Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Pale Fire: Books That Blow Your Head Off

Not simply an intellectual intake of ideas and stories, some books contain the power to completely explode and permanently alter a persons empirical existence.  I am not alone with this experience.  Indeed, Robert Anton Wilson thought it prudent to warn potential readers about E.J. Gold's Visions in the Stone with his blurb published on the back cover: 

The book you hold in your hands is as dangerous as a letter-bomb.  It might blow your head off ... Be prepared for a weird journey and a Zen hotfoot at the end."

Wilson uses some of these dangerous letters to encode an Introduction to Visions in his Historical Illuminatus mode of using many footnotes and referencing deSelby. It's one of his best Introductions, in my opinion.

Tobias Churton recalls Aleister Crowley's diary entry about reading Fitzhugh Ludlow's The Hashish Eater: " ... a wonderful book.  Sleeping, I got a mild hashish dream!"  The next day Crowley writes that in his meditation his vision gets "confused with hashish distortion.  This book is clearly bewitched."  (A.C. in America p. 137) Note that he is not taking hashish, but rather observing a contact high from the book.

I recall seeing this subject covered in the Butterfly Language blog not so long ago. 

I have always granted certain books great power.  I would carry them around with me wherever I went believing that I could continue absorbing their contents by osmosis through the proximity of their physical corpus.  I fully resonate with the quote I heard somewhere that "great books are monasteries."I like to live in these monasteries for periods of time, absorbing their program then moving on.

For  about two to three months a year from the ages of 15 - 17 The Lord of the Rings was my constant companion.  This book had the effect of greatly broadening my vision beyond human society's consensual reality, norms and assumptions feeling new neural pathways opening up.

One sign of an exploding book occurs when things written in the book crossover and conflate with current events in external reality.  You can truly get the disquieting feeling of being a character in some large drama, some book that someone else has written that seems a bigger, multidimensional version of the book you're reading - the one that's blowing your head off.  This happened to me when I was reading Schrodinger's Cat by Robert Anton Wilson while working in Paris with Paris Combo.

Nabokov's Pale Fire recently exploded my brain.  I had never heard of this book until Tom Jackson selected it for a weekly group reading at  The only thing I knew about Nabokov was that he wrote Lolita and appeared as a lyric in a Police song.  Beset with a busy schedule, I had no intention of participating in the group until I saw a comment by Eric Wagner that piqued my interest.  It looked like it would be right up my alley.  This became confirmed after reading the first page.

Pale Fire takes the form of an extended commentary by the character Charles Kinbote of an unfinished epic poem.  The poem is by John Shade who was murdered in front of Kinbote.  The book starts with a quote from James Boswell's book the Life of Samuel Johnson, then a Forward by Kinbote followed by the poem, then the last section, Kinbote's quixotic, often digressive, sometimes rambling, commentary on the poem which includes the events that led up to the murder.  It also covers Kinbote's personal relationship with Shade. This  relatively straightforward form disguises a narrative full of twists and turns, tricks and puzzles, deceptions and dead ends. Literary and esoteric references abound along with stylistic writing experiments.  You could call it a labyrinth of sense.

The crossover of events from the written word to events in the world often takes the form of coincidences and synchronicities.  For instance, the first page in Pale Fire has an abrupt non sequitur shift with Kinbote mentioning hearing sounds from an amusement park filtering into his room. I posted this comment after reading about half the Foreward:

Synchronicities dog me. Found it interesting that Shade's death is mentioned on the first page, that he started the poem shortly before he died. The loud amusement park holds significance for me. Amusement parks are considered bardo spaces (i.e. spaces that convey the mood of death or the bardo). A few days after my father died, I was told by a psychic I trust that he had first entered a carnival-like environment in his bardo trip, that he must have been thinking of some such memory when he crossed over. So this amusement park atmosphere mentioned right after Shade's death makes me think this novel will have a bardoesque aspect to it.

This morning I got a voicemail informing me that an old friend, Hassan Heiserman had died. It was an anonymous call from someone who'd seen a blog I wrote about Hassan. Hassan knew Leary and also said he had done something with RAW at one point. I don't have any details or even know if it is true.

 Tom Jackson replied: When Oz reads John Shade's poem, he'll discover that it's all about death.

Tom lives in the Cleveland area which is where I was born and lived for the first 9 years of my life.  Tom then mentioned Cedar Point in his comment, a huge amusement park my parents and grandparents used to take us kids to.  At the time, it seemed the ultimate experience like going to heaven, or for some people going to Disneyland, the ultimate kids paradise.  I hadn't thought of that place for years.  Two nights after the Cedar Point memory folded in, I was mixing with Achilles Wheel and met the drummer's wife.  She had heard I was from Cleveland and asked me if I'd ever heard of Cedar Point?  She was from Sandusky where it's located and informed me that she used to work there.  The amusement park in the book crosses over within two days to an encounter with someone who worked at the actual amusement park of my childhood.

Immediately before starting the Pale Fire adventure, I posted  a blog concerning the esoteric nature of the number 68 and how it frequently expresses itself through the combination of the letters "s" and "c."  These letters transpose to 68 with Gematria.  It seemed "merely coincidental" that the opening quote of the book has this line: "Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats." Given the ambiguous nature of Pale Fire and Nabokov's fondness for puns, references and multiple meanings, it doesn't seem farfetched to see a association between "shooting cats" and the Schrodinger's Cat quantum physics thought experiment. This experiment puts a cat into a black box in which a quantum process releases a poison pellet at a particular time that kills the cat.  Figuring out the decay time of the quantum process will tell us if the cat is alive or dead at any particular time with the paradox being that there can be more than one solution.  The cat can be both dead or alive and we don't ever really know until we open the box.  Welcome to Pale Fire.

I soon came across other instances that apparently affirmed my c - s / 68 bias:

If on some nameless island Captain Schmidt
Sees a new animal and captures it
And if, a little later, Captain Smith
Brings back a skin, that island is no myth.
Our fountain was a signpost and a mark
Objectively enduring in the dark
Strong as a bone, substantial as a tooth
And almost as vulgar in its robust truth.

These are lines 759 - 766 from Shade's poem (p.61 in my edition) The first four lines look like a metaphor for discovering something in the Unknown then having it confirmed by someone else.  The second four lines beginning with "Our fountain ..." might make more sense after reading this blog and seeing one branch of what 68 signifies.

These lines started stoking a suspicion that Pale Fire functioned as a multi-level didactic experiment of an esoteric/transformational nature; magick and bardo training as the Department of Redundancy Department might put it.  Multiple levels because some points were explicit and obvious and at a neophyte level while others ranged up to very subtle and advanced.  The notion of a fountain as a signpost goes toward the latter end of the scale.

The first line of Shade's poem: I was the shadow of the waxwing slain strongly reminded me of the theme from Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day.  The image of wings that are growing, figuratively speaking, getting cut down and destroyed; obstacles, challenges, setbacks and defeats on the road of alchemical transformation.  Against the Day also contained passages teaching  magick, qabalah and alchemy ranging from straightforward and literal to arcane and occult.

Although it is evident that many of Pynchon’s literary mechanisms were inspired by the seminal works of Vladimir Nabokov, another literary giant of the twentieth century, not many people are aware that Pynchon was Nabokov’s student at the University of Cornell. - Domagoj Valjak

Isn't the internet wonderful?  Just discovered the above quote and an article about Nabokov's influence on Pynchon.  Pynchon was a student of Nabokov's - that direct connection explains a lot to me.  He was a good student.

Then came the Golden Dawn/Crowley connection.  These are comments I posted at the time.

By coincidence, about a week before this reading group commenced I discovered that MacGregor Mathers, the head of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley's teacher, was very active in the Carlist movement which had to do with royal succession in Spain and Britain. He was active to the point of arranging the purchase and shipment of weapons to the cause in Spain. Crowley also considered himself a Carlist at the time according to Churton, in "Aleister Crowley in America."

Second paragraph in the section Line 12 that crystal land: "Alas, he would have said a great deal more if a domestic anti-Karlist had not controlled every line he communicated to her!" Nabakov introduces the Karlist movement with a line against it, again recalling, for me, "Against the Day."

The exclamation: ".... venerable uncle's raucous dying request: "Teach Karlik!" on the following page reminded me of Mathers and the Golden Dawn. He wrote all the rituals.

Immediately following this exclamation to teach, Kinbote, whom Nabokov directs or misdirects the reader into believing could be King Charles, references teaching Finnegans Wake (James Joyce).  Not many pages later, Kinbote gives a very Joycean interpretation to one line from one of Shade's earlier poems, The Sacred Tree.  With this kind of interpretation Nabokov shows one way of reading Joyce.  It's been well established that Joyce uses Qabalah in Finnegans Wake. There is at least one other instance showing the reader an obviously Joycean interpretation.

Enter Sherlock Holmes, a character who exemplifies many of the necessary skills for solving a maze.

Sherlock Holmes gets introduced shortly after the Finnegans Wake reference through what Kinbote calls the "Case of the Reversed Footprints." Sherlock Holmes notices normally unseen clues by being very attentive and observant. 

 Looking at things backwards reveals a fundamental lesson of qabalistic practice.

The theme of reversals and opposites already turns up several times in "Pale Fire." Even in the comments here this week we see Kinbote suggesting reading the book in the reversed order it's presented in; the cat and mouse game in The Sacred Tree poem and the picture: "In the study I found a large picture of their parents with the sexes reversed." Also, "How persistently our poet evokes images of winter in the beginning of a poem which he started composing on a balmy summer night!" - beginning the comment for Lines 34-35.

The picture of the sexes reversed recalls an old gnostic injunction about the male becoming as a female, the female becoming male and the two becoming one. I don't remember how it goes verbatim, but RAW quotes this gnostic phrase at the beginning of one of the Schrodinger's Cat books when they were released as 3 separate books. Not sure if it made it into the single volume edition.

The bardo training aspect first becomes obvious at the start of Canto Two (p. 39) wherein the narrator dedicates himself to becoming a bardo explorer i.e. an explorer of life after death.  At the beginning of Canto 3 the poet introduces the Institute (I) of Preparation (P) For the Hereafter (H), IPH, the big "if."

While snubbing gods including the big G,
Iph borrowed some peripheral debris
From mystic visions; and it offered tips
(The amber spectacles for life's eclipse)
How not to panic when you're made a ghost;

Don't panic is a primary bardo tip.  It's ok and normal to feel fear, but you don't want to panic.

These are just a few examples of the many literary devices, tricks, references and so on Nabokov uses to fufill a Hierophantic task.  The connection with Crowley gets made pretty clear.  I have several more comments to that effect in the Pale Fire reading group which is accessible at the top right of the home page.

This blog also serves as a slight introduction to a post e in the near futurwhich will be about finding or creating a Spiritual Guide - a guide  to owning and operating the higher circuits of the nervous system: the neurosomatic, the neuroelectric, the neurogenetic and the neuroatomic to put it into Learyese.  By introducing these lines of instruction: Sherlock Holmes, James Joyce, the Qabalah, bardo training - and there appear many others, Nabokov reveals and demonstrates how to make contact, how to invoke such a guide.

To Be Continued ...


  1. Oz, when I read your comments about synchronicity and the lady from Sandusky, I was in Sandusky, which is where I work.

  2. Very interesting, Oz. As I wrote in my last entry to the reading group series, the most important critical study on Pale Fire, Brian Boyd's "Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery," argues that the book was written by Kinbote under the influence of John Shade's and Hazel Shade's ghosts -- e.g., under the influence of people who had gone into the bardo.

  3. Interesting theory, thanks Tom. Terry Gilliam felt that the departed spirit of Heath Ledger helped him finish "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" after Ledger's untimely death. Gilliam ended up crediting it as a Ledger/Gilliam film.