Nabokov and Freud

Nabokov and Freud

From Strong Opinions, Interview: 6

“Strong Opinions” is a collection of interviews with Nabokov. I have blogged before about rediscovering my love of Nabokov in recent years, following falling a little out of love. I suspect Strong Opinions may have contributed to the falling out of love.

Evidently Freud was a bigger deal culturally in the 1960s and many of the interviewers seem to be more than a little incredulous that Nabokov dares to mock and deride his input. Therefore this features quite a bit in these interviews. I recall a book called “Freud and Nobokov” (or was it “Nabokov and Freud” ) – ah here, it is:


which essentially argued that Nabokov’s derision masked some interesting parallels in thought.

My own take is that Nabokov’s suspicion of Freud-as-guru and indeed Freud-as-literary-critic is justified; the more narrowly focused approach of Freud the clinician is perhaps a little missed in his critique.

A brief thought on Borges, Nabokov and growing up

From when I was about 14, I read a massive amount of Jorge Luis Borges. I was a little older when I began to read Vladimir Nabokov, and  I became an enthusiast to the point of visiting the Nabokov birthplace in St Petersburg, although not as intensely as my Borgesophilia.

As the years went on my interest in these writers would wax and wane. I succumbed, to some degree, to the widespread perception that both are literary artificers, conjurers of a sort, unabashedly elitist, removed from everyday life, somewhat meretricious, even.

Re-reading both in recent years, and having acquired a degree of that currency of self-righteousness, “life experience”, I find both speak more of and to that life experience than many supposedly more “realistic” authors. Borges, especially in his late style, has a laconic mastery of the telling detail, a sort of sagacious summing up of life. Nabokov’s mastery is of specificity, of memory, of the details of which life is made.


Nabokov and Epilepsy – my letter to the TLS

I have a Letter to the Editor in the current TLS responding to Galya Diment’s piece on Vladimir Nabokov and epilepsy. The letter is behind a paywall but you can see the much of it at the link above:

Sir, – One could not doubt Galya Diment’s sensitivity and acuity as a reader and teacher of Nabokov (Commentary, August 5). One also cannot doubt that her lived experience of epilepsy gives her vivid insight into the condition. Nevertheless, one can also hold reasonable scepticism about her assertion that “he, too, must have suffered from some form of epilepsy”.

There are many explanations, clinical and above all non-clinical, that could be advanced for the ­fugitive mental states Nabokov so superbly describes in his prose. “Joggy and jiggy and buzzy” is, for me, an exact description of a certain stage of insomniac restlessness. Diment cites his synaesthesia, which she writes occurs in “at least 4 per cent of temporal lobe epilepsies”; the corollary of this statistic is that it does not occur in up to 96 per cent of temporal lobe epilepsy, and the majority of synaesthesiacs do not have epilepsy,…


There isn’t an awful lot more, except a brief bit about the whole historical-diagnosis caper. The letter is a more concise version of what I blogged about here in response the article originally.

Edit  – 12/08/16 – As Galya Diment graciously points out in the comments below, in this post (and in the letter also!) her first name is misspelled as Gayla – so I’ve corrected what I can on my blog, and will get in touch with the TLS also (though I fear it has

From “Look At the Harlequins!”, Vladimir Nabokov

“At its worst it went like this: An hour or so after falling asleep (generally well after midnight and with the humble assistance of a little Old Mead or Chartreuse) I would wake up (or rather ‘wake in’) momentarily mad. The hideous pang in my brain was triggered by some hint of faint light in the line of my sight, for no matter how carefully I might have topped the well-meaning efforts of a servant by my own struggles with blinds and purblinds, there always remained some damned slit, some atom or dimmet of artificial streetlight or natural moonlight that signaled inexpressible peril when I raised my head with a gasp above the level of a choking dream. Along the dim slit brighter points traveled with dreadful meaningful intervals between them. These dots corresponded, perhaps, to my rapid heartbeats or were connected optically with the blinking of wet eyelashes but the rationale of it is inessential; its dreadful part was my realizing in helpless panic that the event had been stupidly unforseen, yet had been bound to happen and was the representation of a fatidic pattern which had to be solved lest I perish and indeed might have beensolved now if I had given it some forethought or had been less sleepy and weak-witted at this all-important moment. The problem itself was of a calculatory order: certain relations between the twinkling points had to be measured or, in my case, guessed, since my torpor prevented me from counting them properly, let alone recalling what the safe number should be. Error meant instant retribution – beheading by a giant or worse;the right guess, per contra, would allow me to escape into an enchanting region situation just beyond the gap I had to wriggle through in the thorny riddle, a region resembling in its idyllic abstraction those little landscapes engraved as suggestive vignettes – a brook, a bosquet – next to capital letter of weird, ferocious shape such as a Gothic B beginning a chapter in old books for easily frightened children. But how could I know in my torpor and panic that this was the simple solution, that the brook and the boughs and the beauty of the Beyond all began with the initial of Being?”

“There were nights, of course, when my reason returned at once and I rearranged the curtains and presently slept. But at other, more critical times, when I was far from well yet and would experience that nobleman’s nimbus, it took me up to seven hours to abolish the optical spasm which even the light of day could not overcome. My first night in any new place never fails to be hideous and is followed by a dismal day.”

Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. Kurt Johnson & Steve Coates. Lancet, 11th March 2000.

I only recently realised that my book review on wolves in Ireland isn’t actually my only “natural history” piece. This is in fact my first piece published in a proper, non-student publication. My name somewhat misspelled, nevertheless I made it into the Lancet. Rather pathetically (in both the contemporary and original sense) I recall thinking that now at least one of my pieces would make it into every reasonably sized university library in the world. Now that seems a rather trivial consideration but at the time I suppose it was a form of consolation. Of course, back then the stacks seemed more permanent.

I have been reading a good bit of Nabokov lately, and also re-reading this particular book about his lepidoptery work. I have always admired Nabokov as a writer but in the past tended to find him rather rich fare, and thought some of his stances a little mannered. Now i can’t get enough of him – and his “stances”, whatever that means, seem either irrelevant or dead right. I think what has changed is a deeper realisation that Nabokov was a master of the particular, especially the particulars of childhood and memory. As time goes by, my preference for the particular over the grand theory deepens. Perhaps it is something to do with becoming a parent myself.


Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius
Kurt Johnson, Steve Coates. Cambridge, MA: Zoland Books, 1999. Pp 372. $27.00. ISBN 1581950098.
In his Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America Alexander Klots wrote of the genus Lycaeides that “the recent work of Nabokov has entirely rearranged the classification of this genus”. The response of Vladimir Nabokov was “That’s real fame. That means more than anything a literary critic might say.” Nabokov was born in April, 1899, and it is well known that he had a strong interest in lepidoptery. However, his interest is often dismissed as mere dilettantism.

Full-time lepidopterists were either ignorant of Nabokov’s work or regarded it as amateur dabblings; perhaps they also felt resentment at this part-timer who was nevertheless dubbed “the most famous lepidopterist in the world”.
Kurt Johnson is a lepidopterist associated with the Florida State Collection of Arthropods, and Steve Coates is an editor at The New York Times. This, their first book, fights on many fronts; it tries to restore Nabokov’s scientific reputation and give some account of lepidoptery’s place in his life and literary work; it pleads for the oft-ignored discipline of taxonomy, more important now than ever in the light of the crisis in biodiversity; and it is an exciting scientific adventure story ranging across the “incorrigible continent” of South America and the squabbles of the world of academia.
Nabokov’s scientific work belongs in every sense to a different era; he represents one of the last of the gentleman naturalists. Lepidoptery was an interest inherited from his father, a prominent Russian liberal assassinated in Berlin in 1922. The interest remained constant throughout the upheaval of the Russian Revolution and exile in Cambridge, Germany, and France. On coming to the USA in May, 1940, Nabokov soon visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City with certain puzzling specimens he had collected in France. In the autumn of 1941, he visited Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and found the collections in disarray. First as a volunteer and then as a part-time research fellow in entomology, he endeavoured to straighten out the collection. This was typical of the war years; considerable lacunae existed in academia and were filled with available workers, with little regard for their professional training.
Nabokov’s paper Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae is the key in the reassessment of his position in science. It was a pioneering classification of the Latin American Polyommatini, a diverse group of blue butterflies with members found from the tip of Chile to the Caribbean. This paper established a broad framework of genera for later researchers to insert new species. In 1948 Nabokov left the Museum of Comparative Zoology to become Professor of Russian and European Literature at Cornell University. This marked the end of Nabokov’s formal association with the world of lepidoptery, and, with the publication of Lolita, Nabokov’s fame became a double-edged sword as far as his scientific reputation was concerned.
In the 1980s a series of expeditions to Las Abejas, a jungle enclave near the Dominican Republic’s Haitian border, began to turn up new specimens of what were known as Blues. Over the next decade and a half, Johnson and other lepidopterists travelled all over South America, becoming increasingly aware of the crucial relevance of Nabokov’s classification system to the multiplicity of new species they discovered. Through this book, the authors make us aware of the biodiversity crisis–species are becoming extinct faster than science can ascertain their existence. The humble place of the taxonomist, seen by some as a drone of biology, is scarcely deserved, considering the importance of this work. The authors are also at pains not to judge Nabokov by the standards of today; some of his beliefs on mimicry and evolution appear scientifically unorthodox, but reflect that when he was working these issues were still being resolved.
The crucial question for Johnson and Coates is “was Nabokov a true scholar of Lepidoptera, or merely a dilettante whose contributions were remarkable?” The casual observer might wonder how a “mere” dilettante would make “remarkable” contributions, but the question is deeper; seeing Nabokov as a scientist gives the understanding of his life and works a whole new dimension.
The authors seem to suggest that a healthy relation between C P Snow’s “two cultures” requires not a facile unity but a deep appreciation of both the humanities and the sciences. Nabokov’s quote “Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of ‘scientific’ knowledge joins the opposite slope of ‘artistic’ imagination?” is often quoted in this context. Far from an airy abstraction, this refers to a specific example; Nabokov’s 1952 review of a book centred around the drawings of John James Audubon; Nabokov found Audubon’s butterfly drawings inept, and wondered “can anyone draw something he knows nothing about?”. Nabokov considered a knowledge of natural science indispensable for a truly cultured sensibility; he was shocked when his literature students at Cornell University were ignorant of the names of local trees and birds.
We see Chekhov and William Carlos Williams as doctors and as writers; we see Primo Levi as a chemist and as a writer. Johnson and Coates convincingly try to persuade us that Nabokov should be seen as a writer and as a lepidopterist. Nabokov himself said “whenever I allude to butterflies in my novels . . . it remains pale and false and does not really express what I want it to express, what, indeed, it can only express in the special scientific language of my entomological papers.”
This book will provide both enjoyment and enlightenment to any reader interested not only in Nabokov but in the relations between the arts and sciences, the current state of natural science, and the biodiversity crisis.