I just finished listening to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, read by Jeremy Irons (who does a great job). I never read this before because the subject matter holds no interest for me. But I needed something to listen to and there this was on the library shelf, taunting me with my ignorance of so many famous classics, and I thought, why not?
Actually only a few parts of the book are really icky, in that they force you to imagine things better not imagined. (Like, the scene early on where the pedophile comes in his pants from the 12-year-old Lolita's squirming on his lap as they wrestle.) Lolita is mostly a construction of words, a castle in the air of lovely phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, full of allusions to older masterpieces of European literature and invocations of the ancient past. Much of it is beautiful. Why, one has to wonder, did Nabokov shower this beauty onto the stony soil of a pedophile's memoir of his sins? Did he bet a friend that he could write a great novel about any subject, to which the friend replied, "All right, child abuse"? Did he want to explore the sort of evil that is everywhere around us, in the safest suburbs? Was he looking for shock value and the attention that we shower on artists who offend us in intriguing ways?
I suppose most of you know the plot. The narrator, who calls himself Humbert Humbert -- the conceit is that this is a memoir written in prison, and that all the names have been changed to protect the innocent -- marries a woman who revolts him in order to get closer to her lovely "nymphet" of a daughter. The mother then dies, leaving Humbert and Lolita alone together. He takes advantage. They go on a year-long car trip across America, staying in every sort of hotel and motel and cabin, visiting tourist sites; then they settle for a year in a college town; then they start another road trip. Eventually she flees from him and he misses her.
What comes to my mind now as I remember the book is what it says about love. Humbert insists throughout that he loves Lolita. He expounds his passion in the highest sort of literary language, full of classical allusions and perfectly balanced sentences. In a sense, he does. Lolita is the most precious thing in the world to him, and he would give up everything else to keep her. Yet he realizes, toward the end, that he has been cruel to her and deprived her of her childhood. He does not actually regret what he did, but he has some insight into how their years together looked to her -- as imprisonment, as a terrible price paid for small rewards, as something to be escaped from and, as much as possible, forgotten. His love for her led him to make her his prisoner, and it made him jealous to the point of murder of anything that threatened to take her away from him.
What are we to make of such a love? Is the measure of love the passion it inspires in the breast? Is it the amount we are willing to give to possess the object of our desires, to make it our own? Or does real love require that we value our beloved as a person and care about his or her own happiness?
Humbert would have laughed at notions of love as respect for the freedom of our equals, all that "let the bird fly away and see if it comes back" sort of stuff. For him, sane, respectful, gentle love is a pathetic thing compared to the passion he feels for Lolita. His love is a madness that takes over him completely and renders him oblivious to every sort of convention, law, and psychological insight. Rather than envying others their normal desires, he pities us for not having passions as mad and as deep as his own.
The well-educated Humbert also reminds us that our notion of love is hardly the only one to have been celebrated in civilized places. In the ancient Mediterranean it was normal for mature men to bed 12-year-old girls, even to marry them. For some, at least, of the Greeks, the most normal sort of love was that between an older, more experienced man and a young boy or girl. Is our revulsion at such love, or at least at such sex, a sign of increasing humanity like our abandonment of slavery, or is it a fad like psychoanalysis?
One of Nietzsche's most widely quoted aphorisms is, "All that is done from love lies beyond good and evil." One can consider Lolita as a meditation on this sentence, and indeed on the whole notion of rendering human values into simple declarations. What Humbert Humbert does from love is terrible despite being mixed up with all sorts of tender feelings and noble sentiments. Lolita is sometimes read as an allegory of tyranny, with Humbert's imprisoning love for Lolita representing the patriotic dictator's love for the country he oppresses. I doubt Nabokov had any such neat parallelism in mind. I read it as a meditation on emotion, sanity, and perhaps especially narcissism. Humbert's greatest flaw is his self-involvement, which leads him to be completely incurious about others. He is interested in Lolita only insofar as she represents something he desires. He loves what he sees of Lolita, but he does not see very far into her soul, and he does not care to. This lack of caring, surely, is a big part of his evil. How much, though, do we have to know about others before we can truly love them? Can we ever know enough to justify a great passion, especially the kind that takes over us in the early stages of love, sometimes before we know much of each other at all? If Humbert Humbert were "inhuman," there would not be much point to Lolita. But he is an entirely human sort of monster, and we all have his faults to one degree or another. "Human" is sometimes used as a compliment, or to mean what is best in life -- "humanism," "human rights," and so on. Nabokov reminds us that it is a neutral word, describing a species in which good and bad are thoroughly mingled, and the dominance of good is always in question.