The Birth of the Creative Consciousness: Childhood Spaces, Memory, and Psychoanalytic Play in the Memoirs of Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf

By Salman R. Patwary
2018, Vol. 10 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

Both Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf detail memories of having intense shocks into consciousness during their early childhoods, where they are suddenly aware that they are beings alive, in a reality governed by temporality and humanistic revelations. It appears particularly for Woolf that these openings or births of consciousness are also the birth of her own personal philosophy.

I argue that the impression of this opening of consciousness for both Nabokov and Woolf, the moment that they realized they were sentient, alive, temporal beings in reality, represented a new birth, into a new creative cosmos, a birth into the realities that are available to everyone, but also others that are more hidden and subtle – the realities of the artist. Essentially, my argument is for this opening to happen to them in childhood left a deep impression, a branding and etching that allowed them to evolve into the artists that they became. Lastly, I argue that this opening of consciousness during their childhoods represents a form of early psychoanalytic play and Freudian wish fulfillment, where their consciousness’s are seeking to be released – free – to be in existence, and shape the minds and philosophies of the holders of this playful consciousness, with the pressing desire for them to enter into the creative cosmos. I use the memoirs of Nabokov and Woolf, Speak Memory and Moments of Being, to establish my arguments, and then examine their psychoanalytical importance using the works of Sigmund Freud and his disciple, D.W. Winnicott.

The moment the young Nabokov understood himself to be a being conscious and in a temporal reality, was when he was a child of four asking his parents how old they were. He looks deeply into his childhood and recalls the memory:

In probing my childhood (which is the next best thing to probing one’s eternity) I see the awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed, affording memory a slippery hold. …but the inner knowledge that I was I and that my parents were my parents seems to have been established only later, when it was directly associated with my discovering their age in relation to mine. (Nabokov 21)

Through Nabokov’s “probing” of his childhood memories we can gather a few things. One is we see that Nabokov’s awakening of consciousness occurred during his childhood, which we then understand the importance of this awakening it had on him in three affects, as a being in his present, then as a child in his past, and specifically, as an artist in his future – which became the bedrock of his understanding of himself in all of these capacities. And then the nature of this childhood reflection and the seeking of consciousness is described, in Nabokov’s words, as “probing,” which the OED illustrates as having the Latin root proba, meaning an examination or testing, which implies that Nabokov’s reflection was arduous, suggestive of a scientific method, and, undoubtedly - deeply inquisitive into the nature of his memories and how it has shaped his consciousness. In other words, not only was he was a close acquaintance of his own mind, but he laid consciousness on the operating table and conducting surgery to extract the memory of his awakening.

Then we see the nature of the awakening of consciousness, in Nabokov’s eyes, as a “series of spaced flashes with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed” (Nabokov 21). This gives us a look into the nature of the memory of awakening and we see that it is something both concrete and abstract. A flash is jolting, like thunder or lighting, springing us into existence. But the flash is also “spaced” which implies that the nature of flashes is that they are on a continuous flashing, or vibration - it is moving, something that is always present with us, yet at the same time, outside our mental and temporal grasp. Then Nabokov describes the distance between these “flash(es)” or vibrations as dissipating until the complete memory is formed, and then it is “bright” or illuminating, showing us that the awakening itself is the moment the flash of penetrating life is piercing through to us, making us aware that we are living, we are here, and we are now - in time and existence.

But we need to get into the temporal nature and relationship between himself and his parents. He describes the moment here:

Thus, when the newly disclosed, fresh and trim formula of my own age, four, was confronted with the paternal formulas, thirty-three and twenty-seven, something happened to me. I was given a tremendously invigorating shock. As if subjected to a second baptism…I felt myself plunged into a radiant and mobile medium that was none other than the pure element of time. (Nabokov 21)

We see and feel here through Nabokov’s words on his awakening that it was not only a luminous flash but a thunderous “invigorating shock,” giving it shape, form and physicality, leaving an ineffaceable impression on the child Nabokov. Then he goes deeper into his impression that it represents a “second baptism.” This entails, first, that the awakening of consciousness was Nabokov’s “birth of sentient life,” (Nabokov 22), and - second, my argument, is that this is also the birth of the artist. I will maintain this further after I examine Virginia Woolf’s awakening of consciousness during her time as a child at St. Ives.

Woolf intimately details the memory of when she was a small child and having her ecstatic awakening into consciousness:

It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive. (Woolf 65)

Woolf’s memory begins, as Nabokov’s, during early childhood, and, even more so for Woolf, as she may have been even younger than Nabokov. Nabokov was four when Time shrouded him in its cloak, and opened him to his own consciousness. Woolf was in a nursery, which indicates that she may have been an infant in the cradle when her awakening occurred. This is to show that awakenings occur as early as infancy, that these shocks leave the most indelible impressions and are the foundational elements of birthing the artist.

Another point of inquiry is that Wolf is in a state “half asleep, half awake, in bed” (Woolf 64). This impresses on us the matrix and fertile ground for the awakening to occur. Unlike Nabokov, who said to have been awake, walking with his parents in hand, and the revelation of their respective ages in relation to his own birthed his opening, Woolf was in a transitory state between dreaming and wakefulness. I maintain that Woolf was in between worlds, the waking world, and the unconscious dream world, and this space is the breeding ground of human and artistic revelation. Here Woolf is free to revel in her own being, which gives her the “purest ecstasy” (Woolf 65).

In this memory, we also see the birthings of Woolf’s artistic sensibilities. She hears the “waves breaking, one two, one, two…behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw…as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling” (Woolf 65). Even as an infant, she is keenly aware of the sonority of the waves, the “one, two” rhythms they make, an indication of her flourishing poetic sensibility. And then she sees the “light,” ephemeral to adults, and, I argue, divine in the early minds of infants. The light completes her memory and along with the sonorous waves, leads her into the ultimate ecstasy.

Finally, she feels “ecstasy,” and not only an ecstasy, the “purest ecstasy.” Now, what is ecstasy, and what is the purest ecstasy? Is it the realization that the sea makes murmurs, that is has a beat, a poetic cadence that is so impressing that even an infant, let alone the infant Virginia Woolf, hears its soft cry? And then the light. The light that pierces her in the cradle while she is in between states of being - alive and awake; dead and dreaming. It comes to her divined, combining the sounds of a soft sea and the light that pierces, awakens - giving birth - the birth of inspiration. The purity of this birth and ecstasy is that it is perceived by her, the infant, without yet established or affected personage, without societal failings, and without the traumas of losing her mother and sister. And then, it is tune with nature; the sanctity of the sea and the ephemeral light, things that are primordial to the earth, things that are of beginnings and divination, witnessing and overtaking – shocking the infant Virginia Woolf. It is her initial rite. Her entering into the creative cosmos. It is the birth of the artist.

What this awakening of consciousness and birth into the creative cosmos culminates in Woolf is the philosophy of the artist. Her shocks creating her creative psyche culminate into this tentative declaration:

From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly, and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock. (Woolf 72)

The cotton wool is the life that illusions us on the surface. But behind that is where we see the true flourishing of life is contained. It is the artist that is able to remove this cotton veil and see the reality under the illusion. And what they see is the art. The interconnectedness of us human beings - that people the canvas, the pieces that assemble to make the mosaic of human endeavors; struggle, desires, emotions, and failures. When the shock occurs, its thunder strips away the cotton veil and allows to us bear our eyes to the true art of life within. This is what she sees, this philosophy persists itself in Virginia Woolf. On what these shocks means for her as a writer, she says; “And so I go on to suppose that the shock receiving capacity is what makes me a writer” (Woolf 72). Now we see it, her reasoning behind how she became the artist she became. It was the ability to receive these bombardments of realizations, these continuous awakenings of consciousness, that allowed her to pierce through the cotton veil, in the spirit of inspiration, and, my view, not outside the realm of divine intervention, that allowed her to enter and revel into the collective human fresco, and enter into the creative cosmos.

So, we see that both Nabokov and Woolf have experienced what they both call “shocks.” It’s interesting that they both ascribe the awakening of consciousness in this way - a shock – as there are other equally astute qualifiers to this experience. James Joyce described these moments as “epiphanies” (Burgess, Brooklyn College). Point being that shocks, epiphanies, awakenings, and, an Islamic concept I am experientially aware of – openings - or compounded bursts of understanding and wisdom, all lead and have come to be understood as the opening into human consciousness, and more so, for Woolf and Nabokov, the entering into the creative cosmos.

Now the creative cosmos itself, if akin to anything, is I believe and I argue, the plane or realm that is the artist’s abode and domain. It is an idea I received as an inkling of a conception that represented my own shock to write this paper when I read the quote in the epigram above of in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory; “How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!” (Nabokov 21). Nabokov has the understanding and the faith to make the claim that human consciousness is much vaster than our collective outer cosmos, much more in the realm of the infinite – in scope of possibility and resonance of existence. And then to express that infinite in words, the words being the facilitator of expressing the inexpressible infinite, in any of the infinite ways that expression allows us to express.

Ezra Pound in his ABC of Reading describes great literature as, “simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree” (Pound 28). Interesting things to note in Pound’s claim are the words “charged” and “utmost.” A charge is in the same linguistic frame as a “shock,” which leads me to argue that Ezra Pound would have agreed with Nabokov’s and Woolf’s understanding that their awakening and entering into the creative cosmos were expressed aptly as shocks. Now the expression “utmost” is where the artist, the creative writer, can form and fashion the most precise means of expressing what was found hidden in the creative cosmos, which is what Woolf found, underneath the “cotton wool,” the “pattern,” the “work of art.” What lies in the creative cosmos is the means to which to give life to the concrete lived in cosmos – our shared reality, and perceive the patterns, the intricate spiders web, that connect each life to another, epochs to each other, predecessors and posterity – each in exchange with one another and contributing to the collective human program to find meaning in what we call our lives.

Now, how this awakening into the creative consciousness is traced back into highly charged childhood memories of both Nabokov and Woolf, and what and how the psychoanalytic implications of these memories play a part - if not engender the opening, will be discussed for the remaining of this essay. I’ll be using the theoretical lenses of Sigmund Freud and that of his disciple, Donald W. Winnicott.

In the opening passages of Freud’s Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming, he asks us; “should we not look for the first traces of imaginative activity as early as in childhood?” (Freud 421). Freud continues with his analysis that “every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him” (Freud 421). Through Freud’s analysis of childhood play, he argues that the creative writer is born from this seriousness of imaginative play that occurs among children. That the intensity and depth of emotion that is invested in the childhood play is summoned again in the adult creative play of the creative writer.

Freud also speaks of the wish fulfillment that is the source of the creative writer’s embarking on creative explorations:

The relation of a phantasy to time is in general very important. We may say that it hovers, as it were, between three times – the three moments of time which our ideation involves. Mental work is linked to some current impression, some provoking occasion in the present which has been able to arouse one of the subject’s major wishes. From there it harks back to a memory of an earlier experience (usually an infantile one) in which this wish was fulfilled; and it now creates a situation relating to the future which represents a fulfillment of the wish. What it thus creates is a day dream or phantasy, which carries about it traces of its origin from the occasion which provoked it and from the memory. (Freud 424)

Here Freud enumerates on the temporal relationship between a wish that needed, or, at least, wanted to be fulfilled as a child, and then the final completion of that wish fulfillment as an adult. The wishes of childhood are the first drives, the first wants, needs and desires that the child cannot fulfill themselves in their current childhood age, but can do so when they grow into adulthood, when individual agency is finally established.

And then, how this relates to the shocks into consciousness of Nabokov and Woolf, are that these shocks, I argue, are the manifestation of their own consciousness’s wishing to break into existence. It is in an innermost wish – subconscious, where the consciousness’s of Nabokov and Woolf wish to break free and come into the realm of the outer, the seen – wishing to come into being and understanding – from inside their inner mind realms that contain this latent, freedom-seeking consciousness. Now, onto the understanding of Winnicott’s position and theory on the importance of childhood play.

In Winnicott’s Playing and Reality, he quotes fellow analyst Marion Milner who heartens the importance of the creative writer and consciousness:

Moments when the original poet in each of us created the outside world for us, by finding the familiar in the unfamiliar, are perhaps forgotten by most people; or else they are guarded in some secret place of memory because they were too much like visitations of the gods to be mixed with everyday thinking (Milner, 1957). (Winnicott 52)

Winnicott expresses Milner’s ideas that the “original poet” is within all of us, scratching away at the cotton wool, at the behest of the wishing consciousness, to be free – and she argues, in the spirit of divination, as “visitations from the gods.” Milner’s theory in this passage is a lyric to the lyrical nature of consciousness, wishing to be free in rich lyrical profusion. Winnicott and Milner argue that the shocks are the awakening of consciousness, and beyond that, the entering into the creative cosmos occurs to all of us. But perhaps not all of us are aware of the occurrence of this opening working from our inner consciousness breaking into our outer perceptions. But is the artist, that is able to enter completely into the shock, who’s terrain are the landscapes of intense and impressing memory and the subconscious. It is the artist that can perceive with the most intensity the voltages of the shocks and allow themselves to be enshrouded in that enlightening lightning. Essentially, we are all the “original poet” which should give us hope to enter into the realm of the creative cosmos. But only when we have allowed ourselves to be jolted with the lighting of the shock, to remain in that realm, and bathe in that ephemeral reverie, will we then awaken our freedom wishing consciousness and enter into the creative cosmos.

To continue on Winnicott, he states his essential thoughts on the nature of play; “The essential feature of my communication is this, that playing is an experience, always a creative experience, and it is an experience in the space-time continuum, a basic form of living” (Winnicott 67). Winnicott condenses, and, in a very Poundian sense, charges his meanings on childhood play with these precise declarations. In terms of what this means for the shocks, the shocks, I maintain, can essentially be forms of psychoanalytic play where the consciousness’s of both Nabokov and Woolf are not only wishing to break free into existence, but to then play in the childhood minds of them both. The shock itself is a form of play. Now on to view the childhood moments of Nabokov and Woolf where their wishing consciousness seeks freedom – freedom to be understood, freedom to have its gravity felt, and finally, freedom to play.

Let us take a look at the exact moment the young Nabokov became aware of his opening of consciousness:

At that instant, I became acutely aware that the twenty-seven-year-old being, in soft white and pink, holding my left hand, was my mother, and that the thirty-three-year-old being, in hard white and gold, holding my right hand, was my father. Between them, as they evenly progressed, I strutted, and trotted, and strutted again, from sun fleck to sun fleck, along the middle of the path, which I easily identify today with an alley of ornamental oaklings in the park of our country estate, Vrya, in the former Province of St. Petersburg, Russia. Indeed, from my present ridge of remote, isolated, almost uninhabited time, I see my diminutive self as celebrating, on that August day 1903, the birth of sentient life. (Nabokov 22)

Things to take and analyze from this awakening are the ages of Nabokov and his parents, the colors they wore, the light of the sun flecks, the middle of the path, and finally, the celebration of the birth of sentient life. What I argue is happening here is that the latent consciousness of young Nabokov is playing and fulfilling its wish to be set free and be understood by Nabokov. His young consciousness is aware of the ephemeral sun flecks that surround him, the pink and white, and the gold and white clothing of his parents, and their ages, as well, in relation to his own, and his body struts in the middle between his parents, meaning that his consciousness is in a rich nurturing environment – in equilibrium. Because of this equilibrium, Nabokov’s young consciousness is perceiving all of these sensory and temporal phenomena, which is the state of his early consciousness playing, and the product of this play is the wish fulfillment – to be wakened, to be understood, and to be able to gather sense about the conscious and awake reality.

Turning to Woolf, we can see traces of her latent consciousness breaking from its dormant reality into what becomes the shock. She uncovers a memory of one of her shocks about a flower in the garden at St. Ives that allows her to enter into the realm of the enlightened consciousness, and, ultimately, into the creative cosmos.

The second instance was also in the garden at St. Ives. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later. (Woolf 71)

The young Virginia Woolf may not have completely understood the enormous implications of this shock at the time this shock occurred, but she was aware that this shock had value, in ways of her being a human in relation to the earth, which will form one of the many bases of the artist that she becomes. Woolf looks at a flower here, and the shock is when she realizes that the flower is a part of the earth. That this beatific form with its petals is not a lone solitary phantom, but it is attached to the earth, its roots dig into the soil of the world. My argument is that Woolf is the flower, the colored and ephemeral and beatific and divine form – who is not an independent embodiment of all things beautiful, but is a part of the fertile soil of the earth, a part of the larger conscious world, in an intimate divinized connected dance bridging these two realities, petal to the flower; flower to the earth; and then, the young Virginia Woolf to the flower; Woolf to the earth; and ultimately, her awakening of consciousness into the realm of the seen and conscious earth.

After she has this memory of her shock, she says, “It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later (Woolf 71). Here Woolf’s consciousness is at full operations of play and wish fulfillment seeking. Woolf is a young girl in the garden at St. Ives, and she is looking at a flower. Now, her consciousness is playing, beckoning her to realize that the flower is a part of the earth, a part of the pattern of the larger, interconnected, collective consciousness. The play of her consciousness is making her understand that she is a part of the larger consciousness of the universe, and her consciousness’s wish is not only for her consciousness to be understood - by her, but also to awake and shock Woolf into all that she is capable of, all the wisdom and discernment into the human nature that she unearths in her art. Her consciousness’ play and wish fulfillment is shocking her into the creative cosmos.

To all this end, the childhood shocks of Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf are, in essence, the wish of their own consciousness – to be free, alive, and allow them both to pierce the cotton veil that has us in an illusion to the interplays of the collective human endeavor. The shocks are not only the play of their consciousness, but are its wishes manifesting itself in the form of a shock; an indelible, enlightening, freeing experience. To that end, not only are the cunning of their consciousness opening them to the vast, hidden realities that lay behind the surface illusion of our shared reality, but bring both Nabokov and Woolf to the deeper innermost and hidden shared realities, allowing them the wisdom to listen to the collective human symphony. For Woolf, especially, this impression holds deep personal importance, as the shocks take her to the philosophy that humans are the work of art themselves. And finally, the wishes of their consciousness’s and it’s shocking awakening, not only culminates into the birth of a personal philosophy, but gives birth to the artist, and allows them to enter into that unknown, yet shared realm of the creative cosmos.


"Probing, n."OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, Accessed 7 December 2017.

Freud, Sigmund. "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming."The Standard Edition of the Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited and trans. by James Strachey. The Hogarth Press, 1994.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. Penguin, 2000.

Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New Directions, 2010.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. Routledge Classics, 2005.

Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being. Edited by Jeanne Schulkind. 2nd ed., Harcourt, 1985.

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