Guest Post — Of Time, Terra, and Narnia: The Forgotten Ideas Behind C.S. Lewis and Vladimir Nabokov (Chris Calderon)

Of Time, Terra, and Narnia: The Forgotten Ideas Behind C.S. Lewis and Vladimir Nabokov

By Chris Calderon

Popular culture is often unkind. Once you reach its level, you soon discover all that counts is how well a complex subject can fit into this or that pigeonhole. In that sense a good working definition of pop culture is a place to put things so that you can forget them because its better that way, safer. Even beloved literary icons aren’t immune to this problem. C.S. Lewis’s reputation has become like that. He’s a name on the tip of the tongue who wrote a few kiddie books a while back and was something of a fundamentalist; that is all. The same thing happened to Vladimir Nabokov. All anyone can remember him for was writing a perverted book, and for some reason Stan Kubrick thought it would make a good film. Then there’s Jo Rowling, just another welfare queen who got lucky with another set of kiddie lit; “Life is very long”. That’s about as far a popular understanding can go, and it never deals with any of these subjects at all.

It can’t help readers understand that, thanks to the efforts of critics like Michael Ward, we now know that Lewis was a closet Berkeleyan Idealist, and that the good Bishop was perhaps his second “Other Master” after George Macdonald. Nor that few except a handful of close readers where able to say the same about the author Lolita. The thought and writings of George Berkeley form one of the most interesting thematic links between two writers who are never considered in the same aesthetic space together. There’s a story to be told about that link, and it has to do with a solitary dreamer. His name was John William “J.W.” Dunne, and he’s almost like a figure in a story, even if he was real.

Dunne was an aeronautics engineer. He was the very model of a modern day respectable. It would almost be true to say he represented the ideal picture of the norm for modernist Britain. Then somehow the table was upended. Dunne may have lost the respect of his neighbors and cohorts, though it remains for you to decide just what he gained in the end. Respectability came to an end for Dunne with a series of peculiar dreams. The first involved a stopped watch that didn’t malfunction until at least a day after Dunne dreamed that it did. The second was more dire. In his sleep, Dunne saw himself standing on an unstable strip of ground that was beginning to crack. Light was emerging from those tears in the earth, and he knew to go near any of it meant incineration. He could make nothing of this dream until the eruption of Mt. Pelee became the Pompei of the 20th century.

The same experience kept repeating itself. Dunne would see an event in his sleep, and later that event would sometimes repeat itself in real life. JWD was not a mystic. By training he had a degree in physics, and liked to keep track of the work of scientists like Einstein and Arthur Eddington. In addition, while he was practical, it was this same critical thinking streak that, paradoxically, made him an intellectually convinced Anglican. What he had on his hands amounted to little else except a repeating phenomenon with no other word to describe it except miraculous. Dunne was the sort of methodical thinker who couldn’t leave it at that, however. Like Lewis, he devoted a meticulous study to the subject as it occurred, and brought all his scientific acumen to bear on it. The result was An Experiment with Time, a text with an influence on both VVN and CSL.

The Explorations of Lewis and Dunne.

A good way to describe Dunne’s theory is to look a Time as a layered concept. We, as humans, live on one layer or strip of Time. However, Dunne posited that there is a second, Higher Level of Time, in which things operate in a different, yet fundamentally related way to how we live or are forced to conduct our lives on Level 1. This 2nd Level, Dunne concluded, must by its very nature, be described as Transcendent, or put another way, as a Supernature. One that controls the real functions of Nature. It is this core concept that is at the heart of the Experiment.

Once the reader is able to make it past pages upon leaf of diagrams and mathematical formula, the basic conclusion Dunne reaches is that his dreams are verifiable proofs of the existence of both the Divine and afterlife, what Nabokov sometimes referred to as the Otherworld. The terms Dunne uses to describe his conclusions are interesting for the both the ontological and verbal similarities they share with Lewis’s apologetics. What follows is a selection of quotations from Dunne’s book (italics mine). “Idealist and Realist may dispute hotly as to precisely how far the observer colours, so to say, the phenomenon which he observes; but decisions so arrived at in that respect need not suggest that he has any power of changing either the colouring he confers on the thing perceived as thus coloured – much less the ability to continue observing when there is no longer any brain activity to be observed (12)”.

An even more telling passage, I believe, comes near the very end, where Dunne talks about, as he puts it, the Ultimate Observer (italics are, once again, mine for emphasis). “It discloses the existence of a superlative general observer, the fount of all that consciousness, intention, and intervention which underlies mere mechanical thinking, who contains within himself a less generalized observer who is the personification of all genealogically related life and who is capable of human-like thinking and prevision of a kind quite beyond our individual capabilities. In the superlative observer we individual observers, and that tree of which we are the branches, live and have our being (207-8)”. The whole tone and wording of the above passage is consonant with Berkeley’s maxim of “Essence is Perception”. This is obvious where Dunne speaks of the perceiver’s ability to confer or recognize color in the phenomena of sight. In the strictest sense, Dunne’s words could fit into either the Bishop’s Principles, or Lewis’s Miracles without missing a beat.

It is therefore gratifying to see that the link between Lewis and Dunne is, with any luck, in the beginning stages of re-discovery. Guy Ichabald has written and published a mostly decent overview of Dunne’s system of thought, and how it related to Lewis’s own apologetics and literary practices. The few moments of criticism I could have for the piece stem from what I can’t help regard as a number of misreadings on Ichabald’s part.

For instance, he claims the fact that Lewis never finished the Dark Tower Ransom novel is proof that Dunne’s book provided the old college Don with “puzzles that are never resolved. It is hard not to get the impression,” according to Ichabald, “that a failure to resolve these puzzles may have been the very reason why Lewis broke off writing at that point. At any rate, in its place came That Hideous Strength (1945), in which Lewis abandoned any attempt at complicated timelines and resorted to a single lighthearted but dismissive comment, “not living in Mr. Dunne’s time,” by Mark Studdock (170) (9)”.

I think my main issue with this line of thinking is that a close reading of the Strength passage cited might just expose a flaw in Ichabald’s understanding of the context in which the quote is placed. The quotation seems to be stationed in a specific moment that lends it an ironic, and not an actual, amount of weight. Mark utters the line at an instant in the novel when he is still a doubter being recruited by the N.I.C.E. When he makes the claim, it is there for the simple reason that it is a setup where the eventual payoff is to see his earlier belief revealed as false, and in need of serious reconsideration. Lewis has propped up Mark’s initial beliefs in order to knock it right back down again, thus making the payoff of his later change of mind all the more effective.

Also, Ichabald fails to notice that Dunne makes an appearance early right in the opening chapter with Jane’s dream about Alcasan. The kicker is the novel reveals it wasn’t a dream at all, in the strictest sense. Instead, I’d argued Lewis has smuggled Dunne’s concept of pre-vision right into the opening of his novel by giving one of his main protagonists a foresight into the future of the story’s plot. It could be one of the cleverest forms of sneaking past watchful dragons that I’ve ever seen Lewis pull off, aside from the whole Planetary Scheme.

The biggest shortcoming of Ichabald’s essay is simply that he misreads both Dunne and Lewis in a way that I’m convinced is detrimental to both thinkers. Ichabald’s paper posits a view of Dunne as a New Age guru that Lewis got caught up by. However, the reality is better represented by viewing both men standing side by side, looking not at each other, and rather at the same object (Time and the Timeless Moment) and subject (Dunne’s Timeless Prime Observer, the Eternal I AM (He Who Helps). Looked at from this perspective, it makes little sense to claim that Dunne had started anything like a new sect. Instead, it sounds more like the same phenomena, or gift, as that possessed by the Patriarch Joseph, or the series of visions that culminated with the Miracle at Fatima.

I’m afraid Ichabald’s errors are a demonstration that the influence of Dunne and Berkeley on Mythopoeic writings is still a subject in its infancy, and it may take a number of years before the proper scholarly acknowledgement is able to make any kind of headway in Inkling or Rowling studies. My own take is that when reading Dunne, Lewis must have recognized the thought of a fellow Berkeleyan in action. That’s the only explanation that gives a logical account of why Dunne’s name and theories would be part of the strategy of Hideous Strength. On the whole, therefore, I tend to think Bruce Charlton’s take on Dunne’s relation to the Inklings is lot closer to the truth. Beyond that, I think it’s possible for Lewis to have read Dunne’s text and recognized by the words and arguments the thought of an Idealist fellow traveler. It’s with that view in mind that I believe Lewis’s use of time in novels like Strength is more subtle than most critics have recognized.

It should be noted that Lewis was not the only author to be influenced by Dunne. Aside from the Time Plays of J.B. Priestley, there was one other scribbler captivated by Dunne’s experiments. This last one is important for the way he helped shape the nature of the Wizarding World.

Nabokov’s Berkeleyan Experiments.

Back in 2018, Prof. Gennady Barabtarlo was able to publish a collection of notecards, each amounting to a special type of diary written and recorded by Vladimir Nabokov in 1964. It was the author’s record of trying to duplicate Dunne’s experiment at the start of his last decade in Montreux. This is important for the idea it planted in my brain. Like Lewis, there is a book that outs Nabokov as a fellow closet Berkeleyan Idealist. The sect appears to be Russian Orthodox, yet the Creed is the same. In her remarkable and keen-eyed book, Vladimir Nabokov and the Poetics of Liberalism, Prof. Dana Dragunoiu echoes and extends an argument made in the pages of Nabokov’s Otherworld (italics for emphasis are, once again, mine).

“Rather, as Vladimir Alexandrov has noted, Nabokov’s use of “the metaliterary is camouflage for, and a model of, the metaphysical.” In the case of Ada, these metaliterary touches contribute, in a radically new way, to Nabokov’s long-standing campaign against materialist philosophy. Like Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Ada is a thought experiment born of a desire to generate a universe of the kind postulated by the most uncompromising of idealist philosophers, the eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne (1685 – 1753) (191)”.

It was passages like the above, in fact, combined with Barabtarlo’s study that made me wonder if Dunne himself was an Idealist. It was very gratifying to see this confirmed in Dunne’s own works. It also didn’t hurt that the copy in which I found all this out came with a very helpful endorsement on the back flap. I think the anonymous reviewer was correct when he observed: “It will probably take more than one reading for the student to familiarize himself with the new and vast horizons opened to his speculative gaze. But the effort will be well worth the while. For in linking, by implication, Einstein with Berkeley, and the experimental physiologist with the believer in the immortality of the soul, the author of “An Experiment with Time” has evolved a “Weltanshauung” profoundly stirring and fascinating in its implications (222)”. A somewhat coded review of Barabtarlo’s book and its contents can be found here.

Dunne as Mythopoeic Artist.

One of the most remarkable discoveries I was able to make about Dunne himself is that in addition to being a surprisingly effective thinker, the man was also something a successful children’s author. That last part is not was what I was expecting. The good news is the forgotten fairy story, St George and the Witches, was a thoroughly pleasant surprise, and a copy is well worth hunting down. The icing on the cake is that not only was Dunne a Christian, his writings might just reflect the same literary practices as those of CSL and JRRT.

The biggest clue for me is that fact that in Dunne’s fictional text, the mythical St. George is paired with a character known as Thomas the Gardener. That means nothing until you decide to dig into the history of the St. George legend. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that George used to be paired with the dogged St. Christopher, and that this same iconographic duo was derived, at least in part, from the Dioscuri. This in itself won’t mean anything until the reader goes back to Ward’s Planet Narnia and learns how the myth of Castor and Pollux influenced Lewis’s Horse and his Boy, and how both figures are connected with the planet Mercury. Also, there is Lyndy Abraham’s brief definition of the symbolism of gardens in Hermetic literature. I can’t help thinking that the same archetype behind Castor and Pollux was part of Dunne’s inspiration when writing St. George and the Witches. A somewhat esoteric deep dive into Dunne’s text can be found at this link.

Somewhere Between Saturn and Mercury: Rowling and the Dunne Legacy.

There’s just one question I have left before letting this all drift to a close. It has to do with J.K. Rowling’s place, if any, in all this. Can there be any sense in which the writings of J.W. Dunne have left an imprint on her works? She’s the kind of writer who prefers to play it cagey with her influences. Lewis casts perhaps the biggest shadow over the Hogwarts saga, and for that very reason she sees it necessary to hide that particular light under a bushel. Watchful Dragons have ears, after all. And they can do a lot worse than bite. On the other hand, no one except for this website has taken either the effort or the time to come to grips with her debt to the writings of Nabokov.

If both of her biggest influences were influenced in turn by the writings of an obscure temporal physicist and philosopher, then what proof is there that could demonstrate her own awareness of these concepts? The in-universe concept of the Time Turner is perhaps the most obvious place to start. I’m just not sure I recall reading enough scholarly thought about that particular plot element to be able to make any yea or nay decision.

There is also a kind of irony at work here. Since Nabokov and Lewis are two of her biggest influences, that means that her work often contains their ideas in some form or another. Is it possible for an artist’s work to embody an idea from their sources even if the artist isn’t aware of it? That’s a real conundrum, and I’m not even sure where to begin with it. Right now, the best course of action for me goes as follows. If it ever turns out Rowling does know somehow about Dunne and his experiments with time, then she is obviously cleverer than even her staunchest fans realize. If, on the other hand, she is unaware of this, the good news is I can’t quite see how that’s a problem. Nor does it preclude the possibility of it being a case of the author writing more than they know. I’ve found that idea in itself to be something of a standard operating procedure in nine out of ten times in most of the books I’ve read.

In the end, what I think I can say with a fair degree of certainty is that the connections between J.W. Dunne and the work of Nabokov and Lewis stands as a forgotten strand in Mythopoeic thought and criticism, and its one that begs to be rediscovered after all this time. I’d argue that it’s a topic well worth the effort.


  1. Brian Basore says

    Thank you so much for discussing George Berkeley. I’ve been mulling what I’ve read in CSL’s Pilgrim’s Regress, and this helps. It also provides needed pieces to my puzzle about where Lewis Carroll fits in with George Macdonald, JRRT, CSL, and English culture in general, including J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

    (Alice, in Through the Looking-Glass, kicks a stone in an attempt to refute that we exist in each other’s dreams.)

  2. Bruce Charlton says

    @Chris – Good topic! I first came across Dunne in Verlyn Flieger’s excellent book A Question of Time, mainly about Tolkien.

    He seems to be a grey eminence behind a surprising number of authors. One is Philippa Pearce, whose Tom’s Midnight Garden is reckoned to be one of the elite of classic children’s books here in the UK. Dunne’sideas are a prime plot element.

  3. Sorry for the late reply.

    Prof. Basore,

    I was first brought to Carroll’s awareness of Berkeley (via Red King’s Dream sequence) thanks to the now somewhat pivotal work of Martin Gardner’s “Annotated Alice”. The question that I’ve been interested in for some time is whether or not Berkeley exerted an influence on George MacDonald? It’s a topic I’m still sort of looking into, here and there.

    Dr. Charlton,

    I’ve found that the one author who utilizes Dunne with the most frequency is J.B. Priestly. He seems to enjoy finding ways to use Dunne’s theory of Serialism as a kind basic metaphysical backdrop for all of his works. These days, I suppose Priestly would be labeled as either a Magical Realist, or a low-key prototype of the modern Urban Fantasy sub-genre. Either way, he likes to reveal dimensional layers in his secondary worlds a lot. I’d say his worth a read or two.

  4. Just come across this piece. Glad to see enthusiasm for the subject, but I am afraid you are as off-beam with your criticisms of my ideas as you are with my name.
    Firstly, Jane’s dream about Alcasan in the opening chapter is surrounded by mention of the poet of an earlier era, John Donne, and not our JW Dunne at all. Then, Lewis was a believer in precognitive dreams and needed no invocation of Dunne to include such a thing in her dream.
    Then, contemporary records show clearly that Dunne was indeed something of a new-age guru. An Experiment with Time was a top-seller. Leading physicists, philosophers and literary figures wrote and argued about him. He appeared on radio and even on the new-fangled TV, quite a high-profile feat in the pre-war 1930s. As Flieger puts it in her book on Tolkien and Time, for a while not to have read him was a mark of singularity in Society.
    There is vast wealth of literature on Dunne, which there was no space to touch upon in my essay. I’d suggest you go root some of it out, it might just steer that enthusiasm of yours back in the right direction.

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