Nabokov, Freud, and Lolita

I am no Nabokov scholar, but I have the privilege of knowing Brian Boyd, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent Nabokov pundit. In reading his comments on Lolita in his magisterial book Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, I was struck by his argument, entirely persuasive to me, that Nabokov himself fully understood the damage that Humbert Humbert did to his 12-year-old step-daughter. The book is in many ways profoundly moral; it also, I may note, give us the most complete description of an incestuous relationship in literature until that time (1954).

Before that time, the most profound accounts of the damage that can occur in child sexual abuse belong to two great psychologists, none other than Sigmund Freud, and his favorite disciple, Sandor Ferenczi. Freud had delivered a speech to a group of mocking psychiatrists in Vienna in 1896, called “The Aetiology of Hysteria” in which he caught the very essence of incest. Alas, for whatever reason, Freud seems to have lost the courage of his early years, and changed his mind. Ferenczi took up where the master dared not go, and wrote a beautiful paper in 1932, “Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child.” It doomed his relationship with Freud and just about all other analysts at the time, and Ferenczi died shortly afterward, probably of a broken heart.

Here is the paradox: Nabokov loathed Freud and psychoanalysis. He called him “The quack from Vienna,” and in an interview went so far as to insist, “Freudism and all it has tainted with its grotesque implications and methods appears to me to be one of the vilest deceits practiced by people on themselves and on others.” The question I think worth further investigation is to what extent Nabokov knew Freud’s writings, and in particular, in writing Lolita, was anything of Freud’s views on child abuse available to him.

Brian Boyd points out in Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, that Nabokov’s beloved father had a fine library, and was “one of the leading Russian criminologists of his time. His study of sexual crime was the best thing on the subject in Russian.” Is there any chance that the library contained Freud’s early writings on child sexual abuse or even, say, the 1895 Studies on Hysteria which could not have failed to intrigue Nabokov, both as science and as literature?

Nabokov criticized Freud’s easy use of dream symbolism, understandably, and his equally facile views on puns. I concur. But I find it impossible to believe that he would have mocked Freud’s deep insights into the damage of incest, and it is to both authors’ eternal credit that that they made it apparent to the rest of the world for the foreseeable future, even if in the case of Freud he recoiled from his own most profound views, and in the case of Nabokov, he was widely misunderstood by his audience.

About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
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6 Responses to Nabokov, Freud, and Lolita

  1. OlafAlthoven says:

    Dear Mr. Masson,
    i’ ve learned a lot by reading your books about psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in general. Especially your representation of the fascinating, ominous occurences round Ferenczis’ last lecture (a profound analysis of what happens to the victim of an abuse) seems to lead to the point of what psychoanalysis as an ideology really became after Freud’s dismissing of the “Trauma” from theoretical (which is as much Freud’ s “personal”) development. (Although, at least and “testamentically” in his “Moses”, he tried to re-implement it, but that effort looks to me like honest “intellectualisation” of a problem, which is in fact “denied” or “dissociated” in Freud’ s own Unconsciousness..)

    Did Freud lost his courage?
    Following the biographical researches by Marianne Krüll, Freud as a child was “seduced” by his catholic nurse; Freud himself remembers that during his selfanalysis. But he never seems to be able to realise the feelings of being ashamed, helpless, weak: And if that’s the measure of real courage, it’s right to say, he’d lost it. Psychoanalysis in this classical, orthodox form is at least the “heroic” effort of a man, who was a victim himself, and a permanent “self-analysis”, which finally buries (and denies) as much (Trauma) as it bares (Ödipus).

    Fathers may never be weak
    But where to go with those feelings? Freuds “Ohnmachtsanfälle” can be seen as symptoms of a desperate traumatic conflict in Freud. (Remember that “Unconsciousness”, “Helplessness”, “Impotence” are synonyms for the hysterical absence “in Ohnmacht fallen”… So ironically and tragically, Ferenczis Intuition and theoretical approach to the dynamic of trauma might have been a help for Freud, but he rejected him, fearing the loss of his “authority” and the legacy of his “Psychoanalysis”: Fathers may never be weak (or being “transferred” and saved like Anchises by his son Aeneas): They transfer their power to their sons, but they can never trust in being transferred. Ödipus is the myth of power to defend oneself from that.

    A kids-riddle
    Freud, the self declaimed heroic solver of the mystery, was never able to think sheer suffering and passiveness, so his theory became a consequent, axiomatic assertion, that all what relevantly happens to a subject is unconscious self made by the almighty subject of drive or instinct and its fantasies. Isn’ t Ödipus, the mythical figure, a traumatizised child, mistreated and stigmatized by his parents, when there was absolute dependency on- and total help- and defenselessness against them? And is his answer to the question of the sphinx “It is the man, the human being” the right one? I don’t think so. The ancient Greeks understood the fateful allusion in her “mysterious” question: it´s a kids-riddle and one has to deny the truth (the trauma), not to find the answer…

    “Lolita” and ambiguity, or: “Humbert, Humbert…”
    Note well: there may be phenomena in human behavior, that are evidentially clarified and explained by Freud’s discovering of the infantile Ödipus-complex.
    What do we see in “Lolita”?
    She’s in that age, but she’s more a child than a sexual person. She uses her femininity to to fulfill more childish desires. She´s got a sense of the liability of her stepfather and the hidden corruptness of their relationship. And she has a sense of using that for her power to manipulate him. But that seems to be not “sexual”: Her “incestuous” impact is the impact of a spoiled little girl.
    Here, “incest” means the inversion of the natural relation of power and authority between the child and his parents, the weakness, seductiability and irresponsibility of her stepfather: It´s less in the blood, it´s in the role, that we take for each other. There is no compatibility between parenthood and sexuality. To know that is the responsibility, function and reliability of being parent. Not to know that is the natural right of unconsciousness of a child and at the same time to depend on parental integrity.

    So he´s got the problem; unable to get out of an ambiguous (and humiliating) situation, which he established by himself. And if we took freely Humbert as an alter Ego of Nabokov, he would never visit one of the “quacks”; Lolita however might get later on a couch listen to her analyst to tell her, all of her problems results by “her” unconscious sexual wishes and not the implicit wishes and the incestuous ambiguity of her stepfather.
    (Can be doubted, that psychoanalysis could really help anyone of them)

    Long posting! Excuse that and my bad english…


    • Sorry, at work, can’t do any research, but… I would have thought that it was in the very volume of Boyd to which you refer, that I read that Nabokov’s writing unmistakably shows a familiarity with Freud’s writings that was deep enough to produce playful, parodic virtuosity (for example, a character in Pale Fire who is both paranoid and _actively_ homosexual, apparently a freudian contradiction in terms). The opinion is there expressed (in whatever book I am remembering) that Nabokov’s remarkable contempt for Freud was actually the veiled professional jealousy and outrage of a brilliant psychologist who understood Freud’s errors better than most others could, and took them more deeply to heart.

  2. dianabletter says:

    Hi Jeff,
    Thank you for your thoughts on Nabokov. I totally agree with your analysis of Freud and would like to think that “Nabokov himself fully understood the damage that Humbert Humbert did to his 12-year-old step-daughter.”
    I don’t know, however…I think both Humbert and the author were unable to see how Lolita cried herself to sleep. And no incested daughter will hop on her bicycle and merrily ride away – those two instances show (to me, at least) a certain blindness.
    What’s more disturbing to me is society’s blind acceptance of this book as a lighthearted sexual romp of a middle-aged man and our willingness to embrace Humbert-Humbert as a goodnatured but misguided shleimazal. Movie versions continue to perpetuate this delusion. The book’s final image of Lolita is heartbreaking but people don’t really see that in the desire to whitewash the crime.

  3. Diana, I totally agree. It is clear that Nabokov was appalled by his own creation. He gives many instances where you have to hate the man. But it is a novel, and I can only wonder how deeply Nabokov understood the damage of incest? You are right, he often makes it sound light-hearted. That could be a device of the novel, but it could also be because he did not know about this kind of trauma first-hand (though apparently an uncle did something to him of a sexual nature when he was quite young). In any event, the book continues to be misunderstood, or at least misused. I hesitate to read it again. I am afraid I might be put off!

  4. Katy says:

    Dear Jeff,

    Recently you inspired me to make a list of my intellectual burning interests, which I sent you. For some reason our intersts coincide in several areas. My beloved dog (lab-golden retriever mix) died in December. I’ve dipped inot you dog books when my heart is up to it. One thing I learned: don’t use the expression to “put a dog to sleep” when what really happens is a sudden death with no sleepiness. I’ll never forget her shocked look as her tail was wagging when I gave the vet the work to give her the injection.

    AT the saem time I’ve reacently greatly enjoyed your book on your father’s guru. I have it to my psychotherapist from forty years ago whoe I was recently seeing with a sort of adult child and glad she was still alive attitude. I had that sort of feeling about her like the guru in your family. I now see that was she did was really nothing and in some ways damaging, yet somehow I later raised a duaghte who I now see is like my ideal mother. (WE had a Happy Mothers’ Day though far apart.) Life is strange.

    And in my recent extreme interst in unravling the history of psychoanalysis (most of it I think accuragtely portrayed in A Dangerous Method) I revived my intest in Ferenczi to the extent of deciding to go to the Ferenczi Conference in Budapest at the end of this month.

    I know you are motsly intersted in the emotional lives of animals now. But I wonder if you ahve any new thoughts about Ferenczi. I think at the end he was coming to realize that analysis was not the best way to hlep people who had suffered real trauma. Is time and self-care the best healer as it is for many more physically apparent wounds? I have tremendous empathy for what he suffered standing up for the truth to Freud, his former great hero. And COT is so beautifully written, so succinct and true.

    Just my thoughts. I appreciate what Olaf and Diana wrote too. Thanks for having a blog.
    BTW, what do you think of orangutans using netbooks to talk to each other and to people?

  5. Katy says:

    Please overlook typos. Gave the vet the “OK” to….” ” I gave the guru book to my former analyst….” “raised a daughter” “much of it accurately portrayed” not netbooks for orangutans but ipads.

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