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Photograph of Vladimir Nabokov's face

Nabokov’s Experience Suggests That Dreams Really Do Herald the Future…


For three months in 1964, Vladimir Nabokov researched the relationship between his dreams and his daily experiences.

Since ancient times, dreams have been cloaked with the impression of enigma. Even today, we dream, and the images presented are capable of surprising and confounding us. For this very reason, they lead us to ask about their meanings, both immediate and ulterior.

At various moments over the course of history, dreams have been considered messages from the gods, according to the ancients, or from the interiors of the human being, according to the modern mentality, but they’re also messages from time itself.

As we know, many philosophers, theologians, writers and thinkers, along with plenty of ordinary people, have believed that dreams are capable of revealing some future event, even if only symbolically. The dreams of the Pharaoh and of Daniel in the Hebrew tradition are perhaps one of the best-known examples of the prophetic value of dreams. In a time closer to our own, we might cite J. W. Dunne’s defense of this quality of dreams in his book An Experiment with Time (so admired by Borges, James Joyce, TS Eliot, and Aldous Huxley among others), and in which we read that dreaming is a way to be involved in other dimensions of time.

In 1964, Vladimir Nabokov dedicated three months to an investigation of the veracity of this theory. Every morning, disciplined and detailed, Nabokov’s notebook received all of the dreams to have survived his awakening. In the days that followed, he’d return to the notebook, review his notes and try to find some connection between his daily experiences and what had been presented to him when he was sleeping. Thus, he attempted to prove the premonitory quality of each dream.

In the results he recorded, Nabokov never reached any reliable conclusion about the relationship between his dreams and the future events of his life. But according to some editors and scholars, the exercise contributed significantly to the sharpening of his ability to remember. This would later provide the basis for some of his stories and novels from that time (and, of course, for his autobiography Speak, Memory). On the other hand, it seems that his sustained contact with the language of dreams also liberated his creativity, prompting him to play more with the temporal and special logic of a narrative (as can be seen in Ada or Ardor, published in 1965).

This episode in Nabokov’s life shows that perhaps dreams don’t so much “announce” the future as we might expect. That’s to say, dreams don’t show us exactly what’s going to happen in our lives in the days to come. But if we look more closely, we might think that somehow they’re capable of configuring that future. Nabokov attended to his dreams and, indirectly, acquired the skills which allowed him to perform certain works in the future.

Perhaps, like everything related to dreams, their value is at such a point that we can’t quite see, but which influences our lives just the same.

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