Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027556, Sun, 15 Oct 2017 16:26:19 -0700

Heraldry in Pale Fire
One of the lines of inquiry in my WIP, “Art, Alchemy and Failed Transcendence: Jungian influences in Nabokov’s Pale Fire” is to demonstrate that Pale Fire is a veiled autobiography; the three main characters are parts of one character, “Botkin”, who is the author himself. There are interesting hints in the family crests of Kinbote and of Nabokov.

Let’s look at Kinbote’s family crest: There are three heraldic creatures, a silktail, resembling a waxwing (note the word “resembling” as well), a reindeer and a merman.

These are all heraldic “emblems”. They are based on alchemic images, and this is where more overt references to alchemy first appear. Alchemists used “emblems”, symbolic engraved images, to illustrate their craft. The first emblem is the silktail. The silktail resembles a small Bird of Paradise. From a book by Ronald d. Gray, “Goethe The Alchemist”:

“Bird of Paradise is an alchemy symbol and is sometimes represented as a pheasant or a peacock…The ‘peacock’s feathers’ were a widespread symbol in all alchemical literature, representing either the Philosophers’ Stone itself, or the stage in the Magnum Opus immediately preceding it.”

Nabokov’s early émigré writing carried his nom de plume, “Sirin”. The sirin was a fabulous bird, like the bird of paradise, in Russian folklore. The name derives from the Greek “siren”, and is therefore a seductive, alluring figure.

Likewise, the reindeer is an alchemical symbol, which, like Mercury, is a psychopomp and an aerial messenger:

“ …anthropologists surmise the reindeer was a kind of psychopomp - which means a 'spirit guide' or 'guide of the soul'. Most of these prehistoric paintings showcase the reindeer soaring through the air. Perhaps early man deemed the reindeer as a messenger - able to fly man's messages to the heavens…In many cultures, including northern regions of Europe and Asia, the reindeer is a lunar symbol”
http://www.whats-your-sign.com/symbolic-reindeer-meaning.html (author unknown)

Similarly, Jung says this about the symbol of a flying stag:

“The ‘philosophic Mercurius’, this servus fugitivus or cervus fugitivus (fugitive slave or stag), is a highly important unconscious content which…threatens to ramify into a set of far-reaching psychological problems.” (C. G. Jung, The Spirit Mercurius, Vol.13, CW, p.211)

The Mermaid, also is an alchemical and Tarot symbol:

The mermaid “Melusina” is found on numerous family crests. It is she, with her two tails that is on the Starbucks logo. She is a symbol of female sexuality, associated sometimes with Lilith. Nabokov’s sly twist is to make her a merman, to reflect Kinbote’s sexual orientation. She is often seen as a negative seductress, but also:

"The same dual-nature symbolism is also at work in alchemy, which employs the siren as a more benevolent emblem of enlightenment: the siren of the philosophers. Alchemically, the siren’s two tails represent unity -of earth and water, body and soul- and the vision of Universal Mercury, the all-pervading anima mundi that calls out and makes the philosopher yearn to her". (http://symboldictionary.net/?p=1153, author unknown).

Likened to the anima, Jung says the mermaid is “the divine imprisoned in the elements, whom it is the task of alchemy to redeem”. (C.G. Jung ,Vol.12 CW, Psychology and Alchemy P.306)

Melusina is associated with the moon, silver, but her hair is “crinned’or”, or golden, showing her connection also to the Sun. Like the moon, she “reflects” the Sun. She is often seen holding a mirror and a comb, vain and aware of her allure. We shall see her multiple reflections later in Fleur’s mirrors (C80).

Nabokov also had a family crest. Describing it in SPEAK MEMORY, he corrects himself on his earlier autobiography and says that his family crest has two lions, not two bears. I believe it is unlikely this is his actual coat of arms and that this has to be another clue dropped in the later edition specifically to “herald” back to PALE FIRE and to suggest alchemy.

“”I have now looked it up, that blazon, and am disappointed to find that it boils down to a couple of lions – brownish and, perhaps overshaggy beasts, but not really ursine – licking their chops, rampant, regardant, arrogantly demonstrating the unfortunate knight’s shield, which is only one sixteenth of a checkerboard, of alternate tinctures, azure & gules, with a botonee cross, argent, in each rectangle. Above it one sees what remains of the knight: his tough helmet and inedible gorget, as well as one brave arm coming out of a foliate ornament, gules and azure, and still brandishing a short sword. Zahrabrost’, “for valour,” says the scripture.” (VN, Speak Memory P.51)

“Gules” means “red” in heraldry. “Gorget” is a steel collar, “inedible” since the knight himself has been devoured. “Botonee” means a cross with trefoils on the arms. Assuming that the “brownish” lions may be a darkish “gules”, we can relate this to the alchemical significance of the myth of “Atalanta Fugiens”. In the myth, the Goddess Cybele, angry at the lovers Atalanta and Hippomenes for desecrating her temple with their lust, turns them into two red lions. This is the phase of the “rubedo” (red) and “coniunctio” (sacred marriage) of alchemy. The trefoil cross could indicate the triune nature of the cross, but also of Nabokov’s tri-part person (Shade/Kinbote/Gradus) in Pale Fire. The chessboard should be obvious. The knight has fought valiantly, apparently vanquished but still brandishing his sword. Nabokov’s private joke regarding his relations with his critics? Could the “short sword” perhaps be a “botkin”?

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