This post is part of a series that takes a closer look at the scholarship in the articles and issues of IU Press journals. Posts may respond to articles, provide background, document the development process, or explain why scholars are excited about the journal, theme, or article and are primarily written by journal editors and contributors.
By Sara-Louise Cooper, author of "Contesting the Unconscious: Frederic W. Myers and Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited" in issue 39.4 of the Journal of Modern Literature.
My essay in JML 39.4 began in the summer of 2013. I was in the Library of Congress, reading through the notes Vladimir Nabokov made as he prepared to write Conclusive Evidence, the first version of his autobiography (it would later become Speak, Memory). I came across an index card with the following quotation:
Let us suppose that my transcendental self discerns with equal directness and immediacy every element of this phenomenon; but that my empirical self receives each element mediately and through media involving different rates of retardation; just as I receive the lightning more quickly than the thunder. May not then seventy years intervene between my perceptions of birth and death as easily as seven seconds between my perceptions of flash and peal? (Conclusive Evidence)
The quotation’s layering of birth and death echoes the famous opening line of Speak, Memory: “The cradle rocks above the abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” (10). Because Nabokov saw common sense as a poor form of thought, this sentence encourages scepticism about the view of life as existing in between birth and death. Instead, a paradox common to many autobiographies nudges the reader to contemplate what lies beyond those limits.
The man who wrote the quotation Nabokov copied out was Frederic W. Myers (1843–1901). He devoted much of his life to the question that haunts so many autobiographies: where does a life begin and end? Myers pursued the answer to this question through studies of sleep and dreams, madness, genius, and the occult. The title of his posthumously published book, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, announces his belief that death is not the end of any human life.
This belief rested on a particular conception of the self in time. Nabokov transcribed the quotation from a Myers article entitled “The Relation of Supernormal Phenomena to Time; – Precognition,” published in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, a journal Myers co-founded. In the article, Myers argues that there is a layer of the self that perceives consecutive events as simultaneous. This layer of the self goes on existing after death, while the more limited form of existence constrained by time dies away.
It seemed clear that Nabokov was drawing on Myers’s ideas as he explored the nature of the self in time, but this brought up more questions than answers. Myers is most often associated with studies of the paranormal, so why was Nabokov turning to him for a philosophy the self in time? What led Nabokov to turn to an obscure article from 1895 in the early 1950s?
These questions prompted me to investigate the relationship between Myers, his intellectual context and Nabokov’s autobiography. I discovered that the structure of Speak, Memory is motivated by a Myersian view of the human being. Apparently disparate elements of the text take on coherence when read through the lens of Myers’s preoccupations. Nabokov even embeds quotations from Myers’s work within his own prose.
Reading Speak, Memory this way throws a very different light on the place of Sigmund Freud in the text. Myers and Freud competed over the emerging terrain of the unconscious. Freud published one of his early articles in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. He did so to make clear that his concept of the unconscious differed from the ideas about layered selfhood Myers had been proposing. Knowing something of the dialogue between Myers and Freud reveals that parts of Speak, Memory that appear to have no relevance to Freud are in fact in dialogue with him while undermining the basis for his concept of the unconscious.
My essay offers evidence of the importance of Myers’s thought in Speak, Memory. It is an example of the way a puzzle in an archive can throw new light on the history of ideas. The hardening of disciplinary boundaries between psychoanalysis, studies of the paranormal, and the philosophy of time makes it unlikely anyone would turn to a Victorian journal on life after death to trace the history of the unconscious or the portrayal of time in a twentieth-century autobiography. Nabokov’s scribbled index card invites us to do so.
Read Sara-Louise Cooper's article "Contesting the Unconscious: Frederic W. Myers and Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited" in issue 39.4 of the Journal of Modern Literature, which is available now on JSTOR.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir. N.d. MS. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Microfilm.
---. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. 1967. Rev. ed. London: David Campbell, 1999. Print.