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mscoutur <[log in to unmask]>
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Vladimir Nabokov Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 2 Jun 2018 11:17:39 +0200
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Dear Nabokovians,

Has the debate around reading, teaching or writing about Lolita changed 
that much since the novel first came out more than sixty years ago? I 
wonder. There are still those who, for ethical reasons, keep arguing 
that the novel can only have a bad influence on society, on the students 
invited to read it especially, and should therefore be put only with 
caution on the academic syllabus or kept out of it completely. With the 
present post-Weinstein movements, Lolita is often, too often, considered 
as a dirty book. I suspect that if a writer like Borges’ Pierre Ménard 
were to try and publish it as a first edition today, he would be unable 
to find a publisher for it, even in France. On the other hand, there are 
those, most of us, who keep praising the novel for its sublime poetic 
dimension and insist that art transcends ethics.

Though, as Anne Dwyer convincingly explains, teaching the novel may be 
more difficult than it was forty years ago, I must point out that I was 
personally forbidden, as early as 1976, to teach Lolita at the junior 
level at the Sorbonne. I taught Lolita at the undergraduate level only 
at San Diego State in the eighties, and, despite all the precautions I 
took, I encountered some difficulties, but they were minor, probably 
because I was French and only a visitor on the campus. In France, I 
taught the book only at the graduate level, feeling on safer grounds 
with more mature and better educated students.

Brian Boyd says he was disappointed by Anne Dwyer’s article, but I have 
a feeling that his views are not so different from hers. Both agree that 
Humbert is a perverse, “a cruel wretch”, and Lolita his victim; that 
Nabokov shouldn’t be confused with his protagonist and never committed 
the evil deeds he describes in his novel; that art transcends ethics 
(though they refrain from openly saying so). Yet I tend to have some 
reservation about his following statement: “One of the most important 
things in human life is freedom, including freedom from manipulation, 
from unfair and false persuasion and pressure, and from oppression. 
Humbert tries to manipulate and pressure us as he has manipulated 
Lolita. We need to learn to resist. Lolita is the supreme exercise in 
literature of the challenge of reading against the character narrating.” 
I agree with him that, when teaching, one should remind the students 
that Humbert’s behavior in the real world is morally and legally 
unacceptable, but does it mean that one should give a clinical reading 
of the novel? He might almost give the impression of suggesting that 
when he calls the therapists to the rescue: “one of the strongest claims 
on behalf of Lolita, surely, is that sex abuse therapists find it so 
valuable, so insightful, so genuinely therapeutic, such a clear way of 
showing the psychology of an abuser. See the attached article by Lucia 
Williams, and note her references to the work of Sokhna Fall.”

Following his advice, I read Williams’ interesting article and came 
across the following passage: “why is it again that we cannot use the 
term love when child sexual abuse is concerned? It is not excessive 
morality as pedophiles criticize, but what is at stake is the inequality 
of power: an adult who is in a relationship of responsibility or trust 
(…) ultimately takes advantage of a child who is still developing – 
solely to gratify or satisfy the adult’s needs.” What other terms, 
except perversion or sexual greed, can be used to label Humbert’s 
passion for Lolita? I agree, of course, with her moral and legal 
approach to this difficult problem. Years ago, I ran a creative writing 
workshop in Grasse prison; the only prisoners who agreed to participate 
were sexual offenders, and more specifically “pointeurs”, pedophiles. I 
never tried to make them write about their personal experience, but many 
of them felt the urge to do it and often insisted that they truly loved 
the girls they had intercourse with, or that they did it with their full 
consent, which wasn’t always the case, I am sure. Each time, I used the 
same arguments as William does in her article to tell them that it was 
ethically and legally wrong to have sexual intercourse with children and 
young teenagers but I usually failed to convince them.

Yet, Humbert did love Lolita. Nabokov does his best to underline that, 
especially in the Coalmont chapter. As Samuel Johnson said in his 
dictionary, the novel as a literary genre is “a small tale, generally of 
love.” Modern novelists since Guilleragues, Defoe and Richardson have 
endeavored to present a wide spectrum of the different brands and shades 
of love and of a large range of perversions that often accompany them; 
and Nabokov contributed to this age-old enterprise perhaps more than any 
other novelist, as I have tried to show both in my Lacanian study, 
Nabokov ou la cruauté du désir (Champ Vallon, 2004), and in my essay on 
the poetic dimension of desire in his novels, Nabokov’s Eros or the 
Poetics of Desire (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014), a totally different book.

Lolita isn’t an autobiography but a work of fiction – even if the highly 
unreliable and somewhat unbalanced narrator of my latest novel, Le Rapt 
de Lolita (Orizons, 2018), argues that it is the autobiography of a 
close friend of his in Paris and endeavors to show that Nabokov stole 
his manuscript. What I mean here (not in my novel) is that the criteria 
to judge Humbert and the book itself can’t be only those I used with the 
“pointeurs”, the participants in my creative writing workshop. Lolita is 
a moving tragedy, not only for Humbert who is tortured by his perverse 
sexual desire for young girls and eventually grows to conceive genuine 
love for Lolita, but also to some extent for Nabokov himself whose 
figure remains omnipresent in the book. He is one of the discursive 
actants of the novel, not only through John Ray’s foreword and his 
afterword – genuine “thresholds” of Humbert’s confession which are now 
part of the novel itself. One must bear in mind that Nabokov wrote the 
article published in the Anchor Review, “On a Book Entitled Lolita”, at 
a time when the novel still remained unpublished in the States, and only 
months after it was actually banned in France. Later, he insisted that 
it be inserted in the subsequent editions of his novel and for obvious 
reasons: he refused to be confused with his perverse protagonist and 
narrator, and wished to proclaim his eminent esthetic ambitions. Reading 
Lolita without taking into account Humbert’s countless signs of bad 
faith in the body of the novel, along with the author’s repeated 
attempts, inside the text or at its outskirts, to affirm his moral 
values and prompt us to read the novel in consequence, amounts in my 
opinion to misreading it. That’s how the poetic web of sense is woven in 
this marvelous book. This has nothing to do with intentional fallacy. I 
would be surrendering to this fallacy if I were to judge the novel only 
with the criteria underlined by Nabokov in the afterword and his many 
subsequent statements.

One must study the novel in all its complexity and ambiguity: as the 
confession of a tormented and cruel pedophile who feels at once guilty 
for what he has done but still cherishes the experience as his poetic 
text testifies, and who not only abused a little girl, but believes or 
wants to believe (not totally with bad faith) that she seduced him, 
children being capable of that (not that we should forgive their 
abusers, I repeat); as a genuine love story on his part; as a tragedy of 
desire, of the cruelty of desire; as a textbook study of pedophilia (why 
not?); as a poetic work aiming to show that art may transcend ethics, 
even though it has a certain degree of social responsibility, etc. etc. 
Only an empathic cum critical approach to the novel can begin to give us 
access to its incredible depth. Limiting oneself to one single of these 
(and other) options amounts to showing a lack of respect for Nabokov’s 
immense achievement. That’s why, of course, teaching the novel 
constitutes such a tremendous challenge!

Gilles Deleuze once wrote that “one can’t say a thing and its meaning at 
the same time.” This remains true even of such a tyrannical author as 
Vladimir Nabokov.

Maurice Couturier

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