NABOKV-L post 0000418, Sat, 7 Jan 1995 11:51:28 -0800

From: Brian D. Walter <>

A Robust but Pliant Philistine:
John Ray as LOLITA's Ironic Muse
by Brian D. Walter

One of the most interesting and important aspects of Nabokov's
work is the way in which it defends itself against the philistine reader.
In lectures and essays as well as within his fiction, Nabokov takes
considerable pains to criticize this narrow-minded, even hostile reader
whose allegiance to social convention blinds him to the pleasures of the
author's cherished 'aesthetic bliss.' Nabokov's infamous dismissals of
fellow authors--ranging from Faulkner to Orwell to Sartre--often stem from
his estimation of their works' pandering to this corrupt reader.
My paper examines one of Nabokov's key strategies for disarming
the philistine reader of Lolita--the novel's foreword, 'authored' by John
Ray. This character has proved a persistent problem in Nabokov criticism.
Alfred Appel, for example, in The Annotated Lolita, explains Ray's
combination of insightful artistic appraisal with hackneyed moral
criticism as little more than an oversight on Nabokov's part, an instance
when his fictional "mask has not remained totally in place," producing
"subtle oscillations between the shrill locutions and behavioristic
homilies of Ray and the quite reasonable statements of an authorial voice
projected, as it were, from the wings" (The Annotated Lolita, 322).
My argument offers a different understanding of Ray within the
larger context of Nabokov's contest with the philistine. Instead of an
authorial oversight, Ray exemplifies the hostile reader whom the novel has
won over to appreciation, despite his conventional prejudices and
commitments. As such, Ray represents Nabokov's most ingenious stroke
against the social- minded critic. Set before the narrative, Ray's
preamble appears to exert an impartial authority over Humbert's
confessions, when in fact, Ray effectively relinquishes all authority by
admitting that he has found nothing in the manuscript to require his
editing. Ray's uselessness as an editor of Humbert's story allows Nabokov
to defuse right from the start the authority of social-minded criticism
over his most controversial novel. Created to set the novel's reader on
the right track to appreciation, Ray serves as a model reader for learning
to appreciate the artistic achievement of Humbert's memoir despite the
criminal loathsomeness of its condemned narrator.
This reading lends itself to a further point: Ray in his
conversion represents not only an ideal reader, but also a source of
inspiration for the novel, a predisposed skeptic whom the novel must find
a way to enchant. As a convertible philistine, Ray serves as an ironic
muse for Lolita, a negative but crucial motivation for the novel's art.