Magyar | English

Terror(ism) and Aesthetics (2015)

Translating Terror: On Exile and Mimesis in Ovid, Nabokov, and Benjamin


How is it possible to speak of terror that forces into exile without continuing its force? It seems that a literary text speaking of that pressure, constraint and violence cannot but be dictated by them. How can a text succeed in both testifying to terror and evading it? It seems that the venture requires a representation of terror that shows it without fabricating it. Yet poetry, ποίησις, means exactly “fabrication” by means of words. While this might be read as solely the fabrication of appearances, the principle of poetical imitation, or better, representation — μίμησις — is based on the confusion of the difference between appearance and being. Hence Socrates, or Plato, warns that it is necessary to use caution, lest from representing one contracts being.[1] Critical readings of the representation of exile in both ancient and modern literature are for the most part interested in literary history, in the conditions and effects of exile. Rarely do they pay heed to the systematic problem of the fabrication of terror in its presentation. Most readings of the poetical representation of exile tacitly and optimistically presuppose that the writing in exile and on exile, taken as resistance ipso facto, is not most intimately linked to the terror that forces into exile. Yet exactly that seems to be the case. On the one hand, keeping quiet about the pressure, violence and loss associated with exile means submitting oneself to terror. Yet if, on the other hand, a literary text is read primarily as a testimony of terror, the reading appears to imply that the text follows the dictate of terror, articulating what it prescribes. If a text is read as recalling what has been lost on the flight, the terror that necessitated it is declared both the condition and the organizing principle of this text insofar as it traces the steps of the flight, recollects what is lost. The problem of such readings is the presupposed primacy of the historical event, the shape of which is not constructed from the poetical testimony but, quite the reverse, presupposed to the comprehension of the poetical text. Reading literary representations of persecution, flight and exile primarily in view of their respective historical context, and taking the latter as the key to and guarantee of understanding the text, is tantamount to granting terror the very unlimited control it claims for itself. Texts that speak of flight and exile are of course incomprehensible if historical contexts are ignored. Yet these contexts do not precede reading as its basis because the relation to so-called historical contexts is itself a central question in texts that speak of persecution, flight and exile. They negotiate how it could be possible to speak of terror without following its dictate and fabricating its force. Literary presentations of exile thus face a violence that threatens to annihilate even the difference between speech and silence. They formulate a morphology of terror, or rather its ‘amorphology,’ that comprehends depictions of the Erinyes[2] as well as the discourse on measures against terrorism: Terror spreads out to everywhere, even via the attempt to escape it and the turn against it.

Literary presentations of exile are instructive for the analysis of the phenomenon called “terror” because they take it at its word. For in terms of aesthetics, it might seem obvious to relate terror to the purging scare that, according to Aristotle, the representation (μίμησις) should evoke in tragedies.[3] And Nabokov’s autobiography indeed assumes, as will be outlined later on, that evoking terror could be an apotropaic means of both testifying to and averting political terror. Concerning tragedies, however, Aristotle says φόβος, “fear,” which has indeed been translated as terror first into Latin, and later into English and the Romance languages.[4] This translation, however, shifts terms. The Latin terrere, “to frighten, to terrify,” derives from to the Greek τρέω[5] which designates the opposite: “to flee from fear, to flee away and tremble,” for instance when Hector flees from Achilles[6]; in the dialect of the city of Argos τρέω even means “to be banished.”[7] This etymology illustrates that terror is as little separable from fear and trembling as from flight, thus indicating the difficulty in speaking of terror: Flight from and trembling of its violence make terror recognizable; without them, it can hardly be named, characterized, lamented or denounced. Terror fundamentally is a force that makes others tremble and flee. Yet that means that both a flight from terror and a text speaking of it follow its dictate and fabricate it as much as they may evade and counter it. The ‘amorphology’ of terror is thus circular: It seems that a text cannot present terror without making it what it is: a violence that provokes trembling, fear and the compulsion to flee — precisely because it leaves no chance to escape the grasp of its dictate, even if one is not silenced. A leap seems to be necessary in order to escape that structure, and to speak of terror without continuing its force — the leap of a translation which renders terror recognizable and interrupts it at the same time. That leap is at stake.

The question of how to interrupt the fabrication of terror concerns not solely readings of representations of persecution, flight and exile, but every analysis of narration. For there is an affinity of the presentation of a narrative sequence to persecution: In naming, characterizing, ordering, skipping and eliminating aspects, the basic structure of a narrative — following a line — entails considerable violence that becomes apparent when the following turns into the figurative subject of the narrative. Ovid presents this affinity extensively both in the Metamorphoses and in his letters from exile. Ovid’s version of the myth of Pan and Syrinx presents the link of narration to persecution in an abbreviated form: eluserat […] sequentes, Syrinx “had escaped pursuers” before, and she flees from Pan, too. Although evading his sexual advance by being turned into reed, she does all but escape him. She becomes Pan’s attribute, the Syrinx, the “pan pipe”. Within the context of the Metamorphoses it is Mercury who starts to tell this story that renders naming and the narrative sequence itself into a plot, and he tells it in order to bore, so that his listener falls asleep and can be killed without resistance. Mercury succeeds faster that expected, so that the auctorial narrator has to finish the story while the divine messenger kills (Metamorphoses 1.685-719). His message is nothing but the terrible superior power of the deities in Ovid’s text. The narrator counts among them, and the flights they dictate is how they articulate their power. Sequitur.



In the elegiac letters Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto Ovid laments his relegation to the Black Sea that Augustus (Octavian) had ordered.[8] Except for Ovid’s letters, no contemporary text testifies to the relegation, which is not the case with other exiles, such as Cicero. This lack of documentation might be a historiographic accident, or it might prove either that Ovid has never been banished, or that the reason for his banishment was so grave it had to be concealed, as he claims. Yet this question is absolutely insignificant for reading how Ovid speaks of exile. It rather offers the rare occasion of precluding a reduction of Ovid’s letters to a historic context, allowing to read how this literary text gives shape to a terrorizing power and the evasion of it. Two crimes, Ovid says, are the reason for his relegation, “a poem and an error” — duo crimina, carmen et error. As far as the error is concerned, Ovid keeps an eloquent silence. He revolves around it incessantly, mentioning it time and again, insisting that it was exorbitant — without ever outlining it. Ovid never names the profound error in order not to “renew” it, as he says, and not to annoy Augustus once again (Tristia 2.208-09). Yet that is not the only reason: The error can be presented as truly exorbitant, and as entailing unlimited terror in exile, only if it remains unnamed. It is a hollow figure. And as such, as something to refrain from, the error can serve as a pretext for speaking of the other reason for the exile: of texts. The error allows Ovid to present himself as the poet who “perished by [his] ingenuity” (Tristia 3.3.74)[9], thus providing for the afterlife predicted in the last lines of the Metamorphoses: “Let that day that has power only over my body / end my uncertain span of years, when it will: / The better part of me will be borne above the high / perennial stars, and my name will be indestructible.” (Tristia 15.873-76) Irrespective of whether Ovid’s exile is a historical fact or not, his letters from exile set out to assure that the last word of the Metamorphoses is proved right: vivam, “I will live” (Tristia 15.879).

The other reason Ovid gives for his banishment is the accusation of promoting moral decline in his Ars amatoria as “a teacher of obscene adultery” (Tristia 2.212), a moral offense that Augustus had made punishable as a crime.[10] Ovid dismisses the accusation of having introduced anything new to Roman culture by listing cases of adultery in Greek myths and Roman historiography (Tristia 2.257-60), many of them retold in his Metamorphoses. “What place,” he asks in one of his letters from exile, “is more august than temples?” (Tristia 2.287) And yet, in a temple of Isis the question arises “why Juno / drove her across the Ionian see and the Bosporus” (Tristia 2.297-98). Adultery, of course, was the reason; adultery that Jupiter had forced Isis to commit when she was still Io, as told in the first book of the Metamorphoses. The myth of Io is more than one of many stories in which a god pursues a nymph. According to Herodotus, the abduction of Io from Argos across the Ionian see to Egypt is considered the “primal beginning of all wrong” that is to say of the war against the Greeks.[11] In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Io writes in order to testify to the violence done to her. In doing so, however, she attracts, renews and intensifies the violence, just as Ovid fears to do would he articulate the error in his letters from exile. In the first of these letters, Ovid parallels his writings from exile to the Metamorphoses: “among those changed figures / the face of my fortune can be transferred” (Tristia 1.1.119-20).[12] He transforms himself into the paradigmatic poet in exile at “the world’s end” — orbis / ultimus (Tristia 1.1.127-28). “No exile,” Ovid clarifies for all times to come, “is ever further away from home” — nec quisquam patria longius exul abest (Tristia 2.188). The story of Io’s flight and transformation outlines the difficulty of this poetical self-transformation that requires speaking of the terror of banishment and leaping out of its force at the same time.

Io is silent. She is spoken of in the text and addressed by others, but she does not get a word in herself. She is introduced as daughter of a river deity. When she leaves her patrium (Metamorphoses 1.588) — the native, paternal region, that the “fatherland” (patria) is for Ovid — Jupiter addresses her. He calls her virgo (Metamorphoses 589), pursues her, and calls upon her not to flee: Ne fuge me! fugiebat enim (Metamorphoses 597). “For she fled,” the text comments tersely. That she flees is indeed the one thing to say about her. Her virgin appearance, for instance, is not mentioned. The flight from Jupiter constitutes Io, and consequently she does not escape him.[13] In order to conceal the adultery from his wife Juno, Jupiter transforms Io into a cow. As soon as the metamorphosis has happened, the text reveals that it was brought about by nothing but a new reading: iuvenca, as Io is now called (Metamorphoses 611), means both “girl” and “heifer.” Suspicious, Juno demands the cow as a present, and Jupiter gives it to her. Because “would he deny the cow, it might seem that it is no cow” — vacca negaretur, poterat non vacca videre (Metamorphoses 621). And indeed the cow is none. Still, Io appears as a cow since she can articulate neither a complaint nor her name (Ἰώ) — which would be the same, because ἰώ is also a plaintive cry in Greek. “And when she tries to complain, mooing pours from her mouth; / terrified, she hears the sound and is horrified by her own voice” (Metamorphoses 637-38). In the Latin text, the mooing, MUgitus, is to be heard again when Io is “terrified,” pertiMUit. And when “horrified,” Io is literally “beside herself with terror of her (bovine) voice”: exterrita voce est. It is in fact not the horror what makes her be beside her anthropomorphic (nymph) self, but Jupiter’s transforming forces. Yet it is not until her bovine voice is to be heard that the transformation becomes apparent. After hearing her voice Io sees her horns mirrored in the paternal river, and the terrorizing mooing can be heard again: pertiMUit seque exsternata refugit (Metamorphoses 641), „she is terrified and flees herself in horror.” Yet the story flagrantly calls into question what that is: Io herself. The text voices and shows Io’s bovine body, insisting that it is not the real Io — of whom nothing seems to be left. Io’s bovine shape does not make Io recognizable but the force that transformed her; her voice testifies not to her, but to Jupiter’s violence. Si modo verba sequantur (Metamorphoses 647), “if the words would follow her,” Io would say her name and ask for help. But the words do not follow her but the text’s deities: In the attempt to complain that voices mooing, Io does not denounce but rather complete her transformation; she fabricates her — alse — bovine appearance. Yet Io finds a way to leap out of this dictate of terror: With her hoof she writes in the sand so that litterae pro verbis, “letters instead of words” (Metamorphoses 650), indicate her physical transformation, and she is recognized as deformed nymph Io. The Metamorphoses do not mention what Io writes in the sand, as little as Ovid’s letters from exile name the error that caused his banishment. Crucial is that Io writes at all, which makes it seem that she is no cow indeed. Ovid counters his exile with the same means, with written letters instead of audible words: exulis haec vox est: praebet mihi littera linguam, / et, si non liceat scribere, mutus ero. — “This is the voice of the exile: letters give me a language / and, if it was forbidden to write, I would be mute.”[14]

Jupiter silences Io by transforming her. Relegating the poet to the Black Sea aims at silencing him as well, because Romans do not usually read in silence and privacy, but listen to poets reciting their texts out loud in front of an audience.[15] The acoustic realization of the sound recorded by phonographic script in reading is implied in the final three verses of the Metamorphoses: “Wherever Rome shall spread her dominion over the conquered world, / I will be read by the mouth of the people: and, famous through all the ages / — if there is any truth in the poets’ presages —, I will live” (Metamorphoses 15.877-79). Ore legar populi, “I will be read by the mouth of the people,” is the crucial phrase in Ovid’s foretold transition into an immortal name. It indicates that the scene of exile is synonymous with death and afterlife. For if he is not in Rome, but either dead or in exile, the author cannot make his texts heard. Hence Ovid sends his elegies on exile as letters to Rome so that they replace him there (Tristia 1.1.1-2). He laments, however, that his writings do not at all substitute him but rather emphasize his absence as they lack his “present voice” (praesens voce; Epistulae ex Ponto 2.6.1). Thus the letters are no remedy for his banishment from Rome but actually perform it: Augustus’ order, the relegation, transfers Ovid to “the world’s end,” but it is his own mute writing that audibly silences the poet and transfers him among the dead, so that he even sends his epitaph to Rome (Tristia 3.3.73-76). Ovid’s letters from exile and Io’s letters in the sand suffer from the same: While testifying to the life of the otherwise untraceable author, they present both him and her in the — mute — shape into which they are forced by an absolutely superior power. Ovid’s and Io’s letters make the trans-, or deformation visible without interrupting it. Io’s story depicts this problem as a continuous persecution.

Having succeeded to reveal her non-bovine identity, Io arouses Jupiter’s compassion. He makes Mercury tell the story of Pan and (his) Syrinx in order to kill the guard Argus who watches Io on Juno’s command. What follows is, of course, not the end of Io’s exile in a bovine body, but the persecution and exile of the cow. Juno sets Erinys, “Revenge” herself, on Io, who is “terrorized and fugitive all over the world” — profugam per totum terruit orbem (Metamorphoses 1.727). Her mooing eventually induces Jupiter to put an end to the terror. Io is turned into Isis who has nothing in common with the ambivalent virgin iuvenca, as Isis carries the god’s child. The terror of the divine couple in ended, but Io remains what it made her into, that is: not Io herself any more. “Timidly,” the last line of her story closes, “she retries the unused words” (Metamorphoses 746), but the text does not say what she says. Io still does not get a word in. Her letters were not enough to interrupt the silencing persecution by a superior power. Writing itself is not sufficient, hence Ovid changes something profound about his writing: He takes a leap into a language nobody understands.

Ovid laments that in his exile at the Black Sea, at the very edge of the Roman world, there is “no one to whom I could recite my poems, / no one whose ear could receive Latin words” (Tristia 4.1.89-90). As a Greek colony, the Pontus, where Ovid is forced to stay, is in fact Grecophone.[16] Yet it is a Latin œuvre that Ovid’s letters have to save from falling silent. Therefore, they do not give up the strictly Rome-centered view in which to speak no Latin at all, to speak Greek with the accent of a barbara lingua (Tristia 5.2.67-68; 5.7.51-54; 5.7.17; 5.12.55) and, what is more, to ridicule someone who speaks Latin as barbaric (Tristia 5.10.37-38), is the utmost barbarity. Yet how to escape the silencing effect of the banishment when Latin is not understood where Ovid is, and when he cannot be where Latin is understood? The step Ovid takes in a letter to a friend is reporting to Rome that he has become an author writing in the local language, Getic:

a, pudet: et Getico scripsi sermone libellum,
structaque sunt nostris barbara verba modis,
et placui (gratare mihi), coepique poetae
inter inhumanos nomen habere Getas.
materiam quaeris? laudes: de Caesare dixi;
adiuta est novitas numine nostra dei.
nam patris Augusti docui mortale fuisse
corpus, in aetherias numen abisse domos


A, what a shame! I’ve even written in the Getic language,
bending barbarian words to our meter:
And I pleased — Congratulate me! —, making a name
for myself as a poet among the inhuman Getics.
You’re asking for the subject? Praise it: I spoke of Cesar;
my novel venture received the deity’s aid.
How the body of father Augustus was mortal, I explained,
and how his divine rule has gone to the ethereal sphere.


[Epistulae ex Ponto 4.13.19-25]

Ovid reports to have composed a panegyric on “father Augustus,” the very ruler he blames for his banishment. Augustus, who had himself called pater patriae, “father of the fatherland,” was indeed deified after his death. Ovid’s report of his Getic elegy imports this official myth of the Empire into a foreign language, thus complying with Roman colonization in general and Augustus’ policy of expansion in particular. Just as in the panegyric ending of the Metamorphoses, the emperor’s numen, his divine power, makes the poet’s nomen, his name, heard. Ovid claims all that in Latin, without quoting one word of the Getic poem. Yet not only would no one in Rome understand it — the Getic text itself is quite unnecessary. Williams argues that the report of a Getic poem allows avoiding a basic problem of panegyric: the incongruence between its subject to be portrayed as extraordinary, and the language portraying it in an ordinary, that is to say comprehensible vocabulary and an established metre. “Augustus’ novitas, in the sense that a recently deified emperor he is a phenomenon without parallel, is appropriately celebrated in a poem which has novitas of its own as a literary phenomenon without parallel.”[17] In this respect, the unvoiced Getic work is a hollow figure like the error that allows the portrayal of something as exorbitant by keeping it unsaid. If, however, Ovid’s letter is regarded Rome-centered, it does not import but rather export the notion of the emperor as deity into a foreign language. And as such, the letter exceeds a panegyric.

The poem is, Ovid says, not written in the “father-tongue,” non patria […] scripta (Epistulae ex Ponto 4.13.33).[18] What he reports to have exported is not just Roman propaganda, but a metamorphosis he wrote himself: Augustus’ deification is the last transformation in the Metamorphoses, immediately preceding the epilogue, or sphragis, that foresees the transition of the author into an immortal name. The alleged Getic elegy exports Ovid’s Rome, the empire that has to rely upon him to sing its panegyric and to transform its rulers into gods. It promotes a colonization that aims primarily not at the Getics, but at Rome. It demonstrates that just as the poet is able to transform the emperor into a god, he is able to translate him. Ovid is able to expatriate the pater patriae — this is essentially the message his letter on the barbarian elegy conveys to Rome. He is able to take the “father of the fatherland” beyond the “father-tongue,” which is to say that the poet goes even further than the ruler who banished him from Rome: further than Latin. It is not at all a gesture of modesty when Ovid states: “in this region, where I have to live, it is enough if I achieve to be / a poet among the inhuman Getics” (Epistulae ex Ponto 1.5.65-66). Crucial about Ovid’s self-trans­for­mation is not the Getic language per se but the reference to a language marginal and largely incomprehensible within the Empire. The relocation — inter inhumanos esse poeta Getas — turns the relegation to “the world’s end,” a punishment, into a privileged position. Ovid takes his exile in imperii margine terra (Tristia 2.200), his position at the edge of the reach of Roman terms and comprehension, where Latin and consequently, at least from the Roman point of view, humanity fades. Ovid’s imagination of a Getic elegy points out that the poet, to the extent of being a poet, is always at that edge, no matter whether he is in exile or in Rome. For what is a divine emperor compared to the one who deifies him? The author of deifications, Ovid suggests, is even “above the high / perennial stars,” as the Metamorphoses predict, since he fabricates stars.

Supported by the claim to have learned Getic (Tristia 5.12.58; Epistulae ex Ponto 3.2.40), the unvoiced barbarian work is another hollow figure by which Ovid retreats from his Latin discourse. Yet unlike the error, and although unpronounced, the Getic poem is no figure of silence, but on the contrary a figure of rescuing both his texts and his name from silencing. The silent Getic oeuvre interrupts the continuous persecution in exile, the structure in which the words “follow” exclusively Augustus’ command, as they “follow” Jupiter’s transforming force. Ovid appropriates the structure of terror. Yet he does not leap out of it, but to a different position within it: to the position of its author, and hence the author even of his own banishment. Ovid does get a word in — at the price of panegyric, which is to say of fabricating and reinforcing the very structure of terrorizing power he addresses as its victim.



Vladimir Nabokov seeks to avoid any continuation of the terror that forced him into exile in his Speak, Memory — An Autobiography Revisited. He vehemently objects the notion that his writing was caused and is thus determined by the losses his exiles yielded. In 1917, Nabokov fled from St. Petersburg to Berlin, which he left for Paris in 1936, from where he escaped in 1940, just in time to evade the German invaders. Speak, Memory portrays the repeated flights and continuous exile. The terror Nabokov’s text seeks to defy, however, is neither red nor white or brown. For if it the primary aim of the text was to oppose political terror, it would concede the force to form Nabokov’s biography — the life as well as the text — to terror, and it would follow its dictate. Yet such force is what Nabokov fiercely denies political terror. “The following passage is not for the general reader, but for the particular idiot who, because he lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me.”[19] Loss, this phrase insists, did not dictate Nabokov’s text. In order not to subject his autobiography to the dictate of terror that repeatedly forced him to flee, Nabokov generalizes the structure of exile. The terror Speak, Memory seeks both to denounce and to escape is that of mortality, as the opening of the first chapter points out.

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. […] Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolid as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination […] should be limited. [Speak, Memory, 19-20]

According to Nabokov, the acceptance of a natural dictate of time entails a lifelong and indeed life consuming terror. Still, most give in to nature’s expectation.

I know, however, a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. […] He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated. [Speak, Memory, 19]

Not embedded in chronology, the images of the movie evade the distinction between pre-natal and postmortem. Therefore, they do not present birth as an irreversible beginning. Yet the movie does not at all disfigure birth, but rather presents it precisely as what it is: Birth entails death, therefore, it is a gift that cannot be accepted as it comprises its revision. In Nabokov, birth is not a gift but an expropriation, which makes it impossible to speak of one’s own birth. Hence Nabokov presents himself as the speaking observer of a silent viewer and marks the distance: Not ‘my mother’ but “his mother” is the name of the monster that silences the one it gives birth to. The chronophobiac fears what the movie presents: Birth transports into temporality which is not merely the extension of growth but just as much the successive annihilation of life. The mother’s “unfamiliar gesture” is a greeting ahead to the still to be born child, but at the same time already a farewell to the child that will be born to die. Her “unfamiliar gesture” reverses gestation.

Nabokov’s text is based on the disfiguring figure of the mother. It is an “unfamiliar” mother, because Speak, Memory defies the terror of “Mother Nature” (Speak, Memory 229) who dictates subjection to time. In giving life and death, however, nature also grants “imagination,” which gives rise to what Nabokov calls “the extraordinary visions in between” birth and death: the possibility of transgressing the limits set to life, so that they can be comprehended. Nabokov calls those limits “the walls of time separating me […] from the free world of timelessness” (Speak, Memory 29). Insofar as everybody is born to die, everyone is in exile, excluded from that “free world”. Nabokov counters the general exile with the generalization of imagination: It emerged, he postulates, in “a voluptuous pause in the growth of the rest of nature” (Speak, Memory 298), which is to say in a pause of the terror of “Mother Nature.” In Speak, Memory, imagination is ecstasy. Nabokov presents it as the natural capability of suspending the dictate of nature, and of depicting oneself as not determined or limited by anything. The opening of the first chapter, for instance, takes “some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour” (Speak, Memory 19) as the natural speed in which death is approached. Yet his first poem, Nabokov says, was initiated by “a missed heartbeat” that “seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it” (Speak, Memory 217). Nabokov takes meter not as the imitation of a natural rhythm, but as its fully sufficient substitution, and poetical presentation in general, μίμησις, not as a re-presentation of anything given, but as the fabrication of an alternative. Just like the first poem, Speak, Memory is supposed to take a leap out of the temporal structure “Mother Nature” dictates: The text is to surmount “the walls of time”. Nabokov’s autobiography is not at all the reconstruction of a chronology but the venture “to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence” (Speak, Memory 297). The autobiography is to acquire the gift of life that “Mother Nature” withholds rather than gives. For that reason, Speak, Memory repeatedly refers to infancy: Nabokov speculates that there are no limits set to the imagination of those who lack a sense of time, such as infants or animals. He calls imagination “the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature” (Speak, Memory 20-21). And he draws the conclusion that if their imagination is unlimited due to their immunity against time, a text formed by imagination should be able to leap out of the dictate of time. Nabokov’s autobiography is not supposed to present to the terror of transience as it appears in his continuous exile, since that would mean extending terror. Rather, the text is supposed to be a means of fabricating an exit from every dependency. Speak, Memory is a self-fabrication as an absolute exception.

This re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task, but some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before. [Speak, Memory 12-13]

The repeated translation of the text, that passage insists, is a sign of the author’s exceptionality — it is not tracing his repeated exile. The exceptional autobiographer claims to speak unlike every human before, namely without being bound to one language or several languages. The text claims to be unlike all other texts in not being shaped by the forms, grammar or images of a particular language, and in not belonging to any national literature.[20] Just like the disfiguring figure of the mother (nature), Speak, Memory requires the presupposition of a general monolingualism — a further dictate of the mother (tongue) — in order to leap out of it, and to present the author who is capable of doing so as extraordinary, not under any dictating force. The pole that allows to vault over both temporal and lingual limitations is the “multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies.” Speak, Memory appropriates the natural forming principle in order to oppose it to “Mother Nature’s” dictate of transience. The text presents poetical metamorphosis not as a gradual development but as a leap, which allows linking temporally or locally separated objects, events, and images to one sequence. The mere reference to past events is, as Nabokov explains, “not the point. What pleases me is the evolution of the […] theme. […] The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography” (Speak, Memory 27). The structures or patterns thus fabricated are not solely an aesthetic compensation of loss, as Boyd suggests: “Pattern has its purely aesthetic side […] But understanding pattern also allows us some degree of control over the unruliness of life.”[21] Speak, Memory is about complete control, not about a redress for what has to be accepted. As a poetical structure, metamorphosis allows such control. Most importantly, it allows forming a self that is not subject to chronology but static: “I have hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises: as a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts” (Speak, Memory, 125).

In order to participate in the forming principle of butterflies and moths it is necessary to apprehend the animals. Hunting them is, consequently, given much attention in Speak, Memory. Nabokov calls the hunt “my mania,” “my demon,” and “my obsession” (Speak, Memory 126-127). In Nabokov, lepidopterology (the study of butterflies and moths) is neither a harmless absurdity nor an interest besides writing. And it is not to be played down to collecting, just as little as writing Speak, Memory is, according to Nabokov, to be trivialized to collecting memories. Both studying butterflies and writing the text does of course include collecting and arranging to “thematic designs.” Yet whatever is to be arranged has to be appropriated first, and that in turn means it has to be fixated, kept from disappearing. In short: It has to be killed. In Speak, Memory, hunting butterflies is the model for and the image of a poetics that, opposing bloody terror, yields sterile terror. The portrayal of the first catch marks the transition:

[…] I found a spectacular moth, marooned in a corner of a vestibule window, and my mother dispatched it with ether. In later years, I used many killing agents, but the least contact with the initial stuff would always cause the porch of the past to light up and attract that blundering beauty. Once, as a grown man, I was under ether during appendectomy, and with the vividness of a decalcomania picture I saw my own self in a sailor suit mounting a freshly emerged Emperor moth under the guidance of a Chinese lady who I knew was my mother. It was all there, brilliantly reproduced in my dream, while my own vitals were being exposed: […] the satisfying crackle produced by the pin penetrating the hard crust of its thorax; the careful insertion of the point of the pin in the cork-bottomed groove of the spreading board; the symmetrical adjustment of the thick, strong-veined wings under neatly affixed strips of […] paper. [Speak, Memory, 120-121; my emphasis]

Crucial is not the caught animal, its shape or species, but the capture. The first capture is the inception of opposing the natural dictate of time by appropriating metamorphosis as a poetical structure, formed not by nature but by imagination. It is my mother who initiates that, and who is thus opposed to Mother Nature. Still, it is the same gift: The mother gives death. Yet “my mother dispatched it” does not only mean that she ‘killed’ the animal, but also that she ‘sent it off’. Her message is nothing written but indeed the matrix of writing. She sends the killed butterfly off as the model for the autobiography: Forming “thematic designs” and metamorphic linkages, Speak, Memory patches together what has been “dis-patched,” torn up, by transience. The text reinforces these figurative links by phonetic associations. And since those links imply fixation, Nabokov depicts writing as fixating — not with a pen, but with “the point of a pin”. In Speak, Memory, writing means pinning down on paper. That does not mean, however, that the text merely arrests anything given as a reproduction, just as little as it intents to follow the dictate of chronology. In pinning it down, Speak, Memory rather forms whatever it names and fixates; such as “the satisfying crackle produced by the pin penetrating the hard crust of its thorax” is fabricated by the writing that captures the butterfly’s anatomy: It is only the writing pin that produces the “thorax,” the term, and thus a “crackle” that is indeed to be heard, a crackling x.

Since the mother’s first application of ether, Nabokov’s aesthetic is defined as “anaesthetic”. “The text,” Straumann says, “‘kills’ time by arresting certain moments so as to assemble them in recurring themes and thematic patterns.”[22] The inverted commas articulate a reserve that shapes Straumann’s conclusion, too: “by remembering the past as a pattern, Nabokov’s aesthetic language, too, works like a pain-relieving substance” (ibid.). Yet Nabokov calls writing not a pain reliever but a “killing agent”. The writing that starts off with ether is not merely supposed to render insensitive to the passing away that nonetheless happens; rather, writing is to arrest the passing away. And Speak, Memory withdraws what it speaks of from passing away by anticipating its death. The mother’s application of ether expounds the ambivalence of the gift of “Mother Nature”: Life is “ethereal” both insofar as it opens up the celestial imagination, “the sublime delight,” and insofar as it is volatile, constantly fading to death. Nabokov’s anaesthetic aesthetic seeks to capture the ‘ethereal’ real in order to release — to indeed sublime — its beauty. Speak, Memory intents to escape transience by fabricating death, and it accepts the constancy of the sterile as the closest possible approximation to the timelessness “of the immortal and the immature” (Speak, Memory 20-21). In the terms of traditional aesthetics (which Nabokov’s text can of course not employ without seeming to follow others), Speak, Memory supposes that the exit from the terror of transience lies in the necrophilic trait of poetical fabrication, of μίμησις.

One of the proofs Aristotle offers that μίμησις is the natural principle of poetry is the innate joy humans have in fabrications depicting things (De arte poetica 1448b 4-9). “[For] objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of [corpses]” (Theory of Poetry and Fine Art 1448b 10-12; trans. Butcher).[23] In Aristotle, μίμησις appears to be a natural capability of transcending the natural, both its relation to the senses and its transience — which coincides with Nabokov’s concept of the imagination: The image survives death. In order to immortalize the living, Speak, Memory takes its life. Yet Nabokov omits a second important feature of μίμησις: Aristotle calls it the principle of all poetry, but he expounds it as that of tragedy, which is not a fixated image, and not even only a fixated text. A tragedy presents the course of an action, or, as Aristotle says, people doing something (Theory of Poetry and Fine Art 1448a 1). Apart from the fixation of an image that survives death, μίμησις just as well comprises movement and variation. These traits are implied in the second proof Aristotle offers to claim that μίμησις is the natural principle of poetry: Children acquire their first skills by reproducing what is done by others (Theory of Poetry and Fine Art 1448b 6-8). Μίμησις is, consequently, neither a mere imitation nor primarily fixation. For while it is true that speech is acquired by reproducing what is heard and insofar by imitation, it is not sufficient to solely imitate, that is to repeat, what has been said by others before. Μίμησις is a varying re-production and hence a fabrication, ποίησις. In Nabokov‘s anaesthetic aesthetic, however, there is no room for variation. “Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die” (Speak, Memory 77). Such fixation is what the text seeks to achieve. Yet those are not its last words. Speak, Memory has to go on speaking in order to assure that nothing interferes with the fixation — especially not reading.

Equating poetical presentation with fixation has two grave consequences for the attempt to speak of terror and to escape it at the same time. Firstly (but the enumeration presents no hierarchy): The “sublime delight” that imagination gives appears to be nothing else than the constantly repeated “satisfying crackle produced by the pin penetrating” — not only butterflies, the past or the mother, but even Nabokov himself, “my own vitals,” as the description of the first capture says. Nabokov’s autobiography is a self-fixation under the guidance of the mother. Her prominent and ambiguous role in Speak, Memory — terrifying by death as “Mother Nature” and rescuing from transience by means of death as “my mother” — suggests a psychoanalytic reading of the text. But as such a reading would imply that the text is shaped by something else than Nabokov’s imagination, namely by the mental processes described by psychoanalysis, Nabokov seeks to forestall such readings as fiercely as he rejects those based on the notion that his writing was caused by the losses exile yielded: “let me say at once that I reject completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud” (Speak, Memory 20; cf. 15). Nabokov declares “the following of […] thematic designs” not only “the true purpose of” writing an autobiography, but also the only reading appropriate for it. He demands following most subtle structures[24] and declares any other reading to be a denunciation.[25] Nabokov does not tire of emphasising that his autobiography is not dictated by terror and arbitrary use of power — and attributes both to the reader of his text. Yet the text’s insistence on not following any dictate, and on not suffering to be subjugated to any dictate by way of interpretation, does not have an apotropaic effect. It does not avert terror but fabricates it. Substituting political with natural terror, and transforming it further into a sterilizing one, proves to be no leap out of the continuation of terror, but its translation into a poetical language that fabricates primarily scenes of arrest, muteness, and control.



Walter Benjamin’s autobiographical “Berlin Childhood around nineteen hundred” (Berli­ner Kindheit um neunzehnhundert) presents the second consequence of the ‘an-aesthetic’. Written in exile between 1932 and 1938, the foreword added to the final version explains that the text is to immunize its author to “those images which, in exile, are most apt to waken homesickness: images of childhood”.[26] Intensifying the bond to Berlin that Benjamin had to leave behind, “the feeling of longing” (SW 3.344/GS 7.385) evoked by the images brings terror along into exile. Benjamin’s text thus faces the same difficulty as Nabokov’s: speaking of the past in order not to leave it to the terror that forces into exile without continuing its force. The chapter “Butterfly Hunt” (Schmetterlingsjagd), published separately in 1933 (GS 4.971), depicts not only what the title says but, moreover, the poetics of ‘pinning down’ that seeks to prevent passing away by anticipating death. It is not at all Benjamin’s approach to averting terror in an autobiographical text. Rather, the chapter depicts what he refrains from in “Berlin Childhood,” and why. The scene is comparable to those in Speak, Memory: The child hunts for butterflies, and what is crucial is not the captured animal but the capture itself. There is, however, one difference: “Cabbage butterflies with ruffled edging, brimstone butterflies with superbright wings, vividly brought back the [fervent hunts]” of childhood (SW 3.350; my alterations).[27] These “beginnings of a butterfly collection” testify to the “destruction, clumsiness, and violence” of the hunt (SW 3.351). The animals’ beauty is not at all preserved in the collection, as Nabokov imagines, but eliminated by the required hunt. The collection shows past beauty; it testifies primarily to the violence that made it pass away. In Benjamin, hunting butterflies does not mean gaining a poetical principle or arranging “thematic designs”. In Benjamin, hunting disfigures — even the hunter:

Es begann die alte Jägersatzung zwischen uns zu herrschen: je mehr ich selbst in allen Fibern mich dem Tier anschmiegte, je falterhafter ich im Innern wurde, desto mehr nahm dieser Schmetterling in Tun und Lassen die Farbe menschlicher Entschließung an, und endlich war es, als ob sein Fang der Preis sei, um den einzig ich meines Menschendaseins wieder habhaft werden könne. Doch wenn es dann vollbracht war, wurde es ein mühevoller Weg, bis ich vom Schauplatz meines Jagdglücks an das Lager vorgedrungen war, wo Äther, Watte, Nadeln mit bunten Köpfen und Pinzetten in der Botanisiertrommel zum Vorschein kamen. […] Gräser waren geknickt, Blumen zertreten worden; der Jagende selber hatte als Dreingabe seinen eignen Körper seinem Kescher nachgeworfen; und über so viel Zerstörung, Plumpheit und Gewalt hielt zitternd und dennoch voller Anmut sich in einer Falte des Netzes der erschrockene Schmetterling. Auf diesem mühevollen Wege ging der Geist des Todgeweihten in den Jäger ein. Die fremde Sprache, in welcher dieser Falter und die Blüten vor seinen Augen sich verständigt hatten — nun hatte er einige Gesetze ihr abgewonnen. [GS 4.244-45]


Between us […] the law of the hunt took hold: the more I [myself] strove to conform, in all the fibers of my being, to the animal — the more butterfly-like I became [on the inside] — the more this butterfly itself, in everything it did, took on the color of human volition; and in the end, it was as if [nothing but] its capture was the price I had to pay to regain my human existence. Once this was achieved, however, it was [an arduous] way back from the theater of my successes in the field to the campsite, where ether, cotton wadding, pins with colored heads, and tweezers lay ready in my specimen box. […] Grass was [snapped], flowers trampled underfoot; the hunter himself [had flung his own body, as an extra,] after his butterfly net. And borne aloft — over so much destruction, clumsiness, and violence — in a fold of this net, trembling and yet full of charm, was the terrified butterfly. On that [arduous way], the spirit of the doomed creature entered into the hunter. From the foreign language in which the butterfly and the flowers had come to an understanding before his eyes, he had now derived some precepts. [SW 3.352; my emphasis and alterations in brackets]

In Speak, Memory, butterflies and moths are pursued in order to gain the “multiple metamorphosis as a forming principle that allows to formulate a static ‘I’ beyond chronology. In Benjamin’s text, the hunt questions the constancy of the ‘I’ even in time. The pursued butterfly seizes the pursuer and pulls him along — so that he does not “regain” his “human existence”: While it is “I myself” (ich selbst) who follows the butterfly, the one who has captured it is no longer called “I” (ich) but “he” (er) — just as the caught butterfly, a grammatical male in German. Benjamin read this transformation in Franz Kafka and quotes it in the essay on him: “The guilt-ridden hunter Gracchus, who refuses to acknowledge his guilt, ‘has turned into a butterfly’” (SW 2.810).[28] And just as the child deforms the butterflies in the violent hunt, the autobiographical text cannot apprehend the hunting child without disfiguring it, without deforming the “I” to a third person. The text does not “regain” a distinct figure of the past child, but seizes its foreignness to the narrator, its pastness. What the chapter captures is the insight that pursuing someone or something elusive cannot get hold of it as what it is because it is changed by pursuing and arresting it: It is not only killed, which even Nabokov takes into account, but disfigured into something dead. The pursued one remains foreign to the pursuer, and is, moreover, estranged even of itself. Therefore, in Benjamin, fixating what is about to be lost in exile does not appear as an alternative to falling prey to the terror that forces into exile. It rather seems like flinging oneself at this force like the hunting child flung itself “as an extra” (als Drein­gabe) after the net. Arresting images of the past in order to stop them from pining away means submitting to terror, because what is arrested is no former self but a foreign corpse. The image may survive death, but it is an image of death. The chapter “Butterfly Hunt” depicts that “Berlin Childhood” intents to be a vaccination against the homesickness memory evokes instead of re-presenting all that is lost in exile, because that would present it exactly as having fallen prey to terror, having been arrested, and fallen silent. Hence “Berlin Childhood” seeks to “bid a long, perhaps lasting farewell to the city of my birth,” as Benjamin explains in the foreword to the final version (SW 3.345/GS 7.385).

According to Benjamin, however, not only the ‘an-aesthetic’ of pinning the past down entails a deadly effect. He calls Marcel Proust’s Recherche, that enfolds the past, a “deadly game” (tödliche[s] Spiel; SW 2.597/GW 6.468). Enfolding the past absorbs the one who speaks. In Benjamin, remembrance appears to be no less consuming and thus deadly than the terror that forces into exile. Benjamin’s remarks on μίμησις in “On the Mimetic Faculty” point at the reason why everyone who presents the past seems to take his own life: “[The] gift for seeing similarities is nothing but a rudiment of the once powerful compulsion to become similar and to behave mimetically” (SW 2.720/GS 2.210). The actual mimetic faculty is the one of fabricating similarities. With regard to reading, for instance, it is still apparent that in reading script as much as in reading the stars, the flight of birds, or livers, the similarity deciphered as a sign of something has to be fabricated first. Once a decisive part of all human actions, the fabrication of similarities has, according to Benjamin, survived only in language, where it has become fully abstract (SW 2.694-695/GS 2.207-208). Yet if language is the concentrated residue of the faculty to produce similarities, “to become similar and to behave mimetically,” there does not seem to be any reason to hope it could be possible to speak of terror without fabricating it, without assimilating the text to what is testifies to. — Unless the text takes a leap and does not name, denounce or lament terror, but speaks of something like a butterfly hunt that is merely structurally related, thus translating terror into something different. A translation, Benjamin notes elsewhere, “is removal from one language into another through a continuum of transformations” (SW 2.70/GS 2.151). According to Benjamin, the leap of a translation that renders terror recognizable and interrupts it at the same time is no leap at all, but a gradual withdrawal. “Butterfly Hunt” depicts how the violence of persecution spreads out, and at the same time the “I” withdraws from the text, transforming into a “he” and thus establishing the distance from the scene of childhood that homesickness would not allow to open up. This translation of terror might allow to escape: to speak of the past not only as a prehistory of terror, but as if it still, in 1933, held more to come, futures different from the necessity of exile. That is how Benjamin evokes the images that are prone to cause homesickness if pictured as wholly lost.

Yet the withdrawal is stopped, and the difficulty of continuing terror in trying to testify to it is reintroduced, in reading Benjamin’s text. For in order to read “Berlin Childhood” as a “long farewell” to Berlin and as a means to disrupt the homesickness that takes terror into exile, the transformation has to be retraced, and the text has to be linked to exactly the ‘historic context’ it transforms and rewrites. The text has to be linked to even to what it cannot possibly mention, such as the fact that Benjamin did not escape but die while fleeing the Gestapo. Ignoring that background renders “Berlin Childhood” a largely incomprehensible — curiously impersonal, eclectic, and blurred — set of personal recollections. Reading the text against that background, however, means subjecting it to the terror the book was written to leave behind. Gerhard Richter, for instance, suggests that the countless revisions of the corpus of “Berlin Childhood” were a means to undermine a main concept of Nazism, unity: 

Benjamin counters Nazism’s phantasmagorical constructions of the meaningful, self-identical body with a body that time and again exceeds any form of hermeneutic closure or stable meaning; he counters the idea of a single, secure, and pure meta-subject with an aleatory, dispersed subject.[29]

Yet this reading is based on exactly the unity Benjamin denies according to Richter: “Benjamin’s entire autobiographical project relies on the body to generate concepts that are useless for the purposes of fascism” (Richter 205; my emphasis). If Benjamin’s autobiographical text aimed entirely at evading that terror, it would all but leave it behind and “bid a long, perhaps lasting farewell.” This example illustrates a flagrant complication: Reading literary presentations of exile and persecution can refrain from referring to historical dates and circumstances only at the price of ignoring that these texts are testimonials of terror. Yet to the extent that reading contents itself with a historical, biographical view on the text without asking systematic questions, it allows the texts to be consumed by the terror they seek to evade. Such reading annihilates what it seeks to explain.

In 1925 Benjamin writes: “The coming war will have a ghostly frontline.” He means: It will not have a front line, and he has been proven right. “The terror shall come close to a psychosis,” Benjamin summarizes the strategy of the lacking frontline (GS 4.473).[30] He is speaking of gas warfare, yet the ghostly structure of a missing line — over which one could leap — is also that of the discourse on terror. Nothing, it seems, can prevent that a text testifying to terror does not at the same time provide a means for terror to spread, and be it by reading that this texts speaks in order to leave terror behind and withdraw from it. The question asked by those texts is: How to read texts that speak of terror when taking fully into account that the fabrication of terror in reading belongs to the psychotic structure called “terror”?



  • Ahl, Frederick M. Metaformations: Soundplay and Wordplay in Ovid and Other Classical Poets. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 1985.
  • Aristotle. De arte poetica. Edited by Ingram Bywater. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949.
  • ———. Theory of Poetry and Fine Art. Translated by Samuel H. Butcher. New York: Dover, 1977.
  • Benjamin, Walter. Gesammelte Schriften. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974—87.
  • ———. Selected Writings. Edited by Michael W. Jennings et al. Cambridge, London: Belknap Press, 1997—2003.
  • Berman, Jeffrey. The Talking Cure: Literary Representations of Psychoanalysis. New York: New York University Press, 1985.
  • Boyd, Brian. “Nabokov, Literature, Lepidoptera.” In Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings, edited by Brian Boyd and Robert M. Pyle. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.
  • Claassen, Jo-Marie. “Ovid’s Poetic Pontus.” In Papers of the Leeds International Latin Seminar 6, edited by Francis Cairns and Malcolm Heath. SL.: SN, 1990.
  • Herodotus. The Histories. Edited by Alfred D. Godley. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, London: Heinemann, 1920.
  • Homer. The Iliad. Translated by A. T. Murray. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, London: Heinemann, 1924.
  • Johnson, Donald B. Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985.
  • Lefèvre, Eckard. “Die römische Literatur zwischen Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit.” In Strukturen der Mündlichkeit in der römischen Literatur, edited by Gregor Vogt-Spira. Tübingen: Narr, 1990.
  • Liddell, Henry G., and Scott, Robert, eds. A Greek—English Lexicon, 9th edition. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1996.
  • Marek, Christian. Pontus et Bithynia: Die Römischen Provinzen im Norden Kleinasiens. Mainz: Phillip von Zabern, 2003.
  • Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. New York: Py­ramid Books, 1966.
  • Ovid. Epistulae ex Ponto. Edited by J. A. Richmond. Leipzig: Teubner, 1990.
  • ———. Metamorphoses. Edited by W. S. Anderson. Leipzig: Teubner, 1985.
  • ———. Tristia. Edited by John B. Hall. Stuttgart, Leipzig: Teubner, 1995.
  • Plato. The Republic in two volumes. Translated by P. Shorey. London: Heinemann, 1963.
  • Richter, Gerhard. Walter Benjamin and the Corpus of Autobiography. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000.
  • Shapiro, Gavriel. “Setting His Myriad Faces in His Text.” In Nabokov and His Fiction: New Perspectives, edited by Julian W. Connolly. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Straumann, Barbara. Figurations of Exile in Hitchcock and Nabokov. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.
  • Walde, Alois, and Hoffmann, J. B. Lateinisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, 2. umgearbeitete Auflage. Heidelberg: Winter, 1910.
  • Williams, Gareth D. Banished Voices: Readings in Ovid’s Exile Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Zelle, Carsten. “Schreckliche, das.” In Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, edited by Joachim Ritter et al. Basel: Schwabe, 1992.
  • Zimmer, Dieter E. A Guide to Nabokov’s Butterflies and Moths. Hamburg: Zimmer, 2001.



[1] μὴ ἐκ τῆς μιμήσεως τοῦ εἶναι ἀπολαύσωσιν. Shorey translates more conventionally: “lest from the imitation they imbibe the reality” (Plato, The Republic in two volumes, trans. Paul Shorey (London: Heinemann, 1963), 3.395 c-d). All translations by the author unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Terror accompanies Tisiphone, “Revenge,” in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Ovid, Metamorphoses, ed. W. S. Anderson (Leipzig: Teubner, 1985), 4.484-485).

[3] Aristotle, De arte poetica, ed. Ingram Bywater (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949), 1449b 27-28.

[4] Carsten Zelle, ”Schreckliche, das,” in Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, ed. Joachim Ritter et al. (Basel: Schwabe, 1992), 1413.

[5] Alois Walde and J. B. Hoffmann, Lateinisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg: Winter, 1910), 776.

[6] Homer, The Iliad, trans. A. T. Murray (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, London: Heinemann, 1924), 22.143: ὣς ἄρ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐμμεμαὼς ἰθὺς πέτετο, τρέσε δ᾽ Ἕκτωρ — “even so Achilles in his fury sped straight on, and Hector fled”.

[7] Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, eds., A Greek—English Lexicon (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1996), 1815.

[8] Ovid, Tristia, ed. John B. Hall (Stuttgart, Leipzig: Teubner, 1995), 2.133-37.


[10] Lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus, enacted 18 AD. The law aimed at stabilizing the new autocratic rule by linking it to the canonical values of the eliminated res publica.

[11] Herodotus, The Histories, ed. Alfred D. Godley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, London: Heinemann, 1920), 1.2.1.

[12] inter mutata referri / fortunae vultum corpora posse meae.

[13] Her Greek name Ἰώ articulates the failure: ἰώ is the first person singular subjunctive active of the verb εἶμι, “to go”. Hence her name literally is “I would go (if I could)”. About her name in Latin Ahl furthermore notes: “Io’s story, as we seen when the form »Iovis«, »of Jupiter«, first occurs, is […] the story of IOvis; the violence (VIS) done to IO by Jove.” Just as Syrinx becomes an attribute of her pursuer Pan, Io is inscribed into her pursuer’s name. See Frederick M. Ahl, Metaformations: Soundplay and Wordplay in Ovid and Other Classical Poets (Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 1985), 145.

[14] Ovid, Epistulae ex Ponto, ed. J. A. Richmond (Leipzig: Teubner, 1990), 2.6.3-4

[15] Eckard Lefèvre, “Die römische Literatur zwischen Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit,” in Strukturen der Mündlichkeit in der römischen Literatur, ed. Gregor Vogt-Spira (Tübingen: Narr, 1990), 13-15.

[16] Ovid underlines the foreignness by calling the inhabitants of the Pontus by their Greek name Getae. In Roman nomenclature they are Daci. See Jo-Marie Claassen, “Ovid’s Poetic Pontus,” in Papers of the Leeds International Latin Seminar 6, eds. Francis Cairns and Malcolm Heath (1990), 75; Christian Marek, Pontus et Bithynia: Die Römischen Provinzen im Norden Kleinasiens (Mainz: Phillip von Zabern, 2003), 147-48.

[17] Gareth D. Williams, Banished Voices: Readings in Ovid’s Exile Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 95.

[18] Classical Latin does not associate native tongues with mothers.

[19] Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York: Py­ramid Books, 1966), 73.

[20] A pavilion in the family’s garden in Russia is a pivotal topos in Speak, Memory, not least because “pavilion is etymologically “closely related to ‘papilio’” (butterfly in Latin), as Nabokov explains (Speak, Memory, 216). He wrote his first poem in the pavilion (215), and the long passage depicting its creation concludes that the place is geographically inaccessible in 1966, when the book was written, and lost as a property, “but that pavilion will never be nationalized” (226).

[21] Brian Boyd, “Nabokov, Literature, Lepidoptera,” in Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings, eds. Brian Boyd and Robert M. Pyle (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 18.

[22] Barbara Straumann, Figurations of Exile in Hitchcock and Nabokov (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 46.

[23] Aristotle, Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, trans. Samuel H. Butcher (New York: Dover, 1977), 1448b 10-12.

[24] Quite a few readings follow him in that: Shapiro follows the anagrams in Speak, Memory (Gavriel Shapiro, “Setting His Myriad Faces in His Text,” in Nabokov and His Fiction: New Perspectives, ed. Julian W. Connolly [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999]), 15-35), Johnson follows the synaesthetic patterns of Nabokov’s audition colorée (Donald B. Johnson, Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov [Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985]), Zimmer lists a catalogue of all the butterflies and moths in Nabokov’s œuvre (Dieter E. Zimmer, A Guide to Nabokov’s Butterflies and Moths [Hamburg: Zimmer, 2001]).

[25] This anticipation interacts in particular with readings such as Berman’s who ‘diagnoses’: “Nabokov’s blind spot to psychoanalysis […] amounts to an obsession, and asks: At what point does a master parodist begin unconsciously to parody himself?” See Jeffrey Berman, The Talking Cure: Literary Representations of Psychoanalysis (New York: New York University Press, 1985), 219.

[26] Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, eds. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974—87), 7.385 (further references as: GS); Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, ed. Michael W. Jennings et al. (Cambridge, London: Belknap Press, 1997—2003), 3.344 (further references as: SW).

[27] GS 4.244: Anfäng[e] einer Schmetterlingssammlung […] Kohlweißlinge mit abgestoßenen Rändern, Zitronenfalter mit zu blanken Flügeln vergegenwärtigten die heißen Jagden.

[28] GS 2. 430: Aus dem schuldbeladenen »Jäger Gracchus,« der von seiner Schuld nichts wissen will, »›ist ein Schmetterling geworden.‹« In Benjamin’s text, the mentioning of a Botani­siertrommel may be read as a sign of refusing to acknowledge guilt; because the item is literally a container associated merely with botany, and hence plants, not with dead animals.

[29] Gerhard Richter, Walter Benjamin and the Corpus of Autobiography (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000), 206-07.

[30] Der kommende Krieg wird eine geisterhafte Front haben. […] Der Schrecken soll sich der Psychose nähern. (Published first in Vossische Zeitung No 303, 1-2, 29.06.1925.)