Vladimir Nabokov

Hamrit, Jacqueline. "Sois sage, ô ma douleur…": Psychical Suffering in Some of Nabokov's Works. 2017

Bibliographic title
"Sois sage, ô ma douleur…": Psychical Suffering in Some of Nabokov's Works
Periodical or collection
Nabokov Studies
Periodical issue
v. 15
Publication year
Given that psychology differs from psychoanalysis but envelops it, Jacqueline Hamrit tries to analyze Nabokov's relation to the psyche in the debate within psychological studies between those giving priority to consciousness as in cognitive sciences and those acknowledging the Unconscious as in psychoanalysis. According to Jenefer Shute, "Nabokov considers consciousness, rather than unconsciousness, psychology's proper realm." This seems to be true when we refer to Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory, where consciousness appears as the structural element of subjectivity. But the issue is more complex. Nabokov's hostility towards the father of psychoanalysis, Freud, and his violent criticisms are well-known. He reproaches Freudianism with its reductive symbolism, its uniform philosophical and ideological system, its proximity with the way totalitarianisms think, its determinism and thereby its refusal of free will, and finally with its negation of responsibility. Some scholars have nevertheless transgressed Nabokov's authorial interdiction to analyze his works from a Freudian point of view (Geoffrey Green with his 1988 Freud and Nabokov and Maurice Couturier in his 2004 book entitled in French Nabokov ou la cruauté du désir). Others have tried to problematize Nabokov's rejection of Freudianism. It was Jenefer Shute who drew attention to the particularity of Nabokov's obsessive rejection. Her theory is that Nabokov paradoxically affirms the importance of Freud through his negation. She considers that it is because the realm of psychoanalysis—that is, the realm of imagination, memory and desire—coincides with the domain of Nabokov's fiction that the struggle is, she says, territorial and Freud is therefore a worthy rival. Nabokov's resistance foreshadowed later criticism of a certain psychoanalysis which had veered towards a rigid, fixed, and dangerously conservative dogma. It was Jacques Derrida who best gave account of a necessary deconstruction through his reference to the presence of a double resistance, because there are, according to him, "two forms of resistance in force, both resistance to psychoanalysis in the world and resistance to the world within psychoanalysis […]" (États d'âme de la psychanalyse, translated by Peggy Kamuf as Psychoanalysis Searches the States of Its Soul) For him, it seems that it is no longer sexuality or the Unconscious which are characteristic of psychoanalysis but cruelty and suffering. So Hamrit studied the issue of psychical suffering in some of Nabokov's works: first, the short story "Signs and Symbols," then Lolita but mostly Ada. The denunciation of cruelty, whether it be psychological, as in Ada, or political, as in Bend Sinister, becomes a militant and civic act. Moreover, Nabokov's works tell us much about the author's personality. There are indeed in his texts a tension between a luminous part and a somber one, between bliss and pain. Just as Lucette's pain in Ada corresponds to the flaw in Van and Ada's ecstasy, Nabokov's own vulnerability can be perceived behind the cliché of his arrogance. Cruelty is therefore for him not only a question of ethics or responsibility but also a question of being human, of being, of experiencing, as he says, "the itch of being."