(Swans - April 5, 2010) While I was chortling over Alexander Cockburn, who should pop into my brain but Christopher Hitchens. His appearance, as usual, conjured up the running dog of the capitalist jackal. I don't know why. I haven't thought of that old running dog at any other context since the sixties. It may be just me, but I sometimes wonder if the notorious squabble between Cockburn and Hitchens is nothing but a PR stunt that the two Brits are using to put one over on the dumb Yanks. I bet they periodically have a good laugh about it over a tipple. Of course, Cockburn is not hunting and gathering anywhere near as much mineola as Hitchens rakes in, so he must be an idealist -- an idealist without an ideal. Hitchens on the other hand...what is he?
Let's take a look at an essay about Lolita Hitchens wrote in 2005. He starts by gently criticizing Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, for her interpretation of Lolita. She and her students read it wrong, though Hitchens can understand how her mistake might happen in the highly repressive Tehran. He then takes the opportunity to recount some gruesome facts about Islam and thump Iran.
Where did the Iranian women go wrong? Nafisi and her girls have failed the "Martin Amis" test (Martin Amis also has his views about Lolita), which means that they missed a sentence about Lolita's death in childbirth when they read Lolita. This sentence was written not by the unreliable Humbert but by the apparently impeccable "John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.," an academic Nabokov invented for this purpose.
Clearly anyone who reads and remembers this sentence must understand that the book is not, as Nafisi thinks, about one person confiscating the life of another, but is all about innocence -- Nabokov's Lolita's and yes, yours, dear reader. You, the reader, are under the magnifying glass too. For some reason Ray's announcement of Lolita's death proves this. Why?
Here's why. Lolita's death means her life was cut off, so all she had was innocence. Therefore the book is about that. Humbert violated her innocence and she died so the book is a tragedy. That makes Humbert the villain. But the reader, presumably the inexperienced reader, approached the book for sexual excitement. That reader can't condemn Humbert, for he shares his desires, and the desire is already the sin. Since Humbert did not intend to titillate you with his writing, if you are titillated it is your own fault, a proof of your imperfect innocence, your deeply prurient nature. Humbert is not being pornographic; you are. Who are you to go condemning Humbert who has the very same evil desires that you do? You hypocrite lecteur, you, you reader.
Hitchens recounts how Roman Polanski realized he was in trouble for his own pedophilia when he understood how people would envy him. By this he means that you, dear reader, will condemn Humbert because you envy him. You too secretly want to do what he does. Hitchens takes it for granted that you will condemn him. He thinks that Nabokov has set a neat trap so that by condemning him you condemn yourself. It is because you envy Humbert that you condemn his actions, otherwise, I presume, you wouldn't. So the whole point of Lolita is to show you just how vile you really are, dear reader. For if you might condemn him for other reasons, why then, what's the point of the Roman Polanski story? Lolita, since its whole point is to reveal your vile mind, is pointless for anyone who doesn't have those vile desires. Its audience was the pedophilic community. This, apparently, is what Nafisi missed because she and her students failed to notice that Lolita, actually now Mrs. Richard Schiller, died in childbirth. Then again, I doubt that they envied Humbert. So, of course, the book was pointless for them.
Hitchens goes on: "Actually, it is impossible to think of employing Lolita for immoral or unsavory purposes, and there is now a great general determination to approach the whole book in an unfussed, grown-up, broad-minded spirit." What is he talking about now? Does he mean that it is impossible to feel the wrong way, maybe, or masturbate while reading Lolita? Is it to feel what Humbert feels "immoral or unsavory"? Humbert is ravished by Lolita's beauty (oh, what harm he is doing to her!). Is it immoral or unsavory to also be so ravished? Is having these ravishing feelings necessary to the realization of a book as a ravished whole? By having these feelings are we envying Humbert and thus employing Lolita for immoral or unsavory purposes? Or, on the other hand, is feeling what Humbert feels impossible thus preserving the reader, in spite of the hypocritical innocence that hides his foul desires, from reading Lolita wrong? Or is Hitchens saying, as any fool should be able to read, that it is impossible to read Lolita that way now? Back when Nabokov wrote it, it was potentially pornographic, which I suppose means that even though Humbert wasn't writing pornography, Nabokov was. But now this trap for the reader, as the book should be seen, is no longer operable. As usual Hitchens's writing is so unclear that one really can't be sure just what he wants to say.
The quoted sentence, in its ambiguity, is a clever Hitchensism and in its use of irony a pseudo Nabokovism. For the last part of the sentence flays stuffy academic reading with irony, but the first part of the sentence suggests that academic reading is not only the right but the inevitable reading, since it is impossible to read the book pornographically, that is, as those who fell into the trap read it when it came out. Could this sentence, taking the sarcasm into account, actually be self contradictory? No doubt the clever and experienced Hitchens reader will surmise that there is a third way, neither the nasty but impossible way that you, foul reader, would have employed if you had read Lolita when it first came out but now can't in spite of your dirty mind, nor that of the buttoned-up academic who can read such an inflammatory text and "feel only the smug self-satisfaction of open-mindedness," but, shall we call it the middle path, the Hitchens method. Unfortunately, Hitchens doesn't tell us what the Hitchens method is. Instead he tells us that Kingsley Amis, who, according to Hitchens's innuendo, fucked his own daughter and so had Humbert's desires, found Lolita not pornographic enough.
Then Hitchens informs us that he has had the experience of having twelve-year-old daughters. Before he had them he read a certain passage about a sexual opportunity and "chortled, in an outraged sort of way," but after, "I found myself almost congealed with shock." What a change, I guess. Having daughters certainly amps up your response, but I believe we are to see Hitchens's responses as aesthetic, not moral. In the next few sentences Hitchens says that when he read that the child's serious disease made Humbert regret a potential loss of sexual opportunity, he "laughed out loud." So, I guess, having daughters does not make one a moralist, but only heightens the aesthetic response. Anyway, aren't all such moral condemnations supposed to be out of envy? Even those of the respectable father, Hitchens himself? He couldn't condemn Humbert without proving himself one of the hoard of envious readers. But no need to worry. Hitchens is so enamored of Nabokov's language that he wouldn't dream of offering a moral condemnation of someone as clever as Humbert, proving himself the one reader who does not envy Humbert. So did Hitchens...or did he not have those evil desires (masquerading as images of ravishing beauty) that you, foul reader, have? It's difficult to say. Given that his responses are aesthetic, not moral, aren't they irrelevant to the whole confused discussion of innocence above? To find a passage sexually stimulating -- is this an aesthetic or a moral response? Or is this whole section here only to assure us that Hitchens is a responsible adult and father, neither envious nor prudish, the perfect reader, the A student, and not one of Humbert's "bewitched travelers"? Is he saying something like, "I as a reader changed but I am still a very good reader. Having daughters added a certain patina to it, that's all. I could enjoy the book without wanting to screw my daughters. Therefore, I enjoyed the book and did not share Humbert's desires." Or, perhaps, that he is saying nothing of the kind? Just what is Hitchens's having daughters supposed to tell us about how Hitchens reads Lolita?
Hitchens then writes this: "Arresting, as well as disgusting, to suddenly notice that Lolita (who died giving birth to a stillborn girl, for Christ's sake) would have been seventy this year ... However, I increasingly think that Nabokov's celebrated, and tiresomely repeated, detestation of Sigmund Freud must itself be intended as some kind of acknowledgment." Huh? But wait. This follows a quoted passage in which Humbert daydreams about Lolita 2 and 3 out of the loins of Lolita 1. "What is arresting as well as disgusting" is this passage, not the thought that Lolita might be seventy, though Hitchens's construction might make you think otherwise. Still, I'm afraid I don't get this "however." (That ellipsis is Hitchens's, not mine. Why?) I guess the idea is this: Humbert's foulest of foul desires for two more generations of Lolitas is Freudian because it is dark and foul. Now I don't know if Mr. Hitchens knows this, but Freud was not the first one to think that incest was bad. I must assume that he does know it and so is using Freud as a code word for "foul desires erupting from the id." This, Hitchens suggests, is what Nabokov "acknowledges" by the vehemence of his detestation of Freud's theorizing. Is Hitchens showing us one of his own foul desires when to takes the opportunity to psychoanalyze Nabokov in a Freudian manner and announce that Nabokov's detestation of Freud was actually an "acknowledgment"? An acknowledgment of what? I can only assume Hitchens means Nabokov owes some kind of intellectual debt to Freud, a man Nabokov insisted he detested for intellectual reasons. But Nabokov didn't need Freud to tell him about dark desires. Nabokov, through Humbert, offers a list of poets and kings who were Humbert's predecessors. The connection to Freud is all Hitchens.
Freud's dark desires of the id, Roman Polanski's tabloid scandal, the dark underbelly of Martin Amis's family life, "Lord Byron's many lubricities," the reader's dirty mind, finally Humbert's self hatred -- these are the elements of Hitchens's foggy discussion of Lolita. It is a dreary catalog. Hitchens does enjoy Nabokov's cleverness and ability to drop verbal bombs, but misses the aching beauty Humbert sees, the pathos and beauty Hitchens reminds us Vera Nabokov insists the novel is about. Nowhere in sight is this terribly delicate butterfly of a book. For Humbert possesses, whatever else he is, Nabokov's power of ecstatic particular memory, and consequently is one of the elect. It is he and he alone who can give us Lolita's achingly beautiful portrait that Hitchens's dirt seems unable to soil.
Humbert is the only possible observer of the "nymphet," Lolita. Nymphets reveal themselves only to certain "bewitched travelers," indeed exist only for them. Travelers not so bewitched see only a drab or conventionally pretty little girl. And make no mistake, only travelers inflamed as Humbert is are so bewitched. Nymphets require Humberts to exist. Fate can choose for them only a Humbert or a Quilty. Otherwise they do not exist at all. So it is either Quilty, who will make Dolores vile, or Humbert, who will unveil a divine Lolita with his power to conjure beauty out of ordinariness. "She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning standing four feet ten in one sock." Voilà. No body parts, no invasion of privacy, just the sock is all he needs to conjure up Lolita, the nymphet, and her lover, the butterfly-like Humbert hovering over her every gesture. Only Humbert would see that sock. The stodgy English professor can't. Early on Humbert allies himself with Virgil, Dante, King Akhnaten, and Petrarch in a way that convinces us that we condemn him only because of social convention. As Humbert says in the end, he and Lolita share a kind of immortality, and exist entwined. Hitchens fails to notice that it is not Lolita that Dr. Ray tells us dies in childbirth, but Mrs. Richard Schiller, who was not a nymphet and certainly not "Lolita." So Hitchens fails the "Martin Amis" test himself.
Of course Humbert is condemned in the end, but his punishment is something like that of Prometheus. For having stolen something divine and having brought it to earth and so corrupted its divinity, he will endure torments. Do not ever think he regrets having done it. The tragedy is not Lolita's but his. He is on his way to execution. But Lolita, a divine being, lives on, in literature, and even in flesh, passing into the bodies of young girls and then out when they grow too old. Like Humbert, Nabokov's artist heroes are always enraptured. What always enraptures them is particular experiences branded into the memory in white heat that owe as much to the unique living human being that experiences them as to the being he experiences. Lolita needs Humbert to see her. In Pale Fire Nabokov gives us what might be called the anti-Lolita, John Shade's daughter. Shade's memory portrait of her part in a school play as a "bent charwoman" equally evokes aching pathos, though not Eros. It takes Shade to see her beauty just as it takes Humbert to see Lolita's. Shade's daughter, anti-erotic lover of words, commits suicide when her one blind date abandons her at first sight. She too dies young and innocent out of despair, but here there is no question of envying Shade or condemning him. There is no "problem" of innocence in Lolita. Nabokov's purpose, as always, was to create a work of art. A dazzling jewel. Shade and Humbert are what they have to be to see what they have to see. There is no use in condemning Humbert for he must be Humbert if Lolita is to be Lolita. Her need of him just to exist, and his having supplied her with immortality, cancels the debt, and, as with any great work, allows us to stand aside, see the whole structure, grasp its inevitability, and wonder. Humbert is, as Socrates promised us Love would be, a messenger from the Gods to the mortals.
Hitchens starts by calling it "bracing" (is this praise?) that Nafisi and her students can read Lolita and avoid "our conventional worried emphasis on pedophilia." But he then declares her wrong and proceeds to worry about pedophilia conventionally for the rest of the essay. No doubt he is doing what he thinks his foul minded readers expect -- digging up juicy gossip and low minded theories, combining them into a gooey mess, and plastering the result on Nabokov and Lolita. But in the end the essay is about Hitchens. Just as the bewitched Humbert transforms little Dolores into Lolita, so the befuddled Hitchens transforms Lolita into his own creature of the swamp.
Now in all fairness I guess I should take the "Martin Amis test" myself. This passage, that sent both Hitchens and Amis off on their dark jaunts, is much less important than they think it is. "John Ray, Jr., Ph.D." is hardly a reliable narrator. On the contrary, he is one of a class of people Nabokov despises, people who wish to follow the destinies of the "real people" in works of art. Ray speaks of Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, whose identity, without Shiller, is null. But Lolita is not here. Full she is an exquisite being, ineradicable from our minds, thanks to Humbert. This sentence is a trap for those who believe that Lolita died when Mrs. Richard F. Schiller died. To them Lolita is invisible. For to see the actual Lolita is to see that she departed when all nymphets depart, at the age of fourteen. So Ray's last sentence is a literary treat for those who can hear Nabokov's voice, and a trap for those who can't. Ray concludes, "'Lolita' should make all of us -- parents, social workers, educators -- apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world." Ray is a gray background against which the jewel of Lolita is to be set.
Somewhere in his essay Hitchens writes that he has read Lolita many times throughout his life. So he and Lolita have lived together, a kind of marriage. I amuse myself with the thought that Humbert's curse has fallen on Hitchens. In the last paragraph of Lolita Humbert writes, "That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve."
The neat thing is that The Atlantic pays Hitchens big buckaroos to ladle this vile soup from his brain, exposing the rubble of what once must have been a good education. Man those Yanks are stupid.
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About the Author
Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago (1964-1970) and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y. (back)