Saturday, March 25, 2006

...and one more thing.

Nothing to do with Lolita, and I'll probably get a few hate comments for this, but this amused me and I like to share amusing things with others when the few occasions arise. I recently read the October 2005 issue of Spin, and it contained a great interview with Noel Gallagher of Oasis. When asked what he would say to Blur's Damon Albarn, were he to run into him:

"...what would I say to him? I don't know. It depends what he was wearing. If he was wearing something ridiculous, I'd tell him to sort his fuckin' wardrobe out. If he looked cool, I'd say 'Hey, fuckin' hell, man, you're looking well.' But if he wasn't, I'd say, 'You're looking like a fat idiot, why don't you go get on the treadmill?'"

This coming from the man who claimed Jack White looked like "Zorro on donuts." Sorry, had to share with someone. He amuses me. Back to the Lolita talk.

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.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Vincent Gallo and the Art of Identity

Vincent Gallo, one of the most ignomatic and potentially offensive Indie-Society Icons, makes art that centers around a persona (I hope) he has created. Writing, Directing, Starring, and Soundtracking two full length movies, releasing solo albums, and modeling for Calvin Kline, Vincent Gallo radiates pop-stardom. On his merchandise website:

He now sells his sperm, blankets from his youth, charles manson paintings, and 'Fantasy Weekends' in which he will travel to womens homes and sleep with them for a night for $50,000 (certain discounts for people of specific sexual affliations or ethnic groups). The text he writes, the interviews he does, the characters he plays in movies all carry them same archetypal abrasive foul mouth, and potentially bigoted persona.

"I, Vincent Gallo, star of such classics as Buffalo 66 and The Brown Bunny have decided to make myself available to all women. All women who can afford me, that is. For the modest fee of $50,000 plus expenses, I can fulfill the wish, dream, or fantasy of any naturally born female. The fee covers one evening with Vincent Gallo. For those who wish to enjoy my company for a weekend, the fee is increased to a mere $100,000. Heavy set, older, red heads and even black chicks can have me if they can pay the bill. No real female will be refused. However, I highly frown upon any male having even the slightest momentary thought or wish that they could ever become my client. No way Jose. However, female couples of the lesbian persuasion can enjoy a Vincent Gallo evening together for $100,000. $200,000 buys the lesbos a weekend. A weekend that will have them second-guessing."

-A quote from the "Vincent Gallo Fantasy" offer

Is he kidding? Being Ironic? Is the Vincent Gallo he portrays the sincere/real Vincent Gallo? I'm interested in how much playing with identity can be considered art, and how much is just who somebody is (is anyone actually is anyone). Obviously we cannot actually enter into a person's mind and share their perspective, but we still consider some people to be more genuine then others.

I personally hope he is not actually like this. I own his movie "Buffalo '66" (which is odd and great) and is seem that him writing a character for himself that is 'actually how he is' (consistant with all the other 'persona' schtick) seems unlikely. There is also the question that acting consumes people and they 'lose' their real selves (especially in cases of celebrity).

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

"The Arbitrary Power of Beauty"

Wasting time today, I found this comment about Undercover's last fashion show, which had the women wearing masks. They literally stumbled down the runway because they couldn't see out of these woolen things pulled over their faces.

"Sometimes a mask is just a mask. The elaborately pierced and studded hoods by Jun Takahashi of Undercover provoked editorials that ranged from puzzled to pissed off. In Newsweek, Anna Quindlen worried about becoming a faceless society. Confronted with such controversy, the Japanese designer insisted he had no motivation for swaddling his models' heads in leather, gauze, or wool beyond this simple fact: 'I think it's beautiful.'"

I, for one, don't find this beautiful. It seems fetishist and cruel to throw a sack over a woman's head and present her to an audience. It objectifies her in a way that robs her individuality much more than the usual fashion-presents-woman-as-object fare. Maybe masks seem especially terrifying to me because of the way they confine one's features, but this presentation undermined any of the beauty I can usually find in disturbing things. Usually there's a rush of relief at seeing something new, but this feels like the hard line of morality Mary talked about in class today.

But I wonder how hard it is, or perhaps whether I could be made to forget it. If I was bombarded with enough images of women wearing masks from sources I trust and respect, if masks started appearing in stores, if people started wearing them around campus, would I want one, too? I think that Nabokov asks us those kinds of questions in Lolita. If we spend enough time in a world of beauty, do we forget morality?

When I said in class "maybe beauty has its own moral code," I meant that it might exist along with Morals, that beauty's morality and Morals are so different that they exist in different spheres, they have no bearing on one-another. But I think now that beauty does not have its own moral code - that is not to say that it is valueless by any means - rather that it is so free of a moral code and so pleasurable that it allows us to forget morality altogether. It lulls us out of morality.

But there is a paradox here - by pushing us away from morality, does it cause us to snap back all the more quickly? Maybe I can realize my own morals more fully beacuse beauty begins to tug me from them. But I say no to this; we are too easily led by beauty to have it shock us into morality. It takes something as powerful as pedophelia and rape to remind us of Morals against Lolita's achingly beautiful prose. But perhaps that forces us to work for Morality, which causes us to invest in the Morals, which strengthens them on the inside. While this is a stronger argument, I think this varies from situation to situation. The tension in Lolita draws me away from the morality enough so that I can actually look at child-rape. It's something I couldn't abide looking at otherwise. But it might numb me to a less obvious Moral travesty - I would bet that Nabokov could convince me that, say, covering a model's face (and restricting her individuality, as I said above) was alright.

In fact, this is an argument for beauty's numbing qualities in terms of Morals - I only notice the moral outrage of restricting a woman's image and individuality when the moral is much larger than the beauty. In a more normal fashion show that might be said to impinge on the model's individuality, the beauty would make me buy-in to the program, not notice the amorality of clothing women in corsets. Or what about JFK? Though I agree with much of what he did politically, I think that the reverence he still commands has more to do with his youth, early death, and beauty than his policy. People have forgiven him his affairs in a case of beauty subverting Morality. Mary Wollestonecraft called this "the arbitrary power of beauty;" I think that ad campaigns use beautiful people not because it implies "if you buy this, you will look like this," but because we assume that a beautiful person has more authority. Product X must be good because beautiful person Y is telling me so.

But then again, there is the question of whether this morality-free zone might actually be a fertile ground for new morals. Its distance from society might allow us to pick out real Morals from societally conditioned ones (one culture might find nudity morally offensive while another sees it as the natural way of being). A clearer vantage point, if you will. And I think that we do need to rest from Morality at all seconds and just enjoy things. I enjoy many beautiful things that may not be moral, and to hell with it. But I can no longer say for certain that beauty makes us more moral.