"Lolita," "Lo-lee-ta," "Lo. Lee. Ta." So sings Humbert at the start of his confession, his three-syllable song trilled like that of the Sirens to Odysseus, though unlike this listener, Lolita does not hear his lyric. In fact--in actual fact--these notes lure not Lolita but the lyre who plucks them. For "Lolita," as Humbert himself proclaims, is an inhuman nymphet. The human child, the one noticed by non-nymphomaniacs, answers to other names, "Lo," "Lola," "Dolly," and, least alluring of all, "Dolores." "But in my arms," asserts Humbert, "she was always Lolita." And in his arms or out, "Lolita" was always the creation of Humbert's craven self, his obsession and, so-obsessed, his essence. The Siren-like Humbert sings a song of himself, to himself, and titles that self and that song "Lolita."
To transform Dolores into Lolita, to seal this sad adolescent within his musky self, Humbert must deny her her humanity. He must denude her of her own small self, which he does, in two insidious ways. First, Humbert (in)famously portrays Lolita as a nymphet, a sprite-like being whose "true nature," he dissertates, "is not human but nymphic (that is, demonic)." And as demon, the nymphet need not be treated with more compassion than God gave to those upstart angels whom He banished from His light. The truth of Dolores lies, lies Humbert, in the lasciviousness of Lolita. Moreover, the nymphet has no knowledge of her nature, for only a Humbert, hunched before a figurative keyhole, may peep through her human disguise and spy her hidden nymphethood. Thus, by nature, nymphet Lolita merits the abuse unleashed upon her by nymphomaniac Humbert. Nay, she more than merits it, she invites it. These demons, unaware of their own "fantastic power," tantalize and torture the otherwise moral man, who cannot resist their limbs' lithesome twists. The helpless nymphomaniac writhes in the guileless nymphet's vice, not vice versa. Hence Humbert has no will in his wickedness.
Need I say that no nymphets exist? Need I say that Humbert's nymphology, cle(a)ver though it is, amounts to no more than a rationalization for his raping a child? that his portrayal of Lolita allows him to refuse Dolores a self and so butcher her with(in) his own? That I may need to assert these certainties (suspicious stare at Tekkle) leads us to another, a sneakier way in which Humbert dehumanizes his captive.
Second, stylistic virtuoso Humbert rewrites the world into his wor(l)d. The confession does not chronicle a child's tragedy so much as mitigate a monster's brutality. In a near-black ink, brewed from infected blood and broken glass, Humbert's pen strikes out "Dolores" and scrawls in "Lolita." His artistry conceals her anguish. The magnificent veils of his masterful prose, wafting sentence after sentence over the readers' eyes, so color our vision that through their silkiness we see the seductive dance of Eros, although our seducer actually be her twin, Thanatos, who agonizes before us in his death throes, his desiccated visage festering with lesions and lichen. Recall that Dolores and Humbert, indeed nearly everyone who appears in the confession, are dead before we begin reading, and that girl Dolores dies giving birth to a still-born girl, her infant's hand-held corpse the figure for Lolita. Humbert's perfect professions drip off the lips of an apparent prince, though his kiss turns him back into the venomous toad he always was.
Humbert himself suffers from--and so warns us of--his imagination's fantastic powers. He recounts how his omnivorous eye would spy "a lighted window across the street and what looked like a nymphet in the act of undressing before a co-operative mirror." Immediately immersing himself in self-abuse, Humbert soon would watch this "vision" dissolve into "the disgusting lamp-lit arm of a man in his underclothes reading his paper." A prickly poultice on his outlaw libido. Since Humbert commits his confession from what might be termed a "first-person obsessive" point of view, and his view becomes ours, we watch with his weaknesses, through his words, "Lolita" being the most manhandled of them all. "Lolita," "Lo-lee-ta," "Lo. Lee. Ta." Humbert dismembers the name, syllable by stressed syllable. A Cerberus of style, he tears "Lolita" into digestible bits which he savors before us, and his sumptuous moans tempt us to feast, to forget his canines gnaw on the remnants of Dolores. This distinction, between "Lolita" and Dolores, alerts us to the danger of losing ourselves in the labyrinth of Humbert's language, from first word to last, from "Lolita" to "Lolita." Humbert's wizardry in writing, of her name, of his -tory, obscures his awful wrongs. "Lolita" may be immortal, but Dolores dies.
To name is to claim, as the rhyme reveals and God confirms. When Moses asks the burning-but-unconsumed bush what being smolders in its tinder center, God sparks, "I AM THAT I AM." God may mean, "I am that being who is Being itself," that being who is All and therefore only equal to Himself, but then He may not. God alone knows His grandeur. For to give Moses His name, to reduce His infinite and eternal Word to a word, would be to grant man power over Him, an impossibility for an Omnipotent.6 Man can make no claim over an Almighty, though he try, but man can massacre man, with a word, with a "yes" or "no," a "live" or "die." When Humbert (re)names Dolores "Lolita"--"this Lolita, my Lolita," he repeatedly froths--he destroys her. He dowses her God-like ember, her own name, with his libidinous gushes.
(Time Permitting: Another example, apt for us, is this embroidered "A" which adorns my vestments. Stitched by Mrs. Swums, at the behest, I hear, of Ms. Tekkle, its scarlet hues celebrate, I suspect, my initial initial, though it may allude, I fear, to a more muddled matter. [Search Tekkle's unyielding eyes.] Its ambiguity abandons me to a meaning not my own. I am, in a sense [Innocence!], another's.7)
Humbert's world of words is not, of course, the world. He may, as he laments, have "only words to play with," but his play is of the devil's sort. Even his pleas of remorse, though not wholly false, possess an unholy beauty which lessens the truth of what lies behind them. His sensual style is not word made flesh, but flesh torn from world and wrought into words.
Humbert's "Lolita" locks Dolores in the slaughterhouse of language. He confines her, whiplash, with his leathern words. And yet, crafty as his cage is, it cannot confine, nor define, Dolores entirely. At decisive moments, Dolores refuses to play his diabolical language game, and then, in-and playmate lost, warden Humbert must reckon with his prison's brittle bars, since even language as sublimely suffocating as his leaves chinks through which to breathe and, with this little lifeline, perhaps to avoid the death it lavishes on Dolores. A lone adolescent may not see that Humbert relies on words to block her escape, but we, not to see, must blind ourselves with the pheromone-scented scarves of Humbert's style.
Like a calico kitten whose nine lives let her romp through a minefield with a feline disregard for those freshly turned tufts of earth, Dolores eludes many of Humbert's linguistic pitfalls merely because of her teenage nonchalance about the supposed importance of language. She simply does not lend the weight to words which Humbert does and so shrugs off some of the wordy wickedness he would force on her. His threats, promises, evasions, cajoles, barbs, professions, half-truths, and full lies only work so well, since she only listens so much.
Feel, for instance, the fiend's frustration when his prey refuses to speak. Humbert, at longing last, has his Lolita locked beside him in his automobile and attempts a chat, for him a necessary prelude to a nefarious interlude. He buries his buzzard's beak behind a parakeet's chirp: "'Did you have a marvelous time at the camp?'" Bored Dolores, "'Uh-huh.'" "'Sorry to leave?'" "'Un-un.'" "'Talk, Lo--don't grunt. Tell me something.'" "'What thing, Dad?' (she let the word expand with ironic deliberation)." Irked Humbert, "'Any old thing.'" Humbert gropes for something, anything spoken rather than grunted, since he cannot engage, nor encage, Dolores without getting hold of her, and Humbert grips with words. Even her irony leaves him lurching. For if Dolores forces him out of his forte, Humbert bumbles, as we see most obviously when Dolores finally and forever flees. Humbert's words no longer strong enough to hold her in his world, she just(ly) leaves him, to his language and his languishing. In this isolation, tormented Humbert has his roadside epiphany, among winsome weeds, upon the mountain top: " . . . and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord." Why does this clamor of children, this childish concord, climax Humbert's confession? Why? Because:
These laughs, their distant harmonies, are the sounds of "souls" which cannot be contained within words, the excesses of selves always spilling over the sentences to which we submit them. When I, when you, when we laugh, we you I are more than paltry pronouns. Our "souls" exceed and excel the selves you-I-we pronounce to one another. WeIyou are more magnificently present in laughter than in our most magnificent art, including Humbert's. IWEYOU are, in essence, ineffable as God.
Epiphanically, Humbert hears the absent echo of Dolores laughter, the divine voice in her that he has silenced. And if we listen wisely, this unlaughed laughter can lead us out of Humbert's linguistic, and sadistic, labyrinth, since we listen to its absence alongside the presence of our own. This laughter, our laughter, that has echoed off the novel's pages and risen back to us from our book's pulpy valley, also becomes our epiphany. For even if Humbert's words have seduced us, we have heard (all along, we now realize) our means of survival, those very sounds which have welled up within us. Each dolorous laugh, each distraught chortle and disturbed squeak Humbert has wrenched from us, must lash us tighter, like the taught ropes of the mast-bound Odysseus, to the humanity these (dis)harmonies awaken within us. Siren Humbert may sing to us, but novelist Nabokov allows us an escape: Laughter. The glorious music of self that binds us so infectiously to those other selves--we give them names--who laugh with us.
We who live, then, between our language and our laughter, between the signs we must speak and the shrieks which split their syllables, how do we live out Lolita's lesson? How do we hear the harmonies Humbert hears, those tiny children tinkling in his lupine ears, without his wolfishness? How do we laughers not lash with words? Take note: Though Nabokov reveals language's fantastic power, this power need not end in the evil Humbert inflicts upon "Lolita." As much as lust, love (yes, love) allows us to leap the valley between word and world, with lighter wings, like butterflies aflutter. Even the names we bestow on others need not maim, as "Lolita" does Dolores, when offered lovingly. Names and naming anew--the Humbertian act par excellence--may revive, rather than ravish, both named and namer.
For to name can be to gain, as the off-rhyme hints (hurts) and God oft proves, though this gain comes from the pain (and here the perfect rhyme) of giving up one's self for a greater self. On the road to Damascus, for instance, a Roman soldier and scourge of Christians named Saul becomes reborn, in God's blinding light, as Paul. And Saul the former persecutor becomes Paul the present apostle, Paul the preacher of peace:
Though I sing with the tongues of men and angels, and have not love, I become as sounding brass and tingling cymbals; and though I prophetize all, though I fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, though I possess all faith, so I may move mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all I own upon the famished and forlorn, though I feed my body to the flames, and have not love, I am nothing. Love abides, and gives, and envies not; love seeks no renown, feels no pride. Love waivers not, resents not, falters not, and thinketh neither evil nor ill. Love rejoiceth not in inequity but in truth. Love beareth all, believeth all, endureth all. Love hath no end.Even the less-blinding light of earthly love may lead us, lift us, from violence to virtue. "My Bird," "my Beauty," "my Boobooquitos," we laugh, encircled in one another's arms (long longing look at my Eugene), and this "O" of love and language may grow, ever outward, from passion to compassion, from the one to the many. We burn but we need not consume.
So, my brethren, my friends, amen, amen, which on God's tongue means "certainly" and "truly," "may it be so" and "so it is." And so amen, amen, and so and such our end.
Mr. A. Amis Tin
6. Note that this edifying elucidation of Exodus 3:14 exemplifies the post-postmodern sensibility of Millennialism, wherein the religious writings of the West are resurrected for an age which has pronounced them dead: Dead God (epitaph Friedrich Nietzsche, c. 1883), dead man (Michel Foucault, c. 1966), dead author (Roland Barthes, c.1968), dead dead dead. Although the Millennialist recognizes and rues the horrors these corpses have wrecked on humanity, the Millennialist nevertheless believes there remains merit within them worth preserving and serving, be it the ink(l)ings of justice, faith, hope, or charity. And the Millennialist winces when the postmodernist strews these writings with lime and lingo, even if their intentions are upright. Save and salvage the past, pleads the Millennialist, for the sake of the present. [Ed.]
7. Note that Mr. A. Amis Tin now knows that that "A" was a brand, meaning "Accused" ("J'accuse!" shouted the embroiderer, or would have, had she spoke French). These three scarlet lines sear me still, though now-now-with a fire that purifies, as the "A" of an "Apostle," absolutely ("A") adamant ("A") about ("A") announcing ("A") an ("A") admirable ("A") alteration ("A") in (!) aesthetics ("A") and ("A") ethics ( "A"lmost). Note previous note. [Ed.]
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