“The discussion of aesthetics and ethics in Nabokov’s Lolita is evidently a controversial one, seeing as the book continues to be regarded as a noteworthy work, yet some find its content simply too appalling to be enjoyable.”
Nabokov’s Monster: Aesthetics and Abandonment
The discussion of aesthetics and ethics in Nabokov’s Lolita is evidently a controversial one, seeing as the book continues to be regarded as a noteworthy work, yet some find its content simply too appalling to be enjoyable. The most prominent ethical flaw of the novel is Humbert’s violation of his young stepdaughter, Lolita; however, the immorality of their relationship goes further than the blatant pedophilia. Additionally, Humbert stresses his desire to immortalize his and Lolita’s “love” by preserving it in literature. This immortalization can cause the reader to either favor the novel’s aesthetic merit, or condemn its ethical downfall. Therefore, one may approach this “art versus ethics” debate in two ways: solely from an ethical standpoint, focusing on the obvious violation of Lolita, as well as the violation of conventional parent-child relationships, or from a neutral standpoint, considering what it may mean to immortalize this narrative in print. In relation to Lolita, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein presents another representation of a distorted parent-child relationship, and Jorge Luis Borges’ “Borges and I” directly engages literature with the notion of immortalization; through these pieces, in addition to Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, which received similar controversial reactions as Lolita, one can gain insight into the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in a work of art. I will also draw on the theories of Kendall Walton presented in his essay on fictional morality, as well as various critical pieces regarding Lolita. I believe that an individual can perceive Lolita as either incorrigibly disturbing, or as disconcerting, yet aesthetically meritorious; it is virtually impossible not to take into consideration the unethical content while reading, and therefore one cannot look at this argument, or the text itself, through a strictly aesthetic perspective.
Expectedly, when reading Lolita, one is immediately struck by the overt pedophilia and the novel’s overall off-putting nature. From a strictly critical viewpoint, this perversion is overpowering and prevents the reader from being able to enjoy the text’s aesthetic qualities. In part 1, chapter 13, the narrator states that he “cautiously increased the magic friction between the weight of two sunburnt legs, resting athwart my lap, and the hidden tumor of an unspeakable passion.”1 In spite of its beautifully crafted language, the passage can be very difficult to appreciate due to the fact that it describes the narrator, Humbert Humbert, rubbing himself again the unsuspecting Lolita until he climaxes. Kendall Walton would agree that this passage is a prime example of how the novel, as a whole, has failed. Walton argues multiple points in his essay Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality, the most significant of which include: It is difficult to imagine something we know to be immoral in fiction as moral and to appreciate the aesthetic value in a fictional work that is morally corrupt, it is more difficult to accept moral depravities in a work than factual wrongs, and most importantly, if one cannot engage imaginatively with a fictional work, it fails.2 In relation to Lolita, it can be extremely difficult to imaginatively engage with the work because of the outright unethicality of its content, thus providing the grounds on which one may deem it a failure. This isn’t to say that the feeling of repulsion is the only response to the novel’s content, but that for some, it may mask other positive reactions. Personally, I feel that Lolita’s subject matter can prevent the reader from fully engaging with the novel, though it does not completely undermine its aesthetic value.
Of course, the unashamed pedophilia is not the only wrong-doing that Humbert commits in the novel. One outstanding notion that resides below the surface level immoralities of Lolita is the concept of parent-child relationships. In considering this theme, my mind immediately was draw to what is probably the most unconventional example of a parent-child relationship, or in this case creator-creation: Frankenstein. Following the “birth” of his creation, Doctor Frankenstein claims “now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bed chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.”3 Plagued by repugnance and regret, Frankenstein leaves his creation shortly after bringing it to life, only to return to find the “monster” missing, and is overcome with relief. The scene of abandonment in chapter 4 is a prime example of neglect for one’s creation, whether it be blood-relation or an assumed parental role. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: A Casebook, Ellen Pifer discusses this connection between parental roles in Lolitaand in Frankenstein. Pifer notes that “Dr. Frankenstein does not recognize what hiscreator, Mary Shelley, makes clear to her readers: ugly as the creature appears, he begins life as an innocent child in a benign state of nature”4 Frankenstein’s creation is what would be referred to as, in Locke’s terms, a Tabula Rasa, meaning blank slate. All that the creature has ever been shown is hatred and cruelty, therefore that is what he eventually shows others in return. In this way, the creature is like a child; he must be shown the difference between right and wrong, and shown how to act appropriately in human society. However, Frankenstein is immediately repulsed by his creation’s appearance and leaves the creature to fend for himself after “birth.” Pifer then addresses the parallels to the paternal relationship in Lolita,mentioning that “like Frankenstein, who spurns his offspring, Humbert betrays the covenant between parent and child while exploiting his role as her self-styled guardian”[5.Pifer, “Nabokov’s Novel Offspring,” 99.] Humbert only uses Lolita for his sexual satisfactions, while disregarding her needs as a child; he only sees the nymphet in her, not the distressed little girl mourning her mother’s death. When he hears Lolita sobbing every night before bed, he pretends not to5) This type of neglect is similar to that which is shown to the creature that Frankenstein creates and promptly abandons. Lolita was never truly nurtured or cared for by her mother, and when Humbert is the only adult figure she has left to look to, he abuses this position and uses her for his own sexual gratification, instead of caring for her like a paternal figure should.
When discussing any piece of literature, one must zoom out and look at the larger themes and concepts within the work. One that struck me at the very end of Lolita was that of immortalization; to immortalize something, or someone, is to preserve its legacy and grant eternal fame. A common medium of immortalization is through photographs, such as those shot by Robert Mapplethorpe. Similar to Lolita, Mapplethorpe’s work was regarded as perverse and pursued very taboo subjects. Critic Rachel Bowlby quotes Linda Kauffman, “by thus inscribing the female body in the text one discovers that Lolita is not a photographed image, or a still life, or a freeze frame preserved on film, but a damaged child.”6 Many would argue that the immortalization of Lolita within the novel is simply preserving the sexual objectification Humbert imposes on her.
Critics claimed that this is what Mapplethorpe did with his photographs–objectify his subjects. He displayed them in compromising positions, yet his work differed in that it was a visual preservation of a moment; Lolita is a textual preservation of a broken, mistreated young girl. It has been documented that Mapplethorpe’s work, particularly the work he’s done involving young children, was really centered around trust and consent. Washington Post writer Paula Span explains that “Mapplethorpe’s New York art world friends often asked or permitted him to photograph their kids,” such as in the case of Jesse McBride, a young child that became the subject of one of Mapplethorpe’s most recognized photographs.7 Jesse’s mother had been long-time friends with Mapplethorpe and had asked him to photograph her son, then hung the picture in her living room. She was later shocked to see it being censored in the media as a point of major controversy.
In this case, as with other cases of Mapplethorpe’s child photography, he received permission from the child’s parents, or was even invited to photograph them. This is where the key component of literature versus reality comes into play. Mapplethorpe, in reality, produced controversial work, but didn’t take advantage of or manipulate his subjects. Humbert, however, does just that to young Lolita, using the fact that she is innocent and naïve to his own sexual advantage. Consequently, here is where we see a stark contrast between Mapplethorpe and Nabokov’s Humbert character, the latter blatantly depicting the violation of a young girl’s mind and body, while the former uses his younger subjects with consent as a form of artistic expression. The dualistic notion of immortality carries into the opposing, more neutral stance that one may have when reading Lolita: one may understand and be repulsed by the immoral content of the novel, but it does not entirely block the reader from appreciating its aesthetic value. The central concept surrounding this viewpoint is precisely that of immortalization – the fictional immortalization of manipulation and defilement versus the real-life, consented immortalization of childhood innocence.
The final line of the novel reads, “and this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita,” demonstrating one of the many forms of immortalization–art. 8 Here, we see that Lolita acts as Humbert’s way of immortalizing his and Lolita’s “love.” Nabokov’s distinct use of language dualistically throughout the novel in order to reflect and preserve Humbert’s relationship with Lolita; the scenes he depicts are graphic and revolting due to their extensive immorality, however, he also uses language in order to illustrate these scenes in an eloquent manner that appeals to the reader, in spite of the content being described. Therefore, one may be able to overlook some of the gruesome portrayals by looking at the flawlessly crafted language. It cannot be said for certain that Lolita’s aesthetic merit totally masks its immorality, nor that the immorality completely undermines its aesthetic merit. Yet, it is the balance between the two that pushes artistic boundaries and, as Mapplethorpe’s work did, “plays with the edge” of ethicality.
Language also serves to immortalize in “Borges and I” by Jorge Luis Borges, but in a slightly different way. The short story describes the narrator, Borges, explaining his other self, and claiming that “the good in [the pages] no longer belong to any individual, not even to that other man, but rather to language itself, or to tradition.” 9This story uses language and literature to immortalize Borges, but in turn, make it more impersonal. To print this story is to share it with the rest of the world, and in doing so, he is losing himself and his writing to the rest of the world, and to literature as a whole. Similarly, in immortalizing Lolita and their relationship in the pages of the novel and allowing the readers to read it, Humbert is losing the intimacy of the relationship. Therefore, the argument could also be made that by publicizing his exploitation of Lolita in the novel, he furthers and perpetuates that exploitation. Immortalization is neither good nor bad, but both; it is a duplicitous method of preservation that Humbert uses to honor Lolita and revel in the relationship that they had, but also to exploit her and capture his violation of her for all to read.
When discussing Mapplethorpe’s photographs, as well as Lolita, one must also take into consideration the impact that intrigue of such works can hold for the public. One may agree with Alberto MacLean’s letter to a local paper at the height of the Mapplethorpe controversy that “the list of painters, from the Middle Ages to the present, who display scenes or themes that have shocked society, is quite lengthy and their works remain with us, not because some self-appointed critic decided they were art, but because their art imposed itself on us, the public, despite initial public rejection.”10 It is precisely this shock value that stirs such an attraction to literary works like Lolita, as well as visual art, such as Mapplethorpe’s photography. This isn’t only true for visual and literary art, however. For example, the music of Marilyn Manson initially triggered a great amount of backlash due to the shock-rocker’s off-putting image and sacrilegious lyrical content. However, over the years, he has become more widely known and accepted for this same distinguished image, as well as for the musical quality of his work. Therefore, the shock value of a work, whether it be visual, textual, or auditory, can instill a feeling of intrigue in the readers. This intrigue may then increase its general popularity and acceptance, in spite of its moral corruption, as Nabokov was able to accomplish with Lolita.
Lolita is just one example within the massive, controversial discussion of ethics and aesthetics. A question that may arise within this discussion: Why is any of this important? Well, the answer to such a question can be as simple or as complex as one wants to make it. However, in short, having such a long-running debate is incredibly pertinent to society and human behavior in everyday life. What is a human with no creativity? Bland. What is a human without morals? Sociopathic. These two extremes lie on the scale upon which this entire discussion of ethics and aesthetics is based, and essentially, it all comes down to one thing: the extent. Whether a work can be considered art, while still dabbling in the realm of the immoral is completely subjective. However, I believe that once this “dabbling” tips the scale a little too far towards the unethical, all consideration of the work having any sort of aesthetic value is diminished. Therefore, a work may be purely aesthetic or, like Lolita, play within the realm of the depraved, and still be considered aesthetically meritorious. It is when a work fully submerges itself in this realm that it loses essentially all artistic appeal.
- Vladimir Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita, edited by Alfred Appel, (New York: Vintage Books, 1991),39.
- Kendall Walton and Michael Tanner, “Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality,” Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, vol. 68, no. 1, Jan. 1994, pp. 27–66., doi:10.1093/aristoteliansupp/68.1.27.
- Mary Shelley,Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, the 1818 Text, edited by Marilyn Butler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)39.
- Ellen Pifer, “Nabokov’s Novel Offspring: Lolita and Her Kin,”Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita:A Casebook (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 99.
- Nabokov, 176.
- Linda Kaufmann quoted in Rachel Bowlby, “Lolita and the Poetry of Advertising,” Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: A Casebook, edited by Ellen Pifer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 160.
- Paula Span, “The Children’s Portraits: Innocence or Pornography, The Washington Post, May 3, 1990.
- Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita,309.
- Jorge Luis Borges, “Borges and I,” Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, translated by Donald Yates and James Irby (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1964), 24.
- Alberto MacLean, “Art Imposes Its Own Value, Transcends Abitrary Judgment,” Columbus Dispatch, The (OH), November 7 1989.