Arts — POSTED BY Sophia Goulandris on January 28, 2010 at 10:33 am

If our understanding of the mechanisms of the world could fit in a library, then ideally ‘Love’ would be a single fat volume on a plinth of its own. Where it would actually be found is printed on a sticker on an interminable shelf in the Reference section. Manuals would be archived chronologically, detailing the how-tos and no-nos for getting the girl and keeping the boy.

by Sophia Goulandris

An Ancient Greek text advises a man to visit a temple and offer up some pomegranates, for he has displeased a god and been afflicted with a withering feeling of love. Further along, Capellanus’s De Amore puts forward Eleanor of Aquitaine’s courtly jury system for the consideration of the cases of lovers in tight spots. A monk’s treatise from the 13th century warns you that if your girlfriend is really quite sexy, she’s probably a witch, while a few hundred years later his Puritan counterpart mercifully argues that women might grow ill or mad if they don’t experience regular sexual release (within the confines of marriage of course, and do remember to thank God for your orgasm and wash your hands post-coitus). Be modest, sweet and sad in the nineteenth century. Gently whip your girlfriend’s behind under a portrait of Queen Victoria, and get her to take pictures of your pulsating member. Close to the end, a lightly dust-covered dust jacket tells her to have the dinner waiting, and permits him to seduce the secretary (but pull out) before going home to that roast chicken. And so on. Love and sex – in the arts and in life, the one answering the other – are conventionally separated at birth.

Nabokov’s fiery novel Lolita acts as nitro-glycerine to this Love Theory. It does this by presenting us with a love story whose core is cloaked in a haze (Dolores Haze), confusing the Western love mythology that has been sexlessly reproducing for centuries. Lo-lee-ta? We’ll find it in the Fiction section, obviously. But is it on the Romance shelf or on a higher shelf, out of reach of corruptible innocents?

Sex versus Love was the main talking point during a short Canadian television spot broadcast soon after the publication of Lolita, where the dickie-bowed host mediated the meeting of Nabokov and renowned American literary critic Lionel Trilling (given his bird-like face, a name that must have delighted Nabokov’s fondness for allusive nomenclature). Nabokov agrees with Trilling’s remark that the book is about love and not about sex, but it is his interpretation of why most readers have come to the opposite conclusion that is so revealing. He observes disdainfully that, “it is because they think in clichés. For them, sex is something so well-defined, there is a kind of gap between it and love. They don’t know what love is, perhaps, and perhaps they don’t know what sex is either”. There is the clear implication that Nabokov ‘knows’ what sex is, and what love is, and the rest of us don’t. But why? Well, because he’s an artist, similar to Lolita’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert – though Nabokov is admittedly a member of a more benign class of the Man o’ Letters species than ‘ol Hum. “I think that the creative artist is an exile in his study, in his bedroom, in the circle of his lamplight. He’s quite alone there; he’s the lone wolf. As soon as he’s together with somebody else he shares his secret, he shares his mystery, he shares his God with somebody else.”

Humbert leads Nabokov’s artists’ separatist movement in justifying his nymphetophilia: ‘You have to be an artist’ to discern ‘the little deadly demon among the wholesome children’. But more arresting is Nabokov’s idea of ‘sharing’ a secret, a personal God. What we witness in Lolita is a deeply personal relationship; we can’t relate to it, it confuses us and, most importantly, ‘gentlemen of the jury’, because of these things we have no right to judge it. Nevertheless, there seems to be a more fundamental unease here. Civilisation is the result of a sharing of ideas, grouped reactions, mutually recognizable emotions.  While this is of course exactly what makes art and literature possible and appealing, it also leaves us in a would-be infinite world irreversibly abridged by categories, norms and ethics.

The inspiration for Lolita came from a newspaper article that Nabokov had read, concerning an ape that had been given a stick of charcoal by a scientist. This ‘poor creature’ produced the first known artwork by an animal – an outline of the bars of his enclosure. As Nabokov sees it, one of the bars of our own jail has been forged by the popularity of psychology and popular psychological self-analysis – specifically of the Freudian bent – that had already spent fifty years digging itself deep into the American psyche by the time Lolita was published. He spoke openly of his contempt for Freud in another television interview in 1966, spitting, “I think he’s crude, I think he’s medieval, and I don’t want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me”. The quality of crudeness is perhaps the key to unlocking Nabokov’s dismissal of most of the critical reviews of the book at the time, because although their conclusions varied, there was always the assumption that such a controversial subject matter could not be read simply as a love story but had to be symbolic or concealing some moral lesson. Lolita was, variously, a ‘satire on sex, a mirror of human frailties’, a ‘joke on our national camps about youth’, or a ‘cutting expose of chronic American adolescence and shabby materialism’.

Inevitably, critics also zeroed in on hero Humbert’s ‘deviant neuroses’. Nabokov would probably give the kiss-off to the very idea of Freudian ‘neuroses’, but the first four chapters of the novel, which the narrator terms ‘my ‘Annabel’ phase’, might as well have been written under the subtitle, ‘My Psychosexual Development: Unfinished Business’. Annabel was the thirteen-year-old Humbert’s golden-boughed first love, a nymphet in the making. His sun-bleached memories of this young holiday romance detail a passion that was mutual, spiritual, sweet and that ‘might have been assuaged only by our actual imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh’. But all attempts at the final throw-down were artlessly checked: ‘I was on my knees, and on the point of possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu.’ Freud’s ‘Genital Stage’ stopped dead in its tracks. No wonder he’s a nonce.

But as fitting as this example might be, we can be sure that this account wasn’t included so that we could scientifically assess Humbert’s mental deficiencies. It is simply part of what the author claimed was the only objective of his story, which was the ‘dream of the book’. Nabokov never made it clear that he thought Freud et al.’s theories were completely baseless, but ‘crude’, perhaps because they constituted a kind of heavy-handed spring cleaning of the mystery of human interaction. A youthful Humbert considers taking on a degree in psychiatry but rejects it as a racket for the ‘manqué talents’ and in his early attempts ‘to be good’ he even summons psychoanalysts who have a crack at ‘pseudoliberations of pseudolibidoes’.

Nowadays we’re accustomed to these trite pop-psych buzzwords. From the mouthbreathing famechasers tramping about on shows like Jerry Springer, baying terms like ‘empahrmint’ and ‘codipindint’, to self-help books with titles like ‘I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional’, psychology has been compressed into fun-size candy and delivered into the hands of wayward children. We think we ‘get it’; or if we haven’t got it we can go to Waterstone’s or turn on Dr. Phil and get it there. The seeds for all this hokum were already budding when Nabokov was writing Lolita. Humbert tells us about ‘a fool’s book’ called Know Your Child that Lolita’s mother has, with questionnaires about her child’s personality, adding up to ‘a kind of inventory’. More mature forms of interaction – love – are no more exempt from the effect of sellable theories of expected human behaviour: ‘The sincerity and artlessness with which [Mother Haze] discussed what she called her ‘love-life’… were affected by the same stuff (soap-operas, psycho-analysis and cheap novelettes) upon which I drew for my characters and she for her mode of expression.’ Once we start formulating and articulating our thoughts in a kind of mechanic synchronisation with the prototypes developed to typecast all of humanity in the name of art or science, we take off on a road of devolution, rather than the ‘progress’ that these domains are supposed to inspire.

Lolita is a book full of secrets. This has very little to do with the plot and everything to do with the way it was written. An annotated copy of the novel is about three times the width of a regular edition, and if you think you will solve those riddles by endlessly flipping back and forth between the prose and the notes, you will not only disappointed, but find yourself further away from that bolted door than you were to begin with. Nabakov himself is as an outsider to Humbert’s series of private jokes; the author’s role has been to construct a pyramid for this love, one that is impassable to the reader and also fortified against Freud and co. As that’s how real love is: impenetrable to all but its own architects.


Further viewing

Click here to watch the thrilling Trilling/Nabokov debate about Lolita (CBC): Part One and Part Two

And Part One of The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis. Freud said he had discovered primitive sexual and aggressive forces hidden deep inside the minds of all human beings – forces which, if not controlled, lead individuals and societies to chaos and destruction. This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.

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