Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027780, Sat, 2 Jun 2018 11:17:39 +0200

Re: teaching Lolita
Dear Nabokovians,

Has the debate around reading, teaching or writing about Lolita changed
that much since the novel first came out more than sixty years ago? I
wonder. There are still those who, for ethical reasons, keep arguing
that the novel can only have a bad influence on society, on the students
invited to read it especially, and should therefore be put only with
caution on the academic syllabus or kept out of it completely. With the
present post-Weinstein movements, Lolita is often, too often, considered
as a dirty book. I suspect that if a writer like Borges’ Pierre Ménard
were to try and publish it as a first edition today, he would be unable
to find a publisher for it, even in France. On the other hand, there are
those, most of us, who keep praising the novel for its sublime poetic
dimension and insist that art transcends ethics.

Though, as Anne Dwyer convincingly explains, teaching the novel may be
more difficult than it was forty years ago, I must point out that I was
personally forbidden, as early as 1976, to teach Lolita at the junior
level at the Sorbonne. I taught Lolita at the undergraduate level only
at San Diego State in the eighties, and, despite all the precautions I
took, I encountered some difficulties, but they were minor, probably
because I was French and only a visitor on the campus. In France, I
taught the book only at the graduate level, feeling on safer grounds
with more mature and better educated students.

Brian Boyd says he was disappointed by Anne Dwyer’s article, but I have
a feeling that his views are not so different from hers. Both agree that
Humbert is a perverse, “a cruel wretch”, and Lolita his victim; that
Nabokov shouldn’t be confused with his protagonist and never committed
the evil deeds he describes in his novel; that art transcends ethics
(though they refrain from openly saying so). Yet I tend to have some
reservation about his following statement: “One of the most important
things in human life is freedom, including freedom from manipulation,
from unfair and false persuasion and pressure, and from oppression.
Humbert tries to manipulate and pressure us as he has manipulated
Lolita. We need to learn to resist. Lolita is the supreme exercise in
literature of the challenge of reading against the character narrating.”
I agree with him that, when teaching, one should remind the students
that Humbert’s behavior in the real world is morally and legally
unacceptable, but does it mean that one should give a clinical reading
of the novel? He might almost give the impression of suggesting that
when he calls the therapists to the rescue: “one of the strongest claims
on behalf of Lolita, surely, is that sex abuse therapists find it so
valuable, so insightful, so genuinely therapeutic, such a clear way of
showing the psychology of an abuser. See the attached article by Lucia
Williams, and note her references to the work of Sokhna Fall.”

Following his advice, I read Williams’ interesting article and came
across the following passage: “why is it again that we cannot use the
term love when child sexual abuse is concerned? It is not excessive
morality as pedophiles criticize, but what is at stake is the inequality
of power: an adult who is in a relationship of responsibility or trust
(…) ultimately takes advantage of a child who is still developing –
solely to gratify or satisfy the adult’s needs.” What other terms,
except perversion or sexual greed, can be used to label Humbert’s
passion for Lolita? I agree, of course, with her moral and legal
approach to this difficult problem. Years ago, I ran a creative writing
workshop in Grasse prison; the only prisoners who agreed to participate
were sexual offenders, and more specifically “pointeurs”, pedophiles. I
never tried to make them write about their personal experience, but many
of them felt the urge to do it and often insisted that they truly loved
the girls they had intercourse with, or that they did it with their full
consent, which wasn’t always the case, I am sure. Each time, I used the
same arguments as William does in her article to tell them that it was
ethically and legally wrong to have sexual intercourse with children and
young teenagers but I usually failed to convince them.

Yet, Humbert did love Lolita. Nabokov does his best to underline that,
especially in the Coalmont chapter. As Samuel Johnson said in his
dictionary, the novel as a literary genre is “a small tale, generally of
love.” Modern novelists since Guilleragues, Defoe and Richardson have
endeavored to present a wide spectrum of the different brands and shades
of love and of a large range of perversions that often accompany them;
and Nabokov contributed to this age-old enterprise perhaps more than any
other novelist, as I have tried to show both in my Lacanian study,
Nabokov ou la cruauté du désir (Champ Vallon, 2004), and in my essay on
the poetic dimension of desire in his novels, Nabokov’s Eros or the
Poetics of Desire (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014), a totally different book.

Lolita isn’t an autobiography but a work of fiction – even if the highly
unreliable and somewhat unbalanced narrator of my latest novel, Le Rapt
de Lolita (Orizons, 2018), argues that it is the autobiography of a
close friend of his in Paris and endeavors to show that Nabokov stole
his manuscript. What I mean here (not in my novel) is that the criteria
to judge Humbert and the book itself can’t be only those I used with the
“pointeurs”, the participants in my creative writing workshop. Lolita is
a moving tragedy, not only for Humbert who is tortured by his perverse
sexual desire for young girls and eventually grows to conceive genuine
love for Lolita, but also to some extent for Nabokov himself whose
figure remains omnipresent in the book. He is one of the discursive
actants of the novel, not only through John Ray’s foreword and his
afterword – genuine “thresholds” of Humbert’s confession which are now
part of the novel itself. One must bear in mind that Nabokov wrote the
article published in the Anchor Review, “On a Book Entitled Lolita”, at
a time when the novel still remained unpublished in the States, and only
months after it was actually banned in France. Later, he insisted that
it be inserted in the subsequent editions of his novel and for obvious
reasons: he refused to be confused with his perverse protagonist and
narrator, and wished to proclaim his eminent esthetic ambitions. Reading
Lolita without taking into account Humbert’s countless signs of bad
faith in the body of the novel, along with the author’s repeated
attempts, inside the text or at its outskirts, to affirm his moral
values and prompt us to read the novel in consequence, amounts in my
opinion to misreading it. That’s how the poetic web of sense is woven in
this marvelous book. This has nothing to do with intentional fallacy. I
would be surrendering to this fallacy if I were to judge the novel only
with the criteria underlined by Nabokov in the afterword and his many
subsequent statements.

One must study the novel in all its complexity and ambiguity: as the
confession of a tormented and cruel pedophile who feels at once guilty
for what he has done but still cherishes the experience as his poetic
text testifies, and who not only abused a little girl, but believes or
wants to believe (not totally with bad faith) that she seduced him,
children being capable of that (not that we should forgive their
abusers, I repeat); as a genuine love story on his part; as a tragedy of
desire, of the cruelty of desire; as a textbook study of pedophilia (why
not?); as a poetic work aiming to show that art may transcend ethics,
even though it has a certain degree of social responsibility, etc. etc.
Only an empathic cum critical approach to the novel can begin to give us
access to its incredible depth. Limiting oneself to one single of these
(and other) options amounts to showing a lack of respect for Nabokov’s
immense achievement. That’s why, of course, teaching the novel
constitutes such a tremendous challenge!

Gilles Deleuze once wrote that “one can’t say a thing and its meaning at
the same time.” This remains true even of such a tyrannical author as
Vladimir Nabokov.

Maurice Couturier

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