Aesthetic Bliss?

Aesthetic Bliss?


The Challenge of Ethical-Aesthetic Incorporation in Nabokov’s Lolita

One of philosophy’s perennially rivalrous dichotomies of thought is such that exists between those who place greater evaluative emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of a piece of art and those who place greater value on its ethical standards and contemplations. Historically, this rift in thought has led to various chasmic evaluative models, two of which, moralism and formalism, have remained largely advocated and applied in the philosophical sphere. Whereas moralism represents an effort to evaluate art solely based on its ethical qualities, formalism places greater value on its aesthetic ones.

The “success” of these critical schematics has scarcely gone unchallenged. Many philosophers, artists, and critics have taken great issue with both schools of thought. Contemporary and historical philosophers alike have criticized moralism and formalism for their dogmatic polarity, their (arguably) perfunctory one-dimensionality, and their entirely un-accommodating nature in regards to each other.

Few pieces of art serve a more effective conduit for criticism of these dichotomous schools as Vladimir Nabokov’s illustrious novel Lolita. Lolita, in its very essence as a piece of art, and in the convictions that brought it into being, represents a striking unification of ethics and aesthetics. Few would challenge that Nabokov is a virtuosic author and despite the fact that some wish to view Lolita as nigh more than a paedophilic parable, the maturity and nuance of Lolita’s ethical contemplations is ultimately present given proper analysis.

The ethical-aesthetic harmony of the novel allows us to see the obfuscating and one-dimensional nature of both the moralist and formalist schema. In the hands of a formalist, Lolita is an exquisite exercise in layered narrative, wordplay, allusion, and nothing more. In the hands of a moralist, it is an Aesopian parable on the danger and suffering of indulged paedophilia, a piece of “topical trash” (Nabokov 311) which Nabokov himself would spurn, albeit, one with an impressively crafted narrative.

Clearly then, from an evaluative standpoint, Lolita necessitates some degree of ethical-aesthetic incorporation. If our goal is to truly capture the essence of the novel in evaluation (which I believe it should be), Lolita leaves us wanting for an evaluative model that does not pigeonhole.

It is here that we may turn to philosopher Berys Gaut and his evaluative schematic referred to as ethicism, which is outlined and applied to Lolita in his book Art, Emotion and Ethics. At its crux, ethicism represents an attempt at ethical-aesthetic incorporation. Gaut opts for what he calls a pro tanto (“all things considered”) method of criticism, meaning that in an ethicist evaluation both ethical and aesthetic qualities are considered and ultimately contribute to artistic judgment. However, to conclude that ethicism holds the ethical and the aesthetic as equal would be to oversimplify. Rather, Gaut asserts that ethical qualities may only enhance the aesthetic value of an artistic work. Not only are ethical qualities alone insufficient to determine the merit of a work of art, they cannot be considered in isolation; ethical qualities are subsumed within the aesthetic.

Given this cursory glance, ethicism seems the method of criticism through which to approach Nabokov’s Lolita. In adopting it, we avoid the dogmatism and superficiality of the formalist and moralist schools. It appears as if, due to its pro tanto nature, ethicism might allow us to capture and evaluate the ethical-aesthetic harmony of the novel.

While Gaut’s ethicism is certainly a more useful evaluative schematic for Nabokov’s novel than moralism or formalism, this does not necessarily mean that Gaut’s ethicism renders us truly able to grasp and properly appraise the work. This deficiency is sourced from general definitional tension that plagues Gaut’s assertions about ethics and aesthetics and, more importantly, ethicism’s ultimate failure to avoid the same tendencies of obfuscation and reduction that make formalism and moralism so patently insufficient.

Of the three demarcative models of artistic criticism presented here, formalism has historically been the most supported and utilized. Several noteworthy artists and their evaluators have taken the creation and consumption of art to be solely an aesthetic activity, and this has lead to an overwhelming amount of philosophical contention for the school of evaluation. Perhaps one of the most conspicuous proponents of formalism was Oscar Wilde, who in prefacing The Picture of Dorian Gray remarks: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” (159). His rhetoric represents a concise and accurate explication of the formalist ideal: art and ethics do not mix.

Critical to formalism is the idea that in the evaluative process, the critic should remain fundamentally “disinterested” in the piece. This critical axiom of the movement is derived from the writings of philosopher Immanuel Kant, who viewed distance between critic and work as being essential to the “Judgment of the Beautiful.” In the current sphere, this principle of disinterest is advocated by philosophers such as Jerrold Levinson, who endorses distance between art and evaluator in his essay “Erotic Art and Pornographic Pictures.”

The historic prominence of formalism often makes it hard to question this axiom of disinterest. However, what we can say with relative ease is that in our consumption or experience of art, there is often more that strikes us than merely the aesthetic. In fact, the very notion of the need for critical “disinterest” is predicated upon an understanding of the fact that there is always more to the experience of consuming art than the aesthetic. On a simple and generalized level then, we can derive that the formalist pedagogy and practice is ultimately sourced from Kant’s belief that full absorption into an artistic piece distorts our ability to properly evaluate it: “we (must) take pleasure in something because we judge it beautiful, rather than judging it beautiful because we find it pleasurable” (qtd. in Burnham). The logic proceeds as follows: When we consume art we experience more than its mere aesthetic qualities. This can distract from proper evaluation. So we must approach the piece with disinterest in order to avoid distraction.

In approaching Nabokov’s Lolita through this schematic of aesthetic fixation and evaluative disinterest, it would be remiss to say that we are left with entirely dissatisfying results. The school of formalism allows us to recognize and evaluate the full aesthetic exceptionality of Lolita, which is undeniably one the novel’s most important qualities. However, as an evaluator, there is something acutely unfulfilling about appraising a novel that is so tactful, nuanced, and poignant in its ethical contemplations with a lack of emotional or moral involvement. In formalist practice, we allow ourselves to see and evaluate Lolita’s immaculate usage of tone, wordplay, allusion, narration, character development, and form but preclude any analysis or evaluation of its ethical character. Furthermore, we disavow ourselves of the ability to feel the power of this ethical character.

Can such a reductive methodology render legitimate and accurate criticism of a work of art? Is a piece of art really no more than its aesthetic features? To many consumers and creators it is often much more than this. So when we reduce a piece of art in this manner, in applying formalism, are we seeing the piece for what it truly is, or rather seeing a one dimensional and false apparition of its actuality? If the latter is the case, should the potentially distracting quality of the ethical and emotional really necessitate utter preclusion from one’s evaluative process?

Moralism is an equally prominent school of evaluation that produces equally unsatisfactory results when applied to Lolita. In its conception and assertion by Leo Tolstoy, moralism highlighted the author’s belief that art was only of quality insofar as it promoted connection and fraternity across the human race, and contributed to its enrichment and growth:

Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious Idea of beauty, or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals and of humanity (5).

More generally, moralism holds that art is only good only when it does good, which, in most cases, means that it promotes a message of ethical merit or calls on us to perform some morally righteous action. The moralist school is diametrically opposed to the beliefs of formalists: “People will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease to consider that the aim of that activity is beauty, i.e. pleasure” (Tolstoy 2).

In the hands of a moralist, Lolita is only artistically commendable if it renders an ethically sound message—which, as will be addressed later, it does. However, this evaluative scheme ultimately produces results even more dissatisfying than were produced by the formalist method. In looking at Lolita through a moralist lens, the primary point of concern becomes whether it condemns or glorifies pedophilia. If the latter is the case, it fails as an artistic work; if the former is the case, it is an artistic success, but only as a simplistic moral parable or didactic call to action and not as the intimately subtle and complex artistic triumph we know the book to be. Furthermore, in simplifying Lolita in this fashion, the evaluator finds herself losing the support of Nabokov: “I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow” (311). Of course, the author’s interpretation of his own work is not the only place from which we should source our understanding of the novel; nevertheless, to proceed with a moralist analysis is to either fail to contend with or blatantly ignore Nabokov’s direct charge against a moralist reading.

Aside from this, and of equal importance, is the fact that it feels ridiculous in its own right that we should have to entirely ignore the aesthetic nature of such a formally heralded novel in our evaluative process. Should we really be content to ignore Lolita’s aesthetic excellence? Even if one holds that the moral instruction given by a work of art is of great importance, does art’s power to galvanize really necessitate complete exclusion of the means of its expression from the evaluative process?

Ultimately moralism proves to be even more reductive than formalism. It demands that we preclude the aesthetic from our analysis in service of ethical fixation. On top of this, it demands that we that we reduce the ethical character of the story down to that of a parable in order to deliver the critical approbation we know Lolita deserves. If a formalist methodology renders only an apparition of the novel’s former self, a moralist one renders an apparition of an apparition. Due to this extreme reduction, it is hard to say with confidence that we can hold moralism to be an effective means of artistic criticism.

It is clear then, that both formalism and moralism, two of philosophy’s most advocated schools of artistic evaluation, fail in their critical analysis of Nabokov’s Lolita and that this evaluative failure is sourced from each school’s utter preclusion and opposition to the tenets of the other and (even more so in the case of moralism) due to their demands of reduction. Through formalism, we find ourselves unable to accommodate Lolita’s ethical beauty; through moralism, we find ourselves unable to accommodate Lolita’s aesthetic beauty, and much of its ethical tact and nuance. It must be then that Lolita simply necessitates an incorporation of the ethical and the aesthetic, as the reductive process of evaluating one independent from the other renders us unable to properly appraise it.

In this situation of wanting for ethical-aesthetic incorporation, it could be argued that Gaut’s ethicism is a natural answer. Gaut’s theory allows for evaluation of both the ethical and the aesthetic which is what seems crucial to the attainment of accurate criticism in regards to Lolita.

Ethicism does, in fact, prove to be largely successful in accommodating both moral and aesthetic considerations. In his analysis of the novel, Gaut is able to contend with Lolita’s demands for multifaceted analysis and evaluation to a much greater degree. He first opts to highlight the complex ethical strategy of narration in the novel, drawing out and explaining the contrast between authorial morality and the morality of protagonist; he cites Nabokov’s remarks about contrast between him and Humbert: “there are many things, besides nymphets, in which I disagree with him” (Nabokov 315). This narrative dynamic, Gaut claims, allows us to explore the immorality of Humbert’s actions and rationalizations, as well as the shocking moral quality of his ultimate realization of guilt, while maintaining awareness that Nabokov’s writing about Humbert does not intimate approval of the character’s actions.

Next, Gaut emphatically highlights the unity of aesthetics and ethics in the novel through discussion of the seduction strategy that Humbert employs:

With his (Humbert’s) full access to the scintillating array of Nabokovian prose, there has never been a proponent of child sex with such majestic powers of literary persuasion as Humbert. His narration in the early parts of the novel is a constant teasing play of imagery, designed in part to distance himself from what he is doing and draw the reader into complicity with his actions. (196).

In his interpretation of the seduction strategy, Gaut accomplishes something that one simply could not through the formalist or moralist schema: He explores the interplay of the ethical and the aesthetic. It is especially through this piece of analysis that we understand the importance of ethical-aesthetic incorporation, and the success of the Gautian model in the case of Lolita.

Gaut’s textual analysis culminates with the assertion that our experience of being seduced by Humbert and bearing witness to his fraught journey ultimately results in an “explosion” of ethical and “aesthetic bliss” when Humbert finally comes to understand his moral culpability (Gaut 198-202). We have, Gaut insists, been drawn into, attracted to and disgusted by the mind of a murderer and pedophile, we have experienced the “majesty of Nabokovian prose” in itself and as it informs the moral elements of the work, and finally (through Humbert’s admission of guilt), we arrive at a point of striking ethical power and wholeness; both our ethical and aesthetic palates are left satiated, swathed within the sublime. Unstated but integral to this analysis is Gaut’s diametric opposition to the axiom of disinterest. Here, his explication of the ethical-aesthetic interplay of Lolita is not performed with emotional disconnection but rather through direct emotional engagement, and it is through this engagement that Gaut is able to truly capture and evaluate the powerful experience that the novel delivers. Ethicism’s prowess as an evaluative school lies not only in its incorporation of the ethical and the aesthetic, but in that it allows for a more emotionally charged appraisal of the work, something that formalism prohibits explicitly, and moralism (in its flagrant ethical fixation) prohibits tacitly.

Perhaps the most shrewd element of Gaut’s writings on Lolita is his reinterpretation of Nabokov’s comments about “didactic fiction.” He asserts that Nabokov’s disparagement of “didactic fiction” and insistence that Lolita does not fall under this distinction are an attack on “simplistic” readings of the novel, rather than a complete rejection of Lolita as an ethical entity. Through this interpretation, Gaut highlights an essential issue of many forms of critical assessment: their tendency to reduce or simplify in the evaluative process and helps us understand the nuanced stance that Nabokov takes in response to this critical failing. Despite the fact that in this particular case Nabokov speaks out against a moralistic interpretation of his novel, ultimately the author’s claims about Lolita do not signify any involvement in the formalist-moralist debate. Rather, Nabokov is criticizing popular criticism’s tendency to reduce and obfuscate.

It is clear, then, that ethicism thoroughly prevails over both formalism and moralism as a way of understanding Nabokov’s Lolita and based on such results it would not be absurd to rule in favor of ethicism as the superior evaluative school. What remains to be seen, however, is whether this patent superiority constitutes a legitimate answer to the issues of ethical-aesthetic incorporation, and more importantly, the challenge of truly capturing the essence of the novel in the evaluative process.

It has been made clear in my analysis that this goal of true-to-work evaluation always leads to a want of ethical aesthetic incorporation, and in this sense Gaut’s ethicism provides a sensible answer. However, acute issue can be taken with the definitional basis by which Gaut allows for ethical-aesthetic incorporation in his evaluative system. Integral to ethicism is Gaut’s belief that a work’s ethical qualities can only be taken as being complementary to its aesthetic ones, rather than as being meritorious or unfit in their own right. In this sense, ethicism represents more of a subsumption of ethical within aesthetic, rather than a practice of equal incorporation. This, of course, does not inherently constitute a fault on the part of the evaluative system, unless we consider the fact that this hierarchical incorporation is, in many ways, arbitrary. Subsuming ethical within aesthetic makes ethicism a proximal relative of formalism—almost the same school of evaluation with a slight alteration. However, taking a term such as “aesthetic”—which by definition and centuries of application has been associated with formal beauty—and extending it outwards to matters such as the ethical seems both dismissive of historical context and imprecise. Gaut’s desire to offer ethicism as a more moderate alteration of the formalist school is understandable but comes at the cost of definitional clarity.

Whether or not Gaut’s ethicism represents a solution to the perennial challenge of true-to-work evaluation is ultimately a question of greater significance and complexity than that of its capacity to bridge ethical and aesthetic considerations. Perhaps the most significant implication in testing the capacities of formalism, moralism, and ethicism is that we consistently find there to be a single, essential issue in the plight of true artistic appraisal: the generally simplifying and reductive nature of all three. As Gaut unearths himself, it is this very concern that Vladimir Nabokov writes so adamantly about in his epilogue “On a Book Entitled Lolita” when he makes assertions about didactic fiction. More generally it is also this tendency to simplify that makes formalism and moralism ineffective at rendering satisfying criticism of the novel. Both are too reductive: One is reduced to the aesthetic, the other reduced to the ethical. In this sense, we can take the need for ethical aesthetic-incorporation that renders both schools so impotent in the case of Lolita, as well as many other works, to represent an acute manifestation of further-reaching conflict of simplification and reduction.

If we take simplification to be the bane of suitable artistic evaluation, it becomes clear that ethicism’s inherent reductive qualities, as ameliorated as they are in comparison to that of the formalist and moralist schools, ultimately prevent it from truly capturing and rendering the work to which it is applied. Ethicism simplifies by limiting the scope of critical evaluation to solely that of the ethical and the aesthetic as well as by subsuming the ethical within the aesthetic. In these reductions, it impairs, just as in the case of formalism and moralism, the ability of the critic to perceive the work in its actuality, something which is undeniably a systematic fault.

The response of the formalist, moralist, or the skeptic is an obvious one; she would likely comment that the limitation of evaluative scope is necessary for the creation of a firmly codified system of evaluation. I would retort that perhaps the issue we face in our efforts of evaluation is sourced from our eternal desire to create a tabulated and unchanging barometer by which to measure every piece of art on the face of the planet. Regardless, I assert that if we are ever to satisfy our reasonable desire for true-to-work evaluation it will be because we have discovered a means by which to avoid reduction in our criticism. Whether this means comes in the form of a neoteric evaluative system or through a new philosophy of evaluation altogether is entirely unpredictable.


Works Cited

Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich, and Alfred Appel. The Annotated Lolita. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.

Burnham, Douglas. “Immanuel Kant: Aesthetics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Staffordshire, United Kingdom. n.d. Web. Edited15 Dec. 2016.

Tolstoy, Leo. What Is art? New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., Liberal Arts Press, 1960. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. Dorian Gray. London: Penguin, 2009. Print.

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