Thursday, August 25, 2016

"Lolita" Afterthoughts

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 down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
~ Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Chapter 1

The first time I came across these lines was in 2013, in a creative writing class. As a novice to writing, I was far more naive in my reading of stylistic technique, even those mere three years ago. But reading this excerpt on a small handout -- an analytical exercise in which we treated it as a poem -- I instantly fell in love with the strange playfulness of its imagery: uncomfortably intimate, neurotically shifting verbal mechanics into music and a picture. Despite having never heard of Vladimir Nabokov -- and my professor's description of the novel as "really creepy" -- I knew I had to read Lolita in full one day. This summer, I finally did; in fact, it was the only novel I managed to finish this break. While grad school has conditioned me to read multiple books in an insanely short amount of time, I'm grateful I didn't speed through this work. Like that first excerpt, it deserved to be examined slowly, attentively, lovingly, as any great work of literature does -- not binge-read like it was just another Fifty Shades off the shelf.

The reason I bring up the Fifty Shades contrast, by the way, is to emphasize that Lolita is not the apotheosis of forbidden erotica that everyone thinks it is. (And by the way, Fifty Shades is utter trash, so get over it, America.) Delving into Lolita on the beach, in waiting rooms, at home, I received plenty of bewildered looks from scandalized strangers and friends. My own dad gagged in a horrified tone one day, "Why are you reading that awful, disgusting book?" Most of these scandalized persons, I should mention, had never read the novel. But Lolita's controversial sexual themes have made it famous even among non-literature buffs -- and given it a heinous reputation, apparently.

Nearly everyone knows Lolita is about a pedophile enamored by his step-daughter; what bothers me is that this is all that most people know about it, even within the English field. Yes, pedophilia and semi-incest are central to Nabokov's plot, but that should not obscure the miles of literary worth that exceed and, to an extent, redeem the vileness therein. Most of all, what makes Nabokov's book literature instead of trash is that it always remains a critique -- though not the kind we expect. Nabokov, you see, is completely aware of our silly expectations for a sexualized, "scandalous" novel, and toys with those expectations mercilessly. Those looking for a porno trip will be disappointed, because sex scenes are few and stubbornly abstract. Those looking for a clear-cut villainization (or condonation) of the narrator will be disappointed, because H.H. is more frequently a bumbling idiot than a sinister predator. And those looking for any semblance of a love story will be sorely disappointed -- just as grandiloquent, neoclassical, poetry-spewing H.H. is disappointed. What the reader will find instead is a deformed beauty: philosophical depth, dark humor, and hopeless poetry beneath a sickened voice.

Credit: Lyuba Haleva, via
It's difficult to defend Lolita without plot spoilers. But what I love about it the most is this: humanity at its best, smothered under humanity at its worst. The humanity Nabokov envisions, in other words, can never be definitively categorized as good or evil. There are surprising moments of shame (though never enough) in which H.H. tries clumsily to reconcile the ideals of a hopeless romantic with disordered desires. H.H. is a sick bastard, yet somewhere beneath all his filth, an infinitesimal part of him can still express profoundly the love and worship of another human being (however deluded that adoration may be). There are many passages in the novel that, had they come from any other narrator, might strike one as the most romantic words in literature. Coming from a pedophile narrator, of course, these words are in effect only a parody of romance; all the more so for rhapsodizing an inamorata who, incidentally, is no Beatrice. But clearly, Nabokov has meaningful intentions with such parody. He wants us to view the ideal of human love writhing under mud, with only sparkles of it visible. Lolita's image is the antithesis of that trope that depicts animalistic instincts threatening to break through a civilized exterior. H.H.'s desperate, interior outbursts of love -- or attempted love -- give us glimpses not of primal lust but of a primal tenderness, which wrestles beneath a surface of erotic perversion. Nabokov, you see, is reversing all our black-and-white concepts. He wants us to question, first, whether the ideal and the worst of human nature are truly mutually exclusive; and second, which of the two is the most basic, the most driving, the most subversive to our existence.

Out of H.H.'s vulgarity, beautiful love wants to emerge, even if it can only do so satirically.

Let us make no mistake: Lolita is not for the faint of heart. While its sexual taboos are really only one, small part of a much deeper story, they are significant enough to be disturbing to the most vulnerable of readers, I imagine. (I would not recommend this book to former victims of sexual abuse, for instance.) For everyone else, I encourage you to give this so-called "filthy" book a chance. You will undoubtedly be surprised by what you discover in the richness of even a perverted, fictional mind -- and consequently, you may discover something about your own frail, imperfect self.

Grace and peace to you.

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