Tuesday, December 14

Considering Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita"

I took a series of correspondence courses during high school. The second was in philosophy, and I remember reading Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Pursuing Hume's assertion that one must carry a skeptical attitude in all things by withholding immediate judgment and carefully examining one's reactions, my teacher asked me to concern my next essay with what category of experiences this skeptical philosophy would not be appropriate. I resisted him for some time on this point, convinced that there was no such category.

About a week later and preparing to write an essay on why this skeptical attitude would be proper in all matters, I realized that Hume's philosophy does not work with aesthetic experiences. Yes, one can refrain from comment after watching Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and consider why they feel the way they feel about it being one of 2010's greatest films. Perhaps on later viewings their opinion will change as the performances of Brandon Routh and Ellen Wong rise in their estimation. Maybe upon closer inspection they will realize things they did not realize before like how the snow melts around the feet of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as she skates down the road. Or it could go the other way entirely. Whatever.

The point is that there is a certain value to one's initial reaction to art that is entirely different from one's first reaction to a news report. A tight reading of art can change one's opinion of the piece, but it doesn't invalidate that first response which may have come from a different place but has an essential honesty to it. On the other hand, the late revelation that there was no evidence whatsoever that the Duke lacrosse players raped the stripper, forces a complete re-evaluation of one's reaction to the whole affair.

This is a long way of coming to the point that I think it is this initial reaction to art which separates the great from the good, decent and inferior. Capital Art can, to some extent, be quantified through their execution and interpretation of the basic elements. Literature has character, plot, setting, perspective. Music has rhythm, melody, harmony, pitch, scale. Visual art has depth, color, form, line, texture. They all have themes and tones. These elements can be analyzed and dissected, compared to other works. In a very real way, one can argue that Tobias Wolff's characters are superior to those of J.K. Rowling or that Josh Ritter's lyrics are better than those of the Black Eyed Peas.

Not so with that initial reaction. It cannot be controlled and any attempt to quantify or explain it will be incomplete. Not that we shouldn't make the attempt, but that is a matter for another place. That initial reaction comes from a place of honest and true connection and understanding with the piece, a place created from personal history and universal human desires. That reaction is what separates the art that we remember and cherish for our lives from that which we merely respect.

I lacked that initial reaction with Lolita. The book is well understood to be a masterpiece. The edition I read is part of Random House's Everyman's Library series, a series that includes Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf, and has an introduction by Martin Amis, a man probably as honored to write as the publishers were to have him write it. Modern Library named it one of the greatest novels of the past century, as did Le Monde.

I can understand why. The character Humbert Humbert is magnificently well drawn, and Nabokov is totally committed to him. Humbert is not deep, entirely consumed by his obsession, his disease, and never deviates far from it, but the three hundred pages of the book paint a fascinating picture of a terrible, terrible person with a man's fondness for word play and allusion, the emotions of a teenager and the responsibilities of a child. That pervasive voice is mesmerizing. Great, too, are the details of America gleaned from hours on the highway in cross country road trips and months spent in motels. And there is real comedy in this otherwise tragic story of a man's relationship with a girl. Being funny is hard, but Nabokov achieves it.

Absolutely I respect Lolita, but I neither love nor particularly care about it. I have no idea how much of it I will remember in a decade or two when I'm pushing What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and On The Night In Question or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and American Gods on my children and their friends. I think it is that Lolita feels like an experiment. It feels to me that Nabokov wrote it as a challenge to himself, to see if he could inhabit and recreate the mind of an unrepentant child molester and to do so with a minimum of self flagellation and pathos, which he achieves with aplomb.

There is nothing more to Lolita than this case study, which may be part of why it is esteemed so widely so highly. One can point to Nabokov's originality and fluency with language and observations as marks of excellence, as indeed they are. However, these marks of excellence can become shields for Lolita's proponents as they are not forced to found their opinions on their initial reactions but on Nabokov's considerable literary skill. Perhaps, more than likely, this is me throwing too far my own experience of the novel upon others, but who can admit to being personally moved by this story of a child molester and murderer and the very many detestable people he meets? Is Lolita really that great, or is it merely the one most widely respected?

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