Feb 19, 2009

Nabokov the Trickster

I’ve been getting a big kick out of all the ruminations upon the meaning and importance of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita lately, all attendant upon the 50th anniversary of its American publication. This novel’s reputation as great seems to be rising ever higher and stronger at the same time so many critics claim that it has no purpose beyond the pleasures of its prose and the panache of its narrative. The latest group of essayists have been gnashing their teeth over the problem of Lolita’s subject (as opposed to theme), the seduction of an adolescent girl by a lustful middle-aged man. Is Lolita encouraging or approving such behavior? Almost uniformly, the critics are claiming that the novel’s subject is out of bounds, as they defend the novel from the view of aestheticism, of some more or less vague notion of art for art’s sake. Lolita, so go these new apologies, is about the beautiful way Nabokov tells the story, not about any moral or social or political ideas.

Nabokov, of course, is mostly to blame. Endeavoring to be the contrarian in most things, and as well to play along with the aestheticist theories and practices of many a modernist, he said in a 1962 interview for the BBC that he had only aesthetic pleasure in mind when writing Lolita:

Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I've no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.

This, of course, is obvious nonsense, a playful tall tale (though there is the possibility that it’s self-delusion). I can’t say for sure what Nabokov intended by such inane comments, but I take them as funny, and it has always surprised and amused me that critics have been weeping and gnashing their teeth ever since to force themselves to believe in Nabokov’s rascally ruse. Lolita is -- obviously! -- a deeply moral book, as every essayist I have read in the recent round has been forced to admit by the unambiguous nature of the case.

My favorite among the recent essays that have come out is “Reading Lolita in Alabama” by Allen Barra on Salon, which can be found at:


Baara thinks Nabokov's masterpiece is still dangerous -- but not for reasons we usually think. Like hundreds who have already joined this endless queue of the self-deceived, Barra tries to force himself to believe Nabokov’s stunt:

This is the nicest way I can think of to tell Nafisi [author of Reading Lolita in Tehran] that Nabokov didn't give a damn about anything -- politics, feminism, humanism -- that she [Nafisi] does, at least not in any of his fiction.

Ah, such have been the tired and tiresome claims from many critics, claims that are so evidently false that they read as ludicrous. But, of course, Barra is simply paraphrasing Nabokov’s own words:

I don't give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth... there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.

That’s from an interview in Playboy magazine in 1964, in which he went on, “I have neither the intent nor the temperament to be a moralist or satirist.” Mediocrity, Nabokov thought, thrives on ideas, by which, as he told Time magazine in 1969, he meant "general ideas, the big, sincere ideas which permeate a so-called great novel, and which, in the inevitable long run, amount to bloated topicalities stranded like dead whales."

Putting all this together, you wind up with the confusions and hare-brained theories like those described in Gerald Graff’s fine 1979 book, Literature Against Itself, which I will discuss below and encourage my readers to find and read. But was Nabokov confused or joking? Nabokov said he was intent on writing a “serious” book, as he told his French publisher in a well-known letter. So he must have been very serious about this beautiful telling of a story, whose content is incidental to the manner of the telling. Perhaps Jacques Barzun, in From Dawn to Decadence, makes the most sense of such ideas in his discussion of the concept of art for art’s sake. Barzun’s sharp insight is that the concept of art for art’s sake is better expressed by the phrase “art for life’s sake.” That is, the aestheticist writer endeavors to seal himself off from ordinary reality, as it were, because his writing reveals or creates a higher reality of some sort, a reality of almost religious importance.

The confusions and incoherence of aestheticism frustrated Yvor Winters. Perhaps his most trenchant discussion of the matter, among several occasions he wrote on it, is in the essay “John Crowe Ransom, or God Without Thunder,” from the Anatomy of Nonsense (1943), which was reprinted in In Defense of Reason, which remains in print. In that essay he chided Ransom for believing that a serious work of literature like “The Tragedy of Macbeth” was about Shakespeare’s “love” of the subject matter, rather than an effort to communicate a full understanding of that dire subject matter, the commission of the crime of regicide.

As I say, one of the finest works on the issue of aestheticism I have come across is Literature Against Itself, especially in Graff’s first chapter, “Criticism, Culture, and Unreality.” Graff was a student of Winters’s at Stanford in the mid-’60s. He went on to do some original critical work that has bearing on modern classicism, and I recommend him highly. (In recent years later, I pause to note, Graff has sought to find ways to learn from and find affinities with postmodernism and literary politics -- efforts that I find laudable, if difficult.) Believing that aestheticism and related theories trivialize literature, Graff incisively delineated the twin concepts of the artist as a “hypersensitive weakling” and a “revolutionary prophet.” Graff found this, naturally, in Wilde, who talked like Nabokov’s prophet:

Oscar Wilde uses formalist rhetoric when he says in the Decay of Lying that “art never expresses anything but itself,” and that “art finds her own perfection with, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil rather than a mirror.” He switches to visionary rhetoric when says in the same essay that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” a view which defines art neither as a veil nor a mirror but as a mode of seeing which reorganizes life in its own terms.

Note the strong similarities of Wilde’s theorizing to Nabokov’s. Graff’s book, as the title makes plain, is an important, if long overlooked, effort to show that such views played a significant role in literature coming to be “against itself,” striving to undo its own purposes.

The critics battling to cram Nabokov’s novel into the art-for-art’s-sake box need to look at Winters and Graff to make much better sense of Lolita. Just as Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth, as Winters argued long ago, is not intended to express “love” for regicide -- or even for the telling of a story about regicide -- so Nabokov’s portrayal of Humbert Humbert’s grisly yet titillating seduction of a girl is not intended to make us “love” the seduction of adolescent girls or the mere telling of a story of such seduction.

Perhaps it’s time to take Nabokov for what he showed himself to be when he theorized on his own art, a trickster. Yeah, I know the idea of the trickster has become a new high-brow cliché, arising from the interesting work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, but I am going to use the idea because it’s useful. Nabokov wrote one of the most moral novels of the modernist movement, a scathing indictment of ethical confusion and egoism. Let’s enjoy a good laugh at his playful deceits, but then let’s use Winters to get down to the business of understanding what Nabokov achieved.

By the way, is anyone interested in what Winters thought or might have thought of Lolita? He never wrote a single word about Nabokov that I am aware of, though they both taught at Stanford for a short while in 1941. I think Winters would have found Nabokov’s style fragmented and wasteful and his theme improperly developed. More importantly, he would have had very serious doubts about the use of an unreliable narrator. This matter is related to the issues discussed in the essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature.” Using a narrator like Humbert, I believe Winters would have said, forced Nabokov to write less well than he could have and provided him with no sound way to generalize his theme or fix what he wished to communicate about the complex experience of lust. In general, I think Winters would have said, the author who uses an unreliable narrator has no means to reach a final judgment of his subject matter, which amounts to an abdication of the writer’s primary responsibility and a short-circuiting of the chief source of literature’s power.

Do any classicists out there think Lolita is a great novel? I’ll hold off on revealing my own judgment for now.


Mr X said...

Hi Ben,

You mentioned the interview in Playboy magazine in 1964 in which the undead author stated “I have neither the intent nor the temperament to be a moralist or satirist.” In this connection, it's worth our remembering that Pale Fire was published 2 years prior to the skin-mag confessions.

Robert McLean said...

My point being that Pale Fire is a satire, and I have 40 years of critical consensus on my side, and that satire more often than not is a moral concern, albeit of a negative kind, which doesn't seem to me to be a bad thing in the Nabokov 's 20th or now - anyone for corrosion and distrust? And no: Lolita is not a great novel from this classicist's point of view.

Robert McLean said...

Ben, by the way, Mr X is me, Robert McLean, sender of emails, and I intend to make further comments should the need arise (why 'Mr X', when my account is under my name, I really have no idea).