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Nabokov Studies 5 (1998/1999) FORUM KEVIN OHI (Ithaca)1 Narcissism and Queer Reading in Pale Fire "More than any other novel," writes Brian Boyd in his biography of Nabokov, "Pale Fire is committed to the excitement of discovery" (Boyd, American, 425). The initial thrill of this "shock of discovery," which "... invites us to detect level after level of meaning" (435-36), is one of a critical outing that unmasks the commentator as the deranged, lonely, paranoid, selfcentered , narcissistic, incompetent, and homosexual Professor Botkin of Wordsmith's Russian Department. To Boyd, the novel's meaningfulness relies largely on Kinbote's contrast to Shade—psychologically stable, happily manied, altruistic, artistically virtuosic, lovingly and monogamously heterosexual —whose preferable personal attributes stand in for the poem's artistic superiority to its parasitic commentary. The conespondence between aesthetic and moral values, which Boyd seems to take for granted, is anchored by Shade's body itself. The personal virtues embodied by Shade are made to conespond to textual ones: his healthy, outward-focused psychic balance figures a representational balance where inner meaning mirrors outward seeming. The stabilizing opposition between Kinbote and Shade is analogous within Boyd's argument to the oppositional structure aligning inside and out, psychic and representational stability. As I will suggest, however, these minoring alignments replicate what they would theorize, setting up a precarious reflexivity that threatens to undermine the stability of the polarities they establish. As if to reassert a stable opposition, Boyd argues that the final piece of Pale Fire's hermeneutic puzzle allows us to unify it as the work of one mind: Shade has created both his poem and Kinbote's commentary. Triumphantly imagining his opposite in Kinbote, Shade travels to the farthest remove from narcissism by imagining his own death, and the dispersion of his poetic personality vanquishes death as Boyd's Shade merges with Nabokov, 1. Special thanks to Stephen Fix, Ellis Hanson, Daniel Heller-Roazen, and Brad Prager. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Nabokov Society meeting at the MLA, San Francisco (December 1998). 154 Nabokov Studies whose novel transfigures and rewrites as meaningful the tragedy of his father's pointless death. Concomitant to this trajectory of transcendence in Boyd's account is its strident homophobia, and I begin here not simply to chastise Boyd for it (a worthy project, if perhaps a boring one), but rather to question whether the convergence of homophobia and a critical disparagement of narcissism under the aegis of the generalized thrill of readerly discovery might be more than merely accidental. If the anxious incredulity of Boyd's description of the "sublimely preposterous" Zembla, where "male homosexuality seems almost the norm" (428), soon modulates into an active recuperation of Kinbote for the support of heterosexual norms—an invention of Shade's imagination, Kinbote is an "inverted tribute to married love" (447)—such moments of overt homophobia are less important than the seemingly necessary structural place of homophobia in his argument scripted by its stance against narcissism. Boyd's personal preference for heterosexual marriage is therefore of less interest than, for example, maniage's figurai role of anchoring Shade's imaginative ascendancy by securing his distance from narcissism. If censure of Kinbote's sexual and critical misbehavior is condensed by Boyd into the same language of moral reprobation, and his "rampant" homosexuality is made to stand in for the "wild freedoms" of his commentary and "all the perennial perversions of the critical mind," this condensation is enabled by the coming together of a critical and sexual disparagement of narcissism (435,455,430). This convergence of critical and sexual disgust under the aegis of the censuring of narcissism authorizes the moral rectitude of the otherwise unseemly urge (certainly not limited to Boyd) to dwell on Kinbote's misery. At Wordsmith, Boyd writes, Kinbote's "mental imbalance, his colossal selfconceit and self-obsession, and his undisguised homosexuality all make him the butt of constant scorn" (434). While a riveted sexual revulsion is no doubt laid bare in this desire to punish, even mortify, that too exposed "butt of constant scorn," I am more interested in the equation of "colossal self-conceit and self-obsession" with an "undisguised homosexuality" in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9965
Print ISSN
1080-1219
Pages
pp. 153-178
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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