do senses make sense in Lolita; Shade's five senses in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 03/15/2019 - 17:55

In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) one of the chapters ends with a pseudo-Shakespearean quote:

At this solitary stop for refreshments between Coalmont and Ramsdale (between innocent Dolly Schiller and jovial Uncle Ivor), I reviewed my case. With the utmost simplicity and clarity I now saw myself and my love. Previous attempts seemed out of focus in comparison. A couple of years before, under the guidance of an intelligent French-speaking confessor, to whom, in a moment of metaphysical curiosity, I had turned over a Protestant’s drab atheism for an old-fashioned popish cure, I had hoped to deduce from my sense of sin the existence of a Supreme Being. On those frosty mornings in rime-laced Quebec, the good priest worked on me with the finest tenderness and understanding. I am infinitely obliged to him and the great Institution he represented. Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. To quote an old poet:


The moral sense in mortals is the duty

We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty. (2.31)


The moral sense in mortals, mortal sense of beauty and Humbert Humbert’s sense of sin from which he had hoped to deduce the existence of a Supreme Being bring to mind “Do the Senses make Sense?” by John Ray, Jr. (the author of the Foreword to Humbert Humbert’s manuscript):


“Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male,” such were the two titles under which the writer of the present note received the strange pages it preambulates. “Humbert Humbert,” their author, had died in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis, on November 16, 1952, a few days before his trial was scheduled to start. His lawyer, my good friend and relation, Clarence Choate Clark, Esq., now of the District of Columbia bar, in asking me to edit the manuscript, based his request on a clause in his client’s will which empowered my eminent cousin to use the discretion in all matters pertaining to the preparation of “Lolita” for print. Mr. Clark’s decision may have been influenced by the fact that the editor of his choice had just been awarded the Poling Prize for a modest work (“Do the Senses make Sense?”) wherein certain morbid states and perversions had been discussed.


In his Foreword John Ray, Jr. mentions cemeteries and ghosts:


For the benefit of old-fashioned readers who wish to follow the destinies of “real” people beyond the “true” story, a few details may be given as received from Mr. “Windmuller,” of “Ramsdale,” who desires his identity suppressed so that “the long shadows of this sorry and sordid business” should not reach the community to which he is proud to belong. His daughter, “Louise,” is by now a college sophomore. “Mona Dahl” is a student in Paris. “Rita” has recently married the proprietor of a hotel in Florida. Mrs. “Richard F. Schiller” died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest. ‘Vivian Darkbloom’ has written a biography, ‘My Cue,’ to be published shortly, and critics who have perused the manuscript call it her best book. The caretakers of the various cemeteries involved report that no ghosts walk.


The characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet include the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet’s last words, “the rest is silence,” bring to mind the beginning of Lolita’s last chapter (in which a ghost, the tactile sense and sight are mentioned):


The rest is a little flattish and faded. Slowly I drove downhill, and presently found myself going at the same lazy pace in a direction opposite to Parkington. I had left my raincoat in the boudoir and Chum in the bathroom. No, it was not a house I would have liked to live in. I wondered idly if some surgeon of genius might not alter his own career, and perhaps the whole destiny of mankind, by reviving quilted Quilty, Clare Obscure. Not that I cared; on the whole I wished to forget the whole mess - and when I did learn he was dead, the only satisfaction it gave me, was the relief of knowing I need not mentally accompany for months a painful and disgusting convalescence interrupted by all kinds of unmentionable operations and relapses, and perhaps an actual visit from him, with trouble on my part to rationalize him as not being a ghost. Thomas had something. It is strange that the tactile sense, which is so infinitely less precious to men than sight, becomes at critical moment our main, if not only, handle to reality. I was all covered with Quilty - with the feel of that tumble before the bleeding.

The road now stretched across open country, and it occurred to me - not by way of protest, not as a symbol, or anything like that, but merely as a novel experience - that since I had disregarded all laws of humanity, I might as well disregard the rules of traffic. So I crossed to the left side of the highway and checked the feeling, and the feeling was good. It was a pleasant diaphragmal melting, with elements of diffused tactility, all this enhanced by the thought that nothing could be nearer to the elimination of basic physical laws than deliberately driving on the wrong side of the road. In a way, it was a very spiritual itch. Gently, dreamily, not exceeding twenty miles an hour, I drove on that queer mirror side. Traffic was light. Cars that now and then passed me on the side I had abandoned to them, honked at me brutally. Cars coming towards me wobbled, swerved, and cried out in fear. Presently I found myself approaching populated places. Passing through a red light was like a sip of forbidden Burgundy when I was a child. Meanwhile complications were arising. I was being followed and escorted. Then in front of me I saw two cars placing themselves in such a manner as to completely block my way. With a graceful movement I turned off the road, and after two or three big bounces, rode up a grassy slope, among surprised cows, and there I came to a gentle rocking stop. A kind of thoughtful Hegelian synthesis linking up two dead women. (2.36)


Two dead women mentioned by Humbert Humbert are his photogenic mother (who died in a freak accident: picnic, lightning) and his wife Charlotte (Lolita’s mother who died under the wheels of a truck). “A sip of forbidden Burgundy” brings to mind the first line of Gumilyov’s poem Shestoe chuvstvo (“The Sixth Sense,” 1920), Prekrasno v nas vlyublyonnoe vino (Fine is the wine that is in love with us):


Прекрасно в нас влюблённое вино
И добрый хлеб, что в печь для нас садится,
И женщина, которою дано,
Сперва измучившись, нам насладиться.

Но что нам делать с розовой зарёй
Над холодеющими небесами,
Где тишина и неземной покой,
Что делать нам с бессмертными стихами?

Ни съесть, ни выпить, ни поцеловать.
Мгновение бежит неудержимо,
И мы ломаем руки, но опять
Осуждены идти всё мимо, мимо.

Как мальчик, игры позабыв свои,
Следит порой за девичьим купаньем
И, ничего не зная о любви,
Всё ж мучится таинственным желаньем;

Как некогда в разросшихся хвощах
Ревела от сознания бессилья
Тварь скользкая, почуя на плечах
Ещё не появившиеся крылья;

Так век за веком - скоро ли, Господь? -
Под скальпелем природы и искусства
Кричит наш дух, изнемогает плоть,
Рождая орган для шестого чувства.


Fine is the wine that loves us,
and the bread baked for our sake,

and the woman whom we are allowed to enjoy
after she has tortured us.

But sunset clouds, rose
in a sky turned cold,
calm like some other earth?
immortal poems?

All inedible, non-potable, un-kissable.
Time comes, time goes,
and we wring our hands
and never decide, never touch the circle.

Like a boy forgetting his games
and watching girls in the river
and knowing nothing but eaten
by desires stranger

Than he knows — like a slippery creature
sensing unformed wings
on its back and howling helpless
in the bushes and brambles — like hundred

Years after hundred years — how long, Lord,
how long ? — as nature and art
cut, and we scream, and slowly, slowly,
our sixth-sense organ is surgically born.

(tr. Burton Raffel)


I my lomaem ruki (and we wring our hands) in the third stanza of Gumilyov’s poem brings to mind Humbert Humbert’s gesture of despair after Charlotte has told him that she was going to bundle off Lolita to St. Algebra:


“Ah,” said Mrs. Humbert, dreaming, smiling, drawing out the “Ah” simultaneously with the raise of one eyebrow and a soft exhalation of breath. “Little Lo, I’m afraid, does not enter the picture at all, at all. Little Lo goes straight from camp to a good boarding school with strict discipline and some sound religious training. And then - Beardsley College. I have it all mapped out, you need not worry.”

She went on to say that she, Mrs. Humbert, would have to overcome her habitual sloth and write to Miss Phalen’s sister who taught at St. Algebra. The dazzling lake emerged. I said I had forgotten my sunglasses in the car and would catch up with her.

I had always thought that wringing one’s hands was a fictional gesture - the obscure outcome, perhaps, of some medieval ritual; but as I took to the woods, for a spell of despair and desperate meditation, this was the gesture (“look, Lord, at these chains!”) that would have come nearest to the mute expression of my mood. (1.20)


In Pushkin’s little tragedy “Mozart and Salieri” (1830) Salieri says that he cut up the music like a corpse and measured harmony by algebra. On the other hand, St. Algebra and "342" (342 Lawn Street, Humbert Humbert's and Lolita's address in Ramsdale is "mirrored" by their room 342 in The Enchanted Hunters) bring to mind chisla (the numbers) mentioned by Gumilyov in his poem Slovo (“The Word,” 1920):


В оный день, когда над миром новым
Бог склонял лицо своё, тогда
Солнце останавливали словом,
Словом разрушали города.

И орёл не взмахивал крылами,
Звёзды жались в ужасе к луне,
Если, точно розовое пламя,
Слово проплывало в вышине.

А для низкой жизни были числа,
Как домашний, подъяремный скот,
Потому что все оттенки смысла
Умное число передаёт.

Патриарх седой, себе под руку
Покоривший и добро и зло,
Не решаясь обратиться к звуку,
Тростью на песке чертил число.

Но забыли мы, что осиянно
Только слово средь земных тревог,
И в Евангелии от Иоанна
Сказано, что Слово это - Бог.

Мы ему поставили пределом
Скудные пределы естества.
И, как пчелы в улье опустелом,
Дурно пахнут мёртвые слова.


Then, when God bent His face
over the shining new world, then
they stopped the sun with a word,
a word burned cities to the ground.

When a word floated across the sky
like a rose-colored flame
eagles closed their wings, frightened
stars shrank against the moon.

And we creeping forms had numbers,
like tame, load-bearing oxen —
because a knowing number
says everything, says it all.

That grey-haired prophet, who bent
good and evil to his will,
was afraid to speak
and drew a number in the sand.

But we worry about other things, and forget
that only the word glows and shines,
and the Gospel of John
tells us this word is God.

We’ve surrounded it with a wall,
with the narrow borders of this world,
and like bees in a deserted hive
the dead words rot and stink.

(tr. Burton Raffel)


A deserted hive in the penultimate line of Gumilyov’s poem brings to mind the hive in which John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) is locked up:


What moment in the gradual decay

Does resurrection choose? What year? What day?

Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?

Are some less lucky, or do all escape?

A syllogism: other men die; but I

Am not another; therefore I'll not die.

Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,

A singing in the ears. In this hive I'm

Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had

Been able to imagine life, what mad,

Impossible, unutterably weird,

Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared! (ll. 209-220)


In VN's novel Bend Sinister (1947) Shakespeare's head is compared to a hive of words:


Nature had once produced an Englishman whose domed head had been a hive of words; a man who had only to breathe on any particle of his stupendous vocabulary to have that particle live and expand and throw out tremulous tentacles until it became a complex image with a pulsing brain and correlated limbs. (chapter 7)


John Shade and John Ray bring to mind “One shade the more, one ray the less,” a line in Byron’s poem She Walks in Beauty (1813):


One shade the more, one ray the less, 

Had half impaired the nameless grace 

Which waves in every raven tress, 

Or softly lightens o’er her face; 

Where thoughts serenely sweet express, 

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.


In The Enchanted Hunters (a hotel in Briceland where Humbert Humbert and Lolita spend their first night together) Humbert Humbert drugs Lolita with the sleeping pills that were given to him by Dr. Byron (the Haze family physician). In Canto Three of his poem Shade calls 1958 "a year of Tempests" and mentions Hurricane Lolita that swept from Florida to Main:


It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane

Lolita swept from Florida to Main.

Mars glowed. Shahs married. Gloomy Russians spied.

Lang made your portrait. And one night I died. (ll. 679-682)


The Tempest is the penultimate (thirty-sixth) play of Shakespeare. In Canto One of his poem Shade says that he had five senses (one unique) and mentions a lemniscate:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By feigned remoteness in the windowpane.
I had a brain, five senses (one unique),
But otherwise I was a cloutish freak.
In sleeping dreams I played with other chaps
But really envied nothing--save perhaps
The miracle of a lemniscate left
Upon wet sand by nonchalantly deft
Bicycle tires. (ll. 131-139)


The infinity symbol is sometimes called “lemniscate.” In his poem Nik. T-o (“Mr. Nobody,” I. Annenski’s penname) compares the infinity symbol  to oprokinutoe 8 (8 toppled over):


Девиз Таинственной похож
На опрокинутое 8:
Она — отраднейшая ложь
Из всех, что мы в сознаньи носим.

В кругу эмалевых минут
Её свершаются обеты,
А в сумрак звёздами блеснут
Иль ветром полночи пропеты.

Но где светил погасших лик
Остановил для нас теченье,
Там Бесконечность — только миг,
Дробимый молнией мученья.


Acht being German for "eight,"  "8 toppled over" brings to mind Iris Acht, a celebrated Zemblan actress, favourite of Thurgus the Third (the King’s grandfather who liked to bicycle in the park). Thurgus the Third seems to hint at Turgenev, the author of  "Hamlet and Don Quixote" (1860) and Prizraki ("Ghosts," 1864) who is mentioned both by Humbert Humbert and by Kinbote in his Commentary to Shade's poem. Umirayushchiy Turgenev ("The Dying Turgenev") is an essay in Annenski's Kniga otrazheniy ("The Book of Reflections," 1906). In his essay Problema Gamleta (“The Problem of Hamlet”) included in Vtoraya kniga otrazheniy ("The Second Book of Reflections,” 1909) Annenski mentions Pushkin's Mozart and says that Hamlet is not a Salieri:


Видите ли: зависть художника не совсем то, что наша...

Для художника это - болезненное сознание своей ограниченности и желание делать творческую жизнь свою как можно полнее. Истинный художник и завистлив и жаден... я слышу возражение - пушкинский Моцарт. - Да! Но ведь Гамлет не Сальери. Моцарта же Пушкин, как известно, изменил: его короткая жизнь была отнюдь не жизнью праздного гуляки, а сплошным творческим горением. Труд его был громаден, не результат труда, а именно труд.


In Pushkin’s little tragedy “Mozart and Salieri” (1830) Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would):


Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному искусству.


If all could feel like you the power of harmony!
But no: the world could not go on then. None
Would bother with the needs of lowly life;
All would surrender to the free art. (Scene II)


Nikto b is Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name) in reverse. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) and Gradus (Shade’s murderer) after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary). Nadezhda means “hope.” There is a hope that, after Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide, Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (“half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.


In its unfinished form Shade’s poem has 999 lines. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). Dvoynik ("The Double," 1904) is a poem by Nik. T-o. In his Kantsona ("Canzone," 1917) Gumilyov (the author of "In Memory of Annenski," 1911) mentions svoy sobstvennyi dvoynik (his own double), Bog-Slovo (God-Word) and a white rose:


Бывает в жизни человека
Один неповторимый миг:
Кто б ни был он, старик, калека,
Как бы свой собственный двойник,
Нечеловечески прекрасен
Тогда стоит он; небеса
Над ним разверсты; воздух ясен;
Уж наплывают чудеса.
Таким тогда он будет снова,
Когда воскреснувшую плоть
Решит во славу Бога-Слова
К небытию призвать Господь.
Волшебница, я не случайно
К следам ступней твоих приник:
Ведь я тебя увидел тайно
В невыразимый этот миг.
Ты розу белую срывала
И наклонялась к розе той,
А небо над тобой сияло,
Твоей залито красотой.


On the porch of The Enchanted Hunters Quilty (Humbert Humbert's double) tells Humbert Humbert that sleep is a rose:


I left the loud lobby and stood outside, on the white steps, looking at the hundreds of powdered bugs wheeling around the lamps in the soggy black night, full of ripple and stir. All I would doall I would dare dowould amount to such a trifle… Suddenly I was aware that in the darkness next to me there was somebody sitting in a chair on the pillared porch. I could not really see him but what gave him away was the rasp of a screwing off, then a discreet gurgle, then the final note of a placid screwing on. I was about to move away when his voice addressed me:

“Where the devil did you get her?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said: the weather is getting better.”

“Seems so.”

“Who’s the lassie?”

“My daughter.”

“You lie - she’s not.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said: July was hot. Where’s her mother?”


“I see. Sorry. By the way, why don’t you two lunch with me tomorrow. That dreadful crowd will be gone by then.”

“We’ll be gone too. Good night.”

“Sorry. I’m pretty drunk. Good night. That child of yours needs a lot of sleep. Sleep is a rose, as the Persians say. Smoke?”

“Not now.”

He struck a light, but because he was drunk, or because the wind was, the flame illumined not him but another person, a very old man, one of those permanent guests of old hotelsand his white rocker. Nobody said anything and the darkness returned to its initial place. Then I heard the old-timer cough and deliver himself of some sepulchral mucus. (1.28)


In his interview to Briceland Gazette Quilty (“the author of Dark Age”) mentioned wine, a Persian bubble bird and roses:


Wine, wine, wine, quipped the author of Dark Age who refused to be photographed, may suit a Persian bubble bird, but I say give me rain, rain, rain on the shingle roof for roses and inspiration every time. (2.26)


The Persians and a Persian bubble bird bring to mind Gumilyov's poem Persidskaya miniatyura ("Persian Miniature," 1919):


Когда я кончу наконец
Игру в cache-cache со смертью хмурой,
То сделает меня Творец
Персидскою миниатюрой.

И небо, точно бирюза,
И принц, поднявший еле-еле
Миндалевидные глаза
На взлёт девических качелей.

С копьём окровавленным шах,
Стремящийся тропой неверной
На киноварных высотах
За улетающею серной.


И ни во сне, ни наяву
Невиданные туберозы,
И сладким вечером в траву
Уже наклоненные лозы.

А на обратной стороне,
Как облака Тибета, чистой,
Носить отрадно будет мне
Значок великого артиста.

Благоухающий старик,
Негоциант или придворный,
Взглянув, меня полюбит вмиг
Любовью острой и упорной.

Его однообразных дней
Звездой я буду путеводной,
Вино, любовниц и друзей
Я заменю поочередно.

И вот когда я утолю,
Без упоенья, без страданья,
Старинную мечту мою
Будить повсюду обожанье.


When I’ve given up
playing at hide-and-seek with sour-faced
Death, the Creator will turn me
into a Persian miniature —

With a turquoise sky
and a prince just raising
his almond eyes
to the arc of a girl’s swing,

And a bloody-speared Shah
rushing down rocky paths,
across cinnabar heights,
after a flying deer,

And tuberoses that no eyes,
no dreams have ever seen,
and vines bending into the grass
in the sweet twilight,

And on the other side,
clean as clouds in Tibet,
a great artist’s mark:
a sign and a joy.

Some fragrant old man
of business, of the court,
will see me, love me
at once, love me hard and sharp.

His dull-turning days
will wind around me.
Wine will vanish for him,
and women, and friends.

And finally — without ecstasy,
without pain — my old dream
will be satisfied,
and everyone, everywhere will adore me.

(tr. Burton Raffel)


During their second trip across the USA Humbert Humbert and Lolita have breakfast in the township of Soda:


We had breakfast in the township of Soda, pop. 1001.
“Judging by the terminal figure,” I remarked, “Fatface is already here.”
“Your humor,” said Lo, “is sidesplitting, deah fahther.” (2.18)


A little earlier Lolita draws Humbert Humbert’s attention to the three nines changing into the next thousand in the odometer:


“If he’s really a cop,” she said shrilly but not illogically, “the worst thing we could do, would be to show him we are scared. Ignore him, Dad.”
“Did he ask where we were going?”
“Oh, he knows that” (mocking me).
“Anyway,” I said, giving up, “I have seen his face now. He is not pretty. He looks exactly like a relative of mine called Trapp.”
“Perhaps he is Trapp. If I were you - Oh, look, all the nines are changing into the next thousand. When I was a little kid,” she continued unexpectedly, “I used to think they’d stop and go back to nines, if only my mother agreed to put the car in reverse.”
It was the first time, I think, she spoke spontaneously of her pre-Humbertian childhood; perhaps, the theatre had taught her that trick; and silently we traveled on, unpursued. (ibid.)


At the end of a poem written in a madhouse after Lolita was abducted from him by Quilty ("Trapp") Humbert Humbert says that the rest is rust and stardust:


My car is limping, Dolores Haze,

And the last long lap is the hardest,

And I shall be dumped where the weed decays,

And the rest is rust and stardust.


In the poem's last lines Humbert Humbert seems to predict not only his own, but also Lolita's death in Gray Star. According to Shade, when he was a boy, all colors made him happy: even gray. Shade's murderer, Gradus is also known as de Grey. Like Gradus (who commits suicide in prison), Humbert Humbert dies a few days before his trial was scheduled to start.


I also recommend you the updated version of my previous post, “surgeon of genius in Lolita; Clare Bishop in TRLSK; Doc Fitzbishop in Ada (