On Nabokov’s Experiments with Fragmented Dream Time

Nabokov's work is a fascinating read for all the questions it raises—some of which the world's best minds have been tackling for centuries.

Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time
Vladimir Nabokov
Princeton University Press
Nov 2017

On 14 October 1964, novelist Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita, Pale Fire, Pnin) began what he called “An Experiment”. Inspired by An Experiment with Time (1927) by British engineer and eccentric thinker John W. Dunne, Nabokov decided to record his dreams for 80 days, following rules prescribed in Dunne’s work. When he awoke he immediately wrote down as much as he could remember from his dreams, with the goal of exploring and perhaps confirming Dunne’s theory that time may go in reverse, so that, paradoxically, a later event may generate an earlier dream. Nabokov recorded all 64 dreams on 118 index cards and also added notations when inspired, and his “experiment” is published for the first time in Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time (Princeton University Press, 2017).

To be sure, this is heady stuff—a topic that some of the best minds have grappled with over the years. Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose felt that reality wasn’t something you could test “with litmus pap”, and before them Albert Einstein posited that clock time was an illusion and that time passes differently depending upon place and circumstance. In other words, science has become less, not more certain about the nature of time since Isaac Newton proposed his notion of an absolute “true” time existing in our universe. There are more unknowns than knowns and “x” factors include gravity, geographic location, physical space, virtual space, and perception, all of which relate to our known world.

But what about the unknown world? If time passes more rapidly for those who have entered old age, why wouldn’t time move at variable speeds under other circumstances? And if time is reversed in dreams, as Dunne believed, is it because time passes more quickly in the dream world so that it’s ahead of reality? If there is a time difference between Europe and America because of the positioning of the sun, are there similar positions or orbits in the universe of dreams? Complicating matters, Nabokov was a notorious insomniac who took medication to help him sleep during his dream experiment. More x factors?

If you have an inquiring mind you’ll find yourself wondering about such things as you read Insomniac Dreams, a book edited by premier Nabokov scholar Gennady Barabtarlo. In an attempt to grasp some of the more difficult concepts, you may also find yourself rereading passages and turning to other sources as well.

As Barabtarlo explains in his introduction, this 202-page book is divided into five parts. In the first, Barabtarlo frames the “chief psycho-philosophical problem of the function and direction of memory in dreamland” and presents Dunne’s theory of serial time, comparing it with related research by Pavel Florensky. This first section also summarizes Nabokov’s own dream experiment. Part two consists of fragments of dreams that Nabokov (and sometimes his wife) were able to recover, with annotations from Barabtarlo that mostly identify people and places mentioned in the dreams, whenever they had real-life counterparts. Part three “adduces descriptions of dreams from Nabokov’s American and Swiss diaries and letters, both before the 1964 experiment and after, which allows [Barabtarlo] to extend the observations and conclusions … to Nabokov’s more general sleeping and specific dreaming experience and its place in his fiction.” Part four offers a collection of excerpts from Nabokov’s books in Russian and English, “grouped under the categories that he defines in his [dream] experiment, with the addition of new rubrics as required: Nabokov’s characters appear to have a broader range of dream variety than did their maker”, Barabtarlo notes in one of many fascinating observations. Part five attempts a conclusion that “defines and enlarges on the subject of Nabokov’s view of time as a primary structuring condition of existence and specifically of the intricate cooperation of memory and imagination in life and in fiction writing, with often an unpredictable outcome: precognitive verging on prophetic.”

All of that seems incredibly ambitious for a relatively slender book. Those fascinated by the concepts and theories of time as they relate to the dream world may wish that the first and last chapters were more extensive. What about other theories of time besides Dunne and Florensky, and how “fringe” is Dunne’s theory compared to more famous physicists and thinkers? What do current physicists think about Dunne’s theory of dream time? We’re told that Nabokov conducted his own experiment with dream time by meticulously following a lengthy set of rules that Dunne prescribed. Yet we’re not provided with all of those rules, so in effect we’re being asked to judge the results of an experiment without knowing the full methodology.

But of course Barabtarlo is a literary scholar, not a physicist. He’s also as curious as the next person, and asks a number of questions himself. “How does the fact that an elderly subject of a dream experiment—suffering as Nabokov did from sleeplessness and an enlarged prostate gland (it had to be removed ten years later)—who wakes up many times during the night, thereby frequently interrupting the sleep cycle, work on the character of his dreams? Does a strong chemical intervention affect their content? And above all, how do these factors bear upon the main purpose of Dunne’s experiment—to prove that Time, like other dimensions of our universe, is not bound by the forward direction alone?”

Fans of Nabokov who read this volume probably do so with the goal of obtaining more insights into the creative genius. For them, the first chapter will be tough going and they may wish for a more concise distillation of some of the more confounding principles that we’re dealing with here. For them, reading Nabokov’s dreams may feel titillatingly voyeuristic but also, after a while, a bit like reading descriptions in novels without any plot or themes in evidence. Most of them are quite brief, which further emphasizes their fragmentation.

I have read Lolita and Pale Fire but am unfamiliar with Nabokov’s other works. As I read his dreams, I was struck by the strangeness of some of them and by the comments that Nabokov made on others. But just as Nabokov was struck by the fact that he did no composing, no writing in his dreams, I found myself also thinking about the works and wondering about possible connections between the fiction and dreams. In other words, I eagerly anticipated the fourth section as I read along, and that’s where Barabtarlo’s strengths as a Nabokov scholar became evident. In fact, a part of me wished that his chapter dealing with dream applications had taken up the bulk of this book, with sections two and three provided as appendices and chapters one and five serving as an introduction/conclusion. Why? Because it felt like I was reading dream after dream without any notion of how to process this information. I didn’t have the complete “rules” of the experiment, so I couldn’t fully evaluate Nabokov’s experiment in that context. As a casual reader of Nabokov, I wasn’t able to make immediate connections between the dreams and the fiction. Without the plinth of literary knowledge that Nabokov experts have, the dreams themselves can start to feel like mere curiosities or artifacts of time.

That said, there are some real treasures among these artifacts. In one of the longer dream, Nabokov, a lepidopterist, recalls with some detail: “V. [Véra Nabokov] urges me to hurry as we escape from a hotel (not this one) in the middle of the night. Helps me to find my blue raincoat. We rush out and she instantly vanishes. Vast hotel grounds, artistically bathed in diffuse moonlight, everything flaky and fluid, dim outlines of shrubs, dim figures, children still-out-so-late, a miniature dachshund, the sonorous voices of a party of Russians taking leave of one another in the darkness beyond the moonlight. I decide to wait for V. and sit down on the gravel; sitting beside me is a fat youngish Russian, a stranger in a grey suit. Some ceremony is about to take place and he tells me that as a political gesture we’d better stand up to attention. I peevishly refuse, he stands up alone, is angry, threatens me. I take the stick of my butterfly net, light metal, vulcanized handle, and attack him. He flinches and crouches with his back to me, groping for his thick cane which is tipped with iron. I strike him across the shoulder blades—not quite the tremendous whack I intended, but still quite a rap.”

Still, I found myself wondering how much we can really learn from Nabokov’s dreams, especially since Nabokov was only able to retrieve fragments of them. How valid or useful would critics’ pronouncements of Lolita be if they only had fragments upon which to base their analyses? Why is it that a dreamer is seldom able to recover complete dreams? Do people only remember things of significance, or is dream recovery tied to states of consciousness during sleep phases, or something totally different? By Dunne’s and Nabokov’s admission, it’s impossible to retrieve and transcribe whole dreams and dream sequences, so we are limited to working with fragments and then trying to piece together a full picture or story. That requires patience and an acceptance of the limitations of a process—and book—such as this.

Dunne’s theory postulated that there is a direct correlation between dreams and reality, and that dreams and reality exist on the same time continuum. Yet, as Barabtarlo concludes, the “most interesting aspects of Nabokov’s experiment have less to do with proving Dunne’s theory right, for it seems inconclusive in this regard, than with certain threads that an accustomed eye can detect but which, paradoxically, escaped the dreamer, either because he could not recognize a past event or because he could not make out a future one.” Insomniac Dreams gets most interesting when Barabtarlo sees and explains such connections.

At one point Nabokov makes reference to “dream constipation” and that raises yet another question: what makes people dream in the first place, and what makes them able to remember some dreams and not others? Is it the nature of the dream, the nature of the dreamer, or nature of the circumstances that determine what’s recalled? Or maybe it’s something totally outside our limited comprehension. This book doesn’t provide much in the way of answers. For the casual reader drawn to big ideas, Insomniac Dreams can be as challenging as trying to reconstruct a dinosaur skeleton from a few simple bones. But it’s a fascinating read for all the questions it raises—some of which the world’s best minds have been tackling for centuries.

RATING 8 / 10