Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024896, Mon, 16 Dec 2013 09:19:24 -0500

Re: mandible
LaFontaine was wrong,
dead is the mandible, alive the song

–from Canto 2.

I think that mandible is difficult & awkward.
It impedes the narrative for the listener
until the semantics here are worked-out.
But the meaning of the English Linguist,
as I read it, is itself difficult;
and central to understanding the poem.

Any long narrative poem written in strong form
is apt to have its weak spots,
where the poet desperately wants to get a point across;
and hence the awkwardness.
Here, it is to get to an inversion of the sense
of the hanging conclusion in LaFontaine's petite poem.

Chaucer has such moments too.

But the synecdoche gets the job done.
And I see no fault in using such a fancy device.
Shade uses lots of fancy rhetorical devices;
most notably, all the double rhymes
& the internal rhymes, also,
the precise symmetry of the Cantos themselves
can be viewed as a very fancy constraint.
Shade is rhetorical enough so that
using synecdoche is not going to pull him
out of character in my opinion.

Moreover this is not the only synecdoche in Pale Fire.

Again school started, and on hillsides where
Wound distant roads, one saw the steady stream
Of carlights all returning to the dream
Of college education.

Here the fancy device rolls by unnoticed
because its meaning is readily understood.
The students are returning to Wordsmith;
only not Hazel.

This is not the only weak spot in the poem.
Aunt Maud's pet phrase scarf skin
is laughably bad. (The kind of ham-handed segue
that a famous cannibal once complained-about...)
But that silliness, ironically, helps justify its inclusion;
as foil to the sobering description
of Maud Shade's stroke which immediately follows.

[This kind of aesthetic irony, that seems to invert
the notions of what is excellent and expected
in verse, raises thorny issues about
what might seem as if the poet is
having his cake and eating it too,
that good is good, and bad is good too!
Yet Shade can disclaim it as being
Maud's word and part of her sensibilities.]

Also note that this badness
points to the importance that the nail-paring stanza
must have for the author; who might have just
thrown the whole stanza away.

The passage works; after-a-fashion.
Yet if there were readily available alternatives
in either of the cases, I'd bet one of these would have gotten used;
and the poem would probably be improved for it.

Mandible, for me,
is just a part of the problem
of why La Cigale et la Fourmi,
seems so central, structurally,
to Pale Fire, the poem.

Short Answer:
When the English Linguist inverts the fable's logic,
(it's anti-carpe diem message, )
he is declaring that he, unlike the stingy ant,
nourishes, i.e. provides for, the poor singer-cicada;
the person he is addressing,
John Shade.

This providing-for can be read as soothsaying,
a prediction of Hazel's birth,
as well as a kind of, dark & deep, gifting.

2cents-ually yours,

On Dec 12, 2013, at 2:56 PM, Barrie Akin wrote:

> Dear List
> 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.
> So I welcome Matthew’s musings here and will think again!
> Barrie Akin
> From: Vladimir Nabokov Forum [mailto:NABOKV-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU] On Behalf Of Roth, Matthew
> Sent: 10 December 2013 15:44
> Subject: [NABOKV-L] THOUGHTS re: mandibles, mandevils, man devils
> Carolyn brought up the passage in Shade’s poem (243-44) that reads: “Lafontaine was wrong: / Dead is the mandible, alive the song.” I will go way out on a limb (if anyone comes with me it will crack) and say that I have always felt there was something undiscovered here. I haven’t worked it out, but two connections come to mind. “Mandible” chimes with “Mandevil,” the surname of the Zemblan cousins Mirador (good) and Radomir (bad). So there may be some connection to Kinbote’s tale. But I have never been able to shake a supplementary echo from Shakespeare’sTwelfth Night (IV.2), which ends with a song by the clown, Feste (who has been engaged in trying to convince a sane man, Malvolio, that he is mad):
> Clown
> [Singing]
> I am gone, sir,
> And anon, sir,
> I'll be with you again,
> In a trice,
> Like to the old Vice,
> Your need to sustain;
> Who, with dagger of lath,
> In his rage and his wrath,
> Cries, ah, ha! to the devil:
> Like a mad lad,
> Pare thy nails, dad;
> Adieu, goodman devil.
> Exit
> Vice was the devil’s fool in the old morality plays, wherein he tried to pare the devil’s long nails with his wooden sword. If we look back at the passage in “PF,” we see that the next line after the “mandible” line reads: “And so I pare my nails . . . .” In my fever dream, then, Shade is the mad lad (“in my demented youth”), the man-devil, paring his nails. And if “man devil” = “mandible,” we can then can read the passage as “Shade is dead, but his poem will live on by way of Kinbote.” As I said, highly speculative, but one of those private associations that nonetheless vibrates a little in my upper spine.
> Matt Roth
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