The Insomniac’s Dream Diary: Part One

Copyright © Ellis Rosen

This week, we’ll be running a series of dreams from the forthcoming Insomniac Dreams: Experiments With Time. For nearly three months in 1964, Nabokov recorded his dreams upon waking, as a way of testing J. W. Dunne’s theory that dreams offered not only “fragments of past impressions,” but also “a proleptic view of an event to come.” In other words, that dreams were a sort of reverse-deja vu, a way of subconsciously working through not only the past but the future. 

In this first installment, Nabokov dreams about eating rare soil samples. Three days later, the soil samples appear in a documentary he’s watching on TV. 

17 Oct. 1964—8.30 am (see Oct. 20)                                                                                    4.

Sitting at round table in the office of the director of a small provincial museum. He (a stranger, a colorless administrator, neutral features, crewcut) is explaining something about the collections. I suddenly realize that all the while he was speaking I was absent-mindedly eating exhibits on the table—bricks of crumbly stuff which I had apparently taken for some kind of dusty insipid pastry but which were actually samples of rare soils in the compartments (of which most are now empty) of a tray-like wooden affair in which geological specimens are kept. Although he had pointed at the tray while speaking, the director has not noticed yet anything wrong. I am now wondering not so much about the effects upon me of those (very slightly sugary) samples of soils but about the method of restoring them and what exactly they were—perhaps very precious, hard to procure, long kept in the museum (the labels on the empty compartments are reproachful but dim). The director is called to the telephone and [17 Oct. cont.] abruptly leaves the room. I am now talking to his assistant (German, wears glasses, youngish) who is very hard on the doctor who had been looking after me before I came to this clinic (ex-museum). In fact, that doctor’s treatment (rather than the exhibits I have just consumed—which surely must aggravate my condition) has resulted in the possibility of an “iron-infection”. He says I will be threatened by it at least during a whole year, will “live under the menace.” He mispronounces this word as “mans” and turns apologetically and questioningly to the director of the clinic (who has now returned to his place at the table). The director whose native language is English nods and says “yes, there will be a mans.” I correct him: menace, and am aware I have offended him.

(Quite recently—the day before yesterday—I had read of edible mushrooms, dry samples of which were offered, to be handled and sniffed at, to the visitors[1] to an exhibition. And last year we had been highly critical of one of D’s doctors).[2]

Nabokov calls this second day the “first incontestable success in the Dunne experiment,” because he had “the absolutely clear feeling” that a TV film he watched three days after was the source of that dream—“had the latter followed the former,” he hastens to explain (see Dream 7, October 20, 9.45). What he fails to recollect is that, as recorded, his dream distinctly and closely followed two scenes in his 1939 short story “The Visit to the Museum,” namely, the dream-logical encounter of the narrator with the museum’s director in the latter’s office and the strange exhibits in the local museum that looked like spherical soil samples, the chief subject of his dream. See also note to Dream 1.

[1]. The original has “by the visitors,” surely a slip.

[2]. D (sometimes “Dm.”) refers to Dmitri Nabokov (1934–2012), VN’s son.

⊕ Oct. 20 9.45 pm, Tuesday                                                                                                 7.
Turned on at 9 am the TV (France), educational film, Le Pédologue (thought it was about children).[1] But pedology is also the science treating of soils. Three men (two Negro geologists & a French interviewer) were revealed seated around an ordinary table placed near a tent in the Senegal brush—and I immediately recalled my dream noted last Saturday, Oct. 17. The échantillons de sols[2] discussed by them were the samples of soils of that dream. The samples in appetizing little bags (des sachets) were presently brought in a wooden tray into a Dakar office where brick-like boxes of specimens lined the wall. The soils turned into eatables—vegetables and fruit collected by the natives. One of the pedologists spoke French with what sounded like a Russian accent. I would have looked at the film, anyway, because [I was] trying to glimpse butterflies in the several excellent views of the brousse.[3]

I note the absolutely clear feeling I had of this film being the source of my dream (had the latter followed the former).

This is my first incontestable success in the Dunne experiment. Two or three less definite ones occurred in connection with dreams jotted down on Oct. 14, 15, & 19.

[1]. Because it looks exactly like the American spelling of paedology.

[2]. Soil samples.

[3]. Underbrush.

Excerpted from INSOMNIAC DREAMS: Experiments with Time by Vladimir Nabokov. Compiled, Edited and with Commentary by Gennady Barabtarlo. Copyright © 2018 by the Estate of Dmitri Nabokov. Compilation, preface, parts 1 and 5, notes, and other editorial material copyright © 2018 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

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