spider, immortality & mulberry moth in Lolita

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 11/28/2020 - 07:03

In his diary Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Lolita, 1955) compares himself to a spider that sits in the middle of a luminous web and gives little jerks to this or that strand:


Monday. Rainy morning. “Ces matins gris si doux… ” My white pajamas have a lilac design on the back. I am like one of those inflated pale spiders you see in old gardens. Sitting in the middle of a luminous web and giving little jerks to this or that strand. My web is spread all over the house as I listen from my chair where I sit like a wily wizard. Is Lo in her room? Gently I tug on the silk. She is not. Just heard the toilet paper cylinder make its staccato sound as it is turned; and no footfalls has my outflung filament traced from the bathroom back to her room. Is she still brushing her teeth (the only sanitary act Lo performs with real zest)? No. The bathroom door has just slammed, so one has to feel elsewhere about the house for the beautiful warm-colored prey. Let us have a strand of silk descend the stairs. I satisfy myself by this means that she is not in the kitchen - not banging the refrigerator door or screeching at her detested mamma (who, I suppose, is enjoying her third, cooing and subduedly mirthful, telephone conversation of the morning). Well, let us grope and hope. Ray-like, I glide in through to the parlor and find the radio silent (and mamma still talking to Mrs. Chatfield or Mrs. Hamilton, very softly, flushed, smiling, cupping the telephone with her free hand, denying by implication that she denies those amusing rumors, rumor, roomer, whispering intimately, as she never does, the clear-cut lady, in face to face talk). So my nymphet is not in the house at all! Gone! What I thought was a prismatic weave turns out to be but an old gray cobweb, the house is empty, is dead. And then comes Lolita’s soft sweet chuckle through my half-open door “Don’t tell Mother but I’ve eaten all your bacon.” Gone when I scuttle out of my room. Lolita, where are you? My breakfast tray, lovingly prepared by my landlady, leers at me toothlessly, ready to be taken in. Lola, Lolita! (1.11)


In the opening line of his Letter to Maria Gisborne (1820) P. B. Shelley mentions the spider spreading her webs:


The spider spreads her webs, whether she be

In poet's tower, cellar, or barn, or tree;

The silk-worm in the dark green mulberry leaves

His winding sheet and cradle ever weaves;

So I, a thing whom moralists call worm,

Sit spinning still round this decaying form,

From the fine threads of rare and subtle thought –

No net of words in garish colours wrought

To catch the idle buzzers of the day –

But a soft cell, where when that fades away,

Memory may clothe in wings my living name

And feed it with the asphodels of fame,

Which in those hearts which must remember me

Grown, making love an immortality.


In the last sentence of Lolita HH mentions the only immortality that he and Lolita may share:


When I started, fifty-six days ago, to write Lolita, first in the psychopathic ward for observation, and then in this well-heated, albeit tombal, seclusion, I thought I would use these notes in toto at my trial, to save not my head, of course, but my soul. In mind-composition, however, I realized that I could not parade living Lolita. I still may use parts of this memoir in hermetic sessions, but publication is to be deferred.

For reasons that may appear more obvious than they really are, I am opposed to capital punishment; this attitude will be, I trust, shared by the sentencing judge. Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges. But even so, Dolly Schiller will probably survive me by many years. The following decision I make with all the legal impact and support of a signed testament: I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer alive.

Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H. H., and one wanted H. H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. (2.36)


“The silk-worm in the dark green mulberry leaves” in the third line of Shelley’s epistle to Maria Gisborne brings to mind a God-damn mulberry moth to which Rita (HH’s girlfriend) compares herself:


She was twice Lolita’s age and three quarters of mine: a very slight, dark-haired, pale-skinned adult, weighing a hundred and five pounds, with charmingly asymmetrical eyes, and angular, rapidly sketched profile, and a most appealing ensellure  to her supple back - I think she had some Spanish or Babylonian blood. I picked her up one depraved May evening somewhere between Montreal and New York, or more narrowly, between Toylestown and Blake, at a darkishly burning bar under the sign of the Tigermoth, where she was amiably drunk: she insisted we had gone to school together, and she placed her trembling little hand on my ape paw. My senses were very slightly stirred but I decided to give her a try; I did - and adopted her as a constant companion. She was so kind, was Rita, such a good sport, that I daresay she would have given herself to any pathetic creature or fallacy, an old broken tree or a bereaved porcupine, out of sheer chumminess and compassion.

When I first met her she had but recently divorced her third husband - and a little more recently had been abandoned by her seventh cavalier servant the others, the mutables, were too numerous and mobile to tabulate. Her brother was - and no doubt still is - a prominent, pasty-faced, suspenders-and-painted-tie-wearing politician, mayor and boaster of his ball-playing, Bible-reading, grain-handling home town. For the last eight years he had been paying his great little sister several hundred dollars per month under the stringent condition that she would never never enter great little Grainball City. She told me, with wails of wonder, that for some God-damn reason every new boy friend of hers would first of all take her Grainball-ward: it was a fatal attraction; and before she knew what was what, she would find herself sucked into the lunar orbit of the town, and would be following the flood-lit drive that encircled it “going round and round,” as she phrased it, “like a God-damn mulberry moth.” (2.26)


In his poem “To ----” P. B. Shelley mentions “the desire of the moth for the star:”


One word is too often profaned

For me to profane it,

One feeling too falsely disdained

For thee to disdain it;

One hope is too like despair

For prudence to smother,

And pity from thee more dear

Than that from another.


I can give not what men call love,

But wilt thou accept not

The worship the heart lifts above

And the Heavens reject not,—

The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morrow,

The devotion to something afar

From the sphere of our sorrow?


According to John Ray, Jr. (the author of the Foreword to HH’s manuscript), Mrs. Richard F. Schiller (Lolita’s married name) died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest. In the Russian version (1967) of Lolita "prophetic sonnets" (mentioned by HH at the end of Lolita) become predskazanie v sonete (prediction in a sonnet):


Говорю я о турах и ангелах, о тайне прочных пигментов, о предсказании в сонете, о спасении в искусстве.


It seems that HH is thinking of a specific poem, namely, of Shakespeare's “Sonnet 14:”


Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck,
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality;

Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well
By oft predict that I in heaven find:

But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive
If from thy self to store thou wouldst convert:

Or else of thee this I prognosticate,
Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.


In his poem "The Nature of Electricity" (quoted by Kinbote in his Commentary) John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) pairs Shakespeare with Shelley whose incandescent soul lures the pale moths of starless nights:


The light never came back but it gleams again in a short poem "The Nature of Electricity," which John Shade had sent to the New York magazine The Beau and the Butterfly, some time in 1958, but which appeared only after his death:


The dead, the gentle dead--who knows?--
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man's departed bride.

And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley's incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.

Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.

And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell.


Science tells us, by the way, that the Earth would not merely fall apart, but vanish like a ghost, if Electricity were suddenly removed from the world. (note to Line 347)


In Canto Three of his poem Shade calls 1958 “a year of Tempests” and mentions Hurricane Lolita that swept from Florida to Maine:


It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane
Lolita swept from Florida to Maine.
Mars glowed. Shahs married. Gloomy Russians spied.
Lang made your portrait. And one night I died. (ll. 679-82)


In Canto Two Shade speaks of his dead daughter and says that she twisted words:


                         She twisted words: pot, top

Spider, redips. And "powder" was "red wop."

She called you a didactic katydid.

She hardly ever smiled, and when she did,

It was a sign of pain. She'd criticize

Ferociously our projects, and with eyes

Expressionless sit on her tumbled bed

Spreading her swollen feet, scratching her head

With psoriatic fingernails, and moan,

Murmuring dreadful words in monotone. (ll. 347-356)


According to Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), it was he who observed one day that “spider” in reverse is “redips” and “T.S. Eliot,” “toilest:”


One of the examples her father gives is odd. I am quite sure it was I who one day, when we were discussing "mirror words," observed (and I recall the poet's expression of stupefaction) that "spider" in reverse is "redips," and "T.S. Eliot," "toilest." But then it is also true that Hazel Shade resembled me in certain respects. (note to Lines 347-348)


In Gerontion (1920) T. S. Eliot mentions a wilderness of mirrors and the spider:


These with a thousand small deliberations

Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,

Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,

With pungent sauces, multiply variety

In a wilderness of mirrors.  What will the spider do

Suspend its operations, will the weevil

Delay? De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled

Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear

In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits

Of Belle Isle, or running on the Horn,

White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,

And an old man driven by the Trades

To a sleepy corner.


Humbert picks up Rita “one depraved May evening, between Toylestown and Blake.” In Gerontion T. S. Eliot ("toilest" in reverse) mentions "depraved May:"


Signs are taken for wonders. ‘We would see a sign!’

The word within a word, unable to speak a word,

Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year

Came Christ the tiger


In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,

To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk

Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero

With caressing hands, at Limoges

Who walked all night in the next room;


By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;

By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room

Shifting the candles; Fräulein von Kulp

Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door.


As a young man in Paris, Humbert composed parodies of Eliot:


The days of my youth, as I look back on them, seem to fly away from me in a flurry of pale repetitive scraps like those morning snow storms of used tissue paper that a train passenger sees whirling in the wake of the observation car. In my sanitary relations with women I was practical, ironical and brisk. While a college student, in London and Paris, paid ladies sufficed me. My studies were meticulous and intense, although not particularly fruitful. At first, I planned to take a degree in psychiatry and many manqué talents do; but I was even more manqué than that; a peculiar exhaustion, I am so oppressed, doctor, set in; and I switched to English literature, where so many frustrated poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds. Paris suited me. I discussed Soviet movies with expatriates. I sat with uranists in the Deux Magots. I published tortuous essays in obscure journals. I composed pastiches:


…Fräulen von Kulp
may turn, her hand upon the door;
I will not follow her. Nor Fresca. Nor
that Gull.


A paper of mine entitled “The Proustian theme in a letter from Keats to Benjamin Bailey” was chuckled over by the six or seven scholars who read it. I launched upon an “Histoire abrégée de la poésie anglaise ” for a prominent publishing firm, and then started to compile that manual of French literature for English-speaking students (with comparisons drawn from English writers) which was to occupy me throughout the forties - and the last volume of which was almost ready for press by the time of my arrest. (1.5)


According to Shade, his daughter "twisted words." In the Russian Lolita headmistress Pratt complains that Lolita reads backward the names of some her teachers:


Имеет какие-то свои тайные шуточки, читает обратно, например, фамилии некоторых учительниц. Волосы тёмнорусые и светлорусые вперемежку, с блеском - ну, я думаю (Праттша заржала), - это вы сами знаете. Нос незаложен, ступни с высоким подъемом, глаза - погодите, у меня тут был более недавний отчет. Да! Вот он. Мисс Гольд говорит, что отметки за теннисный стиль Долли поднялись от "отлично" до "великолепно" - они даже лучше, чем у нашей чемпионки Линды Голль, но у Долли плохая концентрация, что отражается на счёте. Мисс Корморант не может решить, имеет ли Долли исключительную власть над своими эмоциями или же сама всецело находится под их властью. Мисс Зелва докладывает, что ей,  т. е. Долли, не удается словесно оформить свои переживания,а Мисс Дутен считает, что Доллины органические функции выше всех похвал. (2.11)


If read backward, the names of Miss Zelva and Miss Duten (Lolita's teachers mentioned by Pratt) make up the phrase ne tuda vlez (got in a wrong place). Humbert Humbert made a mistake by enrolling Lolita in Beardsley school.


In the original, Lolita transposes the first letters of some of her teachers names:


Well, what else have we got here? Handles books gracefully. Voice pleasant. Giggles rather often. A little dreamy. Has private jokes of her own, transposing for instance the first letters of some of her teachers names. (2.11)


Transposed consonants in Grainball (Rita's brother is the mayor of Grainball) give brain and Gall (German neuroanatomist, physiologist, and pioneer in the study of the localization of mental functions in the brain, 1758-1828). According to Sherlock Holmes (the main character in various stories by Conan Doyle), Professor Moriarty has a brain of the first order:


"He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans."


The son of Shirley Holmes (the headmistress of Camp Q.), Charlie Holmes is Lolita's first lover.

This combined with the other post, "Grainball & Jack Humbertson" is interesting to read through (though often labyrinthine). I hope I'm forgiven for a brief impersonation here:

Shelley's lines "So I, a thing whom moralists call worm, /Sit spinning still round this decaying form" brings to mind Nabokov quoting Andrei Bely in his lecture on Dead Souls:

"At important moments when he [Chichikov] launches upon one of those sententious speeches (with a slight break in his juicy voice—the tremolo of "dear brethren"), that are meant to drown his real intentions in a treacle of pathos, he applies to himself the words "despicable worm" and, curiously enough, a real worm is gnawing at his vitals and becomes suddenly visible if we squint a little when peering at his rotundity. I am reminded of a certain poster in old Europe that advertised automobile tires and featured something like a human being entirely made of concentric rings of rubber; and likewise, rotund Chichikov may be said to be formed of the tight folds of a huge flesh-colored worm."

A human being entirely made of concentric rings of rubber brings to mind "this tangle of thorns" (as Humbert calls himself). In the Russian Lolita VN renders "tangle of thorns as klubok terniy, which makes one think of cherez ternii k zvyozdam, the Russian version of the saying per aspera ad astra (through hardships to the stars). Lolita dies in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest North West.