Roxana Robinson has drawn the bill of indictment against Nabokov’s classic. Her charge, in sum, is that the novel is merely a dispossessed aristocrat’s howl of rage against the philistine land of his exile, which he allegorizes as a crass juvenile he is “forced” by his homeless circumstances to seduce and then to exploit. Given this background, Robinson concludes, the novel lacks compassion, which Robinson sees as the sine qua non of great literature (as examples, she offers “Sophocles, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Bronte and Woolf,” though as these figures radically differ in epoch, medium, subject matter, and style, one wonders how they all manage to exhibit this timeless quality). A few of the commenters to her article second and expand Robinson’s indictment, asserting their disgust and horror at Nabokov’s subject matter and his ironic treatment thereof, descending at times to “think of the women and children” bathos. (Not to mansplain, but surely “women and children” is not a phrase consistent with feminism.)
Anyway, I suspect Lolita probably is minor in the grand scheme of literature, as works characterized by a single tone and a single style tend to be minor in comparison to works of greater scope. Even within individual authors’ bodies of writing, we usually discriminate this way: Hamlet is regarded as greater than Macbeth, Bleak House as greater than Hard Times, Ulysses as greater than Dubliners, To the Lighthouse as greater than Jacob’s Room, etc. Still, “minor” is not an insult, to my mind. Many superb and classic novels are “minor” in this sense, from The Picture of Dorian Gray to Seize the Day to The Body Artist.
Three more substantive or thematic responses to Robinson’s argument are these:
1. In part, but only in part, I agree with “Against Lolita.” Here is a cancelled and parenthetical passage from my review of J. M. Coetzee’s novel about Dostoevsky, The Master of Petersburg, deleted because I thought it upon reflection to be glib:
(And the child molestation motif here, so delicately handled, is surely as much a riposte to Nabokov as anything else. Nabokov’s inability to comprehend Dostoevsky is the index of his severe limitations. N. is brilliant to be sure, but D. is a genius. Put another way: N. was too brilliant to be a genius. He deserves Harold Bloom’s censure of his epigone, Updike: a minor novelist with a major style. Lolita is extraordinary as a linguistic artifact, but the moral intelligence it is supposed to possess just isn’t there, it seems to me. Humbert is a cartoon, easy to revile and so to enjoy, but Stavrogin lives right next door—or closer. A naive response to Lolita—that it is fancy moralized smut, the verbally facile maundering of an over-civilized gentleman-collector—seems to get to something that more advanced assessments of Nabokov’s “moral art” or whatever miss. Coetzee knows this.)
This was expectorated in some kind of foul mood, and I think Lolita does deserve a more nuanced critique. For whatever it is worth, my theory of Lolita is that it is a modern re-writing of Plato’s Phaedrus, in which a daemon-inspired Socrates counsels his eponymous young friend that erotic love is in fact a receptivity to the divine beauty which we humans only half-remember and only partially incarnate. Since the object of erotic love is the bodiless ideal, God Itself, it would be a category error to copulate. What we want with each other is not really our bodies, but our souls, according to Socrates. Nabokov chooses shocking subject matter to goad us into a reflection on the matter, but his conclusion is perfectly clear and stated forthrightly by his anti-hero: Humbert’s transgression upon Dolores Haze’s flesh was evil; if he loved her at all, he should have attended to her soul; since he failed to do so, he can only atone through the transfiguring power of art, which is desire sublimated and divinity imitated. Now Robinson is correct to point out the novel’s endless and furious satire of the United States, though I believe there is more droll affection in the portrait than she allows; to the extent that the U.S. deserves this criticism, it is because it is a country that is, in its mercantilism and its religiosity, deeply hostile to art, therefore hostile to one crucial non-sensual and non-predatory approach to the beauty shining all around.
2. If contemporary ideologists of “compassion” and a revived second-wave-style feminism want to re-open the books on the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents throughout cultural history, they will have to do so fairly; that is, they will have to choose more than just PC targets (not that there will be any lack of those) and encompass, for instance, the theory and practice of pederasty that runs like a red thread through modern western queer high culture, from Pater and Wilde through Gide, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Vidal, and Delany, not to mention the radical French intelligentsia’s position on these matters. (I bring this up because of Nabokov’s obvious debt to Aestheticism.) My point is certainly not to stigmatize non-heteronormative or non-reproductive sexualities, but, on the contrary, to note that history does not lend itself to easy moral judgments and that the reading of great literature is best conducted with such moral judgments held in at least temporary abeyance. I do think that the “invention,” as it were, of childhood and adolescence as spaces of psychic development free from adult erotic interference was a good thing and is worthy of defense, despite the moral panics (e.g., the Satanic panic) and general sexual conservatism it has at times occasioned. But this is no reason to read a difficult and serious work of the modern imagination with a pitchfork at the ready—to read as if one were some artless psychologist or sociologist such as John Ray, Jr., whose preface to Lolita is a lesson in how not to read it.
3. How, then, to read it? Compassion is a virtue, though some have argued cogently that it is not the chief virtue. In any case, compassion, like other virtues, must be active. Nabokov admired Dickens and even defended Dickens’s sentimentality, but he knew that such sentimentality had been blunted and corrupted by mass media’s endless assault on the senses and the emotions as well as by totalitarian propaganda. So he wrote a novel in which he did not provide the sympathy: as Richard Rorty famously observed, we have to provide it ourselves. (Though my Platonic reading of the novel differs from Rorty’s postmodern one: in my view, the novel, because it both morally atones for Humbert’s sins and provides aesthetic pleasure to the reader, does in fact synthesize ecstasy and kindness. Whether we are persuaded by this is another matter.) It is up to us to read between Humbert’s lines for the vulnerability and pain of Dolores Haze; Humbert himself comes to see this. Under Robinson’s post, commenter emakins replied eloquently with nothing but quotations from the novel, and here is the decisive passage:
What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic—one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.
Even more challengingly, the novel invites us to read it for signs of the vulnerability and pain that hide behind Humbert’s bluster. For instance: in The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, Andrea Pitzer speculates intriguingly that Humbert is a Jewish refugee, which makes Lolita is a far more morally searching novel about cycles of terror and oppression. (I should confess that I have not read Pitzer’s book yet, but I heard her give a fascinating talk on it in 2013 at the University of Minnesota.) Expecting novelists to dole out compassion as if they were serving mashed potatoes is to misunderstand literature’s slantwise telling of truth, its venture—in Sophocles and Shakespeare and Brontë as well as in Nabokov—to get us to pay more attention, to keep a lookout for what we are missing, what we have oversimplified, what we have judged too hastily—the suffering and the beauty. As in the Phaedrus, art calls us to what we already know, what we have let the world flatter or opiate or coerce us into forgetting.