The Informing of the Soul (Invitation to a Beheading)
In Russian, the string of four semantically related words -- lik, litso, lichina, and lichinka (image, face, mask, larva) -- brings close the zoological and ontological. The moth, in its imago stage, has emerged awing after an astonishing holometabolical transformation from larva to chrysalis, the shell of which it has transcended. The Latin imago is what the Greeks called eikon [lik, obraz], essentially related to the Platonic idea, an essence given to us as a perceivable symbol, an incomplete correspondence. "But to me your daytime is dark, why did you disturb my slumber?" complains the nocturnal insect (204).
In Nabokov's early short story, "Christmas" (1925), a butterfly, its slumber disturbed by the warmth of human grief, scrambles out of its pupa in the middle of a Russian winter as a sign that, perhaps, the desperate father's "darling somewhere is alive."11 Vasilii Rozanov takes up this point in two or three different chapters of his Apocalypse of Our Time (1918), his last, and by far best, work. His thoughts were set forth by Pavel Florenski's remark that Aristotle's difficult notion of entelechy could be best understood by the example of the butterfly transformation:
Then, going back to my friends who had come to visit, Kapterev and Florenski, the naturalist and the priest, I asked them: "Gentlemen, which of the three contains the 'I' -- the caterpillar, the pupa, or the butterfly?" I meant, the "I" as one letter, so to speak, one radiance, one ray. "I" as both a "dot" and a "naught." Kapterev kept silent, but Florenski said, upon reflection: "Surely, a butterfly is the entelechy of the caterpillar and the pupa."12In Invitation to a Beheading, the only persona, litso, Cincinnatus C., is surrounded by masks, the lichiny, who wear false faces, false teeth, dummy beards, interchangeable heads, the head of a Borzoi, wigs, and so forth. The novel's cast carefully avoids using the word man or people, preferring the social security of such faceless terms as the public and citizens. The Main Masque, M'sieur Pierre the Punch, the Pierrot of the troupe,13 stripped of his disguise, undergoes the reverse metamorphosis from pupa to larva, from the lichina to the lichinka,14 which in the end, when "everything falls into place," or apart, is swiftly borne off the stage by a "woman in a black shawl" (223). The Spider theme terminates when the "youngest member of the circus family" turns into a "crudely but cleverly made" gadget that Roman, a lawyer turned into a roust-about, bounces by a long elastic attached to it. Here "M'sieur Pierre cast a sidelong cold glance at the toy and Roman, raising his eyebrows, hastily pocketed it" (210). This scene reaches back, perhaps, to the crucial episode in Chapter Nine, "The Family Reunion," in which one of Cincinnatus's brothers-in-law, the singer, begins softly his "Mali è trano t'amesti" ("Death is sweet; this is a secret," in scrambled Russian15), when he is stopped short by his brother the punster, "who made terrible eyes at him" (103) as if he had let out a secret pregnant with meaning.
Cincinnatus perseveres. Cincinnatus gropes for a simple ultimate solution of the riddle of his outlandish existence. "I know something, I know something, I know something," he repeats in a hopeful spell, and this treble incantation reminds one of the thrice repeated "I drugoe, drugoe, drugoe" (something else) from Nabokov's arcane poem "Fame" (1942): something -- a secret -- about which he "must not be over-explicit" (a tochnee skazat' ia ne vprave).16 On the penultimate page of his diary Cincinnatus hurriedly writes, "I've discovered the little crack in life, where it broke off, where it had been once soldered to something else, something genuinely alive, important and vast" (205, my emphasis). This crack (dyrochka, a little hole, in the original Russian) must be similar in nature to the "chink" in Look at the Harlequins!, through which the transcendental chill of the other world (also imaginary) is leaking in, a draft from beyond the book whose hardbound covers limn Cincinnatus's real and truly inescapable jail.
Cincinnatus writes in his final entry that he has reached "the dead end of this life" and that he "should not have sought salvation within its confines" (205). Humbert Humbert turns this very thought to a figure: "That's the dead end (the mirror you break your nose against)."17 Until his soul parts with its warm, familiar cocoon, Cincinnatus cannot see that it is a preposterous notion to believe that he may be mortal -- yet any good reader should know as much even before he opens the book. "A ved' on oshibaetsia," "and yet he is wrong," says a stranger to an anonym early in the novel (19), as Cincinnatus passes by in one of his clairvoyant swoons. He is indeed wrong, and he vaguely senses it when he cancels the last word in his diary, death, as grossly meaningless under the circumstances. An early creature of Nabokov, the desperate hero of his 1924 story "Christmas," utters the same unattached word, unable to recognize in the newly-born Attacus moth a telling sign that his son "somewhere is alive":
"It's Christmas tomorrow," came the abrupt reminder, "ans I'm going to die. Of course. It's so simple. This very night..." He pulled out a handkerchief and dried his eyes, his beard, his cheeks. Dark streaks remained on the handkerchief. "...death," Sleptsov said softly, as if concluding a long sentence. The clock ticked. Frost patterns overlapped on the blue glass of the window. The open notebook shone radiantly on the table <...> At that instant there was a sudden snap...18Cincinnatus names imagination as his possible savior (114), and he does it almost in a trance, as if at a prompt from someone in the know.
11. This is another frantic father's sob, in a later novel by Nabokov (Pale Fire, line 978 of the poem).
12. Vasilii Rozanov, Izbrannoe [Selections] (Munich: Neimanis, 1970), p. 503. See also pp. 506-507 and 469ff. Some of the concepts in this and the immediately adjacent paragraphs (the Russian semantics of the image-mask, for instance) issue from Florenski's ideas put forward in his discourses on icons, particularly in The Iconostasis (Father Pavel Florenski, Iconostasis, in his Sobranie sochinenii. Tom I. U vodorazdela mysli: Stat'i po iskusstvu. [Collected Works. Volume One. At the Watershed of Thought: Essays on Art]. Paris: YMCA Press, 1985, pp. 193-316).
13. In the Russian original, he calls his Petrushka puppet his namesake, "Nu, sidi priamo, tezka" (Well, sit straight now, namesake." Priglashenie na kazn' [Paris: Editions Victor, 1966], p. 139). His Russian name is Petr Petrovich.
14. The original Latin word probably lacked this nuance, "larva" meaning "specter" but also "mask" as late as in the first century A.D., for example, in Horace (in the latter sense):
Pastorem saltaret uti Cyclopa rogabat:("he begged him to dance the Cyclops shepherd-dance: he would need neither mask nor tragic buskin," Satires I, v, ll.63-64; tr. H. Rushton Fairclough).
15. It is unscrambled in the book in which this essay originally appeared: Aerial View: Essays on Nabokov's Art and Metaphysics (New York: P. Lang, 1993), pp. 193-97.
16. Vladimir Nabokov, Poems and Problems (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), pp. 102-112. The author of an old doctoral dissertation complains, apparently in earnest, that in Invitation to a Beheading "life beyond death is not convincingly presented." (I borrow this gem from Samuel Schuman, Vladimir Nabokov: A Reference Guide [Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979], p. 68).
17. Vladimir Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita, ed. by Alfred Appel, Jr. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 227.
18. See Julian W. Connolly, Nabokov's Early Fiction: Patterns of Self and Other (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 10, 15, and Vladimir Alexandrov, Nabokov's Otherworld (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 244, note 9. "Sleptsov" means "Mr. Blind." In a note to the English translation of the story (Details of a Sunset and Other Stories, p. 153), Nabokov remarks that it "oddly resembles the type of chess problem called 'selfmate'." (White forces Black to mate the White King in a certain fixed number of moves. Although Sleptsov is on the verge of suicide, the analogy seems somewhat dark to me).
19. Of all those who have written on Invitation to a Beheading none has neglected to touch on the enigma of the final sentence. While not presuming to enter here the famous debate of whether or not Cincinnatus is beheaded on page 222, a controversy that I think is artificial and ill-sorted, I should like to quote a little known report by a close friend of Swedenborg's, casting, perhaps, a curious sidelight on one of the debate's best ontological arguments:
One day a prisoner was publicly executed; Mr. Robsahm [the memoirist] went in the evening to visit Swedenborg, and asked him, how a malefactor, in the moment of execution, finds himself on entering the world of spirits? He answered; when he lays his head on the block, he loses his senses, and that, after the beheading, when the spirit enters the world of spirits, the prisoner finds himself alive, tries to make his escape, is in expectation of death, and in great fright, as thinking either on the happiness of heaven, or the miseries of hell in that moment. At last, such a one is associated with the good spirits, who discover to him, that he is really departed from the natural world (Documents Concerning the Life and Character of Emanuel Swedeborg, collected by Dr. J.F.I. Tafel, ed. by the Rev. I.H. Smithson [Manchester: Joseph Hayward, 1841], p. 77).20. "And I shan't write it now, I'll be a long time preparing it, years perhaps <...> In any case I'll do something else first --I want to translate something in my own manner from an old French sage --in order to reach a final dictatorship over words." (The Gift [New York: Putnam's, 1963], p. 376). To my knowledge, D. Barton Johnson was the first to point out that the sage "is almost certainly Pierre Delalande" (D. Barton Johnson, Worlds in Regression; Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov [Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985], p. 99). He fails to see, however, that Invitation to a Beaheading is then inevitably the very book the hero of The Gift means to adapt in his own manner, from the author of the Tract on Shadows.
21. "Ultima Thule" (A Russian Beauty and Other Stories [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973], pp. 149-150).
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