Per Partem Speculum
“Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?”
Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream”
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
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
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
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:
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)
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
The image of a mirror or reflecting
surface is another theme carried throughout Nabokov’s works. Cincinnatus
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.
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,
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. (Emphasis mine)
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
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.
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. 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).
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.
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).
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,
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’” 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.
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
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,
sun is a thief: she lures the sea
and robs it. The moon is a thief:
he steals his silvery light from the sun.
sea is a thief: it dissolves the moon. (58)
Whereas the real quote
The sun’s a thief, and with his
Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears;
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.
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---. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1989.