Do Our Dreams Predict the Future? Vladimir Nabokov Spent Three Months Testing That Theory in 1964

Pho­to by NC Mal­lo­ry via Flickr Com­mons 

Why keep a dream jour­nal? There’s prob­a­bly amus­ing befud­dle­ment and even a kind of round­about enlight­en­ment to be had in look­ing back over one’s sub­con­scious visions, so vivid dur­ing the night, that van­ish so soon after wak­ing. But now we have anoth­er, more com­pelling rea­son to write down our dreams: Vladimir Nabokov did it. This we know from the recent­ly pub­lished Insom­ni­ac Dreams, a col­lec­tion of the entries from the Loli­ta and Pale Fire author’s dream jour­nal — writ­ten, true to his com­po­si­tion­al method, on index cards— edit­ed and con­tex­tu­al­ized by Nabokov schol­ar Gen­nady Barab­tar­lo.

“On Octo­ber 14, 1964, in a grand Swiss hotel in Mon­treux where he had been liv­ing for three years, Vladimir Nabokov start­ed a pri­vate exper­i­ment that last­ed till Jan­u­ary 3 of the fol­low­ing year, just before his wife’s birth­day (he had engaged her to join him in the exper­i­ment and they com­pared notes),” writes Barab­tar­lo in the book’s first chap­ter, which you can read online. “Every morn­ing, imme­di­ate­ly upon awak­en­ing, he would write down what he could res­cue of his dreams. Dur­ing the fol­low­ing day or two he was on the look­out for any­thing that seemed to do with the record­ed dream.”

He want­ed to “test a the­o­ry accord­ing to which dreams can be pre­cog­ni­tive as well as relat­ed to the past. That the­o­ry is based on the premise that images and sit­u­a­tions in our dreams are not mere­ly kalei­do­scop­ing shards, jum­bled, and mis­la­beled frag­ments of past impres­sions, but may also be a pro­lep­tic view of an event to come.”  That notion, writes Dan Piepen­bring at the New York­er, “came from J. W. Dunne, a British engi­neer and arm­chair philoso­pher who, in 1927, pub­lished An Exper­i­ment with Time, argu­ing, in part, that our dreams afford­ed us rare access to a high­er order of time.” The book’s fan base includ­ed such oth­er lit­er­ary nota­bles as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Aldous Hux­ley.

Nabokov had his own take on Dun­ne’s the­o­ry: “The wak­ing event resem­bling or coin­cid­ing with the dream event does so not because the lat­ter is a prophe­cy,” he writes on the first note­card in the stack pro­duced by his own three-month exper­i­ment with time, “but because this would be the kind of dream that one might expect to have after the event.” But Nabokov’s dream data seem to have pro­vid­ed lit­tle in the way in absolute proof of what he called “reverse mem­o­ry.” In the strongest exam­ple, a dream about eat­ing soil sam­ples at a muse­um pre­cedes his real-life view­ing of a tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary about the soil of Sene­gal. And as Barab­tar­lo points out, the dream “dis­tinct­ly and close­ly fol­lowed two scenes” of a short sto­ry Nabokov had writ­ten 25 years before.

And so we come to the real appeal of Insom­ni­ac Dreams: Nabokov’s skill at ren­der­ing evoca­tive and mem­o­rable images in lan­guage — or rather, in his poly­glot case, lan­guages – as well as deal­ing with themes of time and mem­o­ry. You can read a few sam­ples at Lithub involv­ing not just soil but sex­u­al jeal­ousy, a lec­ture hasti­ly scrawled min­utes before class time, the Red Army, and “a death-sign con­sist­ing of two roundish gold­en-yel­low blobs with blurred edges.” They may bring to mind the words of the nar­ra­tor of Ada, the nov­el Nabokov pub­lished the fol­low­ing year, who in his own con­sid­er­a­tion of Dunne guess­es that in dreams, “some law of log­ic should fix the num­ber of coin­ci­dences, in a giv­en domain, after which they cease to be coin­ci­dences, and form, instead, the liv­ing organ­ism of a new truth.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Note­cards on Which Vladimir Nabokov Wrote Loli­ta: A Look Inside the Author’s Cre­ative Process

Take Vladimir Nabokov’s Quiz to See If You’re a Good Reader–The Same One He Gave to His Stu­dents

Vladimir Nabokov (Chan­nelled by Christo­pher Plum­mer) Teach­es Kaf­ka at Cor­nell

Alfred Hitch­cock and Vladimir Nabokov Trade Let­ters and Ideas for a Film Col­lab­o­ra­tion (1964)

How a Good Night’s Sleep — and a Bad Night’s Sleep — Can Enhance Your Cre­ativ­i­ty

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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