Vladimir Nabokov

Gradus = Grail?

By MARYROSS, 11 April, 2023


I have been looking into Masonic/Rosicrucian motifs in Pale Fire.  Both secret societies call themselves "gradual,"  and have systems of "graded" "degrees" of initiation and progression towards spiritual knowledge/perfection.  Rather like the well-known textbook on prosody, Gradus ad Parnassus,   which are "steps" to achieving the heights of poetry. 


These, of course, are words that are associated with PF's Gradus. But Gradus is hardly spiritually perfected, in fact, degraded. Gradus, however, like Shade and Kinbote, is likewise on a quest - to kill Kinbote. If we can see that the three characters are archetypes in Prof. Botkin's mind, and that it is really Prof. Botkin who is making "steps" towards enlightenment, then it is Gradus, the Shadow, who causes the irruption in the glass factory of Botkin's unconscious which instigates the quest to "kill" the Ego (Kinbote), through first "killing" the ego-ideal Persona, Shade. Then, Gradus realizes he was never really any good, no longer needed and kills himself. That is, the Shadow (unconscious) has become self-conscious and cannot continue as a Shadow.  This is the "Hero's Journey" (Jung's path of individuation) quest in brief. Masonic and Rosicrucian societies are founded on alchemy, hermeticism, Kaballah systems of magical transmutation of the soul of the "tri-part" man.


SO... I just found out that the Rosicrucians teach that their "gradual" "degrees" are aimed at the Holy Grail, which comes from the word "gradalis."


.--The 'Just Man made Perfect' is the Alchemist (or rather, Rosicrucian) who, having found the Philosophers’ Stone (San Graal, or Holy Grail, or 'Sang Reale' or 'Holy Rapture' or Magic Birth into the Celestial Fire, or flame of Self-Extinguishment, or of 'Ecstasy'), becomes immortal (and disappears, or 'dies' to the world).



Here is a wikipedia description of Grail etymology (my emphasis in bold):


The most commonly accepted etymology derives it from Latin gradalis or gradale via an earlier form, cratalis, a derivative of crater or cratus, which was, in turn, borrowed from Ancient Greek krater (κρᾱτήρ, a large wine-mixing vessel).[3][4][5][6][7] Alternative suggestions include a derivative of cratis, a name for a type of woven basket that came to refer to a dish,[8] or a derivative of Latin gradus meaning "'by degree', 'by stages', applied to a dish brought to the table in different stages or services during a meal".[9]



Remember the "krater" in the castle tunnel? Alchemists sometimes called their vessel a krater. Another word they employed was situla.  Remember Kinbote's situla in the castle closet? Kinbote has had his little situla pail since childhood, which he filled with the precious things of his childhood: shiny stones and seashells, just as children gather special memories. As a little boy, King Charles brought these "treasures" for the approval of his father, King Alfin, to admire. Although King Alfin was actually a complete air-head, like all fathers to little boys he was god-like; thus the "conchologist" Kinbote later refers to (as well as to himself):


To return to the King: take for instance the question of personal culture. How often is it that kings engage in some special research? ConchoJogists among them can be counted on the fingers of one maimed hand. 


The little situla, when Kinbote finds it, no longer is filled with pebbles and shells; they have  been "transmuted to a precious blue diamond.  In esoteric circles, the brilliant indigo circle with a diamond-like star inside is seen by the 3rd eye as one meditates and grows in consciousness. I believe this is the blue diamond in the situla, and is the real "talisman" he takes with him on his journey. It shows up after his trek as the "pebble" he finds in his shoe (shoes being a PF motif for the soul/sole). The copy of Timon of Athens, although he takes that too, I believe is a red herring. 

Alexey Sklyarenko

1 year 3 months ago

Dear Mary, you seem to confuse King Alfin with Dmitri Nikolaevich Nabokov (VN’s grandfather, the minister of justice in the reign of Alexander II and Alexander III):


At his retirement, Alexander the Third offered him [Dmitri Nabokov] to choose between the title of count and a sum of money, presumably large—I do not know what exactly an earldom was worth in Russia, but contrary to the thrifty Tsar’s hopes my grandfather (as also his uncle Ivan, who had been offered a similar choice by Nicholas the First) plumped for the more solid reward. (“Encore un comte raté,” dryly comments Sergey Sergeevich.) After that he lived mostly abroad. In the first years of this century his mind became clouded but he clung to the belief that as long as he remained in the Mediterranean region everything would be all right. Doctors took the opposite view and thought he might live longer in the climate of some mountain resort or in Northern Russia. There is an extraordinary story, which I have not been able to piece together adequately, of his escaping from his attendants somewhere in Italy. There he wandered about, denouncing, with King Lear-like vehemence, his children to grinning strangers, until he was captured in a wild rocky place by some matter-of-fact carabinieri. During the winter of 1903, my mother, the only person whose presence, in his moments of madness, the old man could bear, was constantly at his side in Nice. My brother and I, aged three and four respectively, were also there with our English governess; I remember the windowpanes rattling in the bright breeze and the amazing pain caused by a drop of hot sealing wax on my finger. Using a candle flame (diluted to a deceptive pallor by the sunshine that invaded the stone slabs on which I was kneeling), I had been engaged in transforming dripping sticks of the stuff into gluey, marvelously smelling, scarlet and blue and bronze-colored blobs. The next moment I was bellowing on the floor, and my mother had hurried to the rescue, and somewhere nearby my grandfather in a wheelchair was thumping the resounding flags with his cane. She had a hard time with him. He used improper language. He kept mistaking the attendant who rolled him along the Promenade des Anglais for Count Loris-Melikov, a (long-deceased) colleague of his in the ministerial cabinet of the eighties. “Qui est cette femme—chassez-la!” he would cry to my mother as he pointed a shaky finger at the Queen of Belgium or Holland who had stopped to inquire about his health. Dimly I recall running up to his chair to show him a pretty pebble, which he slowly examined and then slowly put into his mouth. I wish I had had more curiosity when, in later years, my mother used to recollect those times.

He would lapse for ever-increasing periods into an unconscious state; during one such lapse he was transferred to his pied-à-terre on the Palace Quay in St. Petersburg. As he gradually regained consciousness, my mother camouflaged his bedroom into the one he had had in Nice. Some similar pieces of furniture were found and a number of articles rushed from Nice by a special messenger, and all the flowers his hazy senses had been accustomed to were obtained, in their proper variety and profusion, and a bit of house wall that could be just glimpsed from the window was painted a brilliant white, so every time he reverted to a state of comparative lucidity he found himself safe on the illusory Riviera artistically staged by my mother; and there, on March 28, 1904, exactly eighteen years, day for day, before my father, he peacefully died. (Speak, Memory, Chapter Three, 1)


A seaside situla (toy pail) mentioned by Kinbote in his Commentary brings to mind Colette’s toy pail in Speak, Memory:


But when I met Colette, I knew at once that this was the real thing. Colette seemed to me so much stranger than all my other chance playmates at Biarritz! I somehow acquired the feeling that she was less happy than I, less loved. A bruise on her delicate, downy forearm gave rise to awful conjectures. “He pinches as bad as my mummy,” she said, speaking of a crab. I evolved various schemes to save her from her parents, who were “des bourgeois de Paris” as I heard somebody tell my mother with a slight shrug. I interpreted the disdain in my own fashion, as I knew that those people had come all the way from Paris in their blue-and-yellow limousine (a fashionable adventure in those days) but had drably sent Colette with her dog and governess by an ordinary coach-train. The dog was a female fox terrier with bells on her collar and a most waggly behind. From sheer exuberance, she would lap up salt water out of Colette’s toy pail. I remember the sail, the sunset and the lighthouse pictured on that pail, but I cannot recall the dog’s name, and this bothers me. (Chapter Seven, 3)


Describing his years in Cambridge, VN mentions English democrats in situ:


I soon became aware that if my views, the not unusual views of Russian democrats abroad, were received with pained surprise or polite sneers by English democrats in situ, another group, the English ultraconservatives, rallied eagerly to my side but did so from such crude reactionary motivation that I was only embarrassed by their despicable support. Indeed, I pride myself with having discerned even then the symptoms of what is so clear today, when a kind of family circle has gradually been formed, linking representatives of all nations, jolly empire-builders in their jungle clearings, French policemen, the unmentionable German product, the good old churchgoing Russian or Polish pogromshchik, the lean American lyncher, the man with the bad teeth who squirts antiminority stories in the bar or the lavatory, and, at another point of the same subhuman circle, those ruthless, paste-faced automatons in opulent John Held trousers and high-shouldered jackets, those Sitzriesen looming at all our conference tables, whom—or shall I say which?—the Soviet State began to export around 1945 after more than two decades of selective breeding and tailoring, during which men’s fashions abroad had had time to change, so that the symbol of infinitely available cloth could only provoke cruel derision (as occurred in postwar England when a famous Soviet team of professional soccer players happened to parade in mufti). (Chapter Thirteen, 3)


At Cambridge VN was a goalkeeper of his college football team:


The literary set, Nesbit and his friends, while commending my nocturnal labors, frowned upon various other things I went in for, such as entomology, practical jokes, girls, and, especially, athletics. Of the games I played at Cambridge, soccer has remained a wind-swept clearing in the middle of a rather muddled period. I was crazy about goal keeping. In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had been always surrounded with a halo of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entranced small boys. He vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation. His sweater, his peaked cap, his kneeguards, the gloves protruding from the hip pocket of his shorts, set him apart from the rest of the team. He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender. Photographers, reverently bending one knee, snap him in the act of making a spectacular dive across the goal mouth to deflect with his fingertips a low, lightning-like shot, and the stadium roars in approval as he remains for a moment or two lying full length where he fell, his goal still intact. (Chapter Thirteen, 4)


In his Commentary Kinbote mentions a certain stupendous Dynamo goalkeeper whose mannerisms Niagarin (one of the two Soviet experts hired by the Zemblan government to find the crown jewels) could imitate to perfection:


However, not all Russians are gloomy, and the two young experts from Moscow whom our new government engaged to locate the Zemblan crown jewels turned out to be positively rollicking. The Extremists were right in believing that Baron Bland, the Keeper of the Treasure, had succeeded in hiding those jewels before he jumped or fell from the North Tower; but they did not know he had had a helper and were wrong in thinking the jewels must be looked for in the palace which the gentle white-haired Bland had never left except to die. I may add, with pardonable satisfaction, that they were, and still are, cached in a totally different - and quite unexpected - corner of Zembla.

In an earlier note (to line 130) the reader has already glimpsed those two treasure hunters at work. After the King's escape and the belated discovery of the secret passage, they continued their elaborate excavations until the palace was all honeycombed and partly demolished, an entire wall of one room collapsing one night, to yield, in a niche whose presence nobody had suspected, an ancient salt cellar of bronze and King Wigbert's drinking horn; but you will never find our crown, necklace and scepter.

All this is the rule of a supernal game, all this is the immutable fable of fate, and should not be construed as reflecting on the efficiency of the two Soviet experts - who, anyway, were to be marvelously successful on a later occasion with another job (see note to line 747). Their names (probably fictitious) were Andronnikov and Niagarin. One has seldom seen, at least among waxworks, a pair of more pleasant, presentable chaps. Everybody admired their clean-shaven jaws, elementary facial expressions, wavy hair, and perfect teeth. Tall handsome Andronnikov seldom smiled but the crinkly little rays of his orbital flesh bespoke infinite humor while the twin furrows descending from the sides of his shapely nostrils evoked glamorous associations with flying aces and sagebrush heroes. Niagarin, on the other hand, was of comparatively short stature, had somewhat more rounded, albeit quite manly features, and every now and then would flash a big boyish smile remindful of scoutmasters with something to hide, or those gentlemen who cheat in television quizzes. It was delightful to watch the two splendid Sovietchiks running about in the yard and kicking a chalk-dusty, thumping-tight soccer ball (looking so large and bald in such surroundings). Andronnikov could tap-play it on his toe up and down a dozen times before punting it rocket straight into the melancholy, surprised, bleached, harmless heavens: and Niagarin could imitate to perfection the mannerisms of a certain stupendous Dynamo goalkeeper. They used to hand out to the kitchen boys Russian caramels with plums or cherries depicted on the rich luscious six-cornered wrappers that enclosed a jacket of thinner paper with the mauve mummy inside; and lustful country girls were known to creep up along the drungen (bramble-choked footpaths) to the very foot of the bulwark when the two silhouetted against the now flushed sky sang beautiful sentimental military duets at eventide on the rampart. Niagarin had a soulful tenor voice, and Andronnikov a hearty baritone, and both wore elegant jackboots of soft black leather, and the sky turned away showing its ethereal vertebrae. (note to Line 681)


In his note to Line 130 Kinbote mentions a seaside situla:


His English tutor who, after a picnic in Mandevil Forest, was laid up with a sprained ankle, did not know where that circus might be; he advised looking for it in an old lumber room at the end of the West Gallery. Thither the Prince betook himself. That dusty black trunk? It looked grimly negative. The rain was more audible here owing to the proximity of a prolix gutter pipe. What about the closet? Its gilt key turned reluctantly. All three shelves and the space beneath were stuffed with disparate objects: a palette with the dregs of many sunsets; a cupful of counters; an ivory backscratcher, a thirty-twomo edition of Timon of Athens translated into Zemblan by his uncle Conmal, the Queen's brother; a seaside situla (toy pail); a sixty-five-carat blue diamond accidentally added in his childhood, from his late father's knickknackatory, to the pebbles and shells in that pail; a finger of chalk; and a square board with a design of interlaced figures for some long-forgotten game. He was about to look elsewhere in the closet when on trying to dislodge a piece of black velvet, one corner of which had unaccountably got caught behind the shelf, something gave, the shelf budged, proved removable, and revealed just under its farther edge, in the back of the closet, a keyhole to which the same gilt key was found to fit.


Re Timon of Athens: in his poem An Acre of Grass (1938) W. B. Yeats mentions Timon and Lear:


Picture and book remain,
An acre of green grass
For air and exercise,
Now strength of body goes;
Midnight, an old house
Where nothing stirs but a mouse.

My temptation is quiet.
Here at life’s end
Neither loose imagination,
Nor the mill of the mind
Consuming its rag and bone,
Can make the truth known.

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;

A mind Michael Angelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.


In his speech on Dostoevski (delivered on the hundredth anniversary of the writer’s birth) Lunacharski (the minister of public education in Lenin’s government) compares Dostoevski to Michelangelo:


Чтобы понять, что делает Достоевский с психикой - возьмём хотя бы такой пример - вода. Для того, чтобы дать человеку полное представление о воде, заставить его объять все её свойства, надо ему показать воду, пар, лёд, разделить воду на составные части, показать, что такое тихое озеро, величаво катящая свои волны река, водопад, фонтан и проч. Словом - ему нужно показать все свойства, всю внутреннюю динамику воды. И, однако, этого всё-таки будет мало. Может быть, для того, чтобы понять динамику воды, нужно превысить данные возможности и фантастически представить человеку Ниагару, в сотню раз грандиознейшую, чем подлинная. Вот Достоевский и стремится превозмочь реальность и показать дух человеческий со всеми его неизмеримыми высотами и необъяснимыми глубинами со всех сторон. Как Микель Анджело скручивает человеческие тела в конвульсиях, в агонии, так Достоевский дух человеческий то раздувает до гиперболы, то сжимает до полного уничтожения, смешивает с грязью, низвергает его в глубины ада, то потом вдруг взмывает в самые высокие эмпиреи неба. Этими полётами человеческого духа Достоевский не только приковывает наше внимание, захватывает нас, открывает нам новые неизведанные красоты, но даёт очень много и нашему познанию, показывая нам неподозреваемые нами глубины души.


The characters in Dostoevski’s novel Podrostok (“The Adolescent,” 1875) include Andronikov (Versilov’s late lawyer). In order to explain Dostoevski’s treatment of man’s psyche, Lunacharski takes the example of water. According to Lunacharski, to understand the dynamics of water, one must imagine a fantastic Niagara Falls, a hundred times more grandiose than the real one. In the Russian version of his autobiography, Drugie berega (“Other Shores,” 1954), VN mentions Lunacharski:


Особенно меня раздражало отношение Бомстона к самому Ильичу, который, как известно всякому образованному русскому, был совершенный мещанин в своем отношении к искусству, знал Пушкина по Чайковскому и Белинскому и "не одобрял модернистов", причём под "модернистами" понимал Луначарского и каких-то шумных итальянцев; но для Бомстона и его друзей, столь тонко судивших о Донне и Хопкинсе, столь хорошо понимавших разные прелестные подробности в только что появившейся главе об искусе Леопольда Блума, наш убогий Ленин был чувствительнейшим, проницательнейшим знатоком и поборником новейших течений в литературе, и Бомстон только снисходительно улыбался, когда я, продолжая кричать, доказывал ему, что связь между передовым в политике и передовым в поэтике, связь чисто словесная (чем, конечно, радостно пользовалась советская пропаганда), и что на самом деле, чем радикальнее русский человек в своих политических взглядах, тем обыкновенно консервативнее он в художественных.


But the thing that irritated me perhaps most was Nesbit’s attitude toward Lenin himself. All cultured and discriminating Russians knew that this astute politician had about as much taste and interest in aesthetic matters as an ordinary Russian bourgeois of the Flaubertian épicier sort (the type that admired Pushkin on the strength of Chaykovski’s vile librettos, wept at the Italian opera, and was allured by any painting that told a story); but Nesbit and his highbrow friends saw in him a kind of sensitive, poetic-minded patron and promoter of the newest trends in art and would smile a superior smile when I tried to explain that the connection between advanced politics and advanced art was a purely verbal one (gleefully exploited by Soviet propaganda), and that the more radical a Russian was in politics, the more conservative he was on the artistic side. (Chapter Thirteen, 3)


1 year 3 months ago

Dear Alexey, It would be helpful when you comment to stay on topic (Gradus and the Grail).  Your comment on the situla is relevant in that Nabokov's fond memories of his childhood sea-side adventures of finding "treasure" are the source of his use of this motif in PF to indicate the "treasure" in the "vessel" (i.e.the inner "spark" in the heart), but you stray so far afield.  If you want to comment at length on other subjects, it would be preferable to do so on your personal forum. Thank you, Mary

Sorry, Mary. No more straying far awaste. Could you, please, give an example of the use of the word situla by the alchemists? I notice that in his Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts Gottfried Semper (1803-79, the architect who designed and built the Dresden Opera House, die Semperoper) mentions the situlae used by the Ancient Egyptians to scoop water from the Nile. Semper brings to mind Semberland, the Zemblan name of Zembla (btw., Sember is the Tatar name of Ulyanovsk, Lenin's home city, formerly Simbirsk). Gottfried Semper was a friend of Richard Wagner. Describing his insomnias, Kinbote mentions a Wagner record:


The Goldsworth château had many outside doors, and no matter how thoroughly I inspected them and the window shutters downstairs at bedtime, I never failed to discover next morning something unlocked, unlatched, a little loose, a little ajar, something sly and suspicious-looking. One night the black cat, which a few minutes before I had seen rippling down into the basement where I had arranged toilet facilities for it in an attractive setting, suddenly reappeared on the threshold of the music room, in the middle of my insomnia and a Wagner record, arching its back and sporting a neck bow of white silk which it could certainly never have put on all by itself. I telephoned 11111 and a few minutes later was discussing possible culprits with a policeman who relished greatly my cherry cordial, but whoever had broken in had left no trace. It is so easy for a cruel person to make the victim of his ingenuity believe that he has persecution mania, or is really being stalked by a killer, or is suffering from hallucinations. Hallucinations! Well did I know that among certain youthful instructors whose advances I had rejected there was at least one evil practical joker; I knew it ever since the time I came home from a very enjoyable and successful meeting of students and teachers (at which I had exuberantly thrown off my coat and shown several willing pupils a few of the amusing holds employed by Zemblan wrestlers) and found in my coat pocket a brutal anonymous note saying: "You have hal..... s real bad, chum," meaning evidently "hallucinations," although a malevolent critic might infer from the insufficient number of dashes that little Mr. Anon, despite teaching Freshman English, could hardly spell. (note to Line 62)


Wagner is the author of Siegfried, the third of the four music dramas that constitute Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”). In the Prologue to his poem Vozmezdie (“Retribution,” 1910-21) Alexander Blok mentions Siegfried's sword Notung and Mime, karlik litsemernyi (Mime, the hypocritical dwarf), who falls in confusion at Siegfried’s feet:


Так Зигфрид правит меч над горном:
То в красный уголь обратит,
То быстро в воду погрузит —
И зашипит, и станет чёрным
Любимцу вверенный клинок…
Удар — он блещет, Нотунг верный,
И Миме, карлик лицемерный,
В смятеньи падает у ног!


On his deathbed Conmal called his nephew (Charles the Beloved) “Karlik:”


To return to the King: take for instance the question of personal culture. How often is it that kings engage in some special research? Conchologists among them can be counted on the fingers of one maimed hand. The last king of Zembla—partly under the influence of his uncle Conmal, the great translator of Shakespeare (see notes to lines 39-40 and 962), had become, despite frequent migraines, passionately addicted to the study of literature. At forty, not long before the collapse of his throne, he had attained such a degree of scholarship that he dared accede to his venerable uncle’s raucous dying request: “Teach, Karlik!” Of course, it would have been unseemly for a monarch to appear in the robes of learning at a university lectern and present to rosy youths Finnegans Wake as a monstrous extension of Angus MacDiarmid's "incoherent transactions" and of Southey's Lingo-Grande ("Dear Stumparumper," etc.) or discuss the Zemblan variants, collected in 1798 by Hodinski, of the Kongsskugg-sio (The Royal Mirror), an anonymous masterpiece of the twelfth century. Therefore he lectured under an assumed name and in a heavy make-up, with wig and false whiskers. All brown-bearded, apple-checked, blue-eyed Zemblans look alike, and I who have not shaved now for a year, resemble my disguised king (see also note to line 894). (note to Line 12)


In one of his poems on Florence (in "The Italian Verses") Blok compares Florence to a smoky iris. Iris Acht (the mistress of Thurgus the Turgid) brings to mind Hab' acht, Tristan! ("Be careful, Tristan!", an aria in Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde). Acht means in German "eight." The Italian word for "eight" is otto. In his story Putevoditel' po Berlinu ("A Guide to Berlin," 1925) VN mentions the name Otto written on the snow. Semper's pupil Otto Simonson (a German Jewish architect) designed and built the synagoge in Leipzig (the Semper synagoge in Dresden and the Leipzig synagoge were destroyed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht in November 1938). The boy in VN's story Signs and Symbols (1948) was born in Leipzig (his parents, who hail from Minsk, moved to Germany after the 1917 Revolution). At the age of six he drew wonderful birds and suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man. According to Kinbote, even at six he fell asleep with difficulty:  


Many years ago--how many I would not care to say--I remember my Zemblan nurse telling me, a little man of six in the throes of adult insomnia: "Minnamin, Gut mag alkan, Pern dirstan" (my darling, God makes hungry, the Devil thirsty). Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I'd better stop, folks, right here.
Yes, better stop. My notes and self are petering out. Gentlemen, I have suffered very much, and more than any of you can imagine. I pray for the Lord's benediction to rest on my wretched countrymen. My work is finished. My poet is dead.

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of the other two characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, health heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned melodrama with three principles: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out--somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door--a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (note to Line 1000)


I'd stop here, too. Hope, you'll pardon me this last digression. 


PS. Like Keats, Semper died and was buried in Rome. Semper = sempre (Italian for "always"). In Chapter Eight (XXXV: 14) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin uses the prhase e sempre bene (it's always good):


Стал вновь читать он без разбора.
Прочел он Гиббона, Руссо,
Манзони, Гердера, Шамфора,
Madame de Stael, Биша, Тиссо,
Прочел скептического Беля,
Прочел творенья Фонтенеля,
Прочел из наших кой-кого,
Не отвергая ничего:
И альманахи, и журналы,
Где поученья нам твердят,
Где нынче так меня бранят,
А где такие мадригалы
Себе встречал я иногда:
Е sempre bene, господа.


Again, without discrimination,

he started reading. He read Gibbon,

Rousseau, Manzoni, Herder,

Chamfort, Mme de Staël, Bichat, Tissot.

He read the skeptic Bayle,

he read the works of Fontenelle,

he read some [authors] of our own,

without rejecting anything —

the “almanacs” and the reviews

where sermons into us are drummed,

where I'm today abused so much

but where such madrigals addressed tome

I used to meet with now and then:

e sempre bene, gentlemen.


The so-called Eugene Onegin stanza is "patterned on a sonnet." In his sonnet The Grave of Keats (1881) Oscar Wilde compares Keats to Saint Sebastian (an early Christian saint and martyr):


RID of the world's injustice, and his pain,
He rests at last beneath God's veil of blue:
Taken from life when life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.
No cypress shades his grave, no funeral yew,
But gentle violets weeping with the dew
Weave on his bones an ever-blossoming chain.
O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O sweetest lips since those of Mitylene!
O poet-painter of our English Land!
Thy name was writ in water----it shall stand:
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green,
As Isabella did her Basil-tree. 


The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) is VN's first English novel. Keats's sonnet On First Looking into Chapman's Homer (1816) is alluded to in Canto One of Shade's poem. Isabella, or the Pot of Basil (1818) is Keats's narrative poem adapted from a story in Boccaccio's Decameron (IV, 5). Describing the last moments of Shade's life, Kinbote mentions the treeman and Keats:


"Well," I said, "has the muse been kind to you?"
"Very kind," he replied, slightly bowing his hand-propped head. "exceptionally kind and gentle. In fact, I have here [indicating a huge pregnant envelope near him on the oilcloth] practically the entire product. A few trifles to settle and [suddenly striking he table with his fist] I've swung it, by God."
The envelope, unfastened at one end, bulged with stacked cards.
"Where is the missus?" I asked (mouth dry).
"Help me, Charlie, to get out of here," he pleaded. "Foot gone to sleep. Sybil is at a dinner-meeting of her club."
"A suggestion," I said, quivering. "I have at my place half a gallon of Tokay. I'm ready to share my favorite wine with my favorite poet. We shall have for dinner a knackle of walnuts, a couple of large tomatoes, and a bunch of bananas. And if you agree to show me your 'finished product,' there will be another treat: I promise to divulge to you why I gave you, or rather who gave you, your theme."
"What theme?" said Shade absently, as he leaned on my arm and gradually recovered the use of his numb limb.
"Our blue inenubilable Zembla, and the red-capped Steinmann, and the motorboat in the sea cave, and -"
"Ah," said Shade, "I think I guessed your secret quite some time ago. But all the same I shall sample your wine with pleasure. Okay, I can manage by myself now."

Well did I know he could never resist a golden drop of this or that, especially since he was severely rationed at home. With an inward leap of exultation I relieved him of the large envelope that hampered his movements as he descended the steps of the porch, sideways, like a hesitating infant. We crossed the lawn, we crossed the road. Clink-clank, came the horseshoe music from Mystery Lodge. In the large envelope I carried I could feel the hard-cornered, rubberbanded batches of index cards. We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse - I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do - pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web. Solemnly I weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and for a moment, I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.
I was holding all Zembla pressed to my heart. (note to Line 991)


The caveman brings to mind Keats's poem Fingal's Cave. "The Hebrides Overture," also known as "Fingal's Cave," is a concert overture composed by Felix Mendelssohn (the author of The Wedding March, grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn). In VN's novel Otchayanie ("Despair," 1034) Felix is the name of a tramp (who plays the fiddle at fairs and who calls philosophy "a fib of the rich") whom Hermann believes to be his perfect double. Shade’s poem is almost finished when the author is killed by Gradus. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade's poem needs but one line (Line 1000 identical to Line 1: "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain"). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade's poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: "By its own double in the windowpane").


1 year 3 months ago

Lyndy Abraham's excellent paper on alchemy allusions in Pale Fire mentions that "situla"  appears in Ruland's Lexicon of Alchemy.  It is Latin for "pail." Many ancient alchemists wrote in Latin. Also, to further confirm that VN intended the alchemy allusion, Kinbote says that the toy pail was full of bright "emblamata," a word alchemists used for the engraved illustrations in their work. (e.g. alchemist Michael Meiers' Atalanta Fugiens:  Emblamata Nova de Secretis Naturae Chymica, a book alluded to in PF.)  


While contextually it would seem Kinbote means by emblamata the various shiney stones and shells, it actually means emblems, blazons, heralds, symbols, etc.  So we might consider that the contents of the pail are symbolic in some way, e.g. as "treasure."


Please do try to stay on topic. The rest of your commentary may be interesting, but does digress quite a bit.  

Alexey Sklyarenko

1 year 3 months ago

Shakespeare's contemporary, Martin Ruland the Younger (1569-1611) has the same first name as Martin Edelweiss, the main character in VN's novel Podvig (Glory, 1932). Kinbote's Zembla brings to mind Martin's and Sonya's Zoorland in Glory. Sonya Zilanov and Martin's mother Sofia Dmitrievna are the namesakes of Sofia Botkin (the "real" name of both Sybil Shade and Queen Disa).


1 year 3 months ago

  Your comments have little to do with the topic at hand.  This would be better posted on your personal page. 

Gradus + brave = grave + bardus = Ravus + Berg/gerb/breg + ad/da


Oswin Bretwit (Zemblan former consul whom Gradus visits in Paris) is "brave Bretwit"

bardus is Latin for "stupid, oafish, dull"

Gradus also appears in police records as Ravus, Ravenstone, and d'Argus (ravus is Larin for "grayish, tawny")

Berg - mountain in German

gerb - Russ., coat of arms

breg - arch., shore (cf. Bregberg, a city in Zembla: The Bera Range, a two-hundred-mile-long chain of rugged mountains, not quite reaching the northern end of the Zemblan peninsula (cut off basally by an impassable canal from the mainland of madness), divides it into two parts, the flourishing eastern region of Onhava and other townships, such as Aros and Grindelwod, and the much narrower western strip with its quaint fishing hamlets and pleasant beach resorts. The two coasts are connected by two asphalted highways; the older one shirks difficulties by running first along the eastern slopes northward to Odevalla, Yeslove and Embla, and only then turning west at the northmost point of the peninsula; the newer one, an elaborate, twisting, marvelously graded road, traverses the range westward from just north of Onhava to Bregberg, and is termed in tourist booklets a "scenic drive." Several trails cross the mountains at various points and lead to passes none of which exceeds an altitude of five thousand feet; a few peaks rise some two thousand feet higher and retain their snow in midsummer; and from one of them, the highest and hardest, Mt. Glitterntin, one can distinguish on clear days, far out to the east, beyond the Gulf of Surprise, a dim iridescence which some say is Russia. (note to Line 149)

ad - Russ., hell

da - yes


1 year 3 months ago

I don't understand your reason for adding "brave" to Gradus?  If Bretwit (chess intelligence) is "brave" is he also stupid and dull? How does that relate to Gradus? It is rather arbitrary. It seems to lead, if I go along with your reasoning, to "a grayish mountain (or shore, or coat of arms) is, yes, a Russian hell." Maybe it is. 


Gradus does have alchemic connections to  "Ravenstone and d'Argus." The alchemic process went through "gradual" stages, the first being called the nigredo (the black), or the "raven's head." A  following stage was called the  omnes colores, or cauda pavonis (peacock's tail). Note that John Shade writes that "all colors" made me happy." The god Argus had 1000 eyes and was changed into a peacock.  (VN writes in A Night of Russian Poetry "my back was argus-eyed.") The final stage in alchemy is the philosopher's "stone," the transmutation of the black raven.


The "raven's head" was also called the "head of Mercury."  Remember the headless statue of Mercury in the tunnel along with the krater? Mercury was considered unstable, transient, and base and it was mercury (Mercurius) who was considered to go through the process of transmutation to the perfection of the "stone."    The quest for the philosopher's stone is equivalent to the quest for the Holy Grail (spiritual enlightenment). Gradus, like Mercurius, is the base element (the shadow in psychology) that is to be purified and perfected.  Syncretically we have here the alchemic and Christian quests. The alchemic situla with a purified stone, and the Grail, the wine chalice (perhaps why Gradus is associated with wine – Vinogradus?)


Remember that Gradus was a "messenger" for "syndicalist organizations"? Mercurius was a "messenger" god and "syndicalist" suggests Masonic-type secret societies.  I should also mention his connection with glass. Alchemists developed the making of glass for their alembics, and also stained glass.  Sometimes they called the stone "vitrum aureaum (golden glass)."  The explosion in the Zemblan glass factory is the revolution in consciousness brought about by the shadow erupting into Botkin's conscious mind. Degraded Gradus' opposite is the palindromic Sudarg of Bokay, the unborn (no dates given) creator of Zemblan's famed stained glass (i.e. a demi-urge). 

It all fits.

Alexey Sklyarenko

1 year 3 months ago

In reply to by MARYROSS

A ravenstone is a place of execution, akin to gallows. Vinogradus makes one think of The Eucharist (also known as Holy Communion and the Lord's Supper). Kinbote compares Gerald Emerald (the young instructor who gives Gradus a lift to Kinbote's rented house in New Wye) to a disciple in Leonardo's Last Supper

Sorry, it's 5 AM here and I'm too sleepy.


1 year 3 months ago

Oh, very interesting! That's great, Alexey! In other words a place for a beheading! and, yes, the Eucharist is intimated, and yes, Gerald Emerald  is like Judas (a trickster, or joker).

On the other hand, Ravenstone seems to hint at ravenstvo, Russian for "equality" (it brings to mind Skotoma's Ekwilism in VN's novel Bend Sinister, 1947). 


1 year 3 months ago

"Ravensto" is interesting, although I am not quite sure how it relates to Gradus. I suppose that, if we are to take Gradus as being the Jungian shadow, i.e. all that is dark and despised in the unconscious, that "equality" in the sense of ideologue mass conformity was indeed despised by Nabokov.  The rest does digress pretty far from the topic and probably is better suited to your page. Thanks.

Mary, you coined a wonderful new word (raven means in Russian "equal" and sto means "hundred")! Since neravenstvo means "inequality," neravensto (meaning "not equal 100") should also exist. So, let me introduce this neologism.


1 year 2 months ago

So, back to Gradus/Grail/Freemasonry…


Since I first read Pale Fire, it has been clear to me that the main theme is spiritual transformation, a’la Jungian “Hero’s Journey.”  I also noticed a lot of allusions to alchemy and the occult, subjects crucial to the development of Jung’s psychology. The more I look into that the more I feel it is confirmed, not just by the Jungian aspect but also by the many allusions to the writers and poets whose works also fall into these basic themes. This led to noticing the hidden allusions to Freemasonry and secret societies (see list posted https://thenabokovian.org/node/52032).  Many of these precede Jung, of course, although Jung was a member of the SPR and his grandfather was the Grandmaster of the Swiss Masonic lodge, and I believe much of Jung’s occult knowledge may spring from that (Jung designed a Masonic emblem for his family crest.)


Freemasonry and other secret societies are intended to provide a journey of spiritual transformation for their members. They have as their ancient genesis alchemy, astrology, Tarot, numerology, hermeticism, Kaballah, and the magic arts.


Finding out that the Freemasons and Rosicrucians also venerated the Celtic tradition of the Grail (Gradalis/Gradus) serves to confirm this (for me, at least.) The hero of the Grail legend is Parsifal, whose name means “innocent fool.”  This is the personage of all who start out on a “Hero’s Journey.”  In the Tarot, the “Fool” is number “0” and his journey through the higher Arcana is said to be the template of transformation. (There seems to be Tarot allusions in PF, also.)


Tying this back into Jung, his wife, Emma Jung, also a psychoanalyst, devoted her life to studying the Grail lore. Was Nabokov aware of this? In a previous post (https://thenabokovian.org/node/52274) I wrote that I believe the psychoanalyst couple, the Junkers,  who tread Vadim in LATH are probably based on the Jungs. LATH seems to be Nabokov’s veiled autobiography.


In LATH Vadim recounts: 


“On the gray eve of poverty, the author, then a self-exiled youth (I transcribe from an old diary), discovered an unexpected patron in the person of Count Starov, a grave old-fashioned Mason who had graced several great Embassies during a spacious span of international intercourse, and who since 1913 had resided in London.”  (p.2)


“Starovs” were Russia’s “Old Believer” sect. I PF there is the mysterious and venerated astronomer/astrologer “Starover Blue.” I believe PF is likewise a veiled biography and this Masonic character may point to an early influencer of Nabokov’s. Perhaps someone from his father’s coterie of Masonic associates?


This all may seem to some to be digressing quite a bit, but it seems to me that it all starts to come together on the higher plane of meaning for Pale Fire.

“Starovs” were not Russia’s “Old Believer” sect. The surname Starov comes from staryi (old). Count Nikifor Nikodimovich Starov seems to be the father of Prince Vadim Vadimovich Yablonski and of his first three wives (Iris Black, Annette Blagovo and Louise Adamson). Starover indeed means "Old Believer."


1 year 2 months ago

Thank you for the correction. It helps to speak Russian!  Still, there may be some connection that VN intended. I have been making some connections to all this and Starover Blue, but I have to give it more thought and research. Stay tuned.


1 year 2 months ago


So, here is another interesting source for “gradual Gradus” and the Grail:


I am currently reading Emma Jung’s book on the Grail legend. She gives several sources for the word “grail.” Among them are the ones mentioned above (gradalis, krater) but she also mentions the Catholic liturgical hymn book called the Gradual, which she notes comes from Latin gradus. The Gradual is believed to have been so named because it was sung on the step of the altar.


The Gradual dates back to early Christian responsorial chants of the Psalms and still exists today. It is part of the Eucharist Mass – hence a connection with the Grail as chalice.


This would seem a strange connection to PF’s dastardly Gradus, unless we understand that the Masons and Rosicrucians appropriated the Grail legend. These secret societies were formed from an eclectic blend of Christianity, Gnositicism, Jewish Cabala, Celtic legend, Egyptology, Western Hermetic esotericism (including alchemy and astrology). 


The main difference between the secret societies and Christianity is that they venerate the ancient gods that Christianity deemed evil (Ba’a’, Baphomet, Lucifer, Asomodeus, etc.) They see these gods as bringers of light (intellect/reason) so that Man may know himself and create and be god-like through his own efforts, rather than just faith.


Similarly, Jung’s process of individuation involves assimilating the “dark” side of the shadow for higher consciousness. I have posted quite a bit on the connection of Jung to Pale Fire. I am beginning to think that Carl Jung, whose grandfather was the Grand Master of a Swiss Masonic lodge, based much of his symbolic and allegoric ideas on Freemasonry! 


Whether Jung was a Mason or not is not known – probably because he knew how to keep a secret!  Here are two quotes that indicate he probably was at one time involved but broke from the society. I think these are interesting in that they may reflect Nabokov’s opinions as well:


“Like the initiate of a secret society who has broken free from the undifferentiated collectivity, the individual on his lonely path needs a secret which for various reasons he may not or cannot reveal. Such a secret reinforces him in the isolation of his individual aims.” (Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p.343


“An ethical fraternity, with its mythical Nothing, not infused by any archaic-infantile driving force, is a pure vacuum and can never evoke in man the slightest trace of that age-old animal power which drives the migrating bird across the sea…” (F/J p.294)


“The secret society is an intermediary stage on the way to individuation...All collective identities, such as membership in organizations, support ‘isms’, and so on, interfere with the fulfillment of this task.”  (Jung, MDR, 342)


The connection of Gradual Gradus to Gradus ad Parnassus has been noted previously (see https://thenabokovian.org/node/1340) In Nabokovian fashion of piling on allusions, it dovetails with the Christian Gradual and the Grail and the Masons. For Mt. Parnassus had two peaks, Lycoreia (sacred to Apollo and the Muses) and Tithorea (sacred to Dionysus), the light and dark sides of consciousness. Gradus’ association with wine, thus associates him with Parnassus’ Tithorea.  Like the peaks of Mt. Parnassus the Masons venerate both the dark and the light.

Russian for "the Holy Grail" is Svyatoy Graal'. At the end of the first three stanzas of his poem Ya otkinul dokuchnuyu masku ("I discarded the bothersome mask," 1906) Gumilyov mentions chasha Graal' (the bowl Grail):


Я откинул докучную маску,
Мне чего-то забытого жаль…
Я припомнил старинную сказку
Про священную чашу Грааль.

Я хотел побродить по селеньям,
Уходить в неизвестную даль,
Приближаясь к далёким владеньям
Зачарованной чаши Грааль.

Но таить мы не будем рыданья,
О, моя золотая печаль!
Только чистым даны созерцанья
Вечно радостной чаши Грааль.

Разорвал я лучистые нити,
Обручавшие мне красоту; —
Братья, сёстры, скажите, скажите,
Где мне вновь обрести чистоту?


In August 1921 Gumilyov was executed by the Bolsheviks. Na smert' Gumilyova ("On the Death of Gumilyov," 1921) is a poem by Graal Arelski:


Нет, ничем, ничем не смыть позора,
Даже счастьем будущих веков!
Был убит Шенье 8-го термидора,
23-го августа — Гумилёв.

И хотя меж ними стало столетье
Высокой стеною звонких дней,
Но вспыхнули дни — и в русском поэте
Затрепетало сердце Шенье.

Встретил смерть и он улыбкой смелой,
Как награду от родной земли.
Грянул залп — и на рубашке белой
Восемь роз нежданно расцвели.

И, взглянув на небосклон туманный,
Он упал, чуть слышно простонав,
И сбылись его стихи, — и раны
Обагрили зелень пыльных трав.

Все проходит — дни, года и люди —
Точно ветром уносимый дым.
Только мы, поэты, не забудем,
Только мы, поэты, не простим.


Graal Arelski was the penname of Stefan Petrov (1888-1937), a Russian egofuturist poet who is mentioned by Hodasevich in his essay on Mayakovski (VN's "late namesake"), Dekol’tirovannaya loshad’ (“The Horse in a Décolleté Dress,” 1927):


Русский футуризм с самого начала делился на две группы: эгофутуристическую (Игорь Северянин, Грааль Арельский, Игнатьев и др.) и футуристическую просто, во главе которой стояли покойный В. Хлебников, Крученых, Давид Бурлюк с двумя братьями. И эстетические взгляды, и оценки, и цели, и самое происхождение -- все было у этих групп совершенно различно. Объединяло их, и то не вполне, лишь название заимствованное у итальянцев и, в сущности, насильно пристегнутое особенно к первой, "северянинской" группе, которую, впрочем, мы оставим в покое: она не имеет отношения к нашей теме. Скажем несколько слов только о второй.


Hodasevich points out that, from the very beginning, the Russian futurism was divided into two branches: the egofuturists (Igor Severyanin, Graal Arelski, Ignatiev and others) and simply futurists (Velimir Khlebnikov, Kruchyonykh, David Burlyuk and his brothers). In Canto One of his poem Shade speaks of his dead parents and mentions "a preterist: one who collects cold nests." Actually, preterists (from the Latin praeter, a prefix denoting that something is "past" or "beyond") are the adherents of preterism, a Christian eschatological view that interprets some (Partial Preterism) or all (Full Preterism) prophesies of the Bible as events which have already happened.

At the end of his essay O Hodaseviche ("On Hodasevich," 1939) VN mentions gradina na podokonnike (a hailstone on a window sill):


Как бы то ни было, теперь все кончено: завещанное сокровище стоит на полке, у будущего на виду, а добытчик ушел туда, откуда, быть может,  кое-что долетает до слуха больших поэтов, пронзая наше бытие потусторонней свежестью -- и придавая искусству как раз то таинственное, что составляет его невыделимый признак. Что ж, еще немного сместилась жизнь, еще одна привычка нарушена -- своя привычка чужого бытия. Утешения нет, если поощрять чувство утраты личным воспоминанием о кратком, хрупком, тающем, как градина на подоконнике, человеческом образе. Обратимся к стихам.


Be it as it may, all is finished now: the bequeathed gold shines on a shelf in full view of the future, whilst the goldminer has left for the region from where, perhaps, a faint something reaches the ears ot good poets, penetrating our being with the beyond's fresh breath and conferring upon art that mystery which more than anything characterizes its essence.

Well, so it goes, yet another plane of life has been slightly displaced; yet another habit - the habit (one's own) of (another person's) existence - has been broken. There is no consolation if one starts to encourage the sense of loss by one's private recollections of a brief, brittle human image that melts, like a hailstone on a window sill. Let us turn to the poems.


In vinogradina (a grape) there are vino (wine) and gradina (a hailstone), "hail" rhymes with "Grail." According to Kinbote, Gradus contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd, to which a Latin suffix had adhered, making it Vinogradus:


Jakob Gradus called himself variously Jack Degree or Jacques de Grey, or James de Gray, and also appears in police records as Ravus, Ravenstone, and d'Argus. Having a morbid affection for the ruddy Russia of the Soviet era, he contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd, to which a Latin suffix had adhered, making it Vinogradus. His father, Martin Gradus, had been a Protestant minister in Riga, but except for him and a maternal uncle (Roman Tselovalnikov, police officer and part-time member of the Social-Revolutionary party), the whole clan seems to have been in the liquor business. Martin Gradus died in 1920, and his widow moved to Strasbourg where she soon died, too. Another Gradus, an Alsatian merchant, who oddly enough was totally unrelated to our killer but had been a close business friend of his kinsmen for years, adopted the boy and raised him with his own children. It would seem that at one time young Gradus studied pharmacology in Zurich, and at another, traveled to misty vineyards as an itinerant wine taster. We find him next engaging in petty subversive activities - printing peevish pamphlets, acting as messenger for obscure syndicalist groups, organizing strikes at glass factories, and that sort of thing. Sometime in the forties he came to Zembla as a brandy salesman. There he married a publican's daughter. His connection with the Extremist party dates from its first ugly writhings, and when the revolution broke out, his modest organizational gifts found some appreciation in various offices. His departure for Western Europe, with a sordid purpose in his heart and a loaded gun in his pocket, took place on the very day that an innocent poet in an innocent land was beginning Canto Two of Pale Fire. We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night. (note to Line 17)


Shade's murderer, Gradus is a member of the Shadows (a regicidal organization). Ego, Shadow and Self are concepts in Jungian psychology. Self brings to mind Ya sam ("I Myself," 1928), Mayakovski's autobiography.


A French word that means "crater bowl," graal comes from Latin gradalis. In gradalis there is Adalis. A Russian poet, Ada Adalis (born Adelina Viskovatov, 1900-69) was a mistress of Valeriy Bryusov. In his memoir essay Bryusov (1924) Hodasevich mentions Bryusov’s hope that under the Bolsheviks he will be able to turn the Russian literature na stol’ko-to gradusov (to so-and-so many degrees):


А какая надежда на то, что в истории литературы будет сказано: "в таком-то году повернул русскую литературу на столько-то градусов".


And what hope that in the history of literature it will be said: "in the year so-and-so he has turned the Russian literature to so-and-so many degrees."


In his memoir essay Hodasevich compares Balmont to Mozart and Bryusov, to Salieri:


Он не любил людей, потому что прежде всего не уважал их. Это во всяком случае было так в его зрелые годы. В юности, кажется, он любил Коневского. Не плохо он относился к 3. H. Гиппиус. Больше назвать некого. Его неоднократно подчёркнутая любовь к Бальмонту вряд ли может быть названа любовью. В лучшем случае это было удивление Сальери перед Моцартом. Он любил называть Бальмонта братом. М. Волошин однажды сказал, что традиция этих братских чувств восходит к глубокой древности: к самому Каину.


In Pushkin's little tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830) Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would):



Когда бы все так чувствовали силу

Гармонии! но нет; тогда б не мог

И мир существовать; никто б не стал

Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;

Все предались бы вольному искусству.



If all could feel like you the power of harmony!
But no: the world could not go on then. None
Would bother with the needs of lowly life;
All would surrender to free art. (Scene II)


The poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of one and the same person whose "real" name is Botkin (nikto b in reverse). 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 (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.


Btw., in VN’s novel Zashchita Luzhina (“The Luzhin Defense,” 1930) the guests at a party thrown by Luzhin’s wife include Graalski (an elderly actor with a face manipulated by many roles) and Petrov, a plain-looking man whose sole function in life was to carry, reverently and with concentration, that which had been entrusted to him, something which it was necessary at all costs to preserve in all its detail and in all its purity (see my post "Petrov & Graalski in The Luzhin Defense).


1 year 1 month ago

I have found some more interesting allusions to Freemasonry and Gradus:


As mentioned above, the words, “gradual,” “grade,” and “degree,” found liberally in Pale Fire, are fundamental to Masonic and Rosicrucian tenets. Both secret societies refer to themselves as “gradual,” due to their “graded” “degrees” of initiation and progression towards spiritual knowledge/perfection (which they revere as the Holy Grail). Grail comes from Latin "gradus." Rather like Gradus ad Parnassus, which are “steps” to achieving the heights of poetry, the secret societies provide gradual “steps” towards spiritual initiation and perfection. The Masons refer to this as the “Mystic Ascent,” and depict it in their symbology as the steps of 'Jacob’s ladder,' (i.e. “Jacob Gradus”). 

Just as his alias 'Degré' bears Masonic resonance, so does his  ‘Jacques de Grey:’  the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar (believed to be the source of Freemasonry) was the martyred  ‘Jacques de Molay,’still revered in Masonry.


1 year 1 month ago

Gradus'  alias “Jacques Degré,” further suggests Masonry in that  “Jacques”= “Jack” = “knight,” and “Degré” = the degree system of Masonry. The Knight's Templar are presumed to be the origin of the Masons.  Gradus’ father’s first name, “Martin,” suggests “Martinism,” a French Masonic high-degree system. Gradus had studied pharmacology (i.e. alchemy). His work as a glassmaker also denotes alchemy; alchemists developed methods of stained glass as well as creating their alembics. Gradus works for “obscure syndicalist groups” (i.e. secret societies such as the Shadows). Gradus is expected, although fails, to know a Masonic style secret hand sign when he delivers documents to Oswin Bretwit (C 139). Although it is a “Karlist” sign, it suggests the Masonic secret handshake by which members recognize a “brother.” It also suggests that Kinbote must be a Mason, as well – another confirmation of their shared being. The episode at the sex-death-and-art oriented Villa Libitina[1] has a hidden Masonic clue directing the reader to Pale Fire’s all-important index:[2]

Upon stopping above a vineyard, at the rough entrance of an unfinished house, he was shown by the three index fingers of three masons the red roof of Lavender's villa high up in the ascending greenery on the opposite side of the road.

Later as Gradus is on the Wordsmith campus this scene is recapitulated with three students pointing him to the Library.  Cornell has several "secret" societies, the oldest is the "Sphinx Head." Univercity secret societies seem to have Masonic-type influence, such as the Egyptology of the Sphinx, but I am unable to confirm that via the internet. (I guess they're good at keeping secrets)

[1] i.e. elements of the unconscious; “Libitina” was a goddess of Death and graveyards.

[2] See Index clues in James Ramey’s “Pale Fire’s Black Crown,” NOJ Vol. VI, 2012

Regarding the 3 students pointing Gradus to the library as a corollary to the 3 masons pointing the way to Lavender's occultist villa, I want to add a quote from Kinbote's description of the Shadows as a "secret organization" similar to "reckless rituals in student fraternities":


Vindictive exasperation rather than state strategy moved the secret organization of which Gradus was an obscure member to plot the destruction of the royal fugitive. […]


A group of especially devout Extremists calling themselves the Shadows had got together and swore to hunt down the King and kill him wherever he might be. They were, in a sense, the shadow twins of the Karlists and indeed several had cousins or even brothers among the followers of the King. No doubt, the origin of either group could be traced to various reckless rituals in student fraternities and military clubs, and their development examined in terms of fads and anti-fads; but, whereas an objective historian associates a romantic and noble glamor with Karlism, its shadow group must strike one as something definitely Gothic and nasty.

Line 171: a great conspiracy, p.116


"Gothic" = "Goetic" = "magical" (as in Kinbote's "goetic mirror" but here as relating also to architecture/masonry):


All of the Gothic cathedrals built by the Guild masons of France are Templar-Cistercian in concept and design. The name has nothing to do with the Goths, but is derived from the Greek goetik meaning magical action,



1 year ago

As noted above, the Masons use the imagery of “Jacob’s Ladder” for their “steps” ( or “degrees”) towards self-knowledge and purification, the “Mystic Ascent.” 


In Pale Fire, whom do we find on top of a ladder? Balthasar the gardener! I have argued in my paper presented at the 2022 Welsley conference, that Balthasar seems to represent the Jungian “Self”, the product of a Jungian path of “individuation” based on Jung’s interest in alchemy. This was before I realized Jung was influenced by Masonry, a system of gradual self-transmutation, also based on alchemy. Although I believe the Jungian system definitely is employed in PF, it now seems the Masonic allusions are wider, and encompass Jung.


Anyway…if Gradus represents the base untransformed shadow aspect of a man (Botkin) and Balthasar the purified “self,” in Masonic imagery, it would make sense that we find Balthasar at the top of a ladder! 


The name “Balthasar” comes from the god “Ba’el” who is revered by the Masons. Kinbote calls Balthasar “our savior.” Jung would call him a “dark Christ” figure.


BTW, I believe there are chess implications:  The ladder is green. I believe there is a game between green and red. The ladder suggests the “stepped” movement of a Bishop. That sort of fits with Balthasar’s “Christ” implication. The bishop, interestingly, is also called the “fool,” which fits with the Mason’s veneration of the Holy Grail; they refer to Parsifal as the “Holy Fool,” the simple man who rises to spiritual transformation through his quest for the grail.


Chess was brought to Europe through the Knights Templar, the presumed originators of what became Freemasonry.


Alexey Sklyarenko

1 year ago

Balthasar, Prince of Loam, stands at the top of a green ladder, when Kinbote first meets him. His red short lies on the grass:


Some neighbor's! The poet had seen my gardener many times, and this vagueness I can only assign to his desire (noticeable elsewhere in his handling of names, etc.) to give a certain poetical patina, the bloom of remoteness, to familiar figures and things - although it is just possible he might have mistaken him in the broken light for a stranger working for a stranger. This gifted gardener I discovered by chance one idle spring day, when I was slowly wending my way home after a maddening and embarrassing experience at the college indoor swimming pool. He stood at the top of a green ladder attending to the sick branch of a grateful tree in one of the most famous avenues in Appalachia. His red flannel shirt lay on the grass. We conversed, a little shyly, he above, I below. I was pleasantly surprised at his being able to refer all his patients to their proper habitats. It was spring, and we were alone in that admirable colonnade of trees which visitors from England have photographed from end to end. I can enumerate here only a few kinds of those trees: Jove's stout oak and two others: the thunder-cloven from Britain, the knotty-entrailed from a Mediterranean island; a weatherfending line (now lime), a phoenix (now date palm), a pine and a cedar (Cedrus), all insular; a Venetian sycamore tree (Acer); two willows, the green, likewise from Venice, the hoar-leaved from Denmark; a midsummer elm, its barky fingers enringed with ivy; a midsummer mulberry, its shade inviting to tarry; and a clown's sad cypress from Illyria.

He had worked for two years as a male nurse in a hospital for Negroes in Maryland. He was hard up. He wanted to study landscaping, botany and French ("to read in the original Baudelaire and Dumas"). I promised him some financial assistance. He started to work at my place the very next day. He was awfully nice and pathetic, and all that, but a little too talkative and completely impotent which I found discouraging. Otherwise he was a strong strapping fellow, and I hugely enjoyed the aesthetic pleasure of watching him buoyantly struggle with earth and turf or delicately manipulate bulbs, or lay out the flagged path which may or may not be a nice surprise for my landlord, when he safely returns from England (where I hope no bloodthirsty maniacs are stalking him!). How I longed to have him (my gardener, not my landlord) wear a great big turban, and shalwars, and an ankle bracelet. I would certainly have him attired according to the old romanticist notion of a Moorish prince, had I been a northern king - or rather had I still been a king (exile becomes a bad habit). You will chide me, my modest man, for writing so much about you in this note, but I feel I must pay you this tribute. After all, you saved my life. You and I were the last people who saw John Shade alive, and you admitted afterwards to a strange premonition which made you interrupt your work as; you noticed us from the shrubbery walking toward the porch where stood - (Superstitiously I cannot write out the odd dark word you employed.) (note to Line 998)


The odd dark word employed by Kinbote's black gardener seems to be "thou." How Great Thou Art is a Christian hymn based on an original Swedish hymn entitled "O Store Gud" written in 1885 by Carl Boberg (1859–1940). The English version of the hymn and its title are a loose translation by the English missionary Stuart K. Hine from 1949. The hymn's Swedish title brings to mind Gut mag alkan, Pern dirstan (God makes hungry, the Devil thirsty), a Zemblan saying quoted by Kinbote in his note to (the unwritten) Line 1000 of Shade's poem:


Many years ago - how many I would not care to say - I remember my Zemblan nurse telling me, a little man of six in the throes of adult insomnia: "Minnamin, Gut mag alkan, Pern dirstan" (my darling, God makes hungry, the Devil thirsty). Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I'd better stop, folks, right here.

Yes, better stop. My notes and self are petering out. Gentlemen, I have suffered very much, and more than any of you can imagine. I pray for the Lord's benediction to rest on my wretched countrymen. My work is finished. My poet is dead.

"And you, what will you be doing with yourself, poor King, poor Kinbote?" a gentle young voice may inquire.

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of two other characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned Melodrama with three principals: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out - somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door - a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus.


The name of the hymn's author, Carl Boberg, reminds one of "bad Bob" (as in his Foreword to Shade's poem Kinbote calls his young roomer):


I have one favorite photograph of him. In this color snapshot taken by a onetime friend of mine, on a brilliant spring day, Shade is seen leaning on a sturdy cane that had belonged to his aunt Maud (see line 86). I am wearing a white windbreaker acquired in a local sports shop and a pair of lilac slacks hailing from Cannes. My left hand is half raised - not to pat Shade on the shoulder as seems to be the intention, but to remove my sunglasses which, however, it never reached in that life, the life of the picture; and the library book under my right arm is a treatise on certain Zemblan calisthenics in which I proposed to interest that young roomer of mine who snapped the picture. A week later he was to betray my trust by taking sordid advantage of my absence on a trip to Washington whence I returned to find he had been entertaining a fiery-haired whore from Exton who had left her combings and reek in all three bathrooms. Naturally we separated at once, and through a chink in the window curtains I saw bad Bob standing rather pathetically, with his crewcut, and shabby valise, and the skis I had given him, all forlorn on the roadside, waiting for a fellow student to drive him away forever. I can forgive everything save treason.


Just as Shade, Kinbote and Gradus represent three different aspects of mad Botkin's personality, Bad Bob and Gerald Emerald (a young instructor at Wordsmith University who gives Gradus a lift to Kinbote's rented house) seem to be one and the same person.


The Swedish surname Boberg is composed of the elements bo 'dwelling, farm' and berg 'mountain, hill.' In his Commentary Kinbote (the author of a book on surnames) mentions Harfar Baron of Shalksbore, Queen Disa's cousin whose family name, "knave's farm," is the most probable derivation of "Shakespeare:"


She had recently lost both parents and had no real friend to turn to for explanation and advice when the inevitable rumors reached her; these she was too proud to discuss with her ladies in waiting but she read books, found out all about our manly Zemblan customs, and concealed her naïve distress under the great show of sarcastic sophistication. He congratulated her on her attitude, solemnly swearing that he had given up, or at least would give up, the practices of his youth; but everywhere along the road powerful temptations stood at attention. He succumbed to them from time to time, then every other day, then several times daily - especially during the robust regime of Harfar Baron of Shalksbore, a phenomenally endowed young brute (whose family name, "knave's farm," is the most probable derivation of "Shakespeare"). Curdy Buff - as Harfar was nicknamed by his admirers - had a huge escort of acrobats and bareback riders, and the whole affair rather got out of hand so that Disa, upon unexpectedly returning from a trip to Sweden, found the Palace transformed into a circus. He again promised, again fell, and despite the utmost discretion was again caught. At last she removed to the Riviera leaving him to amuse himself with a band of Eton-collared, sweet-voiced minions imported from England. (note to Line 433)


Describing the King’s escape from Zembla, Kinbote mentions the green, gray, bluish mountains – Falkberg with its hood of snow, Mutraberg with the fan of its avalanche, Paberg (Mt. Peacock), and others:


Great fallen crags diversified the wayside. The nippern (domed hills or "reeks") to the south were broken by a rock and grass slope into light and shadow. Northward melted the green, gray, bluish mountains – Falkberg with its hood of snow, Mutraberg with the fan of its avalanche, Paberg (Mt. Peacock), and others – separated by narrow dim valleys with intercalated cotton-wool bits of cloud that seemed placed between the receding sets of ridges to prevent their flanks from scraping against one another. Beyond them, in the final blue, loomed Mt. Glitterntin, a serrated edge of bright foil; and southward, a tender haze enveloped more distant ridges which led to one another in an endless array, through every grade of soft evanescence. (note to Line 149)


Paberg seems to blend påfågel (Swedish for “peacock;” the Swedish word fågel corresponds to German Vogel and means “bird”) with Vilhelm Moberg (1898-1973), a Swedish author whose play Domaren (“The Judge,” 1957) was made into a film (that entered the 1961 Cannes Film Festival) by Alf Sjöberg (mo means in Swedish "sandy heath," sjö is "sea, lake"). Abram Hannibal’s second wife, Christine Regina Sjöberg (1717-81) was Pushkin’s great-grandmother. In the Swedish domaren there is the Russian dom (house, home). Sumasshedshiy dom means "madhouse." The action in Moberg's play and in Sjöberg's film takes place in a madhouse. It seems that Kinbote writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword to Shade's poem not "Cedarn, Utana" but in a madhouse near Quebec. The man whom Kinbote calls "Balthasar, Prince of Loam," is probably a male nurse at this sanatoria.


Kinbote would have his gardener attired according to the old romanticist notion of a Moorish prince. VN must be thinking of The Moorish Chief (1878), a painting by Eduard Charlemont, an Austrian artist. The Equestrian Portrait of Prince Balthasar Charles is a portrait of Balthasar Charles, Prince of Asturias on horseback, painted in 1634–35 by Diego Velázquez.


Btw., Tashchi skoree lestnitsu! ("Quick bring the ladder!") were Gogol's last words. They were addressed to a boy who a couple of days earlier helped Gogol to burn the second volume of Dead Souls. The characters in Gogol's play Zhenit'ba ("The Marriage," 1842) include Baltazar Baltazarych (one of the suitors). “A bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus” who will presently ring at Kinbote's door brings to mind the real Inspector whose arrival is announced at the end of Gogol's play Revizor (“The Inspector,” 1836).


Great find, Mary (and my apologies if I digressed a little)!

Standard image of masonic square and compasses

The Masonic Square and Compasses (found with or without the letter G). In many English speaking countries, the Square and Compasses are depicted with the letter "G" in the center. The letter has multiple meanings, representing different words depending on the context in which it is discussed. The most common is that the "G" stands for God. Another is that it stands for Geometry, and is to remind Masons that Geometry and Freemasonry are synonymous terms described as being the "noblest of sciences", and "the basis upon which the superstructure of Freemasonry and everything in existence in the entire universe is erected. In this context, it can also stand for Great Architect of the Universe (a non-denominational reference to God).


In Canto Three of his poem Shade describes IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter) and says that it snubbed gods, including the big G:


While snubbing gods, including the big G,

Iph borrowed some peripheral debris

From mystic visions; and it offered tips

(The amber spectacles for life's eclipse) -

How not to panic when you're made a ghost:

Sidle and slide, choose a smooth surd, and coast,

Meet solid bodies and glissade right through,

Or let a person circulate through you.

How to locate in blackness, with a gasp,

Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp.

How to keep sane in spiral types of space.

Precautions to be taken in the case

Of freak reincarnation: what to do

On suddenly discovering that you

Are now a young and vulnerable toad

Plump in the middle of a busy road,

Or a bear cub beneath a burning pine,

Or a book mite in a revived divine. (ll. 549-566)


In his Commentary Kinbote writes:


Here indeed is the Gist of the matter. And this, I think, not only the institute (see line 517) but our poet himself missed. For a Christian, no Beyond is acceptable or imaginable without the participation of God in our eternal destiny, and this in turn implies a condign punishment for every sin, great and small. My little diary happens to contain a few jottings referring to a conversation the poet and I had on June 23 "on my terrace after a game of chess, a draw." I transcribe them here only because they cast a fascinating light on his attitude toward the subject.

I had mentioned - I do not recall in what connection - certain differences between my Church and his. It should be noted that our Zemblan brand of Protestantism is rather closely related to the "higher" churches of the Anglican Communion, but has some magnificent peculiarities of its own. The Reformation with us had been headed by a composer of genius; our liturgy is penetrated with rich music; our boy choirs are the sweetest in the world. Sybil Shade came from a Catholic family but since early girlhood developed, as she told me herself, "a religion of her own" -which is generally synonymous, at the best, with a half-hearted attachment to some half-heathen sect or, at the worst, with tepid atheism. She had weaned her husband not only from the Episcopal Church of his fathers, but from all forms of sacramental worship.

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)


On the other hand, G is the initial of Gradus (Shade's murderer). In geometry, gradus is Russian for "degree." At the beginning of his Index to Shade's poem Kinbote mentions the capital letters G, K, S that stand for the three main characters in Pale Fire:


The italicized numerals refer to the lines in the poem and the comments thereon. The capital letters G, K, S (which see) stand for the three main characters in this work.


The poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin's personality. 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 October 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin's Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin's epigrams, "half-milord, half-merchant, etc."), will be full again.


To be sure, the Masonic imagery in Pale Fire is interesting, but it is significant only insofar as it helps one to understand what really happens in the book.


1 year ago

This is excellent, thank you, Alexey. I hope I can convince you the role of Freemasonry in PF is more important than you think.  


"Gist" means the essence of a thing.  Several online dictionaries say it is from a French legal term, but I also found one that says it may be from German: "Geist," which seems to me more likely. It would be nice to know if VN's dictionary has that etymology. Eric Eklund has a paper on nabokovonline  about the Christian meaning of PF's "Gist of the Matter." He notes that in  Ultima Thule Falter says regarding the explanation of ultimate reality:


“I could,” said Falter, “but it would be equivalent to revealing the gist of the matter…”


Masons historically kept their esoteric secrets, even from the lower echelons, including what "G" stands for. Higher up it stands for "Gnosticism." It has been suggested by some that Nabokov has a Gnostic bent.


Note also that it seems when Nabokov has an intentional "misprint" in PF it often seems a signal of importance. So when he capitalizes "Gist" we might want to pay attention.


I will be continuing my Masonic enquiry on a new post on the importance of the Grand Architect: Uncle Conmal – a Mason?




German Geist is related to English "ghost." In his poem Shakespeare (1924) VN mentions a moneylender who played ten' (the Ghost; literally: "shade") in Hamlet and who was paid to sign Shakespeare's works. According to Kinbote, Shade wanted his students to get drunk on the poetry of Hamlet or Lear:


The subject of teaching Shakespeare at college level having been introduced: "First of all, dismiss ideas, and social background, and train the freshman to shiver, to get drunk on the poetry of Hamlet or Lear, to read with his spine and not with his skull."

Kinbote: "You appreciate particularly the purple passages?"

Shade: "Yes, my dear Charles, I roll upon them as a grateful mongrel on a spot of turf fouled by a Great Dane." (note to Line 172)

Russian for "dog" is sobaka. In Ilf and Petrov's novel Dvenadtsat' stuliev ("The Twelve Chairs," 1928) Ellochka the Cannibal (whose vocabulary, 30 words and short phrases, is contrasted to that of William Shakespeare) has a friend Fima Sobak (a cultured girl whose vocabulary consists of 180 words and includes the word "homosexuality"). Ostap Bender compares Ellochka's fur to izumrud (emerald):


Остап сразу понял, как вести себя в светском обществе. Он закрыл глаза и сделал шаг назад.

- Прекрасный мех! - воскликнул он.

- Шутите! - сказала Эллочка нежно. - Это мексиканский тушкан.

- Быть этого не может. Вас обманули. Вам дали гораздо лучший мех. Это шанхайские барсы. Ну да! Барсы! Я узнаю их по оттенку. Видите, как мех играет на солнце!.. Изумруд! Изумруд!

Эллочка сама красила мексиканского тушкана зелёной акварелью, и потому похвала утреннего посетителя была ей особенно приятна.


Ostap knew at once how he should behave in such high society. He closed his eyes and took a step backwards. "A beautiful fur!" he exclaimed.
"You're kidding," said Ellochka tenderly. "It's Mexican jerboa."
"It can't be. They made a mistake. You were given a much better fur. It's Shanghai leopard. Yes, leopard. I recognize it by the shade. You see how it reflects the sun. Just like emerald!

Ellochka had dyed the Mexican jerboa with green water-colour herself, so the morning visitor's praise was particularly pleasing. (Chapter XXII "Ellochka the Cannibal")


Cf. Gerald Emerald (a young instructor at Wordsmith University) and Izumrudov (one of the greater Shadows who visits Gradus in Nice and tells him the King’s address in America).


Ellochka the Cannibal is a beauty. Sybil's furs almost make Hazel Shade (the poet's daughter) fetching. In Canto Two of his poem Shade speaks of his dead daughter and mentions a domestic ghost:


So why join in the vulgar laughter? Why

Scorn a hereafter none can verify:

The Turk's delight, the future lyres, the talks

With Socrates and Proust in cypress walks,

The seraph with his six flamingo wings,

And Flemish hells with porcupines and things?

It isn't that we dream too wild a dream:

The trouble is we do not make it seem

Sufficiently unlikely; for the most

We can think up is a domestic ghost. (ll. 221-230)


The characters in VN’s novel Dar (“The Gift,” 1937) include the Chernyshevski couple, Alexander Yakovlevich and Alexandra Yakovlevna. After the suicide of his son Yasha poor Alexander Yakovlevich (who is visited by the ghost of his son) went mad and was hospitalized. Describing his visit to the hospital, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev (the narrator and main character in “The Gift”) mentions obshchestvo bor’by s potustoronnim (the Society for Struggle with the Other World) whose Chairman Alexander Yakovlevich is:


"Знаешь, - сказала Елизавета Павловна, осторожно-легко сходя с лестницы и не оборачивая опущенной головы к сыну, - я, кажется, просто куплю гильзы и табак, а то так выходит дороговатенько", - и тотчас добавила тем же голосом: "Господи, как ее жалко". И точно, нельзя было Александру Яковлевну не пожалеть. Её муж вот уже четвертый месяц содержался в приюте для ослабевших душой, в "желтоватом доме", как он сам игриво выражался в минуты просвета. Ещё в октябре Федор Константинович как то и посетил его там. В разумно обставленной палате сидел пополневший, розовый, отлично выбритый и совершенно сумасшедший Александр Яковлевич, в резиновых туфлях, и непромокаемом плаще с куколем. "Как, разве вы умерли?" - было первое, что он спросил, - скорее недовольно, чем удивленно. Состоя "председателем общества борьбы с потусторонним", он всё изобретал различные средства для непропускания призраков (врач, применяя новую систему "логического потворства", не препятствовал этому) и теперь, исходя вероятно из другой ее непроводности, испытывал резину, но повидимому результаты до сих пор получались скорее отрицательные, потому что, когда Федор Константинович хотел было взять для себя стул, стоявший в сторонке, Чернышевский раздраженно сказал: "Оставьте, вы же отлично видите, что там уже сидят двое", - и это "двое", и шуршащий, всплескивающий при каждом его движении плащ, и бессловесное присутствие служителя, точно это было свидание в тюрьме, и весь разговор больного показались Федору Константиновичу невыносимо карикатурным огрублением того сложного, прозрачного, еще благородного, хотя и полубезумного, состояния души, в котором так недавно Александр Яковлевич общался с утраченным сыном. Тем ядрено-балагурным тоном, который он прежде приберегал для шуток - а теперь говорил всерьез, - он стал пространно сетовать, всё почему-то по-немецки, на то, что люди-де тратятся на выдумывание зенитных орудий и воздушных отрав, а не заботятся вовсе о ведении другой, в миллион раз более важной борьбы. У Федора Константиновича была на окате виска запекшаяся ссадина, - утром стукнулся о ребро парового отопления, второпях доставая из-под него закатившийся колпачок от пасты. Вдруг оборвав речь, Александр Яковлевич брезгливо и беспокойно указал пальцем на его висок, "Was haben Sie da?", - спросил он, болезненно сморщась, - а затем нехорошо усмехнулся и, всё больше сердясь и волнуясь, начал говорить, что его не проведешь, - сразу признал, мол, свежего самоубийцу. Служитель подошел к Федору Константиновичу и попросил его удалиться. И идя через могильно-роскошный сад, мимо жирных клумб, где в блаженном успении цвели басисто-багряные георгины, по направлению к скамейке, на которой его ждала Чернышевская, никогда не входившая к мужу, но целые дни проводившая в непосредственной близости от его жилья, озабоченная, бодрая, всегда с пакетами, - идя по этому пестрому гравию между миртовых, похожих на мебель, кустов и принимая встречных посетителей за параноиков, Федор Константинович тревожно думал о том, что несчастье Чернышевских является как бы издевательской вариацией на тему его собственного, пронзенного надеждой горя, - и лишь гораздо позднее он понял всё изящество короллария и всю безупречную композиционную стройность, с которой включалось в его жизнь это побочное звучание.


“You know,” said Elizaveta Pavlovna, stepping lightly but cautiously down the stairs and not turning her lowered head toward her son, “I think I’ll just buy cigarette papers and tobacco, otherwise it comes out so dear,” and immediately she added in the same voice: “Goodness, how sorry I am for her.” And indeed, it was impossible not to pity Mme. Chernyshevski. Her husband had been kept over three months already in an institute for the mentally ailing, in “the semi-loony bin” as he himself playfully expressed it in moments of lucidity. As long ago as October Fyodor had once visited him there. In the sensibly furnished ward sat a fatter, rosier, beautifully shaven and completely insane Chernyshevski, in rubber slippers and a waterproof cloak with a hood. “Why, are you dead?” was the first thing he asked, more discontent than surprised. In his capacity as “Chairman of the Society for Struggle With the Other World” he was continually devising methods to prevent permeation by ghosts (his doctor, employing a new system of “logical connivance,” did not oppose this) and now, probably on the basis of its nonconductive quality in another sphere, he was trying out rubber, but evidently the results achieved so far were mainly negative since, when Fyodor was about to take a chair for himself which was standing to one side, Chernyshevski said irritably: “Leave it alone, you see very well there are two sitting on it already,” and this “two,” and the rustling cloak which plashed up with every movement, and the wordless presence of the attendant, as if this had been a meeting in prison, and the whole of the patient’s conversation seemed to Fyodor an unbearable, caricatured vulgarization of that complex, transparent and still noble though half-insane state of mind in which Chernyshevski had so recently communicated with his lost son. With the broad-comedy inflections he had formerly reserved for jokes—but which he now used in earnest—he launched into extensive lamentations, all for some reason in German, over the fact that people were wasting money to invent antiaircraft guns and poison gases and not caring at all about the conduct of another, million times more important, struggle. Fyodor had a healed-over scrape on the side of his temple—that morning he had knocked it against one of the ribs of a radiator in hastily recovering the top of a toothpaste tube which had rolled underneath it. Suddenly breaking off his speech, Chernyshevski pointed squeamishly and anxiously at his temple. “Was haben Sie da?” he asked, with a grimace of pain, and then smiled unpleasantly, and growing more and more angry and agitated, began to say that you could not get by him—he had recognized right away, he said, a recent suicide. The attendant came up to Fyodor and asked him to leave. And walking through the funereally luxuriant garden, past unctuous beds in which bass-toned, dark crimson dahlias were blooming in blessed sleep and eternal repose, toward the bench where he was awaited by Mme. Chernyshevski (who never went in to her husband but spent whole days in the immediate vicinity of his quarters, preoccupied, brisk, always with packages)—walking over the variegated gravel between myrtle shrubs resembling furniture and taking the visitors he passed for paranoiacs, troubled Fyodor kept pondering over the fact that the misfortune of the Chernyshevskis appeared to be a kind of mocking variation on the theme of his own hope-suffused grief, and only much later did he understand the full refinement of the corollary and all the irreproachable compositional balance with which these collateral sounds had been included in his own life. (Chapter Two)


The Chernyshevski couple in “The Gift” have the same name and patronymic as goluboy vorishka (the bashful chiseller) and his wife in “The Twelve Chairs:”


Завхоз 2-го дома Старсобеса был застенчивый ворюга. Всё существо его протестовало против краж, но не красть он не мог. Он крал, и ему было стыдно. Крал он постоянно, постоянно стыдился, и поэтому его хорошо бритые щёчки всегда горели румянцем смущения, стыдливости, застенчивости и конфуза. Завхоза звали Александром Яковлевичем, а жену его – Александрой Яковлевной. Он называл её Сашхен, она звала его Альхен. Свет не видывал ещё такого голубого воришки, как Александр Яковлевич.


The Assistant Warden of the Second Home of Stargorod Social Security Administration was a shy little thief. His whole being protested against stealing, yet it was impossible for him not to steal. He stole and was ashamed of himself. He stole constantly and was constantly ashamed of himself, which was why his smoothly shaven cheeks always burned with a blush of confusion, shame, bashfulness and embarrassment. The assistant warden's name was Alexander Yakovlevich, and his wife's name was Alexandra Yakovlevna. He used to call her Sashchen, and she used to call him Alchen. The world has never seen such a bashful chiseller as Alexander Yakovlevich. (chapter VIII “The Bashful Chiseller”)


According to Kinbote, in a conversation with him Shade mentioned “those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov:”


Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov." (note to Line 172)

Have problems with typing out my posts. Will be absent for some time. Pity!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


1 year ago

Yes, geist means "ghost" as in "shade", and more broadly as in "spirit," which fits Pale Fire's major theme of spiritual transcendence. As for the rest, though interesting in itself, again strays way off topic; it makes it confusing and hard to dialogue with and would be more suitable for your personal page.  Thanks.


I hope you resolve your issue with typing and that it is not with your hands, but your computer.  Best, Mary

There is geist in poltergeist, a word used by Kinbote when he describes the poltergeist phenomena in Shades’ house:


It appears that in the beginning of 1950, long before the barn incident (see note to line 347), sixteen-year-old Hazel was involved in some appalling "psychokinetic" manifestations that lasted for nearly a month. Initially, one gathers, the poltergeist meant to impregnate the disturbance with the identity of Aunt Maud who had just died; the first object to perform was the basket in which she had once kept her half-paralyzed Skye terrier (the breed called in our country "weeping-willow dog"). Sybil had had the animal destroyed soon after its mistress's hospitalization, incurring the wrath of Hazel who was beside herself with distress. One morning this basket shot out of the "intact" sanctuary (see lines 90-98) and traveled along the corridor past the open door of the study, where Shade was at work; he saw it whizz by and spill its humble contents: a ragged coverlet, a rubber bone, and a partly discolored cushion. Next day the scene of action switched to the dining room where one of Aunt Maud's oils (Cypress and Bat) was found to be turned toward the wall. Other incidents followed, such as short flights accomplished by her scrapbook (see note to line 90) and, of course, all kinds of knockings, especially in the sanctuary, which would rouse Hazel from her, no doubt, peaceful sleep in the adjacent bedroom. But soon the poltergeist ran out of ideas in connection with Aunt Maud and became, as it were, more eclectic. All the banal motions that objects are limited to in such cases, were gone through in this one. Saucepans crashed in the kitchen; a snowball was found (perhaps, prematurely) in the icebox; once or twice Sybil saw a plate sail by like a discus and land safely on the sofa; lamps kept lighting up in various parts of the house; chairs waddled away to assemble in the impassable pantry; mysterious bits of string were found on the floor; invisible revelers staggered down the staircase in the middle of the night; and one winter morning Shade, upon rising and taking a look at the weather, saw that the little table from his study upon which he kept a Bible-like Webster open at M was standing in a state of shock outdoors, on the snow (subliminally this may have participated in the making of lines 5-12).

I imagine, that during that period the Shades, or at least John Shade, experienced a sensation of odd instability as if parts of the everyday, smoothly running world had got unscrewed, and you became aware that one of your tires was rolling beside you, or that your steering wheel had come off. My poor friend could not help recalling the dramatic fits of his early boyhood and wondering if this was not a new genetic variant of the same theme, preserved through procreation. Trying to hide from neighbors these horrible and humiliating phenomena was not the least of Shade's worries. He was terrified, and he was lacerated with pity. Although never able to corner her, that flabby, feeble, clumsy and solemn girl, who seemed more interested than frightened, he and Sybil never doubted that in some extraordinary way she was the agent of the disturbance which they saw as representing (I now quote Jane P.) "an outward extension or expulsion of insanity." They could not do much about it, partly because they disliked modern voodoo-psychiatry, but mainly because they were afraid of Hazel, and afraid to hurt her. They had however a secret interview with old-fashioned and learned Dr. Sutton, and this put them in better spirits. They were contemplating moving into another house or, more exactly, loudly saying to each other, so as to be overheard by anyone who might be listening, that they were contemplating moving, when all at once the fiend was gone, as happens with the moskovett, that bitter blast, that colossus of cold air that blows on our eastern shores throughout March, and then one morning you hear the birds, and the flags hang flaccid, and the outlines of the world are again in place. The phenomena ceased completely and were, if not forgotten, at least never referred to; but how curious it is that we do not perceive a mysterious sign of equation between the Hercules springing forth from a neurotic child's weak frame and the boisterous ghost of Aunt Maud; how curious that our rationality feels satisfied when we plump for the first explanation, though, actually, the scientific and the supernatural, the miracle of the muscle and the miracle of the mind, are both inexplicable as are all the ways of Our Lord. (note to Line 230)


Art is a divine game. Mary, you are too serious. While making too much of the theological (mystical), you completely ignore the playful (both tragic and comic) aspect of VN's art.

Yes, the problem is purely technical (several keys on the keyboard stopped to function).