From my work in progress: Art, Alchemy and Failed Transcendence; Jungian Influences in Nabokov’s Pale Fire

We have seen (elsewhere) that the Vanessa atalanta butterfly is associated with Sybil, Disa, Kinbote and Gradus; if we accept Brian Boyd’s theory, with Hazel as well. It is also clearly Shade’s name for his personal muse.

Why did Nabokov choose this particular butterfly as emblematic of all the above? His personal butterfly/muse was the Parnassus Mnemosyne, a particularly apt choice, as it relates to the abode of, and mother of, the muses.

The Vanessa is an apt choice for Pale Fire as its other name, “Red Admirable”, associates Sybil with the Red Queen and thus the red side of the chess game. More important, though, is the myth of Atalanta, the essential myth of alchemy, and how that relates to the “sacred marriage” (the union of opposites), and the transcendence of Art. The myth is also known as “The Marriage of Art and Nature”. That is, how Art triumphs over Nature. This was always and only the real concern of Nabokov. I see Pale Fire as his manifesto, his statement of his genius and the greatness of his art. All of the themes, tropes, allusions, parodies, mysteries and games in themselves do not mean anything unless they lead to this statement. He tells us as much, with his “cells within cells”, “text not texture”, “plexed artistry”, “combinational talent”, etc. There is a warp and weft to his “magic carpet”, through which the thread of Atalanta runs.

The myth:

Atalanta was a princess of Arcadia, the bucolic Isle of the Hesperides. Her father, who had rejected her for want of a son, insisted she marry, but she had pledged herself to the virgin goddess Artemis, and refused. A huntress, like Artemis, she was extremely fleet and could outrun any man, so she told her father that she would only marry a man who could outrun her; those who failed would be killed. Many were. An ardent youth, Hippomenes prayed to the goddess Aphrodite for help. She gave him three golden apples and instructed him to throw them down as he ran against Atalanta. He did, and Atalanta stopped each time to them pick up, causing her to tarry and lose the race. They fell into love and lust and consecrated their union in the temple of Kybele. The Mother goddess, angry at the desecration of her temple, turned them into two red lions, which she yoked to her chariot.


“The idea that the art can make something higher than nature is typically alchemical.” (Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, p.135)

The alchemists used the myth of Atalanta to explain the major transformation process of alchemy. I have described this elsewhere, so will not go into detail. The 17th century alchemist, Michael Meier, wrote a treatise titled “Atalanta Fugiens” (Atalanta Fleeing), a book of 50 discourses on alchemy, each accompanied by an engraved image (emblem), an epigrammatic verse, and a musical fugue. The fugue was to be sung by three characters: Atalanta, Hippomenes and… a golden apple. The title, “Atalanta Fugiens”, is a pun on the word “fugue”, which Nabokov would surely appreciate. The work employed contrapuntal motifs, a favorite theme of Nabokov’s, as well as anagrams and word play as secret subtext, called “argot”. The epigrammatic verse below hints at the importance of the Atalanta myth:

He that can Cybele’s Mystic change Explain,

And those two Lions with true Redness stain,

Commands that treasure plenteous Nature gives

And free from Pain in Wisdom’s Splendor lives.

The alchemists referred to their work as “art” and themselves as “artifex”. The “Art triumphs Nature” theme of Atalanta has somewhat of a connotation of “trickery”, as in the ability to outdo Nature through human wiles. “Atalanta Fugiens”, however, is designed with the idea of combining the fine arts of music, visual and poetic arts. Nabokov claimed to enjoy employing “deceit to the point of diabolism” in his art. Art, poetry, counterpoint, wordplay, sacred marriage; one can see why Nabokov would choose this as a major substrate to his work. Pale Fire also has a contrapuntal fugue-like arrangement between the three main characters, incorporates word-play and has many allusions to alchemy, including the “union of opposites” (sacred marriage), hidden treasure (the philosopher’s stone) and transforming base material (literary appropriation) into (literary) gold.

The name, “Vanessa” did not exist until the poet/essayist/satirist Jonathan Swift created it in 1712 for his lover, Esther Vanhomrigh (Van+Esther), in his poem, "Cadenus and Vanessa". The poem, referenced by Kinbote (C270), is a mock myth based partially on the myth of Atalanta. “Vanessa” was a young woman who had an intellect that surpassed most men, and seemed therefore doomed to never marry. She was in love with “Cadenus”, an older man in his forties, who tried to dissuade her. “Cadenus” is an anagram of “decanus” (dean), a post held by Swift. Esther Vanhomrigh died brokenhearted shortly after Swift dropped her and married another.

Vanessa and Atalanta were both young women whom Carl Jung would describe as “animus possessed” – that is, with a strong masculine identification, so that marriage becomes problematical. The Atalanta myth and Swift’s poem have parallels to Shade and Kinbote (as well as Nabokov) and their respective spouses. The women are beautiful and highly intelligent; their men are unsurpassable. Both Shade and Nabokov “temper love and books together” with their wives. The poem is more commensurate, though, with Kinbote and Disa’s story: 19 year old Disa, looking first like a boy, had some attraction for the 40-something Kinbote, but he could not return her love. Like poor Esther, faithful Disa is in unfaltering pain over this.

The character most referenced however, has no actual direct reference to the Vanessa Atalanta within the text: Hazel.  Hazel, like Atalanta, was rejected by her father* - her father who nevertheless wanted her to marry. Like Vanessa, she is rejected by a “decanus”: Pete Dean.

The name "Atalanta" can be deciphered 3 times in Hazel's spirit message in the barn. The centrality of the Atalanta theme is why I feel convinced that the message must convey something on the order of "sacred marriage", "Art triumphs Nature" and the meaning of transcendence. 

*(I Agree with Mathew Roth's “A Small Mad Hope: Pale Fire, Hazel Shade and the Oedipal Disaster” paper regarding Shade's rejection of Hazel)


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