Pale Fire: Lunar Light

This week, a few of us met in the upper room to discuss how we understand the person of Jesus. Our conversation circled back to the issue of interpretation a few times. How are we to interpret his parables? How are we to interprets his miracles? How are we to interpret his death upon the cross? The point was made that Christian denominations are often able to present Jesus in such a way that serves their own interests or affirms their own pre-held assumptions. We see what we want to see. It’s one of the oddities of reading the Bible: the conservative is able to uncover a conservative message and image of Jesus, and the liberal is able to uncover a liberal message and image of Jesus. And yet they’re reading the same Bible. It made me think about this question of interpretation.

Most creedal denominations of course have a particular take upon such questions as they relate to Jesus, and their preachers and apologists set out to have you affirm the party line, because such denominations see inherent value in uniformity of belief. In a way, this actually makes the art of interpretation less important, as the objective is not to have you understand (that is of secondary concern, if of concern at all), rather, it is to have you, the believer, merely content with the answer on offer. The answer can’t change, only your attitude towards the answer on offer can change, and as such, we are subtly encouraged to just give over our assent. This invariably leads to an often self-imposed attitude that ‘I don’t need to understand the answer to x or y, I need only accept the answer on offer, because greater minds have given their assent, or greater authorities have directed thus’. Indeed, if we were to persevere in our inability to understand the answer on offer, this would suggest a deficiency, not on the part of the answer given, but in our inability to understand, for lack of insight, or lack of faith. And, not wishing to entertain such a possibility, we give our assent without pause.

Within non-creedal denominations, the understanding of the individual is thus greatly amplified, and by extension the value of the art of interpretation is far more important, for there is no trump card to hand, no authority to be exercised. There is only the power of persuasion, the power of interpretation. Whenever we watch a documentary, or read a book, or listen to an address, it is never a given that we shall agree. It is always a question of whether we agree with the interpretation on offer. Is the interpretation adequately convincing? Of course, the difficulty with this approach is that it suggests a natural law, it suggests a correlation between how convincing an argument is, and how true an argument is. And really there may be a tremendous gulf there, which is an interesting possibility. It may very well be that a rhetorical argument is easier to make for a falsity than a truth, and in this way a community of people, governed by the ‘convincing argument’, may be ever led astray.

Vladimir Nobokov (1899-1977)

Vladimir Nobokov (1899-1977)

If we’re thinking about the problem of interpretation, there is probably no book better to shed light on this issue than the postmodern novel by the Russian author, Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Pale Fire’. ‘Postmodern’, because Nabokov is playing with the conventions of novel writing. It’s odd really to even call this a novel. It’s really a piece of literary criticism, an in-depth analysis of a poem, of which we heard a small portion. That poem goes on for about 30-odd pages, before we get to the commentary on the poem, which comprises the rest of the book. So in what way is this a novel? Well, the poem is written by a famous fictional American poet, John Shade. ‘Pale Fire’ is allegedly the last poem he wrote, and the commentary is being given by a fictional academic colleague of his, Charles Kinbote. The poem itself appears to be about John Shade’s wrestling with the fact of his own daughter’s suicide. This triggers for him a search for deeper meaning - can we believe in a supernatural dimension to reality? Can we believe in some kind of afterlife? And as the poem progresses, you get the sense that he has some faint hope, but for now, he’s trapped within this the human condition, ageing, and his melancholic daily creative process.

And then we get to the commentary by the fictional Charles Kinbote, and we learn that our initial sense of the poem is completely wrong, supposedly. We learn of the relationship between John and Charles; we learn how Charles came to possess, and therefore publish, John’s final poem, and we learn just how peculiar Charles is. And slowly, as we get into his commentary, we start to mistrust his interpretation of the poem. It becomes increasingly clear that, for Charles Kinbote, his interpretation of the poem is more important than the poem’s content. We increasingly see Charles as a narcist, twisting the poem to fit his own agenda. He becomes so overly defensive on certain subjects, that we’re able to read between the lines, and conclude that despite what Charles says, they in fact did not have a positive relationship at all. Rather, Charles has an unhealthy obsession with John Shade. Charles desperately wants to believe that the poem is all about him (when really it has nothing to with him), and he’ll go to any lengths to prove it. Here is an example. Here is a portion of John Shade’s ‘Pale Fire’.

I was an infant when my parents died.
They both were ornithologists. I’ve tried
So often to evoke them that today
I have a thousand parents. Sadly they
Dissolve in their own virtues and recede,
But certain words, chance words I hear or read,
Such as "bad heart" always to him refer,
And "cancer of the pancreas" to her.”
A preterist:  one who collects cold nests.
Here was my bedroom, now reserved for guests.
Here, tucked away by the Canadian maid,
I listened to the buzz downstairs and prayed
For everybody to be always well,
Uncles and aunts, the maid, her niece Adèle
Who’d seen the Pope, people in books, and God.

The context here is, as I said, John Shade is trying to come to terms with his own daughter’s suicide, and naturally his thoughts return to the other great loss in his life, the death of his own parents when he was an infant. He talks about them being ornithologists – academics who study birds. He says he often tries to evoke them, and as he was an infant at their death, we can assume he has little to no recollection of them. He therefore imagines them in a multitude of ways, an orphan imagining the parents he never had. He imagines many possibilities; in his head he therefore has thousand of parents, thousands of possibilities that never were. He always recalls them when he hears, ‘bad heart’, or ‘cancer of the pancreas’, presumably the causes of their deaths. Then we get this line: ‘A preterist: one who collects cold nests’. The collecting of cold nests is in reference to something an ornithologist would do. They study every aspect of birds. Collecting nests would give you a lot of clues about bird behaviour, what their nests are made out of, the size of the nest, how far afield they go to collect materials, how long the is nest used before being abandoned, and so on… He relates that to his own bedroom, which was formerly the bedroom of his parents. John Shade grew up and still lives in the same house. The bedroom then, which was the ‘nest’ of their family, is now cold and abandoned, and used by guests, whom he wishes well - uncles and aunts - but he clearly feels a sense of a negative aura and sense of estrangement, which you would imagine to be the case for an orphan.

But what of this word ‘preterist’? This is actually a theological term. It relates to eschatology – the study of end times. In Christian orthodoxy, the Second Coming, the coming of the Kingdom of God, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment, are all events to come. If we take the Second Coming, and the coming of the Kingdom of God, there are several references to Jesus coming back in the New Testament: “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” It’s affirmed in the Nicene Creed, "he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in his glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end…” Any time a theological position is affirmed forcibly in the Nicene Creed, we know that means that the contrary view, the heterodoxy or heresy, also existed. In this case, a belief that Jesus and the Kingdom has already returned was prevalent among early Christians in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries. Such people point to passages such as the one where Jesus tells the disciples that some of them will not taste death until they see him coming in his kingdom. What could such a passage possibly mean, if the Kingdom did not come in the first century, and Jesus had not returned? In this way, the coming of Jesus, or the coming of the Kingdom, are all metaphors for a present reality discerned amongst the disciples in the first century, at Pentecost, when the Kingdom of God had discernibly come amongst them.

This is the Preterist view – locating the ultimate manifestation of such prophetic claims within the past narrative itself. This is an important idea for John Shade, as it means the foreboding implications of his parent’s deaths are not causally related to the suicide of his own daughter. So, if you like, that is my analysis of the poem by the fictional poet. I am undercutting the conceit of Charles that the poem can’t have meaning in and of itself, and do not rely upon Charles Kinbote’s commentary. So, now to Charles’ criticism and commentary itself. It reads:

“‘A preterist.’ Written against this in the margin of the draft are two lines of which only the first can be deciphered. It reads, ‘The Evening is the time to praise the day’. I feel pretty sure that my friend was trying to incorporate here something he and Mrs Shade had heard me quote in my lighter-hearted moments, namely a charming quatrain from our Zemblan counterpart of the Elder Edda, in an anonymous English translation.

‘The wise at nightfall praise the day,
The wife when she has passed away,
The ice when it is crossed, the bride
When tumbled and the horse when tried’.”


Now, this analysis obviously doesn’t relate to the poem at all. There is no attempt on Charles’ part to understand what John Shade is trying to say in his poem, rather he brings up this line in the margins (assuming that the line is actually there within the fiction of the story, as we only have Charles’ unreliable assertion to go on). He claims it relates to something he once said to John Shade. In other words he uses this as dubious proof that John Shade is considering something Charles Kinbote once said to him, even though there is nothing to suggest that is true. This is an example early on in the book of Charles’ mounting obsession that the poem is in fact all about him. This delusion, and the convoluted nature of his arguments, become all the more absurd the further in we get. At first you’re tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt - he did know the poet after all - but by the end you can be under no illusion that Charles Kinbote is mad. In this way, ‘Pale Fire’ is Nabokov’s critique of literary criticism, his critique of interpretation. The tile itself, ‘Pale Fire’, is a comment on interpretation. It refers to a line in the obscure Shakespeare play, ‘Timon of Athens’, which reads, "The moon's an arrant thief, And her pale fire she snatches from the sun". The moon has no light of her own; she has to steal the brilliance of the sun to shine at all. And so, might we be ensnared by the convincing argument over and above the sun, the truth. Ensnared in lunar charm, and thus ever lost to the night.

In my copy of the book, there is also an introduction by Richard Rorty, which alone is quite amusing. A critique of a fictional critique of a fictional poem, written to deride the value of the critique. Richard Rorty, the late American pragmatist, relates the maddening world of the protagonist Charles Kinbote to Prospero of Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’. For really, outside of the interpretation, the world of Prospero and his island, or the world of Charles and the poem, there is nothing. There is only the interpretation. There is no truth to which we can compare it, for the truth, the world of John Shade, is, after all, a fiction. And so, in a conclusion of sorts, we might well wonder if the convincing argument correlates with some truth out there. We might well wonder if the moon does the sun justice, but we look a little deeper and we see that sun is but an apparition. So, hold the lunar light, for she is the only light I know.


Lewis Connolly