Bi the Bear
18 July 2017
"Legal" Lolitas, "New World" vs "Old World", American Landscape, Book Review, Comics, Delores Haze, Essay, Eurocentrism, Individual Will, John Colapinto, Literature, Lolita, Manifest Destiny, Nabokov's America, Novel, Rape, rape-culture, Sexuality, Vladimir Nabokov
Pedophilia and sexual corruption really shouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind when looking at the great plateau’s of Utah. Fortunately it isn’t. My first actual thought goes to John Ford’s The Searcher’s. There’s plenty of shots of John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter riding their horses over those endless seas of orange sand looking for Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) who’s been kidnapped by Indians and most likely sexually assaulted by them and by just following that line of thought I’m right back to where I started. The desert is supposed to be a tabula rasa but instead, it seems, it’s just a breeding grounds for perverts.
With that lovely observation however I think back to Lolita and my recent attempt to write about the novel. My first essay about the book was to observe the sexual assault that is the primary content. Humbert Humbert, a rambling European pervert, stays in the home of a woman named Charlotte Haze who has a young daughter named Delores who Humbert renames as Lolita. He marries Charlotte, and when she dies in an automobile accident, he gains possession of Lolita and spends the rest of the novel traveling with her around the United States raping her until she escapes and takes up with another sexual deviant, a writer named Quilty, who Humbert eventually kills at the end of the novel.
Lolita is a book that is written in many reader’s minds before they have even picked up the book because Lolita as a word has gained a magnificent potency in our society. Referring to a girl as Lolitaesque is enough to suggest that she is a sexual being that looks incredibly childlike. Looking through the “key terms” section of my stats for White Tower Musings I can usually expect lovely search combinations like “Black Dick Lolita Fuck” or “Lolita suk dick,” “Lolita bukkake,” “Lolita pussy porn” or perhaps the ever lovely “paid money school legal cute Lolita teen blowjob dick.” The tragic part is at this point I tend to be more depressed at the constant and atrocious grammar and spelling errors than I am by the fact there are people who want to fuck “legal” Lolitas.
Well, no, actually. I’m seriously fucking bothered by this, but at some point the grammar becomes an issue.
The reader may be wondering whether there is any real artistic merit to Lolita other than using it as a means of discussing rape and pedophilia, but as I was reading the novel again I was reminded by another interpretation that’s been buzzing in my skull since graduate school.
As I mentioned in my previous Lolita essay, a friend of mine taught the novel to a group of largely unresponsive undergraduates who couldn’t, or in some cases wouldn’t, look past the rape to see if Nabokov was aiming for something different in terms of an aesthetic approach. He attempted to bring in outside articles and critics to the debate, but the content tended to keep most people stubbornly resolved in their assessment. My complete memory is a bit fuzzy, but as I recall he told me that one argument about the novel Lolita was that, rather than being solely a book about pedophilia, it was largely a satire about Eurocentrism and mocking Americans that are duped or suckered in by it.
Vladimir Nabokov was traveling the country with his wife and children collecting butterflies while he was writing Lolita, and this exercise allowed him the opportunity to really see the territory of the United States. Many scholars have noted this inspiration in their many articles about the novel, one of which was a book review in the New Yorker entitled Nabokov’s America.
The essay appeared in The New Yorker in 2015, and in the article John Colapinto discusses biographies of Nabokov along with his travels and turbulent life. In one passage Colapinto discusses a biography of Nabokov and uses it as a means of exploring Nabokov’s creative focus at the time:
Much of the novel’s energy derives from the love-hate relationship Nabokov had with America’s postwar culture of crap TV shows, bad westerns, squawking jukeboxes—the invigorating trash that informs the story of a cultured European’s sexual obsession with an American bobby-soxer who is, as Humbert calls her, the “ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster.” Nabokov always refused the label of satirist, and it would be an oversimplification to say that “Lolita” merely skewers the materialism of fifties America; throughout the book, there is a sense of hypnotized wonder and delight at the happy consumerism of the country and its inhabitants, and Nabokov took overt joy at clipping and cataloguing examples of that consumerism, which he carefully worked into the very texture of “Lolita.”
Colapinto’s article is sporadic, jumping from point to point, and in fact after reading it again recently I’m not entirely sure it’s a boon in terms of commentary about Lolita, but within this paragraph at least there’s the start of an idea, which is that contained within the novel there is an examination about consumerism and the way the American landscape and consciousness feeds this passion.
The United States as a country and as an idea has always been intimately connected with the notion of enterprise. The early European settlers who came to establish colonies for religious freedom were possessed by the idea that this “new world” held an opportunity. The new land (or really “home” to the people who were living there already) was a chance to make a new life, establish a new society, and find an agency that hadn’t existed in the old world and the old life. Even after the American Revolution this notion continued because with the sale of the Louisiana Purchase news ideas of Manifest Destiny were created to justify the Westerward push of Europeans deeper into the continent. And even after the United States had pushed to the very Edge of California, the Klondike and Alaskan Territories offered new wealth, and the islands of the Pacific offered tropical paradises. Consistent with a study of the history of the United States, there is the idea that this country is the “New World” and promises hope and possibilities for those willing, or brave enough, to try and conquer it.
But beneath this rhetoric there is always a heap of bodies and people getting screwed, both literally and figuratively. Which leads me back to Lolita.
The character of Humbert Humbert seems a perfect embodiment of this rhetoric because Lolita is his story, his narrative of personal satisfaction and agency, and the reader would do well to remember that his victim never gets her story told. While Lolita is a story about rape in the sexual sense, the far more pernicious element is the symbolic and psychologic abuse of Dolres Haze and the American landscape which allows the rapes to occur.
While reading Lolita, and reading more and more essays about the novel, I came upon a small quote which, delightfully, managed to sum up everything I’d been trying to say up to that point:
And so we rolled East, I more devastated than braced with the satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-lac garland still as brief as a lad’s, although she had added two inches to her stature and eight pounds to her weight. We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our 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 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. (175-6).
On one side note I can never read this passage without cringing. Granted there are plenty of passages in Lolita that leave one queasy (that is assuming you have a soul), but the image of Delores Haze caught in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere crying in the same room as her rapist is a hard image to forget, and, honestly, I don’t want to forget it.
This passage is one of many in which Humbert manages to reveal his true self throughout Lolita, and like each of his reveals, his repulsive character becomes clearer to the reader who at first is simply disgusted with him for the outright sexual assault. Looking at this passage the reader gets the sense that it’s not just Delores Haze which has been molested by Humbert, but in fact the landscape of the American territory. The plains, mountains, valleys, plateaus, villages, towns, tourist traps, forests, and cities in the great expanse of country are nothing but empty sights for Humbert who is honest about the fact that he does not really care about such sights. In fact he admits openly in one passage that the appeal of such wonders is simply for his own sick amusement:
[…]but also the fact that far from being an indolent partie de plasisir, our tour was a hard, twisted, teleological growth, whose sole raison d’etre (these French clichés are symptomatic) was to keep my companion in passable humor from kiss to kiss. (154)
Behold ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the lord hath offered him unto my hand. After reading this passage Humbert has more or less given away his entire position, because it’s clear that no matter how beautifully he expresses his adoration of the American landscape it’s all just bullshit to cover his criminal offences. If one just looks a few pages earlier the reader is able to see such a bluff:
By putting the geography of the United States into motion, I did my best for hours on end to give her the impression of “going places,” of rolling on to some definite destination, to some unusual delight. I have never seen such smooth amiable roads as those that now radiated before us, across the crazy quilts of forty-eight states. Voraciously we consumed those long high-ways, in rapt silence we glided over theit glossy black dance floors. Not only had Lo no eye for Scenery but she furiously resented my calling her attention to this or that enchanting detail of landscape; which I myself learned to discern only after being exposed for a quite a time to the delicate beauty ever present in the margin of our undeserving journey. (152).
I suppose at this point my contester is probably owed the chance to speak. So what? We’ve addressed already that Lolita is a weird book about a creepy pedophile who rapes a little girl while traveling around the country. What’s the point of digging deeper into that? Once you get to the issue of sexual assault what could possibly be worse than that?
This is a tough question because it’s one I’m not entirely comfortable answering. I don’t want to make it seem like I don’t care about Delores Haze, or about actual rape victims because I do. Humbert Humbert is a sick creep but his offenses reveal a larger issue which can tie into the dilemma of rape and sexual violence. Lolita is most certainly an examination of sexual assault, but by that same line of reasoning the book is an attack against Eurocentrism.
If the reader doesn’t know this term it’s unfortunate because it’s a concept that every citizen of the U.S. should consider. Eurocentrism refers to the practice or idea that European culture is inherently superior to American society, language, or culture at large. The reader has probably experienced this in some capacity whenever they listen to British actors speak. There is a lingering notion that the British accent is somehow more refined or sophisticated than the American accent, and while I could write whole volumes about this, all I need from the reader right now is recognition. Humbert, when he appears in Charlotte Haze’s home is seen as this worldly, heavenly being simply for the fact that he can speak multiple languages and has some vague background in academia. Humbert’s good looks and European accent hide his true nature to the Americans he interacts with. And if I can push this a little further Humbert’s manipulation of Delores Haze ultimately reflects a larger trend of European people’s looking to the New World to find what they want. In the case of Humbert this involves the rape of a twelve-year-old girl, but looking at the way the man can become a symbol for the larger historical trend Humbert is simply another in a long line of Europeans who came to America and built a life at the expense of the people already living there.
Delores Haze loses everything in her life: her mother, her home, her magazines, her friends, her freedom, and even her name. Humbert strips Delores, performing a kind of psychological imperialism until the girl is almost completely bare of something she could call her own. At this point then the reader may complain, where is the hope then, for Delores? Funnily enough, it’s in the idea of the American territory and consciousness that Lolita finds some kind of saving grace.
During the long road trip Humbert explains that while he is controlling virtually every aspect of Lolita’s life, but something is missing and remains beyond his grasp:
How sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then deny it until she had done her morning duty. And I was such a thoughtful friend, such a passionate father, such a good pediatrician, attending to all the wants of my little auburn brunette’s body! 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. On especially tropical afternoons, in the sticky closeness of the siesta, I liked the cool feel of armchair leather against my massive nakedness as I held her in my lap. There she would be, a typical kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove. Her eyes would follow the adventures of her favorite strip characters […]; she studied the photographic results of head-on collisions; she never doubted the reality of place, time and circumstance alleged to match the publicity pictures naked-thighed-beauties; and she was curiously fascinated by the photographs of local brides, some in full wedding apparel, holding bouquets and wearing glasses. (165).
I recognize that it’s near impossible to get past the graphic imagery of this passage, but the reader should try because what’s taking place in this scene is ultimately what redeems the novel in my eyes. Delores Haze loses so much territory to Humbert Humbert as the narratives progresses, but what he cannot take away from her is that small ounce of integrity and personal territory which is her personal self. He effectively rapes the landscape of the United States with his perversion and at the same time he attempts to control the territory of her body. While he succeeds in this first endeavor he cannot take her independent spirit which, while it may seem largely shallow in its consumerism, is still some semblance of the American mindset.
Delores is a young woman who wants to read comics, drink soda-pop, and play with boys her own age. That mentality may not be distinctly American, but at the time Lolita was written it was intimately tied up with consumerism and capitalism which was the defining American Philosophy.
There’s a victory then in Lolita, for even if Delores Haze is the victim of Humbert’s vicious and corrupt sexual deviance, he cannot manage to colonize and strip her of that small spirit which wants to make a real life for itself, free from the grasp of this failure who can only find in the beauty of the American countryside a few motels to work out his sexual problems.
All quotes taken from Lolita were cited from the . All quotes from Nabokov’s America were taken from the New Yorker article which I have provided a link to below. Enjoy:
While working on research for this essay I found a documentary entitled How do you Solve a Problem Like Lolita? Apart from envying the title (then again I used this bit for my Eraserhead review so what the fuck am I jealous for?) I found it useful for these series of essays and thought my reader might be interested. You can follow the link fellow for the first part of the documentary, and the other three parts should be on the suggested titles side of the screen. Enjoy:
"Nymphet", Art, Charlotte Haze, Childhood, Delores Haze, Delorez Haxe is Lolita's Real Name, Frederico Infante, GoodReads, Harry Potter, Humbert Humbert, Invitation to a Beheading, linguistics, Literature, Lolita, Novel, pedophilia, Pnin, prose, Rape, Rape in Literature, rape-culture, sexual assault, sexual assault within the home, sexual idealism, Sexual Rhetoric, Victim Blaming, Vladimir Nabokov, Writing
Despite the now gargantuan pile of books that is building up around me everyday, I keep looking back to the books on my shelves and thinking to myself, “I need to read that one again.” Part of it is the fact that I always find something new in the books that I’ve read before; it’s either a sentence that excels in aesthetic merit, or else a passage that seems to capture where I am intellectually or emotionally at that time. The other reason is because of Goodreads. I observed after a while that my friend Aleya would make regular posts on Facebook that were made through Goodreads. They were always the cover of a book and said either, “Aleya has begun [TITLE X]” or else “Aleya has finished [TITLE X].” This intrigued me and when I asked her about it she mentioned that you could link your Goodreads account to your Facebook page. I set up my account, and after only a month I discovered that you could see a years’ worth of books that you read as one large picture. The image of all the different titles was illuminating because each book was a different experience, a different memory, and showed me exactly what I was doing, reading, and thinking about at the time. Because of this I’ve been looking back over the books I’ve read and been thinking, “that really needs to be in the log.” As such my copy of Lolita (distinct with its picture of a little girl’s pink lips) made its way into my path again, and I saw an opportunity to add another book to the log.
I really wish I could remember when I first read Lolita. My earliest memory of actually reading the book was one summer during a binge of the Harry Potter series. I’d just finished The Goblet of Fire and was about to move onto the Order of the Phoenix when a strange thought entered my head: “I should read Lolita.” The context of a pedophile controlling and raping a fourteen-year-old girl in between the magical adventures of Harry and his friends in the castle of Hogwarts probably would be enough to kill most people’s so-called “innocence,” but the book was illuminating.
Childhood that was being poisoned by corrupt adults seemed to make sense in its context for the arrival of Voldemort seemed a perfect segway into the whiny gasbag that is Humbert Humbert.
Reading the book again I’ve had time to read other Nabokov works such as Pnin, Invitation to a Beheading, and several of his short stories and so the most beautiful part of reading Lolita is the prose. I often compliment Nabokov for his writing, and this isn’t just literary kiss-assing on my part. Nabokov truly is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, proseists of the twenty-first century. Every sentence is a careful construction and the man has a linguistic skill that many writers could only aspire to. Part of it is a careful attention to puns that litter throughout the work, but more than anything is Nabokov’s ability to seduce with linguistics.
The opening lines of Lolita remain the most beautiful opening passage of any novel I have read, so much so that I’ve stored it in memory and can recite it at will:
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.
It’s impossible to read this out loud and not feel uplifted and simultaneously repulsed, and if that isn’t a demonstration of Nabokov’s ability nothing is. The content of this opening is enough to make one squirm but the constant use of “l’s” and “t’s” creates an auditory balm that just settles over the reader wooing them to Humbert Humbert who continues his “invitation” to the reader with a veiled order:
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 Delores 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. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns. (9).
This opening remains troublesome because if the reader was paying attention it’s clear that what is taking place is not a seduction, but a veiled order to listen to his story and so from the start the tone of Lolita is clear. Humbert Humbert is not interested in defending himself, he’s interested in seducing his reader so that he can exert his will over them and, more importantly, his interpretation of the events of Lolita.
Numerous critics and readers have observed the conflict of Lolita for Nabokov’s prose is beautiful, so much so that my creative writing teacher could recite this opening at will and just pause and reflect on the beauty of it. Humbert Humbert is a man gifted with a “fancy prose style” and because of this he’s able to try and sway the reader who should really be far more concerned with the fact that he’s regularly raping a twelve-year-old girl, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
If the reader has never read Lolita before, some background of the plot is necessary. Humbert Humbert is a man who, when he was young, had a failed sexual liaison with a family Friend’s daughter on the beach. Because of this failure his sexuality become stunted and he begins a lifelong pursuit of “Nymphets” his term for young girls about the age of twelve. He has a failed marriage and then hops place to place in Europe before coming to America where, in the home of a woman named Charlotte Haze, he meets a young woman named Delores Haze who becomes the center of his erotic and psychological being. He marries Charlotte, who dies not long after the marriage starts, and this gives Humbert the chance to abscond with Lolita across the territory of the United States. Humbert spends the next two years traveling with Lolita and raping her while keeping her locked tight within his grasp. Eventually Delores escapes with the help of a writer named Quilty who Humbert Murders at the end of the novel.
The duplicitous nature of Humbert is established early in the novel, for while Humbert is presented as a kind young man who had an unfulfilled erotic experience with a girl his own age, over time he becomes a crafty pervert whose chief talent is duplicity. Later in the novel after he has suffered a failed marriage he enters a sanitarium where his favorite hobby is tricking the doctors on staff. Humbert describes this activity gaily:
I discovered there was an endless source of robust enjoyment in trifling with psychiatrists: cunningly leading them on; never letting them see that you know all the tricks of the trade; inventing for them elaborate dreams, pure classics in style […] teasing them with fake “primal scenes”; and never allowing them the slightest glimpse of one’s real sexual prediction. (34).
It’s this quality of Humbert, his need to constantly reveal and conceal his true self, that can make reading Lolita somewhat exasperating. In fact, I’ll be completely honest, there isn’t a page in this novel where I didn’t want to slap Humbert just for being a self-righteous and duplicitous jackass.
There’s nothing so obnoxious as someone who is constantly the victim of some past or ever occurring offense, but when one is the agent of one’s own destruction it makes it doubly annoying. Humbert is constantly calling himself the victim of a real affliction, and the later passages of the novel reveal him writing at length about how he is the subject of Lolita’s cruelty because she doesn’t return his amorous feelings. And perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the novel is that there are times when his prose is so thick with ornate arrangements of words that the reader is almost compelled to believe him.
If the reader is careful however, and remains diligent, Humbert often reveals himself in small instances. During one passage in which he’s recalling a diary he kept while living with Delores and Charlotte he describes his true nature:
My white pajamas have a lilac design on the back. I am like one of those inflated pale spiders you see in old gardens. Sitting in the middle of a luminous web and giving little jerks to this or that strand. My web is spread all over the house as I listen from my chair where I sit like a wily wizard. Is Lo in her room? Gently I tug on the silk. She is not. (49).
Later in the novel when he contemplates killing Lolita’s mother Charlotte he elaborates a long, thought-out plan and reveals himself once again:
Simple, was it not? But what d’ye know, folks—I just could not make myself do it! (87).
Though perhaps the most revealing is a passage that occurs not just but a few paragraphs later:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down upon them. We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet. Empirically, no killers are we. Poets never kill. (87-8).
If the reader is absolutely repulsed by this passage they shouldn’t feel bad at all for that is my exact reaction. Humbert is often defending his desire for “nymphets,” a term that was introduced into the general lexicon after the novel was published, and reading this passage which can border on the erotic is disturbing. It’s a sane reaction to be bothered or repulsed by Lolita, but it’s when the reader turns away and decides to stop listening out of disgust that a real problem occurs.
The surface matters. It matters because it’s a topic many would prefer not to talk about.
Within the last decade, I’ve become more and more aware of the reality of rape-culture, at least as far as the culture of the United States is concerned (I can only ever speak for my own culture), and while this has temporarily hurt some of my comfort, the knowledge is worth more than my ease. One particular story stands out. My wife would often, while we were just dating, read me stories about women who were victims of rape and ignored or else victim-blamed. The most pernicious story was one of a twelve-year-old girl in the Houston area who was gang-raped by a group of teen-age boys. None of them served any jail-time because the defense argued she had “dressed provocatively.”
Now my first reaction wasn’t to cry, but to often scream at the top of my lungs, “How the fuckity fuck does a twelve-year-old “dress provocatively?”
Yet this the world and society I’m living in. The victim being denied a voice isn’t a new development, for in fact Nabokov uses this as a strategy of writing Lolita. The reader should note that the little girl who is the center of Humbert’s desire isn’t actually named Lolita, that’s his name for her when he speaks about his desire. In fact her name is Delores Haze, yet the reader might completely miss this during their reading because they are always being narrated to by Humbert. The victim’s story is silenced because Humbert presents himself often as the victim, the victim of a form of rational love. There’s no possible way he could possibly be a murderer or rapist because his feelings for Lolita are pure.
I’ve thrown quite a lot at my reader who may be wondering at this point where to begin with their criticism. Why should they bother reading a book about pedophilia in the first place? It’s revolting and by the sounds of it Nabokov was just a pervert who was hiding behind his character to express gross feelings and sentiments? Why should I pick up a book that, by the sounds of it, is just going to repulse me and make me sick?
My reader has more or less summed up the standing argument against Lolita, and the various criticisms laid against it. A few years back one of my friends in graduate school was teaching an American Literature course and he had the fortune (or misfortune) to teach the novel Lolita and the general charge against the novel was exactly the points made before. Most students shut down and refused to listen to the analysis or look past the rape to see the deeper literary and rhetorical goals of the novel. All they could see was the rape of Delores Haze.
This isn’t my place to hop up and say they were wrong to do so. Reading the novel again I’m finding it easier and easier to cut through Humbert’s fluff and observe every level of his sexual corruption and manipulations. This doesn’t always lead to a comfortable read, in fact often reading the book I feel repulsed. My reader may object then that I have proven them right, but in point of fact I’ve proven them wrong. It’s for the very reason I feel repulsed that this book matters.
Rape is an act of violence that has been allowed to have more and more exposure in contemporary media. Whether it was the fifth season of Game of Thrones which seemed to have a rape in every other episode, to the fact that Law & Order SVU has somehow managed to outlast the original series, to the fact that Bill Cosby has now become a national headline. These are just some examples, and not even the most potent illustrations of how rape-culture is infecting the society. But they do serve as a reminder that most people are aware of the crime of rape and the damage it has upon people who have to live and try to exist after becoming a victim of rape.
Lolita as a novel is more relevant than ever because the culture, as it exists now, is open to discussing the contents of the novel and reminding people that sexual assault isn’t just an abstract idea, it’s a concrete reality that affects people in the real world.
But I’ll end this first discussion of the book with an important observation. Humbert Humbert was a stranger who entered the home of Charlotte Haze and eventually managed to capture her daughter, but the idea of someone within the home as the attacker is perhaps the strongest argument for the reading of Lolita because most instances of pedophilia are not random strangers, but instead family friends or members who rape their children or siblings. It’s this last fact that perhaps makes most people so uncomfortable because many would prefer not to think about that. The idea of the home is that it is a safe space from the chaotic mess of the outside world. The corruption of rape isn’t supposed to exist, or at least nor originate from this safe space and many would prefer to hold onto that surface reality rather than acknowledge that the home isn’t always safe. Sometimes people get hurt by the ones who are supposed to love them.
I intend to write more about Lolita in a few more essays, but in this first approach I just wanted to address this surface issue because it’s the element that creates the most controversy around the novel. But where most readers focus on the element of Humbert’s sexual manipulations, the far more important element is that Nabokov succeeded in demonstrating that parents worrying about their children being prey to sexual deviants didn’t need to look outside their living rooms, because unfortunately the spider had already set up shop and might have been sitting next to them on the couch.
I probably need to give my reader more credit. If you weren’t reading my essay then I wouldn’t be speaking with them directly.
If the reader is at all interested, I’ve found a few website which have compiled some statistics about the rate of sexual assault, what are the ages of attackers, and their types of relationships with the victims.
While researching this essay, I managed to find a link to an article published on Slate. I’ve provided it here below:
I apologize to the reader who brought up the idea that Nabokov might be expressing personal desires through Lolita; I never got around to debunking this idea. This is a common charge against Nabokov’s Lolita, but unfortunately it is the most misinformed criticism and therefore the easiest to combat. Just because an author writes about a topic does not means that he or she validates or believes in such a moral system. Edgar Allen Poe often wrote in first person personas that were often mad lunatics or sexual deviants but that does not mean Poe supported premature burials or animal abuse. There is a divide between the writer, the author, and the creative persona. tHe writer is merely the person who writes the text, the author is the original manager of the inspiration, and the creative persona is the person what is being written by the author. This system exists to give the writer distance from his or her creation, allowing a freedom to express and explore ideas that they may find repulsive, frightening, or else simply evil. Nabokov was not a pedophile, he was merely a writer who wrote a character who was. If readers intend to hold authors responsible for the actions of their characters, or worse, assume that their characters are the extensions of their creator’s personality then artists will not be free to tackle difficult subjects like rape, murder, pedophilia, and torture in which case life will be nothing but Family Circus Cartoons and I will not live in that world.
Unless it’s Nietzsche’s Family Circus, that shit’s hilarious.
Several of the watercolor images in this article are from an illustrated copy of Lolita. The artist’s name is Frederico Infante and if the reader is curious about how he handled, what would be for many potential career suicide, they can read about it in an article published on The independent by following the link below:
"I'm here to recruit you", Allison Pill, Anne Kronenberg, Castro Street, Cleve Jones, Coming out, Dan White, Democracy, Elaine Noble, Emile Hirsch, Gay Men, Gays in Politics, Harvey Milk, Harvey Milk gives me hope, Heroes of the Homosexual community, history, Homosexuality, Homosexuality History, Hope, Individual Will, James Franco, Milk, Politics, Queer, Queer Theory, San Francsico, Scott Smith, Sean Penn, Sexual politics, Sexuality, sucice and queer youth, suicide, suicide and queer people, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, When We Rise
Hope is hard to come by, especially in the queer community sometimes. I haven’t lost any friends to suicide, yet, and the necessary inclusion of that word is part of what keeps me going.
I realize it’s a ridiculous position to take, but part of what keeps me writing is the hope that some young queer kid will find my work, see my life, and be inspired enough to at least keep going and not kill themselves. At the very least I hope they think to themselves “I can write better than this asshole” and start writing essays and novels that will keep me in obscurity. I’m assuming a lot given the fact, as I’ve recognized before, I’m just some dude with a blog, but there is a conviction behind all of this that goes back to one scene in a film that, when I watched, absolutely broke me for reasons that have changed.
The film Milk came out in 2008, the same year I graduated High School, and I had entered into a period of personal darkness as I recovered from the experience. High School sucks for everybody, but something about the experience left me head-fucked for two years but that at least gave me time to read a lot of books, write a couple of books, and see some films which left their mark on my consciousness. I had seen commercials for the film Milk, and while I wasn’t homophobic at the time, I was still in that early phase when same-sex intimacy between men was something that left me queasy. In hindsight I realize it left me that way for an reasons that had yet to bubble up to the surface. The movie Milk was, as Allison Bechdel puts it so beautifully in her graphic novel Fun Home, a Siren calling me on to a new discovery. I checked out the film from Hastings (#RestinPeace) and watched it alone after my family had gone to bed.
The film was beautiful and opened my eyes to the struggles gay people suffered in the 1970s, but at one point I had to pause the film and cry. Harvey Milk is trying to stop a riot in Castro street when he receives a phone call from a young man in the Midwest:
Harvey Milk: [answering the phone] Scotty?
Paul: I’m sorry, sir. I read about you in the paper.
Harvey Milk: I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now.
Paul: Sir, I think I’m gonna kill myself.
Harvey Milk: No, you don’t want to do that. Where are you calling from?
Harvey Milk: You saw my picture in the paper in Minnesota? How did I look?
Paul: My folks are gonna take me to this place tomorrow. A hospital. To fix me.
Harvey Milk: There’s nothing wrong with you – listen to me: You just get on a bus, to the nearest big city, to Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco, it doesn’t matter, you just leave. You are not sick, and you are not wrong and God does not hate you. Just leave.
Paul: [crying] I can’t. I can’t walk sir.
The camera pans out and the viewer is able to see that Paul is in a wheelchair. I can’t describe the emotion this scene still manages to leave in me; the only word that feels accurate is destroyed. Paul was enough for my eighteen-year-old self to realize gay people weren’t monsters, they weren’t sick, they were just human beings. And in my young mind I crafted a fantasy where I could run and save Paul. I wanted to be the ally that would help people like Paul. It’s embarrassing this old hero fantasy, but I had it nonetheless. What I didn’t recognize at the time, was there was another part in me, that wanted to hug Paul and kiss him and hold him close not just because I wanted to keep him safe, but because I was actually attracted to him.
Paul jumpstarted whatever queer longings I had in my heart, it just took my head a while to catch up.
Since coming out I’ve watched Milk again and this time it left me far more impacted because I’ve come out as queer and I’ve watched the progress the queer community has gained and the struggles it continues to face. The atmosphere has sickened and recent events have reminded me, rather painfully, that my existence and the existence of many of my friends, is one that some people would prefer didn’t exist. In such moments, it’s easy to cry, and it’s easy to lose hope and consider crawling back into the closet. But in fact at such moments I find more inspiration in people like Harvey Milk who, even when they felt most terrified, continued to fight.
The closing lines of the film echoes just this very sentiment:
Harvey Milk: [Voice Over, Last lines] I ask this… If there should be an assassination, I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out – – If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door… And that’s all. I ask for the movement to continue. Because it’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power… it’s about the “us’s” out there. Not only gays, but the Blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s. Without hope, the us’s give up – I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you… You gotta give em’ hope… you gotta give em’ hope.
I recognize that my reader may be getting sick of my maudlin and wants me to get to the actual film, but please indulge me this moment of reflection because my queer sense of self has received a few beatings lately because of assholes and I want to just warm myself near the fire of these great queer icons that came before me. And, in fact, the reason Milk remains so powerful to me as a film is because of my sense of failure as a queer man lately.
The film Milk covers the later life of Harvey Milk the man who was one of the first openly gay politicians in the United States to win public office. He wasn’t in fact the first openly gay politician, Elaine Noble who was elected to the Masssechusettes State Legislature in 1974 was in fact the first, but Harvey has managed somehow over time to become a figurehead of queer politics I suspect largely because his time was so short, he was a charming and approachable man, and the fact that he was assassinated. Milk follows Harvey when he meets his lover Scott Smith in a subway station on his birthday, and after they’ve had sex Harvey reflect on his life and realizes he hasn’t done anything he’s proud of. Harvey and Scott move to San Francisco where they’re greeted with homophobia and Harvey decides to rally the neighborhood, which is mostly gay, and from this start Harvey realizes he has a gift for politics. The film then follows his many unsuccessful campaigns for the Board of Supervisors before his eventual victory, his push for legislation for homosexual rights, and then his eventual assassination by fellow board member Dan White.
There’s many things for lovers of cinema to appreciate about the movie Milk, whether it’s the historically accurate costumes, the lighting, the cinematography, or the amazing performances by people like Sean Penn (who won best actor for his portrayal) to Allison Pill playing Anne Kronenburg or Emile Hirsch playing Cleve Jones. As a film Milk succeeds as a biopic which, as a genre, is usually just Oscar fodder for actors looking to nail their first win. For my own part Milk as a film is more important for the way it helps foster new opportunities for queer roles in film.
When it was released Milk had every charge of a “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Use to it!” chant. It was released in 2008 when the united states had been through the Bush Administration which had tried to push a constitutional amendment for heterosexual marriage only and so the queer community at large was fighting the same old fights they had been up to that point, and it echoes in the film. In one scene Harvey discovers two men who’ve been the victim of queer bashing:
San Francisco Cop: [identifying a body] The fruit was walking home with his trick when they were jumped. Name’s Robert Hillsborough. Did you know him?
Harvey Milk: He used to come into my shop. Are there any witnesses?
San Francisco Cop: Just the trick. Jerry Taylor.
Harvey Milk: Jerry wasn’t a trick. They were lovers.
San Francisco Cop: Call it what you will. He’s our only witness and he says he can’t identify the attackers.
Harvey Milk: There’d be a dozen witnesses if they thought you boys had any real interest in protecting them.
It had been about ten years since Matthew Shepard’s murder at this point, and queer bashing was still an issue. Though to be fair it’s still a significant issue and part of the reason why I began this article with the word “yet.” The issue of police defending or protecting the queer community is a nuanced one and not one I’m ready to write about yet, but at the time the film was produced the community was struggling with the idea that nobody really seemed willing to step forward and offer up serious commitment of security. The film also addressed the issue of conservative pundits and commentators becoming cult of personalities by making anti-queer civic rights they’re defining political message. As such queer commentators and political rights organizations had to establish a new rhetoric:
Harvey Milk: If we had someone in the government who saw things the way we see them, the way the black community has black leaders who look out for their interests…
Scott Smith: You’re gonna run for Supervisor, is that the idea?
Harvey Milk: I could go right for mayor, but I think I should work my way up to it… You’ll be my campaign manager.
Scott Smith: Because I have so much experience in politics.
Harvey Milk: Politics is theater. It doesn’t matter if you win. You make a statement. You say, ‘I’m here, pay attention to me.’
My readers who live in major, urban cities may roll their eyes at this or else yawn comfortably at this quote, but that’s largely because major cities have become fostering grounds for queer people. For those of us that live in rural areas, or else the periphery of such hubs the struggle just to express your very existence can be a trial. It’s not always an issue of violence being performed against you, but rather lone voices expressing dissent that queer people should even be recognized. It may not seem terribly dramatic to have displays or parades or books or movies shown in public taken down, but when it’s the closest thing a person has to validating that their existence is real, that their identity is real, such actions leave their mark.
When the world tells you that they’d be more comfortable if you didn’t exist it’s hard not to internalize that and be left feeling hopeless. Recent events that have to remain anonymous have proven that to me, and that’s why more and more lately I go back to Milk and the idea of hope.
In the film a noted anti-gay activist Anita Bryant scores a major victory for gay-opposition politics with a civil housing bill in Florida and Harvey makes a speech:
Harvey Milk: I am here tonight to say that we will no longer sit quietly in the closet. We must fight. And not only in the Castro, not only in San Francisco, but everywhere the Anitas go. Anita Bryant did not win tonight, Anita Bryant brought us together! She is going to create a national gay force! And the young people in Jackson Mississippi, in Minnesota, in the Richmond, in Woodmere New York, who are hearing her on television, hearing Anita Bryant telling them on television that they are sick, they are wrong, there is no place in this great country for them, no place in this world, they are looking to us for something tonight, and I say, we have got to give them hope!
Hope is hard to come by. That’s a platitude but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold any relevance. Looking over my life, and where the Queer community has come since Harvey does leave me with hope, but that doesn’t mean the challenges have stopped. Queer people are still a target, and we’re still being killed for just being who we are, and it fucking terrifies me. I don’t want to lose any friends, and I don’t lose any ground.
I’ve watched friends cry as they tell me it feels like they’re being pushed back into the closet, and I’ve watched my own sense of self being pushed back. It’s in these moments that hope breaks, or twists in the wind before it cracks. But at these moments I think of Harvey, and I think of Paul who eventually made it.
Harvey Milk: Not a good time, Don.
Paul: This is Paul. Don just gave me the phone.
Harvey Milk: Paul who?
Paul: You spoke to me on the phone, a year or so ago. I’m in a wheelchair. I’m from Minnesota.
Harvey Milk: I thought you were a goner Paul.
Paul: When I saw that you won the supervisor seat, I got a friend to put me on a bus to LA.
Harvey Milk: Who do you know in Los Angeles?
Paul: Nobody. I just didn’t want to die anymore. I met your friend Don down here. And I turned 18,
and I voted today against prop 6. I don’t think I’d be alive right now if it weren’t for you.
It’s tempting to say that this scene is sentimental, were it not for the fact this happens. Queer youth are the most likely people to commit suicide largely because they feel like they have no hope. They tend to be isolated or exiled from their families, and rather than have someone like Harvey who tells them that they are loved and that their existence is not something repulsive they often destroy themselves before they have a chance to realize they’re not alone.
It is ridiculous to think this, but I’m a ridiculous, emotional man anyway, so I might as well be honest with myself. I keep writing because I hope some young queer kid finds these words I’ve thrown out into the sea and realizes they’re not alone, and they’re not ugly, and they’re not sick. They’re exactly who they should be and want to be which is sexy as fucking fuck. The fight is ongoing and will leave many defeated but I would hope that they keep going.
Hope is hard to come by, and even more hard to hold onto, but that hope lingers on and keeps people alive.
If the reader is at all interested about the life of Harvey Milk I would recommend Cleve Jones’s memoir When We Rise, as well as the book The Mayor of Castro Street. I own the latter and have yet to read it largely because I keep checking books out from the library rather than read the books I own or buy online. Ah, but that is, after all, the age old struggle of the Bibliophile
I’ve included here a link to the “Hope Speech” by Harvey Milk. The first link is a version in which Sir Ian Mckellen performs Harvey’s words as only he can, which means this delivery is beautiful
I’ve also included a link to a video of Harvey delivering a similar speech himself. Mr. McKellen is beautiful in every sense of the word, but sometimes you need to hear the original voice.
42 Nipple Options, Alex + Ada, Artificial Intelligence, body objectification, commodifying the female body, Essay, Feminism, graphic novel, Harmony, Harmony the Sex Robot, Honda P2 Robot, Human Body, Human Developement, Human/Robot Love Story, Jenny Kleeman, Jonathan Luna, Literature, Long Read, Love, Love isn't about ALWAYS agreeing, Mutual Identification, Philosophy, Pornography, rape-culture, RealDolls, Robots, Sarah Vaughn, Science, science fiction, Sex Dolls, Sex Robots, Sex Trade, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, solipsism, suggestions, The Gaurdian, The Race to Build to the World’s First Sex Robot
I really didn’t see the book coming.
I’ve told my regular reader that I’ve gotten a job at the Tyler Public Library and this job has largely been a saving grace, but what I haven’t conveyed as clearly as I should have is that the job is also really fun. The people I work with are funny and are like a small family, the patrons that I help are fascinating for the fact that everyday they come up with some new request, the questions for info range from the obvious to the most esoteric (Do you know how much a 1969 Eagle Trailer is worth?), my supervisors are wonderful people, and best of all I’m surrounded by books. It’s this last part that makes me the most happy because there isn’t a day that’s gone by where I don’t wind up checking out a book. My wife’s greeting to me when I come home now has largely
become, “More books?” I have a problem, but I just don’t care because “look a collection of short stories by Woody Allen!”
I close at the Library, meaning my work days are usually in the afternoon and evening and my responsibility is to close up the library and shut the computer catalogs on the second floor down for the night. While I was walking around shutting them down I passed the graphic novel section. It’s a small area, nowhere near as large as I would want it to be, and in front of it there is a wooden table where patrons can leave books for staff to shelve. There was a large stack of religious book like there always is, but laid out beside the large pile was a book I recognized. Alex + Ada is a book that’s difficult to miss given the fact that the book is enormous (about 1 foot in length at least) with a white and blue cover with Alex and Ada staring at each other, a small blue dot on either of their heads.
Part of the reason I picked it up was the compulsion I spoke of before. A fair number of the books I check out in the last twenty minutes before work ends are either books of poetry or graphic novels. They read quickly and give me space between Lolita and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I checked the book out though because my friend Aleya had recently added it to her GoodReads account and had given it a pretty high rating. That’s it. Just these two connections allowed for a moment of serendipity which lead me to checking the book out.
Alex + Ada, like I said at the very beginning, was a book that I didn’t see coming. Once I read about what the story was about, a young man receiving an android for a birthday present, I figured it would be the standard Sci-fi trope. Boy receives a robot, Boy is unnerved by her docility so he finds a way to activate her sentience which is illegal, Girl robot wakes up and begins to discover life and reality, Boy starts to fall for robot and robot falls for Boy, somebody finds out and blabs to the cops, the police come and either kill the Boy or the robot, the end. And to be fair this is technically exactly what happens, however rather than end on the tragedy of the finale Johnathan Luna manages to tell a story about love that, apart from having a happy ending, recreates the narrative of the Human-Robot Love story into something that feels both relevant and important.
And the reason it feels so relevant is because of a recent article in The Gaurdian titled The Race to Build to the World’s First Sex Robot.
The article is part of the British website’s “Long Read” series, a weekly article published which explores some facet, development, philosophy, or notable event in society. A friend of mine introduced me to The Guardian, and after reading just a couple of the “Long Read’s” segments I’ve become hooked onto them. The Race to Build the World’s First Sex Robot was one of these articles and it managed to appear right as I was finishing Alex + Ada in a level of serendipity that could almost be maudlin. Both stories center around one female robot (if you can label robots with something as tenuous as genetic based sex). In the Gaurdian article the robot’s name is Harmony. She’s modeled with the standard approach to human beauty, big boobs, slim waist, young features, and represents years of the sex-industry’s manufacturing of the female form. However Jenny Kleeman, the author of the article, manages to convey that Harmony is not just a humping post, she has by design, a larger goal.
The major breakthrough of McMullen’s prototype is artificial intelligence that allows it to learn what its owner wants and likes. It will be able to fill a niche that no other product in the sex industry currently can: by talking, learning and responding to her owner’s voice, Harmony is designed to be as much a substitute partner as a sex toy.
Harmony cannot walk, but that’s not a big issue. McMullen explained that getting a robot to walk is very expensive and uses a lot of energy: the famous Honda P2 robot, launched in 1996 as the world’s first independently walking humanoid, drained its jet pack-sized battery after only 15 minutes.
“One day she will be able to walk,” McMullen told me. “Let’s ask her.” He turned to Harmony. “Do you want to walk?”
“I don’t want anything but you,” she replied quickly, in a synthesized cut-glass British accent, her jaw moving as she spoke.
“What is your dream?”
“My primary objective is to be a good companion to you, to be a good partner and give you pleasure and wellbeing. Above all else, I want to become the girl you have always dreamed about.”
McMullen has designed Harmony to be what a certain type of man would consider the perfect companion: docile and submissive, built like a porn star and always sexually available. Being able to walk might make her more lifelike, but it isn’t going to bring her closer to this ideal. At this stage, it is not worth the investment.
What’s revealed in this passage is the fact that capitalism is what’s behind this sex robot industry; a simple case of supply and demand. The sex industry has poured billions of dollars into realistic sex dolls, and a quick Google search to see the results can be both informative and at times frightening. The women dressed up in white panties and bras are enough to make one double-take or else follow links to determine whether or not it is a hoax. But beyond the realistic quality of these “women” is the fact that the major force behind the industry is not a concern to create robots that will revolutionize the robotics industry; it is to provide erotic satisfaction for many men.
Looking further into the article this becomes painfully clear:
RealDolls are fully customizable[sic], with 14 different styles of labia and 42 different nipple options. Upstairs, where the fine details are added, there were dozens of tubs of different coloured hand-painted, veined eyeballs. A “makeup face artist” was using a fine brush to paint eyebrows, freckles and smoky eyeshadow on a rack of faces. Shore explained that most of their customers send photographs of what they would like Abyss to recreate. With a subject’s written permission, they will make a replica of any real person. “We’ve had customers who bring their significant other in and get an exact copy doll made of them,” he said. Shore estimates that less than 5% of doll customers are women, even for their small range of male dolls. McMullen sculpted one of the three male face options to look exactly like himself. None of the male dolls are selling very well. In fact, Abyss is in the process of revamping its entire male line.
And then just a few passages later:
But as all right-thinking men would say, it’s Harmony’s brain that has most excited McMullen. “The AI will learn through interaction, and not just learn about you, but learn about the world in general. You can explain certain facts to her, she will remember them and they will become part of her base knowledge,” he said. Whoever owns Harmony will be able to mould[sic] her personality according to what they say to her. And Harmony will systematically try and find out as much about her owner as possible, and use those facts in conversation, “so it feels like she really cares”, as McMullen described it, even though she doesn’t care at all. Her memory, and the way she learns over time, is what McMullen hopes will make the relationship believable.
It’s usually at this point that I’m supposed to stand up and argue that this is a step too far and that it’s just a slippery slope until Terminator robots will be slaying human beings in the killing fields and the end of mankind will come about. The largest reason I won’t make that argument is because The Terminator film did a far better job of doing that for me, and also because it seems hyperbolic and unnecessary. Unlike some doomsday theorists who argue that the rise of AI will bring about the violent death of man I foresee a far more gloomier vision: the irrelevance of mankind.
The increase of AI systems has really demonstrated itself to be more of a capitalistic view of the future than one of science. Machines increasingly are coded to observe human behavior and, rather than offer solutions for complex problems in society, tend to be made to recommend me products based on my online shopping habits. If I liked reading Lolita perhaps I would enjoy The Ballad of the Sad Café. If I enjoyed eating at Fuzzy’s Taco perhaps I may enjoy TGI Fridays. If I enjoyed watching Dear White People perhaps I would enjoy 13th. These day to day suggestions have become increasingly blasé to me because they’re just part of life. Rather than violently trying to control me AI systems are in fact slowly and quietly removing my freewill through actions and suggestions that leave me comfortable and content.
This domesticity and familiarity with robotics and technology is a far more realistic suggestion of what the future is going to be like.
My reader may object now and argue that, is this really so bad? Technology is supposed to simplify the lives of human beings and help us overcome challenges and burdens in our life. Would having a robot that observes our behavior and adapts its own to make us happy really be so bad?
This is a complicated question because I honestly don’t know if there’s a clear answer. People should be happy, but there is a hidden conflict beneath this familiarity because it could bring about a negative change in the way human beings interact. When one interacts with a machine that conforms to your tastes and preferences it removes the human element of a relationship because other people disagree or hold different attitudes about what is right, wrong, pretty, ugly, grotesque, or beautiful. It’s the differences of opinions and the regular challenges by other people that a healthy personal self is able to develop. I grind my teeth every time somebody posts an alternative opinion on my Facebook page, or when someone close to me defends President Trump, but I recognize that that difference of opinion is what helps me keep myself grounded in reality.
Solipsism, the idea that one’s own mind is the only real thing in the universe, as a mode of being is corrosive because it’s a fueled narcissism that makes it impossible to connect and therefore sympathize or empathize with other people. And I suppose if my argument isn’t clear enough, the problem with turning sex robots into intelligent partners that are obedient and compliant with your every wish and preference, it stands to reason that the individual who lives and acts with one is going to be left completely disconnected to real humanity.
Kleeman is right then in making sure to post the alternative viewpoint that is growing against the sex robot industry:
Many of the “big issues’ discussed at the two-day event were first raised in 2015 by De Montfort University’s Dr Kathleen Richardson, when she launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots. An anthropologist and robot ethicist, Richardson claims that owning a sex robot is comparable to owning a slave: individuals will be able to buy the right to only care about themselves, human empathy will be eroded, and female bodies will be further objectified and commodified. As sex with robots is not a mutual experience, she says, it’s “part of rape culture”. We are so entertained by the idea of a robot sex partner, she believes, that we have failed to ask fundamental questions.
I met Richardson in March at the London Science Museum’s robot exhibition, where she eyed the distinctly non-sexual robots on display with deep suspicion. Sex robots rest on an idea that women are property, she said. “Sex is an experience of human beings – not bodies as property, not separated minds, not objects; it’s a way for us to enter into our humanity with another human being.” She dismissed the idea that humanoids could reduce sexual exploitation and violence against sex workers, arguing that the growth of internet pornography shows how technology and the sex trade reinforce each other.
The implications then for the sex robotic industry become messy and worrisome because, at least as far as I can tell, these are all serious charges that have a great amount to merit to them. Artificially intelligent sex robots blur the line of consent because they are programmed not to say no, but at the same time they are being marketed as a realistic human alternative to a real human relationship.
In the face of all of this my reader is probably wondering what the hell any of this has to do with Alex + Ada. Well in fact it has everything to do with the graphic novel, because as I noted at the start this review came about because I was left so tremendously star-struck by the book when I finished it. Unlike Kleeman’s article which left me troubled and disturbed Alex + Ada offered a far more optimistic vision of human/robot relations by hoping for love rather than just sex.
At the start of the graphic novel Alex doesn’t even want a robot, his grandmother buys one for him because he’s been mopey since his fiancé left him, and over time Alex observes that the dynamic of the relationship is troublesome. He sees in Ada a companion that has an absence of choice and so desperate to see if there’s a way to change her he finds an online group dedicated to helping robots attain a freedom and sentience. During one exchange between two members of the group Alex offers a line that reveals everything about his humanity:
And what makes you think you’ll want her if she’s sentient? A lot of our members were abandoned by their owners when they still didn’t turn out how they wanted.
I just…I see more in her. I want to know who she can really be.
There’s so many passages in Alex + Ada I could offer my reader to demonstrate its significance but this small quote seems enough to demonstrate the humanity offered in this book. Alex doesn’t look upon Ada as just a product, he sees in her the potential to become something real, something human which he could learn to love or appreciate. And it’s this vision of humanity that gives me hope for the future.
Love and real connections between people are built upon the ability to reconcile differences of personality. My wife and I have strong relationship, but that doesn’t free us from differences. Her love, really obsession, with cats tends to be regularly occurring issue between us, and I can never start reading or writing before she interrupts me to complain about something he read on an article or comment section online. We disagree regularly about politics, and I’ve been known to drive her up a wall with my frequent moodiness, and let’s be fair I own a LOT of books. But it’s these differences that foster a real relationship because human interaction is built upon complexity.
Alex + Ada offers up a relationship that becomes healthier over time because once Ada’s sentience is activated she becomes a person with her own ideas, opinions, concerns, and sexual preferences (the line “again” left me both laughing and groaning from familiarity). This essay has largely explored The Guardian’s article about the sex robot industry, but hopefully the reader can observe in just this small passage how the graphic novel offers up a hopeful vision and reality that contrasts with the concerning developments in this new industry.
The sex trade will always push technology forward, that has been demonstrated since human beings began developing technology period. When humans created writing we used it to write about fornicating, the printing press allowed for the easy mass production of pornography, video cassettes allowed the porn industry to flourish, and the internet’s development was pushed forward largely because of the ease of access to porn. The sexual robotics industry is just another in a long line of technologies that satisfies the ancient biological urge to fornicate. But where some are looking to AI to find a corrupt kind of solipsism, Alex + Ada offers up the idea that technology is going to change even this dynamic because at some point people, hopefully, will look into the eyes of their sex dolls and probably ask the question: Could there be more?
The story of human beings and robots interacting can be an endless cliché as creator and creation look upon each other with a different perspective, but as society is approaching a reality where this is no longer just the speculative visions of science fiction the questions about the morality of sexual robotics and whether or not humans and robots can empathize with each other is becoming more and more relevant.
Rather than offering a judgement it seems far more appropriate to ask the reader a question: Which of the two stories offers up a healthier view of humanity? The one where a man controls an intelligent female object to blow him and offer him jokes, or one where a man risks his very life just so that his female robot can think for herself?
All quotes from Alex + Ada were taken from the Hardback Image edition. All quotes from Jenny Kleeman’s The Race to Build the World’s First Sex Robot were taken directly from The Gaurdian’s website. If the reader would like to read the full article for themselves they can do so by following the link below:
Just for the record, while Alex + Ada is an incredibly hopeful vision of the future of love between individuals, I think it’s important to remind the reader that the best human/Robot love story remains Bender and Lucy Liu from Futurama. I mean you have a talented, charismatic, sexy beast, and then there’s also Lucy Liu.
anal penetration, Art, artist, big dicks, Bisexuality, blowjob, F. Valentine Hooven III, Female Masculinity, Gay, Gay Leather Fetish, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, giant cocks, Homosexuality, Homosexuality as mental illness, Humor, Jack Halberstam, Kake, leather, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Penis, Pornography, Queer, Queer Pornography, Queer Theory, sexual Education, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, soldiers, Sucking Cock is a Great Way to Spend a Friday Night, The Advocate, The Complete Kake Comics, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Well of Loneliness, Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland: His Life and Times, Touko Laaksonen, uniforms, Working Class Men
A man goes into a bathroom to take a piss. Another man walks up, whips it out, and starts to pee. The men look at each other’s cocks, smile, and start to fool around. In the middle of their fun another man walks in and joins in, the next man who walks in is a sailor, this is followed by a young student, then a black man in a suit, and finally a biker dressed in rough denim and a sleeveless leather vest. The story ends with all the men fucking butt to butt to butt to butt to butt, and my reader gets it from there. Despite the graphic intensity of this image what is absolutely important about this story, which is told as a series of pictures, is that all the men who are having sex in this bathroom are smiling.
That may not seem terribly important, but for the time this story was drawn out it was not only controversial, it was unprecedented.
I don’t apologize for admitting that I’m a consumer of pornography. And to be perfectly honest, there isn’t anyone living in this contemporary period who should. Pornography has transcended its previous space in society which, until recently, was at the bottom of your dad’s sock drawer or filing cabinets. The days when little boys (and some girls, let’s be fair here) would steal their father’s Playboys and tremble as they turned pages discovering the awesome power of airbrushing has passed, and now generations of little boys (and girls, again, let’s be fair) now have an unlimited supply of images and videos of naked people fucking. Now there’s plenty of discourse about whether this new openness and ease of access to pornography is negatively affecting the population, but that’s for another essay.
I am a consumer of pornography, and while at times this is a fact that can be embarrassing there is one crucial fact that needs to be observed: I watch and consume gay porn because I’m queer and I want to remain faithful to my wife.
It’s taken quite a while to develop the kind of confidence to admit this, both out loud and to millions of anonymous strangers on the internet, but it’s a fact nonetheless. Since I came out I’ve begun to read more and more about bisexual identity, homosexual identity, and more specifically about sexual intimacy between men. My growing Queer library is almost completely dominated by men (phrasing) and one book in this ever-rising mountain of same-sex intimacy has become not only one of my favorite books, but also the most important: The Complete Kake Comics.
Kake, pronounced Kah-ke or cake, dealer’s choice, is the creation of a man by the name of Touko Laaksonen and has become since his early appearance in the 1950s and 60s, and icon of gay and bisexual male culture. With his leather jacket, slim moustache, and black leather cap Kake established a visual ideal from which gay men the world over identified and mimicked in their dress and overall behavior. If the reader has never observed or read any of the Kake comics I’ve provided some images within the body of this essay, some of which are obviously hyperbolic and purely pornographic. I
discovered Kake, and his creator Tom of Finland, completely by accident. I wish there was a dignified way of explaining this serendipity other than “I googled hot guys and look what came out” but, yeah, again, dignity, that’s a thing I don’t possess.
In my defense, however, after discovering the snippets of online content of Tom’s work I managed to track down a complete book on Amazon which I purchased and read. Studying the drawings was entertaining, not just for the obvious perverted reason, but because Tom of Finland manages to illustrate beautiful scenes of men fucking in a wide variety of contexts and locations and each page is beautiful for the perspective and attention to detail. Reading the book I enjoyed seeing these handsome men having fun and enjoying themselves and fucking with abandon because, unlike most of the pornography in the contemporary market, these men looked like they were actually having fun while they fucked. The sex wasn’t about berating your partner, calling him a bitch or a fag, and then relishing in any pain. The sex was just about enjoying yourself.
That, and there’s also lots of gargantuan cocks.
This is a long introduction however to my real focus which is a book that few people will ever actually read. Tom of Finland: His Life and Times by F. Valentine Hooven III is out of print and so it’s unlikely that outside of a few die-hard fans the book will ever be encountered by the casual reader of queer studies. It’s because the book is out of print that I felt compelled to write about it, but also because, as I noted before, Tom’s men are beautiful examples of what sex between men (and sex between people) should look like.
Hooven observes this as he examines Tom’s men:
The Third element of Tom’s art was its sense of humor. For whatever reason, sex and laughter have been linked throughout history. From Lysistrata to Tom Jones to Lolita, the preponderance of the great works of erotica have been comedies and even in the narrower field of hard-core pornography a large number of better works […] combine humor with their graphic depiction of sex. Tom followed
firmly in this tradition and consciously imbued his drawings with a general sense of light-hearted play. No heavy-handed drama, no sense of “the love that dare not speak its name” was permitted to intrude. Even when Tom’s men steal and fight and tie one another up, there is an overall feeling of “Hey, that was fun. Let’s do it again!” (92-3).
It’s a pathetic state of affairs when this paragraph hits a familiar ear. Hooven I would argue accurately sums up the problem of much of the early pornographic writing, or even simply romantic writing, of the time because anyone who has ever read much early queer fiction recognizes that much of it is nothing but queer people mourning their very existence. This isn’t just my own observation, for even queer critics and historians have noted this tragedy in works that are now cannon of queer literature, the most obvious example being Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.
The novel is a romance that was published in 1928 and told the story of two lesbians, one of which assumed a kind of personality and physical make-up that many would refer to as butch. It’s a mode of being that assumes what some in culture would refer to as “masculine traits” but it retains the gender identification of female. The Well of Loneliness was made a bit of hubbub when it was first published, and in their book Female Masculinity Jack Halberstam observes the gender matter in the novel, while observing this narrative trend:
Both novels [The Well of Loneliness & The Picture of Dorian Grey] depict homosexuality as congruent with some kind of gender inversion, and both depict the subterranean worlds of homosexuals as lonely drug dens filled with moral perversion. […] Some lesbian critics have begun the work of recuperating The Well of Loneliness by referencing it as a brave depiction of butch sexuality that replaces a model of lesbianism as a sin with medical and sociological models of the lesbian as invert and victim respectively. (98).
I could get into a long explanation as to why many of the early queer authors were forced to write about homosexual existence as a morbid affair, but the simplest explanation is the fact that homosexuality was still considered either a vice or else a mental disorder. Many homosexual people could face outright persecution, exile from loved ones, incarceration in mental hospitals where all manner of tragedies including lobotomy and electroshock could occur, and outright death sentences. Is it any wonder then that homosexual life, and sex, was often portrayed by writers as gloomy and miserable?
Taking this knowledge into account Tom of Finland’s work is simply incredible for its time. It’s not just that the art work is provocative and satisfies what is sometimes referred to as “hard-core pornography.” One crucial element makes his work as powerful and dynamic as it is and Hooven explains it to his reader.
But there was one aspect of Tom’s work above all the others that made it unforgettable. This element was the very one Tom worked the harde
st to add to his drawings. It was partly a compendium of the three qualities already mentioned: the sense of humor, the feeling of immediacy, and the more and more blatant homosexuality; but it was more than just a sum of these three. It could be as simple as a smile, yet it was one of the hardest things to draw deliberately; Tom managed to portray it. Namely, his men were unmistakably happy.
Happy homosexuals? That was new! (94).
If the reader is not familiar with the history of homosexual people, this sentence could almost be eyerolling in its sentiment. Current media being what it is, many people might immediately push back and wonder why this presentation was so unique. Hell, just a casual glance through the perverted landscape of Tumblr is enough to make anyone question why would the presentation of happy queer men be so shocking or important? My response to this, dear reader, is exactly the last line of Hooven’s analysis. These happy homosexuals were new.
Queer artists interested in presenting homosexual sex, both in terms of serious art as well as pornography owe their freedom in this capacity to Tom of Finland because the man’s work established a precedent where men could illustrate sex between men as something that was fun. And considering the presentation of sex that often occurs in art this is still something relevant. Watching sex scenes in movies and T.V. shows and even in pornography, most of it isn’t about fun. Sex is often just about scratching an itch, completing one’s sense of identity, showing it as part of a lifestyle, filling an emotional void, or at its worse, proving your virility. There really hasn’t been any presentation of sex as something fun as far as I can see apart from a few obscure artists and Tom of Finland.
In fact, to be honest, the last sex scene I watched on television that made it appear that sex was something fun was the sex between Gabe and Samantha White on the Netflix show Dear White People, or the masturbation scene with Lionel. Both of these scenes show people have sex or masturbating and at the end it’s clear that the act was about enjoying yourself and just having fun.
Looking at my own desire I think this is the reason why I keep returning to Tom of Finland over and over again, because while it is just about the itch of masturbation, there’s always another level in it for me. I want my desire to be something healthy, and I want the expression of it to be something fun. Even if I can’t have sex with another man, if I could I wouldn’t want the experience to be just about proving my virility or enjoying a lifestyle. There should be an honest joy in fucking because fucking is supposed to be fun.
It would be enough to observe that Hooven notes Tom’s approach to illustrating gay men as happy and content, but one other characteristic of his work is noted and catalogued in this biography. The reader will probably observe in the images of Tom’s work an attention to clothes, specifically the way men are dressed in jeans, leather, or military uniforms. I’ll admit freely this is also part of the appeal of these men for me. I’ve noted in several essays that growing up I felt less than fully confident in my masculinity, not out of misidentification with my gender, but because I didn’t feel like I was a “real man.” This still exists to some extent (it’s hard to feel any kind of macho when you spend most of your working hours in dress pants and bow-ties), but part of the fun of my bisexuality has been discovering what kind of man turns me on, and it’s almost always working class men.
These men embody the kind of masculine ethos that I lacked with their denim, callused hands, and their down-to-earth attitudes. And, if I can speak plainly, it’s mostly because they’re fucking hot as fuck.
This image of queer men however was something that, much like images of happy men, were unheard of. Queer men of the previous era were resigned to the “invert” or else the “fairy,” characters who were effeminate, flambouyant, and almost always self-loathing. It should be noted that effeminate queer men were and are legitimate personality types, and while not every queer man subscribes to that label no one should feel bad if they are a queen. Still for many men this gender presentation wasn’t true to their selves and so they found in Tom of Finland’s work a mode of dress that matched their perception of what masculinity was.
From 1957 on, Tom’s Work set up a series of powerfully masculine images for large numbers of gay men. In the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots and the advent of gay pride, many of those men were no longer satisfied to merely lust after Tom’s men. In the seventies, San Francisco’s “Castro clone” look—Levi’s, boots, and work shirts—swept the gay scene, and gay men began to try to be Tom’s men. Even as the baby-boom gays aged during the eighties, they strove to emulate the Tom of Finland ideal. More and more of them began working out; super-butch haircuts and outfits and attitudes spread in popularity. So Tom’s work in the eighties presented an older but butcher male. In a way, this alteration was a reflection of changes in gay male society that were in turn partially a reflection of Tom’s work in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. (164-5).
I’ve divulged a lot about myself in this essay, and probably revealed aspects of my personal life many people were probably happy never knowing, but after I finished Tom of Finland: His Life and Times I realized that I had to write about this book, not just because of what Tom’s work has meant for me and my personal sexual development, but for millions of men across the world. New generations of gay, bisexual, and queer young men will discover the man’s work and find in his images their own erotic truth. They’ll find images of men that satisfy their erotic interest, and some of them will be so inspired that they’ll pick up a pen and start drawing.
Pornography as a mode of art does not receive a great deal of credit or respect, and studying it as I have it’s pretty clear not much of it deserves credit. Pornography as an art is usually a back-scratcher: it’s designed to take care of an itch and then be laid aside and quickly forgotten. Growing up the way I did, I realize however that pornography was an intimate part of my sexual development and has been for millions of young people. As human beings progress forward into this Information age, online pornography is going to shape the sexual lives of young people and so the work of someone like Tom of Finland is not just an esoteric study, it’s something important to talk about.
If people are going to be exposed to pornography at young ages, it’s important then that they understand what healthy sex is. Looking at the landscape of pornography Tom of Finland’s work is a beautiful exception because it encourages people to be themselves and be happy. Rather than present sexuality as something violent or misogynistic, Tom’s work is just sexual play. It’s appeal to the imagination where human beings can just imagine fun situations that can be repeated over and over again by turning the page and seeing a new angle or a new position. It may be pornography, but at least it offers a healthy view into sexuality.
And, if I can make at least one more appeal, it offers a firm reminder that there’s something about a man in uniform.
All quotes taken from Tom of Finland: His Life and Times were provided from the First edition St. Martin’s Press hardback copy.
NOTE: This book is currently out of print, therefore tracking a copy down for yourself will be difficult…unless you follow the link below to amazon where you can buy a copy. Tom of Finland is just too important to be forgotten
And if the reader would be interested in finding The Complete Kake Comics, you can follow the link below:
My reader may have observed me using the word Queer in place of Gay for most of this essay. I’ve decided that whenever I write about same-sex intimacy between men that I will use queer in place of Gay, not out of a desire of homosexual erasure, but more as a way of leveling the playing field. I’m a bisexual man who prefers the term queer because my desire is pretty open ended. Plus, not knowing the sexual identity of my reader I feel queer provides more of a safety net. Writing out “queer man” is far simpler than “gay, bisexual, pansexual, man.”
If you hate me for this please remember that we’re all united in our love of cock. It is, to quote the great philosopher, just fantastic.
I also found, during research, a link to an article about a film recently made about the life of Tom of Finland. If the reader is interested simply follow the link below:
I also found an article published in The Advocate about the lasting importance of Tom of Finland:
Alice Walker, Black Sexuality, Black Woman Sexuality, Black women's narratives, Breasts, Celie and Shug, clitoris, Description of the Female Body, Everyday Use, Female Masturbation, Feminism, Hermoine Didn't Masturbate and Neither Did Jane Eyre, Homosexuality, Lesbian sex, Lesbianism, Literature, Masturbation, Novel, Personal Development, Poetry, Purple, race, sexual Education, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Sexuality of Women in Literature, The Color Purple, Women in Literature
My first thought was why the hell did it take me so long to read this wonderful book? My other thought was that the rain was probably soaking into my coffee, but momentary discomfort was worth it.
I had known about the existence of The Color Purple ever since I was in the sixth grade and had to do a book report over a biography of Steven Spielberg. I delivered my report in my dad’s Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap and I still remember being the only kid who went ten minutes over the required time. While mostly reading about the films Jurassic Park and JAWS, which tended to interest me far more than any of Spielberg’s other movies, there was a brief mention of the film The Color Purple. That was it for a few years until eventually I arrived in eleventh grade and got into American Literature. It was there that the book made another passing appearance because we read Alice Walker’s short story Everyday Use. Somewhere during the lessons on the short story there was a brief biography of Alice Walker and mention that she had published a book which was banned. When asked why the book was my teacher carefully explained that the book was about, or contained, lesbianism. Given the fact I was a teenage boy that should have been enough for me, but again, for whatever reason Miss Walker’s book remained background noise to real concerns like memorizing every episode of Family Guy and beating my friend at Smash Bros. For the record I achieved only ever the first task.
In the end my wife and tweed became the way I finally got around to reading the novel. My wife, for some accurate reason, thought I would good in tweed blazers. Being a poor man, Men’s Warehouse is out of the question and so I get most of my blazers at Goodwill which also usually has a book section. To be fair most of its crap Christian inspirational books, but sometimes you’ll find a real treasure. Having grabbed a nice blue blazer with elbow patches I spotted the novel tucked between Sarah Palins crap memoir (I can’t even remember the title) and a Chicken Soup for the Soul was a clean, crisp paperback copy of The Color Purple.
On a nice rainy day I sat out on my back porch in a fold out lawn chair with my pile of books and a cup of coffee, and in between the long periods where I would just watch the rain soak into the grass and dirt, I opened Walker’s novel and disappeared.
Walker is poet, and that’s not just a cute metaphor for her abilities as a writer, she’s actually a published poet and her prose benefits from this ability. Reading The Color Purple, even though it is written first hand as a series of letters, is like reading a novel written purely in poetry. Some of that might simply be the fact that her characters write in a southern dialect, but I believe the main reason for the beauty of the book is the fact that, the protagonist Celie, as she experiences one heartache after another, writes plainly and honestly about her emotional being so that her story becomes a song. Celie is raped by her father, essentially sold to her new husband, receives beating after beating, and eventually falls in love with a woman named Shug Avery, a jazz singer who actually defies her husband and who manages to help Celie find her own spirit and sense of self-worth.
The relationship between Celie and Shug is what lasted after reading The Color Purple for me, partly because it was a lesbian relationship. My regular reader will remember, as if I’d let them forget, that most of my reading and writing explores human sexuality, and while most of the time that is centered on sex between men, I try to balance it by reading stories of women so I’m not lop-sided. I’m not sure if that metaphor works, or if it’s a metaphor at all. Point is, while reading the novel I focused my attention on the queer relationship between Shug and Celie because it lied at the heart of her personal transformation.
Walker’s writing is still impressive for the fact that she doesn’t hold back when describing sexuality. Unlike other authors who try to veil sex beneath metonymy and color descriptions of flowers “opening,” Walker presents a woman feeling her desire in her body. In one passage Celie is watching the men watching Shug and noticing her own reaction:
All the men got they eyes glued to Shug’s bosom. I got my eyes glued there too. I feel my nipples harden under my dress. My little button sort of perk up too. Shug, I say to her in my mind, Girl, you looks like a real good time, the Good Lord knows you do. (81).
This continues later on when Celie narrates the first morning after she and Shug make love:
Grady and Mr. ______ come staggering in round daybreak. Me and shug sound asleep. Her back to me, my arms round her waist. What it like? Little like sleeping with mama, only I can’t hardly remember ever sleeping with her. Little like sleeping with Nettie, only sleeping with Nettie never feel this good. It warm and cushiony, and I feel shug’s big tits flop over my arms like suds. It feel like heaven is what it feel like, not like sleeping with Mr. ______ at all. (114).
Speaking of breasts, I’ve been fortunate in my life to spend most of my life surrounded with women. There was a dark period when puberty started where I couldn’t speak with them without mumbling, drooling, and/or generally speaking in tongues, but over time I got over this. To this day I work mostly with women, and most of the people I regularly interact with are women. Because of this I’ve become aware a strange fact: women tend to describe and talk about their bodies differently than men describe them. I believe the word “duh” is appropriate after this statement. The word “suds” and “flop” demonstrate this. When women describe their breasts, either in conversation or writing, it’s almost always different than when men do it. Male writers often use pretty words like “slope” and “rise” when describing ripe, perky breasts or “bubble-boobs” if you prefer. Whereas Walker as a woman describes breasts as “suds” that “flop,” and while a male author might use such language to describe flaccid and therefore grotesque breasts, Walker still manages to present a genuine eroticism.
I don’t want this essay to be nothing but discussion of breasts, but when the opportunity arises, well, I’m still pathetically male.
Reading this brief passage I was struck by how honest Walker paints the body, and how while reading Celie seems to find some kind of happiness in her life. It’s not simply that Celie enjoys having sex with Shug, it’s that the love making and the conversations they share as women help her develop into a more mature person who is more aware of her body and what it can give her.
No passage reveals this as much an early exchange between Shug and Celie when they discuss sex with men and Shug gives Celie one of the most important gifts one woman can give to the other:
She start to laugh. Do his business, she say. Do his business. Why Miss Celie. You Make it sould like he going to the toilet on you.
That what it feel likem I say.
She stop laughin.
You never enjoy it at all? She ast, puzzle. Not even with your children daddy?
Never, I say.
Why Miss Celie, she say, you still a virgin.
What?” I ast.
Listen, she say, right down there in your pussy is a little button that gits real hot when you do you know what with somebody. It git hotter and hotter ad then it melt. That the good part. But other parts good too, she say. Lots of sucking go on, here and there, she say. Lot of finger and tongue work.
Button? Finger and Tongue? My face hot enough to melt itself.
She say, Here, take this mirror and go look at yourself down there, I bet you never seen it have you?
I lie back on the bed and haul up my dress. Yank down my bloomers. Stick the looking glass tween my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Them my pussy lips be black. Then inside like a wet rose.
I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me. Nothing much. But just enough to tell me this the right button to mash. Maybe. (77-8).
This is a long passage, but necessary because it was a moment that I had never experienced before while reading any “literary classic.” Oliver Twist never discovered the joys of self-love with his friend Master Bates (that name is real by the way, look it up). Hamlet never touched himself. And looking at other women in fiction there’s a pronounced absence of self-discovery. Jane Eyre never masturbated. Neither did Elizabeth Bennet. Neither did Jo March. And neither did Hermoine Granger. I understand that each of these women were working with different times and paradigms governing women’s body’s in literature, but looking at the literary tradition I was raised on what becomes obviously missing from it to the point of being galling is sexuality. Specifically, exploring sexuality in order to become a more well-rounded person.
Celie, from her experiences with Shug, begins to recognize her own innate strength enough to challenge her husband and discover that he has been hiding her sister’s letters from Africa from her. This discovery prompts the next wave of her emotional development, but this could never have happened if she hadn’t learned to even look at her vulva.
This last act assumes great importance to my reading largely because I’m a guy. If the reader doesn’t realize it, and I’d be terribly sad for them if they didn’t, men and women are different anatomically speaking. Because the penis is on the outside of the body boys never grow up not knowing what their genitals are or what they look like or how to navigate them. Because of this, boys eventually develop into men who are able to master their sexual exploration far easier than women. Put it simply, I never as a boy had to worry about whether I had anything down there because I had been using mine since before I could walk.
But this also creates a real ignorance about women’s anatomy and physiology. Being a boy you don’t recognize that some women struggle to find their clitoris, or that some women can go their entire lives without ever having an orgasm. Reading this passage was illuminating because it was one of the first real instances of a woman discovering her body, and it’s joys, in a real literary novel. As I noted in the previous list women like Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Hermoine Granger, and Jo March were women I knew from my literary training, and while they all are wonderful characters with great personalities, they’re all, for the most part, sexless creatures.
I’m not saying that we need to read about Jane’s masturbatory habits or Hermoine seeing her vagina for the first time for a novel to be truly great. The Harry Potter series is wonderful, and Pride & Prejudice is one of the most beautiful novels in human history. But Celie’s story remains an important opportunity for women’s literature to grow and develop because it explores a new territory by introducing a real sensuality that isn’t just veiled or hidden behind pretty words.
The Color Purple is a novel that shows a woman discovering her body, and seeing her sex for the first time Celie can use words like “pussy” and “button” and still leave the reader with a feeling that they have read a beautiful passage about self-discovery. When I finished The Color Purple I realized that I had finished a beautifully written novel, but I had also read one of the few fictional works that was willing to honestly and unashamedly portray a woman’s personal discovery that her sexuality was not simply a procreative act, it could be, in the worlds of the nameless philosopher, “a bit of fun.”
Lesbianism and female masturbation are still new and developing territories in fiction, and so when a novel like Walker’s comes around which manages to explore the territory and make it beautiful is the reader’s time.
Though it should be noted that Pride & Predjudice & Vibrators should be held off until the reader’s taken the time to figure out the position Maryanne and Ginger. Google it.
All passages from The Color Purple were taken from the Harcourt Paperback copy.
While researching this article I found this small blog post which briefly explores how the lesbianism in this book helps shape Celie as a woman. Enjoy.
And, because this it the person I am, I decided to look up some articles about women, sexuality, and masturbation.
Finally, on one last note, shortly after finishing this essay I checked the Poem of the Day for PoetryFoundation.org, and I found this gem which made me think about the nature of purple and thus reflect back on Alice Waker’s beautiful novel. Hope you enjoy: