24 May 2012

Lolita and Games

One of the most interesting things about Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 book (that surely ranks as among the greatest texts in English), is the prevalence of so many embedded games in the text.  For example, Humbert Humbert's ability to deceive himself is far more interesting than the simple grotesqueness of his pedophiliac cannibal-love, and this trait is what elevates the book beyond simple spectacle.1  Certainly, there is ample spectacle: Humbert's pedophilia, the central mysteries of the book (what is Humbert's crime?  who "stole" Lolita?), and the lyric beauty of Nabokov's language are all interesting.  But the hidden truth behind Humbert's unreliable narration enfolds more within the text.  This book is not just for gawking.

The greatest delusion/game, and the one most broadly evident, is that Humbert thinks he was justified in his actions.  Early in the text, he engages in several attempts to defend pedophilia as a whole - and his own predations in particular.  Humbert draws crude comparisons with history and the rest of the world, protesting with pathetic erudition:
Here is Virgil who could the nymphet sing in a single tone, but probably preferred a lad's perineum. Here are two of King Akhnaten's and Queen Nefertiti's pre-nubile Nile daughters (that royal couple had a litter of six), wearing nothing but many necklaces of bright beads, relaxed on cushions, intact after three thousand years, with their soft brown puppybodies, cropped hair and long ebony eyes.
 Later and more crudely, after manhandling the child:
I felt proud of myself. I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor. Absolutely no harm done. The conjurer had poured milk, molasses, foaming champagne into a young lady's new white purse; and lo, the purse was intact.
Most painfully and personally, Humbert attempts to tell the story of the first rape in a way that exonerates himself:
I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.
 This moment - the end of Humbert's nauseating attempts of pursuit and the beginning of his nauseating attempts of retention of Lolita - also marks the apogee of his defense of his actions.  The last few words of the chapter, referring to Lolita as a "wincing child," hint at the grimness hidden behind Humbert's obsession: even he does not believe he was anything less than a monster.  Increasingly and from this moment, theirs becomes an adversarial relationship.  Lolita is no longer prey, she is an enemy of "sullen fury" that extracts money and promises from him.  She would leave, but as Humbert admits at the conclusion of the first part, "she had nowhere else to go."

By the time they are settled and Lolita is attending Beardsley, Humbert is routinely using violence to enforce his will and constantly fearful she will escape, and he drops all pretense of love in his talk of her.  Every night, he reluctantly allows himself to admit, Lolita cries herself to sleep.

At the conclusion of the book, Humbert can no longer deceive himself about his actions, and he bitterly and reluctantly spits:
But the awful point of the whole argument is this. It had become gradually clear to my conventional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif.
No longer able to squirm away from the truth, in the denouement Humbert yet realizes that he has revealed more than he intended.
At this or that twist of it I feel my slippery self eluding me, gliding into deeper and darker waters than I care to probe.
We might imagine that the process of revising would remove this ineluctable truth that Humbert's self-delusion let slip through, but Nabokov has taken care to establish, with included notes to editor "Clarence," that the manuscript comes to us unedited.  As we read the book, we are witnessing how Humbert's telling of his own story reveals the depths of his monstrous sin - even to his own eyes.

Another hidden truth and grim game of Nabokov's: Humbert does not love Lolita, or even especially like her.  This is not as obvious, but neither is it buried deeply.  It is one of the most cutting refutations of the close-minded idea that this is an evil book or a story of unconventional love.  It's not.  To Humbert, Lolita is "mentally... a disgustingly conventional little girl."  He condescends extravagantly on the rare occasions in which he offers her praise beyond her personal appearance.  No, his fascination with her is one of possession and enslavement.  He doesn't want to be with her, he wants to consume her.
My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.
This is why she is, in fact, "Lolita."  This is not her name.  No one calls her that, except for Humbert.  Her name is Dolores or Dolly.  It is only to Humbert, in his depravity, that she is a Lolita: it is a label of ownership.
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.
A less grand and rather funnier hidden game of Lolita is that the entire text is a biting refutation of the work of Sigmund Freud.  In Strong Opinions, Nabokov's 1973 collection of interviews and letters to editors, one of his questioners asks him why Freud is so obviously a major theme of Lolita (Freud or his theories are mentioned a dozen times) considering the author's own well-publicized contempt for the "Austrian fraud."  Nabokov's response is his usual gruff dismissal, but the answer is that Lolita intentionally invokes Freudian theories by way of mocking them.

Freud posited the Oedipal complex, later expanded by Jung with the analogous Electra complex: a girl competes with her mother for the love of her father.  Lolita mocks this idea by offering up an equivalent situation (that "parody of incest") and illustrating the depths of horror that come from positing such a relationship as formational.  Obviously, neither Freud nor Jung advocated for such relationships, but Nabokov seems to have been rather unfairly implying an ideological crudeness in the theory.

What a marvelous book, and what a treasure trove of things to discover!

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1.  As a side note, this is one of the problems with film adaptations of Lolita: they become all spectacle. Without Humbert's voice, we only see the raw events.  And while there may be some value in the shocking depiction of the rape of a child, it doesn't rise to the level of the book.

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