A LOVE SUPREME

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Thus far in my novel project, I have not yet encountered a novel that illustrates so tragically the brokenness of a single individual. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert Humbert is that individual: a pedophile, a poet, and a depraved predator. In January, I reviewed A Thousand Splendid Suns, a tale of the heroism of women who are victims of abuse and objectification. Nabokov’s novel is the reverse perspective.

There is much to discuss in this novel, but the one theme that I wish to stress in this review is the role of the reader. What responsibility does a reader have? Lolita forces on us certain ethical concerns; ethical concerns, yes, but there are also certain human concerns, or even spiritual, I might say. More than any novel that I have reviewed thus far, I am impressed with how much interpretation hinges on the reader. I think this is always the case, but Lolita demands something from the reader, not allowing the reader to remain ambiguous or apathetic in interpretation.

In light of my recent readings of Afghan women in A Thousand Splendid Suns, I was delighted that my intellectual partner (and my new fiancé) Tamie recommended to me a book by Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran. This is a memoir of a book club for women in Tehran, who met in secret to discuss the great works of western fiction. I resonate with much of Nafisi’s thinking about Lolita, so I will be citing her throughout the review.

Humbert Humbert fantasizes about young girls. “Nymphets” he calls them.

“My mind rejected my body’s every plea.”

“Taboos strangled me.”

Humbert is an academic with a poetic imagination. In private, he obsesses about his desires; his “excruciating desires and insomnias” torture him. The novel is his private memoir of his encounter with Lolita.

The following quote describes well the way desire shapes Humbert. He describes a “gap” between what he has and what his imagination promises him. With desire, the gap between reality and possibility is ever-present, which makes desire a lustful quest that never ends.

“It may well be that the very attraction that immaturity has for me lies not so much in the limpidity of pure young forbidden fairy child beauty as in the security of a situation where infinite perfections fill the gap between the little given and the great promised—the great rosegray never-to-be-had.”

Art? Or Pornography?

On this blog, we have discussed the question of how to define pornography. What is the line between art and pornography? Is all erotic film and literature pornographic, by definition?

Nabokov himself addresses this question. For Nabokov, art is beautiful regardless of subject matter. Pornography is cheap and commercialized. There is a formula approach that lacks any sense of the artistic. “…in modern times the term ‘pornography’ connotes mediocrity, commercialism, and certain strict rules of narration. Obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation which demands the traditional word for direct action upon the patient.” (Cited on p. 69-70 of “Lolita Turns Thirty,” in What Do Women Want? by Erica Jong) Pornography is a means to an end: “simple sexual stimulation” resulting in “direct action upon the patient.”

Pornography, according to Nabokov is also formulaic. In this sense, it is not unlike other forms of commercialized entertainment, like the popular detective stories of his day. “Old rigid rules must be followed by the pornographer in order to have his patient feel the same security of satisfaction as, for example, fans of detective stories feel—stories where, if you do not watch out, the real murderer may turn out to be…artistic originality…” Pornography, like all mass produced art, is cheap and cliché. “Thus, in pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust.”

Erica Jong agrees with Nabokov, but puts it a bit more bluntly: “Those who can’t tell the difference between masturbatory stimulation and imaginative literature deserve, I believe, the garbage they get.” (p. 70 of “Lolita Turns Thirty”)

I think Nabokov is onto something here. Pornography is produced as a means to an end: sexual gratification. In this sense, however, much of what we call “entertainment” fits the bill as porn. In fact, many of the products we purchase that we believe we “need” would become porn. The books we buy and never read, the gadgets for the kitchen and garage that we use once or twice, the DVD’s that we only watch a few times or none at all. So much of our economy turns on impulse buys that gratify our itch to have a cool new something-or-other….but I digress….

There is a sense in which I would add to Nabokov’s definition, because I think there is a bit of a problem with defining good art as non-pornographic; namely, that this definition fails to take the reader into account. In other words, even if a piece of erotica is tasteful, beautiful, and poetic, I think it is still reasonable to suggest that it could be used as porn and not appreciated as art.

What I am suggesting is that the question of porn does not have to do with the text (or film, etc.) itself. It isn’t isolated to the novel in question or the movie in question. I am suggesting that something does not really become pornographic until there is a reader to make it so.

Whether cheap or artful, I suggest that pornography is in the eye of the beholder, which puts responsibility on the reader. How are we reading a work? Pornography is not just a matter of good or bad taste: there is something else going on, a more sinister and lustful intention by those who are reading or viewing the material.

I think good art is more beautiful than cheap, instant-gratification entertainment. The latter can easily be called “pornographic” when compared with the former. This is a good start; but we cannot let the reader off that easily. Readers are a part of the artistic process. We have the power to turn good art into a cheap commodity.

Lolita, The Double Victim

Many readers find that they sympathize with Humbert. A female friend of mine, Nicole, recently read the novel. When we talked about Humbert as a sympathetic character, she was blunt and to the point: No. Humbert was not a sympathetic character. Yet it is also true that many readers find something charming about Humbert.

Humbert is funny and self-deprecating, he is poetic and wistful, and he comes to us as someone who seems mostly harmless, at least at the beginning of the novel. Humbert has desires like anyone else. He lost his love at a young age, and he has been sort of stuck in those pre-adolescent years.

The desire to create a sympathetic character is no doubt the intention of the author, but this creates a serious ethical concern, especially as the novel progresses and Humbert is transformed into a maniacal predator. How can we sympathize with Humbert when he objectifies a person? Lolita, in a unique way, makes the reader reckon with themselves as a reader. What is the appropriate way to read?

The structure of the novel itself seems intent on putting the reader in an awkward situation. Even as the novel progresses and Humbert becomes evil and abusive, the reader might be tempted to sympathize with him, because he does in fact repent. Humbert himself finds to be reprehensible. But as I see it, the problem is that it is not merely Humbert, but the structure of the novel itself, that objectifies Lolita. As such, the reader is put into an ethically compromising situation, for to sympathize with the structure of the novel seems to be an immoral act.

Azar Nafisi comments on this from the perspective of the underground women’s reading circle in Tehran. “The first thing that struck us in reading Lolita—in fact it was on the very first page—was how Lolita was given to us as Humbert’s creature. We only see her in passing glimpses. ‘What I had madly possessed,’ he informs us, ‘was not she, but my own creation, another fanciful Lolita—perhaps, more real than Lolita…having no will, no consciousness—indeed no real life of her own.” (p. 36 of Reading Lolita in Tehran)

There is a power differential, and this is crucial, between Humbert and Lolita. It is a violation. And yet the novel itself sides with Humbert. It is Humbert’s story in Humbert’s words. Lolita is whatever Humbert will make of her. The reader ratifies this at the very point that s/he sympathizes not only with Humbert the fictional character but also with the structure of the novel.

Nafisi continues: “Like my students, Lolita’s past comes to her not so much as a loss but as a lack, and like my students, she becomes a figment in someone else’s dream….Lolita on her own has no meaning; she can only come to life through her prison bars.” (p. 37)

“She [Lolita] becomes a double victim: not only her life but also her life story is taken from her.” (p. 41)

The philosopher Richard Rorty also sees this in the novel. There is a story in the novel that reveals how disconnected Humbert has become from his surroundings, so consumed by lust and drawn inward with paranoia and fear.

Rorty cites this portion of the novel. Humbert is speaking, revealing how disengaged he has become from the world around him:

“In Kasbeam a very old barber gave me a very mediocre haircut: he babbled of a baseball-playing son of his, and, at every explodent, spat into my neck, and every now and then wiped his glasses on my sheet-wrap, or interrupted his tremulous scissor work to produce new paper clippings, and so inattentive was I that it came as a shock to realize as he pointed to an easeled photograph among the ancient gray lotions, that the mustached young ball player had been dead the last thirty years.”

Rorty turns the table on the reader: "The reader, suddenly revealed to himself as, if not hypocritical, at least cruelly incurious, recognizes his semblable, his brother, in Humbert and Kinbote. Suddenly Lolita does have a 'moral in tow.' But the moral is not to keep one's hands off little girls but to notice what one is doing, and in particular to notice what people are saying. For it might turn out, it very often does turn out, that people are trying to tell you that they are suffering. Just insofar as one is preoccupied with building up to one's private kind of sexual bliss, like Humbert, or one's private aesthetic bliss, like the reader of Lolita who missed that sentence about the barber the first time around, people are likely to suffer still more" (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 163-64, emphasis added).

My suggestion is that the reader must take responsibility as a reader for his or her sympathies. The structure of the novel is no doubt intentional, to put the reader into this bind. It is as if the novel were carefully crafted in order to force the reader into responsibility for the very manner in which the novel is read.

“Obsession has a life of its own”

“Obsession has a life of its own: the object, however irreplaceable and particular it seems, can change, though it is in the nature of obsession to recognize that.” (Erica Jong, p. 73 of “Lolita Turns Thirty”)

Let us take a more careful look at the progression of Humbert’s desire. I think that the progression of lust is an objectification of Lolita and an increasing disconnect from Lolita as a person. Lolita is Humbert’s object, and she becomes increasingly so the more Humbert acts on his lust. The result, however, is that Humbert becomes increasingly disconnected from himself. He changes and morphs into something grotesque and vile.

“Humbert is the hero with the tragic flaw. Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh—which is the eternal and universal nature of passion.” (Elizabeth Janeway’s review in the New York Times Book Review, cited on P. 77 of “Lolita Turns Thirty” in What Do Women Want? By Erica Jong)

Throughout the novel, Humbert’s desire for Lolita drives him mad. Increasingly, Humbert disconnects from Lolita, as he increasingly objectifies her. As his objectification increases, he also disconnects from himself. The result is a downward spiral of abuse, terror, and psychosis.

At the beginning of the novel, Humbert thinks of himself in gentile terms. He is not a violent killer, rather “the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely as the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society coming down upon them. We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mind, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet. Emphatically, no killers are we. Poets never kill.”

And yet by the end of the novel, Humbert is both a rapist and a murder.

Also early in the novel, Humbert describes his relationship with Annabel Leigh, his young first love: “The spiritual and the physical had been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the mater-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today.” Humbert ironically becomes more of a “mater-of-fact, crude” character when his relationship with Lolita descends into a deep disconnect with her mind, heart, and anything spiritual in her soul. He clearly becomes a “mater-of-fact, crude” kind of person that he sneers at.

Even as he progresses in his kidnapping, Humbert still wants to think of himself one way (“I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking indecent liberties with a child….I am the therapist.”), all the while acting in another way. Humbert’s original intention was to molest Lolita while she was drugged and in a deep sleep, so as to make her as innocent as possible…but he abandons even this smallest of good intentions. The result is an increasing disconnect of himself from himself.

Humberts desires and lusts increase, gradually; and because of this, Lolita increasingly disconnects from him. Eventually he becomes abusive, not just sexually but physically. He enters “a new stage of persecution” while all the while not seeming to recognize what he is doing. Humbert becomes obsessive, paranoid, controlling, and irrational. After he loses Lolita, he has a psychological breakdown. He follows every shred of clue he can find for years…he nearly guns down a professor on only a hunch, then checks himself into a sanatorium…he becomes a maniac.

By the end of the novel, Humbert is both a rapist and a killer, two things that he, as a “poet,” swore he was not. There is a sinister transformation.

I find the Humbert’s act of murder significant, for several reasons. It is the point at which he transgresses his emphatic declaration that he is not a killer. However, it is also an extreme act of clutching at the past.

“I was weeping again, drunk on the impossible past.”

Humbert could never let go of his desire. Desire, almost by definition, cannot be satisfied. It is the gap (as Humbert says) “between the little given and the great promised—the great rosegray never-to-be-had.” As such, Humbert’s murder of Quilty (the man who managed to free Lolita from Humbert’s talons) becomes his desperate attempt to reach back into the past and once again posses Lolita as his own. The murder is an act of revenge, yes. It is a psychopathic shooting, true. It is complicated. But it is significant that after Humbert is arrested, he seems to find some sense of relief, a brief sense of peace. It is as if there is nothing left for him to cling to.

There is something here, I think, that is significant about desire. The ability to truly appreciate anything is compromised by clinging to it, by clutching it with all of our might. Only by setting the object free can we truly appreciate it on its own terms, and by doing so enter into an engagement with what is most truly precious about the person or thing.

This is what differentiates love from lust. Lust objectifies the other, it possesses it and owns it for its own gratification. This is what is pornographic.

But love is artistic. Love sets the person or thing free to be appreciated for what it is, not as a means to an end. Lust demands that full attention be given to its object of desire. Love, on the contrary, engages the person on their own terms.

Finding Love

Humbert dehumanized Lolita. She disconnected from him, and she disconnects from her own desires and her own sexuality. During intercourse, she would read magazines, while Humbert was in the midst of his ecstasy. Lolita has a promising role in the school play and quits just before the opening night. It is as though she cannot reach the climax of the event, as though she is disconnected from the climax of her own desires.

Most tellingly for Humbert, every night Lolita weeps when she thinks Humbert has fallen to sleep. She has no place to go. She is trapped.

Eventually, Humbert begins to gain some measure of clarity and insight into what he has done to Lolita, or “Dolores Haze,” her real name. He realizes how cruel he was to her. He realized how little he knew of her heart and mind. Humbert consults with a priest to gain some measure of relief. Though he finds some solace, he has a profound realization that haunts him:

"Unless it can be proven to me that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a north American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art."

Humbert realizes, at last, the deep interconnectedness of all things, of all people. When he turned inward, to cultivate desire, he turned away from the human reality of others. The more he did this, the more he went mad, and the results were casualties that could not be reversed. Who Humbert was and what he did mattered significantly, especially to Delores Haze. “Life is a joke” if our actions are isolated from others.

Spiritual enlightenment (or the life of the “Spirit” as it is called in Christianity) seems to be precisely that process whereby we recognize that our spiritual fate is bound up with how we relate to others. Our spiritual and psychological state cannot be cultivated in isolation, apart from others; rather, it is defined as we relate with others.

Concluding Thoughts

“Oh my poor, bruised child. I loved you….I was despicable and brutal….There were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it.”

Even in his repentant state, even in his moments of deepest regret, I still cannot find it ethically acceptable for a reader to sympathize with Humbert. Oddly, though, I do think we can love Humbert. To sympathize with Humbert and with the novel is to lend credence to the notion that we can objectify and dehumanize another; but love is different. Love can respond with a broken heart to the brokenness of others, no matter what their frame of mind.

Nabokov’s novel is written to make the reader reckon with how s/he reads. So I read Humbert’s life as a tragedy. I read Lolita’s life as the voiceless victim. There are lessons to be learned from Humbert, lessons of lust, desire, and true love. Ultimately, true love escapes Humbert, and his desire consumes him. Although I cannot sympathize with Humbert, or with the structure of the novel, I believe that there is some sense in which we can read the novel with love. This may be something of an agape hermeneutic, to use the Christian term. A hermeneutic that can love both the victim and the victimizer, and in doing so understand the tragedy that occurs when we objectify and dehumanize others.

Though a tragedy, this is a deeply human novel, if the reader approaches it in order to humanize its characters. To love is to humanize.

23 comments:

john doyle said...

An impressive piece of work, Erdman. I've read Lolita before, and have recently started again, so I won't have a lot to say until I finish, if I do. But a couple of preliminary remarks.

First, is it coincidence that Lolita follows the Alice books in your sequence? Alice was a "nymphet," to use Humbert's term. And there's reason to suspect Lewis Carroll of being a bit of a perv himself -- he liked taking photos of naked prepubescent girls. Not that Alice in Wonderland is some sort of disguised child porn, but one is left to wonder about Carroll's motivations for writing at least as much as Nabokov's.

Second, in the early going Humbert writes quite erotically about the attractions of nymphets generally and of Lolita in particular. He's drawing attention away from himself and onto the objects of his obsessions. How can one not be captivated? -- seems to be Humbert's intent. Doesn't it seem that Humbert is trying not only to induce empathy from his (male) reader, but actually to arouse his reader? He mentions various other literary figures who were attracted to young girls -- see, he says, I'm not the only one. And how about you who read this: can you tell me you aren't moved just a little?

It's worth noting that porn likes to emphasize how young the girls are. If "barely legal" is a turn-on, doesn't it suggest that the illegal would be even hotter?

In brief, doesn't the reader's disgust with Humbert serve to disguise a certain pleasure he provides to his reader? It's like porn under the guise of an anti-porn morality play. I think that's part of the genius of the book: Humbert is simultaneously aroused by Lolita and disgusted with himself; the reader is disgusted with Humbert's story, but also... aroused by it perhaps?

You say that porn is in the eye of the beholder, but I think you'd agree that certain images are more likely than others to grab the pornographic eye. Art too: it's not meant to be observed impassively and intellectually, but to be engaged emotionally, even physically, by the beholder. This is true of erotic art as well. I'd say that the complex emotions of sexual arousal and self-loathing, of attraction to beauty and the obsessive urge to possess that beauty, are part of what make this book art rather than porn. In porn there are no ambiguities.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thank you, John.

Yes, it is coincidence that Lolita followed Alice. Why do you say that Alice was a nymphet? Humbert states several different characteristics of a nymphet, most of which I do not recall off the top of my head. His descriptions strike me as a form of justification, and yet another way in which he objectifies those whom he desires. He creates this category called "nymphets," girls who have something of a prostitute's lure, charm, and loose moral structure. It's interesting that at the end of the novel, Lolita settles down to have a family, which kind of destroys Humberts theoretical "nymphet" category.

Yes, I agree with your second observation. Humbert writes in order to seduce his readers. As you suggest, it seems to be part of the game to be morally indignant. It's kind of like cover fire for desire. The moral disgust serves as a disguise for illegitimate desires on the part of Humbert, and perhaps also on the part of the reader. This brings us back to the question of how we as readers are reading, doesn't it? Are we falling prey to a more subtle form of seduction by Humbert? One that he himself has fallen into?

You say that porn is in the eye of the beholder, but I think you'd agree that certain images are more likely than others to grab the pornographic eye.

Yes, I like the way you put it. This goes back to Nabokov's point that cheap entertainment meant for stimulation is, as you say, more likely than others to grab the pornographic eye.

john doyle said...

Was Alice a nymphet? She's a bit young for the part, being "seven and a half exactly," whereas for Humbert eight is the lower age limit. Apparently Lewis Carroll's real-life inspiration for the Alice character was ten years old. Did Carroll see her in sexual terms? Have a look at this wikipedia entry.

You read The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, didn't you Erdman? As I recall you liked the movie version better. But it's got a similar premise: told in first person, the heartless but clever psychopath still coaxes a kind of complicity with the reader, so that you're kind of glad he gets away in the end. It's from 1955: 4 years before Lolita. Ripley is about an American in Europe; in Lolita it's a European in America.

A lot of TV crime shows seem to serve as "a cover for desire," as you put it. The premise is to catch the perpetrator, but the camera dwells obsessively on the crime scene, the murder weapon, the corpse, the killer. It's kind of violence porn disguised as anticrime police work.

I understand there's a show on now in which the main character is a serial killer who covers his tracks by working as a crime scene investigator. Now this sort of thing is part of mainstream postmodern-ironicized entertainment, sort of funny rather than disturbing.

john doyle said...

Lolita's real name is Delores, which means "pains." Significant?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Tamie and I discuss the issue of violence in the media, particularly from the white middle class. Presumably, we don't have many real problems of violence. At least, not on the level of being a child soldier, for example. If you have been a child soldier who escaped from violence, you will probably be less likely to enjoy violent films or video games as a form of entertainment.

If your child was abducted by a serial killer, you will probably be less likely to enjoy criminal investigation programs on network primetime.

That is, there is a good deal of evil that the middle class consumes as a part of their entertainment, probably due in large part to having never really confronted it in real life. Plus, I would add, there seems to be a general apathy toward life by many of the middle class in the States, a general boredom with domestic and professional life. Violence in entertainment seems to be kind of a way to spice things up.

I agree about the correlations between Ripley and Humbert. I confess to having a stronger reaction to Humbert. With Ripley, I was more "seduced." After all, it's just murder, not abuse of a child. Perhaps that's telling, eh? How we often kind of rank our "sins."

I understand there's a show on now in which the main character is a serial killer who covers his tracks by working as a crime scene investigator. Now this sort of thing is part of mainstream postmodern-ironicized entertainment, sort of funny rather than disturbing.

I think I might be over such postmodern ironic entertainment. I am starting to read it as a coping mechanism, a therapeutic method for dealing with apathy, boredom, and a general disconnect (often via computers/networks/internet) from physical reality and more specifically, a disconnect from people who are really suffering.

What do you think?

john doyle said...

It sounds like you've gone all moral on your entertainments. I think it's been done enough that it's not particularly interesting any more. However, I've not seen the TV show in question so I can't really say. To tell you the truth, I pretty much only watch basketball on TV. The Sopranos played the irony game pretty effectively, and I enjoyed several of those episodes.

If Lolita/Delores means pain, is it referring only to her pain, or Humbert's as well? If he's trying to seduce the reader into erotica, is he also trying to seduce the reader into morally condemning him as well? Otherwise why would he be telling us all this? We both fell for that one too. Might we not infer that Humbert gets off on the hostility we feel for him, on his own abasement? That he's masochistic as well as sadistic in his desires?

Humbert's pursuit of Lolita was almost sure to lead to his own downfall as well as hers, so there's more masochism. And to provoke the reader to illicit arousal isn't just a plea for empathy; it's also sadistic, wouldn't you say -- that he derives pleasure from our discomfort? So I think he's S&M. And the Lolita/Delores name conjures pleasure/pain, which is a good Lacanian definition of jouissance, which is what he says everyone gets by pursuing their desires.

aeyn said...

Cans of Worms here, Gents. Cans of Worms.

A quick note on Carroll (Dodgson)'s friendliness with younger girls, and then more to come on Lo-Li-Ta.

He was very close to three girls and their brother, the middle girl being named Alice, and on whom he unofficially based the character Alice.

All three girls grew up and claimed, to the end of their days, that Mr. Carroll did nothing wrong, or of morally questioning nature, with any of them. They loved him like a father.

No allegations came from anyone else.

If he had an unhealthy fascination with younger girls, there is no evidence of his acting on it outside of the pictures. It seems that he maintained boundaries that were acceptable for the time.

One researcher in a biography on Carroll writes: "We cannot know to what extent sexual urges lay behind Charles's preference for drawing and photographing children in the nude. He contended the preference was entirely aesthetic. But given his emotional attachment to children as well as his aesthetic appreciation of their forms, his assertion that his interest was strictly artistic is naïve. He probably felt more than he dared acknowledge, even to himself."

This seems like a plausible summation to me.

And that seems like a good place to leave the question, as far as I can tell. Further speculation seems like it would lead no where. Thus, we can say that something seemingly unhealthy was going on with his actions/desires, but, as is often the case, his actions were not too far out of the norm for his time, and thus people accepted them. Now-a-days, that wouldn't be the case. And so we live and learn.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John/Aeyn,

I've been down with a nasty head cold (or flu, who knows) for the last two weeks.

So, forgive me for being so long in getting back to comments here. I appreciated both of your thoughts very much.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John: If he's trying to seduce the reader into erotica, is he also trying to seduce the reader into morally condemning him as well? Otherwise why would he be telling us all this? We both fell for that one too. Might we not infer that Humbert gets off on the hostility we feel for him, on his own abasement? That he's masochistic as well as sadistic in his desires?

This is quite the interpretation. The problem is that I didn't necessarily get the sense that Humbert is conniving in this sense. Is he so conniving that one gets thrown off? Well, perhaps.

As I think more about it, I more get the sense that Humbert is the postmodern (or perhaps "high modern" might be a better term) equivalent of Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein was written as a warning against taking science too far. Might Humbert, much like Victor, be warning us about the strength of our desires can be? If we pursue them without proper care and consideration? Viewed in this perspective, it is less a seduction, and more of a tale told to warn the reader.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John: It sounds like you've gone all moral on your entertainments. I think it's been done enough that it's not particularly interesting any more.

I had thought so too....until I read through this novel. Now I'm not so sure. And I might add, I've also been contemplating Emmanuel Levinas's philosophy/theology. The idea that the face of the other compels us.

The thing that I wonder is this: If there is some sense in which the way I treat others is connected to who I am, then there is much more that is "moral" than one might have thought. So, for example, the modern "subject" is kind of an isolated person, who can pursue desire, accountable only to God, his/her own conscience, or to some "moral law." But if the subject is not isolated (contra the modern, Cartesian notion of the subject), then maybe speaking of morality is more than some vague, meaningless, or banal notion. If who I am is related to how I treat others, then everything I do becomes moral, in a much more meaningful sense.

You explored this, I think, when you blogged about Hegel's master-slave dialectic. I actually took a quick look at those posts recently. Hegel seems to be on to something about how the master and the slave share a connection.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I am not interested in morality in a modern sense. At least, I don't think that I am. I am wondering about how morality might look as I have been discussing it here on this post. Humbert seems to be a typical modern subject: viewing his desires as things that he and only he experiences.

Consider the following:

"I felt proud of myself. I had stolen the honey of a spasm without imparing the morals of a minor. Absolutely no harm done. The conjurer had poured milk, molasses, foaming champagne into a young lady’s new white purse; and lo, the purse was intact. Thus had I delicately constructed my ignoble, ardent, sinful dream; and still Lolita was safe—and I was safe. What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita—perhaps, more real than Lolita; overlapping encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness—indeed, no life of her own.

“The child knew nothing. I had done nothing to her. And nothing prevented me from repeating a performance that affected her as little as if she were a photographic image rippling upon a screen and I a humble hunchback abusing myself in the dark…..”

"So Humbert and Cubus schemed and dreamed—and the red sun of desire and decision (the two things that create a live world) rose higher and higher….”

Jonathan Erdman said...

Aeyn,

Good thoughts on Carroll. Certainly an odd thing to have as part of one's legacy.

john doyle said...

I finally finished rereading Lolita. In response to one of your conclusions, I think that there's no more need to sympathize with Humbert than there is to sympathize with the grotesque creatures in Hieronymous Bosch's paintings. The art is in the rendering, not in the intrinsic beauty of the subject. I read that Orson Welles made the movie Touch of Evil as a challenge: give me the crappiest B-movie story you can find and I'll make a great movie out of it. There's something similar working in Lolita: a great novel built around a corrupt character and some despicable deeds. I don't think Nabokov had any more interest in renouncing Humbert than in justifying him.

We could talk more about various aspects of the book, but I'd like to observe that I found the climactic murder scene to be hilarious. I also thought that Humbert killed Quilty from a variety of motives, one of which was to rid the world of a pornographer who cared not at all about anyone he exploited, including Lolita. Was Nabokov calling himself into question here, callously exploiting his fictional characters not for titillation but for the creation of "articulate art"?

tamie said...

What a wonderful review. As I was reading, I was thinking how there have been books upon books written on Lolita, and there is really so much to say, and yet you approached it in your own unique way, saying things I doubt have been said often. I was especially struck by what you said at the end, about loving Humbert Humbert.

I was also thinking that maybe after you've been at this novel project a while (and are increasingly familiar with the novel genre), maybe you can write reviews for magazines!

Sadly, I can't dialogue much about Lolita, since I haven't read it. And I can't say I'm moved to read it! But I do love your read of the book.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Tamie,

Thanks. The more I explore novels, the more I realize how important story is to the theoretical off-road adventures of humanity. And it's important to take the time to read (or hear) the language itself....nothing against film, of course, but there seems to be something unique about using language--and only language--to portal into another world.

This seems to be one of the moves of postmodern theory: bring great fiction into the theoretical discussions. And now with Zizek, bring film into theoretical discussion.

Using fiction in theoretical adventures also kind of grounds theory in narrative, in the story. This makes it less likely that a philosopher might find himself sitting in a room trying to ponder what what he can know with certainty and coming to the conclusion that he can think.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John: "I don't think Nabokov had any more interest in renouncing Humbert than in justifying him."

I think you may be correct about this...what Nabokov's intentions were is an intriguing topic. Perhaps Nabokov's intentions were to simply create great art from a despicable subject. Perhaps he simply fancied himself a great artist: give me a horrific subject matter and I'll turn it into something you can marvel at. Kind of like if you climb mountains, you want the greatest challenge: the highest and most difficult. Then you can really go down in history.

But can an artist really do this, in kind of this disinterested way? That's why I am speculating about ethics and morality; because I wonder about the possibility of being a disinterested artist, someone who just creates great art without getting all morally caught up in the ethics of the subject matter (or of the characters).

If I hear you correctly, you seem to be seeing moments in the text where Nabokov kind of might be recognizing that he as an author can't divorce himself from the morality (or "humanity") of his creation. You say, Was Nabokov calling himself into question here, callously exploiting his fictional characters not for titillation but for the creation of "articulate art"? I also found moments like this in the text, times when one might reflect the text's morality back into the author.

If Nabokov were writing in order to prove that a work of art is an amoral creation, I think that the text itself calls this whole project into question. It's almost as if Lolita's muted voice itself speaks and testifies against Nabokov (through Humbert). It seems to implore the reader to make a judgment call....of some sort.

john doyle said...

I think Humbert is multilayered character, even in his despicableness, which makes him an interesting and credible fictional creation. At times Humbert acknowledges that he's a monster who has ruined a young girl's childhood and perhaps her whole life (although Nabokov begins and ends with the ironic twist that Lolita dies in childbirth as a wedded woman bearing her husband's baby). Would you find it in your heart to love Humbert if he didn't demonstrate this self-awareness and self-condemnation? If he were more like, say, Hannibal Lecter, a straight-ahead sociopath without a conscience, would you have loved him? Surely Nabokov went out of his way to give his character a conscience, even as he persisted in his selfish corruption. Unless you decide that he had some sort of conversion experience at the end, an eventual coming to awareness which redeems him?

john doyle said...

Do you think that Humbert loved Lolita? I do, even if he was also cruel and lust-driven and controlling and obsessive. Hey, we've all got our faults. And I suppose that's part of what I think is going on here, the sort of judgment that's called forth. Even a monster is understandable as a fellow human being. All of us have tainted motives even in our best moments, and even in our worst moments we typically manifest some heartfelt if distorted good intentions. If we can understand Humbert and even relate to him as one complex human being to another, then we gain some greater depth in our own humanity.

Or maybe Nabokov is just messing with us, a heartless sociopath of an articulate artist. Some people criticize Nabokov as an admirable but cold stylist. And clearly Humbert himself is a kind of cold and distant aesthete for all his hot passion. Real people are complex, and so are well-wrought fictional ones.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John: Would you find it in your heart to love Humbert if he didn't demonstrate this self-awareness and self-condemnation? If he were more like, say, Hannibal Lecter, a straight-ahead sociopath without a conscience, would you have loved him?

It would certainly be more difficult, but not unthinkable. In some ways, a human being like Hannibal Lecter is more pitiable because he is more animal-like.

Surely Nabokov went out of his way to give his character a conscience, even as he persisted in his selfish corruption. Unless you decide that he had some sort of conversion experience at the end, an eventual coming to awareness which redeems him?

I think there are hints of such a redemptive awareness. Humbert eventually concludes that he destroyed Lolita. He tries to find forgiveness in conversation with a priest, but he concludes that he is beyond redemption. He seems to sense that he needs to carry around the pain he has caused as some sort of penance or punishment. It's as though he is trying to give meaning to the suffering of Lolita by carrying around the suffering as a sort of memorial.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John: Do you think that Humbert loved Lolita? I do, even if he was also cruel and lust-driven and controlling and obsessive.

I think that there was a phase in which there was not love. I think that most of Humbert's relationship with Lolita was driven by desire and lust. He did not see her, as a person. But I think after all was said and done, he realized that he had grown to love her, as much as was possible for him to love. I see Humbert as being a human being most essentially obsessed with himself, not seeing others. However, I do think that there was love in him for Lolita, and I think it is at the end of the story that he really begins to realize this.

I heard that one critic considered this the greatest love story of all time....that's a bit of a stretch, though, imo!

John: Even a monster is understandable as a fellow human being. All of us have tainted motives even in our best moments, and even in our worst moments we typically manifest some heartfelt if distorted good intentions. If we can understand Humbert and even relate to him as one complex human being to another, then we gain some greater depth in our own humanity.

I think this is a good point, and I think it is one of the things that makes this one of the greatest novels ever written.

Anonymous said...

Funny I should read this right after reading this: http://asexystuff.blogspot.com/2010/07/thoughts-on-lbgt-politics.html

It talks about, among other things, not dehumanizing minor-attracted people.

This is not a response to your post. I don't think I could organize my thoughts well enough to respond, except to say that, yes, we shouldn't demonize anyone.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Anonymous,

Yes, and this is one of the primary effects for most who read Nabokov's novel. I certainly agree that one should not dehumanize, demonize, or even objectify and vilify someone who is attracted to minors. It is this element--the fact that Humbert is humanized--that makes the novel commendable. And I think that this is a virtue of Lolita. The problem, as I elucidated in my review, is that Lolita, the abused and ruined minor, is backgrounded and silenced; as such she exists only as an object, both for Humbert and for the novel itself (and those who read it).

Thanks for raising the issue and sharing your thought.

Hindi SMS said...

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.My sin, my soul. Lo-Lee-Ta.The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps..."
This is a gem of a book.
I read it once, and I am reading it again. Somehow the book has managed to become even more beautiful and entertaining.
An absolute must-read to anyone who loves reading.
Despite the controversial subject matter of the novel, Lolita is a comedy, and simply, a joy to read.