Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024886, Thu, 12 Dec 2013 20:15:57 -0200

Re: THOUGHTS re: mandibles, mandevils, man devils
Re: [NABOKV-L] [QUERY] Pushkin in LRL
Barrie Akin :"I am happy to admit that I have felt uneasy about the use of “mandible” in the lines Matthew Roth refers to but had only got as far as discovering that ants have mandibles, but cicadas do not. What continued to trouble me was that although VN would have known that fact, as presumably would John Shade, I couldn’t really see why Shade would use such a fancy figure of speech (synecdoche) here. I still can’t."

Jansy Mello: Why not refer to the ant as a "dead mandible"? The majority of Shade's students didn't know how a cicada looks like but this mustn't be true for the majority of Shade's readers, or would it? However, what motivated my reply was not to question VN's use of fancy figures of speech but the fact that there's a discussion in the VN-L about it where an article about the "mandible" was cited ( I haven't located it yet, there are more than thirty entries)* Perhaps the author, if she still follows the debates, will kindly refer us to her text?

More specifically concerning mandibles and mandevils, here is GSL addressing Matt Roth, in connection to nail parings (Dec 5,2011):
"As for the issue of Shade's belief in his own immortality
one needs only consider the nail-paring scene and its context.
That Shade really is imitating Atropos is to be seen in the following stanza about Aunt Maud after her stroke.
It's a continuation of Shade's meditation on death and decay that eventually culminates in the query:
Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
Then comes Shade's Syllogism which answers what seems to be a rhetorical question.
Most are unlucky, few escape.
Shade then goes on to describe life on earth as a cosmological prison, albeit temporary.

I am going to repost here my original brief exposition of these ideas with some small revisions.

Hopefully this clarifies everything!

(1) View Message

G.S. Lipon: I assume that VN(Shade) has inverted the sense of the original when he writes: Lafontaine was wrong:/ Dead is the mandible, alive the song. - but I've never been able to track down the original. Does anybody know anything about this?
JM: [ ] Lafontaine ... inspired his verses in one of Aesop's fables.
In Shade's poem (lines 238/240) the couple finds "An empty emerald case, squat and frog-eyed,/Hugging the trunk; and its companion piece,/ A gum-logged ant."
indicating that a living cicada is out of its case, but that the ant (its companion piece, somehow) has perished... Here is what I found in the internet: at www.bewilderingstories.com/issue209/cigale.html -
La Cigale et la fourmi
by Jean de La Fontaine

La cigale ayant chanté
Tout l'été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue :
Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau.
Elle alla crier famine
Chez la fourmi sa voisine,
La priant de lui prêter
Quelque grain pour subsister
Jusqu’à la saison nouvelle.
« Je vous paierai, lui dit-elle,
Avant l’août, foi d’animal,
Intérêt et principal. »
La fourmi n’est pas prêteuse :
C’est là son moindre défaut.
« Que faisiez-vous au temps chaud ?
Dit-elle à cette emprunteuse.
— Nuit et jour à tout venant
Je chantais, ne vous déplaise.
— Vous chantiez ? J’en suis fort aise :
Eh bien ! Dansez maintenant. »
The Cricket and the Ant
translation by Don Webb

The cricket had sung her song
all summer long
but found her victuals too few
when the north wind blew.
Nowhere could she espy
a single morsel of worm or fly.

Her neighbor, the ant, might,
she thought, help her in her plight,
and she begged her for a little grain
till summer would come back again.

“By next August I’ll repay both
Interest and principal; animal’s oath.”

Now, the ant may have a fault or two
But lending is not something she will do.
She asked what the cricket did in summer.

“By night and day, to any comer
I sang whenever I had the chance.”

“You sang, did you? That’s nice. Now dance.”

La Fontaine (1621-1695) put La Cigale et la fourmi first in the first book of his Fables precisely because it was his personal favorite. It and others in his twelve books of fables are a cultural treasure and have been memorized by generations upon generations of school children. And well they ought to be: two hundred years would pass till lyric poetry met the standard he set.

The cigale is, strictly speaking, a cicada. I use “cricket” by poetic license because the figure is more familiar to English-speaking readers.

La Fontaine’s fable is unique in that it does not end with the traditional moral, which would sum up the meaning of the poem lest an inattentive listener miss it. Rather, La Fontaine forces the readers to choose their own interpretation: is the cricket an artist or a profligate wastrel? Is the ant economical and prudent or a bourgeois philistine?

Walt Disney took his film sketch from Æsop’s dreary Fables, where the self-styled thrifty and provident have no shred of mercy for their neighbor, the singer. La Fontaine’s untraditional silence at the end of the poem speaks volumes: things are not always as simple as we’re told or as we might like to think.

La Cigale et la fourmi sets the style and tone for the rest of La Fontaine’s fables. Sweet little poems about animals? No, they are tales of terror about people living in the ancien régime — and today.

(2) https://listserv.ucsb.edu/lsv-cgi-bin/wa?A3=ind0901&L=NABOKV-L&E=quoted-printable&P=1248321&B
I hadn't realized until now that Shade approaches "cicada" and "waxwing" when writing his birthday verses*, although Kinbote called our attention to that: Lines 181-182:waxwings... cicadas - "The bird of lines 1-4 and 131 is again with us. It will reappear in the ultimate line of the poem; and another cicada, leaving its envelope behind, will sing triumphantly at lines 236-244."

The cicada's triumphant song derives from "Dead is the mandible, alive the song." and, in this instance both the song and the insect live on.

CK directed the reader to "another cicada" and away from the triumphant one, related to Hazel (it was found on the day she died), thereby emphasizing his retrospective knowledge about Shade's murder (his-song-will-survive-him thanks-to-me kind of thing).

For Shade, on that special date, both cicada and waxwings are thriving.

For Kinbote the first and the last line of PF mention the dead waxwing (the last line is, of course, the unwritten one).

For Nabokov the last word in the poem is "lane" (SO), curiously present in the "message" Hazel took down: "pada ata lane pad not ogo old wart alan ther tale feur far rant lant tal told".

CK notes on Hazel's own annotations that "...some of the balderdash may be recombined into other lexical units making no better sense (e.g., "war," "talant," "her," "arrant," etc.). The barn ghost seems to have expressed himself with the empasted difficulty of apoplexy...And in this case we too might wish to cut short a reader’s or bedfellow’s questions by sinking back into oblivion’s bliss — had not a diabolical force urged us to seek a secret design in the abracadabra..."

I wonder, now, if instead of the warning CK recognized, once more only in retrospect, these words might indicate Shade's survival in the hereafter? There are enough bifurcating lanes and lane-crossings all over PF.

F.K.Lane's letter, written on the eve of his death, mention: "The crooked made straight. The Daedalian plan simplified by a look from above — smeared out as it were by the splotch of some master thumb that made the whole involuted, boggling thing one beautiful straight line." This bird's-eye view might have appealed to Kinbote and Shade but the "beautiful straight line" is probably unrelated to any Nabokovian perspective of the hereafter. The reader must wander, cross and get cross at the various dead-ends and unfulfilled views and forking paths.

(3) https://listserv.ucsb.edu/lsv-cgi-bin/wa?A3=ind1003&L=NABOKV-L&E=quoted-printable&P=2474740&B=------%3D_NextPart_000_001E_01CAD109.CD088940&T=text%2Fhtml;%20charset=iso-8859-1

(4) Gary Lipon:
[ ] From the beginning Shade has been making claims that he later modifies in a bathetic ways,
so the reader may well anticipate another bathetic retreat here, but where is it?

This line is one of two instances where Nabokov hides alternate meanings in plain sight,
like a purloined letter.
The other is where the English Linguist utters:

je nourris
Les pauvres cigales�meaning that he
Fed the poor sea gulls!

Of course this really means: I feed the cicadas.
The cicada in Lafontaine specifically sings;
The ending of a stanza at the beginning of Canto Two: A cicada sings;
both link cicada to singing.
Shade is a poet, a kind of singer,
obsessed with his own immortality.
The EL appears and foretells that Shade will get his wish.
He gets a daughter, nine months later.
Progeny is a kind of immortality.
Half of your genetic code survives: a kind of soul.
But while the Shades presumably wanted a child,
(I think they were wedded thirteen years is it?)
Hazel herself though, isn't the immortality that the EL is granting.
Rather she is the means to literary fame (I use the term ovidian immortality).

Lafontaine was wrong:
Dead is the mandible, alive the song.

When Shade sees the ant and cicada tableau on the pine's trunk
he realizes that he is the cicada, he sings, and Hazel is the fated, gum-logged, ant.
His wish for immortality though still has been granted,
but through the gift of a theme and the experience of grief.
And so he sets out to compose Pale Fire.

When he announces near the beginning of Canto Two, A cicada sings,
is he referring to Hazel's soul, or to himself, who is about to start to sing his song in ernest,
in more detail?

Two interpretations; one obscuring the other.
It's Hazel's soul is more easily come-to. More of what the reader wants to think at this point.
Now consider: any line or passage wants some kind of meaning.
But usually just one suffices.

As he comes to the end of the composition,
and really throughout the story Shade gives signs that he believes himself to be immortal,
I am not another...
or guaranteed to be. This is particularly to be seen in the nail-pairing tableau
where he is pretending to Clotho, of the Greek trios of gods representing Fate,
or The Fates, The Moire. Shade either pretends, believes, anticipates
that his nail-paring affect the lives of each finger's associate.
Shade's life has been played-with. Now it's his turn.

Indeed this whole analysis might be termed a mythic reading of Pale Fire.
Shade's hubris is that he imagines himself to be a great artist deserving of immortality.
For his last year his life has been a forced reliving, and embellishing, of his daughter's death,
surely to memorialize her, but mostly to memorialize himself.
Eventually this drives Shade insane.
Very Greek!


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