Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025047, Thu, 6 Feb 2014 02:53:49 +0000

Re: [Old SIGHTING] Nabokov's Berlin: Nabokov, art and evil
Agreed, Jansy. Humbert sneers at the Shade household and America in general for their poor taste, while himself exemplifying far poorer morals. The following (from my article “Arts, Humanities, Sciences, Uses” in the current special issue on “Use” in literature and the humanities, in New Literary History, 2013, 53, 577-96, pp. 593–94) makes not quite the same point, but a similar one: Nabokov’s critique, although he thinks that art and imagination are ultimately on the side of good (see the foreword to The Waltz Invention), of any notion that by themselves they guarantee good:

The best art, like the best science, critiques itself, both building on and challenging what has gone before. In Lolita, Nabokov throws down a strong challenge to his own chosen art. Despite John Ray, the pages that follow his foreword show literature cannot guarantee superior sensitivity or conduct. It is no accident that the two men who prey on Lolita are both littérateurs, one a scholar and poet who tries to marshal Dante, Petrarch, and Poe as precursors, exemplars, and excusers of his own love for Lolita, the other a playwright who knows his Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Molière, Sheridan, Shaw, and Maeterlinck and who has fashioned “many plays for children.” Humbert, the lone, tense, scholarly European, draws on literature as exalted romantic aestheticism, as if it underwrites what he thinks the rare elevation and refinement of his passion. Quilty, the relaxed, gregarious, and populist American, sees little difference between art and commerce, piquant pleasure and pornography, the slick and the sleazy. Both are “well-read” in literature, but neither is morally better for it. . . .

As Nabokov shows, literature does not guarantee elevation of conduct or extension of sympathies: those who engage with literature are too various, and literature itself would run counter its own deepest nature if it sought to impose a rigid, and rigidly enforced, uniformity of response on the diversity of real readers. But here in Lolita, Nabokov invites good readers, as we respond to Humbert’s perspective, to reject that perspective precisely for its failing to consider or see Lolita’s. Lolita invites us to confront the human capacity to ignore the suffering of others, in the supposedly refined Humbert; to see beyond the blinkers of our own roles as protagonists and narrators of our own stories, and beyond the privileges and power our education may give us; to expand our sympathies to those with little power or voice. Literature at its best, Nabokov suggests, can invite, though never ensure, an expansion of human possibilities, into a world where “curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy” become “the norm”—ecstasy in its root sense of standing outside oneself, not at all in the sense of Humbert on the davenport crushing out against Lolita’s left buttock “the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.”

Art guarantees nothing, Nabokov’s critique of Humbert and Quilty suggests, but then this complex world precludes large guarantees.

Brian Boyd

On 6/02/2014, at 1:54 pm, Jansy Mello <jansy.nabokv-L@AETERN.US<mailto:jansy.nabokv-L@AETERN.US>> wrote:

"Nabokov, who saw in art the possibility of redemption, was tempted to think taste ruled out evil.". Nabokov in Berlin by Lesley Chamberlain (July/August 2010 - Standpoint Magazine)

I isolated this commentary by Lesley Chamberlain with the hope that some Nabler would clash against it or chime in. His wording is careful, but the intention is clear (taste rules out evil and redemption is possible through art). Nevertheless, what Nabokov expresses, when speaking through a possibly sincere Humbert, denies L.C's conclusion. Isn't he saying that art is a melancholy consolation for the pains and horrors which are a part of earthly life or that the hope of a redemption is selfish because it doesn't make past wrongs to other people acceptable?

In "Lolita" we find that: "Unless it can be proven to me — to me as I am now, today, with my heart and by beard, and my putrefaction — 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. To quote an old poet:
The moral sense in mortals is the duty
We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty."
and, in the last lines: "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita." No examples that corroborate L.C's thesis occur to me now...

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