Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027567, Tue, 24 Oct 2017 17:53:17 -0700

WIP: Et in Arcadia Ego
We can find Atalanta and the triumph of Art over Nature concealed in another allusion in Pale Fire. Kinbote mentions (C286) the phrase “Even in Arcady am I” (“Et in Arcadia ego”). This inscription found on tombs is a way of saying that Death is unavoidable, even in the most idyllic places. The fourteen letters of “Et in Arcadia Ego” create a known anagram, “I Tego Arcana Dei”; translated as “Begone! I conceal the secrets of God”.

Nabokov was likely paraphrasing this when asked “What should we think about death?” and he replied: “ ‘Leave me alone, says dreary Death’ (bogus inscription of empty tomb)” (VN, Strong Opinions, p.182)

The phrase most likely came from some lost mysteries, however, it was popularized by the artist Poussin in 1627, in a painting “Arcadian Shepherds”, wherein is depicted shepherds discovering a tomb with the inscription. Here is a very interesting interpretation of the paintings:

“… one of the two shepherds recognizes the shadow of his companion on the tomb and circumscribes the silhouette with his finger. According to an ancient tradition (see Pliny the Elder, nat. Hist. XXXV 5, 15), this is the moment in which the art of painting is first discovered. Thus, the shepherd's shadow is the first image in art history. But the shadow on the tomb is also a symbol of death… The meaning of this highly intricate composition seems to be that, from prehistory onward, the discovery of art has been the creative response of humankind to the shocking fact of mortality. Thus, death’s claim to rule even Arcadia is challenged by art (symbolized by the beautifully dressed maiden), who must insist that she was discovered in Arcadia too, and that she is the legitimate ruler everywhere, whilst death only usurps its power. In the face of death, art's duty—indeed, her raison d’être—is to recall absent loved ones, console anxieties, evoke and reconcile conflicting emotions, surmount isolation, and facilitate the expression of the unutterable.” (Cf. Becht-Jördens, Gereon; Wehmeier, Peter M. (2003). Picasso und die christliche Ikonographie. Dietrich Reimer Verlag, Berlin. pp. 181–209)

This is apparently the accepted interpretation, as I found similar descriptions elsewhere, so one that Nabokov would not only be familiar with, but heartily endorse. We have here the very essence of Pale Fire, the triumph of Art over Nature – and a shadow, too! Nature, in this case, meaning the inevitability of death. The “beautiful maiden” doubtlessly is Atalanta, the princess of Arcadia.

I believe there may be another more arcane level of interpretation, although I have been unable to find reference to it. However since this painting was done during the height of the practice of alchemy, it is quite likely the meaning was intended to be “secret”. Poussin himself said, regarding his painting “…these things, I believe, will not displease those people who know how to read them.” (Marshall Cavendish, The Great Artists (No:64).

So, who is in the tomb? An Arcadian Shepherd, as some say? Why would that be such a mystery, as the Shepherds themselves seem to be in awe of? Who is the personage most associated with “tomb”? From an esoteric point of view, even in Paradise, even Mercurius (the shadow deity) dies – of course, to live again, transformed. That is the “secret of God”, that He is dual natured.
Carl Jung wrote extensively on the dual nature of Mercurius/Christ image:

“Since Mercurius is often called filius, his sonship is beyond question. He is therefore like a brother to Christ and a second son of God … he is also the counterpart of the Trinity as a whole in so far as he is conceived to be a chthonic triad. According to this view he would be equal to one half of the Christian Godhead. He is indeed the dark chthonic half, but he is not simply evil as such, for he is called “good and evil’, or a ‘system of the higher powers in the lower.’ He calls to mind that double figure which seems to stand behind both Christ and the devil – that enigmatic Lucifer whose attributes are shared by both.” (C. G. Jung, Alchemical Studies, CW, Vol.13, P.222.)

The reason that alchemy was “secret” was that it attributed sacred power to the dark side as well as the light. The later Christian alchemists tried hard to reconcile their faith with their art, but understood it was considered heretical to the Church. Those “in the know” could read the signs.

Thus, we can see that the thread of Atalanta comes ultimately to the theme of John Shade’s quest, and Nabokov’s manifesto: transcendence, the triumph of Art over Death.

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