchemy allusions are found throughout PF


>The trees mentioned in Wikipedia are all mentioned in the description of New Wye’s Shakespeare avenue. These particular trees all have associations with death and the occult, another major motif.


>Insanity vs. mysticism if perhaps the main theme of PF.


It is amazing where investigations of VN’s work can go! This would seem to substantiate the “brown study” cryptic puzzle. Shade’s brain is drained; he can’t even remember what noun he was searching while in this absent state. The brown catkin otherwise stands out as rather an irrelevant phrase, except as a clever pun on “brown/noun ament/cement.”

Well, your mentioning of Catkin Week (I was completely oblivious to it till now), made me browse Pale Fire and I see the sentence come up as: "He [Gradus] started as a maker of Cartesian devils—imps of bottle glass bobbing up and down in methylate-filled tubes hawked during Catkin Week on the boulevards."

'Imps of Bottle Glass' is a striking phrase, at first I thought it referred to something of Poe's, MS found in a Bottle or Imp. of Perverse, but I see now it refers to a story of Stevenson's "The Bottle Imp". I will be reading that soon enough, as Nabokov was very familiar with Stevenson, even writing once "His style is more florid than mine." Kinbote's completely random inventions on the fly continue to amaze me. Just an addendum, Matthew Roth annotates the lines quoted as:

965: ament: A catkin.

968-69: consonne D’appui: In French poetry, it is common for not just the vowel to rhyme, but also for the preceding (or supporting) consonant to match, as in Shade’s “meant/cement” rhyme.

As a preliminary thought, I would adduce the juxtaposition of "catkin and cement" as being cut from the same cloth as "link-and-bobolink". Somehow, catkins I feel follow, Shade's previous lines:

Old Zembla’s fields where my gray stubble grows,
And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose

Unless, someone can provide some more instances of use of catkins (in the botanical sense) from the rich heritage of English Poetry. Is there something from Keats? I don't why I'm nudged towards him. Maybe because of the autumnal colour of catkins?


The allusions, or as I like the way you put it, "random inventions on the fly" just pile up! Curious about what you will find in The Bottle Imp. Fey creatures are another pervasive motif in PF. One thing seems clear: nothing in this book is "random" and there is seldom one interpretation.


I'm not sure if you or Mathew Roth mention "Old Zembla's fields." I don't quite see the connection to "catkin."



No the last lines regarding the preliminary thoughts are mine; Matthew Roth's annotations have now been put in a Quotation box. I meant the follow through from "gray stubbles/and slaves make hay..". I was thinking of a different thing, its a distorted echo from Keats's letters "about somehow the way stubble plains look warm - better than the chilly green of Spring" - a different context.


I imagine (as I'm sure you already know) these specific catkins are found near cement. Perhaps they're from the deciduous trees mentioned in the Foreword:

“Henceforth I began seeing more and more of my celebrated neighbor. The view from one of my windows kept providing me with first-rate entertainment, especially when I was on the wait for some tardy guest. From the second story of my house the Shades’ living-room window remained clearly visible so long as the branches of the deciduous trees between us were still bare, and almost every evening I could see the poet’s slippered foot gently rocking. One inferred from it that he was sitting with a book in a low chair but one never managed to glimpse more than that foot and its shadow moving up and down to the secret rhythm of mental absorption, in the concentrated lamplight. Always at the same time the brown morocco slipper would drop from the wool-socked foot which continued to oscillate, with, however, a slight slackening of pace. One knew that bedtime was closing in with all its terrors; that in a few minutes the toe would prod and worry the slipper, and then disappear with it from my golden field of vision traversed by the black bend-let of a branch.”

I wonder whether it's worth comparing the brown morocco slipper with the brown ament: they both fall in a similar indication of Shade's spent mental energy, and the time for sleep, and are perhaps both associated with these deciduous trees.

Note: the same single brown shoe is mentioned in the middle of Canto Four:

“And where Shade stood in nightshirt and one shoe.
880  And then I realized that this half too
Was fast asleep; both laughed and I awoke
Safe in my bed as day its eggshell broke,
And robins walked and stopped, and on the damp
Gemmed turf a brown shoe lay!"
(Lines 878-884)

Structurally, the "brown ament, and the noun I meant to use but did not" are the bookend to this line from the beginning of his "last" creative day:

“Too weary to delete, I drop my pen;
I ambulate—and by some mute command
The right word flutes and perches on my hand.”
(Lines 870-872)


As for the "slaves make hay," I've always wondered whether it was meant as a parody of Robert Frost's Mowing, the last half of which reads:

"Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make."

I've heard an interpretation that goes something like: "the rows are the lines of his poem, and the reader participates in the act of poetry by collecting the lines and making hay." It might seem almost democratic in this interpretation, but in Nabokov, there's no such thing (think Note to Line 962: “I am not slave! Let be my critic slave." And his comment on Forster: "My characters are galley slaves.")

Ironically, Shade's poem is left "unfinished" in the hands of Kinbote, who does end up participating in the hay-making, rather freely. And remember the line following "slaves make hay" is:

“Man’s life as commentary to abstruse
Unfinished poem.”

"And where Shade stood in nightshirt and one shoe.
And then I realized that this half too
Was fast asleep; both laughed and I awoke
Safe in my bed as day its eggshell broke,
And robins walked and stopped, and on the damp
Gemmed turf a brown shoe lay!"

The lines which follow this "...the mystery inborn, mirages, miracles, midsummer morn" is even more interesting for the artistic integrity of the poem nicely rounding off Aunt Maud's verse book "open at Index: Moon, Moonrise, Moor, Moral" from Canto One. I think someone (Tony Fazio?) had annotated this.

Thanks for bringing up Frost's Mowing but I feel the lines from Frost are more of a play on the saying "make hay while the sun shines". Don't want to disregard the interpretation: "the rows are the lines...." or anything, but that's what I think.

Right, Alain. This particular ament is near the cement of Shade's yard - near perhaps to the shagbark tree? The shagbark (hickory) produces catkins and this tree is associated with Hazel (a tree which also produces catkins). 


Shakeeb was trying to think where catkin might occur in other poems, so that is why I suggested in a wood. Perhaps a hazelwood? It is not, however, in Glenarty's hazel shade (I checked).


 Might "brown" be code for "trance"?  The footprint of the brown shoe is the "mystery inborn"- Shade's "secret stamp," his inner self which he contacts within trance states. Same with brown slipper, which indicates he is nodding off (and probably is the same "brown shoe", as you might expect it to have been by his bedside).  


There are 29 instances of "brown" in PF, many associated with Gradus (9 times). Gradus is often described as wearing brown. Perhaps because his imaginary existence? a bit of a stretch, but intriguing. If you count his weapon, the browning (3), which will usher Shade into his ultimate other-worldly state, and his color-coordination with the Vanessa, who also indicates transcendent states, that is quite a lot of brown suggesting trance.