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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, is a highly aesthetic writer. Most of his work shows an amazing interest in and talent for language. He deceptively uses language in Lolita to mask and make the forbidden divine. Contextually, Lolita may be viewed as a novel about explicit sexual desire. However, it is the illicit desire of a stepfather for his 12-year old stepdaughter. The novel’s subject inevitably conjures up expectations of pornography, but there in not a single obscene term in Lolita.

Nabokov portrays erotic scenes and sensual images with a poetic sensibility that belies the underlying meaning of the words. The beautiful manipulation of language coerces one to understand Humbert’s interdict act of pedophilia. By combining erotic and poetic desire in the context of the forbidden, Nabokov challenges the immorality of pornography, as illicit desire becomes masked in sensuous language. Nabokov carefully tailors the language Humbert Humbert uses to tell the world of his love for the forbidden nymphet, urging sympathy and innocence from the reader. However, the deeper meaning of the forbidden sexual desire is clearly seen in the use of only slightly veiled metaphor alluding to Humbert’s own obsession.

The very first words of the novel set the stage for Nabokov’s masterful use of poetic and erotic allusion. The poetic and romantic lyricism become the foundation for allusion from the deviancy of Humbert’s sexual desires:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita”.

From the first, he juxtaposes the ordinary with the sexual in his descriptive odes to love as well as simple statement reflecting her youth. The juxtaposition of youth and sexual desire is the driving force behind the novel and the controversy. The wording, however, is a mixture of romantic lyricism and obscene allusion. The tension is derived through the sensuous beauty of the words rather than the image of the young girl, just “four feet ten”.

“The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps” refers to Humbert’s tongue and the palate he wishes to “tap at three on the teeth” is Lolita’s. Evidently, Humbert’s clever choice of words masks the interdict aspect of his sexual desires for Lolita. Poetic lines such as “light of my life, fire of my loins” become fundamental in understanding the contextual allusion from immorality in Humbert’s deviant sexual desires and behavior.

The deviancy of Humbert’s sexual encounters with Annable Leigh, his first love, at age 13 is masked by beautiful, erotic language, making their sexual act natural and decent. Humbert asserts that his love for and memory of his first love provided the basis for his affair with Lolita. Humbert’s sexual experience with Annabel takes place one summer night in a garden on the French Riviera. His description of their act contains no sign of trepidation or self-censorship; it is highly poetic from beginning to end. The narrator is not so much trying to describe the erotic games of two youngsters as to make us intimately feel their erotic excitement:

“She sat a little higher than I, and whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful, and her bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face. She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion.”

Therefore, Nabokov’s highly erotic, beautiful description becomes a justification for Humbert’s adolescent sexual deviance. Since pornography is usually the one-sided attempt at gaining sexual pleasure from another object or person, the author of a pornographic novel would have endeavored to describe the boy’s exploratory gestures in great detail, focusing the description upon him.

Instead Nabokov reverses the situation, making Annabel the focal point of the text, though not its reflector. The scene begins with an alliterative evocation of her legs (“Her legs, her lovely live legs”) through which one can picture, as in a mirror, young Humbert’s erotic pleasure while he is caressing them and adult Humbert’s excitement as he remembers the event. These legs are hospitable but not wanton, Annabel’s (frayed) modesty being necessary to contain young Humbert’s ardor and to allow the poetic unfolding of the scene.

In this marvelous passage from Lolita, one feels that Nabokov not only meant to mimic as closely as possible the voluptuousness experienced by the two adolescents and to make us feel it intensely in sympathy. But also to cast aside the vulgar clichs used in literature to represent sex, and, step by step, to prepare us for the blossoming of the final metaphor which bears little trace of trepidation and self-censorship. The tailored elements are not meant to turn the girl into a “tumescent” object nor as a euphemism representing the girl’s genitals, under cover of the fetish.

They are not even referred to as a forbidden nook, as the phrase “my hand located what it sought,” in which there is hardly any trace of self-censorship, confirms. The girl’s genitals are neither named nor described; they are simply designated deictically as the sublime goal of a quest. Here, the anatomic word or the exaggerated metaphor would inevitably mar the poetic beauty of the passage and betray the inadequacy between the words and the idealized referent. Humbert, as a narrator, does not insist on his gesture as a protagonist; on the other hand, he extensively, poetically, evokes the effects of his caresses on Annabel who seems to be teetering between pleasure and pain.

The scene is all the more exciting as the girl’s gestures, which are described in such voluptuous detail, inevitably reflect the caresses lavished on her by the boy; they mirror the rhythm and configurations of his caresses. The protagonist and the narrator betray the same fascination in front of Annabel’s voluptuous contortions, drawing their excitement from the spectacle, so that the final gesture is hardly indecent: it is the ultimate gift made by the young boy to the ecstatic virgin.

There is no trace of vulgarity in the phrase, which is both a metaphor and a metonymy and constitutes a kind of poetic climax. After the implied evocation of the girl’s genitals, the narrator had no choice but to invent a beautiful poetic formula which would sound at once natural and relevant. Unlike the explicit description of his sexual encounter in adolescence, Humbert avoids extensive detail of the sexual act itself with Lolita.

To Humbert, Lolita allows the deviancy of sexual union because she represents both deviancy from the norm and the sexual freedom of his youth. Although there is no real sexual act, the description of the Sunday morning scene on the divan is one of the most erotic and poetic passages, showing the extreme deviancy of Humbert’s sexual desires. (57-61) Despite the highly poetic language Humbert uses to mask the magnitude of his interdict desires, and make the reader sympathetic, the narrator realizes that his sexual hunger for nymphets is not moral in the eyes of society.

Here, the narrator takes endless precautions, begging us to sympathize with him as a protagonist and to participate in the scene: “I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay; I want them to examine its every detail and see for themselves how careful, how chaste, the whole wine-sweet event is if viewed with what my lawyer has called, in a private talk we have had, ‘impartial sympathy.” This is a somewhat ambiguous request: Humbert the narrator says that he is aware of the reader’s desire as a voyeur, and he thinks he can depend on his freedom from prejudice, nay on his erotic complicity.

The signs of embarrassment and self-censorship are obvious here; yet, it is neither the author, nor even the protagonist who is supposed to experience such feelings, but the narrator while he is writing and imagining his reader’s reactions. Naturally, there is a big difference between this sexual scene between a thirty-seven-year-old man and a twelve-year-old girl, and the sexual games indulged in by young and inexperienced Humbert and Annabel Leigh on the French Riviera.

Humbert the narrator is aware that the scene he is about to replay is going to hurt many readers’ feelings and offend their moral sense, so he dissociates himself from Humbert the protagonist by presenting him as a somewhat grotesque theatrical character: “Main character: Humbert the Hummer.” The dissociation of Humbert the narrator from Humbert the protagonist is another verbal allusion to innocence in spite of his sexual deviancy.

Humbert portrays Lolita in a somewhat vulgar fashion in this particular scene in order to establish the unoffensiveness of his behavior. The portrayal of a child gone bad, offering the ultimate sin to man is no mistake. Humbert describes her appearance:

“She wore that day a pretty print dress that I had seen on her once before, ample in the skirt, tight in the bodice, short-sleeved, pink, checkered with darker pink, and, to complete the color scheme, she had painted her lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple.”

Lolita is a young American flirt who flaunts countless erotic signs in an attempt to make herself desirable. Hence the three adjectives used by Humbert to describe the apple which is objectively beautiful, artistically vulgar and superfluous in this context, but marvelously appropriate and functional in this scene. Lolita is no longer a vulgar little flirt but the archetypal seductress and temptress, Eve in the Garden of Eden. Humbert, the protagonist, mocked by Humbert the narrator, is too excited sexually to be distracted by such clichs.

The apple serves as a prop in a first erotic exchange: Lolita tosses it up as if she were juggling with it, he catches it, and she begs him to give it back: “I produced Delicious. She grasped it and bit into it, and my heart was like snow under thin crimson skin.” “Delicious” does not only designate a species of apples but also, metaphorically, the penis which, in the present scene will be turned into a poetic object.

It is remarkable how Nabokov gradually replaces the clichs lavishly displayed by Lolita on herself and around her by a subtle play of superimposed images, thereby showing the difference between the vulgar yet “fey” nymphet and the refined connoisseur. Here the narrator does not dissociate himself from his protagonist self: he unambiguously brings his personal contribution to the staging of this poetic and erotic scene in which the reader finds it increasingly difficult to dissociate his aesthetic from his erotic pleasure.

The scene becomes more and more writerly as Humbert’s excitement increases: “Sitting there, on the sofa, I managed to attune, by a series of stealthy movements, my masked lust to her guileless limbs.” There is no trace of embarrassment in the phrase “masked lust.” Nabokov is not attempting to compose luxuriant, exaggerated, or paradoxical metaphors as pornographers did to depict the tumescent penis. He prefers to use an abstract word, “lust”, which evokes a highly concrete experience and alliterates with “Delicious. Humbert’s elevating sexual excitation is accompanied by heightened poetic language, making his deviant sexual desire romantic and endearing.

There are elements of pornography present throughout Lolita, including the concept of sexual possession and consumption; however, these pornographic factors are masked in poetic language making his forbidden desire understandable. His language is reflective of sexual acts while maintaining the lilting quality of romantic allusion:

“She was musical and apple-sweet … Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice … and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty–between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock”.

The poetic language is a concealment of the escalating interdict sexual desire Humbert is experiencing at the moment. The allusion to sexual activity through the act of ‘devouring’ becomes a veiled metaphor for his possession of both the girl and the ‘forbidden fruit’. Humbert’s “consumption” of Lolita is indicative of his ability to solipsize the forbidden. However, the strength of the sexual metaphor is veiled by the reference to youth in its innocence. He refers to childhood tales (Beauty and the Beast) in conjunction with sexual innuendo.

The double meaning of the ‘gagged beast’ (triple if one infers that Nabokov is also referring to the trappings of clothing) is set in opposition, once again, with the innocence of youth as it applies to physical attributes. Nevertheless, by indirectly associating himself with the legendary Beast from the fairy tale, Humbert is justifying his sexual attraction and establishing his innocence from the interdict.

The poetic escalation accompanying Humbert’s increasing excitement continues, as his “masked lust” becomes “the hidden tumor of an unspeakable passion.” At the moment of orgasm, the narrator vanishes behind his protagonist self who addresses the members of the jury as follows: “and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.” Humbert does not simply apostrophize the members of the jury who will have to try him for murdering Quilty, but another court of justice, which he begs to render its verdict against him for depraving Lolita.

Later on, he will be very hard on himself; here, though, he neither accuses himself nor makes amends but jubilantly glorifies his sexual experience which he claims had no precedent in nature and therefore can not be judged by any human court of law. The word “monster” does not imply that Humbert the narrator is beginning to feel remorse, rather at that particularly moment, Humbert the protagonist feels as if he has totally freed himself from the law of men and performed the ultimate erotic act, an act at once ugly and sumptuous.

To be sure, Humbert tries to vindicate himself morally after that: “I felt proud of myself. I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor,” and he tries to fool himself into believing that he has not soiled the “lady’s new white purse.” Yet, he knows as a narrator that the intensity of his pleasure at the time owes a great deal to his conviction that he was actually defiling Lolita. In comparison, his first actual lovemaking with her will be very disappointing, both erotically and poetically.

The poetic, erotic, and romantic language Humbert Humbert uses to describe his passionate sexual attraction to Lolita is an attempt at redeeming the sins of his protagonist self. It is no longer the portrayal of a love that is defined by law and by society as deviant. Nabokov’s writing unambiguously seeks to transmute Humbert’s erotic experience into a work of art, and to induce us to relive it intensely in our imagination and with our senses. He does not want us simply to identify with his protagonist as a crude pornographer would, but to bring us to adhere totally to this beautiful text in which the gradual eroticization of the language eventually creates a poerotic ecstasy.

There is no longer any separation between signifier and signified, between the pretext and the present text; the obstacle that prevented novelistic language from representing the sexual act is magically abolished, even though sex still remains a powerful source of anxiety. It is not the sexual interdict, no matter what its true nature is, which is transgressed, but the aesthetic one. As Humbert later acknowledges “sex is but the ancilla of art,” it cannot be its main subject.

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