Aesthetics and Ethics in Nabokov’s Lolita
You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame; how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
—Edgar Allan Poe
Can beauty be a weapon? Can its seduction circumvent morality? Is it the only objective truth? In his 1955 novel, Lolita, author Vladimir Nabokov explores how form and style can trump all other preoccupations by giving the reader a work whose only redeeming quality—in many respects—is its silver tongue. Wit and fluency are in no short simply in Lolita. However, adherence to traditional judeo-christian ethics is sparse. Despite his campaign against moralism and didactic fiction, Nabokov and his novel are not without moral implication. In Lolita, morality orbits a discussion whose center is quite difficult to locate. Nabokov once referred to Lolita as “the purest of all, most abstract, and carefully contrived” of his works (qtd. in Alexandrov 161). If your eyes went cross while reading that, your confusion is reciprocated by the author of this essay. Even still, let’s try to sort through Nabokov’s esoteric rhetoric and make some sense of this debauched masterpiece.
Lolita still remains a lightning rod in the modern literary world. In the nearly six decades since the novel’s stateside publication, a consensus on Lolita’s moral aim has remained elusive. Even Nabokov had some trouble pinpointing a singular goal or objective point to his magnum opus. In a letter to his friend, critic Edmund Wilson, Nabokov called the novel a “highly moral affair” (Alexandrov 161). However, in Nabokov’s supplemental afterword, published a year after the novel’s initial release, he deems Lolita a humanist manifesto of “aesthetic bliss”. In his afterword, Nabokov further details his thoughts on the ethical and aesthetic intersection; “…fiction exists insofar as it affords me…a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, kindness, tenderness, ecstasy) is the norm” . At first glance this appears to be an aestheticist statement. However, Nabokov’s parenthetical definition of art uses morally loaded words (i.e. kindness, tenderness). Unlike his protagonist, who narrates to be understood, Nabokov seems to be in no hurry to do so. Upon further dissection, however, the statement begins to become clearer. Again, he asserts that aesthetic is paramount but, through his use of moral language, inverts moralist theory. In a Nabokovian utopia, morals exists insofar and they enhance the aesthetic experience. With enigmatic flare, Nabokov seems to be implicitly calling for re-actualization of values.
Is Lolita Nabokov’s attempt at nihilistic transcendence and übermenschery? Is this brazen novel and indictment of the reader and Western culture? Perhaps. However, Nabokov was far too transgressive and intellectually ambitious to stagnate the profundity of his work in a single statement or binary thesis. As a result Lolita’s moral intent, if any, is one of negation and subversion. This occurs in Nabokov’s—by way of pro/antagonist Humbert Humbert—predatory seduction of the reader. Humbert’s loquacious style, stealthy charm, and caustic wit seduce the reader into a sympathetic view of a—for the most part—unsympathetic man. His more abhorrent fantasies are slow to appear, revealing themselves only after Nabokov has completed his preliminary seduction and laid firm the “deceptive surface” of the narrative (Alexandrov 161). From there, the novel pivots to a veritable sounding out of ethical dogma.
It is difficult to discuss Lolita in a philosophical sense without making reference to nihilism. There are many parallels that can be drawn between Lolita and the works Friedrich Nietzsche. One characteristic they both share is an almost preternatural awareness of mortality. In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the eponymous protagonist is at odds with himself and the world. Profoundly disenchanted, he goes on a quest for greater knowledge of himself and humankind and, in the process, completely alienates himself from the rest of the world. However, Zarathustra never doubts his treacherous existential wandering as, to him, ignorance is akin to death; “silence is worse; all truths that are kept silent become poisonous” (117). Humbert, like the Nietzschean Zarathushtra, is a doomed man condemned to life of confusion and misunderstanding. This is important to note as we take stock of the novel’s “moral” qualities. As we tread through Humbert’s mea culpa we are shown a man as he faces, headlong, his own fear and trembling. We see a man desperately trying to make sense of his life to both the reader and himself. As a result, his accounts are—or at least give the sense of being—unflinchingly truthful.
This supposedly honest retelling is an account rife with contradictions. As we progress through the story, it becomes increasing hard to fit any character into an archetype. Nabokov makes a case for intersubjectivity not only in the external world but inside the individual as well. Nabokov traps the reader in a prison of perspective; showing setting and character solely through Humbert’s eyes—a view that’s unapologetically devoid of empathy. As Humbert’s actions grow more dastardly, and he himself even less redeemable, the reader is forced to form their own opinions on the narrative. Decide what is true or false, analyze the implicit as well as the explicit. Lolita is not a statement on our morality so much as it is a provocation of it. How can we adhere to a moral doctrine when time and humanity breed nothing but inconstancy? The fragmentation of character and purpose in Lolita mirror the fickle nature of the human condition on both macro and micro scales. One particularly potent instance of contradiction in the novel is when Humbert, a self proclaimed “poet,” postulates “poets never kill” (70). He writes this while incarcerated for murder, the contradiction serving as yet another Nabokovian denouncement of moralism.
Lolita’s contradictions and duplicity goes far beyond Humbert’s narration. Thematically, the book is at odds with itself. Humbert writes his memoirs as a testament to Lolita and their affair, however the result is unequivocally self severing. Humbert rarely elaborates on Lolita as a character and, instead, uses her as an ancillary object in a solipsistic narrative. Within the novel, Lolita only carries meaning insofar as it services Humbert and his narrative. He admits that there “might have been no Lolita at all” had he not loved and lost Annabel (9). Humbert sees Lolita as a reincarnation of his late childhood love. Using this “rhetoric of reincarnation” he conflates Lolita and Annabel into one, in order to cope with his unresolved childhood trauma (Schweighauser 256).
Death, love and passion are ever present in the narrative and often interplay with one another. Nabokov names Humbert’s ill fated childhood love after the eponym of Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee, a macabre poem about lasting affection for a mortal love. Poe is referenced more than twenty times in the novel, far more than any other author (Schweighauser 257). This frequent reference to the gothic poet reinforces the postmodern fluidity Nabokov is trying to convey. Humbert’s proclivities are a result of death, his eventual demise is result of passion, Lolita’s live is taken while she is attempting to give life. Death, love, sex, murder: they are all intertwined, each having a hand in the construction and destruction of the other.
Duality arises again in Humbert’s narrative lense. The perspective oscillates between confessional retrospective and almost pornographic retelling. As readers, we are never sure whether the man telling the story is the regretful Humbert or the Nympholeptic Humbert; “Humbert the Terrible” or “Humbert the Small” (Nabokov 29). In end, Humbert claims to truly love Lolita, not as a nymphet but as a woman. However, the love is again self-serving. Humbert ensnares Lolita in a tangled web of death and deceit, robbing her of her innocence and foreshadowing her eventual demise. His conflation of Lolita and Annabel robs both women of any existence of their own and reinforces that Humbert, beyond his cloud of delusion, is the same man he was at the beginning. Again, we are left with an absence of resolution.
So how do we summarize a narrative this complex, this rife with contraction and duplicity? Put simply, we don’t. In the nihilistic tradition of paradox, the only objective “truth” in Lolita is that there is no objective truth. The novel is meant to progress, age, and morph with time. It’s what keeps it so mordantly relevant today. Truth is supposed to transcend time but, as we see in the novel, it does no such thing. In Nabokovian thought, to ponder morality as an immovable truth or existential North Star is to waste life. Dogmatic morality precludes presence and progression in one’s own humanity. Put simply it dilutes the human experience while art intensifies it. Empirically Humbert is a reprehensible, conniving wretch yet we read intently hundreds of pages written solely from his perspective. Why is that? In Lolita we plunge into the depths of the human experience with spiritually broken and morally bankrupt guide. What we take from the journey is ours to decide but at the very least we can gain knowledge and perspective—things the binary of moralism fail to provide.
Alexandrov, Vladimir E. Nabokov’s Otherworld. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1991. Print.
Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Lolita. New York: Knopf, 1992. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. New York:
Modern Library, 1995. Print.
Schweighauser, Philipp. “Discursive Killings: Intertextuality, Aestheticization, and Death in
Nabokov’s “Lolita”” Amerikastudien / American Studies 44.2 (1999): 255-67. JSTOR.