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.