Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026214, Wed, 3 Jun 2015 17:05:26 -0400

2015 Forgetting Lolita: How Nabokov's Victim Became an American
Fantasy By Ira Wells

BOOKS <http://www.newrepublic.com/tags/books>MAY 28, 2015Forgetting Lolita:
How Nabokov's Victim Became an American Fantasy
By Ira Wells <http://www.newrepublic.com/authors/ira-wells>

In January of 1959, the 600 residents of Lolita, Texas, found themselves in
the midst of an improbable identity crisis. The town had been named in 1909
for Lolita Reese, the granddaughter of a Texas patriot. But following the
U.S. publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel in 1958, “Lolita” had suddenly
acquired a whole new set of connotations.

“The people in this town are god-fearing, church going, and we resent the
fact our town has been tied in with the title of a dirty, sex-filled book
that tells the nasty story of a middle-aged man’s love affair with a very
young girl.” So read a petition circulated by R. T. Walker, deacon of the
local First Baptist Church, who hoped to change the town’s name from Lolita
to Jackson. In the end, however, the proud citizens of Lolita decided to
hunker down and wait out the storm: As the Texas historian Fred Tarpley put
it, “Lolita was retained with the hope that the novel and the [upcoming]
film would soon be forgotten."
The Most Bizarrely Sexual 'Lolita' Book Covers


In fairness to the good people of Lolita, nobody in 1959 could have
predicted what the future had in store for *Lolita*. In the ensuing
decades, Nabokov’s novel spawned two films, musical adaptations, ballets,
stage adaptations (including one legendarilydisastrous
Albee–directed production starring Donald Sutherland as Humbert Humbert), a
Russian-language opera, spin-off novels, bizarre fashion subcultures, and
memorabilia that runs the gamut from kitschy to creepy: from heart-shaped
sunglasses to anatomically precise blow-up dolls. With the possible
exception of Gatsby, no twentieth-century American literary character
penetrated the public consciousness quite like Lolita. Her very name
entered the language as a common noun: “a precociously seductive
girl,” according
to <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lolita> the
*Merriam-Webster *dictionary.
(Gatsby, by contrast, had to settle for a mere adjective: “Gatsbyesque.”)
At a certain echelon of pop music megastardom (the domain of Britney,
Miley, Katy Perry, Lana Del Rey) they are all Lolitas now, trafficking in
the iconography of lollipops and stuffed animals and schoolgirl outfits. In
the sixty years since she first appeared, Lolita transcended her original
textual instance: She became an archetype, an icon of youthful
desirability. Lolita became America’s sweetheart.

And yet, there is also a sense in which the citizens of Lolita, Texas, have
been proved right. We *have* forgotten Lolita. At least, we’ve forgotten
about the young girl, “standing four feet ten in one sock,” whose childhood
deprivation and brutalization and torture subliminally animate the myth
that launched a thousand music videos. The publication, reception, and
cultural re-fashioning of *Lolita* over the past 60 years is the story of
how a twelve-year-old rape victim named Dolores became a dominant archetype
for seductive female sexuality in contemporary America: It is the story of
how a girl became a noun.

L*olita* was first published in Paris in 1955. Nabokov had apparently tried
his luck with several big-name American publishing houses, but *Lolita* had
the strong scent of jail-bait: At least one editor, Pascal Covici at
Viking, believed that publication would land them both in prison. Thus,
Nabokov’s masterpiece—a book included on *Time Magazine*’s
<http://entertainment.time.com/2005/10/16/all-time-100-novels/slide/all/> list
of the 100 greatest novels and ranked the fourth best novel of the century
by the Modern Library
<http://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels/>—was first printed
in the French publisher Olympia’s “Common Traveler” series alongside such
literary achievements as *Until She Screams*, *Tender Thighs*, and *There’s
a Whip in My Valise*.

At a certain echelon of pop music megastardom they are all Lolitas now,
trafficking in the iconography of lollipops and stuffed animals and
schoolgirl outfits.

*Lolita*, as most people know, is the first-person account of a 38-year-old
man’s erotic obsession with a twelve-year-old girl. Humbert Humbert insists
that he is not your garden-variety pedophile: He is attracted not to
children, per se, but to “nymphets”—ethereal creatures distinguished by
their “fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm.”
Humbert justifies his appetites by insisting that our apparently “natural”
prohibition against sex with minors is in fact just a provisional and
arbitrary cultural construction. “Dante fell madly in love with his
Beatrice when she was nine,” he claims, and “when Petrarch fell madly in
love with his Laureen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve.” The name
of Humbert’s first nymphic obsession, Annabel Leigh, evokes the poem
“Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe, who married his 13-year-old cousin
Virginia Clemm. “Lolita” recalls Lillita McMurray—who, heavily pregnant at
15, was rushed across the Mexican border to become Mrs. Charlie Chaplin.
(Legend has it that Chaplin met her when she was seven-years old at Kitty’s
Come on Inn, a meet-cute Nabokov himself could not have devised.)

Notwithstanding Humbert’s solipsistic claim that it was *she* who seduced
*him*, Lolita spends much of the novel as the narrator’s sexual captive.
Humbert’s description of the rape and coercion of his stepdaughter is
generally glib and dismissive: How inconvenient for poor Humbert when
Lolita suddenly expects to be *paid* for her “fancy embraces.” (He pries
the coins out of her little fist after he’s finished.) In a few rare
instances, however, Humbert allows the baroque veil of language to slip
away, and we are momentarily reminded of Lolita’s youth and fragility, of
“her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.”

Just as our revulsion toward him is starting to thicken and congeal,
Humbert’s obsessive lust for Lolita effloresces into a shimmering halo of
love. Humbert neither expects nor asks for our forgiveness—on the novel’s
penultimate page, he says that he would sentence himself to 35 years in
prison for rape—but the soaring tones in which he commemorates his love for
Lolita have led some readers to wonder if he hasn’t achieved some kind of
moral apotheosis after all. Is Humbert’s love genuine, and would it
significantly change the novel’s moral calculus even if it were? One may
violently disagree with Lionel Trilling—who suggested
<http://www.unz.org/Pub/Encounter-1958oct-00009>, in “The Last Lover,” that
“we naturally incline to be lenient toward a rapist … who eventually feels
a deathless devotion to his victim”—while still registering the deep pathos
of Humbert’s final moments with Lolita. When they last part, Lolita is
married, pregnant, “hopelessly worn at seventeen,” and no longer a nymphet.
Humbert says, “I looked at her and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I
know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or
imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.”

From the start, the mere existence of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of
*Lolita* (1962) was presented as a *reason* for its existence. “How did
they ever make a film of Lolita”? asked the film’s tag-line. Well, as at
least one critic observed at the time, they didn’t. Kubrick’s sitcom
adaptation of *Lolita* is a textbook case of what the culture critic Dwight
MacDonald called “mid-cult”: the film sanitizes the novel, renders it safe
for mass public consumption, and then congratulates its audience for having
had an “artistic” experience. The film’s defenders point to the severe
restrictions imposed by the Hays Code
<http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93301189>. But the
problem with Kubrick’s *Lolita* is not the sexual subtext the filmmaker
omitted. It’s the sexual subtext he added.

Nabokov repeatedly emphasizes that there is nothing conventionally
beautiful about the nymphet. The novel’s Lolita is a tomboyish, malodorous
little urchin: Humbert comments on her “monkeyish nimbleness”; he duly
notes every time she picks her nose or adjusts a wedgie. Kubrick airbrushes
this character into a 1950s pin-up model. In her introductory shot, Lolita
is (un)dressed in a bikini, propped up on one arm, the posture and lighting
carefully coordinated to accentuate the womanly swell of her hips, the
smooth perfection of her long legs, her sultry expression as she looks up
to meet our gaze. Of course, Nabokov’s Humbert is attracted to Lolita
because of her *childishness*, not because she is a precocious bombshell.
But the real issue is one of distance. The novel never lets us forget that
there is something monstrous about Humbert’s desire for Lolita. Kubrick’s
lens assumes that *you* are the monster—which would be fine, had he not
also aged Lolita and endowed her with womanly allure, creating a safe
imaginative space for our erotic consumption of her snowy young flesh.

James Mason and Sue Lyon in "Lolita" (1962)

In the end, Kubrick’s bowdlerization or egregious misprision of his source
text didn’t much matter, because his film did something far more lasting:
It gave the world an image of Lolita. The film’s poster—the hazy photograph
of Lolita in her heart-shaped sunglasses, a glistening lollipop entering
her moist lips—supplied America with the instantly recognizable signifiers
of Lolita that would endure in the age of Instagram. That image, once seen,
cannot be unseen. The merely textual Lolita has been lost to us forever.

Afew years ago, *GQ* magazine created a minor controversy with a photo
spread called “*Glee* Gone Wild.” The photos featured *Glee*cast
members—Dianna Agron, Lea Michele, and the late Cory Monteith, who played
members of a high school glee club—cavorting about a school in various
states of undress. The photos elicited predictable outrage: Katie Couric
denounced the shoot on CBS, calling it a betrayal of the show’s young
viewership. The Parents Television Council (PTC) asserted that *GQ* “is
sexualizing the actresses who play high school-aged characters on *Glee. *...
It borders on pedophilia.”

Brenda Chaser/Getty Images
Britney Spears

Of course, there was nothing explicitly pedophilic about the images, which
featured actors who were 24 (Agron and Michele) and 28 (Monteith) years of
age. What the PTC found disturbing about the images, even if they didn’t
quite articulate it this way, was that they seemed to be tempting viewers
to participate in a kind of *imaginative*pedophilia. We know that the
actors are of age, which is exactly what allows us to indulge in the
fantasy that they are under-aged. (A similar dynamic is at work in a*Rolling
Stone* photo spread featuring a lingerie-clad Britney Spears posing with a
teddy bear: Once again, an explicit recognition that the star is of
consenting age licenses the viewer’s imaginative erotic enjoyment of her as
a child.) It is precisely this invitation to imaginative pedophilia that
has disturbed readers about Humbert Humbert. We know, after all, that
Dolores Haze did not exist. No little girls were sexually violated in the
making of *Lolita*. And yet there is something disquieting about Humbert’s
insistence that *you*, dear reader, must collaborate with him in the rape
of a child. “I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am
about to replay,” he says just prior to their first sexual encounter. And,
later: “Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me.”

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
The Harajuku Girls

“*Glee* Gone Wild” is an example of the “polite pedophilia” that fructifies
in the American sexual imaginary. Historically, adult actors portrayed
child roles in order to save children from the theater and its insalubrious
associations. Today, popular culture rewards adult women who act like
children for the collective erotic enjoyment that will not speak its name.
The up-and-coming starlet Melanie Martinez
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAB5AC9yhY0> pushes the aesthetic further
than most: She poses with a soother, wears a bib, and drapes herself in a
cloak made out of plushy toys. Katy Perry’s bodily proportions sometimes
suggest a near-parodic vision of womanliness, but her childishness is the
real secret to her success. “Got a motel and/ Built a fort out of sheets…”
she sings in “Teenage Dream,” and then “Let’s go all the way tonight”—a
song that appeals to very young girls and to dirty old men. Perry’s
vestigial childishness, like the leering attention paid to Hannah Montana’s
mutation or pupation into Miley Cyrus, reveals that nothing stokes the fire
in our collective loins quite like the blurring of lines
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A381p_SAbq8> around childhood sexuality.
(Miley’s outstretched tongue differs from the Rolling Stones’s icon in that
it is a signifier not of fellatio, but of childishness: Sticking out their
tongues is something little girls do.)

The erotic fascination engendered by a young female star is only heightened
if the audience has a clear image of what she looked like as a child.

Indeed, the erotic fascination engendered by a young female star is only
heightened if the audience has a clear image of what she looked like as a
child (a nymphic echo, as Humbert might say), which surely contributes a
certain erotic *frisson* to the “adult” success of so many former Disney
stars: Christina, Britney, Miley, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato. Any
sufficiently talented, beautiful, and well-connected young girl can aspire
to superstardom, but it sure helps if you used to appear in *Barney and
Friends*. What is innocence, after all, if not the promise of future
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Miley Cyrus

*Lolita* occupies a curious cultural space in all of this. On the one hand,
the endless cultural re-fashioning of Lolita over the past 60 years (from
Stanley Kubrick to Lana Del Rey) has turned Lolita into the archetype of
the alluring child, the very definition of a “precociously seductive girl.”
On the other, the novel itself constitutes a vicious satire of a culture
that fetishizes young girls—a culture that openly celebrates, in songs like
“When You Were Sweet Sixteen,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “Sweet Little
Sixteen,” the exact*instant* that a girl crosses the threshold into legal
fuckability—while simultaneously loathing pedophilia as an absolute moral
evil on par with genocide. Crucial to Nabokov’s satire is the fact that
Humbert gets precisely what he wants: Some of the most spine-tingling
moments in*Lolita* come from the casual manner in which Humbert reminds us
that he is sleeping with his step-daughter:

I would have given her a sip of hot spiced wine, and two asprins, and
kissed the fever away, if, upon an examination of her lovely uvula, one of
the gems of her body, I had not seen that it was burning red. I undressed
her. Her breath was bittersweet. Her brown rose tasted of blood. She was
shaking from head to toe… Giving up all hope of intercourse, I wrapped her
up in a laprobe and carried her into the car.

What Lolita names, today, is not simply a “precociously seductive girl,”
but also the immense act of cultural repression that is partially
accomplished by that dubious definition. Britney, Katy, and Miley may tap
into the Lolita myth through the performance of precocity, but that
precocity was never native to Dolores Haze; it was, in fact, projected onto
her by her rapist. The widespread cultural acceptance of this fantasy at
face value is tantamount to the declaration: #IBelieveHumbert. The American
public imagination has accepted Humbert’s definition of the nymphet while
strenuously muffling the pedophilic exertions involved in the creation of
the myth.

But while the erasure of Humbert may be necessary to sustain the fantasy,
Nabokov was in the business of puncturing fantasies, not perpetuating them,
and nothing kills a fantasy faster than its fulfillment. Sixty years on,
celebrity culture everywhere confirms that Lolita is still the most
thrilling ride in the amusement park, though her creator wanted us to hear
the sobs in the night—every night, every night—that were the price of

Ira Wells is a culture writer and the author of *Fighting Words: Polemics
and Social Change in Literary Naturalism*. Follow @Ira_Wells
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