Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027537, Tue, 26 Sep 2017 09:14:50 -0700

WIP: Transcendent Fluff = Anima
WIP: "Art, Alchemy and Failed Transcendence: Jungian Influence in Nabokov's Pale Fire"

"I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky."

Lines 3 and 4 of the poem, I believe, may not refer to the waxwing. What would be the meaning of a piece of fluff from the dead bird flying on into the sky? The lines would seem to hark back to an experience that Nabokov had as a child, when he first became interested in Lepidoptera. In his autobiography, Speak Memory, he writes of a swallowtail moth, (which he calls, “my guiding angel”) that he had napthalened, and thought, erroneously, was dead:

“(The swallowtail moth) made for the open window, and presently was but a golden speck dipping and dodging and soaring eastward, over timber and tundra, to Vologda, Viatka and Perm, and beyond the gaunt Ural range to Yakutsk, where it lost a tail…to be finally overtaken and captured, after a forty year race, on an immigrant dandelion under an endemic aspen near Boulder” (VN, Speak Memory, P.120)

This was a quest that took Nabokov all over creation before finally succeeding - rather like the experience he wishes for his readers in Pale Fire. I believe this is one of his planted clues for Pale Fire within Speak Memory. The clue is both to suggest that the solution to the book will take one far and wide, (The pleasant experience of the roundabout route) but also, I believe, to correct the assumption that the “bit of ashen fluff” refers not to the waxwing, but to a moth, a swallowtail moth to be precise. Nabokov refers to the bodies of moths as “fluff”:

“Retrospectively, the summer of 1905, though quite vivid in many ways, is not animated yet by a single bit of quick flutter or colored fluff…” (VN, Speak Memory, P.122)

The “bit of fluff” of his swallowtail does not meet with the windowpane, but flies gloriously and transcendently out an open window to the great beyond. He describes the moth thusly:

“…its powdery body slightly bent, it kept restlessly jerking its great wings, and my desire for it was one of the most intense I have ever experienced”. (VN, SM, P.120)

I find this much more in keeping with the contrapuntal thematic texture: failed transcendence v actualized transcendence, flying into a window v flying out a window.

This swallowtail was likely the species parnassius mnemosyne. “Mnemosyne” was the mother of the nine muses of Greek mythology. "Parnassius" evokes mythical transcendence. Nabokov designed the end papers of his revised Speak Memory to have an image of this moth–another clue planted in that later book relating to Pale Fire. Nabokov had wanted to title his autobiography “Speak Mnemosyne”, but was dissuaded by his publisher. It seems befitting that Nabokov’s muse should be the bit of fluff that flies on into the azure sky. John Shade’s wife Sybil’s maiden name was “Swallow”, although she is linked to the Vanessa Atalanta butterfly. She is his “guiding angel”, his muse, what Jung calls the “anima”, the feminine archetype within a man. The positive aspect of the anima Jung referred to as “my lady, Soul”. Jung claimed that owning and assimilating the Anima into the Self was essential for the process of Individuation.

Note: The Greek word for butterfly is “Psyche”. We can see that butterfly, bird, psyche, soul, swallow, Sybil, guardian angel, muse all relate to Jung’s concept of “Anima”. It is the soul that yearns for transcendence.

These first two couplets, then set up the major theme of transcendence, both failed and realized. It is also the first intimation of Jungian themes of the Shadow, the Anima, and Individuation.

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