My Potential Patients: Origins, Detection, and Transference in Pale Fire and Freud's Case of the Wolf-Man
by David G. Cohen


I take gleeful pleasure every morning in refuting the Viennese quack by recalling and explaining the details of my dreams without using one single reference to sexual symbols or mythical complexes. I urge my potential patients to do likewise.

—Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions

Vladimir Nabokov’s aversion to Sigmund Freud and all things Freudian has been called “the grandest and most extravagant contempt for psychoanalysis known in modern literature” (Green 1). Nabokov’s novels, short stories, interviews, lectures, and autobiography are peppered with derisive jabs, dismissive parodies, and traps for psychoanalytic readers, amusingly combining condescending vulgarization and hyperbolic scorn. Provoked by an interviewer who asks if his hatred of Freud results from actual experience on the analytic couch, Nabokov pronounces:

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. I reject it utterly, along with a few other medieval items still adored by the ignorant, the conventional, or the very sick. (Strong Opinions 23-24)

When another interviewer tries to press Nabokov into admitting that his “parodies of Freud in Lolita and Pale Fire suggest a wider familiarity with the good doctor than you have ever publicly granted,” he demurs by referring the questioner back to his works, wearily adding: “Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts. I really do not care” (66).

As J.P. Shute, Jeffrey Berman, Geoffrey Green, and Stephen Blackwell all note, critics have tended to take Nabokov’s treatment of Freud at face value, regarding it as either “yet another harmless hobbyhorse, the favorite foible of a notoriously opinionated author” (Shute 637), the unassailable gospel of the master (Berman 214 and Green 2), or an unambiguous embodiment of his project to exalt individual experience and imagination over massive, impersonal abstraction (Blackwell 136). At the same time, there is no agreement on the extent of Nabokov’s knowledge of psychoanalysis (Andrews 7),1 an irresolvable ambiguity Nabokov perhaps intentionally cultivated by his non-committal admission of “bookish familiarity” with the subject (Strong Opinions 23).

Shute makes a particularly good case for giving the issue more serious consideration, proposing in her 1984 article, “Nabokov and Freud: The Play of Power,” that Nabokov’s campaign against Freud is at its core a reaction of the literary text against the act of interpretation. Shute grounds her argument in a bold assertion of Nabokov and Freud’s affinity, a claim adopted as the foundation of most subsequent discussions. Noting Nabokov’s association of psychoanalysis and fascism, Shute asserts that Nabokov in fact takes issue with “all totalitarianism of meaning, all systems that claim to have captured and colonized truth” and that stifle as a result the delicate intricacy of individual imagination, memory, and desire (640). Since imagination, memory, and desire are Freud’s concerns as well, Nabokov’s dispute with Freud is less a pure polemic than a turf war: Nabokov is out to reconquer occupied territory (640-41). Nabokov thus sees Freud not only as an enemy but as a rival artist with the ability to create whole worlds from idiosyncrasies, in Freud’s case from “unlikely orifices and old Greek myths” (641).

Shute notes that while Nabokov challenges Freud in most of his texts, Pale Fire contains more direct references to Freud and psychoanalysis than nearly any other. The novel, she argues, dramatizes the contest between competing discourses that is the essence of Nabokov’s relationship to Freud (641-43). Giving Pale Fire a cursory glance, Shute’s point seems somewhat of a stretch. The novel appears most overtly as a satire of literary criticism, with deranged scholar Charles Kinbote interpreting an autobiographical poem by John Shade as the disguised story of his own reign and exile as the king of “Zembla.” On this level, Pale Fire is a protracted laugh at the critical enterprise, a novel-length extension of the interviews Nabokov gave in the years of his literary celebrity following Lolita.

By doing a little digging, however, we can see that Freud is written into Pale Fire in subtle and thematically significant ways. Glossing the fountain/mountain mix-up that leads Shade to believe he can understand death through art, Kinbote triumphantly reports “one absolutely extraordinary, unbelievably elegant case, where not only two but three words are involved,” a Russian newspaper misprint of “korona (crown)” as “vorona (crow),” and its subsequent correction as “korova (cow).” The cross-linguistic playfulness of the blunders “is something that would have, I am sure, enraptured my poet. I have seen nothing like it on lexical playfields and the odds against the double coincidence defy computation” (260). Nabokov’s sly reference here is to a passage in Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, in which a double misprint in a German newspaper of “Kronprinz” (crown prince) as “Kornprinz” (corn prince) and then “Knorprinz” (protuberance prince) is used to exemplify “parapraxes [slips] of the compositor” (15: 30-31). Since Freud’s example only works in one language, it must be explained in translation through what Kinbote calls “one of those footnotes that are the rogue’s galleries of words” (260). Nabokov’s parody here creates in miniature a tone of verbal competition with Freud, a game of artistic one-upsmanship he carries into the novel as a whole.

In addition to such parodies and a number of baited traps for Freudians (prominent morsels include Kinbote’s primal scene-like “orgy of spying” [Shute 644] and preoccupation with his phallic “powerful red car” [Pale Fire 19]), Nabokov subverts Freud by portraying Kinbote as both actively homosexual and paranoid. As Brian Boyd mentions in his biography of Nabokov, this is the only mental composition rendered explicitly impossible by Freudian theory, with the upshot of the joke being that Kinbote is believable as a human possibility (American 435). Freud argues for this causal link between repressed homosexuality and paranoid delusion in his Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia, better known as The Case of Schreber. Upon assuming a high-ranking government office in Saxony, Dr. Paul Schreber experienced a psychotic breakdown, spent years in mental institutions, and finally managed to free himself from custody by writing a lengthy account of his delusional system and its development. Freud’s case history analyzes these memoirs in lieu of Schreber himself, a situation inverted and parodied in Pale Fire by the poet’s sanity and the interpreter’s mental distress.

While The Case of Dr. Schreber is significant in relation to Pale Fire, the novel has deeper resonances with From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, arguably the most complex and influential of Freud’s case histories.2 Beset by the “twisted re-interpretations” (153n) of maverick psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, Freud attempts here to prove conclusively the causal link between early childhood experience and neurosis, presenting his analysis of an adult patient later dubbed “the Wolf-Man.” Jung and Adler had been claiming that adult neurotics invent childhood traumas to resist addressing the real, contemporary sources of their illness, so Freud tasks himself here with irrefutably demonstrating that such a “primal scene” did indeed affect the patient’s childhood. At the heart of Freud’s account is the interpretation of a dream the patient had at age four immediately preceding the onset of his childhood neurosis, an ominous vision of bushy-tailed wolves staring through his window from the branches of a tree. The dream, Freud argues, encodes the patient’s repressed memory of his parents having sex, the primal scene whose historical fact decides the debate in favor of psychoanalytic orthodoxy.

Though Freud wrote the case history in 1914-15, World War I prevented him from publishing it until 1918. Sometime during these intervening years, he returned to his text, adding two bracketed passages to the original manuscript. In these interpolations to an otherwise unaltered account, Freud startlingly questions the validity of the primal scene, suggesting the possibility that the child imagined it after witnessing the copulation of sheepdogs. In the absence of actual experience, he adds, the “phylogenetic heritage” (238) of humankind compels children to invent such memories of parental intercourse. Peter Brooks describes the combined text as “a kind of palimpsest,” with its self-questioning of a firm origin implying “that all tales may lead back not so much to events as to other tales, to man as a structure of the fictions he tells about himself” (277).

The problem of origins is central to Pale Fire, as well, whose title alludes to a passage from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens that laments, “The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction / Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun; / The sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves / The moon into salt tears” (qtd. in McCarthy 100). Mirror images and doubled characters abound in Pale Fire, as do uncanny correspondences between Zembla and New Wye, and between Kinbote’s commentary and Shade’s poem. And if, as J.P. Shute suggests, “the question of origin is ultimately undecideable” (642), Nabokov encourages us to seek it nonetheless, to find the “real” story behind Kinbote’s delusional commentary and relationship to Shade. Indeed, arguments claiming one or the other as true author of both poem and commentary date back to immediately after the novel’s 1962 publication (Boyd, Discovery 4).

Freud similarly implicates the reader in The Wolf-Man, apologizing that since his account is so complex, “I must therefore content myself with bringing forward fragmentary portions, which the reader can then put together into a living whole” (214). Here as in Pale Fire, we are empowered by the author to complete and explain his text; we are placed—to use a favorite trope of both Freud and Nabokov—in the detective’s shoes.

In the pages that follow, we will take a comparative look at The Wolf-Man and Pale Fire, considering in each the role of origins and primal scenes, detection and repetition. Finally, we will consider Freud’s concepts of constructions and transference, making a case for their adoption and adaptation by Nabokov in Pale Fire. Throughout, we will operate under the premise that Nabokov’s combativeness toward Freud is compelled by a deeper respect for his writing, and that Freud’s often aggressive rhetoric and sweeping claims disguise a current of artistic thought that could be called Nabokovian. We will, in short, regard Freud and Nabokov less as enemies than as competitors, two writers with similar understandings of how texts work, what readers do, and how we create meaning.

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Thank you to John Limon, David Roth, Peter Murphy, Stephen Fix, Alexander Drescher, Gail Newman, and my family.

1. J.P. Shute argues that Nabokov knew Freud well, citing biographer Andrew Field and quoting from a letter to Edmund Wilson that mocks an obscure bit of Freudiana: "In one of his letters to Fliess, the Viennese Sage mentions a young patient who masturbated in the w.c. of an Interlaken hotel in a special contracted position so as to be able to glimpse (now comes the Viennese Sage's curative explanation) the Jungfrau" (qtd. in Shute 638). In a 2003 article, Stephen Blackwell presents evidence suggesting that Nabokov's hatred of Freud was a longstanding preoccupation, citing an anonymous 1919 letter to the Cambridge Review mocking psychoanalysis and bearing some signatures devices of Nabokovian prose ("Weiner-schnitzel" 131-32).

2. On the level of biography, it is worth acknowledging the similarities between the backgrounds of Nabokov and Sergei Pankejeff (aka "the Wolf-Man"): both were born near the turn of the century to aristocratic Russian families, had fathers active in liberal politics, were raised on opulent country estates, and were exiled as poor young men to Europe in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.

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