Humbert, Nabokov and the Ego Ideal (2012)

Warren Holt

June 31, 2012

Humbert Humbert, Vladimir Nabokov’s tragic hero in Lolita, embodies a rich and slippery character study in hebephilia.  Humbert seems to be monomaniacally invested in his recollection and reenactment of his nearly-consummated love affair with Annabel, a pre-adolescent playmate from his tenth year.  At the beginning of the novel, Humbert reminisces on their passionate, surreptitious trysts before he loses Annabel to a sudden and untimely death from typhus in Corfu, and ponders how this idealized love object might have become forever embedded into his fantasy life.  His powerful involvement with these memories, he reflects, left him painfully yearning as an adult to realize his sexual fantasies by finding a new nymphet, his Lolita.

I leaf again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity?  When I try to analyze my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past.  I am convinced, however, that in a certain magic and fateful way Lolita began with Annabel (Nabokov, 1955, p.11).

          Here, Humbert asks himself, quite analytically, was his desperate yearning for a nymphet caused by a transformation of his psycho-sexual orientation resulting from his premature passion and early loss, or was this perverse yearning due to “an inherent singularity,” an irreversible psychic current which only first found its expression in his passion for Annabel?

If we explore Humbert’s narrative, what could be the cause of this “inherent singularity”?  In his brief descriptions of his early life, he recounts his mother’s sudden death, as she was struck and killed by lightning on a picnic when he was three.  Humbert being deprived of one’s mother at three, (let alone the shocking nature of the loss) would change the shape of his oedipal map, if not fully explode it, denying him a normal transition through the oedipal phase and towards the psychic and structural integrations that occur during adolescence and adulthood.   This loss would certainly stem the flow of fresh maternal introjects and hinder the identifying and integrative aspects of the subject’s maternal superego development.  Furthermore, the early loss of the maternal object would deprive young Humbert the nurturing and empathic support he could take from the foundation of the dyadic mother-child relationship to carry into the arena of his oedipal conflicts.  With no mother for whom to compete with his father, and thus the absence of the ensuing paternal struggle and impending castration threat, the subject would likely develop tendencies towards fantasies of infallibility or isolation.  At times he would retreat to a state similar to that of primary narcissism, seeking only maternal symbiosis to affirm his omnipotent fantasies.  Humbert seems to have developed an idealized self-image, in which he is immune to the laws of ordinary man, and secretly yearns to return to a fusion with an idealized maternal object, displaced upon this first, young, beautiful, desperately perfect reincarnation in Annabel.  What remains structurally, is an unchecked ego-ideal, unfettered by the prohibitions and humiliations of the integrated post-oedipal superego.

If we carefully look at how Humbert describes how his loss of Annabel as an open wound, it is striking how closely it resembles Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel’s language used to describe the tearing out of one’s primary narcissism in the development of an ego-ideal.  For Humbert, the loss of Annabel opens a vulnerable wound:

We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives.  I was a strong lad and survived; but the poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open, and soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve (Nabokov, p. 15)

In Chasseguet-Smirgel’s model, a wound is suffered through the loss of primary narcissism during the oedipal conflict, but is eventually healed through the restructuring process involved in the development of the ego ideal:

Our oedipal wishes are carried along by the search for our lost omnipotence.  I do not wish to minimize here the role of sexuality in oedipal wishes, I simply want to underline that, if ‘love is much more than love’, the wish to penetrate one’s mother also includes that of rediscovering the boundless and absolute, the perfection of an ego whose wound, left gaping by the tearing out of its narcissism, finds itself healed at last (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1984, p. 184).

While Humbert is consciously aware of the wound created by his love and loss of his dear Annabel and its role in his fantasy life, he gives short shrift to his relationship to his mother, mentioning her in just a few sentences in his bittersweet recollections of his early years.  “Save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory…” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 7).  Humbert claims to have no concrete memories of his mother, simply a “pocket of warmth.”  This feeling state of idealized comfort relates to the abstract haven of maternal fusion and lost omnipotence put forth in Chasseguet-Smirgel’s model of the ego ideal.

Perhaps the loss of Humbert’s mother was this mysterious “inherent singularity,” creating a void in his collapsing oedipal constellation whose gravity towed our subject away from his superegogic introjects and towards a sexualized ideal maternal substitute, whom he found in Annabel. “Besides, there is not an oedipal instinct, there is only a sexual instinct” (Chasseguet-Smirgel, p. 184).  And this instinct led young Humbert to find a new object with which to live in his kingdom of two.  His sexual exploration and tantalizing foreplay with Annabel stoked the fires of his fantasies of pre-oedipal omnipotence as well as his displaced oedipal wishes.  These wishes were energized by secret rendezvous in the umbrae of shaded gardens and during trysts at the noctilucent seashore in a seemingly endless summer, only to be once again taken away by Annabel’s sudden disappearance and the word of her death.  Being unconsummated, Humbert’s inflated sphere of these sexual fantasies was never punctured by the demystification of the real of the physical act, and retained its redoubtable gravity as a viable star around which to orbit after the collapse of his oedipal constellation.  Humbert’s wound remained gaping open as the overdetermined idealization of Annabel, his first nymphet, became the perversely displaced maternal object to be re-found, shielding him from his lost omnipotence and harboring his ego-ideal from the demands of his thwarted superego.

Hans Loewald’s model of the ego ideal sheds light on how Humbert longs to achieve an image of self-perfection in the fantasized present by re-finding his magical object:

This ideal ego represents a return to an original state of perfection, not to be reached in the future but phantasied in the present. This state of perfection of the ego—perhaps the ideal undifferentiated phase where neither id nor ego nor environment are differentiated from one another gradually becomes something to be wished and reached for: it becomes an ego-ideal, an ideal for the ego, seen, in a much more differentiated and elaborated form than previously, in parental figures. Perfection now is to be attained by participation in their perfection and omnipotence on the basis of an as yet incomplete distinction between inside and outside, between ego and parental object; it is magical participation. Here a future is envisaged for the ego, but not yet a future of the ego. The future state of the ego is to be attained by merging with the magical object (Loewald, 1962, p. 266).

Humbert holds Annabel as his magical object, his idealized eternal object of fantasy, which he uses to distinguish between ego and his parental objects, to compensate for his lack of early maternal involvement and to protect him from the law of the father.  As he holds this magical object, he fantasies his state of perfection in which he doesn’t need his parents’ support or prohibitions.  He avoids the humbling adolescent reconciliation of his ego-ideal and superego as well as the gradual atonement for his psychic parricide.  Without accepting these adolescent concessions, Humbert can not move towards a more mature sexuality in which he seeks an adult, rather than an adolescent, as an object of desire.  His defenses mount an unconscious denial of death, through his unwillingness to fully accept the loss of his mother and Annabel, which compels him to become intensely fixated on the pre-adolescent image, a phase of youth transitionally placed between his waning moments of primary narcissism in his early relationship with his mother and his premature thrust towards manhood induced by his involvement with Annabel.  This fixation thus functions as an illusion of the fountain of youth in defense against death which also involves a defensive repression of his fear of paternal castration.  Humbert’s mother’s early death derails his working-through of these oedipal fears, propelling  Humbert to unconsciously defend himself from castration by railing against patriarchal structures, which now represent the castration threats of the “law of the father” as well as the traumatic limitations of life itself.  With these mortal finitudes discovered at the height of his omnipotent strivings and involvement with heavily cathected identifications, Humbert finds himself without a chance to work through the oedipal castration situation before witnessing the crushing throes of the real, as he loses loved ones and is faced with the inevitability of death.

This unresolved castration threat gives new meaning to Humbert’s image of “the wound” as it relates to Humbert’s self-image of omnipotence shattered by the loss of Annabel.  This situation leaves Humbert desperate to recover this image from his early losses through repossessing the magic object of a pre-adolescent nymphet, which he finds in Lolita.  Through recovering his fantasy of omnipotence through finding another nymphet, Humbert can emerge as an oedipal victor, finally impugn to the cultural laws of the father and perhaps in an unconscious dimension, even over the limits of mortal life.

Thus Humbert roams his adult life as an inveterate hebephile, somewhat shameful, but not guilty, conscious of his proclivity and disdainful of culture’s prohibitions:

In my twenties and early thirties, I did not understand my throes quite so clearly.  While my body knew what it craved for, my mind rejected my body’s every plea.  One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimistic.  Taboos ashamed and strangulated me.  Psychoanalysts wooed me with pseudoliberations of pseudolibidoes.  The fact that to me the only objects of amorous tremor were sisters of Annabel’s, her handmaids and girl-pages, appeared to me at times as a forerunner of insanity (Nabokov, 1955, p. 16).

          It is interesting to note how Humbert expresses his disdain for psychoanalysis in this passage.  It seems very much in relation to his self-idealizing tendencies and his disavowal of paternal and cultural prohibitions.  He seems to feel that his orientation is of a somatic nature, inaccessible to any analysis of his libido.  From a psychoanalytic point of view, I would suspect that his case would involve gaining a greater understanding of his perversions, rather than finding means to liberate his libido, which seems to be quite liberated.

In the afterword to Lolita, Nabokov takes his own jab at psychoanalysis, which fittingly closely resembles Humbert’s dismissive voice:

Although everybody should know that I detest symbols and allegories (which is due partly to my old feud with Freudian voodooism and partly to my loathing of generalizations devised by literary mythists and sociologists)…(Nabokov, 1956, p. 295).

Nabokov’s disdain for Freud and the practice of psychoanalysis is well documented, and in his late work, Strong Opinions, he explicitly states his contempt:

Freudism and all it has tainted with its grotesque implications and methods appears to me to be one of the vilest deceits practiced by people on themselves and on others.  I reject it utterly, along with a few other medieval items still adored by the ignorant, the conventional, or the very sick (Nabokov, 1973, p. 23-24).

He methodically attacks against what he considered to be the pseudo-scientific hermeneutics of psychoanalysis, upholding the artist as a superior being, a genius existing beyond the ethical, scientific or cultural laws which bind mere mortals (Couturier, 2004, p. 1).  This is remarkable especially because of how the overdetermined imagery, the insightful character studies and the complex, layered structures in his novels display such psychological insight and illustrative character.  Nabokov’s offensive against psychoanalysis seems to be rooted in a defensive backlash to protect the aura of language, his sacrosanct artistic realm, from the encroachment of interpretation, which he dismisses as trite reductionism.

It is interesting how Humbert becomes a mouthpiece for Nabokov’s diatribes against Freud’s theories, while at the same time baiting the unsuspecting reader (such as our dear Mr. Holt) into a psychoanalytic reading of our poor Humbert.  Just as Humbert haughtily defends his idealizing hebephilic fantasy space which he has carved, safe from the laws of culture, Nabokov defends his idealized literary realm, his wonderful language with its personal and intricate qualities, from the reins of interpretation, and from the threats born of Freud’s analytic models of the mind.  Humbert sees himself as the sophisticated European academic marooned in the land of the American philistines, just as Nabokov holds himself as the transcendent artist living out of his time in the age of Freudian symbolic reductionism.  What a threat, what a castration it would seem, to render Nabokov’s brilliant imaginations and luminous prose as contained allegorical structures of concrete meaning.  Just as Humbert harbors his idealized narcissistic omnipotence in his immortal fantasy of his pre-adolescent love, Nabokov fortifies his fantasies involving the boundlessness of his imagination with the conviction that his transcendent synesthetic genius is beyond comprehension.  He disavows the possibility of any metaphors being developed into models that can be used to explain the complex subjectivity of his creative experience.  Thus Humbert is both the author’s stand-in and the parodic psychoanalytic bait in Nabokov’s rejection of any patriarchal claim to comprehension and thus psychoanalytic molestation of his genius.

But why does Nabokov target Freud as such a threat to his visionary universe?  With his psychoanalytic sophistication evident is his character study in Lolita (let alone Pale Fire or Ada), how could he write off Freud’s insights as mere symbolic reductionism?  In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud downplays his discussion of symbolism in typical dreams in favor of his development of a complex method in which, the analysis of the overdetermined threads of latent, symbolic content in the dream work, weaves a skein of conscious associations which can be partially untangled, resulting in insights into the ambivalent wishes of the unconscious (Freud, 1900, p. 274-307).  Was Nabokov aware of the complexity of Freud’s models, or did he really subscribe to the stereotypical belief that they were simply about sex and stock symbolic meanings?  Further, in his judgment of Freud, was Nabokov unaware of Freud’s acknowledgment of his inspiration drawn from the arts?  Freud frequently cites the subtle insights about human nature contained in literature, while never reducing the authors’ musings simply to manifestations of his theories.  I seldom read an early Freud piece without expecting an oracular Goethe quote in which he draws upon the poet’s verse to corroborate his observations.

There are quite a few interesting parallels between Freud and Nabokov which go beyond each as having established themselves as imposing personas of Modernism. Neither Freud nor Nabokov had an ear or an appreciation for music.  Each made major discoveries outside of the fields in which they were primarily known.  Freud was one of the first people to conduct extensive experiments to study the antiseptic and analgesic properties of cocaine.  Despite his paper 1884, “On Coca”, which advocated the medicinal uses of the drug, he did not follow through with promoting the findings of his experiments with enough persistence to become widely acknowledged. When his colleague, Carl Koller, became famous promoting cocaine’s medicinal efficacy, Freud felt like he had missed an opportunity at fame and had been undermined by his associate (Gay, 1988 p. 42-3).  Similarly, Nabokov discovered and named several new species of butterflies as a young man.  He even formulated a model of their migration to North America which, while largely overlooked during his lifetime, has recently been confirmed to be accurate by contemporary entomologists (Zimmer, 2011, p. 1).  Both Freud and Nabokov immigrated to England, with Nabokov fleeing the Bolsheviks during the Russian revolution and Freud escaping from the Nazi occupation in Vienna.

While these similarities may well be of an arbitrary nature, they establish a context for which a young Nabokov, 33 years Freud’s junior, could identify with and then distinguish himself from the older writer.  Between the two, there seems to be a shared ambition and relentless application of creative energy towards transcending the ideological limits of the previous generation.  Freud sought to construct models to explain the mind while undermining the repressed cultural life of the Viennese bourgeois.  Nabokov sought to develop complex, layered, works of prose which would explode any models of the mind that could lay claim to explaining the ineffability of the psychic experience.  Both writers developed metaphors masterfully, only to different ends.  Freud’s metaphors often serve as maps to help visualize and structure his insights about the on goings of the human mind.  Nabokov’s metaphors weave intimate relations between images emphasizing the fleeting nature of perceptive experience and the mysterious texture of time.  To some extent, Freud embodies the outlook of early Modernism with his emphasis toward defining a new structuralism such as his contemporaries, Einstein (general relativity, the quantum theory of light), Schoenberg (twelve-tone technique) and Picasso (Cubism); while Nabokov embodies late Modernism in its emphasis on the dissolution of structure and the primacy of the subjectivity of the artist’s vision, similarly reflected in Heisenberg ( the uncertainty principle), Stravinsky (The Firebird) and  Motherwell (Abstract Expressionism).

Nabokov is certainly involved in the general current of this late-Modernist cultural parricide, but seems to take special interest in defrauding Freud.  The focus and intensity of Nabokov’s disavowal of Freud’s insights, seems to indicate that he is denouncing his paternal identifications with his elder, while reveling in the omnipotent fantasies that spring from his grandiose ego-ideal.  Like Humbert, Nabokov seeks to dismantle his paternal introjects along with their constraints and prohibitions because they threaten his idealized fantasy space.  In this realm of narcissistic fusion, the artist can bask in his own genius and live unmolested by the laws and limitations of ordinary mortals.  To some extent, Humbert’s disavowal of the cultural prohibitions of hebephilia (and murder), represent Nabokov’s own dismissal of any limits that could be placed on the expanse of his artistic vision.  Humbert and Nabokov’s voices overlap in their common resentment of Freud and the models of the mind that he presents.

But might we ask, is this not a bit of a stretch, to say that Humbert’s Lolita complex was brought on the death of his mother, the ensuing demolition of his oedipal complex, and his retreat to the omnipotence of his unchecked ego ideal?  And further, that Humbert’s voice railing against the superstitions of psychoanalysis is one and the same with Nabokov’s, as he defends his artistic realm from his paternal identifications with Freud and the analytic models of his early Modernist worldview?  Let us take a look at the author of this piece and explore his approach to what was supposed to be a brief analytic character study.  It surely seems that Mr. Holt is comfortable in analyzing Humbert psychoanalytically.  He seems to be more casual than I imagine he really should be, letting his analytic ramblings wander well beyond the appropriate scope of such a short paper.  His analysis of Nabokov’s “rich and slippery character study in hebephilia” (Holt, p. 1) was really derived from underdeveloped reflections and interpretations of hastily-chosen quotations after a cursory re-reading of the novel.  Is he aware of the available literature that exhaustively dissects and analyzes Lolita, let alone the seemingly countless papers discussing Nabokov’s stance towards (and against) psychoanalysis?

Can he understand the involvement of his own ego ideal in his mess of writing such a piece?  Forgive my prenuptial autopsy, but I feel Warren is placing Freud and Nabokov in a father-son oedipal matrix in an attempt to integrate his own ego ideal introjections.  He is intellectually reconciling two of his pet lionized influences in order to integrate the universe of his own creative identifications with his superego structures.  By involving these characters in his writing, does Mr. Holt really think he is integrating Freud’s analytic acumen and Nabokov’s layered narrative structures into his own burgeoning scholarly persona?

Not only does he take the bait as far as writing a psychoanalytic study of Humbert, who Nabokov most likely conceived of as a parody of a Freudian case study of perversion, but his folly extends to scouring the biographies of Freud and Nabokov in an effort to account for their dissonance as a result of an oedipal conflict.  Surely, Nabokov would laugh and Freud would scowl at such a stilted conjecture.  However, when not overshadowed by the overreaches of his ambitions, Mr. Holt’s involvement of the ego-ideal in Humbert’s developmental course perhaps offers some insight into the integrative processes in adolescence (and even post-adolescence).  The early loss of Humbert’s mother and the subsequent dissolution of the oedipal structure could have led him to develop an unchecked ego-ideal which drove him to seek the perverse, magical object which would allow him, through fantasy, to reclaim his original omnipotent state of perfection and protect him from his unresolved castration fears.  And regardless of Nabokov’s probable intentions to parody Freud and his theories of perversion and psychosexual development in Lolita, Nabokov brings life to Humbert through his psychologically rich and reflexive prose which seems to transcend the theoretical and structural concepts in mind as he creates this highly personalized character.  And I’m beginning to see this life in the prose, and it’s good that somehow, Warren understands.

Whaler Torn

July 1, 2012



Chasseguet-Smirgel. (1984). The Ego Ideal: A Psychoanalytic Essay on the Malady of the Ideal.

Couturier, Maurice. (2004)  “Nabokov or the Cruelty of Desire:  A Psychoanalytic Reading (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, c2004)

Freud, Sigmund. (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams.  New York: Avon Books.

Gay, Peter. (1988). Freud, A Life for our Time. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY

Holt, Warren. (2012). “Untitled (Humbert, Nabokov and Freud)”. Unpublished.  Submitted electronically.

Loewald, Hans. (1962). “The Superego and the Ego-Ideal”, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43:264-268

Nabokov, Vladimir. (1955). Lolita. From Novels 1955-1962. (1996). Literary Classics of the United Sates, Inc., New York, NY.

Nabokov, V. (1956). Afterword.  From Novels 1955-1962. (1996). Literary Classics of the United Sates, Inc., New York, NY.

Nabokov, V. (1973). Strong Opinions. New York: Vintage International.

Zimmer, Carl. (2011) “Nonfiction: Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution Is Vindicated”. New York Times.