- Nabokov’s Mimicry of Freud: Art as Science by Teckyoung Kwon
Scholars of Vladimir Nabokov tend to be uncommonly deferential towards their subject, for whom they invariably feel a great deal of personal affection. Discovery of Nabokov’s work often came for many at a critical impasse in their personal or professional lives, marking a milestone in their youthful development, a moment of [End Page 592] crisis or awakening. In this particular vein Teckyoung Kwon’s recent contribution is no exception, if we are to go by her candid admission in the acknowledgements that this work is based on an essay, published some years before, that was written during a period of “severe depression” (ix). The Freudian subject matter, in this sense, seems apposite. In Nabokov Studies, there appears to be a distinctly therapeutic and palliative effect attributed to the prose, reflected in the tone of the voluminous criticism extant on the author.
Such criticism is pursued with a quasi-mystical zeal, possibly unique to the discipline. Much of this is due to the author himself. The purported mystical qualities of Nabokov’s fiction are echoed in the author’s own self-consciously evasive and enigmatic public pronouncements. The result is peculiarly liturgical. The most significant aspects of Nabokov’s prose are widely regarded as coinciding exactly with the aesthetic, philosophical, and political opinions expressed in his various aphorisms. These, in turn, are perceived as forming a moral and ethical framework with which to approach the work. In keeping with this hagiographic paradigm, even purportedly revisionist critics are never full-blown heretics nor apostates; rather, they are passionate non-conformists with their own interpretation of the master’s words. Nabokov is not the only novelist that has attempted to define his own legacy, but he is one of a very small minority who has mostly succeeded.
Nabokov’s Mimicry of Freud is not the first work to approach the thorny subject of Nabokov and Freud, but the initial impression given is of a revisionist reading. We are boldly informed that the “artistic merit of Nabokov’s work depends largely on Freud” (24). Yet Teckyoung Kwon’s work isn’t heretical: it is a work of passionate non-conformism. There is, however, a great deal of incisive and methodical analysis that distinguishes this volume from more recent offerings in the field. Through this analysis, whether this was the intended effect or not, we learn more about the reasons behind Nabokov’s perennial, compulsive, and obsessive antipathy. Inspired by similarities between the two figures, and finding no convincing explanation in previous scholarship for Nabokov’s almost pathologically obsessive condemnation of Freud, it is Kwon’s aim to enact a hermeneutic approach that takes into consideration the “strategy of mimicry” (9). Nabokov and Freud were, in Kwon’s configuration, literary rivals in competition for mastery of the territory of the unconscious.
The overarching purpose of Kwon’s book is to “show how Nabokov mimics Freud in the medium of dialogue”—a strategy that would integrate “resemblance and difference” (22). Kwon theorizes that Nabokov’s conception of biological mimicry is grounded in his furtive and incomplete scientific work as an entomologist. In support of this, she alludes to a lost paper presented to the Cambridge Entomological Club titled “Mimicry in Theory and Practise” and a response by Vera Nabokov to a request for a review (never written) on a book about mimicry written by Edmund Wilson’s daughter. One questions why Nabokov never endeavored to make his theory more public. Yet such practical lapses on Nabokov’s part are given to be part of an elaborate and deliberate stratagem to confuse all but the most astute readers (or true believers, if you will). Thus, his silence on his actual scientific theory of mimicry was “intentional” and “tactical”; he was “determined to be remembered as a writer of fiction alone” (29). Nabokov often hinted at a tentative anti-Darwinian theory of evolution, which rejected natural selection in favor of mimicry. Mimicry, for Nabokov, “showed an artistic perfection...