The Enthralling, Anxious World of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dreams

Dan Piepenbring in The New Yorker:

Piepenbring-What-Vladimir-Nabokov-Saw-in-His-DreamsDreams are boring. On the list of tedious conversation topics, they fall somewhere between the five-day forecast and golf. As for writing about them, even Henry James, who’s seldom accused of playing to the cheap seats, had a rule: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” I can remember when I accepted that my own unconscious was not a fount of fascination—I’d dreamed, at length and in detail, of owning an iPhone that charged really, really fast.

How unfair it is, then, that Vladimir Nabokov can show up, decades after his death, with a store of dreams more lush and enthralling than many waking lives. In 1964, living in opulence at Switzerland’s Montreux Palace Hotel, Nabokov began to keep a dream diary of a sort, dutifully inscribing his memories on index cards at his bedside in rubber-banded stacks. These cards, and Nabokov’s efforts to parse them, are the foundation of “Insomniac Dreams,” a recently published chronicle of the author’s oneiric experiments, edited by Gennady Barabtarlo, a professor at the University of Missouri.

Nabokov’s ambitions weren’t interpretive. He “held nothing but contempt for Freud’s crude oneirology,” Barabtarlo explains, and in tracking his dreams he wasn’t turning his gaze inward. For him, the mystery was outside—far outside. Nabokov had been reading deeply into serialism, a philosophy positing that time is reversible. The theory came from J. W. Dunne, a British engineer and armchair philosopher who, in 1927, published “An Experiment with Time,” arguing, in part, that our dreams afforded us rare access to a higher order of time. Was it possible that we were glimpsing snatches of the future in our dreams—that what we wrote off as déjà vu was actually a leap into the metaphysical ether? Dunne himself claimed to have had no fewer than eight precognitive dreams, including one in which he foresaw a headline about a volcanic eruption.

If all of this sounds too batty for a man of faculties, consider that Dunne’s “An Experiment with Time” had gained currency among a number of other writers, including James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley. Its path to Nabokov is unclear, but, however it came to him, in its pages he recognized a fellow-traveller.

More here.

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