Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), the Russian-born novelist whose 1955 novel Lolita propelled him into super-stardom, was a master of chiastic mirrors and super-symmetrical costume parties. His novel Pale Fire details the theft of a poem by a delusional visiting academic who subsequently annotates the poem into an epic of his own phantasmic adventure as the exiled King of Zembla. By the end of the novel, the reader has to agree … it works!

the idiocy of nabokov's pale fire


The idiot has only one option: the chance to make something out of error. In Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel, Pale Fire, John Shade, a poet working at a small school in the American Northeast ("New Wye") takes his just-completed 999-line poem across to show his neighbor, Kinbote, a shaggy but amiable visiting professor of Slavic languages with a suspect resumé. Kinbote rents from a judge on sabbatical, so when the poet is shot by an intruder, it is unclear whether the intended victim was the poet, the judge, or Kinbote. Kinbote’s reversed name is “botkin,” Nabokov’s reference to a burrowing wasp of the hymenoptera genus that immobilizes the nerve centers of its victims so that her newly hatched larvæ will have something to eat when they hatch (see Foster, below). Here, reversed predication is given its perfect gap — in the form of catalepsis: Shade's poem is frozen, Kinbote lays eggs in each of the 999 lines, and the larvæ begin to feed on them, making of each misreading a doubly invested anamorph — body loading plus supersymmetry!


Reversed predication, as a form of parasite, captures a content an re-animates it to a different purpose. The capture is a Hermetic theft. There can be no logic or relation that guides its silent trade of radical difference. Error exists not in a possible match or relationship, but precisely in the lack of any — but the relation to catalepsy (paralysis in the face of beauty, which retroactively devalues its host/cause) is never as clear as Nabokov made it in Pale Fire. His memory of Shakespeare’s telling lines from Timon of Athens tell the story in cosmic terms. Kenbote doesn’t have the original at hand, he has to translate from a Zemblan version that misses the point of the original:


The sun is a thief: she lures the sea

and robs it The moon is a thief:

he steals his silverlight from the sun.

The sea is a thief: it dissolves the moon.


From Shakespeare’s original we can find the clinamen whose swerve retroactively creates the nothingness that Nabokov locates in the idea of “Shade.”


I'll example you with thievery:

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; the earth's a thief,

That feeds and breeds by a composture stol'n

From general excrement: each thing's a thief:

The laws, your curb and whip, in their rough power

Have uncheck'd theft.

[Timon of Athens, scene 3]


The shift of gender can be attributed to the peculiarities of Zemblan; the omission to a practice of omitting to include the most important member of a series. While the sun, moon, and sea, transgendered, suggest a smooth series of predication reversals, the process of feeding and breeding from shit belongs entirely to the art of the remnant, the unwanted surplus substance. Sun>moon>sea form a perfect circle. The earth and excrement are equally closed, but the contradiction is more evident. 


In the practice known as silent trade, Hermes’ gifts of exchange were left out in the open. Only those who knew their value and had objects of equivalent value could exchange them without fear of divine retribution. The parasite is either misconstrued as a sub-system dependent on some more fundamental or ultimately some absolute guarantor of meaning (the false idea of the Absolute); or, the negation of the para•site is traversed into the territory of the further negation, a double that finds within the “less than nothing” the site of exception that preserves while it cancels. Hermes’ wand, a perfect picture of reversed predicates with their gap, is the recollection of the marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, turned into snakes in order to enjoy immortal life, reward for their freely endured penance for killing the serpent sacred to Ares while obtaining lustral water to sacrifice the cow that had led them to the site of Thebes. The right to what is left, the law of Hermes, authorizes the idiot-scavenger her/his spoils, ruins to be incorporated into new structures.


See, on the subject of insects: John Burt Foster Jr., Nabokov's Art of Memory and European Modernism, 227. Foster suggests that Nabokov got his idea from Proust, in his description of Françoise, the family cook in à la Reserche du temps perdu.