puddles in basement room, something Stygian & Lethe in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 10/21/2021 - 17:46

In Canto Three of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions a dead school chum who in a blend of jauntiness and gloom points at the puddles in his basement room:


For as we know from dreams it is so hard

To speak to our dear dead! They disregard

Our apprehension, queaziness and shame -

The awful sense that they're not quite the same.

And our school chum killed in a distant war

Is not surprised to see us at his door.

And in a blend of jauntiness and gloom

Points at the puddles in his basement room. (ll. 589-596)


In his Commentary Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) writes:


We all know those dreams in which something Stygian soaks through and Lethe leaks in the dreary terms of defective plumbing. (note to Line 596)


In her poem Tam (“There,” 1900) Zinaida Hippius mentions Styx and Lethe:


Я в лодке Харона, с гребцом безучастным.
Как олово, густы тяжелые воды.
Туманная сырость над Стиксом безгласным.
Из темного камня небесные своды.
Вот Лета. Не слышу я лепета Леты.
Беззвучны удары раскидистых весел.
На камень небесный багровые светы
Фонарь наш неяркий и трепетный бросил.
Вода непрозрачна и скована ленью...
Разбужены светом, испуганы тенью,
Преследуют лодку в бесшумной тревоге
Тупая сова, две летучие мыши,
Упырь тонкокрылый, седой и безногий...
Но лодка скользит не быстрей и не тише.
Упырь меня тронул крылом своим влажным...
Бездумно слежу я за стаей послушной,
И всё мне здесь кажется странно-неважным,
И сердце, как там, на земле, — равнодушно.
Я помню, конца мы искали порою,
И ждали, и верили смертной надежде...
Но смерть оказалась такой же пустою,
И так же мне скучно, как было и прежде.
Ни боли, ни счастья, ни страха, ни мира,
Нет даже забвения в ропоте Леты...
Над Стиксом безгласным туманно и сыро,
И алые бродят по камням отсветы.


In his essay Zemlya vo rtu (“The Earth in the Mouth,” 1906) Dmitri Merezhkovski (Zinaida Hippius’ husband) says that we sit in the puddle, taking solace in the fact that this is not a puddle at all but “the Russian Idea:”


В маленьком недавнем случае со смертной казнью испанского анархиста Феррера выразился этот мистический рубеж между русским Авелем и европейским Каином. На одном конце Европы кого-то повесили -- и вся она как один человек содрогнулась от гнева и ужаса. А чего бы, казалось? На другом конце -- сколько вешают! Но ей до этого дела нет. Эскимосы едят сырое мясо, а русские вешают.
Однажды Европе почудилось, что и нам сырое мясо опротивело: Каин подошел к Авелю с братским приветом. Но это оказалось недоразумением -- и Каин вновь отшатнулся от Авеля: живите-де по-своему, -- во Христе нисходите, умирайте, убивайте друг друга; мы не судим вас, -- только и вы не мешайте нам жить по-нашему, по-окаянному.
И вот они летят, а мы сидим в луже, утешаясь тем, что это вовсе не лужа, а "русская идея".
Св. Христофор не узнал младенца Христа, которого нёс на плечах. Не так же ли Россия, слепой великан, не видит, кого несёт, -- только изнемогает под страшной тяжестью, вот-вот упадёт раздавленная? Не видит Россия, кто сидит у неё на плечах, -- младенец Христос или щенок антихристов. (VI)


Merezhkovski compares Russia to Abel and Europe, to Cain. In a theological dispute Shade mentions Cain and Abel and Kinbote says that God is not the earth in one's rattling throat:


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)


Merezhkovski is the author of “Faces. Paul. Augustine” (1936). In his Avtobiograficheskaya zametka ("The Autobiographic Note," 1941) Merezhkovski mentions the dark basements of the Elagin Palace in St. Petersburg (where he was born):


Я родился 2 августа 1865 года в Петербурге, на Елагином острове, в одном из дворцовых зданий, где наша семья проводила лето на даче. До сих пор я люблю унылые болотистые рощи и пруды елагинского парка, где мы, дети, начитавшись Майн Рида и Купера, играли "в диких". Еще уцелела та сосна, на которой я устроил себе сиденье из дощечек между ветвями, чтобы там, на высоте, сидя, как птица, читать, мечтать и чувствовать себя далеко от людей, вольным, "диким". Помню, как мы забирались в темные подвалы дворца, где на влажных сводах блестели при свете огарка сталактиты, или на плоский зеленый купол того же дворца, откуда видно взморье; помню, как мы катались на лодке, разводили костры на песчаных отмелях Крестовского острова, пекли картофель и опять чувствовали себя "дикими".