Mann Act & Gods of Semantics in Lolita

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 04/21/2019 - 08:07

Describing the first lap of his road trip across the USA with Lolita, Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in VN's novel Lolita, 1955) mentions the Mann Act and the Gods of Semantics:


“My chère Dolores! I want to protect you, dear, from all the horrors that happen to little girls in coal sheds and alley ways, and alas, comme vous le savez trop bien, ma gentille, in the blueberry woods during the bluest of summers. Through thick and thin I will still stay your guardian, and if you are good, I hope a court may legalize that guardianship before long. Let us, however, forget, Dolores Haze, so-called legal terminology, terminology that accepts as rational the term ‘lewd and lascivious cohabitation.’ I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking indecent liberties with a child. The rapist was Charlie Holmes; I am the therapist – a matter of nice spacing in the way of distinction. I am your daddum, Lo. Look, I’ve a learned book here about young girls. Look, darling, what it says. I quote: the normal girl - normal, mark you – the normal girl is usually extremely anxious to please her father. She feels in him the forerunner of the desired elusive male (‘elusive’ is good, by Polonius!). The wise mother (and your poor mother would have been wise, had she lived) will encourage a companionship between father and daughter, realizing – excuse the corny style – that the girl forms her ideals of romance and of men from her association with her father. Now, what association does this cheery book mean – and recommend? I quote again: Among Sicilians sexual relations between a father and his daughter are accepted as a matter of course, and the girl who participates in such relationship is not looked upon with disapproval by the society of which she is part. I’m a great admirer of Sicilians, fine athletes, fine musicians, fine upright people, Lo, and great lovers. But let’s not digress. Only the other day we read in the newspapers some bunkum about a middle-aged morals offender who pleaded guilty to the violation of the Mann Act and to transporting a nine-year-old girl across state lines for immoral purposes, whatever these are. Dolores darling! You are not nine but almost thirteen, and I would not advise you to consider yourself my cross-country slave, and I deplore the Mann Act as lending itself to a dreadful pun, the revenge that the Gods of Semantics take against tight-zippered Philistines. I am your father, and I am speaking English, and I love you. (2.1)


“The Gods of Semantics” bring to mind kogda fonetikasluzhanka serafima (when phonetics is the seraph’s handmaiden), a line in Mandelshtam’s poem My napryazhyonnogo molchan’ya ne vynosim… (“We cannot bear strained silence…” 1913):


Мы напряженного молчанья не выносим -
Несовершенство душ обидно, наконец!
И в замешательстве уж объявился чтец,
И радостно его приветствовали: просим!

Я так и знал, кто здесь присутствовал незримо:
Кошмарный человек читает "Улялюм".
Значенье – суета, и слово только шум,
Когда фонетика – служанка серафима.

О доме Эшеров Эдгара пела арфа.
Безумный воду пил, очнулся и умолк.
Я был на улице. Свистел осенний шёлк...
И горло греет шёлк щекочущего шарфа...


We cannot bear strained silence

The faultiness of souls is offensive, after all!

The reader had been confused when he first appeared

 And was gleefully greeted with cries of “Please!”


I knew it, I knew who was invisibly there:

A man out of nightmare is reading Ulalume.

Meaning is mere vanity and the word is only noise,

When phonetics is the seraph’s handmaiden.


Edgar’s harp would sing of the House of Usher.

The madman drank some water, woke up and fell silent.

I was in the street. The silk of autumn whistled…

And the silk of a tickling scarf warmed my throat.


Ulalume (1847) is a ballad by E. A. Poe. In his poem Annabel Lee (1849) Poe mentions the wingèd seraphs of Heaven:


I was a child and she was a child,

   In this kingdom by the sea,

But we loved with a love that was more than love—

   I and my Annabel Lee—

With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven

   Coveted her and me.


At the beginning of Lolita Humbert Humbert (whose childhood love was a girl named Annabel Leigh) identifies himself with lyrical hero of Poe’s poem:


Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns. (1.1)

In the Russian version (1967) of Lolita Gumbert Gumbert calls the seraphs who envied him Edgarovy serafimy (Edgar’s seraphs):


Уважаемые присяжные женского и мужеского пола! Экспонат Номер Первый представляет собой то, чему так завидовали Эдгаровы серафимы - худо осведомленные, простодушные, благороднокрылые серафимы... Полюбуйтесь-ка на этот клубок терний. (1.1)


In Humbert Humbert’s memoirs Lolita is the first and the last word:


Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H. H., and one wanted H. H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. 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. (2.36)


In his poem Otchego dusha tak pevucha (“Why is the soul so melodious…” 1911) Mandelshtam complains that the dear names are so few:


Отчего душа так певуча
И так мало милых имён,
И мгновенный ритм — только случай,
Неожиданный Аквилон?


Он подымет облако пыли,
Зашумит бумажной листвой
И совсем не вернётся — или
Он вернётся совсем другой.


О, широкий ветер Орфея,
Ты уйдёшь в морские края, —
И, несозданный мир лелея,
Я забыл ненужное «я».


Я блуждал в игрушечной чаще
И открыл лазоревый грот...
Неужели я настоящий
И действительно смерть придёт?


Why is the soul so lyrical

And so few are the names I love

And the ready rhythm but a miracle

Like Aquillon from above?


He will raise clouds of dust in a hurry

He will leaf through the paper stack

And he will not come back -- or maybe

As another he will come back?


Winds of Orpheus are embracing -

You will leave for the sea and sky -

And, the world not created praising,

I forgot the superfluous "I".


In a toy thicket I wandered

And into an azure grotto delved.

Am I really real, I ponder,

And death will claim my true self?

(tr. I. Shambat)


Chto v imeni tebe moyom?.. (“What can my name mean to you?..” 1830) is a poem by Pushkin. Like Пушкин (Pushkin), Lolita is a six-letter name. In his poem Prorok (“The Prophet,” 1826) Pushkin mentions a six-winged seraph who appeared before him at the crossroad::


Духовной жаждою томим,

В пустыне мрачной я влачился, -

И шестикрылый серафим

На перепутьи мне явился.

Перстами легкими как сон

Моих зениц коснулся он.

Отверзлись вещие зеницы,

Как у испуганной орлицы.

Моих ушей коснулся он, -

И их наполнил шум и звон:

И внял я неба содроганье,

И горний ангелов полет,

И гад морских подводный ход.

И дольней лозы прозябанье.

И он к устам моим приник,

И вырвал грешный мой язык,

И празднословный, и лукавый,

И жало мудрыя змеи

В уста замершие мои

Вложил десницею кровавой.

И он мне грудь рассек мечом,

И сердце трепетное вынул

И угль, пылающий огнем,

Во грудь отверстую водвинул.

Как труп в пустыне я лежал,

И бога глас ко мне воззвал:

"Восстань, пророк, и виждь, и внемли,

Исполнись волею моей,

И, обходя моря и земли,

Глаголом жги сердца людей".


Tormented by a spiritual thirst,

I stumbled through a gloomy waste,

And there a six-winged seraph

Appeared before me at the crossroad.

With touch as light as slumber,

He laid his fingers on my eyes,

Which opened wide in prophecy

Just as a startled eagle's might.

Upon my ears his touch then fell,

And they were filled with noise and clangs:

I heard the heavens shift on high,

The whispering of angels' wings,

Sea monsters moving in the deep,

The growing grapevines in the vales.

And then he bent down towards my mouth,

My sinful tongue he ripped right out-

Its slander and its idle lies-

And with his bloody hand inserted

Between my still and lifeless lips

A cunning serpent's forked tongue.

And with his sword he cleaved my breast

Removed my shaking heart,

And then he seized a blazing coal,

And placed it in my gaping breast.

Corpse-like I lay upon the sand

And then God's voice called out to me:

"Arise, O Prophet, watch and hark,

Fulfill all my commands:

Go forth now over land and sea,

And with your word ignite men's hearts.


Morya i zemli (seas and lands) in the poem’s penultimate line brings to mind Zembla, a distant northern land in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962). According to Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), the king’s arrival in America almost coincided with Shade’s heart attack:


John Shade's heart attack (Oct. 17, 1958) practically coincided with the disguised king’s arrival in America where he descended by parachute from a chartered plane piloted by Colonel Montacute, in a field of hay-feverish, rank-flowering weeds, near Baltimore whose oriole is not an oriole. (note to Line 691)


A year ago, in October 1956, Hazel Shade (the poet’s daughter) spent a night in the Haunted Barn:


This barn, or rather shed, where "certain phenomena" occurred in October 1956 (a few months prior to Hazel Shade's death) had belonged to one Paul Hentzner, an eccentric farmer of German extraction, with old-fashioned hobbies such as taxidermy and herborizing. (note to Line 347)


Describing Hazel Shade’s investigations in the Haunted Barn, Kinbote mentions an electric storm and its theatrical ululations and flashes:


Her parents permitted her to make a nocturnal visit to the barn only under the condition that Jane P.--deemed a pillar of reliability--accompany her. Hardly had the girls settled down when an electric storm that was to last all night enveloped their refuge with such theatrical ululations and flashes as to make it impossible to attend to any indoor sounds or lights. (ibid.)


At the end of his poem “The Nature of Electricity” (quoted by Kinbote in his Commentary) Shade mentions the torments of a Tamerlane:


And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell. (note to Line 347).


Tamerlane (1827) is a poem by E. A. Poe. In Poe’s Ulalume the action takes place in the October night:


The skies they were ashen and sober;

The leaves they were crisped and sere—

The leaves they were withering and sere;

It was night in the lonesome October

Of my most immemorial year:

It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,

In the misty mid region of Weir—

It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,

In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.


E. A. Poe died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide on October 19, 1959 (the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum). There is a hope that after Kinbote’s death Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”) will be full again. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus (the poet’s murderer) after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hope). In Ulalume Poe mentions a light’s Sybilic splendor beaming with Hope and in Beauty:


I replied—"This is nothing but dreaming:

Let us on by this tremulous light!

Let us bathe in this crystalline light!

Its Sybilic splendor is beaming

With Hope and in Beauty to-night:—

See!—it flickers up the sky through the night!

Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,

And be sure it will lead us aright—

We safely may trust to a gleaming

That cannot but guide us aright,

Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night."


“Sybilic splendor” brings to mind Sybil Shade, the poet’s wife whose “real” name seems to be Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin. Hagia Sophia (1912) and Lastochka (“The Swallow,” 1920) are poems by Mandelshtam (whose wife’s name was Nadezhda).