Vladimir Nabokov

VN and occult societies

By MARYROSS, 2 April, 2021

Does anyone have information on what VN refers to in Speak Memory when he writes:


'Short of suicide, I have tried everything. I have doffed my identity in order to pass for a conventional spook and steal into realms that existed before I was conceived. I have mentally endured the degrading company of Victorian lady novelists and retired colonels who remembered having, in former lives, been slave messengers on a Roman road or sages under the willows of Lhasa.'


It certainly sounds like John Shade's quest and the IPH.  A number of personages alluded to in PF were members of the SPR (Society for Psychical Research), the template for the IPH. Yet Nabokov seems vehement about never belonging to any organization, movement, etc. 

Alexey Sklyarenko

2 years 11 months ago

"Retired colonels who remembered having, in former lives, been slave messengers on a Roman road or sages under the willows of Lhasa" may hint at Lhasa and its Mysteries (1905) by Lieutenant Colonel Laurence Austine Waddell (1854-1938), a Scottish explorer, Professor of Tibetan, Professor of Chemistry and Pathology, Indian Army surgeon, collector in Tibet, and amateur archaeologist.


"It is curious that the Zemblan word for the weeping willow is also "if" (the yew is tas)" (Kinbote's note to Line 501)


2 years 11 months ago

It is interesting that this fellow was a retired 'Colonel' and wrote about Lhassa, but that in itself does not necessarily connect to Nabokov's intent of satirizing the types of people who go in for past-life seances.

However, I did a little research and found this:

Austine Waddell was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Medical Service, but was also the most renowned Tibetologist in the Empire. In the early part of his career he had been posted to Darjeeling, where he developed a strong interest in all things Tibetan: wildlife, plants, and especially its religion. He befriended many of the “Pundits” of the Great Game, including Sarat Chandra Das (1849– 1917), the model for Hurree Chunder Mookerjee of Kipling’s Kim. 32 In 1892, Kinthup, the Pundit who successfully trekked along the length of the Tsangpo River in order to discover the river’s source, joined him and together they set out to trek to Lhasa in disguise. 33 Waddell’s blue eyes soon meant that they were discovered; however his stock rose in both academic circles and local monasteries when rumour went about the bazaar of Darjeeling that he was an emanation of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, an association he used to gather information for his major work, The Buddhism of Tibet or Lamaism.


So, it does seem possible that VN was referring to him. The fact that he was an explorer would be of interest to VN, also.

This indicates Nabokov's strong interest in reincarnation, but not any personal association with seances or occult societies, which he seems to imply. I seem to recall reading somewhere that his mother attended seances (?) Also, he was clearly aware of some of the proceedings of the SPR, such as the story of Sally Beauchamp (alluded to in PF). 

Perhaps the past life as a Roman slave refers to some obscure Victorian lady novelist, too. Perhaps all his associations with the occult were only through literature.