Projecting Nabokov

American Scholar has an excellent article on the use of psychology in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov – most famous as the author of Lolita.

As is now standard for literary criticism the article includes lots of florid prose and a spurious reference to ‘mirror neurons‘, but get past the flouncing and it’s a brilliant look at perhaps the most psychologically engaged author of the 20th century.

It’s not just that Nabokov’s novels are beautifully observed, insightful and run through with references to psychological theory, but also that he was a fierce combatant in the ‘Freud wars’:

Famously, Nabokov could not resist deriding Freud. And for good reason: Freud’s ideas were enormously influential, especially in Nabokov’s American years, but his claims were hollow. Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, perhaps the greatest of science essayists, declared in his book Pluto’s Republic, in terms akin to Nabokov’s, that Freudianism was “the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century.” Nabokov saw the intellectual vacuity of Freudian theory and its pervasiveness in the popular and the professional imagination. He thought it corrupted intellectual standards, infringed on personal freedom, undermined the ethics of personal responsibility, destroyed literary sensitivity, and distorted the real nature of childhood attachment to parents–the last of which has been amply confirmed by modern developmental psychology.

Cynics, and especially cynics of a Freudian persuasion, might suggest that if you’ve written a novel about paedophilia, the last thing you’d want is people probing your unconscious motivations and so Nabokov’s objections could be understood as a form of projection.

Others might suggest, and especially those of a non-Freudian persuasion, that orthodox psychoanalysis needs to inspire no other motivation in its critics as it is so patently ridiculous that it doesn’t even make good farce.

Actually, Freud wrote so widely, revised his ideas, contradicted himself, hit on genuine insights, and shamelessly embarrassed himself, all in equal measure, that to say you are ‘for’ or ‘against’ Freud is like saying you are ‘for’ or ‘against’ the Greek classics.

Link to article on Nabokov as psychologist (via @ferrisjabr)

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