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The Bedside of the Mind

Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time by Vladimir Nabokov

Gennady Barabtarlo, Princeton, 2017

‘The most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals. It is a mental torture I find debasing.’ Vladimir Nabokov describes here not a religious cult, or a secret society, but sleep. In his autobiography, Speak, Memory, Nabokov explains: ‘I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius. No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me.’ Relinquishing control and falling into a world hors-texte (outside of the text) would have been nightmarish indeed for Nabokov, who attempted to textualise every part of his life, whether through blatantly reading answers from index cards during TV interviews, writing various autobiographical texts, or, as we find in Insomniac Dreams, noting down the happenings of his subconscious, making them conscious.

In the age of social media, it is not uncommon for writers to tweet about their daily lives and most intimate thoughts. J K Rowling recently admitted, ‘When rereading last week’s work, the trick is to stop for a biscuit just before your blood sugar levels drop to “every single word of this is worthless”.’ Posting a picture of her latest book, Mary Beard tweeted, ‘I now have the book in my hot little hand. Can’t actually bear to open: the fear of the typo.’ These fast-paced, 280-character texts are often posited as expressions of the unedited subconscious composed and released into the world almost without a second’s thought. Insomniac Dreams seems at home in this culture of instant access to the minds of authors: the dream records have the appeal of tweets, giving Nabokov enthusiasts a chance to peer into the workings of the great man’s subconscious. The records appear to be rambling, unpolished, invasive, but, like tweets, they have been carefully composed, with the intention of curating a particular image of the writer. It is easy to read Insomniac Dreams in a spirit of mischievous voyeurism, examining Nabokov’s most intimate thoughts. We read entries like:

In a deck chair reclining, very old, sick looking, & sweaty, Leo Tolstoy…I hear him saying…in vehement Russian: “I do not like his ‘Lolita,’ but how well he describes the Russian landscape!” Silly.

To read this as an intensely private confession of Nabokov’s literary insecurities is to fool ourselves. Nabokov’s dream records represent a public text pertaining to be private; it casts itself as a neutral scientific experiment, but it has major ideological points to make, Nabokovian battles to fight. Insomniac Dreams is a text which constantly shifts its position towards the reader, until we are not really sure what it is we are reading.

Nabokov’s experiment was inspired by John W Dunne, an eccentric British philosopher and aeronautical engineer. Dunne’s book, An Experiment with Time (1927), outlines his theory of dreams, which he based on his own experience of unusual dreams. The basic premise was that time is not unidirectional, but rather flows both forwards and backwards. Our daytime experience of linear time is ‘a purely mentally imposed barrier.’ Asleep, however, our mind revisits images from both the past and the future, allowing dreams to be proleptic (rather than supernaturally prophetic). His own experiment, which he details for his readers, involved writing down his dreams upon waking, and then consciously searching for connections between his dreams and his day-to-day life. Gennady Barabtarlo, who has compiled, edited and provided commentaries to Insomniac Dreams, points to many strange similarities between the lives of Dunne and Nabokov. For instance, Dunne’s first unusual dream occurred in a hotel (like most of his precognitive dreams; incidentally, Nabokov lived in hotels for most of his life) in 1899 (the year of Nabokov’s birth). He dreamed that his watch had stopped, and upon waking found his watch had stopped at exactly the same time as in his dream. He later had another dream in which he saw a ticking clock face, portraying the real time outside of the dream. Strange indeed, but even stranger is the connection to Nabokov’s short story ‘Cloud, Castle, Lake’, written almost 30 years before his own dream experiment, in which the main character ‘took along into his dreams the delicate face of the watch ticking on his night table.’ One can imagine Nabokov’s wry smile as he discovered these connections, years later; had his story foretold the events he read in Dunne’s book?

After reading Dunne’s book, Nabokov carried out his own version of the experiment. It lasted three months, starting on 14 October 1964, during which time he recorded 64 dreams on 118 index cards. The content of the dreams varied. Nabokov ordered them into six types:

Professional and vocational (in my case: literature, teaching, and lepidoptera).Dim-doom dreams (in my case, fatidic-sign nightmares: thalamic calamities, menacing series and riddles).Obvious influences of immediate occupations and impressions (Olympic games etc.)Memories of remote past (childhood, émigré life, school, parents).‘Precognitive.’Erotic tenderness and heart-rending enchantment.

The purpose of the experiment was to find precognitive dreams, type five, but the results seem inconclusive at best. Nabokov sees few clear connections between the dreams and his waking life, and he often totally fails to make connections with his writing. For example, on 17 October, he dreams of eating soil samples in a museum exhibit. Three days later, he watches a French television program on pedology, which featured very similar soil samples. Nabokov calls this his ‘first incontestable success,’ noting ‘the absolutely clear feeling I had of this film being the source of my dream.’ But, as Barabtarlo points out, Nabokov fails to notice the connection to his 1939 short story ‘The Visit to the Museum’, in which the protagonist enters a museum and encounters some ‘strange black lumps of various sizes’; an exhibit of spherical soil samples. The events of the story become increasingly ridiculous, and the museum becomes a nightmarish, self-generating, endlessly deceptive space. We are left unsure whether our protagonist is dreaming or awake and insane. With such strong thematic connections to both the content of the dream and the act of dreaming itself, we are left wondering, like Barabtarlo, how Nabokov was unable to see the link. Unless, of course, this accidental lapse in memory was intentional – a trick for an audience Nabokov had anticipated.

At the same time, we can retrospectively find precognitive dreams which, chillingly, Nabokov would never have recognised. On the second day of the experiment, he dreams of a Russian woman, who ‘asks if I [Nabokov] like it here, in St-Martin. I correct her: Mentone (a dream substitute for Montreux).’ At the time of the experiment, the Nabokovs were living in a Swiss hotel in Montreux, but they had previously lived in Mentone. He tries to explain why he dreamed this error, why he had subconsciously mixed up St Martin, Mentone and Montreux: ‘During the first winter I used to miscall Cap Martin, near Mentone, “Cap St Martin” – by association with Mont St Michel, in Mentone.’ Except, in trying to explain his mistake, he has committed a further mistake. Mont St Michel is not in Mentone at all; it is 800 miles away, in Normandy. And most chillingly, Nabokov wasn’t to know that in 1977 he would be cremated in the St-Martin Centre funéraire, making this dream of misnaming, error after error, one of the most clearly proleptic in the record.

Nabokov was famed for his uncanny predictions, most famously of the emoji. In 1969, when asked by the New York Times, ‘How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?’ he replied: ‘I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile – some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.’ His smiley face was only to be the start of Emoji, now a veritable universal language, foreseen by this trilingual writer (Nabokov spoke and wrote in Russian, English, and French) who once claimed, ‘I don’t think in any language. I think in images. I don’t believe that people think in languages.’ Yet we find some extremely verbal dreams here too:

I frequently dream of extraordinarily elaborate – sometimes even international – rhyme words. In the present case all faded too fast and I must content myself with the following example edited by the waking mind:

The words: авось кривая вывезет

Were said,

And I awoke. Is it a weave? is it

A thread?

The Russian idiom here could be compared to the English phrase ‘wherever the road takes us.’ But where this dream takes us is to a realisation of the wilful fallacy of the dream records: the claim that they are unadulterated replications of the dream. When dreams are recorded, they must be translated from their vibrantly visual state to a new verbal dimension. As with the Russian idiom, nuance and meaning are lost in translation; what is put down on paper is only a partial representation of the original experience. Furthermore, this is an entry in which Nabokov admits to editing the dream in the cold light of day: it is an ‘example edited by the waking mind.’ He gives the reader a clue that all is not as it seems, as if warning us to take what he says with a pinch of salt.

Ada or Ardor is perhaps the literary work in which Nabokov is most concerned with his theory of dreams. The book consists of the memoirs of the villainous Van Veen, who recounts his lifelong affair with his sister Ada and his rise to becoming a world-renowned psychologist. Like Nabokov, Van ‘often had word dreams,’ and ‘awoke murmuring with professional appreciation the oneiric word-play.’ Van also elaborates his own theory of dreams, in a section of the book which had a previous life as a treatise by Nabokov on ‘The Texture of Time’. Dreams are ‘a random sequence of scenes, trivial or tragic, viatic or static, fantastic or familiar, featuring more or less plausible events patched up with grotesque details, and recasting dead people in new settings’ – this is Van’s theory, but it closely resembles Nabokov’s. Indeed, Nabokov seemed to treat Van’s theory as anterior to his own: he told BBC Two, ‘I have not decided yet if I agree with him [Van] in all his views on the texture of time. I suspect I don’t.’ The connection between the dream records and Ada clearly stretches further than the fact that drafts for both works were found squished in the same folder among his papers. Nabokov isn’t just looking out for connections between his dreaming and waking life; he is writing them.

If we are to describe Nabokov’s fiction as an experiment testing his theory of dreams, we must be careful to differentiate his work from that of the spectre of Freud. Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, is a stumbling block to any of study of dreams, and Nabokov detested him. He has been synonymous with the topic since the publication of his The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), in which he argued that dreams contain hidden repressed or latent meanings, which can be discovered by analysing their content according to a pre-existing pattern of symbols.

One of Nabokov’s students recalled that during one of his regular anti-Freudian rants, ‘the heating pipes began clanking and reached a literally deafening pitch, over which Mr. Nabokov shouted “The Viennese fraud is railing at me from his grave”.’ In spite of this apparent bravado, Nabokov really did fear Freud’s ghostly grip on academic thinking, as well as his intrusive presence in the literary world. ‘Why should I tolerate a perfect stranger at the bedside of my mind?’, Nabokov protested. While he often connects the events of his dreams to the events of his waking life in Insomniac Dreams, he never attempts to find a symbolic source of that content. His dream records consist of memories of the past and the future; they contain no Freudian symbols of repressed trauma.

Nabokov lists many reasons for his hatred of Freud: psychoanalysis degrades the purity of childhood, creating ‘bitter little embryos, spying, from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents’; it ‘leads to dangerous ethical consequences, such as when a filthy murderer with the brain of a tapeworm is given a lighter sentence because his mother spanked him too much’; but most terrible of all, Freudianism is a hermeneutical system which destroys nuance. Literature, as well as the human mind, is reduced to a collection of easily decipherable symbols; one is forced to fit into a universal allegory, a totalising myth. In propagating this system, meaning is colonised, and the “truth” of individual experience is destroyed. The intricate detail of Nabokov’s works, which so often deal with those Freudian staples of imagination, memory, and desire, must consciously resist being run through the Freudian meaning machine. A territorial battle begins between writer and commentator, much like the premise of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, in which we find that ‘for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word,’ when John Shade’s poem is redefined in terms of the personal life of its increasingly manic editor and commentator, Charles Kinbote.

Nabokov was obsessed with having the last word. He planned all of his interviews in advance, and ended up sending, in 1971, 200 pages of corrections to the author of his biography, Andrew Field. It is also why so many of Nabokov’s novels have prefaces, afterwords, and narrative intrusions, all designed to point the reader in the right direction. With so much written about Nabokov’s infamous unreliable narrators, we almost forget Nabokov’s fear and loathing of the unreliable reader. Readerly misinterpretation and misunderstanding is precluded by Nabokov’s ardent literary vigilance. ‘All my books should be stamped Freudians, Keep Out,’ Nabokov says. For the reader who ventures into Nabokov’s texts, they can seem like dangerous and uncertain spaces, filled with linguistic booby traps. This is not incidental: ‘If… a resolute Freudian manages to slip in, he or she should be warned that a number of cruel traps have been set here and there in the novel.’

Nowhere is this truer than in Lolita, perhaps Nabokov’s most famous work. The novel’s paedophile protagonist, Humbert Humbert, represents the perfect Freudian patient. Critical consensus has often deemed the novel a parody of Freudianism, with the first clue to its disingenuousness in the Foreword by the ridiculous John Ray Jr, who insists ‘had our demented diarist gone…to a competent psychopathologist, there would have been no disaster.’ The reader then encounters a barrage of Freudian clichés: the classic childhood sexual trauma of Humbert’s interrupted encounter with Annabel Lee, his childhood love; the castrating father-figure in the ‘old man of the sea’ who prevents the consummation; the Œdipal implications of the Charlotte/Lolita love triangle, with Humbert marrying Lolita’s mother to get close to his true object of obsession. Far from avoiding Freud, Nabokov is constantly tempting the Freudian reader with a trail of false clues, leading only to ‘the mirror you break your nose against.’ As much as Nabokov claims that ‘satire is a lesson, parody is a game,’ the ideological stakes are high in Lolita: the novel is Nabokov’s literary attempt at discrediting Freudianism once and for all, thereby validating the nuance and individuality of literature.

In an interview conducted during his dream experiment, Nabokov admits, ‘I take gleeful pleasure every morning in refuting the Viennese quack by recalling and explaining the details of my dreams without using one single reference to sexual symbols or mythical complexes.’ Given Nabokov’s admission of his authorial intention, how can we be sure of the spontaneous authenticity of the dream records? After all, Nabokov claimed to ‘have rewritten – often several times – every word I have ever published.’ Though he was never to know his dream records would reach the public eye, at times they do seem directed at an audience.

When Nabokov donated his papers to the Library of Congress in 1959, he ruled that the collection only be opened in 2009. This shows that Nabokov had at least some awareness that his dream experiment would one day enter the public domain. Nabokov also seemed optimistic about his popularity in the not too distant future:

I have a fair inkling of my literary afterlife. I have felt the breeze of certain promises. No doubt there will be ups and downs, long periods of slump. With the Devil’s connivance, I open a newspaper of 2063 and in some article on the books page I find: “Nobody reads Nabokov or Fulmerford today.” Awful question: Who is this unfortunate Fulmerford?

As for the fictional Fulmerford, he now has his own online fan club. And as for Nabokov, his night-time reveries have started to generate great critical interest. His writing at times suggests he knew this would happen. Why, for instance, does he give the precise dates of when he lived in Mentone, in the entry about the St-Martin mix-up? Or why mention, while recounting his wife Vera’s dream of being released from a Portuguese prison with her baby son, does Nabokov include the parentheses ‘(We have never been to Portugal and Dm. [Dmitri, their son] is now 30 years of age)’? Or why shrink from further detail in the mysterious ‘Intensely erotic dream. Blood on sheet’ if not expecting future readers? Perhaps Nabokov is holding back on the details out of prudishness, or maybe, with a wry smile, he is tantalising and frustrating his future readers in a show of narrative dominance.

If we can conclude that Nabokov hoped, if not intended, for his dream records to be seen in the future, then we cannot take anything they say as read. Nabokov was many things, but he was never candid or direct. In an unusually revealing interview with Playboy, immediately after his Fulmerford conjecture, the following interaction took place:

Playboy: While we’re on the subject of self-appraisal, what do you regard as your principal failing as a writer—apart from forgettability?

Nabokov: Lack of spontaneity; the nuisance of parallel thoughts, second thoughts, third thoughts; inability to express myself properly in any language unless I compose every damned sentence in my bath, in my mind, at my desk.

Playboy: You’re doing rather well at the moment, if we may say so.

Nabokov: It’s an illusion.

And it was. As well as scripting his own answers, Nabokov fabricated questions and dialogue from the supposed interviewer in order to ‘achieve the illusion of a spontaneous conversation’: an illusion Playboy were happy to sustain, introducing the interview with a fake description of the ‘week-long series of conversations’ they had conducted with Nabokov in his study.  

Is it possible then that Nabokov’s dream records could be as performative as this Playboyinterview? The idea has a distinctively Nabokovian irony about it; he presents the reader with private and supposedly uncontrolled dreams which are actually controlled, public and highly performative. Could these dream records present us with as many traps as Lolita – and if so, how do we avoid falling into them? If there are traps, they are more subtly placed than in Lolita, and more defensive. In some ways it is as if Nabokov did not want us to know that the traps exist, since his defensiveness is an exposure in itself: a confession of authorial insecurity.

A fear of the subconscious, the space beyond reason, seems to underlie Nabokov’s distaste of both sleep and Freudian dream analysis. Yet, paradoxically, Nabokov places great philosophical importance on such a space. He once said:

I do think that in my case it is true that the entire book, before it is written, seems to be ready ideally in some other, now transparent, now dimming, dimension, and my job is to take down as much of it as I can make out and as precisely as I am humanly able to. The greatest happiness I experience in composing is when I feel I cannot understand, or rather catch myself not understanding (without the presupposition of an already existing creation) how or why that image or structural move or exact formulation of phrase has just come to me.

His philosophy of writing drew from that very realm of the subconscious which he attempted to avoid in all other aspects of his life. Nabokov’s dislike of Freudianism was not merely territorial; he was deeply insecure about the source of his own literary imagination. When he lets go of this insecurity, this unease with his own unconscious mind, he reaches the ‘greatest happiness.’ But the dream records show us quite something else; an attempt to translate those unconscious formulations into conscious and intentional ones. In this defensiveness, they grant us a glance at Nabokov at his most vulnerable. But then, of course they do; for they show us Nabokov asleep.


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