Amphitheatricus & Uranograd in Pale Fire; mental uranium & amphitheatric view in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 02/14/2020 - 09:18

In VN's novel Pale Fire (1962) Kinbote (Shade's mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions Amphitheatricus, a writer of fugitive poetry who dubbed Onhava (the capital of Zembla) "Uranograd:"


Alfin the Vague (1873-1918; regnal dates 1900-1918, but 1900-1919 in most biographical dictionaries, a fumble due to the coincident calendar change from Old Style to New) was given his cognomen by Amphitheatricus, a not unkindly writer of fugitive poetry in the liberal gazettes (who was also responsible for dubbing my capital Uranograd!). (note to Line 71)


A play on Uran the Last (Emperor of Zembla, reigned 1798-1799) and Petrograd (St. Petersburg's name in 1914-24), Uranograd brings to mind mental uranium and its dream-delta decay mentioned by Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) in his essay "The Texture of Time" (1922): 


Is there any mental uranium whose dream-delta decay might be used to measure the age of a recollection? The main difficulty, I hasten to explain, consists in the experimenter not being able to use the same object at different times (say, the Dutch stove with its little blue sailing boats in the nursery of Ardis Manor in 1884 and 1888) because of the two or more impressions borrowing from one another and forming a compound image in the mind; but if different objects are to be chosen (say, the faces of two memorable coachmen: Ben Wright, 1884, and Trofim Fartukov, 1888), it is impossible, insofar as my own research goes, to avoid the intrusion not only of different characteristics but of different emotional circumstances, that do not allow the two objects to be considered essentially equal before, so to speak, their being exposed to the action of Time. I am not sure, that such objects cannot be discovered. In my professional work, in the laboratories of psychology, I have devised myself many a subtle test (one of which, the method of determining female virginity without physical examination, today bears my name). Therefore we can assume that the experiment can be performed — and how tantalizing, then, the discovery of certain exact levels of decreasing saturation or deepening brilliance — so exact that the ‘something’ which I vaguely perceive in the image of a remembered but unidentifiable person, and which assigns it ‘somehow’ to my early boyhood rather than to my adolescence, can be labeled if not with a name, at least with a definite date, e.g., January 1, 1908 (eureka, the ‘e.g.’ worked — he was my father’s former house tutor, who brought me Alice in the Camera Obscura for my eighth birthday). (Part Four)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): dream-delta: allusion to the disintegration of an imaginary element.


The fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, delta reminds one of Dee, the eldest of Judge Goldsworth’s four daughters:


In the Foreword to this work I have had occasion to say something about the amenities of my habitation. The charming, charmingly vague lady (see note to line 691), who secured it for me, sight unseen, meant well, no doubt, especially since it was widely admired in the neighborhood for its "old-world spaciousness and graciousness." Actually, it was an old, dismal, white-and-black, half-timbered house, of the type termed wodnaggen in my country, with carved gables, drafty bow windows and a so-called "semi-noble" porch, surmounted by a hideous veranda. Judge Goldsworth had a wife and four daughters. Family photographs met me in the hallway and pursued me from room to room, and although I am sure that Alphina (9), Betty (10), Candida (12), and Dee (14) will soon change from horribly cute little schoolgirls to smart young ladies and superior mothers, I must confess that their pert pictures irritated me to such an extent that finally I gathered them one by one and dumped them all in a closet under the gallows row of their cellophane-shrouded winter clothes. In the study I found a large picture of their parents, with sexes reversed, Mrs. G. resembling Malenkov, and Mr. G. a Medusa-locked hag, and this I replaced by the reproduction of a beloved early Picasso: earth boy leading raincloud horse. (note to Lines 47-48)


The third letter of the Greek alphabet, gamma (Judge Goldsworth’s and Gradus’s initial) brings to mind prostaya gamma (a simple scale) mentioned by Salieri at the beginning of Pushkin’s little tragedy “Mozart and Salieri” (1830):


Все говорят: нет правды на земле.
Но правды нет — и выше. Для меня
Так это ясно, как простая гамма.


All people say: there is no truth on earth.
Not in the heavens, neither! This to me
Appears as clear as any simple scale.


While Kinbote’s Zembla reminds one of Salieri’s words net pravdy na zemle (there is no truth on earth), the name of its capital, Onhava seems to hint at heaven (according to Kinbote, onhava-onhava means “far, far away”). Uranus (Russ., Uran) is the Latinized version of the Greek god of the sky Ouranos.


In "The Texture of Time" Van says that, had our organs and orgitrons not been asymmetrical, our view of Time might have been amphitheatric and altogether grand:


The direction of Time, the ardis of Time, one-way Time, here is something that looks useful to me one moment, but dwindles the next to the level of an illusion obscurely related to the mysteries of growth and gravitation. The irreversibility of Time (which is not heading anywhere in the first place) is a very parochial affair: had our organs and orgitrons not been asymmetrical, our view of Time might have been amphitheatric and altogether grand, like ragged night and jagged mountains around a small, twinkling, satisfied hamlet. We are told that if a creature loses its teeth and becomes a bird, the best the latter can do when needing teeth again is to evolve a serrated beak, never the real dentition it once possessed. The scene is Eocene and the actors are fossils. It is an amusing instance of the way nature cheats but it reveals as little relation to essential Time, straight or round, as the fact of my writing from left to right does to the course of my thought. (Part Four)


and mentions John Shade, a modern poet:


Space is related to our senses of sight, touch, and muscular effort; Time is vaguely connected with hearing (still, a deaf man would perceive the ‘passage’ of time incomparably better than a blind limbless man would the idea of ‘passage’). ‘Space is a swarming in the eyes, and Time a singing in the ears,’ says John Shade, a modem poet, as quoted by an invented philosopher (‘Martin Gardiner’) in The Ambidextrous Universe, page 165. Space flutters to the ground, but Time remains between thinker and thumb, when Monsieur Bergson uses his scissors. Space introduces its eggs into the nests of Time: a ‘before’ here, an ‘after’ there — and a speckled clutch of Minkowski’s ‘world-points.’ A stretch of Space is organically easier to measure mentally than a ‘stretch’ of Time. The notion of Space must have been formed before that of Time (Guyau in Whitrow). The indistinguishable inane (Locke) of infinite space is mentally distinguishable (and indeed could not be imagined otherwise) from the ovoid ‘void’ of Time. Space thrives on surds, Time is irreducible to blackboard roots and birdies. The same section of Space may seem more extensive to a fly than to S. Alexander, but a moment to him is not ‘hours to a fly,’ because if that were true flies would know better than wait to get swapped. I cannot imagine Space without Time, but I can very well imagine Time without Space. ‘Space-Time’ — that hideous hybrid whose very hyphen looks phoney. One can be a hater of Space, and a lover of Time. (ibid.)


The author of The Ambidextrous Universe (1964), Martin Gardner is a namesake of Martin Edelweiss, the main character in VN’s novel Podvig (“Glory,” 1932). A distant northern land, Kinbote’s Zembla has a lot in common with Martin’s and Sonia’s Zoorland in “Glory.” Zoorlandiya (Zoorland) seems to hint at Shklovsky’s Zoo ili Pis'ma ne o lyubvi ("Zoo, or Letters not about Love," 1923). In his memoir essay Dom iskusstv ("House of Arts," 1925) G. Ivanov describes a banquet in DISK (a house in Petrograd, at the corner of Nevsky Avenue and Moyka Canal, where poets and artists lived in 1919-23) in honor of H. G. Wells and says that Wells called Alexander Amfiteatrov (a journalist and novelist, 1862-1938, who boldly suggested that everyone unbuttons his clothes and demonstrates to the guest his dessous in order to show him "what they have done to us") “Mr. Shklovsky:”


Банкет был позорный. Уэллс с видимым усилием ел роскошный завтрак, плохо слушал ораторов и изредка невпопад им отвечал. Ораторы... некоторые из них выказали большое гражданское мужество - например Амфитеатров, предложивший присутствующим, чтобы показать высокому гостю, что они с нами сделали,- расстегнуться и продемонстрировать ему свой дессу.
Это смелое предложение принято не было. Но Амфитеатров был наказан: Уэллс, обратившись к нему, назвал его мистером Шкловским.


H. G. Wells described his trip to the Soviet Russia (and his meeting in Kremlin with Lenin) in the fall of 1920 in his book Russia in the Shadows (1921). Shade's murderer, Gradus is a member of the Shadows, a regicidal organization which commissioned him to assassinate the self-banished king of Zembla. Jakob Gradus is the son of Martin Gradus, a Protestant minister in Riga (note to Line 17). At the end of "Glory" Martin Edelweiss takes a train to Riga and goes to Zoorland crossing the Latvian border. The characters of "Glory" include Archibald Moon, a Cambridge Professor who, according to Darwin (a friend of Martin), predan uranizmu (is addicted to Urningism).


The term "Urningism" comes from Aphrodite Urania. Uran the Last seems to correspond to Paul I, the tsar who was assassinated on a March night of 1801. In the opening lines of his "Ode to Liberty" (1817), in which he describes the murder of Paul I (ll. 65-88), Pushkin addresses delicate Queen of Cythera (Aphrodite):


Беги, сокройся от очей,
Цитеры слабая царица!


Begone, be hidden from my eyes,
Delicate Queen of Cythera!


One of G. Ivanov's collections of poetry is entitled Otplytie na ostrov Tsiteru ("The Embarkation for Cythera," 1937). In his novel Pnin (1957) VN satirizes G. Ivanov (the author of an offensive article on Sirin in the Paris émigré review “Numbers,” 1930) and his friend G. Adamovich (also known as Sodomovich) as Zhorzhik Uranski, an influential literary critic:


One of her admirers, a banker, and straightforward patron of the arts, selected among the Parisian Russians an influential literary critic, Zhorzhik Uranski, and for a champagne dinner at the Ougolok had the old boy devote his next feuilleton in one of the Russian--language newspapers to an appreciation of Liza's muse on whose chestnut curls Zhorzhik calmly placed Anna Akhmatov's coronet, whereupon Liza burst into happy tears--for all the world like little Miss Michigan or the Oregon Rose Queen. Pnin, who was not in the know, carried about a folded clipping of that shameless rave in his honest pocket-book, naively reading out passages to this or that amused friend until it got quite frayed and smudgy. Nor was he in the know concerning graver matters, and in fact was actually pasting the remnants of the review in an album when, on a December day in 1938, Liza telephoned from Meudon, saying that she was going to Montpellier with a man who understood her 'organic ego', a Dr Eric Wind, and would never see Timofey again. An unknown French woman with red hair called for Liza's things and said, well, you cellar rat, there is no more any poor lass to taper dessus--and a month or two later there dribbled in from Dr Wind a German letter of sympathy and apology assuring lieber Herr Pnin that he, Dr Wind, was eager to marry 'the woman who has come out of your life into mine.' (Chapter Two, 5)


A city in South France, Montpellier is also mentioned in VN's story That in Aleppo Once (1943). The story's title is a reference to Othello's last words in Shakespeare's tragedy. Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Moan, Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) seems to blend Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with Othello’s wife Desdemona. The “real” name of both Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife) and Queen Disa seems to be Sofia Botkin (born Lastochkin). In the opening line of his poem Lastochki (“The Swallows,” 1884) Afanasiy Fet (who was married to Maria Botkin) calls himself prirody prazdnyi soglyadatay (an idle spy on nature). In VN’s story Soglyadatay (“The Eye,” 1930) Roman Bogdanovich calls Smurov (the narrator and main character) “a sexual lefty.” According to Oswin Bretwit (Zemblan former consul in Paris), his majesty Charles the Beloved is left-handed. In G. Ivanov's short novel Raspad atoma ("Disintegration of the Atom," 1938) the action takes place in Paris.


Taper dessus (a phrase used by Liza's French friend) brings to mind dessous (underwear) mentioned by Amfiteatrov at the banquet with H. G. Wells and Captain Tapper, of Wild Violet Lodge (in Ada, 1.42, Van's adversary in a pistol duel that he fights in Kalugano). The name of Tapper's second, Arwin Birdfoot, seems to hint at Darwin. On the other hand, it brings to mind a pheasant's feet mentioned by Shade in Canto One of his poem:


And then the gradual and dual blue
As night unites the viewer and the view,
And in the morning, diamonds of frost
Express amazement: Whose spurred feet have crossed
From left to right the blank page of the road?
Reading from left to right in winter's code:
A dot, an arrow pointing back; repeat:
Dot, arrow pointing back... A pheasant's feet!
Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,
Finding your China right behind my house.
Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose
Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes? (ll. 17-28)


Shade's, Kinbote's and Gradus' "real" name, Botkin is nikto b (none would, a phrase used by Mozart in Pushkin's "Mozart and Salieri") in reverse.



It seems VN never used one allusion when he could polysemously pile them on. I have some additional info on “Amphitheatricus”:

As you know, I’ve posted quite a bit previously about alchemy in PALE FIRE. I believe “Amphitheatricus” is an allusion to “Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae”  by the eminent alchemist, Heinrich Khunrath.


From wikipedia:

Heinrich Khunrath (c. 1560 – 9 September 1605), or Dr. Henricus Khunrath as he was also called, was a German physicianhermetic philosopher, and alchemistFrances Yates considered him to be a link between the philosophy of John Dee and Rosicrucianism.


Khunrath's brushes with John Dee and Thölde and Paracelsian beliefs led him to develop a Christianized natural magic, seeking to find the secret prima materia that would lead man into eternal wisdom.


His most famous work on alchemy is the Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Amphitheater of Eternal Wisdom), a work on the mystical aspects of that art, which contains the oft-seen engraving entitled "The First Stage of the Great Work", better-known as the "Alchemist's Laboratory". The book was first published at Hamburg in 1595, with four circular elaborate, hand-colored, engraved plates heightened with gold and silver which Khunrath designed and were engraved by Paullus van der Doort. The book was then made more widely available in an expanded edition with the addition of other plates published posthumously in Hanau in 1609. Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae is an alchemical classic, combining both Christianity and magic. In it, Khunrath showed himself to be an adept of spiritual alchemy and illustrated the many-staged and intricate path to spiritual perfection.


Also, "fugitive poet" may refer to the contrapuntal fugue style of poetry used by the alchemists of the time. One of those alchemist/poets, Michael Maier, wrote "Atalanta Fugiens," which is also referenced in PF. In alchemy fugitive meant "volitile." Kinbote often refers to himself as a "fugitive."

Mary Ross

VN knew Amfiteatrov (or his son) personally. As to the philosophers' stone, it is already in my pocket.