Sunday, April 02, 2006

Brimstone Ugly

First off, let me say to my throngs of expectant readers, I’m sorry this is late. I had an incident involving a canary, a set of stilts and a premature mango prevent me from doing anything of value on Friday.

Now then, down to business. I’ve found it interesting, perhaps even Scarry, to superimpose Elaine’s theories above my literary endeavors. In the misty midst of her indulgently romantic crusade in the name of beauty, I see questions of what I shall call Humbertism peaking through the fabric. (Or shall we pull an Oprah and just call it what it is—?) Romanticized and well-articulated incest/pedophilism/predatory enactment of unfulfilled childhood fantasies/rape—whatever you like—can be measured on the Scarry scale for their quantitative allotment of beauty. If beauty is

1. sacred
2. unprecedented
3. life-saving
and
4. incites deliberation

my reply to H.H. (not Nobokov) would be as follows:

1. To call the practice of violation “sacred” is so obviously immoral that I will spare you a didactic rant. However, I will note that my, oh, my austere southern Baptist upbringing is such that I know I must be associating the sacred with the moral. To read Lolita is to question one’s eager desire to cast at the pedophile, what we would call in my family’s vein of the Church, hellfire and brimstone. Yet to read Nobokov is also to question one’s preparedness, or resume, upon which one feels qualified to pitch the sinner into the aforementioned mode of damnation. Scarry mentions that Odysseus feels that his nude arrival in front of, (ironically.) a young girl on a beach (no less!) is beautiful because it has something to do with intuition. Okay, so when one is in the presence of the sacred, one can sense it intuitively. Although H.H. would have us believe that his repugnant incest was ordained by the divine, I would contest. I still stick to Kant’s theory that beauty takes us by surprise. So does the sacred. Hummy’s actions were too premeditated to be instinctual, and too followed by flowing logic and defense (Nobokov wanted it this way, hence the letter format) for his takeness with Lolita to be attributed to a divine hand. In other words, any old nymphet would do (as we see in his lust after Lolita’s schoolmates and the local children), but he just happened upon this one.

Did it become sacred? I think it became enchanting, but there is an electric fence around the sacred which a slimy rapist cannot penetrate. I think H.H. talked himself out of his moral obligation as an adult, and, Baptistly speaking, because he felt so guilty—enough so that he would traverse the US in it’s entirety, twice—he was aware of the fissure between his actions and morality. This is where I may have to break with Scarry, although I have not yet finished the book. I don’t think all types of beauty confer with morality. I think the sacred implies that which is moral. In Odysseus’s case, he may have felt stunned by the child because he was on dry land again, because she was innocent, because he wanted to violate her and that may, for some, be beautiful. There’s no accounting for taste. But the difference between him and Humbert is that H. acted on his impulse.

2. See above.

3. I renew my claim that one cannot harm others in the name of beauty. Having broken with the ever appealing malediction of my Baptist baptism and taken up with a Hindu interpretation of Buddhist Daoism (erg), I think it wrong to harm others. I carry spiders outside, down six flights of stairs in the winter. I believe that were beauty and morality to converge on a topic where the harm of another living being was in question, I might question the morality at work. Or, as often happens in the “Justice,” better yet, the Penal System, the life of an “immoral” person is placed below the life of a “moral” person. In this case I would opt for a minimalist’s morality in which one of the less-than-10 commandments would be “Thou shall not harm other living beings” even to save thy own damn life. I don’t give a rat’s butt if Humbert’s actions saved his life. He killed Lolita, in a very real sense.

My primary problem, thus, with H.H.’s actions was that not only did he repeatedly rape a pubescent child, but that said child showed little psychological damage. Were Lolita in the flesh, she would have been in therapy, on drugs, or in unhealthful life situations until she got into therapy or drugs. No matter if she “seduced” the adult or not. In the end, the claimed beauty did not only not save a life, but it snuffed two; three if we value Humbert’s enough to count his insanity and imprisonment.

4. I saw not a moment’s hesitation once Humbert2 arrived at the primary opportunity of violation. And after that, he raped her twice more the same night without “deliberation.” There was nothing immortal about his immoral actions, and so he stood in the shoes of a man, by Scarry’s standards, who was about to do a not beautiful thing.


By our current mode of thought, Elaine Scarry’s mode, Humbert could not make a case for his actions that used the term “beauty” in the same way one might claim “temporary insanity.” This, I believe, stems from the fact that the Scarry mode of thought regards beauty and morality as being synthesized. And I think we might all agree that Humbert’s impulses and thoughts may have been beautiful (hence the form of the writing, too), but his actions—because of their lack of morality—are brimstone ugly.

3 Comments:

Blogger Dolen said...

Well argued!!

9:21 PM  
Blogger China said...

Hey Mary,

You've made a good argument, and I find pedophilia and rape as disgusting as you or any other individual with a sound mind. BUT, Scarry aside, I've got to bring up a couple of things.

1. Being sexually abused does NOT guarantee that you're doomed to a fate of therapy, drug habits, or other deviant behavior. It is certainly possible that such behavior might follow, but not everyone responds to trauma in such a dramatic manner, and while I understand that you're trying to take the empathetic and likely approach, I also viewed the statement as a generalization that emotionally stable victims of the behavior might not welcome.

2. As I've mentioned, we can all probably agree that rape and pedophilia are immoral, and I am in no way making an effort to justify it. However, do you think that it is unfair to make such a strong claim when this view is in fact a result of our culture? While I'm not sure an argument can be made for rape (and I certainly hope there isn't one), one angle to take on pedophilia is that in some cultures, an adult is considered to be of a much younger age than 18, and in those cultures Lolita would not be taken for an immoral novel at face value, for its plot. Yes, intention will likely play into whether Humbert is viewed as an immoral character, but regarding the pedophilia itself, it would be unfair of any of us to make a claim that such behavior is firmly and universally ugly because we as Americans have been trained to determine that 18 is an appropriate age just as other countries consider (or have considered until recently) an appropriate age to be as young as 13 or 14.

10:14 PM  
Blogger Sarah E. Smith said...

Hi China,

Excellent points. In response to the first one, though, I do not think that every sexual abuse victim is emotionally crippled forever. Indeed, one of my best friends who was abused twice is one of the wisest, most stable people I have ever met. However, I wonder if Nabokov was irresponsible to exclude any consequences for Lolita. It seems to imply that sexual abuse has no consequences, and though we may not need to read it to know that the scars remain, ignoring *any* consequences (as Nabokov did) is a dangerous move. One public dismissal of rape victims' possible feelings.

I would also argue that it is not very realistic to portray a victim of such serious and continuous rape without any consequences, and that this actually makes the novel less beautiful. Molestation at any age requires one to deal with or at least react to it. I know that my friend worked hard and suffered much before she found peace, but it does not seem that Lolita went through, well, anything. This could have been as simple as a sidenote of how she'd suffered, or perhpas how she was in total denial. To not include that is to sidestep the psychological realism Nabokov (elsewhere) executes so well. He has a responsibility to portray child molestation as it is, to be as authentic as possible. If we accept Keats' and Scarry's argument that "beauty is truth, and truth, beauty," this would make his novel more beautiful as well. He does a brilliant job with Humbert; I think that the novel's only real failure is that it neglects *any* emotional fallout for Lolita.

7:12 PM  

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