A Brief Analysis of Lolita
Lolita is misunderstood, everyone knows that. It is not a book about rude child seducing a cultured academic, but rather a cultured monster abusing an innocent child. This is obvious to anyone who reads the book with a keen eye. It is a story about perspective told from the perspective of a monster. This is made objectively apparent in section 34 part 2 of the novel:
“When I started, fifty-six days ago, to write Lolita, first in the psychopathic ward for observation, and then in this well-heated, albeit tombal, seclusion, I thought I would use these notes in toto at my trial, to save not my head, of course, but my soul. In midcomposition, however, I realized that I could not parade living Lolita. I still may use parts of this memoir in hermetic sessions, but publication is to be deferred.”
Lolita as a novel exists in the literal world of story as a manuscript written by Humbert himself. It also a manuscript intended for public consumption, which adds a conflict of interest regarding Humbert’s recollection of events. This focus on perspective is echoed in Nabokov’s afterward to Lolita where he claims the initial spark of inspiration for the concept came from, “newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” Nabakov later says the “[t]he impulse record had no textual connection” to Lolita, though the through line of perspective runs through both narratives.
So, there we have the purpose then. Lolita is a story where a horrible pedophile does horrible things but hides it using language. Do we need a book to tell us Pedophiles are bad? The second half of that statement is far more interesting. In From Cliché to Archetype McLuhan describes the concepts of symbolic anesthetics:
“There is a fascinating example in Milton’s Paradise Lost of the process of intellectual anesthesia. Milton’s problem, which is that of orthodox theology, is to explain how Satan, who has supreme created intelligence, should immediately be able to intuit the results of any sin. Therefore the problem is: how can he be said to commit sin and be of high order of intelligence? Milton solves this problem wittily by showing how Satan uses language to obscure his thinking. (p. 14)”
The human mind is famous for its ability to rationalize itself into knots to explain any situation, so intellectual anesthesia is any forms of thought which soothe the mind typical in response to external challenges to the self. The entirety of Lolita can then be considered a drug trip for Humbert to soothe his own conscious. Note the opening lines in section one part one of Lolita:
“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.”
The repeated sounding out of LO-LEE-TA sound like a chant similar to the invocations uttered aesthetics in the process of meditation. The use of repetition serves a similar purpose giving the passage a rhythmic quality which makes it easy to let the language flow without considering its meaning. This trick is betrayed by Humbert in the ending of that passage, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” A third wrinkle comes from an interview Nabokov did with the Paris review:
He does [names him]. A third critic has said that you “diminish” your characters “to the point where they become ciphers in a cosmic farce.” I disagree; Humbert, while comic, retains a touching and insistent quality — that of the spoiled artist.
I would put it differently: Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear “touching.” That epithet, in its true, tear-iridized sense, can only apply to my poor little girl. Besides, how can I “diminish” to the level of ciphers, et cetera, characters that I have invented myself? One can “diminish” a biographee, but not an eidolon.
Humbert is in no way even an anti-hero he is vain and cruel. When talking with the BBC Nabokov said, “It was my most difficult book — the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life…” A brief look at the prose style of Lolita can confirm this. Take this passage for section three part one:
“All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because that frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do. After one wild attempt we made to meet at night in her garden (of which more later), the only privacy we were allowed was to be out of earshot but not out of sight on the populous part of the plage. There, on the soft sand, a few feet away from our elders, we would sprawl all morning, in a petrified paroxysm of desire, and take advantage of every blessed quirk in space and time to touch each other: her hand, halfhidden in the sand, would creep toward me, its slender brown fingers sleepwalking nearer and nearer; then, her opalescent knee would start on a long cautious journey; sometimes a chance rampart built by younger children granted us sufficient concealment to graze each other’s salty lips; these incomplete contacts drove our healthy and inexperienced young bodies to such a state of exasperation that not even the cold blue water, under which we still clawed at each other, could bring relief.”
Now compare this with a passage from The Real Life of Sebastian Knight also by Nabakov:
“SEBASTIAN KNIGHT was born on the thirty-first of December, 1899, in the former capital of my country. An old Russian lady who has for some obscure reason begged me not to divulge her name, happened to show me in Paris the diary she had kept in the past. So uneventful had those years been (apparently) that the collecting of daily details (which is always a poor method of self-preservation) barely surpassed a short description of the day’s weather; and it is curious to note in this respect that the personal diaries of sovereigns — no matter what troubles beset their realms — are mainly concerned with the same subject.”
The writing style of Humbert is vile at points in its own self absorption in a way which is alien to Nabokov’s other books. Vile writing for a vile human being. It must have taken considerable effort to craft prose, so character driven while tying into the complex, playful structures Nabokov is known for. Nabokov further clarifies, in the Lolita afterword, “my creature Humbert is a foreigner and an anarchist”. On his choice of American pop culture as a key setting for the novel Nabokov says, “I needed a certain exhilarating milieu. Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity”. Clarifying even more that “[a]ny proletarian from Chicago can be as bourgeois…as a [European] duke.” From this we can derive an even deeper layer to Lolita, Humbert is a failure of the old world come to terrorize the children of the new. Humbert is simultaneously attracted and repulsed to the children of the new world because he knows deep down, they are the same philistines. Or perhaps I have simply lost the plot. As Nabokov himself said, “…Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”
Nabokov was writing in a style and intent so different from our total political world that it is debatable if anyone let alone academics can grasp at Nabokov without hacking him to oblivion. Nabokov’s work is anti critique and hostile to literary analysis is to be read and enjoyed rather than dissected. To do so one would have to kill it and once you do that the faun can no longer dance. One final quote from the Paris review:
“The purpose of a critique is to say something about a book the critic has or has not read. Criticism can be instructive in the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic’s intelligence, or honesty, or both.”