Saturday, March 25, 2006

All this talk is useless.

A couple of things; first, I saw Stanley Kubrick's film version of Lolita a few months after reading the book for the first time, and what threw me off and gave me something else to think about was how appearances change our views on morality. Specifically, when I first read Lolita, I fell in love with the language itself, which Nabokov had an amazing grasp of, particularly considering that English is not his first language. However, I'd thought nothing of Humbert himself, other than the possibility that he was (to put it frankly) a pervert with an elegant wording, going after an easy target of a child. The love was apparent not in the characters themselves, but in Nabokov's wording, and knowing that I held a book in my hands, I was able to separate Nabokov from his characters, even if he did pass his gift of language onto Humbert. But in Kubrick's movie, Humbert was extraordinarily handsome, and Lolita did not look like a mere child but indeed a young adult (mature nymphet) who seemed to be asking for Humbert's behavior. Perhaps Kubrick intended that to happen, or perhaps he interpreted the book with more regard for characters than language. But because the film had those two beautiful characters with which to create a Hollywood love story (Lolita's age being the only factor separating it from other romantic films), I found myself having less of a problem with the plot itself and even found myself secretly hoping that the handsome Humbert would still come out a fortunate protagonist in the end. The end of the book found me thinking "bastard" and able to see the characters for what they are, noting all the way through that Nabokov was the best part of his own book. Perhaps this is why it's often suggested that attractive people can get away with more than unattractive people. Still, beauty is subjective, so I'll end that discussion there.

Next, I don't know what was discussed in class, so this might be redundant, and I don't know if you all have the same afterword that I do, since I have an older version of Lolita on hand. But, I'm fascinated by one of the things that Nabokov has to say in reference to the subject of his book:

"I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and...Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being where art is the norm. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is either topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann." (p. 286 in the 1977 Berkeley pressing)

He also goes further to shoot down the idea of symbolism, disputing the theory that Lolita represents the power struggle between Europe and America, and says it is "childish" to study a work of fiction if one wants to gain insight into a social category of any type. Admittedly, I was extremely grateful to read these notes from him because he makes acceptable an appreciation of his writing strictly for the language; my ability to distinguish Nabokov's language from Humbert's likability is perfectly acceptable according to Nabokov's intentions, and knowing that I may appreciate something for its aesthetic value despite what morals it appears to push (or not push, as it turns out) is relieving to me as a reader.

Relating this to Sarah's post, while I completely understand the idea that a mask takes away the individual beauty of a model and seems somewhat degrading, Nabokov would likely validate the designer's claim that masks serve no other purpose than to retain beauty where it should exist. A designer does not need models with interesting or beautiful appearances that benefit anyone in particular; he simply needs graceful figures on which to carry his clothes, the true point of displaying clothes in a fashion show, and by using a mask to take away a model's individuality, the focus remains on the clothes and not the model. The mask is not an insult to individual beauty, nor does beauty need its own moral code, but the mask keeps the focus on aesthetic value, and only on the aesthetic value of the object meant to be on display.

Finally, there was a moment early in chapter 13 when Humbert said "I want my learned readers to particpate 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...'impartial sympathy.' So let us get started. I have a difficult job before me." I felt that in telling the reader what his/her role specifically is, Nabokov is putting himself in Humbert's place, giving the illusion that he is speaking as Humbert but really speaking as himself, manipulating the reader and making him/her feel further sucked into the story by using Humbert as a sort of middle man between writer and reader. Because Nabokov only wants his novel to be used for aesthetic purposes, his character may truly be viewed as an interpreter of Nabokov himself, using Nabokov's writing style as his own speech, using the reader as an audience member for his behavior just as the reader would act as audience member for Nabokov's writing (as art). I can't think of any other writer (at least, off the top of my head) who manipulates the reader this way, and in a secondary language at that. Absolutely brilliant, and without the intention of doing it. Amazing.

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