Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history,’ but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary human intellect looks within nature—FRIEDERICH NIETZSCHE
So begins “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”, Friederich Nietzsche’s essay with existential echoes that, bizarrely enough, can be traced throughout another story—once upon a time in a castle by the sea—Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Both stories are structured around the idea of a “prison.” For Nietzsche, there exists a prison house of culturally constructed society through language. Nabokov’s novel presents a similar metaphor: by confronting the reader with the carefully constructed prison of its protagonist and speaker, Humbert Humbert’s, mental and moral cage. Both authors however, reveal that the aesthetic and creational capabilities of art render it possible for these morally safe-guarded prisons to be torn down. By analyzing Walton and Tanner’s arguments on fictional morality and art, alongside Nietzsche’s prescription for the fiction of morality in general, I hope to provide a phenomenological framework for explaining the relationship between ethics and aesthetics within Lolita.
The intersection of fiction and morality can create quite arbitrary boundaries in works of art, especially when the morality in question is essentially challenging. The philosopher Kendall Walton, in reaction to this tension, holds that morality itself can never exist as an innocent, make-believe component of fiction. In “Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality,” Walton claims that even in the fictional world where “un-true” facts of “reality” can exist without qualms, our belief in morality cannot be suspended (Walton and Tanner, 28). In critiquing this view, however, Michael Tanner points out that Walton is limited by his own version of morality, one that he believes should not be disputed—never mind that there are certainly other opinions on morality that certainly can exist in outside of Walton’s white-Christian-male sensibilities. In fact, Tanner discusses the extent to which fiction infiltrates the non-fictional world. He holds that the inherently moralized world conveyed by Christians is itself a fictional one (59). Finally, Nietzsche reveals on a phenomenological level the ways in which “reality,” as a construct of human culture and knowledge, is inevitably fictional. Evidently, morality is informed by the beliefs of a given culture. It varies across contexts. It is intersubjective. So then, instead of safeguarding morality as a deific end-all which can be applied to the universe, artworks that challenge “right” and “wrong” can serve to explain their phenomena on their own terms. As Tanner reiterates, the most important question we ask about moral views is why they are held (57).
Although it is easy to indicate why, conceptually, Nabokov’s Lolita is offensive to anyone who shares repugnance for the societal taboo of pedophilia in a culture that values childhood innocence, there are other moral questions at stake in the text. Specifically, the normative power of effective aesthetic communication—is it right for the viewer to appreciate the work despite their belief in its ethical flaws? Nabokov renders it possible, and I would argue enticing, for the reader to attain aesthetic appreciation—through rhetoric, language, plot structure, and humor, to name a few formal qualities of the work—from the text. Through these methods, Humbert Humbert transparently manipulates the reader; Nabokov does so reflectively. Nabokov creates a vivid fictional world of intricate concepts and perceptions, in which Humbert Humbert adeptly plays his part. He creates tension between the reader’s ability (if not desire) to engage in this fictional world and the question of morality and the role of truthfulness/deceit in the text. Can we trust our perfectly pedantic H.H.? What is Nabokov’s overarching purpose? What kind of games is he playing (on both the aesthetic and conceptual level)? Do we accept the lies H.H. feeds us? Are we hypercritical of minute symbols? Is this a parody of true love? Of art? Of anything?
Nabokov, as many disenchanted may have noticed, has left the concrete, “true” answers to these questions enigmatically blank. “What then, is truth?” (Nietzsche, 5) To understand truth as it operates within Lolita, it helps to turn to Nietzsche’s writings on the subject. Nietzsche like Nabokov deals with fiction; in this case, the fiction of society itself. As he states in “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,”
The art of dissimulation reaches its peak in man: here deception, flattery, lying and cheating, talking behind the backs of others, keeping up appearances, living in borrowed splendor, donning masks, the shroud of convention, playacting before others and before onself—[…] nothing is as incomprehensible as and pure drive for truth could have arisen among men (20-21).
Truth, according to Nietzsche, is part of the vast array of concepts humans use to construct the world around them. It is furthermore deceptive in that the very concept of “truth” hides the constructed nature of perception, instead endowing a most moral sense of pre-reflective acceptance to “reality” as it is perceived according to conventional, normative thought. In this process, we forget that even words and symbols are arbitrary designations for things. The paradigm of “Truth” would like us to think that these designations are objective and referential, when in fact they are incredibly subjective within the context of the human mind. In fact, every aspect of human conception of the universe is subjective to culture according to Nietzsche—even objects are anthropomorphized (5). As Nietzsche describes, “Truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions […] coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins” (5). Truth contrives a taken-for-granted reality that solicits compliance from those who exist within it.
One of the many challenging aspects of Lolita is that it drives the reader to ask moral questions about truth in two dimensions. The first deals with the literal moral questions of truth in the text through its deceptive devices and the contentious topic of pedophilia. The second strongly evokes Nietzsche’s non-moral “lie of truth” which questions the truth of the universe itself through the constructions of language and signs. This second question operates on more discrete levels within the text, namely through Nabokov’s formal attempts to play with and shatter the confines of language. The first set of questions is strongly linked to ethics, while the second is deeply rooted in understanding aesthetics—Nabokov, however, in no means separates the two—rather, each question serves to inform the other.
Concerning the first question of truth in a moral sense, Michael Rodgers argues in “Lolita’s Nietzschean Morality” that “Like Nietzsche, Nabokov can be seen to be effectively critiquing a schematic approach to good and evil—an approach which reduces them to mere social norms” (8). As discussed earlier, the idea of concrete morality is often viewed as a component of the “real world”—however, as Nietzsche reiterates, this is the world of human constructions (Nietzsche, 5). Accordingly, Nabokov constructs a conniving antihero out of Humbert Humbert, adorning him with old-world charm, ingenious intellect, a mockingly pedantic voice, a self-conscious parody of a romantic hero: “But I was weak, I was not wise, my school-girl nymphet had me in thrall. With the human element dwindling, the passion, the tenderness, and the torture only increased; and of this she took advantage” (Nabokov 183). Simultaneously, however, nuances of description in the text repeatedly refer back to Humbert as a monster in the conventionally moral sense—while H.H. might caress Lolita with his words, as Ciancio explains, Nabokov has Humbert slip into increasingly gritty language as he loses control—his “huge hairy hand” and “muscular thumb” probe Lolita’s groin (62), images that starkly contrast with his qualification, “just as you might tickle and caress a child—just that” (530). Nabokov, then, constantly evokes the explicit tension of moral-repulsion versus aesthetic softening in the text. This is possibly due to the fictional context Nabokov creates and which enables Humbert and Lolita to exist. Nabokov, in fact, creates even more layers in this fictional world if you take into account the destabilized character of the characters themselves, for example, Humbert’s innocence, Lolita’s so-called maturity, and the psychologist Ray’s authority are all expressly stated but actively undermined in the text.
Nabokov’s new fictional world of Lolita questions cultural assumptions of reality and recontextualizes them. One very deliberate example of this, as Ciancio explains, “denying any responsibility or aggression on his part, his [Nabokov’s] images and metaphors portray Lolita as both a willful, seductive Eve, ‘Eden-red apple’ in hand and ‘not shod…for church,’ and a ‘recoiled’ serpent about to promote the Fall” (529). Nabokov exploits already contrived associations of meaning (even in a Christian context) which render Lolita as the opposite of what her status as a little girl should symbolize—namely innocence—and instead attributes her (as well as all nymphets) symbolically “sinful” descriptions. If even objects are anthropomorphized and subjectivities of morality are instead presented as “truth” according to Nietzsche, then Nabokov also clearly mocks their designations. The complexity and further questioning of morality and truth also recalls what Tanner explains as being one of the essential drives of fiction—to create new perspectives—we choose to view the world through new vantage points because who wants live in an un-meaningful world, or worse, a world where meaning can’t be challenged?
Because, in many ways, conventional “truth” in the moral sense creates a world that is fixed—a world which is, admittedly, not only restrictive but also pretty boring. Art in turn, (especially through fiction) allows for creational possibilities and the challenging of perceptions to alter this world in interesting and new ways. As Nietzsche explains,
It constantly confounds the rubrics and cells of concepts by arranging new figurations, metaphors, metonymies, constantly exhibiting the desire to make and remake the existing world of waking man as colorful, irregular, inconsequential, incoherent, charming and eternally new as the world of dreams (43).
Nabokov also shatters the readers’ reality through manipulating the very aspect of the text a reader is usually most likely to take for granted as “true,” the literal use of words. “Truth,” according to Nietzsche is perpetuated the most through communication—our attempts to both render and construct the world in a shared, exchangeable sense—especially evident in language. Nietzsche describes truth as expressed through language as,
A moveable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, binding (5).
Nabokov then, unbinds words while also wielding them—in effect, using new aesthetic configurations to reconstruct meaning within the novel—to refer back to Nietzsche’s metaphor, he re-embosses the coins. For example, Nabokov uses puns in his writing to create mirror images of words which invite us to question the things they refer to and, in turn, our outlook of the world. In Lolita, he casts references to Humbert’s brutality through puns of a normative and even trivial nature (Ciancio, 520). For example, in “Nabokov and the Verbal Mode of the Grotesque,” Ralph A. Ciancio observes that on page 110 of Lolita, while shopping, H.H. picks up “pumps of crushed kid for crushed kids” (520). The arbitrary and trivial description of “crushed kid” referring to the pump, an inconsequential gift attempting to assuage Lolita, is wittily juxtaposed to the second “crushed kid” which, despite being Lolita’s morally deplorable situation as a victim of rape, is made to sound equally inconsequential in the context of the sentence. The pun then serves to lessen the moral severity of rape within the text, while revealing the normative power of language which enables even such extreme associations to be redefined.
The power of puns is derived from the power of metaphor, which creates even more deeply-embedded subjective meanings through language by pairing or replacing certain concepts. As Ciancio asserts, “Nabokov’s proper names sometimes function as metaphors of a sort, with the opposite but equally grotesque effect of dehumanizing people by means of synecdoche, the equivalent in figurative language to the reductive strokes of the caricaturist” (535). Ciancio notes that the text refers to neighbors as “Miss Opposite” or “Mrs. East” according to their location, and more humorously, Lolita’s boy-companions of are named “Red Sweater” and “Windbreaker” (525). Nabokov is not the first to notice the phenomenological application of metaphor. Critical scholar Homi Bhabha argues in “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” that categories of race function as metaphors of metonym—dehumanizing (colonized) groups of people by replacing skin color for identity. In these ways, the aesthetic devices which may seem to exist merely as distracting rhetorical flourishes in the text actually serve to question the role of language in shaping reality, and hence deeper social questions of reality (and morality as it is portrayed) as cultural constructions.
Nabokov plays around with revealing both the arbitrary and the restrictive nature of language in Lolita. This is especially evident in Ciancio’s analysis that, “Humbert comes close to articulating the deeper function of Nabokov’s puns when he attempts to convince his phantom jury that in his relations with Lolita he acted as the therapist, not the rapist” (520).The rapist in “therapist” reveals an incredibly arbitrary bit of word-formation—exactly how subjective is this therapist? On the one hand, the very association reveals perfectly what Nietzsche refers to as the insubstantiality of the “web of concepts” which defines the world (10). There is also the possibility that Nabokov is attempting to move readers to question the very concept of “therapist” itself, since pre-reflectively, the rapist pun is rarely even noticed. As the sociologist Erving Goffman argues in “Stigma and Social Identity,” all categories of stigma are metonyms because they define individualities by their abnormalities from the whole of “normal” society. I would argue that if there is one thing Nabokov attempts to absolve Humbert of, it is the stigma of rapist, creating a character at once conforming to and laughing in the face of the mock authority of John Ray’s description that “He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman” (Nabokov, 4). The Humbert Nabokov presents at once mocks his own stigma and aggressively challenges it: he is paradoxically a charming intellectual champion and deviant, a scrawling ape, imprisoned by the cage of his obsession with young girls. H.H. is a moral monster, yes, but also a poetic protagonist, constantly attempting to shatter and manipulate the perceptions of this prison to the reader.
In the afterword of Lolita, Nabokov describes a newspaper article (allegedly a cursory inspiration for the novel) in which an ape taught to draw by scientists finally, after years of experimentation, scrawls the bars of its cage (311). Throughout Lolita, Nabokov alludes to this reference, which functions as the greater (I hesitate to say) central metaphor of the text. As Rodgers explains, “Ironically, although incarcerated in a “real” prison as he writes, he is both free from and free to—free from a metaphorical prison of lust and free to “draw the bars” of his and Lolita’s past imprisonment, free to create reality afresh” (532). Simultaneously, the idea of a prison is also a metaphor Nietzsche draws on; specifically the “prison walls of faith” humans have in their own construction of the universe, especially according to knowledge and truth (8). In this very process of drawing the bars, while drawing attention to the medium with which he render them, words, Nabokov completes his phenomenal cycle. Art is the transcendent factor that can throw into question the authority of morality, and even the authority of truth itself through its creational capacity. As Nietzsche explains, “Indeed, waking man himself is clear that he is awake thanks only to the rigid and regular web of concepts and, for that reason, occasionally comes to believe that he is dreaming when that web of concepts is torn apart momentarily by art” (43). While enigmatic in many senses, Nabokov is clear in the fact that he creates quite a web for his readers, meant to at once ensnare them through Humbert’s beckoning, but also by revealing the web itself through his aesthetic manipulation of language as a medium. In this way, Nabokov’s Lolita at once enforces a Nietzschean speculation of the universe, especially in relation to the authority of morality, while allowing for the reality-shattering and creational possibilities of art.
Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” October 28 (Spring 1984): 125-133.
Ciancio, Ralph A. “Nabokov and the Verbal Mode of the Grotesque.” Contemporary Literature, 18.4 (1977): 509-33. JSTOR. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. 50th ed. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Taylor Carman. On Truth and Lies: Selected Writings. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010. Print.
Rodgers, Michael. “Nabokov’s Nietzschean Morality.” Philosophy and Literature 35.1 (2011): 104-20. Project Muse. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.
Goffman, Erving. “Stigma and Social Identity.” Stigma. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. 1-40. Print.
Walton, Kendall L., and Michael Tanner. “Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality.” Wiley-Blackwell. Vol. 68 (1994). 27-66. Web.