Abstracts for MLA Session 788: Nabokov’s Obsessions

1:45-3:00 p.m.  Regent, Hilton



1. “Vivian Darkbloom:  Floral Border or Moral Order?” Lisa Sternlieb, Princeton University




The subject of my paper will be Vivian Darkbloom and the ways in which I use her name and character to teach Lolita to students.  As an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov, Vivian points us to the novel’s obsessions with orthography, names, metamorphosis, doubles, solipsism, hidden and co-authorship.  She reminds us of how words engender other words, how names engender other names.  Within her name Nabokov gestures to his place in modern literature.  For if Bloom points us to Ulysses and her heart of darkness to Conrad, her first name is The Enchanter, the Ur-Lolita.  Bloom also reminds us of the attention to gardens, both Miltonic and suburban.  Her darkness suggests her connection to Humbert (Umber) and both must be seen in contrast to Clare (Clair).  Her last name explains her appropriateness for Quilty by evoking female genitalia as well as a photographer’s darkroom and a cinema.  Her biography of Quilty points us to the cues and clues with which the novel’s master plotter establishes his superiority over the novel’s conscientious recorder. Vivian’s writing also reminds us that we should not trust art to lead us to moral transcendence; sometimes kitsch provides the only hope of redemption.


After outlining the dozens of directions in which Vivian’s name can take us, I will focus on her moral significance to the novel.  If the anagram requires us to read both forward and backward, so, of course, does Lolita itself.  While Humbert’s use of retrospection is primarily clever or humorous, it is sometimes devastating.  For example, the “epiphany” on the mountaintop, which takes place in 1949, is strategically placed after the reunion with Lolita and the murder of Quilty  which occur in 1952. As a name Vivian Darkbloom is not simply the funny or clever rearrangement of letters; it is the figure for the moral manipulation allowed by ordering and reordering.  We first discover Vivian’s name in Ray’s appalling misreading of Humbert’s manuscript, in which the fate of Mrs. Richard F. Schiller follows Mona Dahl’s and Louise’s and is wedged in between that of Rita and Vivian Darkbloom.  Nabokov may mock the social scientist’s need to prioritize and categorize, yet his novel insists on the moral implications of order, chronology, and arrangement.  If we want to train our students to be better readers than John Ray, if we want them to reject his easy sociological reading, then we should help them see that the placement of Vivian’s name here indicates both Ray’s obtuseness and unwitting brilliance, both Nabokov’s devilish sense of humor and pervasive sense of tragedy.  My paper will argue that we must not rank the many meanings embedded within Nabokov’s great anagram.  These meanings are entangled with and inseparable from each other.  Rather than imposing order upon the text, Vivian Darkbloom points out the dangers and impossibilities of valuing art more than kitsch, the grand passion of a poet more than the panting lust of a frustrated housewife. 



2. “Lolita as a Deviant Narrative,” Eric Goldman, University of North Carolina at Chapel



Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita shocked and appalled its American audience upon its publication in 1955. In its questions about what constitutes “normal” sexual behavior and what separates it from sexual perversion, Lolita touched, and still touches, a peculiarly American nerve. Another work that examined the boundary between abnormal and normal sexual activity was Alfred Kinsey’s controversial scientific surveys of sexual behavior among men and women in 1948 and 1953. These studies, the so-called “Kinsey” reports, also raised a furor in 1950s America. Both Kinsey and Nabokov essentially challenged myths about the presumed “innocence” or sexual naiveté of American women.

            Although in Nabakov’s Lolita, Lolita is presented through the eyes of a pedophile who sees her as an American Eve, the novel appropriates the language and “scientific” perspective of the Kinsey reports to undercut this mythological view of her. While Humbert presents Lolita’s sexuality as deviant or precocious, Nabokov invokes stastistical, “scientific” studies of female sexuality like the Kinsey reports to suggest that Lolita’s sexuality is in fact “normal.” Failing to recognize this “scientific” view of Lolita, clearly represented in the novel, critics have tended to see Lolita, like Humbert, as an archetypal temptress, a modern-day femme fatale. But Nabokov utilizes the sexology so controversial in the 1950s to suggest an alternative interpretation of Lolita, one which views her not as a special, nymph-like girl already perverted before Humbert exploits her, but as an ordinary, juvenile girl whose “normal” sexual development is warped by a maniacal, myth-making pedophile. Critics have tended to confuse Humbert’s view of Lolita, which involves transforming a normal girl into a mythological femme fatale comparable to Eve, with Nabokov’s.

In the course of the narrative, Nabokov raises the question of the solidity of cultural conceptions of deviancy by illustrating how Humbert struggles to make his deviant behavior normal while, conversely, he makes Lolita's behavior, which the Kinsey report had suggested was normal, deviant. Nevertheless, most critics have concurred in the opinion that Lolita is a novel narrated by a deviant about a deviant. In fact, a statistical study conducted by sociologists showed that in reviews and criticism of Lolita shortly after its 1955 publication, the majority of critics shared Humbert Humbert’s perspective of Lolita. Contemporary critics, too, have overlooked the novel's inquisition of the objectivity of “deviancy.”

Few have recognized that Lolita, as a "deviant" narrative, a story largely about sexual "deviants," does not in fact reinforce the binary of deviancy and normalcy. The narrative itself "deviates" from the traditional notions of deviancy and normalcy tacitly accepted by 1950s American society. It does so by challenging readers to interrogate Humbert's "deviant" reading of Lolita by juxtaposing it with a scientific perspective that sees her behavior, the same behavior that Humbert uses to justify his perversion of Lolita, as normal. As Humbert's near mythological narrative of Lolita's supposed "deviance" is challenged by other narratives of her normality told by characters as diverse as Lolita's school teacher, Clare Quilty, and John Ray Jr., the categorical walls of "deviance" and "normality" crumble.


3. “Why Nabokov Had It In for Freud, Marx, and Einstein—and Balzac, Faulkner, Camus, Lorca, and Hundreds of Others,” Gene Harold Bell-Villada, Williams College


            In his later years, Nabokov achieved a certain notoriety for his public dislike of certain thinkers--notably but not exclusively Freud--and for his dismissing countless respected, canonical authors as second-rate or worse. This paper attempts to account for Nabokov's strangely obsessive hatreds. Concerning thinkers, there is a strong possibility that Nabokov was only minimally acquainted with their actual writings. Moreover Nabokov, with his strong empirical bent, seemed to suffer from a concomitant inability to deal with and produce abstract thought. As regards literary authors, Nabokov's harsh judgments seem largely motivated by his posture of absolute aestheticism and by his own dogmas of artistic perfection. He therefore has no use for novelists who deal with ideas (Mann, Camus), or whose focus is largely "social" (Balzac, Faulkner, Conrad), or whose form and style might be imperfect but whose works nonetheless can convey and inspire "human interest" (Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Céline). Finally, Bell-Villada, the author of this paper, frankly admits to being a "lapsed Nabokovophile" who, in his student days, greatly admired the novelist's greatest works, but who in time ended up terribly disillusioned by the Nabokov of the interviews (in STRONG OPINIONS) and of the English prefaces to the reissued Russian novels. He continued to admire the artist Nabokov, though no longer the man.