Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027541, Sat, 30 Sep 2017 14:44:37 -0700

Sybil = Anima = Conflict =Murderess??
WIP: Art, Alchemy and Failed Transcendence, Jungian Influences in Nabokov's Pale Fire

Pale Fire presents us with two versions of Sybil: John Shade’s and Kinbote’s. John Shade’s enduring collaborative marriage, his tender endearments, his addressing Sybil as “you” in the poem, are so very like Mr. and Mrs. Nabokov, that we take this to be the accurate picture. Kinbote’s comic antipathy towards Sybil, along with his jealousy and grandiosity and mental breakdown, supports the conviction that he is an unreliable narrator.

If we take a closer look at Sybil as presented in Shade’s poem, however, we see hints of the same flouncy, flighty, shallow, sharp-tongued, and vindictive woman that Kinbote sees in her.

Sybil makes her first appearance in the poem in disguise (P63). She is the “naïve, gauzy mocking bird retelling all the programs she had heard”. Sybil is a chatterbox and TV addict, commanding her husband to join her - “Come here, come herrr”. It’s affectionate fun-poking at his wife, but it is in line with Kinbote’s view of her as shallow and flighty and controlling of her spouse.

In discussing their daughter Hazel, John seems to feel deeply and empathically of her plight, whereas Sybil seems more practical than sympathetic, offering “shoulds” – “Less starch, more fruit”. In the Jungian view, John exhibits more “eros” and Sybil more “logos”:

“The animus corresponds to the paternal Logos just as the anima corresponds to the maternal Eros…woman’s consciousness is characterized more by the connective quality of Eros than by the discrimination and cognition associated with Logos. In men, Eros, the function of relationship, is usually less developed than Logos. In women, on the other hand, Eros is an expression of their true nature, while their Logos is often only a regrettable accident.” (Jung, Aion, P. 298)

Hazel’s view of Sybil would seem to confirm Kinbote’s; she calls her mother a “didactic katydid”. She apparently finds her chirpy, opinionated and boring. Kinbote’s reconstruction of Hazel’s third night in the barn, with her parents, is an entertaining picture of his tendentious conception of Sybil. She appears chirpy, silly, shallow, clueless, commonplace and annoying. Hazel seems to share that opinion, and, as we’ve been told, he and Hazel are alike. (See C347-48)

Sybil’s response to the anxious night waiting up for Hazel is to watch TV. At eleven o’clock, after watching a movie, Sybil’s concern is, “Well, I’m afraid there’s nothing else of interest” and proceeds to flip channels (chopping off heads like the Red Queen). Next, she “gently yawned” and did the dishes until midnight (“What’s midnight to the young?”).

Sybil is not necessarily callous; it would seem she uses “logic” to allay her anxiety, whereas Shade is the emotional one. They have reversed roles.

Jung wrote a treatise on “Marriage as a Psychological Relationship”. He contended that initially the marriage partners mutually project their respective anima and animus on each other. In the second half of life this becomes too constricting and consciousness exerts pressure to individuate in the partner that is more complex, whom he calls the “container” and the simpler one the “contained”. If both proceed to individuate, there is a chance for a true relationship of individuals, rather than projection. In the lengthy quote below, imagine John Shade as the “complicated nature” and Sybil as the “simpler”:

“The simpler nature works on the more complicated like a room that is too small, that does not allow him enough space. The complicated nature on the other hand, gives the simpler one too many rooms with too much space, so that she never knows where she really belongs. So it comes about quite naturally that the more complicated contains the simpler. The former cannot be absorbed in the latter, but encompasses it without being itself contained. Yet, since the more complicated has perhaps a greater need of being contained than the other, he feels himself outside the marriage and accordingly always plays the problematical role. The more the contained clings the more the container feels shut out of the relationship. The contained pushes into it by her clinging, and the more she pushes, the less the container is able to respond. He therefore tends to spy out of the window, no doubt unconsciously at first; but with the onset of middle age there awakens in him a more insistent longing for that unity and undividedness which is especially necessary to him on account of his dissociated nature.

At this juncture things are apt to occur that bring the conflict to a head. He becomes conscious of the fact that he is seeking completion, seeking the contentedness and undividedness that have always been lacking. For the contained this is only a confirmation of the insecurity she has always felt so painfully; she discovers that in the rooms which apparently belonged to her there dwell other, unwished-for guests. The hope of security vanishes, and this disappointment drives her in on herself, unless by desperate and violent efforts she can succeed in forcing her partner to capitulate, and in extorting a confession that his longing for unity was nothing but a childish or morbid fantasy. If these tactics do not succeed, her acceptance of failure may do her a real good, by forcing her to recognize that the security she was so desperately seeking in the other is to be found in herself. In this way she finds herself and discovers in her own simpler nature all those complexities which the container had sought for in vain. First it was passion, then it became duty, and finally an intolerable burden, a vampire that battens on the life of its creator.

Middle life is the moment of greatest unfolding, when a man still gives himself to his work with his whole strength and his whole will. But in this very moment evening is born, and the second half of life begins. Passion now changes her face and is called duty; “I want” becomes the inexorable “I must,” and the turnings of the pathway that once brought surprise and discovery become dulled by custom. The wine has fermented and begins to settle and clear. Conservative tendencies develop if all goes well; instead of looking forward one looks backward, most of the time involuntarily, and one begins to take stock, to see how one’s life has developed up to this point. The real motivations are sought and real discoveries are made. The critical survey of himself and his fate enables a man to recognize his peculiarities. But these insights do not come to him easily; they are gained only through the severest shocks.

Since the aims of the second half of life are different from those of the first, to linger too long in the youthful attitude produces a division of the will. Consciousness still presses forward, in obedience, as it were, to its own inertia, but the unconscious lags behind, because the strength and inner resolve needed for further expansion have been sapped. This disunity with oneself begets discontent, and since one is not conscious of the real state of things one generally projects the reasons for it upon one’s partner. A critical atmosphere thus develops, the necessary prelude to conscious realization. For man as well as for woman, in so far as they are “containers,” the filling out of this image is an experience fraught with consequences, for it holds the possibility of finding one’s own complexities answered by a corresponding diversity. Wide vistas seem to open up in which one feels oneself embraced and contained. I say, “seem” advisedly, because the experience may be two-faced. Just us the animus projection of a woman can often pick on a man of real significance who is not recognized by the mass, and can actually help him to achieve his true destiny with her moral support, so a man can create for himself a femme inspiratrice by his anima projection. But more often it turns out to be an illusion with destructive consequences, a failure because his faith was not sufficiently strong. To the pessimists I would say that these primordial psychic images have an extraordinarily positive value, but I must warn the optimists against blinding fantasies and the likelihood of the most absurd aberrations. One should on no account take this projection for an individual and conscious relationship. In its first stages it is far from that, for it creates a compulsive dependence based on unconscious motives other than the biological ones.

If such a projection fastens on to one of the marriage partners, a collective spiritual relationship conflicts with the collective biological one and produces in the container the division or disintegration I have described above. If he is able to hold his head above water, he will find himself through this very conflict. In that case the projection, though dangerous in itself, will have helped him to pass from a collective to an individual relationship.” (Jung, “Marriage as a Psychological Relationship”)

I have quoted this at length because I believe this is central to the plot and themes of "sacred marriage" in Pale Fire. It is a novel of allusions, and allusions to allusions, with layers upon layers of meaning. At the deeper levels we find Carl Jung, the man whose work was to bring the hidden to the surface. Jung knew whereof he spoke in the above. He had several affairs during his struggle with coming to individuation. Ultimately, both he and his wife grew and profited from this and had a long deeply connected marriage.

Did the same happen for Vladimir and Vera? It would seem so. So much so, that it would seem even possible that Nabokov could have based his story of John and Sybil on this template. How they work it out, however, has a twist.

John Shade, in the second half of his life, is in the midst of a crisis of meaning. He is a complex person who has led the outer life of a simple domestic existence. His wife is rather sharp and shallow. Has he perhaps begun to “spy out the window”? Is the “deleterious move” in Nabokov’s game, the hinted-at affair between Shade and a certain student?

Apparently there were rumors of John Shade having affairs with his students. Kinbote denies the rumors, but takes the opportunity to spread them, as when he invites “…that girl in the black leotard”, the same “…stunning blond” that Professor Hurley teases Shade about, to a dinner with John and Sybil. The girl arrives late, apparently causing John and Sybil to leave post-haste. Kinbote even calls this a “confrontation”, not a meeting. I would call it a set-up.

According to Kinbote, John Shade was henpecked and “mortally afraid” of his wife. “Mortally”? Was he really henpecked? Was he really afraid of his wife finding out his affair? Nabokov fairly gave this clue away - a clue essential to untangling the novel, and yet, as always, delivered obliquely. Alfred Appel writes that Nabokov stated, "My novel is a rather clever, complex thing, but its message is rather simple.” He indicated that the key was “Yeslove”, the penultimate entry in the index. (Through the index climbs a rose!) Rather than a happy positive endorsement to love, this is the ironic reply of a husband “under the heel of his wife’s slipper”:

"The persona, the ideal picture of a man as he should be, is inwardly compensated by feminine weakness, and as the individual outwardly plays the strong man, so he becomes inwardly a woman, i.e., the anima, for it is the anima that reacts to the persona. But because the inner world is dark and invisible to the extraverted consciousness, and because a man is all the less capable of conceiving his weaknesses the more he is identified with the persona, the persona's counterpart, the anima, remains completely in the dark and is at once projected, so that our hero comes under the heel of his wife's slipper. If this results in a considerable increase of her power, she will acquit herself none too well. She becomes inferior, thus providing her husband with the welcome proof that it is not he, the hero, who is inferior in private, but his wife. In return the wife can cherish the illusion, so attractive to many, that at least she has married a hero, unperturbed by her own uselessness. This little game of illusion is often taken to be the whole meaning of life.” (Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, CW 7 (1957). "The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious" P.309)

Does this sound a bit like Vladimir and Vera Nabokov? Vera Nabokov, a highly intelligent and talented woman in her own right, subsumed herself to her husband’s genius, while at the same time becoming the strong managing one in the marriage. She also packed a pistol - literally. Jung does say in the previous quote that sometimes a woman subsumes herself to a man of real genius, who sees her as a muse, and this can work as long as they are free of their projections. As few people are so free, one might assume there were the usual sort of difficulties and resentments in the long Nabokov marriage, close though they were. Recall that Nabokov claimed that his wife’s “picture has often been reproduced by some mysterious means of reflected color in the inner mirrors of my books.” Is he having fun perhaps, placing her reverse reflection into the book?

Sybil’s husband, who is venerated for his well-heeled persona, is rumored to be having an affair with a young student (perhaps not the first). How does she feel about that? Is she perhaps, like the goddess Cybele, furious that her temple has been desecrated by the lovers?

Take a look back at the scene Kinbote spied on – Sybil “huddle-shaking and blowing her nose”, John “all blotchy and red”. Yes, they could be moved by John’s reading of the poem, but could it not be instead the scene of a teary confession?

How about Sybil’s declaration to Kinbote: “There are things for which no recompense in this world or another is great enough.” Could that also be read as thanking Kinbote for his part in the murder? Is it possible that he is in cahoots with her – say, he arranges for the murder (he’s seen the profile of Jack Grey in Judge Goldworth’s album); she gets even and he gets the rights to the poem.

Why would Kinbote want to do away with his idol Shade? Looking at it from the allegorical psychological side, Kinbote, the Ego, wants to BE John Shade. He wants to BE his ideal and have what he has; HE wants to be protected by his laurels. After Shade’s death, like an insecure ego which protects itself behind its psychological “armor”, (or like an insecure artist who hides behind his work) he pad’s himself with the cards, “plated with poetry, armored with rhymes, stout with another man’s song, stiff with cardboard, bullet-proof at long last”. Like an over-armored ego he is protected, but stiff.

Kinbote remarks in his foreword that, “the depth charge of Shade’s death blasted such secrets and caused so many dead fish to float up, that I was forced to leave New Wye”. Are there more “secrets” than we know? Are there “felt” movements “off the chessboard”? Who is Kinbote hiding from, now? His own fantasies, or perhaps the law? Sybil has fled the country. Is she in hiding, too? Kinbote is trying to get back from her an important diagram – he says of the Onhava Palace. He says, “…the plan is mine and is clearly signed with a black chess-king crown after ‘Kinbote’. Interesting that he says “plan” instead of “map”; Perhaps it is actually evidence of their collusion? A “plan” mapped out as a chess game?

I imagine Nabokov having quite a bit of fun at this mystery-story-whodunit-surprise-twist ending. Although it is indeed a mystery to be solved, a mystery of whodunit, and also what/where is the “treasure”(to be divulged later), the story is taking place on multiple “thetic” levels. The mystery can be solved on the “thetic” and “antithetic” plot levels. The thetic level of plot would have us believe that John Shade was killed accidentally in an attempted regicide. The antithetic would be figuring out that Kinbote is crazy and imagining his Zemblan story and Gradus is really an escaped criminal seeking revenge on Judge Goldsworth and accidentally killing John Shade. Another solution on this antithetic level would be trying to figure out who is imagining who and what. Neither of these antithetic solutions are able to encompass all the multiple motifs of literary allusions, chess problems, etc. A synthetic solution is still lacking. A synthetic level must necessarily bring together all the various motifs for a truly satisfying solution.

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