“L’if, lifeless tree!” Shade writes. “Your great Maybe: Rabelais: The grand potato.”
These opening lines are a little hard to decipher without context. L’if in French means “the yew tree,” but obviously l’if looks like the English word “life.” In that way, Shade is drawing a tension between the word “L’if,” which evokes both life and a tree, and the phrase “lifeless tree”—as if l’if is both alive and dead simultaneously. L’if also looks somewhat like “the if,” which links both to the I.P.H. (pronounced “if”) that he will later reference, and to the concept of the “great maybe.” This latter phrase references the last words of Rabelais, who said he was going to search for the “great maybe,” which—in French—is “le grand peut-être.” In English, “grand peut-être” sounds like “grand potato,” so here Shade is playing trans-lingual word games (much as he did with “seagull” and “cigale”). In general, this opening to the third canto is setting readers up for the canto’s major theme: the mystery of what lies beyond death and the possibility that life can persist in death.
When John and Sybil’s daughter was young, the family spent a term at the Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter (IPH, which they pronounced “if”). Shade had been invited to lecture there on death. But IPH missed the point of death—that “we die every day,” and that death is not about “dry thighbones” but about “blood-ripe lives.” Shade feels fine about returning to life as a fly or a flower, but he wants never to lose his consciousness of life’s joy and pain. He would refuse heaven unless he could find there the gleam of a car taillight, the way Sybil smiles at dogs, or the ink in his pen.
That the name of this institute devoted to studying the afterlife is pronounced “if” draws attention to how hypothetical human understanding of the afterlife is. Throughout his poem, Shade always respects the mystery of what follows death, even as he seeks whatever information might be available to human perception. In this passage, Shade also comes close to telling readers how he personally feels about death and life—he’s not attached to his body, but he cherishes consciousness. The afterlife would only be acceptable to him if he could continue to find pleasure in observing beauty—even very banal beauty, such as the color of a car taillight. This shows his poet’s disposition, as what Shade values most about life is finding beauty all around him. He also makes the point that death is not separate from life—every moment of life involves impending death, and studying death is really about understanding the nature of life. For Shade, studying death isn’t a morbid fascination with “dry thighbones,” but rather an expression of love for his existence and a desire to understand more fully the life that he finds so beautiful.
The IPH, however, suggested that one should prepare for the afterlife to be disappointing. Maybe nobody is there to greet the newly dead; it might be a “boundless void” where a person is left alone without memories. While IPH rejected God, they did ascribe to some mysticism, telling people how to move through solid objects if they became a ghost, or what precautions to take against an unfortunate reincarnation (such as becoming a toad in the middle of a busy street), or how to behave if their first wife and their second wife are jealous of each other in heaven.
After Shade’s complex meditation on life, death, beauty, and mystery, the concerns of IPH are supposed to seem outlandishly silly and myopic. They’re telling people how ghosts move through solid objects and how to navigate the etiquette of encountering multiple deceased spouses in heaven—this is exactly what Shade was mocking when he previously wrote that human beings are so limited in their perception and imagination that they can only imagine a “domestic ghost” when thinking about the infinite possibilities of the afterlife.
Everyone knows from dreams that it’s hard to speak with the dead, and it’s also hard to tell anyone what thoughts to think as they’re dying. Nobody can help an exiled old bilingual man dying of suffocation in a motel in the prairie as colored lights swirl outside. The only thing that can be known is that there will be a “rift”—it could be nothing on the other side. Sybil said of IPH that she couldn’t tell the difference between the institute and hell.
The reference here to a bilingual man suffocating in a prairie motel while colored lights flash outside his window clearly evokes Kinbote, a bilingual man who said in the Foreword that he’d fled to a motel somewhere out west so that he could finish his Commentary on “Pale Fire” and who referenced the colored lights outside his window several times. There are a couple things to notice about this reference. First, it suggests that Kinbote dies in his motel—there will be many hints throughout the novel that Kinbote is suicidal and that he probably kills himself after finishing his work on “Pale Fire.” Second, in the timeline of the novel, it is odd—prophetic, even—for Shade to make this reference. After all, Shade wrote this canto just before his death in July, while Kinbote would not decamp for the western motel until August (and he explicitly says in the Commentary that he never told Shade of his vacation plans). Furthermore, Kinbote doesn’t finish his Foreword—the last part of his manuscript—until October, so that’s the earliest that he could plausibly die. Shade, then, seems to be predicting in July—with remarkable specificity—Kinbote’s fate a few months down the road. Scholars have explained this and other similar prophetic moments in the poem “Pale Fire” a few different ways. Some people believe that Shade is an invention of Kinbote’s (and therefore Kinbote wrote the poem and the Commentary, which would explain how the poem predicts Kinbote’s fate). Others believe that Kinbote is an invention of Shade’s. Still others think that this is Nabokov inserting his presence into the book to show that he is the master of his characters and the unifying thread between the poem and Commentary. A fourth theory—one that Nabokov scholars actually consider quite credible—is that moments like this reveal that Shade was writing “Pale Fire” under the unconscious influence of his dead family members who, from a mysterious afterlife, know both his and Kinbote’s fates and are guiding him through his literary masterpiece before his death. (For more on this, see Brian Boyd’s book Nabokov’s Pale Fire: the Magic of Artistic Discovery.)
The silliness of IPH actually helped Shade in the sense that it taught him what to ignore in his quest to learn the truth about death. When his daughter died, he understood that she would not come back as a ghost, and that the creaking in the house is only the wind and not her presence.
Notably, Shade is not saying that being around the mystical nonsense at IPH made him give up on the notion of an afterlife altogether—he’s merely saying that the experience clarified for him what isn’t likely in the afterlife. As he searches for traces of his daughter after her death, he’s not going to look in the howling of the wind or the creaking of the floorboards—he knows that she’s not a “domestic ghost” and that her presence is likely to turn up in stranger, more unexpected ways.
Eventually, after their daughter’s death, Shade and Sybil’s life resumed; they went to Italy, attended to the publication of Shade’s essays, and returned to teaching. Then one night, Shade “died.” It was during a lecture on poetry that Shade had “one of [his] old fits.” His heart stopped for a few moments before it started again, and Shade knows—without knowing how—that he “crossed the border.”
When Shade’s childhood seizures first happened, it was his first experience of glimpsing what consciousness beyond death could be. During those experiences, he lost track of his body and of time, but some part of his mind remained—this is the origin of his preoccupation with consciousness persisting after the body dies. Here, as an adult, he has a heart attack instead of a seizure, but his experience is somewhat similar to what he experienced in childhood.
While dead, Shade found that everything he loved was gone, but he had no regret; there was a “system of cells interlinked within cells” and then, in the dark, there was a white fountain. He understands that the fountain wasn’t really there, but its illusion pointed to something real that could only be glimpsed by someone in the world of the dead. When he woke up, a doctor denied that he could have hallucinated in his state and rejected Shade’s perception that he died; “not quite: just half a shade,” the doctor said.
When Shade describes a “system of cells interlinked with cells,” he’s perhaps being literal, but he’s also perhaps describing a theory of the universe. Here, in death, he has intuited a pattern—a repeated structure, almost fractal in nature, in which linked cells replicate at smaller and smaller scales. The notion of a repeating pattern has resonance with poetry itself (Shade’s poem, of course, has a metrical pattern, repetition of sounds through rhyme, and a repetition of various themes and motifs, including butterflies), and it also resonates with how Shade sees his own life, as a series of coincidences and patterns that seem to point to a world that has been designed, not evolved by chance. The doctor’s comment is a pun. A “shade” is another word for ghost, so when the doctor denies that Shade died when his heart stopped, he’s making a joke that Shade was only half-dead.
Afterwards, Shade thought often of the white fountain—how it “reeked with truth” and had “its own reality.” Whenever his life troubled him, he would find comfort in thinking of the fountain. Then he came across a magazine article about a woman who, after a heart attack, told of a “land beyond the veil” with angels, stained glass, soft music, and a white fountain. Believing that their shared vision of the fountain was proof that the afterlife existed outside of themselves, Shade got the woman’s address from the journalist and drove to see her. He found her silly and boring, though, and he never managed to ask her about the fountain. When Shade called the journalist, the man said that the article was accurate except for one unimportant misprint: fountain should have said mountain.
For his whole life, Shade had been searching for concrete information about what lies beyond death. When he first saw the fountain, he found it obscurely meaningful, but then when he thought that someone else had seen it too, it seemed that his puzzle was solved and that the fountain was objective proof that there was an afterlife, shared between different people, in which consciousness remained. Out of desire to have concrete proof of the afterlife, he overlooked the fact that the woman’s other claims from “beyond the veil” included such silly things as soft music and stained glass (the very kinds of “domestic ghosts” that Shade dismisses), but if he’d seriously considered what this woman was saying before going to meet her, he likely would have realized that he was chasing after an answer that was too simple for the complexity of the problem at hand.
That Shade based his belief in eternal life on a misprint might have been a hint to stop his search for the truth of death. But then it occurred to him that, actually, this was “the real point”: that what seems like nonsense is actually a “web of sense,” and that in life he must find pleasure in the patterns all around him—the same pleasure that “they who played [the game] found,” no matter who “they” are.
Some people might have found in this misprint a bitterly ironic lesson that everything is arbitrary and meaningless and that the experience of the afterlife cannot be proved or shared. But Shade—a poet always attuned to patterns and coincidences and experiences that rhyme with one another—finds in this mistake his real theory of life and death. While the mountain/fountain mix-up seemed like nonsense, it’s actually a significant coincidence that points to a “web of sense” that orders the world. The patterns and coincidences of human life are evidence that the universe is designed by “players” whom humans cannot perceive or understand. But these patterns that are detectible everywhere in the world are evidence of their existence, and the meaning of human life is to delight in those patterns and in the beauty of the life that these players—whatever they are—have created.
The players are not audible or visible, but still they exist “playing a game of worlds, promoting pawns to ivory unicorns and ebon fauns,” giving some a long life and killing others, hiding a person’s glasses, and “coordinating these events and objects with remote events/And vanished objects. Making ornaments/Of accidents and possibilities.” After this realization, Shade tried to tell Sybil of his “faint hope,” although while he was speaking, she was telling him to shut the door and asking about his trip.
Here, Nabokov—a chess enthusiast—is comparing the structure of the universe to a game of chess, suggesting that human life is a game played by far-off players whose moves and motivations cannot be understood but whose patterns are faintly visible to the pieces on the board—humans—if people are open to perceiving them. The signs of the game are found in “accidents and possibilities”—strange resonances between seemingly ordinary things, like the mountain/fountain misprint. To Shade, this realization unlocks the afterlife for him. Even if he doesn’t know what the afterlife is specifically like, the evidence that life itself is designed suggests to him that there will at least be something beyond death. When he tries to tell Sybil of his “faint hope,” it’s likely that he’s referring to the hope he has gained from his revelation that perhaps Hazel’s consciousness is alive somewhere, even if they cannot access it. That Sybil is asking about banal things like the door and his trip to meet the woman from the news article while he’s trying to communicate this earth-shattering revelation shows how divine revelation and domestic reality intermingle. This is both funny and poignant, as Shade’s whole point is that the domestic is evidence of the divine.