Lisa and Lolita, Le viol des deux
An Essay by Lisa Korthals
I discovered Lolita in film at the tender age of 11. What I remember most about that summer was that I was always alone, but not alone enough as it turned out. My older brother was habitually out with ‘friends’ and my little brother had the unique privilege of being able to go to work with my mom (who worked at a day care center); this left me alone in our four bedroom apartment. My father worked for our apartment complex and he had the frustrating habit of coming home in between maintenance calls. I hated that.
We lived in Las Vegas and that summer was one of the hottest anyone could remember, with temperatures reaching a lethal 120 degrees at least twice a week. Trapped inside by the heat, I would watch movies. My favorites were old movies; anything black and white was of interest. And so it came to pass, that (quite by accident) I found myself one hot summer day watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 classic Lolita.
In Lolita, Laughter in the Dark and Transparent Things Nabokov writes vivid prose regarding the agony that (both unrequited and requited) ‘forbidden love’ creates in the male soul and the violent impulses these couplings bring out in both parties. Nabokov’s themes are voyeuristically sexual; turning all of his readers into ‘accident gapers’ on the highway of life. The accidents Nabokov allows his readers to slow down and gaze at have old names: lust, cruelty, incest, torture, rape, betrayal, and murder. It follows that during Nabokov’s lifetime (and well after his death) his most popular work was Lolita – people love a blood smeared road.
I cried through most of it. I was so confused.
Synesthesia from the ancient Greek σύν [syn], “together”, and αἴσθησις [aisthēsis], “sensation“) is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes. Though often stereotyped as a medical condition or neurological aberration, many synesthetes themselves do not perceive their synesthetic experiences as a handicap. To the contrary, most report it as a gift—an additional “hidden” sense—something they would not want to miss.
Biographers and critics alike have analyzed and dissected Nabokov’s prose style, finding the artistry of synesthesia under their microscopes. However, this type of literary criticism feels reductive, sterile, and antiseptic. While Nabokov’s prose is richly textured and full of sensory details that capture all of the five senses, this tenant of his writing cannot and should not be explained away as the by-product of a medical condition. In the same way, critics miss the aberrant impact of his words when they are tagged, bagged, and shelved as high art. These types of diagnosistic criticism, while traditional, capture none of the distressingly painful content that fills the pages of his novels. Lolita is about the brutal and repeated rape of a child at the hands of her step-father. Laughter in the Dark details the descent of a man into fatal lust and tortured blindness. Transparent Things gives the account of a man who kills his young wife in a fit of rage and jealousy. All the flowery prose and untranslated French phrases (a signature found in most of his novels) in the world cannot change these sickeningly heart-wrenching themes.
I called my grandmother and begged her to take me to the library. I wanted to tell her why I had been crying. I wanted to tell her so many things about her son, but I settled for a trip to the library. I was on a mission to find Lolita in print – the film would make more sense to me once I read the book. I gathered up my latest round of read books and met my grandmother at the wrought iron gate that separated our community from the rest of the world. She never asked me what was wrong . . . funny, no one ever did. Like all good betrayers, she ignored all signs that didn’t point toward her destination. She refused to see my puffy, red, eyes and emaciated figure (my anorexic attempt to control my beauty and therefore be too ugly for my father’s tastes). That anciently happy betrayer just drove me to the library and complimented me for being such an avid reader.
I checked out three books that day: Lolita, A Wrinkle in Time, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. The librarian hesitated as she flipped open Lolita’s cover, “Do you know what this is about young lady?” I responded with silence, hoping she would pull me aside and ask me why I wanted to read the book. The silence grew between us. Her face became quizzical and she appeared to be on the verge of saying something . . . I looked up at her with large, brown, pleading eyes, urging her to pursue her line of questioning. “You do know this is not a children’s book?” I was silently hopeful, this nosy librarian wasn’t going to stamp my book; instead, she was going to help me! “I really don’t know if you should be reading this. . .” was all she said before she pounded her ink stamp into the due date box and called for the next patron to step forward . . . due dates are important.
Readers don’t have to wait long for Humbert to find his soul, his sin, his Lolita. Just 38 pages into the novel, Humbert a cuckolded, newly divorced man is struck by her resemblance to his first love. It was the same child-the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair. The twenty-five years I had lived since then tapered to a palliating point, and vanished . . . yes, they [were both] beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. The subtlety of this scene is horrifyingly focused. Nabokov does not mention her breasts or mouth (the obvious seats of sexual symbolism); instead, with an interweaving of words, colors, and textures Humbert’s budding compulsive obsession is revealed. The reader can picture the color of honey on her shoulders, her chestnut brown hair, and we can almost feel the silkiness of her back under the warm sun. Nabokov forces his readers to look at Lolita as Humbert does (a sexual being – a nymphet). In doing so, he pushes us to explore our own apathy and self-imposed blindness toward child molestation, rape, and incest. Nabokov paints child rape in an array of blindingly bright, artistic hues – but, like a valuable masterpiece that has been painted over, the true painting, the one most people will not see, is hidden underneath. Conceivably, what lies beneath the surface of Lolita is the most shocking; for me, it certainly is the most terrifyingly personal depiction of evil I have ever read.
Throughout Lolita Nabokov hints at the seedy underbelly missed by readers who get caught up in his clever use of the English language. It is noteworthy that Lolita is the first person to define clearly what is happening to her. She does not evade the subject with flowery prose (as Humbert does throughout the novel) instead, she states calmly, clearly, and quite correctly the word is incest. In his choice to have Lolita use this word, Nabokov has skillfully revealed her true feelings about Humbert’s ‘love’ for her and the unreliability of Humbert as a narrator. The reader knows that Humbert, like all narrator’s, is telling his version of the truth. And yet, Nabokov makes it wonderfully and appalling clear that his protagonist/narrator is looking through the glass darkly of a sexually disturbed man.
Humbert describes his sexual appetite as that of an artist or madman, a creature of infinite melancholy. He justifies his attraction to children with revolting passion and unchecked forthrightness very early in the novel. At times, Nabokov allows Humbert to speak of himself in the third person. For instance, his heart beat when, among the innocent throng, he espied a demon child, [charming and deceitful] . . . he was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it was Lilith he longed for. Nabokov’s syntax here is precise and deceptively eloquent. The casual reader, who picks up Lolita in the hopes of finding a catalog of erotic perversions, misses Nabokov’s ingenious equation of pedophilia with demonology.
This important analogy is found by the reader seventeen pages into the novel, long before Humbert finds Lolita. Here, Nabokov skillfully invokes the mythology surrounding the Lilith tradition in his depiction of Humbert’s sexual desires. To explain, Eve represents subservient adult women of beauty and strength, who most Adam’s (unlike Humbert) find sexually attractive. Humbert’s yearning for a Lilith symbolizes the contrary nature of what he calls his ‘love’ for nymphets.
Lilith, a demon goddess, was birthed from the dust of Eden and married to Adam. However, unlike Eve, she refused to lie underneath Adam during sexual intercourse. According to the myths and legends that surround her, Lilith’s refusal came from her desire to control the amount of sexual pleasure she received from Adam, while simultaneously controlling the amount of sexual pleasure Adam received from her. In the same way, Humbert refuses to accept conventional sexual relationships and instead desires to be sexually dominated by a childlike demon-goddess of his very own.
Nabokov’s early mention of the Lilith myth also acts as foreshadowing. To explain, the mythical Lilith leaves Eden and journeys to the desert caves peppered along the shores of the Red Sea. Once there she daily gives herself over to her insatiable sexual desires with lascivious demons; the result is the production of a litter of demonic babies. Comparatively, Humbert takes his Lilith aka his Lolita and flees to the deserted roads of America to pursue his own sexual desires. He also desires a marriage in a mountain state [and] a litter of Lolitas. Several times throughout the novel, he and Lolita find themselves exploring the dark realms of physical and symbolic caves. To the bitter end, Humbert rationalizes his perverse dream that with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, Lolita the Second . . . when I would still be [in the strength of my age] . . . practicing on a lovely Lolita the third the art of granddad.
Vladimir Nabokov was asked on numerous occasions why he wrote Lolita. Loath to answer this question, he would respond differently almost every time. Sometimes he might quip that it was not the love affair between Humbert and Lolita that interested him; no, it was his own love affair with the English language. At other times, he would state that the whole novel was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel. Nabokov’s evasiveness toward this question only fueled the novel’s mystery, causing critics and literary scholars alike to draw their own conclusions. One of the most popular is that Lolita is the greatest love story ever told. Take it from a real-life Lolita: this is no great love story; quite the contrary. Perhaps, Nabokov is using the physical rape of his main character to illustrate a larger issue: the rape of the American female’s childhood.
Nabokov may have written Lolita to expose the fact that underneath the 1950’s American commercial veneer of happy marriages, white picket fences, and charmingly boisterous children lay the ugly rapes of generations of little girls – who were conditioned by a predatory mass media to leave innocent girlhood behind as quickly as possible and plunge head long into womanhood as full blown consumers of all products deemed feminine.
A comedian once said: My mother tried to kill me when I was a baby. She denied it. She said she thought the plastic bag would keep me fresh. My own mother tried to kill me when I was twelve. Like all good mothers, she denies this. She said she thought the fires of her indifference were keeping me warm.
All-in-all my mother was a good sport about things – she always drove me out of town whenever I caught a bladder infection. When I was very young, not more than four or five, I remember being driven forty miles away to a clinic where you did not have to have an appointment. This was done to keep me away from our family doctor, a wonderful, elderly, German gentleman, who had taken a special interest in me since he delivered me into this cruel world. Due to an abnormal amount of bladder infections for a child my age, it was ordered that I see our good German doctor once a week until ‘things cleared up’. He always brought his beautiful wife/nurse into the exam room with us and made my mother wait outside. He would carefully look over each childhood bump and bruise to ensure that all of them were received innocently during play. His wife would smile while he was doing this and ask me all kinds of questions about my parents’ overall treatment of me and my brother. These visits always ended with the same question, “Does it hurt when you pee?” At first I told the truth, whereupon he would gently pat my knee and tell me he would give me something to take care of that and not to worry. Then, his wife would smooth my hair and prepare the liquid pink antibiotic. By the fifth infection, I overheard him telling my mother that if I had even one more infection something more intrusive would have to be done. My mother cried all the way home, saying all the time that I might have kidney troubles and that she didn’t want me to die. After that, I lied to the good doctor and told him everything was fine, but when the pain got to be too much I confessed to my mother the truth. The doctors and nurses at the clinic never asked me any questions; they just examined me, wrote my mother a prescription and sent us on our way. Thus, she became indifferent to my abnormal amount of infections; tossing them aside as ‘something I would grow out of’.
When I was older, the tumor of her indifference grew so large that it blinded her. She loved the darkness that feigned ignorance brings to the eyes. I hated her darkness, almost as much as I hated the hot, white light coming through our front door every day at 1 pm: his favorite hour of interruption.
Nabokov’s mothers fall into three categories: absent, dead, or complicit, all of which lead to their fresh-faced daughters being harmed emotionally, physically, and sexually. In Lolita, Charlotte (Lolita’s mother) conveniently dies, and in doing so, opens the way for Humbert: at first, when Charlotte had just been eliminated . . . one thing in my mind and pulse–namely, the awareness that in a few hours hence, warm, brown-haired, and mine, mine, mine, Lolita would be in my arms, shedding tears that I would kiss away faster than they could well.
Death is not the only way Nabokov’s mothers betray their daughters. In Transparent Things (one of Nabokov’s final novels), Armande’s mother acts as a complicit procurer for the obsessive Hugh when she states, Come, I want to offer you a nice cold drink and show you some albums . . .not only did the snapshots follow Armande through all the phases of the past and all of the improvements of an amateur photographer, but the girl came in various states of innocent undress.
Laughter in the Dark (Nabokov’s tribute to the silent film era) shows Margot’s mother to be abusively absent: Her mother was still youngish, but rather battered too . . . a coarse callous woman whose red palm was a perfect cornucopia of blows. As a child Margot went to school, and there her ears were boxed rather less frequently than at home.
Nabokov’s own mother fits none of his categories; in fact, she is the polar opposite of these ghostly figures who float in out of the pages of his novels leaving trails of endoplasmic damage in their wake. His novels leave the reader begging to know ‘Where have all the good mothers gone?’ Nabokov does not present an idealized view of the bond between mothers and daughters. In stark contrast to any loving bond, Nabokov presents the mother-daughter relationship as an ongoing power struggle – where only one will survive. Lolita, Margot, and Armande find no comfort in their mothers’ arms. They are waiflike orphans forced to seek comfort and love wherever they can find it. They are vulnerable. They are preyed upon. They are predators. They are modern women in every sense of the word.
The average marriage among the Sami people of pre-industrial Finland showed young women marrying much older men; with an age gap between 15-25 years . . . the men lived longer . . . love did not enter into it.
Every pedophile is a lover of history, art, and traps. They are regular encyclopedias of Greco-Roman history on the subject of sex with children. They will cite with barely veiled anticipation places around the globe where men are allowed to freely and openly copulate with children as young as nine. Paintings, sculptures, sketches, and photographs of children line their walls and fill their odious hiding places. Only the most well-known artists are seen by the public and only the most obscene are saved for private consumption. Predators want so much to be accepted and understood as tortuously artistic.
Their traps, like all good hunters, are camouflaged. They feign interest in childish things; they offer achingly soothing words to pre-pubescent angsts; they carefully place kisses and caresses on cheeks, foreheads, and hands; they offer eagerly developing brains philosophical bullshit about life, love, and death. Yet, these snares boil down to strategic attempts to hide their predatory nature. Ah but, these revelations come to the prey too late . . . much too late.
Nabokov’s work is not autobiographical and he loathed psychoanalytical criticism or what he called Freudian criticism of his work: My advice to a budding literary critic would be as follows. Learn to distinguish banality. Remember that mediocrity thrives on “ideas.” Beware of the modish message. Ask yourself if the symbol you have detected is not your own footprint. Ignore allegories. By all means place the “how” above the “what” but do not let it be confused with the “so what.” Rely on the sudden erection of your small dorsal hairs. Do not drag in Freud at this point. All the rest depends on personal talent.
This may due to the fact that there is almost nothing of Vladimir Nabokov’s personal life in his novels. He grew up in a healthy, wealthy family where he was educated, supported, and encouraged to pursue his creative passions. Moreover, Nabokov was known for thrashing literary critics who attempted to connect him to his characters: Neither can I do anything to please critics belonging to the good old school of “projected biography,” who examine an author’s wor…k, which they do not understand, through the prism of his life, which they do not know.
Nabokov is not Hugh, Albinas, or even Humbert and I am not Lolita, Margot, or Armande. And yet, we are drawn together by wisdom and experience on the painful journeys his novels take me on. His writing speaks to that part of my soul that was crushed, broken, and lost long ago, in the arid heat of Nevada. Perhaps, I return to Nabokov’s evil, deserts because, despite the pain they bring, they are familiarly real to me. Perhaps, I return to Lolita in an attempt to mend the broken pieces of my soul and retrieve those pieces of myself that have been lost. Or maybe, just maybe, I too love to gape at the blood-smeared highway that represents the rape of my childhood.