Tessera Square & password Pity in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 05/09/2021 - 18:23

Describing Shade’s murder by Gradus, Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) compares himself to a stone king on a stone charger in the Tessera Square of Onhava (the capital of Zembla):


His first bullet ripped a sleeve button off my black blazer, another sang past my ear. It is evil piffle to assert that he aimed not at me (whom he had just seen in the library - let us be consistent, gentlemen, ours is a rational world after all), but at the gray-locked gentleman behind me. Oh, he was aiming at me all right but missing me every time, the incorrigible bungler, as I instinctively backed, bellowing and spreading my great strong arms (with my left hand still holding the poem, "still clutching the inviolable shade," to quote Matthew Arnold, 1822-1888), in an effort to halt the advancing madman and shield John, whom I feared he might, quite accidentally, hit, while he, my sweet, awkward old John, kept clawing at me and pulling me after him, back to the protection of his laurels, with the solemn fussiness of a poor lame boy trying to get his spastic brother out of the range of the stones hurled at them by schoolchildren, once a familiar sight in all countries. I felt - I still feel - John's hand fumbling at mine, seeking my fingertips, finding them, only to abandon them at once as if passing to me, in a sublime relay race, the baton of life.

One of the bullets that spared me struck him in the side and went through his heart. His presence behind me abruptly failing me caused me to lose my balance, and, simultaneously, to complete the farce of fate, my gardener's spade dealt gunman Jack from behind the hedge a tremendous blow on the pate, felling him and sending his weapon flying from his grasp. Our savior retrieved it and helped me to my feet. My coccyx and right wrist hurt badly but the poem was safe. John, though, lay prone on the ground, with a red spot on his white shirt. I still hoped he had not been killed. The madman sat on the porch step, dazedly nursing with bloody hands a bleeding head. Leaving the gardener to watch over him I hurried into the house and concealed the invaluable envelope under a heap of girls' galoshes, furred snowboots and white wellingtons heaped at the bottom of a closet, from which I exited as if it had been the end of the secret passage that had taken me all the way out of my enchanted castle and right from Zembla to this Arcady. I then dialed 11111 and returned with a glass of water to the scene of the carnage. The poor poet had now been turned over and lay with open dead eyes directed up at the sunny evening azure. The armed gardener and the battered killer were smoking side by side on the steps. The latter, either because he was in pain, or because he had decided to play a new role, ignored me as completely as if I were a stone king on a stone charger in the Tessera Square of Onhava; but the poem was safe.

The gardener took the glass of water I had placed near a flowerpot beside the porch steps and shared it with the killer, and then accompanied him to the basement toilet, and presently the police and the ambulance arrived, and the gunman gave his name as Jack Grey, no fixed abode, except the Institute for the Criminal Insane, ici, good dog, which of course should have been his permanent address all along, and which the police thought he had just escaped from.

"Come along, Jack, we'll put something on that head of yours," said a calm but purposeful cop stepping over the body, and then there was the awful moment when Dr. Sutton's daughter drove up with Sybil Shade. (note to Line 1000)


Sybil Shade (the poet's wife) and Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) seem to be one and the same person (whose "real" name is Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin). In Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid Aeneas inquires whether the Cumaean Sibyl can gain him entrance to Dis (the underworld), so that he might visit his father's spirit. In Book VII of the Aeneid Virgil mentions tessera (a square tablet; a ticket inscribed with the watchword; the watchword or password):


classica iamque sonant, it bello tessera signum;

hic galeam tectis trepidus rapit, ille trementisad

iuga cogit equos, clipeumque auroque trilicem

loricam induitur fidoque accingitur ense. (ll. 637-640)


And now the clarion sounds; the password goes forth, the sign for war.

One in wild haste snatches a helmet from his home;

another harnesses his quivering steeds to the yoke,

dons his shield and coat of mail, triple-linked with gold, and girds on his trusty sword.


According to Kinbote, in a theological dispute with him Shade said that the password was Pity:


We happened to start speaking of the general present-day nebulation of the notion of "sin," of its confusion with the much more carnally colored ideal of "crime," and I alluded briefly to my childhood contacts with certain rituals of our church. Confession with us is auricular and is conducted in a richly ornamented recess, the confessionist holding a lighted taper and standing with it beside the priest's high-backed seat which is shaped almost exactly as the coronation chair of a Scottish king. Little polite boy that I was, I always feared to stain his purple-black sleeve with the scalding tears of wax that kept dripping onto my knuckles, forming there tight little crusts, and I was fascinated by the illumed concavity of his ear resembling a seashell or a glossy orchid, a convoluted receptacle that seemed much too large for the disposal of my peccadilloes.

SHADE: All the seven deadly sins are peccadilloes but without three of them, Pride, Lust and Sloth, poetry might never have been born.

KINBOTE: Is it fair to base objections upon obsolete terminology?

SHADE: All religions are based upon obsolete terminology.

KINBOTE: What we term Original Sin can never grow obsolete.

SHADE: I know nothing about that. In fact when I was small I thought it meant Cain killing Abel. Personally, I am with the old snuff-takers: L'homme est né bon.

KINBOTE: Yet disobeying the Divine Will is a fundamental definition of Sin.

SHADE: I cannot disobey something which I do not know and the reality of which I have the right to deny.

KINBOTE: Tut-tut. Do you also deny that there are sins?

SHADE: I can name only two: murder, and the deliberate infliction of pain.

KINBOTE: Then a man spending his life in absolute solitude could not be a sinner?

SHADE: He could torture animals. He could poison the springs on his island. He could denounce an innocent man in a posthumous manifesto.

KINBOTE: And so the password is – ?

SHADE: Pity.

KINBOTE: But who instilled it in us, John? Who is the Judge of life, and the Designer of death?

SHADE: Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.

KINBOTE: Now I have caught you, John: once we deny a Higher Intelligence that plans and administrates our individual hereafters we are bound to accept the unspeakably dreadful notion of Chance reaching into eternity. Consider the situation, Throughout eternity our poor ghosts are exposed to nameless vicissitudes. There is no appeal, no advice, no support, no protection, nothing. Poor Kinbote's ghost, poor Shade's shade, may have blundered, may have taken the wrong turn somewhere - oh, from sheer absent-mindedness, or simply through ignorance of a trivial rule in the preposterous game of nature - if there be any rules.

SHADE: There are rules in chess problems: interdiction of dual solutions, for instance.

KINBOTE: I had in mind diabolical rules likely to be broken by the other party as soon as we come to understand them. That is why goetic magic does not always work. The demons in their prismatic malice betray the agreement between us and them, and we are again in the chaos of chance. Even if we temper Chance with Necessity and allow godless determinism, the mechanism of cause and effect, to provide our souls after death with the dubious solace of metastatistics, we still have to reckon with the individual mishap, the thousand and second highway accident of those scheduled for independence Day in Hades. No-no, if we want to be serious about the hereafter let us not begin by degrading it to the level of a science-fiction yarn or a spiritualistic case history. The ideal of one's soul plunging into limitless and chaotic afterlife with no Providence to direct her –

SHADE: There is always a psychopompos around the corner, isn't there?

KINBOTE: Not around that corner, John. With no Providence the soul must rely on the dust of its husk, on the experience gathered in the course of corporeal confinement, and cling childishly to small-town principles, local by-laws and a personality consisting mainly of the shadows of its own prison bars. Such an idea is not to be entertained one instant by the religious mind. How much more intelligent it is - even from a proud infidel's point of view! - to accept God's Presence - a faint phosphorescence at first, a pale light in the dimness of bodily life, and a dazzling radiance after it? I too, I too, my dear John, have been assailed in my time by religious doubts. The church helped me to fight them off. It also helped me not to ask too much, not to demand too clear an image of what is unimaginable. St. Augustine said –

SHADE: Why must one always quote St. Augustine to me?

KINBOTE: As St. Augustine said, "One can know what God is not; one cannot know what He is." I think I know what He is not: He is not despair, He is not terror, He is not the earth in one's rattling throat, not the black hum in one's ears fading to nothing in nothing. I know also that the world could not have occurred fortuitously and that somehow Mind is involved as a main factor in the making of the universe. In trying to find the right name for that Universal Mind, or First Cause, or the Absolute, or Nature, I submit that the Name of God has priority. (note to Line 549)


In his essay O poezii Innokentiya Annenskogo (“On the Poetry of Innokentiy Annenski,” 1910) included in his book Borozdy i mezhi (“Furrows and Boundaries,” 1916) Vyacheslav Ivanov says that it is zhalost’ (pity) that makes Annenski, this half-Frenchman, half-Hellene of the period of decline, a profoundly Russian poet:


Естественным результатом этого обращения к тюремному мученичеству своего или чужого я является в возможности, как последнее слово лирического порыва, целая гамма отрицательных эмоций — отчаяния, ропота, уныния, горького скепсиса, жалости к себе и своему соседу по одиночной камере. В поэзии Анненского из этой гаммы настойчиво слышится повсюду нота жалости. И именно жалость, как неизменная стихия всей лирики и всего жизнечувствия, [делает] этого полу-француза, полу-эллина времен упадка, — глубоко русским поэтом, как бы вновь приобщает его нашим родным христианским корням. Подобно античным скептикам, он сомневался во всем, кроме одного: реальности испытываемого страдания. Отсюда — mens pagana, anima christiana. И кто так, как он, думал о дочери Иаира, поистине должен был знать сердцем Христа. (I)


Polu-frantsuz, polu-ellin (“a half-Frenchman, half-Hellene,” as V. Ivanov calls Annenski) brings to mind polurusskiy sosed (a half-Russian neighbor), as in Eugene Onegin (Two: XII: 1-5) Pushkin calls Lenski:


Богат, хорош собою, Ленской
Везде был принят как жених;
Таков обычай деревенской;
Все дочек прочили своих
За полурусского соседа:


Wealthy, good-looking, Lenski
was as a suitor everywhere received:
such is the country custom;
all for their daughters planned a match
with the half-Russian neighbor.


Pushkin’s Onegin remembered, though not without fault, two lines from the Aeneid:


Латынь из моды вышла ныне:
Так, если правду вам сказать,
Он знал довольно по-латыне,
Чтоб эпиграфы разбирать,
Потолковать об Ювенале,
В конце письма поставить vale,
Да помнил, хоть не без греха,
Из Энеиды два стиха.
Он рыться не имел охоты
В хронологической пыли
Бытописания земли;
Но дней минувших анекдоты,
От Ромула до наших дней,
Хранил он в памяти своей.


Latin has gone at present out of fashion;

still, to tell you the truth,

he had enough knowledge of Latin

to make out epigraphs,

expatiate on Juvenal,

put at the bottom of a letter vale,

and he remembered, though not without fault,

two lines from the Aeneid.

He had no inclination

to rummage in the chronological

dust of the earth's historiography,

but anecdotes of days gone by,

from Romulus to our days,

he did keep in his memory. (One: VI)


According to VN (EO Commentary, vol. II, p. 53), one of those lines could be “una salus victis, sperare nullam salutem” – “Le seul salute des vaincus est de n’attendre aucun salut” (Aeneid, II, 354, with a comfortable French position for nullam after, instead of before, sperare).


Describing the reign of Charles the Beloved, Kinbote mentions a contented Sosed (Zembla’s gigantic neighbor):


That King's reign (1936-1958) will be remembered by at least a few discerning historians as a peaceful and elegant one. Owing to a fluid system of judicious alliances, Mars in his time never marred the record. Internally, until corruption, betrayal, and Extremism penetrated it, the People's Place (parliament) worked in perfect harmony with the Royal Council. Harmony, indeed, was the reign's password. The polite arts and pure sciences flourished. Technicology, applied physics, industrial chemistry and so forth were suffered to thrive. A small skyscraper of ultramarine glass was steadily rising in Onhava. The climate seemed to be improving. Taxation had become a thing of beauty. The poor were getting a little richer, and the rich a little poorer (in accordance with what may be known some day as Kinbote's Law). Medical care was spreading to the confines of the state: less and less often, on his tour of the country, every autumn, when the rowans hung coral-heavy, and the puddles tinkled with Muscovy glass, the friendly and eloquent monarch would be interrupted by a pertussal "backdraucht" in a crowd of schoolchildren. Parachuting had become a popular sport. Everybody, in a word, was content - even the political mischiefmakers who were contentedly making mischief paid by a contented Sosed (Zembla's gigantic neighbor). But let us not pursue this tiresome subject. (note to Line 12)


The "prefix" polu- (half-, semi-, demi-) occurs five times in the first three lines of G. Ivanov's poem Polu-zhalost'. Polu-otvrashchen'e... ("Half-pity. Half-disgust…" 1953):


Полу-жалость. Полу-отвращенье.
Полу-память. Полу-ощущенье,
Полу-неизвестно что,
Полы моего пальто:
Полы моего пальто? Так вот в чем дело!
Чуть меня машина не задела
И умчалась вдаль, забрызгав грязью.
Начал вытирать, запачкал руки:
Все ещё мне не привыкнуть к скуке,
Скуке мирового безобразья!


The poem's second half (“I was nearly hit by a car,” etc.) brings to mind a scene described by Kinbote in his Foreword to Shade’s poem:


February and March in Zembla (the two last of the four "white-nosed months," as we call them) used to be pretty rough, too, but even a peasant's room there presented a solid of uniform warmth--not a reticulation of deadly drafts. It is true that, as usually happens to newcomers, I was told I had chosen the worst winter in years--and this at the latitude of Palermo. On one of my first mornings there, as I was preparing to leave for college in the powerful red car I had just acquired, I noticed that Mr. and Mrs. Shade, neither of whom I had yet met socially (I was to learn later that they assumed I wished to be left alone), were having trouble with their old Packard in the slippery driveway where it emitted whines of agony but could not extricate one tortured rear wheel out of a concave inferno of ice. John Shade busied himself clumsily with a bucket from which, with the gestures of a sower, he distributed handful of brown sand over the blue glaze. He wore snowboots, his vicuna collar was up, his abundant gray hair looked berimed in the sun. I knew he had been ill a few months before, and thinking to offer my neighbors a ride to the campus in my powerful machine, I hurried out toward them. A lane curving around the slight eminence on which my rented castle stood separated it from my neighbors' driveway, and I was about to cross that lane when I lost my footing and sat down on the surprisingly hard snow. My fall acted as a chemical reagent on the Shades' sedan, which forthwith budged and almost ran over me as it swung into the lane with John at the wheel strenuously grimacing and Sybil fiercely talking to him. I am not sure either saw me.


In his poem Kak v Gretsiyu Bayron, o, bez sozhalen'ya ("Like Byron to Greece, oh, without regret..." 1927) G. Ivanov (the author of an offensive article on Sirin in the Paris émigré review Chisla, “Numbers,” # 1, 1930) mentions blednyi ogon’ (pale fire). G. Ivanov's poem Polu-zhalost'. Polu-otvrashchen'e... brings to mind Pushkin’s epigram on Count Vorontsov (who called Pushkin “a weak imitator of Lord Byron”):


Полу-милорд, полу-купец,
Полу-мудрец, полу-невежда,)
Полу-подлец, но есть надежда,
Что будет полным наконец.


Half-milord, half-merchant,

Half-sage, half-ignoramus,

Half-scoundrel, but there's a hope

Thet he will be a full one at last.


Annenski wrote poetry and essays under the penname Nik. T-o (“Mr. Nobody,” a translation of Greek Outis, the pseudonym used by Odysseus to conceal his identity from Polyphemus, the Cyclops in Homer's Odyssey). Lermontov poem Net, ya ne Bayron, ya drugoy… (“No, I’m not Byron, I’m another…” 1832) ends in the line Ya – ili Bog – ili nikto (Myself – or God – or none at all). In his poem Lermontov compares his soul to the ocean in which nadezhd razbitykh gruz (a load of broken hopes) lies. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade’s “real” name). Nadezhda means “hope.” There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov, will be full again.


In last stanza of his poem Pered zerkalom ("In Front of the Mirror," 1924) Hodasevich mentions Virgil (Dante's guide in the underworld):


Да, меня не пантера прыжками
На парижский чердак загнала.
И Виргилия нет за плечами,-
Только есть одиночество - в раме
Говорящего правду стекла.


Well, there was no leaping panther
chasing me up to my Paris garret,
and there's no Virgil at my shoulder -
there's only my singular self in the frame
of the talking, truthtelling looking-glass.

(transl. Peter Daniels)


At the beginning of his poem, with the epigraph Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita (the opening line of Dante's Inferno), Hodasevich repeats the word я (I) three times:


Я, я, я! Что за дикое слово!
Неужели вон тот - это я?
Разве мама любила такого,
Жёлто-серого, полуседого
И всезнающего, как змея?


Me, me, me. What a preposterous word! 
Can that man there really be me?
Did Mama really love this face,
dull yellow with greying edges
like an ancient know-it-all snake?


In the first three lines of Shade's poem the first-person pronoun 'I' (the first word of Shade's poem) is repeated three times: 


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane;

I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I

Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky. (ll. 1-4)


In his review of Hodasevich's Sobranie stikhov ("Collection of Poems," 1927) VN speaks of an "optical" aspect in Hodasevich's poetry and mentions numerous reflections in a mirror, windowpane, etc. in his poems:


Очень интересен в творчестве Ходасевича некий оптическо-аптекарско-химическо-анатомический налёт на многих его стихах. Обыкновенно у него это прием заключительный: "в душе и мире есть пробелы, как бы от пролитых кислот" (так кончается стихотворение "Автомобиль"). Другое стихотворение кончается так: "светлый космос возникает под зыбким пологом ресниц, он кружится и расцветает звездой велосипедных спиц". К той же оптической области относятся многочисленные упоминания отражений в зеркале, в оконном стекле и т. д. "Неузнанный проходит Каин с экземою между бровей" или "и так отрадно, что в аптеке есть кисленький пирамидон" тоже хорошие примеры заключительных аккордов Ходасевича.


Hodasevich's essay Zhalost' i "zhalost'" (Pity and "Pity," 1935) is a reply to G. Adamovich, a hostile critic who was a model of Mortus, a character in VN's novel Dar ("The Gift," 1937).


VN would also remember Sasha Chyorny's poem Chitatel' ("The Reader," 1911) that ends as follows:


Утешенье, конечно, большущее…
Но в душе есть сознанье сосущее,
Что я сам до кончины моей,
Объедаясь трухой в изобилии,
Ни строки не прочту из Вергилия
В суете моих пёстреньких дней!


...in the fuss of my motley days

I shall never read a single line from Virgil!


At the end of his obituary essay "In Memory of A. M. Chyorny" (1932) VN mentions Sasha Chyorny's gentle, charming shade. Sasha Chyorny's poem Pervaya lastochka ("The First Swallow," 1930) is written "in the manner of Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman was "a good gray poet." Kinbote calls Shade "you bad gray poet, you" and they both giggle like boys:


Line 12: that crystal land

Perhaps an allusion to Zembla, my dear country. After this, in the disjointed, half-obliterated draft which I am not at all sure I have deciphered properly:

Ah, I must not forget to say something

That my friend told me of a certain king.

Alas, he would have said a great deal more if a domestic anti-Karlist had not controlled every line he communicated to her! Many a time have I rebuked him in bantering fashion: "You really should promise to use all that wonderful stuff, you bad gray poet, you!" And we would both giggle like boys. But then, after the inspiring evening stroll, we had to part, and grim night lifted the drawbridge between his impregnable fortress and my humble home.