Vladimir Nabokov

Kinbote as ego-complex

By MARYROSS, 28 October, 2020

I have been posting on this site my theory of a Jungian substrate to Pale Fire, particularly the idea that the novel’s main characters are archetypes within Prof. Botkin’s subconscious. I have found in the text specific Jungian words that relate to the character archetypes, i.e: shadow (Gradus), mask (Shade/persona), joker (G. Emerald/trickster), and typical images for the anima women (soul, butterfly, mermaid, nymph, spider, Medusa, indistinct, blurry), savior (Balthasar/self), Judge & Dr. (Goldsworth & Sutton/ Wise old man).  Kinbote is clearly an “ego” writ large, and the word formerly used to denote 'ego',  'pride,' is associated with him numerous times. I recently discovered something in PF that I think helps to corroborate my theory:


“Nothing of it was there! The complex contribution I had been pressing upon him with a hypnotist's patience and a lover's urge was simply not there.” (C 1000)


Why a “complex contribution”? Why not "fantastic," "fabulous," or, say, "incredible" if he wanted to be alliterative? “Complex” seems a fairly prosaic word, uncharacteristic of Kinbote’s usual solipsistic hyperbole.


The theory of psychological “complexes” is now generally accepted and understood, but few people realize that it originated with Carl Jung. In fact Freud’s interest in Jung’s theory is what helped him develop the “Oedipus complex.” Jung eventually broke with Freud over Freud’s insistence on the Oedipus complex as the root of all psychological problems, whereas Jung went on to develop his ideas of multiple archetypes at the source of multiple complexes. The difference between “complex” and “archetype” is that the complex is an accretion of personal information with a universal archetype at its core. At the beginning of his practice, Jung used hypnotism (along with word-association) to discover the complexes. When under the thrall of a complex, one behaves as one under a hypnotic suggestion. 


Jung described the ego itself as a complex:


“…the psyche is not an indivisible unity but a divisible and more or less divided whole. Although the separate parts are connected with one another, they are relatively independent, so much so that certain parts of the psyche never become associated with the ego at all, or only very rarely. I have called these psychic fragments ‘autonomous complexes,’ and I based my theory of complexes on their existence. According to this theory the ego-complex forms the centre characteristic of our psyche. But it is only one among several complexes.” Vol.8, p.307, 582


’complexes are in truth the living units of the unconscious psyche …’ (Jung, CW 8, para 210).



The ego is a necessary discriminating consciousness, but becomes distorted through identification with unconscious complexes. An inflated ego is one that identifies with only the ideal and rejects and represses the ‘shadow’ aspects. Here are some quotes that would well describe Kinbote:



“An inflated consciousness is always egocentric, and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead. Paradoxically enough, inflation is a regression of consciousness into unconsciousness. This always happens when consciousness takes too many unconscious contents upon itself and loses the faculty of discrimination, the sine qua non of all consciousness.” (CW8, p. 481)


“…a consciousness heightened by an inevitable one-sidedness gets so far out of touch with the primordial images that a breakdown ensues. Long before the actual catastrophe, the signs of error announce themselves in atrophy of instinct, nervousness, disorientation, entanglement in impossible situations and problems.”  (Jung, Vol.13 CW, p.13)



“Everyone who has dealings with such cases knows how perilous an inflation can be. No more than a flight of steps or a smooth floor is needed to precipitate a fatal fall…Inflation magnifies the blind spot in the eye, and the more we are assimilated by the projection-making factor, the greater becomes the tendency to identify with it. A clear symptom of this is our growing disinclination to take note of the reactions of the environment and pay heed to them.:  (Aion, 308)



“It is often tragic to see how blatantly a man bungles his own life and the lives of others yet remains totally incapable of seeing how much the whole tragedy originates in himself and how he continually feeds it and keeps it going. Not consciously, of course – for consciously he is engaged in bewailing and cursing a faithless world that recedes further and further into the distance. Rather, it is an unconscious factor which spins the illusions that veil his world. And what is being spun is a cocoon which in the end will completely envelop him” (Aion 294)



If the unconscious figures are not acknowledged as spontaneous agents, we become victims of a one-sided belief in the power of consciousness, leading finally to acute tension. A catastrophe is then bound to happen because, for all our consciousness, the dark powers of the psyche have been overlooked. It is not we who personify them; they have a personal nature from the very beginning. Only when this is thoroughly recognized can we think of depersonalizing them of ‘subjugating the anima’ as our text expresses it.”  (Vol.13, CW, p.42)