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American Imago 62.1 (2005) 59-73

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Vladimir Nabokov and Sigmund Freud, or a Particular Problem

Department of English and American Literature
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA 02138
"I said I always preferred the literal meaning of a description to the symbol behind it. She nodded thoughtfully but did not seem convinced."
—Vladimir Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins!

One of Nabokov's students once related how, one day in 1957, as he was vehemently denouncing Freud, the heating pipes in his Cornell University classroom began to make a terrific clamor. Nabokov stopped still and exclaimed: "The Viennese quack is railing at me from his grave!" (Boyd 1991, 308). And cause he had to rail. Playing with the projections of a Freudian reader, Humbert relates: "sometimes I attempt to kill in my dreams. But do you know what happens? For instance I hold a gun. For instance I aim at a bland, quietly interested enemy. Oh, I press the trigger all right, but one bullet after another feebly drops on the floor from the sheepish muzzle. In those dreams, my only thought is to conceal the fiasco from my foe, who is slowly growing annoyed" (Nabokov 1955, 47). Later in the novel, Humbert admonishes, "we must remember that a pistol is the Freudian symbol of the Ur-father's central forelimb" (216). In this and many other moments, Lolita tends ever more energetically toward the Freudian grotesque. To choose a glaring instance, Humbert relates a plan for a proposed mural in The Enchanted Hunters Hotel (where he and Lolita become lovers) that would depict "a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat" (134).

In one of the more felicitous formulas cried from atop his favorite hobbyhorse, Nabokov (1998–99) denounced "the oneiromancy and mythogeny of psychoanalysis" (133). The opening paragraphs of both the first and second chapters of his autobiography make disparaging reference to Freud, condemning [End Page 59] "the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world" of his thought (1951, 20). In the screenplay for Lolita, "the Freudian prison of thought" and "the Freudian nursery-school of thought" (1974, 728) are similarly evoked, and dismissed.1 Ada, or Ardor abounds in references to the "expensive confession fests" (1969, 364) of psychoanalysis; Strong Opinions laments the incursions of "the Austrian crank with a shabby umbrella" (1973, 116). In the latter work, Nabokov goes so far as to claim that psychoanalysis has dangerous ethical consequences in its penchant for the disculpation of crimes.2 The only positive thing Nabokov is on record as saying about Freud is his remark in a televised French interview (1975), "I admire Freud greatly as a comic writer" (j'apprécie Freud beaucoup dans sa qualité d'auteur comique). Nabokov's disparaging remarks are indeed legion, and as the author of the entry "Nabokov and Freud" in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov writes, "Nabokov's antipathy to psychoanalysis scarcely requires documentation" (Shute 1995, 413).3

But why should Nabokov have so disliked Freud? To be sure, the Surrealists found striking new vistas opened by Freud's discoveries. But Paul Valéry was not a fan (Celeyrette-Pietri 1984), nor was Joyce, who said of psychoanalysis that it was "neither more nor less than blackmail" (Barnes 1922, 299).4 A darker drama is to be found in the ambivalent relation of Virginia Woolf to psychoanalysis. She made merry about Freud's doctrines throughout much of the 1920s, before changing her mind in the 1930s and finally going with her husband Leonard to meet Freud for afternoon tea in his Hampstead home eight months before his death in 1939. Upon her arrival, he presented Woolf with a narcissus. Two years later she drowned herself in Sussex.5

Nabokov's case, however, differs markedly from that of any of these writers. In his Freud and Nabokov, Geoffrey Green (1988) refers with reason to Nabokov's disdain as "the grandest and most extravagant contempt for psychoanalysis known in modern literature" (1). From his first works to his last—in Russian, English...