"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 Vintage International paperback edition. 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: