Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The enactment of moral experience

Lolita is the greatest novel ever written in English, because alone among English-language novels it is the enactment of a moral experience. Of the next five novels on my top-fifty list, only Ulysses has a similar ambition. Joyce sought to reproduce an entire day and an entire city—not to clock the day and map the city, but to raise them out of prose—while Nabokov’s intention (or, rather, Humbert Humbert’s) is what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the creation of time backwards:

The most unnoticed of all miracles is the miracle of repentance. It is not the same as rebirth; it is transformation, creation. In the dimension of time there is no going back. But the power of repentance causes time to be created backward and allows re-creation of the past to take place. Through the forgiving hand of God, harm and blemish which we have committed against the world and against ourselves will be extinguished, transformed into salvation.[1]Nabokov did everything in his power to dissemble his moral purpose. As Chrees pointed out in commenting on the Lasalle-Horner case which must have planted the seed of the novel, Nabokov claimed otherwise, saying that the “first little throb of Lolita” was prompted by a newspaper story about the “first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” Pure fiction, of course. Everything that Nabokov wrote was pure fiction—a fluent hushing-up of his true motives in writing. All art is deception, he told BBC interviewers in 1962, but deception “is only part of the game; it’s part of the combination, part of the delightful possibilities, illusions, vistas of thought, which can be false vistas, perhaps. I think a good combination should always contain a certain element of deception.”[2]

Thus when he says later in the same interview that he has “no social purpose, no moral message,” that he merely enjoys “composing riddles with elegant solutions,” he does not mean that Lolita is devoid of moral intention. He means that the moral experience enacted in the novel cannot be abbreviated in a neat-and-tidy maxim to be inscribed upon the walls of a Japanese sentimentalist’s mind. There is no “message” that can be extracted from the novel without damaging it beyond repair. The novel is identical with its morality.

Here is the riddle that Nabokov set himself to solving in Lolita. How does a moral monster obtain repentance for the most unspeakable of moral evils? The son of a liberal anti-Communist, a fugitive from Berlin where his father was gunned down by right-wing extremists in 1922, Nabokov was acquainted with the worst crimes of the twentieth century. The first moral problem he faced in writing his novel was to restore unspeakability to evil. After the Great Terror and the Holocaust, he saw that evil had become a propaganda tool. Only one crime aroused an instinctive horror in the human breast:[D]epending on the condition of my glands and ganglia, I could switch in the course of the same day from one pole of insanity to the other—from the thought that around 1950 I would have to get rid somehow of a difficult adolescent whose magic nymphage had evaporated—to the thought that with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be dans la force de l’âge; indeed, the telescopy of my mind, or un-mind, was strong enough to distinguish in the remoteness of time a viellard encore vert—or was it green rot?—bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad.[3]It is difficult to imagine a more monstrous passage. Indeed, when other moral monsters set out to explain themselves they take pains to emphasize their essential goodness. Think, for instance, of the memoir that Rudolf Höss wrote in the six months before being hanged in April 1947 just a few steps away from the first crematorium at Auschwitz. Höss insists that he was given to “inner doubts and depressions,” that he suffered “deep human emotion.” Those who witnessed him at the time testified to his coldness and heartlessness, but this was merely a pose, an appearance. The outward calm that he affected “during these events which tear the heart apart in anyone who had any kind of human feelings,” was the result of a “tremendous effort” to strike a proper military bearing to his men. The question of how, away from his men, he could have possibly endured the “inner doubts and depressions,” if he really experienced them and was not merely spinning lies, is never even raised.[4]

Not so Humbert. He is remarkably open about “this horror that I cannot shake off” (p. 135). After satisfying his lust upon Lolita, an “ashen sense of awfulness” would creep over him (p. 137). Every day, as she climbed back into the car alongside him and they headed west, Humbert would be overcome with “an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed” (p. 140).

Why does he not stop? Although he claims that years of concealing his yearning for little girls had taught him “superhuman self-control,” the opposite is very nearly the case. He is helpless before Lolita. Never once, though, does he try to excuse his behavior. Earlier on he had sought to dismiss the moral qualms by learned allusions to cultural relativism (in East India, “Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds”) and literary history (Dante with nine-year-old Beatrice, Petrarch with twelve-year-old Laura, Poe with thirteen-year-old Virginia). But not even he is convinced. As he looks back upon their flight, Humbert catches himself thinking thatour long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep. (pp. 175–76)All art is deception, but art is not all deception. And these slips of the mask, these wincing revelations of Lolita’s suffering and Humbert’s own devastation, point to the novel’s real purpose. In a word, Humbert writes Lolita to atone for his evil. (Not his crime: his crime is murdering Quilty, for which he is unrepentant.) The novel is his effort to recreate time backwards, to restore Lolita to the life he stole from her. Nabokov’s intention is slightly different—not to write a moral treatise on repentance, but to body forth its perfectly realized performance; to represent it, not as a moral formula, but as a self-understood action.

Jewish tradition, especially as advanced by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, holds that true repentance (or teshuvah, “return,” in Hebrew) consists of five steps: (1) recognition of sin, (2) remorse, (3) giving up the sin, (4) restitution or repair, and (5) public confession. I am not saying that Nabokov was familiar with Jewish tradition, but rather that Jewish tradition has clarified a certain “logic” to repentance. Christian ideas of repentance differ only slightly, but the primary difference is this. Judaism teaches that sacramental efforts are adequate to atone only for sins between man and God. For sins between man and man, these distinct and reparative steps must be taken. And Humbert carries out each of them.

First, he recognizes the horror of what he is doing to Lolita even as he remains helpless to stop doing it. And as I wrote here a little over two weeks ago, Humbert finally acknowledges, in his last few moments as a free man, the sin he has committed against her—the sin of removing her voice from the chorus of children at play (p. 308). He does not try to dress it up as something it is not. He ceases to speak of “nymphet love,” stops holding that it is the “patrimonies of poets” and “not crime’s proving ground” (p. 131). Even the unvoiced question that he puts in the mouth of a Ramsdale neighbor (“Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle . . . had done to Sally Horner in 1948?”) is an indirect admission that, yes, he had (p. 289).

The second step—remorse—is the most difficult to reduce to an obvious discernible action. Although regret suffuses the narrative, it would violate Nabokov’s stylistic prohibition on direct statement for Humbert to babble how sorry he is. The closest is when he is able to say what his lust dispelled:I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her—after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred—I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever—for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation)—and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again—and “oh, no,” Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure—all would be shattered. (p. 285)The tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, but the physical presence of Lolita, whom he was helpless to resist, quickly converted the remorse back into desire, atonement’s dross. It is only after losing her at last, and for good, that Humbert is able to deepen his tenderness for Lolita (“this Lolita, my Lolita,” as he repeatedly says) into remorse for the sin of “safely solipsizing” her—the sin of using her, borrowing “her brown limbs in the seculsion of the five-dollar room,” to satisfy his passion.

Third (and rarely remarked upon), Humbert gives up the sin:I would be a knave to say, and the reader a fool to believe, that the shock of losing Lolita cured me of pederosis. My accursed nature could not change. . . . On playgrounds and beaches, my sullen and stealthy eye, against my will, still sought out the flash of a nymphet’s limbs, the sly tokens of Lolita’s handmaids and rosegirls. But one essential vision in me had withered: never did I dwell now on possibilities of bliss with a little maiden, specific or synthetic, in some out-of-the-way place; never did my fancy sink its fangs into Lolita’s sisters, far far away, in the coves of evoked islands. That was all over, for the time being at least. (p. 257)Do not let the final qualification throw you. Humbert is “reformed,” but he is neither so crude nor so superficial to believe he is cured. His very recognition that abandoning “the possibilities of bliss with a little maiden” is a merely temporary surcease from hell is a testament to the profound moral correction which he has negotiated. Moreover, in the next chapter, Humbert undertakes his first adult love affair—with a young woman who was “twice Lolita’s age.” He marvels that he mentions Rita at all: “There is no earthly reason why I should dally with her in the margin of this sinister memoir. . .” (p. 259). But there is every reason. His tenderness and fond memories for her (“she was the most soothing, the most comprehending companion that I ever had”) are proof that he has indeed given up the sin.

Fourth, Humbert tries to make restitution. After he receives a begging letter from Lolita, now seventeen, married, pregnant, and broke, he hunts her down where she is living in a cardboard shack in a coal-mining town and hands her an envelope containing four thousand dollars. He asks her to come away with him. “[Y]ou mean that you will give us that money only if I go with you to a motel,” Lolita says warily. But, no, there are no conditions. Humbert wants her to live with him, die with him, and everything with him; if she refuses she will still get her “trousseau.” Lolita refuses. It is out of the question, she says. She would sooner go back to Quilty, whom she loved and who wanted her only for a sex slave. She gropes for words of explanation. Humbert supplies them mentally: “He broke my heart. You merely broke my life” (p. 279).

Because he has broken her life, and because she will not join him in an effort to repair it, Humbert must do the next best thing. He insists that the world know how much he loved her, “this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child”—no longer a nymphet, but a flesh-and-blood woman—and “even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn,” even if the young virgin become an aging mother, “even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita” (p. 278). His emphasis upon Lolita’s thisness, what Joyce called haecceity, is the unshakable foundation of his effort to restore her individuality, to break the spell of her “nymphage,” to see her as the unique woman he has uniquely damaged. It is the necessary prelude to his final restorative act.

And so the entire purpose of his book is to make a full and public confession—repentance’s fifth and final step. Originally, upon beginning it, he had thought to use the manuscript at his trial, to save his soul if not his head. “In mid-composition, however, I realized that I could not parade living Lolita,” he says (p. 308). To do so would be to use her all over again as a means to his own solipsistic ends. His intention alters as the novel progresses and his shame deepens. He no longer seeks “to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets” (p. 134). Lolita is not a token. She is not the sample of a “great rosegray never-to-be-had” (p. 264). She is a person, this Lolita, and he has forced her to dwell “in a world of total evil” (p. 284). When Janet Lewis writes a short novel about a man who introduces a beloved woman into a world of evil, she imagines him saying, when he realizes at last what he has done, “I can but die by way of atonement.”[5] Humbert does not offer to die, because he seeks an atonement that is stronger than death. Since he has broken her life, since he has removed Lolita’s voice from the concord of children, he seeks now to “make you live in the minds of later generations.” Nabokov lends him the full armature of his art so that Humbert might recreate the time he has stolen from her and return her to the life he has broken. Repentance is but the ancilla of art, as he might have put it elsewhere (p. 259). It is the handmaiden to the superhuman effort to grant her literary immortality by way of atonement.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Meaning of Repentance” (1936), in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1996), pp. 68–70.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), pp. 9–19.

[3] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955) (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 174. Subsequent references will be inserted between parentheses.

[4] Rudolf Höss, Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, ed. Steven Paskuly, trans. Andrew Pollinger (New York: Da Capo, 1992), p. 165.

[5] Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (San Francisco: Colt Press, 1941), p. 108.


Nige said...

Phew! A brilliant - and, to me, persuasive - account of the true greatness and seriousness of Lolita (a much misunderstood book).

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks, Nige. A lot of my students—a clear majority—declined to grant H.H. any forgiveness. They scowled at me in a confirmed and unmoving skepticism.

The thing that seemed to make them maddest is the thing I like best. H.H. never tries to dismiss his evil with a light and cost-free “I’m sorry.” I could not persuade them that H.H.’s self-refusal of that out was a testament to the depth of his true remorse.

R J Keefe said...

While I quite agree with you about horrible Humbert, I have to say that I'm heartened by the students' insistence upon apology as a principle that perhaps clouded their literary perceptiveness. In a thousand cases out of a thousand-and-one, saying "I'm sorry" is a moral act that's both difficult and necessary.

Perhaps unintentionally, you've awakened in me a sense that this novel can never be adapted for dramatic purposes without betraying Lolita's innocence. it is imnpossible to imagine an actress cast for the role who does not signal, however vaguely, "she wants it; she has it coming." Exactly the lie that Humbert knows that he's telling himself.

D. G. Myers said...

I could not disagree more—on both scores.

First, saying “I’m sorry” has become so widespread and effortless in our culture that the most horrible of crimes are brushed away with a magic verbal formula unaccompanied by any true remorse. H.H.’s refusal, not to say “I’m sorry,” but not to take the easy way out is the self-imposed obligation to find a unique way of expressing his remorse. After all, his sin against Lolita was a unique evil done to a unique person.

Second, H.H. does not tell the lie that Lolita “wants it; she has it coming.” The truth is that she had a crush on him; she lost her virginity at Camp Q; and she tries to seduce H.H. the first time. “Juvenile delickwent,” she says, “but frank and fetching” (p. 113). She is “absolutely filthy in thought, word, and deed” (p. 114) and shows “not a trace of modesty” (p. 133). But the point is that all this is entirely beside the point.

H.H. had already announced the intention, “with the most fervent force and foresight, to protect the purity of that twelve-year-old child” (p. 63). And his moral intention is not set aside by her “bad” and “disgusting” behavior (Lolita’s words) at camp. Here is where the feminist slogans miss the mark. It is entirely possible for a twelve-year-old girl to set out to seduce a man in his thirties. The older has a moral obligation to the younger that is not set aside by the younger’s actions. (This is a moral precept; Nabokov will have nothing to do with such language.) If he yields to her, the man—if he has the moral sensitiveness of an H.H., even if he is a monster—will be left with a post-coital horror he cannot shake off. And that is closer to Nabokov’s moral vocabulary.

Tony said...

Thanks so much. If you could do the same for numbers 2 to 50 on your list you would have a helpful, little book on your hands.

Dwight said...

A wonderful summary—thanks for posting it.

I definitely agree that working to atonement or repentance is much more powerful than an apology (which would have come off as the current non-apology apologies of today—“sorry that you took offense…”). I do wish the book had ended one page sooner than it did. The final paragraph just grated on me so much. After everything Nabokov did gracefully through HH, forcefully intruding as he did comes as quite a shock.

There is an interesting balance going on in HH’s view of purity protection. He is able to rationalize his actions (even after the couch scene) with the “I didn’t do anything to her” excuse. It’s a wonderful addition because it highlights the monster underneath (and just above) the surface regardless of his moral posturing. What is acceptable to HH, to steal an analogy, follows the letter but not the spirit of the law (statutory or moral). When HH says Lolita seduced him, there is uncertainty given his believability to date and moral framework. As you point out, the remorse and feelings after the fact highlight his realization that regardless of who seduced who, he realizes the damage he has done. And continues to do.

D. G. Myers said...

I do wish the book had ended one page sooner than it did. The final paragraph just grated on me so much. After everything Nabokov did gracefully through HH, forcefully intruding as he did comes as quite a shock.

No, I disagree, Chrees. The claim that art can provide a “refuge” where Lolita still lives and yet neither Humbert nor Quilty can damage her any further is quite moving and profound. It is only through art, by means of art’s magic, that H.H. can make Lolita “live in the minds of later generations,” can elevate her to immortality. Art achieves what merely saying “I’m sorry,” or even offering her four thousand bucks, cannot.

Jim H. said...

Case closed. Nice job. Thanks.

As for your students, what does it matter whether they can forgive HH? True repentance and remorse is what it is. It may be in the business of seeking forgiveness, but forgiveness must come from an "other" (a Buberian 'Thou'), and that is never a given.

HH may be repentant and that may be purgative, transformational, cathartic, ...whatever. He may even be able to forgive himself. Good for him. Now he feels better and his soul has less pain. But we don't owe him forgiveness, even if we believe his repentance is sincere.

Notwithstanding, our inability or unwillingness to forgive should not detract from our appreciation of a great work of art. Whether we forgive or not, Lolita is a tremendous, complex novel, enacting, as you argue, something like true penance.

Jim H.

Anonymous said...

I was kinda surprised at the amount in our class on Tuesday that couldn't forgive him. Maybe i was able to do it because i have seen the movie so many times and have had more time to brood over Humbert. (i just finished re-watching it for the first time after finishing the novel)

I think it is because HH starts as such an evil (in the begining) character and in the majority of the books read, movies scene, or stories heard, the evil characters are static and never change while Lolita introduces us to a seemingly evil person and forces us to sympathize, to an extent, with him as the protagonist.

I think it is that juxtaposition of and evil-protagonist at the beginning that automatically put of most of the people in class.

Although if given the time and thought i felt forgiveness for him and even some righteousness in his killing of Quilty.

Paul said...

The next sentence of the rosegray segment in question--“Mes fenêtres!”--signals the parody and self-parody that drives Lolita: an appropriate exclamation to a passage that strikes me as capturing Humbert’s artistic (and not altogether perverted) desires. While capturing the magic of nymphets sounds more like the work of a pervert, capturing the magic of “the great rosegray never-to-be-had” sounds more like the work of a poet. Of course Appel has a lot of great things to say about the part parody plays in Lolita. My point here is slightly different than his, and somewhat counter to yours. Parody and self-parody have a variety of specifically masterful effects throughout the novel, but an overall effect is that it draws attention to the fact that we are reading fiction. What’s more, an examination of the chronology reveals that Humbert began writing on September 22 (before II.28), which means either Nabokov fumbled the dates (unlikely) or that Humbert “neatly, but implausibly, settles the destinies of the three main characters with a reconciliatory visit to Dolores and revenge on Quilty” (Moore, 2002). In this sense, Humbert does not free himself through seeing Dolores as a person, but through the fictional creation of seeing Lolita as a person (literally, through art): Lolita remains “the great rosegray never-to-be-had,” which is why I do not dismiss that passage. Repentance is certainly a theme and driving force, but it serves without conflicting the theme of not being able to capture the past or the magic of nymphets (or “the meaning” of Lolita for that matter); the artistic response to this (as described on 264), strikes me as what is ultimately pertinent to Lolita’s immortality.

This is my main point of contention: although Humbert’s realization of his effect on Dolores is integral to the transforming atonement of the novel (from compunction to remorse), this is not at odds with the artistic purpose presented in the rosegray passage on 264. In fact, this passage of the narrator’s intentions may be even more extensively relevant to the novel than your concentration on repentance: through a crooked mirror, what Humbert is describing is also the darkly reflected intentions of Nabokov, the pure puppeteer and noble butterfly catcher.

Paul said...

Your approach of showing how the art of Lolita is showcased by the reading experience as a whole is enjoyable: I too believe that Lolita is embedded with morality without actually enforcing a moral because a reader bears witness to how Humbert’s repentance suspends time in a transformative (butterfly-like) way. I assume you have read Appel’s commentary on Lolita since you are a teacher and since your page numbers match Appel’s annotated Lolita. I notice that, like Appel, you link the lines about “the perilous magic of nymphets” and the “great rosegray never-to-be-had,” but, unlike Appel, you seem to see the excerpts as equivalent statements. This suggests to me a difference in our opinions that I’d like to explore for the purposes of crystallization.

Since you agree with critics such as Appel and Butler that butterfly-like patterning and transformations occur throughout the novel (and within Humbert’s mind and narrative), wouldn’t the rosegray excerpt be a transformed and more poetic reworking of “the perilous magic of nymphets” and the actual scene being referenced on page 20? Ultimately, I disagree with the following aspect of your argument: Lolita (Humbert’s created name for her) is a “vision” out of reach and does represent “the security of a situation where infinite perfections fill the gap between the little given and the great promised—the great rosegray never-to-be-had” (264). Dolores Haze is a person, a hero of sorts, but not a person the reader knows much about: what is reliably and unreliably related by Humbert necessarily blends in Lolita, but it cannot be said to represent Dolores Haze. Even, as you mention, when Humbert says “this Lolita” towards the end of the novel, although he momentarily breaks from his solipsism (transforming from lust to love), he is also providing a parody of Catullus that is sustained throughout the novel (“my Lesbia, that Lesbia”). I believe such parody is a reminder that Lolita is not a person, that she is a product of Humbert’s mind. A main source of the novel’s poignancy is that by the time Humbert is willing to leave “the boundaries” in his mind, “the mirror beaches and rosy rocks—of an enchanted island haunted by…nymphets,” by the time he emphasizes, as you put it, the young woman’s “thisness,” he is already far too distant from Dolores Haze (16). The distance is figurative and literal.