Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027464, Thu, 17 Aug 2017 09:16:16 -0700

Pale Fire and the Tri-partite Man
Tri-partite Man:

In my thesis, “Art, Alchemy and Failed Transcendence: Jungian Influences in Nabokov’s Pale Fire”, I assert that the three main characters, Shade, Kinbote and Gradus, represent the three parts of a man: the lower conscious, the ego conscious and the higher conscious. Although similar to Freud’s Id/Ego/Superego, Jung’s interpretation has more breadth and depth.

Jung claimed that the unconscious held both the higher and lower aspects of the Self. He also considered the anima (the soul) to be in the unconscious. To correlate with alchemy I prefer maintaining a tri-part definition, as Jung himself stated, it is essentially that:

“If we are to do justice to the essence of the thing we call spirit, we should really speak of a ‘higher’ consciousness rather than of the unconscious, because the concept of spirit is such that we are bound to connect it with the idea of superiority over the ego-consciousness.” (Jung, Vol.8, P.335)

The notion of the tri-part person did not originate with Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego. The tri-part man has been described with slightly different terminology through the ages. Some terminology has been confused or conflated, such as spirit/soul, spirit/mind, mind/ego, soul/ego, soul/unconscious, body/unconscious, etc., but basically they fall into these categories:

Lower: Body, unconscious instinct, negative, repressed, dark, belly, sensation, Id
Ego: Soul, conscious, defended, narcissistic, heart, feeling, Ego
Higher: Spirit, super-conscious, mind, moral, light head, thinking, super-ego

A person who has let go of their ego defenses by facing and incorporating the unconscious, according to Jung’s theory of Individuation, is then said to be the whole "Self".

Jung delved into alchemy and found correlations within the texts. Ancient Greek alchemy attributes the “Emerald Tablet”, an essential alchemical text of 14 aphorisms, to the legendary/mythic Hermes Trismegistus. Number 13 states:

“I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.”

What are the three parts? There were usually three main ingredients put in glass retorts: Sulphur, Mercury, and Salt. These were considered the Sun, the Moon and the Earth, or spirit, soul, body.

The 16th century alchemist, Michael Maier, author of the alchemical text “Atalanta Fugiens” (a text that will prove crucial to Pale Fire) gives further information on the tri-part man. One of the important emblemata in the book (No. XXI) explains the esoteric meaning of the riddle of the Sphinx (The Sphinx is alluded to in PF). The usual answer to “what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three in the evening” is “Man”. Meier writes the following remark about the Sphinx's riddle, in which he states that the esoteric solution is shown in occult geometry:

“But they who interpret concerning the Ages of Man are deceived. For a Quadrangle of Four Elements are of all things first to be considered, from thence we come to the Hemisphere having two lines, a Right and a Curve, that is, to the White Luna;
from thence to the Triangle which consists of Body, Soul and Spirit, or Sol, Luna and Mercury.”

This solution is more complex than I can explain here. Whether this is comprehensible or not to laymen, the alchemists understood it. The important thing is the theme of Body/Soul/Spirit, which is Mercury/Luna/Sol, which, in our text, is also Gradus/Kinbote/Shade, three aspects of man in one. It is also fitting that the “common” answer to the Sphinx’s riddle fits Pale Fire, too. The lower instinctual nature (infant or animal) crawls on all fours (Gradus’ abnormally long arms give him a simian appearance); a grown (conscious ego) man walks upright independently on two (Kinbote is "Ego" writ large), and an old man accepts the help of a cane (higher wisdom/humility). John Shade, remember, walks with the help of a cane.

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