NABOKV-L post 0027539, Thu, 28 Sep 2017 16:14:09 -0700

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WIP: Sybil = Anima = Main Conflict
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WIP: Art, Alchemy and Failed Transcendence, Jungian Influences it Nabokov's Pale Fire


"…the encounter with the shadow is the 'apprentice-piece' in the individual's development...that with the anima is the 'masterpiece'" ( Jung, CW, Vol.9, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, P.29)

“Woman always stands just where the man's shadow falls….” (Jung, "Women In Europe" CW Vol. 10: Civilization in Transition)

We have seen already that Sybil bears some striking resemblances to both Queen Disa and Nabokov’s wife, Vera. All three are associated with birds and butterflies – symbols of the soul, or “anima”, which Jung claimed was the contrasexual aspect of a man’s psyche, his inner personal feminine archetype. Sybil and Disa are both associated with the “Vanessa atalanta” butterfly of the species “nymphalidae”. The two names refer to two literary and mythological virgin nymphs, Swift’s “Vanessa” and Greek mythology’s “Atalanta”. Sybil is long-married, but the appellation still fits, as she and Disa could be (and I maintain are) the same person, virgin and matron.

The Vanessa atalanta is a versipel, a shape-shifter – a somewhat unnerving connotation. It is also called the “butterfly of doom”. The butterfly appears at the end, heralding Shade’s death, but what do these associations mean regarding Sybil?

There are two other characters associated with the Vanessa atalanta: Gradus and Kinbote. Gradus is described (C949) wearing a tie, “…color chocolate brown, barred with red…”, the colors of the Vanessa. Why would Gradus be associated with the butterfly/soul/muse Sybil? I refer to the above quote from Jung, “Woman always stands where the man’s shadow falls.”

There is a curious entry in the index under “Kinbote, Charles: his limited knowledge of Lepidoptera and the sable gloom of his nature marked like a dark Vanessa with gay flashes, 270”. His limited lepidoptery is probably claiming that the Vanessa appears in the company of a day-flying moth; that would likely be the Sphinx moth. (Jung described the negative anima as being “sphinx-like”). In this passage Kinbote describes the “Red Admirable” as a “most frolicsome fly”, but then adds, “I too am a desponder in my nature, an uneasy, peevish and suspicious man, although I have my moments of volatility and fou rire.” Why is he likewise associated with Sybil’s butterfly? I assume the designation “gay” was in use in 1959. Jung maintained that homosexuality was an over-identification with the anima and he describes the effect of the anima in a man as emotional, peevish, etc.

Sybil, like her anonyms, Vanessa and Atalanta, is a woman with a strong “animus” (intellectual, outspoken, sharp, opinionated). In a rather vivid description, Jung once said:

“the animus is a very greedy fellow, and 
everything that falls into the unconscious is possessed by it. He is there with open mouth 
and catches everything that falls down from the table of consciousness….if you let some 
feeling or reaction get away from you he eats it, becomes strong, and begins to argue
.” (Jung, “The Visions Seminars Vol 2” (Zurich: Spring Publications) pp497-98)

The sparks really fly when the man’s anima confronts the woman’s animus:

“In both its positive and its negative aspects the anima/animus relationship is always full of ‘animosity’, i.e. it is emotional and hence collective.” (Jung, Aion, P. 300)

“When animus and anima meet, the animus draws his sword of power and the anima ejects her poison of illusion and seduction.” (ibid)

Small wonder there is such conflict between Sybil and Kinbote! They are the mirror image antagonists in the novel. John Shade’s projected romantic alluring anima is the melancholy Disa. Vera Nabokov was hospitalized for depression in their early marriage, and I imagine that the young Vera would be the template for Disa (as described in a previous post).

Kinbote calls Sybil a “spider”, playing on Hazel’s word-play reversal “spider-redips”. “Redips” cannot really be said to be a “dictionary” word. Its oddness of choice would indicate that it is important to see Sybil in a reversed position. Is she perhaps opposite of what we are led to think?

A spider is a negative anima symbol, luring a man in only to be destroyed. The spider’s web also connotes intrigue. According to Jung the spider is also a symbol for the center of the self:

“…the centre – itself virtually unknowable – acts like a magnet on the disparate materials and processes of the unconscious and gradually captures them as in a crystal lattice. For this reason the centre is…often pictured as a spider in its web, especially when the conscious attitude is still dominated by fear of the unconscious processes.” (P&A 217)

Is Sybil in the center of Pale Fire’s intricate web? She is a “black widow”, perhaps?


It is presumed that there is a chess game going on in Pale Fire, I believe still unsolved. It would seem that the players are red and black. Kinbote signs with a black chess crown, but he is disguised in red as are his loyalists. He drives a big red car. I would put him on the red side. “Shade” would seem to suggest the black side, but Sybil is associated with the color “red”. She is the “red admirable”. She wears a “ruby” ring. Her maid is named “Ruby”. “Your ruby ring made life and laid the law” it says in line 471 of the poem. Sybil is chopping off televised heads like the red queen in “Through the Looking Glass”, the original novel-as-chess-game. Are John Shade (black) and Sybil (red) possibly on opposite sides of the game? If Kinbote is red, are he and Sybil strangely allied? What about her “buchman” stack of books in the form of a herm, just like the “steinmen” herms of the Zemblan loyalists? “Herm” is for “Hermes”, otherwise known as “Mercurius”, so there is a connection here to both Kinbote and Gradus.


Sybil seems to be a bit precognizant, like the ancient Greek “sibyls”. All the television shows she clicks through announce the fatidic events of the novel. The “open mouth in mid-song struck out” would intimate John Shade’s end and unfinished poem. The “imbecile with sideburns was about To use his gun” would be Gradus. The “jovial Negro” with his trumpet would be the biblical, resurrecting gardener. The pinhead of (TV) light into black infinity is the simultaneous annihilation of Hazel.

Her sibylene qualities are evident in her French translations of Donne and Marvell (C678); these prescient poems happen to be about death and betrayal. The commentary just before Kinbote’s harsh but petty critique of her translations (C671-72), apropos of nothing, urges the reader to “See Browning’s My Last Duchess”, also a poem about death and betrayal.

Sybil may also be linked to the Greek goddess Cybele. In the myth of “Atalanta Fugiens”, the lovers, Atalanta and Hippomenes defile Cybele’s temple consummating their love. Angry, she turns them into red lions. This myth is at the center of alchemy, and the “red lions” denotes the phase of the “rubedo”, the “Red”.

“The rubedo then follows direct from the albedo as the result of raising the heat of the fire to the highest iintensity. The red and the white are King and Queen, who may also celebrate their ‘chymical wedding’ at this stage.” (Jung, Psychology & Alchemy, P.232)

(Speak Memory has many planted to clues in Pale Fire. One of them is his description of Nabokov’s (supposed) family crest, which has two red lions.)

Cybele (Kybele) may also be referencing the occult work, the “Kybalion” based on the "Emerald Tablet" of Hermes Trismegistus.* Could Sybil be connected to an occult society? The “brocken of wives” in her book club and her club mate, Mrs. Starr, might suggest that. Hermes Trismegistus is known as the father of alchemy and the Kybalion follows in his footsteps.

“Woman always stands just where the man's shadow falls….”





*(I do not speak Greek, and I can’t find a confirmation of this on the internet translation dictionaries, but it would certainly fit, as it was written anonymously in 1908 by members of an anonymous mystical order, published by the Yogi Publication Society. Pale Fire has many allusions to mystical societies of that era. The introduction states, “In the early days, there was a compilation of certain Basic Hermetic Doctrines, passed on from teacher to student, which was known as "THE KYBALION," the exact significance and meaning of the terms having been lost for several centuries.”

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