Lolita: The Demons of Desire
Years ago I foolishly, earnestly tried to interest a non-reading friend in reading Lolita. “I already know what it’s about,” she said with innocent ignorance. “There’s a hundred porn movies called Lolita.” A stupid comment, and a true one. Lolita is one of the few works of art to penetrate every layer of culture, to mix layers minus the theorizing about “high” or “low.” You don’t have to read it to think you know what it’s about; you don’t have to read it to know the word “nymphet,” which Nabokov invented to describe little girls with a certain blithe, unconscious and demonic sexual allure.
Nabokov may’ve been insulted by the confusion of his masterpiece with porn, and rightly so. And yet the book has a certain relationship with one slender aspect of pornography: there is hidden in the rattiest (I would argue especially in the rattiest) porn a wish for purity — not moral purity, but purity of experience. Porn tries to eschew complexity and its dilution of feeling; it tries to hit the same deep spot really hard every time. In some fundamental way the human body functions as a machine, and porn is fanatically faithful to that idea; it is predictable and mechanical and promises you a reliable trip to ecstasy for the price of a cheap ticket. Porn does not entirely succeed in its attempts because there is dark, dream-like depth in the very nature of its fantasies. In the visual form, its actors are people, not machines, and because you can see their humanity in their faces and bodies, porn can never entirely eschew complexity; the written form is flatter, but still saved from uniformity by the inevitable idiosyncrasy of purple prose, through which the author’s personality can’t help but occasionally, oafishly pop up.
Still, the attempt is there, and in this utterly democratic attempt (cum one, cum all) to control and perfect something as mysterious and unruly as sexuality is the suggestion of and longing for the ideal. No matter how ridiculous, ugly or evil the fantasy, no matter how embarrassing its trappings, it exists as a crude translation of longings too profound to give words to; a wish for the realization of these longings is a wish for the purity of union, even when the apparent realization takes such a debased form that it is not recognizable as such.
Lolita is a bridge between heavenly dream and broken reality.
The discrepancy between the real and the imagined ideal appears constantly in human life, but it is never more poignant or more universal as when it appears in love or sexual desire. Nabokov’s Lolita is about many things, but this anguished discrepancy is at its hot core; the book is a bridge between heavenly dream and broken reality, and how the dream may break reality. Its protagonist’s fantasies are an enchanted bridge between the two, a bridge beset by mirages and monsters, a bridge which bursts into flames as he crosses, and which falls into the abyss just as he has glimpsed the terrible paradise on the other side. Here is Humbert Humbert, ur-pedophile, describing the bridge disappearing from under his feet — that is, discovering too late that a little girl he thought he was masturbating over is an illusion:
Mes fenetres! Hanging above the blotched sunset and welling night, grinding my teeth, I would crowd all the demons of my desire against the railing of a throbbing balcony: it would be ready to take off in the apricot and black humid evening; did take off — where upon the lighted image would move and Eve would revert to a rib, and there would be nothing in the window but an obese partly clad man reading the paper.
Cruel comedy yes, but poignant too, and insistent in its truthfulness about what, for lack of a better term, we call “the human condition.” In an under-valued early book, a run-up to Lolita titled Laughter in the Dark (1932), a middle-aged man named Albinus lusts after a seemingly unattainable teenager named Margot. Aflame with fantasies of how her body might look naked, he looks on her image without knowing it: Margot is briefly an art school model, and one evening Albinus’ friend proudly shows him some sketches his art student son has drawn, including those of a beautiful young girl and an elderly hunchback. Too distracted by his lust to really pay attention, Albinus comments “I think I prefer the hunchback.” And he does. In the parallel world glimpsed throughout Laughter, Margot’s double, or true self, is a moral, spiritual grotesque, and Albinus becomes one through his “love” for her. Much of the book’s juiciness comes from its piquant contrasts: between what Margot appears to be and what she is; between Margot’s total lack of love for Albinus and his passion for her; between the pure, flat love offered by Albinus’ wife and Margot’s sexy indifference.
Towards the end Lolita runs off with a more glamorous pedophile, leaving Humbert in a state of emotional miasma.
That last element, an undertone in Laughter, is full-blown in Lolita. This section, which comes towards the end, when Lolita has run off with a more glamorous pedophile, leaving Humbert in a state of emotional miasma, is about the girl’s mother, the dead, despised 30-ish Charlotte Haze (and Valeria, Humbert’s loathsome — that is to say adult — ex-wife):
Singularly enough I seldom if ever dreamed of Lolita as I remember her — as I saw her constantly and obsessively in my conscious mind during my daymares and insomnias. More precisely: she did haunt my sleep but she appeared there in strange and ludicrous disguises as Valeria or Charlotte, or a cross between them. That complex ghost would come to me, shedding shift after shift, in an atmosphere of great melancholy and disgust, and would recline in dull invitation on some narrow board or hard settee, with flesh ajar like the rubber valve of a soccer ball’s bladder. I would find myself, dentures fractured or hopelessly mislaid, in horrible chambers garnies where I would be entertained at tedious vivisecting parties that generally ended with Charlotte or Valeria weeping in my bleeding arms and being tenderly kissed by my brotherly lips in a dream disorder of auctioneered Viennese bric-a-brac, pity, impotence and the brown wigs of tragic old women who had just been gassed.
In this description of a nightmare world in which Lolita appears in the “ludicrous” disguise of her unwanted mother, Humbert starts to become conscious of the erotic link between his ideal love and his loathing of her mother — who is loathed in part because she desires Humbert.
This dynamic appears in paler outline in several of Nabokov’s earlier books: a romantic protagonist is caught in a tense cross-beam of two females, one who repulsively wants him, another who is sexually and celestially indifferent. In the very early books — Mary (1926), The Eye (1938) — there is no age difference between the two; as the books progress the indifferent beauty becomes younger and younger. In Lolita, the dynamic becomes increasingly comical, anguished and erotic, and the despised, desiring mother becomes both clearly and mysteriously a necessary part of the fantasy’s taut and tortured structure.
I am not making this observation in order to try to turn it into a “key” by which Lolita may be understood; I doubt there is such a key, as there is no key to anything alive in life, and this book is alive. Humbert’s dream-glimpse will not free him from the grips of his compulsion and it will not explain Lolita to us any more than anyone or anything may explain the mystery of attraction and repulsion. But it is a glimpse that makes us feel and respect the mystery of our unknowable nature in which the ugly and the ideal are so terribly, laughably and pornographically mixed. Lolita is full of such glimpses.
Mary Gaitskill is the author of the novel Veronica. Her short story “Secretary,” was the basis for the film of the same name. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire and The Best American Short Stories.