the layers of lolita

Not too long ago, my book club – the Queer Ladies’ Reading Society – read Vladimir Nabokov’s classic work of fiction, Lolita.

It amazes me to think about some of the things that made it into print in the repressive 1950s. Lolita was published in 1955, and it’s pretty darned scandalous even by today’s standards – in subject matter at least. Not so in graphic explanations. There is nary a four-letter word in the book, not to mention you won’t find a single explicit description of any bodily activities. I had to morbidly giggle to myself when, in the last 30 pages of a novel entirely dedicated to a grown man’s sexual obsession with a pre-pubescent girl, the narrator/protagonist conveys Lolita’s crass reference to a blow job in these words: “She used, in all insouciance really, a disgusting slang term which, in a literal French translation, would be souffler.” You know, because “disgusting” applies to sexual slang, but child-molesting is just pristine. Gah.

If you look at the reviews, a number of them – including the foreword of the book – point to the fact that Nabokov produced a work of literary genius here. Case in point (full review here):

Lolita, light of so many lives, fire of so many loins, has become so much more than merely the book Nabokov wrote. The story of the young nymphet, Dolores (Lolita) Haze, and her seducer, Humbert Humbert, lives beyond the confines of the novel. In all the fuss about the story (and the films and Lolita-variations that keep appearing) Nabokov’s novel is sometimes forgotten. This is unfortunate, because Nabokov’s novel is a remarkable work of artistry, among the finest written in English in the second half of the twentieth century.

Admittedly, the quality of his writing is luminous. Especially considering that Nabokov’s first language was Russian, it’s a gorgeously written book, with some of the finest uses of English vocabulary I’ve had the privilege of enjoying.

It still creeps me the fuck out.

Not necessarily for the obvious reasons. A lot of people go batty when they think about intergenerational relationships – in other words, young folks paired up with folks much older than they. Certainly, the recent Conservative frenzy to bump up Canada’s age of consent is fitting testament to that, and don’t even start me on the sheer insanity south of the border. Read Judith Levine’s brilliant book Harmful to Minors if you want a beautifully articulated and extremely well-supported argument about how the paranoia around kids’ sexuality is actually what’s sending scores of kids to the hospital with rampant STIs and rising rates of teen pregnancy.

What I’m getting at is, a lot of people get upset about anything hinting at sexual relations prior to or in the early stages of puberty, particularly when an adult is involved. And while I fully support the idea that such relations are very often a bad idea, I’m more concerned about the power balance than I am about the numbers on a birth certificate.

I dunno. Maybe it’s because I’m a sadomasochist that I’m so sensitive to the nuances of power. When you spend enough time playing with power in really intense and deliberate ways, I think it can produce a heightened awareness of everyday power dynamics, kinky or not. These days, it’s hard for me to stomach a lot of the courtship rituals that most people seem to think are completely normal – let alone the ways that some couples behave with one another, the ways that some bosses keep their employees in line, and the ways some doctors treat their patients, just to name a few.

Basically, anytime there’s a power differential between two people, there’s the potential for abuse, and “abuse” in this sense isn’t just about black eyes and broken ribs. It’s when one person takes advantage of their position to make something happen that goes against the desires of the other person concerned, even if they verbally or otherwise consent to something. And this sort of imbalance can rear its head in any number of situations entirely unrelated to age and gender.

In addition to the standard “bad guy” model – in which the power-abuser is fully aware of what they’re doing and using their power deliberately in their own personal favour – I think that a lot of people in positions of power are ripe for abusing that power simply because they’re completely oblivious. They don’t understand the power they hold; or if they do, they have a poor grasp of the extent of its influence. And by the very nature of power-weilding, not only are they predisposed not to know, they are also in the midst of creating a situation in which they’re less likely to be told. Why? Because they’re in power and the ones who aren’t in power don’t want to piss the big man off. Vicious circle, eh?

That being said, I simply can’t stand it when someone takes a look at a situation, judges it by its external criteria only (skin colour, age, gender, etc.) and makes a call as to whether it’s abuse or not – without looking at the way power is balanced within a given interpersonal dynamic. Sure, these things can be factors. But there’s quite a leap between “potential factor” and “guarantee.”

To bring this all back to age-differentiated relationships… I have a long personal history of pursuing and dating people who are radically older than me, and that history began when I was 12 years old. Or even earlier, though my pursuits only really started to become successful once I’d hit puberty. And I was never sexually abused or molested by any of the people I pursued in my youth, even when those pursuits created situations that technically qualified as statutory rape. In fact I think I often made the objects of my affection much more uncomfortable and nervous than they ever made me. So I just don’t buy the idea that all kids and teenagers have no sexual agency and exist only as the potential victims of abuse until they turn 14, or 16, or 18, or whatever this year’s number is.

Now, to apply this to Lolita. Rather than reading it with the standard knee-jerk response in tow – “Humbert Humbert is a dirty pervert and Lolita is an innocent flower of childhood” – I read the whole thing with the aim of sussing out what the power balance truly was between the two characters. And in doing so, I found a number of instances where the power balance seemed not as clear as most people would like to think. For example, Lolita instigates the first kiss with Humbert, completely surprising him; she also instigates their first sexual encounter. And – spoiler alert! – as it turns out, he’s not even the first man she’s done so with; the reader finds out, quite late in the novel, that she took part in all kinds of debauched activities with an older man while ostensibly at summer camp, while successfully refusing to engage in similar activities with other men. In other words, she was at choice – she said yes or pursued when she was interested, and said no or left when she was not.

On the surface, this would serve to confirm if not a complete flip of the abuser/abused power dynamic, at least a much more layered and complex version of it.

But. And this is the killer but that makes the whole happy reading fall apart. But – history is written by the victor. The victor, in this case – narrator, protagonist, lover, pedophile – is Humbert Humbert himself. The entire novel is written in his voice, and at numerous places he gives himself away as not being particularly reliable. He glosses over the time he spends in mental institutions; he casually mentions the violence he aims at his ex-wife, as though the reader were supposed to buy into the dismissive “it’s no big deal” tone he takes towards spousal abuse; he explains away his use of drink and drugs to get through difficult times; he portrays himself as the submissive counterpart to a dominant second wife, despite how he marries her with the express purpose of getting into her daughter’s pants. He even goes so far as to develop a plan (never realized) to supposedly preserve Lolita’s chastity by drugging her and screwing her in her chemically-induced sleep, as though somehow that were less a rape because she’s unconscious for the duration.

The reader is left to decide whether his generalized creepiness really makes Humbert’s one side of a black-and-white equation, or whether somehow Lolita’s active pursuit complicates the equation sufficiently to re-think it. Those who are inclined towards black-and-white readings of things will surely fall into the “creepy guy” camp; those who are liberal-minded might be inclined to see the nuance.

I think my take is neither of these. I maintain that we, as readers, are ill-equipped to judge any of this, because the only testimony we’re hearing is that of the accused. You wanna talk power imbalance? Try this one on: 309 pages from one participant’s perspective (who just happens to be an older, educated male) and zero from the other’s. Images of Lolita may fill the novel, but she is simply there as the object of all Humbert’s lustful ravings. Nowhere does she become a subject in her own right, with a voice and a perspective of her own. We are left to filter all the information we have about her through our knowledge of Humbert’s character, which is unsavoury to say the least. Lolita does not narrate any portion of the novel; all we know of her is what Humbert sees, and while he certainly does a lot of looking, he fails miserably in the department of listening and understanding.

In the end, for me at least, it’s not so much what happens in the novel that leads me to think there truly is an abusive situation going on, but the way the narrative is set up from the get-go. Anytime we’re only hearing one side of a story, there’s a built-in barrier to understanding the truth of it, or as close as we can ever get to real truth. So whether Lolita is a clueless child or a master seductress who paints herself into a corner, or whether Humbert is a violent child abuser or simply an unpleasant man sucked deep into a spiral of overwhelming desire and attendant self-hatred, Nabokov has set it up so that we simply can’t ever know. And that, beyond the crystalline writing and the legendary status of the novel, is what really makes this a fantastic work of literature.

6 Responses

  1. I agree that this novel is nothing but shades of grey, but I think there is at least one occasion where Nabokov has Humbert accidentally and unknowingly allow Lolita to tell her side of the story. I only read the book once, and that was several years ago, but it seems to me that the adult Lolita’s refusal to have anything to do with Humbert, and his strong feelings of obligation towards her, speak volumes.

    And I wanted to comment on what you said about age vs. power and the possibility of consent. Certainly pubescent and pre-pubescent kids have sexual agency and are sexual beings, and, rare though they are, truly consensual sexual relationships between kids and adults are possible, but I think the bare fact of the child being the persuer is insufficient to prove that there is truly consent, and I think that when there is an inherent power difference in a relationship, the person with more inherent power in the situation (in this case the adult) has a responsibility to hold the person with less power to a much higher burden of proof that they actually consent, you know?

  2. First point: fully agreed. I think the instance where he casually mentions that she cries every night when she thinks he’s sleeping pretty much says it all – and that’s a single line of text. But while those pieces speak volumes, it’s maddening (in a good way) how they’re just the tiniest flashes of her story and we never get a full picture.

    Second point: also agreed. I don’t think any one factor is every enough to prove consent or lack thereof. And most certainly the person with greater power bears a much greater responsibility to ensure consent rather than simply take it at face value – in any case, not just with age difference – and in an ongoing way, not just once and then it’s a free-for-all. I simply take issue with people who make instant judgments on a situation without examining the many factors that go into creating it, especially the ones not visible at first glance.

  3. I just wanted to let you know that I really like your perspective on this. You managed to dissect some major themes that are often overlooked without dismissing the aspects of the story that get all the attention. Brilliantly done.

  4. Thanks, Autumn. Much appreciated – it feels like a book that’s been reviewed to death for longer than I’ve even been alive, so that’s a particularly kind thing of you to say!

  5. Wonder if you’ve seen/read Notes on a Scandal? In this case, a female teacher/male student tale. The movie does a great job at showing the agency of the minor, and how the minor manipulates the adult and ultimately hurts her. At the same time, there’s a relationship between the teacher and an older teacher, a woman whom I read as a deeply repressed lesbian. And the “cheating” teacher is married to *her* former professor, a man at least 20 years her senior….Talk about layers of power dynamics!

  6. Yeah, I’ve seen it. It was an excellent film, very impressively nuanced and well done. I actually posted about it in my old blog location, here: http://sexgeek.blogs.friendster.com/sex_geek/2007/02/isnt_hollywood_.html – not a very in-depth post but enough to convey my enthusiasm, for sure. Definitely the layers of power dynamics were fascinating, and very believable, if perhaps a bit excessively dramatic near the end.

    Besides, Cate Blanchett is verrry kissable-looking. Always a bonus.

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