NABOKV-L post 0020779, Tue, 28 Sep 2010 07:17:21 -0700

Re: Botkin
In response to Matt Roth, it’s worth pointing out that even in the 1950s, an
astronomer who seriously advocated a return to geocentrism would be so out of
step with the prevailing views in his field as to seem deluded. The same might
(and might not) have been true for the architect mentioned by Robert M. Martin.
By contrast, Howard Adelmann’s Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology
(5 vols.) was, and still is, a distinguished work of scholarship published by
Cornell University Press in 1966, two years after I joined the staff. If
mutually satisfactory terms could have been reached with Nabokov, the Press
would gladly have published the Pushkin volumes as well. Neither Martin nor I
intended to lump all these “private ventures” together as being equally off the
wall. I thought that was clear from Martin’s sentence about “happy outcomes.”

Incidentally, don’t be misled by the rural setting into thinking the Cornell of
Nabokov’s time was a “backwoods” university in any other sense. After all, VN
taught there, as did the distinguished critic M.H. Abrams. The philosophy
department, in which I studied, boasted Max Black and Norman Malcolm, whose
well-known students include William Gass and Thomas Nagel. In 1949, Wittgenstein
visited Malcolm and, though in poor health, made himself available for
discussions with both faculty and students. The anthropology and Asian-studies
programs were very strong as well . . . And so on.

But the main point I want to make is that although we, as readers of VN’s novel,
can see just how mad Botkin/Kinbote is, this would not necessarily have been so
clear to his colleagues. As someone suggested a few weeks ago (I think it was
Jerry Friedman), the Zembla story may have started out modestly enough--as an
obsession shared, at first, only with Shade. The delusion may then have grown
progressively worse and may not have bloomed into final form till Botkin started
writing the Commentary.

Turning from the Commentary as a whole to Botkin’s actual behavior on campus and
about town--as either he describes it or we infer it by reading between the
lines--it is certainly no more outrageous or “crazy” than the antics of many
another faculty member that I observed over the years I spent on campuses.
Perhaps Matt is unlucky enough to teach at an especially sedate institution.

By the way, why is it so seldom mentioned that Shade, in his obsession with the
afterlife, is a bit on the batty side himself and that Sybil is something of a

Jim Twiggs

From: Matthew Roth <MRoth@MESSIAH.EDU>
Sent: Mon, September 27, 2010 10:01:27 AM
Subject: Re: [NABOKV-L] Botkin

I've been meaning to reply to this thread, regarding Botkin's
plausibility. Thanks to Jim Twiggs for sending the amusing anecdotes about life
at Cornell in the fifties. While these professors seem idiosyncratic, to be
sure, their enthusiasms are basically disciplinary and don't, to my mind, come
close to the kind of insanity we see in Kinbote. VN's EO commentary would have
fit right in with these pursuits. I myself spend a lot of time shut up in my
office composing wild theories about some Nabokov novel. Does that make me
insane? (Don't answer.)

I went back and looked through the archives to see if I could find an answer to
a question I once posed: what does Botkin teach at Wordsmith? The best answer
seems to be that he teaches Scandinavian languages (since Nattochdag is a
Swedish name, etc.) but this doesn't solve the problem. In the note to line 691,
Kinbote has Sylvia O'Donnell say, "I wish I could figure out why anybody should
be so keen on teaching Zemblan." It is clear, then, that Kinbote believes he
taught Zemblan--and he has given us enough of the language to show that he could
have done so. But of course it is impossible for him to have taught Zemblan,
unless we accept that Zembla is a real place in the novel. (Even if Zembla were
real, would a backwoods college like Wordsmith teach it?) Some may argue that
since Kinbote has concocted this scene well after end of the semester, he has
simply replaced his memory of teaching Scandinavian languages with a false
memory of teaching Zemblan. But once we accept this as a solution, Kinbote's New
Wye narrative becomes a house of cards--we have no way of knowing what really
happened and what has been replaced ex post facto--or all is allowed, and we can
pick and choose to suit our interpretive needs.

Another Botkin problem: if Kinbote is an alternative personality of V. Botkin,
why is he so clearly a mirror opposite (and sometimes analog) of John Shade? The
Shade/Kinbote dichotomy includes the following oppostitions and analogs, though
I may be missing some things:

live across the lane from one another
all of the echoes that go back and forth between poem and commentary (see PFMAD,
chapter 8).
born on the same day, wives resemble each other, came to New Wye at same time as
John Shade's attack, both seem to be experts on Pope, etc...

It would make sense were Kinbote the opposite or analog of Botkin, but all of
these relationships that should connect Kinbote to Botkin instead connect him to
John Shade. Why? I do not doubt the thetic solution--that Kinbote=Botkin--but I
don't think we can be satisfied with it, either.

Matt Roth

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