pistol as Freudian symbol of Ur-father’s central forelimb in Lolita

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 07/27/2022 - 10:37

According to Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Lolita, 1955), a pistol is the Freudian symbol of the Ur-father’s central forelimb:


Gros Gaston, in his prissy way, had liked to make presents - presents just a prissy wee bit out of the ordinary, or so he prissily thought. Noticing one night that my box of chessmen was broken, he sent me next morning, with a little lad of his, a copper case: it had an elaborate Oriental design over the lid and could be securely locked. Once glance sufficed to assure me that it was one of those cheap money boxes called for some reason “luizettas” that you buy in Algiers and elsewhere, and wonder what to do with afterwards. It turned out to be much too flat for holding my bulky chessmen, but I kept it - using it for a totally different purpose.

In order to break some pattern of fate in which I obscurely felt myself being enmeshed, I had decided - despite Lo’s visible annoyance - to spend another night at Chestnut Court; definitely waking up at four in the morning, I ascertained that Lo was still sound asleep (mouth open, in a kind of dull amazement at the curiously inane life we all had rigged up for her) and satisfied myself that the precious contents of the “luizetta” were safe. There, snugly wrapped in a white woolen scarf, lay a pocket automatic: caliber. 32, capacity of magazine 8 cartridges, length a little under one ninth of Lolita’s length, stock checked walnut, finish full blued. I had inherited it from the late Harold Haze, with a 1938 catalog which cheerily said in part: “Particularly well adapted for use in the home and car as well as on the person.” There it lay, ready for instant service on the person or persons, loaded and fully cocked with the slide lock in safety position, thus precluding any accidental discharge. We must remember that a pistol is the Freudian symbol of the Ur-father’s central forelimb.

I was now glad I had it with me - and even more glad that I had learned to use it two years before, in the pine forest around my and Charlotte’s glass lake. Farlow, with whom I had roamed those remote woods, was an admirable marksman, and with his. 38 actually managed to hit a hummingbird, though I must say not much of it could be retrieved for proof - only a little iridescent fluff. A burley ex-policeman called Krestovski, who in the twenties had shot and killed two escaped convicts, joined us and bagged a tiny woodpecker - completely out of season, incidentally. Between those two sportsmen I of course was a novice and kept missing everything, though I did would a squirrel on a later occasion when I went out alone. “You like here,” I whispered to my light-weight compact little chum, and then toasted it with a dram of gin. (2.17)


Describing his life with Rita (a girl whom he picks up after Lolita was abducted from him), Humbert says that one day Rita proposed playing Russian roulette with his sacred automatic:


She was twice Lolita’s age and three quarters of mine: a very slight, dark-haired, pale-skinned adult, weighing a hundred and five pounds, with charmingly asymmetrical eyes, and angular, rapidly sketched profile, and a most appealing ensellure  to her supple back - I think she had some Spanish or Babylonian blood. I picked her up one depraved May evening somewhere between Montreal and New York, or more narrowly, between Toylestown and Blake, at a darkishly burning bar under the sign of the Tiger-moth, where she was amiably drunk: she insisted we had gone to school together, and she placed her trembling little hand on my ape paw. My senses were very slightly stirred but I decided to give her a try; I did – and adopted her as a constant companion. She was so kind, was Rita, such a good sport, that I daresay she would have given herself to any pathetic creature or fallacy, an old broken tree or a bereaved porcupine, out of sheer chumminess and compassion.

When I first met her she had but recently divorced her third husband – and a little more recently had been abandoned by her seventh cavalier servant – the others, the mutables, were too numerous and mobile to tabulate. Her brother was – and no doubt still is – a prominent, pasty-faced, suspenders-and-painted-tie-wearing politician, mayor and boaster of his ball-playing, Bible-reading, grain-handling home town. For the last eight years he had been paying his great little sister several hundred dollars per month under the stringent condition that she would never never enter great little Grainball City. She told me, with wails of wonder, that for some God-damn reason every new boy friend of hers would first of all take her Grainball-ward: it was a fatal attraction; and before she knew what was what, she would find herself sucked into the lunar orbit of the town, and would be following the flood-lit drive that encircled it “going round and round,” as she phrased it, “like a God-damn mulberry moth.”

She had a natty little coupé; and in it we traveled to California so as to give my venerable vehicle a rest. her natural speed was ninety. Dear Rita! We cruised together for two dim years, from summer 1950 to summer 1952, and she was the sweetest, simplest, gentles, dumbest Rita imaginable. In comparison to her, Valechka was a Schlegel, and Charlotte a Hegel. There is no earthly reason why I should dally with her in the margin of this sinister memoir, but let me say (hi, Rita – wherever you are, drunk or hangoverish, Rita, hi!) that she was the most soothing, the most comprehending companion that I ever had, and certainly saved me from the madhouse. I told her I was trying to trace a girl and plug that girl’s bully. Rita solemnly approved of the plan - and in the course of some investigation she undertook on her own (without really knowing a thing), around San Humbertino, got entangled with a pretty awful crook herself; I had the devil of a time retrieving her - used and bruised but still cocky. Then one day she proposed playing Russian roulette with my sacred automatic; I said you couldn’t, it was not a revolver, and we struggled for it, until at last it went off, touching off a very thin and very comical spurt of hot water from the hole it made in the wall of the cabin room; I remember her shrieks of laughter.

The oddly prepubescent curve of her back, her ricey skin, her slow languorous columbine kisses kept me from mischief. It is not the artistic aptitudes that are secondary sexual characters as some shams and shamans have said; it is the other way around: sex is but the ancilla of art. One rather mysterious spree that had interesting repercussions I must notice. I had abandoned the search: the fiend was either in Tartary or burning away in my cerebellum (the flames fanned by my fancy and grief) but certainly not having Dolores Haze play champion tennis on the Pacific Coast. One afternoon, on our way back East, in a hideous hotel, the kind where they hold conventions and where labeled, fat, pink men stagger around, all first names and business and booze – dear Rita and I awoke to find a third in our room, a blond, almost albino, young fellow with white eyelashes and large transparent ears, whom neither Rita nor I recalled having ever seen in our sad lives. Sweating in thick dirty underwear, and with old army boots on, he lay snoring on the double bed beyond my chaste Rita. One of his front teeth was gone, amber pustules grew on his forehead. Ritochka enveloped her sinuous nudity in my raincoat – the first thing at hand; I slipped on a pair of candy-striped drawers; and we took stock of the situation. Five glasses had been used, which in the way of clues, was an embarrassment of riches. The door was not properly closed. A sweater and a pair of shapeless tan pants lay on the floor. We shook their owner into miserable consciousness. He was completely amnesic. In an accent that Rita recognized as pure Brooklynese, he peevishly insinuated that somehow we had purloined his (worthless) identity. We rushed him into his clothes and left him at the nearest hospital, realizing on the way that somehow or other after forgotten gyrations, we ewer in Grainball. Half a year later Rita wrote the doctor for news. Jack Humbertson as he had been tastelessly dubbed was still isolated from his personal past. Oh Mnemosyne, sweetest and most mischievous of muses! (2.26)


“Some shams and shamans” seem to hint at "the Viennese witch doctor" (as VN called Sigmund Freud). Grainball = grain + ball = brain + Gall. The founder of phrenology, Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) was a German neuroanatomist, physiologist, and pioneer in the study of the localization of mental functions in the brain (according to Humbert, Lolita’s abductor was either in Tartary or burning away in his cerebellum). In the drafts of Graf Nulin (“Count Null,” 1825) Pushkin mentions mestnoy pamyati organ (an organ of local memory) that the Count had, according to Gall’s system, and that would help him to find, even in the darkness, a door, a window, a divan:


Граф местной памяти орган
Имел по Галевой примете,
Он в темноте, как и при свете,
Нашёл бы дверь, окно, диван.


In a letter of March 7 (?), 1826, to Pletnyov Pushkin calls his poem “Count Nulin” povest’ v rode Beppo (“a tale in the genre of Beppo”):


Знаешь ли? уж если печатать что, так возьмёмся за Цыганов. Надеюсь, что брат по крайней мере их перепишет ― а ты пришли рукопись ко мне ― я доставлю предисловие и м. б. примечания ― и с рук долой. А то всякой раз, как я об них подумаю или прочту слово в журн., у меня кровь портится ― в собрании же моих поэм для новинки поместим мы другую повесть в роде Верро, которая у меня в запасе.


In Beppo: A Venetian Story (1817) Lord Byron mentions a cavalier servente (socially accepted lover of a married woman):


Shakspeare described the sex in Desdemona

As very fair, but yet suspect in fame,

And to this day from Venice to Verona

Such matters may be probably the same,

Except that since those times was never known a

Husband whom mere suspicion could inflame

To suffocate a wife no more than twenty.

Because she had a "cavalier servente." (XVII)


When Humbert first meets Rita, she has but recently divorced her third husband – and a little more recently had been abandoned by her seventh cavalier servant. The amnesic person whom Humbert and Rita find in their bed in a hotel room seems to be someone's runaway male organ (like Major Kovalyov's runaway nose in Gogol's story “The Nose,” 1835). At the end of Beppo Byron says that his pen is at the bottom of a page:


Whate'er his youth had suffer'd, his old age
With wealth and talking made him some amends;
Though Laura sometimes put him in a rage,
I've heard the Count and he were always friends.
My pen is at the bottom of a page,
Which being finish'd, here the story ends;
'Tis to be wish'd it had been sooner done,
But stories somehow lengthen when begun. (XCIX)


“My pen is at the bottom of a page” is a play on penis. “The bottom of a page” suggests a boy’s buttocks. Gaston Godin (a French Professor at Beardsley who sent to Humbert, with a little lad of his, a copper case in which Humbert keeps his pistol) loves little boys. According to Humbert, Clare Quilty (Lolita’s abductor whom Humbert manages to track down) had sodomized Lolita:


To have him trapped, after those years of repentance and rage… To look at the black hairs on the back of his pudgy hands… To wander with a hundred eyes over his purple silks and hirsute chest foreglimpsing the punctures, and mess, and music of pain… To know that this semi-animated, subhuman trickster who had sodomized my darling - oh, my darling, this was intolerable bliss! (2.35)


In a poem that Humbert makes Quilty read aloud before shooting him dead Humbert compares himself to Adam (the Ur-father):


I decided to inspect the pistol - our sweat might have spoiled something - and regain my wind before proceeding to the main item in the program. To fill in the pause, I proposed he read his own sentence - in the poetical form I had given it. The term “poetical justice” is one that may be most happily used in this respect. I handed him a neat typescript.

“Yes,” he said, “splendid idea. Let me fetch my reading glasses” (he attempted to rise).


“Just as you say. Shall I read out loud?”


“Here goes. I see it’s in verse.


Because you took advantage of a sinner
because you took advantage
because you took
because you took advantage of my disadvantage…


“That’s good, you know. That’s damned good.”


…when I stood Adam-naked
before a federal law and all its stinging stars


“Oh, grand stuff!”


…Because you took advantage of a sin
when I was helpless moulting moist and tender
hoping for the best
dreaming of marriage in a mountain state
aye of a litter of Lolitas…


“Didn’t get that.”


Because you took advantage of my inner
essential innocence
because you cheated me


“A little repetitious, what? Where was I?”


Because you cheated me of my redemption
because you took
her at the age when lads
play with erector sets


“Getting smutty, eh?”


a little downy girl still wearing poppies
still eating popcorn in the colored gloam
where tawny Indians took paid croppers
because you stole her
from her wax-browed and dignified protector
spitting into his heavy-lidded eye
ripping his flavid toga and at dawn
leaving the hog to roll upon his new discomfort
the awfulness of love and violets
remorse despair while you
took a dull doll to pieces
and threw its head away
because of all you did
because of all I did not
you have to die


“Well, sir, this is certainly a fine poem. Your best as far as I’m concerned.”

He folded and handed it back to me.

I asked him if he had anything serious to say before dying. The automatic was again ready for use on the person. He looked at it and heaved a big sigh.

“Now look here, Mac,” he said. “You are drunk and I am a sick man. Let us postpone the matter. I need quiet. I have to nurse my impotence. Friends are coming in the afternoon to take me to a game. This pistol-packing face is becoming a frightful nuisance. We are men of the world, in everything - sex, free verse, marksmanship. If you bear me a grudge, I am ready to make unusual amends. Even an old-fashioned rencontre , sword or pistol, in Rio or elsewhere - is not excluded. My memory and my eloquence are not at their best today, but really, my dear Mr. Humbert, you were not an ideal stepfather, and I did not force your little protg to join me. It was she made me remove her to a happier home. This house is not as modern as that ranch we shared with dear friends. But it is roomy, cool in summer and winter, and in a word comfortable, so, since I intend retiring to England or Florence forever, I suggest you move in. It is yours, gratis. Under the condition you stop pointing at me that [he swore disgustingly] gun. By the way, I do not know if you care for the bizarre, but if you do, I can offer you, also gratis, as house pet, a rather exciting little freak, a young lady with three breasts, one a dandy, this is a rare and delightful marvel of nature. Now, soyons raisonnables . You will only wound me hideously and then rot in jail while I recuperate in a tropical setting. I promise you, Brewster, you will be happy here, with a magnificent cellar, and all the royalties from my next playI have not much at the bank right now but I propose to borrow - you know, as the Bard said, with that cold in his head, to borrow and to borrow and to borrow. There are other advantages. We have here a most reliable and bribable charwoman, a Mrs. Vibrissa - curious name - who comes from the village twice a week, alas not today, she has daughters, granddaughters, a thing or two I know about the chief of police makes him my slave. I am a playwright. I have been called the American Maeterlinck. Maeterlinck-Schmetterling, says I. Come on! All this is very humiliating, and I am not sure I am doing the right thing. Never use herculanita with rum. Now drop that pistol like a good fellow. I knew your dear wife slightly. You may use my wardrobe. Oh, another thing - you are going to like this. I have an absolutely unique collection of erotica upstairs. Just to mention one item: the in folio de-luxe Bagration Island by the explorer and psychoanalyst Melanie Weiss, a remarkable lady, a remarkable work - drop that gun - with photographs of eight hundred and something male organs she examined and measured in 1932 on Bagration, in the Barda Sea, very illuminating graphs, plotted with love under pleasant skies - drop that gun - and moreover I can arrange for you to attend executions, not everybody knows that the chair is painted yellow” (ibid.)


The explorer and psychoanalyst Melanie Weiss is a negative, as it were, of Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann mentioned by John Ray, Jr., Ph. D. in his Foreword to Humbert’s manuscript:


Viewed simply as a novel, “Lolita” deals with situations and emotions that would remain exasperatingly vague to the reader had their expression been etiolated by means of platitudinous evasions. True, not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by their absence here. If, however, for this paradoxical prude’s comfort, an editor attempted to dilute or omit scenes that a certain type of mind might call “aphrodisiac” (see in this respect the monumental decision rendered December 6, 1933, by Hon. John M. Woolsey in regard to another, considerably more outspoken, book), one would have to forego the publication of “Lolita” altogether, since those very scenes that one might inpetly accuse of sensuous existence of their own, are the most strictly functional ones in the development of a tragic tale tending unswervingly to nothing less than a moral apotheosis. The cynic may say that commercial pornography makes the same claim; the learned may counter by asserting that “H. H.”’s impassioned confession is a tempest in a test tube; that at least 12% of American adult males - a “conservative” estimate according to Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann (verbal communication) - enjoy yearly, in one way or another, the special experience “H. H.” describes with such despair; that had our demented diarist gone, in the fatal summer of 1947, to a competent psycho-pathologist, there would have been no disaster; but then, neither would there have been this book.


John Ray, Jr. is the author of “Do the Senses make Sense?” (a work in which certain morbid states and perversions have been discussed):


“Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male,” such were the two titles under which the writer of the present note received the strange pages it preambulates. “Humbert Humbert,” their author, had died in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis, on November 16, 1952, a few days before his trial was scheduled to start. His lawyer, my good friend and relation, Clarence Choate Clark, Esq., now of the District of Columbia bar, in asking me to edit the manuscript, based his request on a clause in his client’s will which empowered my eminent cousin to use the discretion in all matters pertaining to the preparation of “Lolita” for print. Mr. Clark’s decision may have been influenced by the fact that the editor of his choice had just been awarded the Poling Prize for a modest work (“Do the Senses make Sense?”) wherein certain morbid states and perversions had been discussed.