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Through a mirror stage dimly

My Paper on Nabokov's short story "Lance"


Per Partem Speculum

 in Enigmate[1]




“Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?”

-Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream”




Jason Helms

December 15, 2004



Nabokov’s works often investigate the connections between death, language and aesthetics.  He cares little for issues of “moral” import and his stories are as consequence sometimes seen as immoral.  His concern, however, was never for the sensibilities of the public, but their sensualities.  This paper will investigate some of the implications of both Plato’s and Paul’s views on reflections.  We will then trace some of the major critical work on “Lance,” a story obsessed with reflections of reality, and gain new insight by integrating the work of Jacques Lacan.  I hope to show that when compared to Nabokov’s entire corpus, “Lance” illuminates depths hitherto unplumbed. 

Nabokov outlines a theory of beauty linked closely to major themes throughout western philosophy.  For him art is that Otherworld of “aesthetic bliss,” most clearly stated in his “On a Book Entitled Lolita:”

for me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. (Lolita 286)


This “somewhere” has been defined variously throughout literature and entails more than the mere “supernatural” or “hereafter.”  It is the bright light of Plato’s “idea of good” which “appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort” (269), the mystery revealed in Saint Paul’s speculum. 


Reflections on Nabokov or Vice-Versa

Nabokov is obsessed with the idea that things are not what they appear to be, for therein lies true irony and therefore aesthetic bliss.  He is hardly the first to think that the perceived real is wrong:

Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. (Plato 265)


Plato’s prisoners are clept in the shackles of perception.  They take the world around them literally and never experience any kind of transcendent experience.  To them—and us—,  “the truth [is] literally nothing but the shadows of the images” (266).  Caged within the cave we take the shadows of language for reality.  Finally, “idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort” (269).  This good, as has already been implied, is none other than Nabokov’s aesthetic bliss.

            The image of a mirror or reflecting surface is another theme carried throughout Nabokov’s works.  Cincinnatus C writes,

not knowing how to write, but sensing with my criminal intuition how words are combined, what one must do for a commonplace word to come alive and to share its neighbor’s sheen, heat, shadow, while reflecting itself in its neighbor and renewing the neighboring word in the process, so that the whole line is live iridescence.  (Invitation to a Beheading 93)


It is inherent within Cincinnatus’ “gnostical turpitude” to be able to overcome the natural and expose the world around him to the gaze of art.  The “live iridescence” of his text is a reflection of the world of aesthetic bliss where “shines a mirror that now and again sends a chance reflection here.

In King, Queen, Knave Kurt Dreyer mistakenly traces Aspirin’s etymology through “sperare, speculum, spiegel” (237).  Sperare is Latin for “to hope.”  Speculum” and “Spiegel” mean “mirror” in Latin and German respectively.  To my knowledge the only other place in literature where the Latin words sperare and speculum occur in such proximity is in the vulgate translation of I Corinthians 13:12-13, 

Videmus nunc per speculum in enigmate tunc autem facie ad faciem nunc cognosco ex parte tunc autem cognoscam sicut et cognitus sum.  Nunc autem manet fides spes caritas tria haec maior autem his est caritas.[2] (Emphasis mine)


“Through a mirror into a mystery” is an excellent adaptation of Plato’s cave allegory.  It also extends the metaphor to a clear depiction of the hereafter.  Hope becomes the modus operandi for Paul’s readers, and for Nabokov’s characters.  We are stuck in the present and can merely hope for the future or look at it as though through a mirror, to which Nabokov likens art.  When viewed in this light, we may reflect upon Plato’s cave allegory as another metaphor of the mirror.  The wall is the reflective surface and the shadows are the images upon the mirror—reflections of reality devoid of substance; art devoid of joy, replete with irony.


Lance and Lacan

Nabokov’s short story “Lance” has received little critical attention.  Other than its self-negating paroxysms against science fiction, critics have rarely even mentioned it.  It traces the interplanetary journey of Emory Lancelot Boke, one of Nabokov’s imaginary descendents, and his parents’ anxiety while he is gone.  But this is just the surface.  Lance opens up to themes of medieval romance, mountaineering, and space travel, blurring the line between fiction and reality, life and death all along the way. 

The majority of criticism on Lance is contained within two articles: Charles Nicol’s “Nabokov and Science Fiction: ‘Lance’” and Yvonne Howell’s “Science and Gnosticism in Lance.”  Nicol’s article is a fairly straightforward treatment of the story focusing on the theme of death.  He sees Nabokov’s Otherworld (“Lance” 637) as “the land of the dead,” (Nicol 14) and the “raw wound…gaping hole in my story” (“Lance” 640) as “death itself” (Nicol 16)—Paul’s hereafter where cognoscamus sicut et cognitus summus.[3]  Nicol also manages a sidelong reference to the “real subject of ‘Lance’…the present” (13).  Though he sees the present as a crucial aspect of the story, Nicol drops it at this point and chooses instead to trace the theme of death as undiscovered country (or planet), revealing along the way an autobiographical insertion (Dmitiri Nabokov, Vladimir’s mountain climbing son) as “not just the model for this description, but its intended subject” (13).

Howell follows Nicol’s lead but extends the theme into the “spatial depiction of the discontinuity between the nature of reality and its representation” (Howell 182)—fancy words for what Plato had described two thousand years prior.  She notices Nabokov’s “interchangeability of time and space,” (Howell 184) in his describing the planet as “separated from the earth by only as many miles as there are years between last Friday and the rise of the Himalayas,” (“Lance” 632) but fails to regard Nabokov’s same ambivalence in describing Lance as “several light-years older by now” (638)—a light-year is the distance which light travels in a year.  Throughout the paper Howell gives nodding glances at the real themes of Lance but never more than that first glance.  She states that “what recurs in writing is significant” (186) but employs this only to explain alliteration and vague slant rhymes.  She explains Nabokov’s anti-Sci-Fi tirade as “the self-referentiality of all art” (185) but leaves such a titillating lead dangling.  One of her more intriguing insights is that “projecting Time outward into cosmic space results in clumsier monsters than those produced when Time is projected inward, as psychological space” (188).  Following Nabokov’s inward projection leads to a few interesting conclusions.

To pick up Howell’s thread at this point I will need to employ one of Nabokov’s unknown nemeses, a Freudian named Jacques Lacan.  Lacan revolutionized the psychological world in the forties with his “Mirror Stage” article, describing a child’s entrance into the symbolic order of language—his inaugural viewing of himself in the mirror and identification with that image.  Lacan “regard[s] the function of the mirror-stage as a particular case of the function of the imago, which is to establish a relation between the organism and reality” (“Mirror Stage” 4).  In identifying himself in the mirror, the child becomes nothing more than that image: the I.  This image in the mirror “symbolizes the mental permanence of the I, at the same time as it prefigures its alienating destiny” (2).  Lacan’s mirror stage is heavily dependent upon both Paul—“videmus nunc per speculum in enigmate tunc autem facie ad faciem”—and Plato—“the truth [as] literally nothing but the shadows of the images” (266).

This may be cleared up somewhat by comparing it to Lacan’s later essay, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconcious or Reason Since Freud.”  In it Lacan portrays Saussure’s sign as,



the signifier (S) over the signified (s)  (“Agency of the Letter” 149).  By inverting Saussure’s sign (signified over signifier) Lacan stresses the importance of language in psychoanalysis.  His second algorithm,

f(S) I/s

gives us the effect of language (the signifier or symbolic order) upon the subject: the function (f) of language (S) is to separate the subject (I) from the real (s) (164).  Just as the infans upon seeing himself in the mirror becomes separated from himself, becoming now a mere (mirror?) image; so when the infans learns to speak he loses himself to language.  Slavoj Žižek, a notable Lacanian, writes, “it is the very form of language which introduces a radical alienation” (Sublime Object 210).  Language then is “the truth [which is] literally nothing but the shadows of the images [the signified]” (Plato 266).  Once alienated from the Real by language the unconscious is created to combat this traumatic shock, for “what the psychoanalytic experience discovers in the unconscious is the whole structure of language” (Lacan, “Agency of the Letter” 148).  Lacan’s statement has often been reduced to “the unconscious is structured like language,”—certainly a terser statement—the effects of which can be felt within “Lance.”

            Language and the unconscious—the central themes in what I find to be “Lance’s” central passage—become apparent in a Lacanian analysis of Nabokov’s (or the fictional author’s) dream.  The dream is used to explain the experience of being the first human to ever set foot on mars, the “gaping hole” in the story.  In filling the hole, Nabokov resorts to a retelling of one of his childhood dreams:

When I was a boy of seven or eight, I used to dream a vaguely recurrent dream set in a certain environment, which I have never been able to recognize and identify in any rational manner, though I have seen many strange lands. I am inclined to make it serve now, in order to patch up a gaping hole, a raw wound in my story. There was nothing spectacular about that environment, nothing monstrous or even odd: just a bit of noncommittal stability represented by a bit of level ground and filmed over with a bit of neutral nebulosity; in other words, the indifferent back of a view rather than its face. The nuisance of that dream was that for some reason I could not walk around the view to meet it on equal terms. There lurked in the mist a mass of something - mineral matter or the like - oppressively and quite meaninglessly shaped, and, in the course of my dream, I kept filling some kind of receptacle (translated as "pail") with smaller shapes (translated as "pebbles"), and my nose was bleeding but I was too impatient and excited to do anything about it. And every time I had that dream, suddenly somebody would start screaming behind me, and I awoke screaming too, thus prolonging the initial anonymous shriek, with its initial note of rising exultation, but with no meaning attached to it any more - if there had been a meaning. Speaking of Lance, I would like to submit that something on the lines of my dream - But the funny thing is that as I reread what I have set down, its background, the factual memory vanishes - has vanished altogether by now - and I have no means of proving to myself that there is any personal experience behind its description. What I wanted to say was that perhaps Lance and his companions, when they reached their planet, felt something akin to my dream - which is no longer mine. (“Lance” 640-641)


Seven or eight is an age where entrance into the symbolic order can only be viewed retrospectively.  This dream is an attempt to deal with the nagging suspicion that trading the world of the real for the world of language was a bum deal—the prisoners shaking the chains of Plato’s allegory.  Nabokov vividly evokes an infans’ view of the world: “a bit of noncommittal stability represented by a bit of level ground and filmed over with a bit of neutral nebulosity; in other words, the indifferent back of a view rather than its face.”  Suddenly a mass lurches up, “oppressive and quite meaninglessly shaped.”  This is the entrance into the symbolic order.  It begins with a separation from the real.  The filling of the pail with pebbles shows the means whereby the boy enters the symbolic—language—and the means whereby language enters his unconscious.  The receptacle is the unconscious’ internal lexicon and the smaller shapes are individual words. 

The nosebleed is the insistence of the real upon him resulting in a symptom.  Žižek defines the real as “that which is not totally malleable to the caprices of our imagination” (“No Sex” par. 10).  The nosebleed is a physical metaphor—which, I must emphasize, is not oxymoronic—it is our perceived reality becoming malleable to our imagination.  Nabokov’s impatience and excitement over language (absorbing words and whole languages into his lexicon) explain the impossibility of the real—it becomes further and further out of reach the more he is able to describe it, just as his dream leaps out of reach as it is retold.  The dream may thus be read as an allegory concerning the nature of metonymy and metaphor. 

For Lacan signifiers can only be substituted for or connected to other signifiers.  The signified real is inaccessible.  He describes metonymy as horizontal and metaphor as vertical (“Agency of the Letter” 164), calling metonymic structure, “the connexion [sic] between signifier and signifier that permits the elision in which the signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation” (164).  This is the slippage that occurs throughout the dream: the nebulosity becomes a mass which gives way to a pail and a nosebleed.  In metonymy words are always linked to other words that help define, limit, or expand them.  Metaphor on the other hand indicates, “that it is in the substitution of signifier for signifier that an effect of signification is produced that is creative or poetic” (164).  This movement is vertical, always upward from the first signifier into higher signifiers, signs upon signs.  Here the dream becomes a metaphor for the way in which we deal with reality: through metaphor. 

The first level of metaphor is perhaps the most salient: the nosebleed.  The nosebleed is the classical symptom, “the symptom being a metaphor in which the flesh or function is taken as a signifying element” (166).  It is the blurring of the line between perceived reality and its representation.  So too, the screaming is another tentacle of language separating him from reality until, upon waking, the dreamer finds that it was his own screaming that woke him.  Going one level further we see that now the dream has “no meaning attached to it—if there had been a meaning” (641).  Each level separates the dreamer further from the dream of the real until he realizes that “as I reread what I have set down, its background, the factual memory vanishes - has vanished altogether by now - and I have no means of proving to myself that there is any personal experience behind its description.”  Nabokov’s dream is stolen from him in the very act of writing it, as it too enters the symbolic order, forever separating it from the real.

Luckily for us, Nabokov is kind enough to explicitly connect the dream to Lance’s adventure—the “gaping hole” which it fills—, for it is really the tale of our submission to language and our desire to break free.  This is why Lance cannot speak about his trip.  He has gone to the other side and is extremely conscious of language—“Je vais dire ca en franăais” (642).  While Howell and Nicol are content to see Lance knocking upon death’s door, Nabokov is careful to remind us that “to escape gravity means to transcend the grave” (640) not to simply die.  This is the distinction he toys with throughout the story.  He tempts us by calling Lance’s rocket “a glorious scaffold;” (636) Lance’s destination, “the Otherworld,” a place “‘dont nus estranges ne retorne.’”[4] While he warns “thou shalt not pass,” Nabokov still allows a dissenting voice to remark, “you shall.  You shall even acquire a sense of humor that will tide you over the trying spots” (637).  Whereas we mere mortals must make do with terrestrial space which “loves concealment,” (636) knowing in part, Lance is free to lean “on his elbow from a flowered ledge to contemplate earth” (639)—to know just as he was known.  The ex-mortal is not dead, but has merely gained a better view.  While we who are trapped within the symbolic order imagine seeing earth, “girdled with latitudes, stayed with meridians, and marked, perhaps, with the fat, black, diabolically curving arrows of global wars,” Lance sees instead, “dust, scattered reflections, haze, and all kinds of optical pitfalls, so that continents, if they appeared at all through the varying clouds, would slip by in queer disguises, with inexplicable gleams of color and unrecognizable outlines” (639).  For Lance the world has ceased to be symbolic and can be viewed as it is.

Lance’s interplanetary flight may likewise be viewed as an allusion to Plato’s cave allegory. Lance, upon leaving the cave of the symbolic order, steps into the harsh light of the real.  When he returns we find we have nothing to talk about.  He has experienced a world without language, “the imagined silence of an inimaginable world” (639).  My spell check wishes to remind me that “inimaginable” is not a word, but I will foil it with the knowledge that Nabokov wanted to strengthen the terror induced by space, to make space—our perpetual Other—not just unimaginable, but inimical. 


Shades of Light

Lance’s voyage parallels the imagined flight of another Nabovokian character: John Shade, the “shadow of the waxwing slain” (Pale Fire, l. 1).  Shade’s flight provides an apt interpretation of Plato, Paul, and Lance.  Pale Fire is a book obsessed with reflection, thievery and death.  Shade sees reflections of the hereafter all around him, stealing consolation over his daughter’s suicide.  Kinbote sees “Pale Fire” as a way to reflect himself to readers, thereby stealing Shade’s glory.  Ironically, Kinbote is unaware that he has misquoted the origin of the poem’s title.  On a note to a variant reading—“and home would hast my thieves / The sun with stolen ice, the moon with leaves”—he quotes a translation of Shakespeare as saying,

The sun is a thief: she lures the sea
and robs it. The moon is a thief:
he steals his silvery light from the sun.
The sea is a thief: it dissolves the moon.  (58)


Whereas the real quote is,

The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears;

-Timon of Athens. Act iv. Sc. 3. ll. 436-440


The moon, Kinbote, is only able to shine by stealing the sun’s (Shade’s) pale fire.  Just as the moon hastens with stolen leaves, so Kinbote races to complete his commentary upon a purloined poem.  We—the sea of readers—then dissolve Kinbote’s commentary to nothing more than salt tears. 

I hear in Nabokov’s forgeries echoes of Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia and the Garden of Cyrus, another meditation on life and death.  Browne writes that, “Life it self is but the shadow of death, and souls departed but the shadows of the living: All things fall under this name.  The sunne it self is but the dark simulachrum, and light but the shadow of God” (202).  Shade is the sun and life the shadow of death, not the reverse as we might suppose.  Browne’s metaphysical contemplation on reflection illumines the poem and commentary.

            Just as a bird is distracted by the reflection of sky in a window pane, so Shade is distracted by the image of immortality.  And just as his wax-winged predecessor, Icarus, Shade finds escape in artifice, and flying too high, is, like Icarus, doomed to fall.  Yet through our readings of his poems he manages to fly on, much like the late Nabokov.  In flying on he achieves what Plato and Paul had also intimated: aesthetic immortality—where Lance has gone and returned, and where we may only hope to follow.

Works Cited

Biblia Sacra Vulgata.  4th ed.  Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994.

Browne, Sir Thomas.  “Hydriotaphia and the Garden of Cyrus.”  Selected Writings.  Ed. Sir Geoffrey Keynes.  Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970.  113-210.

Howell, Yvonne.  “Science and Gnosticism in ‘Lance.’”  Small Alpine Form: Studies in Nabokov’s Short Fiction.  Ed. Charles Nicol and Gennady Barabtarlo.  New York: Garland, 1993.  181-192.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I.” Ecrits. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977. 1-7.

---. “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconcious or Reason Since Freud.” Ecrits. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.  146-178.

Nabokov, Vladimir.  Invitation to a Beheading.  New York: Putnam, 1959.

---.  “Lance.”  The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov.  Ed. Dmitri Nabokov.  New York: Vintage, 1997.

---.  “On a Book Entitled Lolita.”  Lolita.  Berkeley: Berkeley, 1972.  282-288.

---.  Pale Fire.  New York: Lancer, 1962.

Nicol, Charles.  “Nabokov and Science Fiction: ‘Lance.’”  Science-Fiction Studies 14.1 (March 1987): 9-20.

Plato. “The Republic.”  The Essential Plato.  Trans. Benjamin Jowett.  New York: Quality Paperback, 1999.

Žižek, Slavoj. “No Sex, Please, We’re Post-Human!”  28 Sep. 2004. <>.

---. The Sublime Object of Ideology.  New York: Verso, 1989.

[1] “Through the Mirror Stage Dimly”

[2] “Now we see through a mirror into a mystery, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I may know just as I am known.  But now remain faith, hope, charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity.” (My translation)

[3] “We shall know just as we are known,” the where/when dissolving in the analogy.

[4] “from which no traveler returns.”

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Copyright (c) 2004 Jason Helms.
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