Reading Lolita in Long Island
Nature is, as one of Katherine Hepburn's characters observed, what we are put in this world to rise above. On the other hand, a Frenchman of at least equal sagacity pointed out that he who would act the angel makes himself a beast. Plainly, therefore, we should not aspire to rise too high above nature. Somewhere between the beast and the angel is a point of balance.
This line of thought began when, opening up my New York Post one recent Sunday, I found myself looking at Amy Fisher, "the Long Island Lolita." This was the girl who, back in 1992, shot her lover's wife in the face. Said lover, the egregious Joey Buttafuoco, was 18 years older than Amy. Their affair had begun a year before, when Joey was 35, Amy not quite 17. Following the shooting, Joey did time for statutory rape; Amy, for first-degree assault. Mrs. Buttafuoco recovered, and Sunday's newspaper story was about an attempt to bring all three of them together for a TV interview. Amy is now 31 and a married woman with two children.
Amy Fisher and her story were in fact far removed from Lolita and Lolita. For one thing, Amy was too old to be a nymphet. Lolita's lover Humbert Humbert specifies "between the age limits of nine and fourteen." The "real" Lolita (her creator told us, in the afterword that appeared in every edition of Lolita but the first, that "reality" is "one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes") was not yet 13 when Humbert commenced his affair with her. It was Humbert, not Lolita, who took revenge on the love rival at last, and he did a much better job of it, more stylish and more thorough, than clueless Amy. And the oafish, thick-skulled Joey Buttafuoco (a quite Nabokovian name, come to think of it — it means "light a fire") is, to put it very mildly indeed, no Humbert Humbert.
I note, however, that Ms. Fisher seems to have settled happily into a normal life after her youthful transgressions. In that respect, at least, she resembles Nabokov's heroine. One of Azar Nafisi's students, in the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, remarks of the nymphet that "all she wants is to live a normal life." That is quite right. Like much great art, Lolita is, among many other things, a hymn of forlorn longing for the humdrum and banal, voiced by an outsider personality. Think of Tennyson's Tithonus moaning: "Why should a man desire in any way / To vary from the kindly race of men?" Since literary masterpieces are created by literary geniuses, a type that can fully engage with very few of its fellow human beings, I suppose this beggar-at-the-window outlook on common experience is not very surprising.
At about this point in my reflections I pulled down my copy of Lolita from the shelves. The thought that came up, after an hour or so of random reading, was: What a falling-off there has been! I mean that in a social, not a literary sense. Novels just as good have been written since 1958 (the date of the first U.S. edition). No, my thought was the same one I have when I listen to old pop music, or watch old movies — that our civilization was much more grown-up fifty years ago than it is today, much closer to that point of balance between what human nature fundamentally is, and what we can reasonably aspire to make of ourselves. Says the author in that afterword: "That my novel does contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert is quite true. But after all we are not children, not illiterate juvenile delinquents …" No, we were not; but that was half a century ago, before our old ideals of self-support, endurance, and a common destiny were routed in favor of self-pity, victimological whining, and "diversity." Then we still knew how, in Longfellow's noble words, "to labor and to wait." We have since lost the inclination to do either.
The reception of Lolita in 1958 was by no means universally friendly. Would it be any better today? I suspect it might actually be worse. This is, after all, a novel about a 37-year-old man taking sexual advantage of a 12-year-old orphan girl, both of them products of mid-20th-century bourgeois societies, albeit very different ones. You can just hear the postmodernists sharpening their pencils (or "pencils").
Now, plainly Humbert did a very wicked thing. There is no doubt that the author knows this — I have just quoted him calling Humbert a pervert. Humbert himself knows it, too, through the fog of his solipsism. He refers to himself as a "monster" or a "maniac," wearing "polluted rags," and so forth. "But never mind, never mind, I am only a brute, never mind, let us go on with my miserable story."
To drive the point home Nabokov inserts oblique, but cumulatively unignorable, references to the fact that the sexual relationship causes pain and perhaps actual physical injury to the object of Humbert's "love." And yet this cruel tormentor is redeemed a little in our eyes by the surpassing power of his creator's art, a thing any educated person in 1958 could understand. In an interview, Nabokov said that he thought Humbert should be given one day's vacation from hell every year, to stroll a green country lane in the sunlight. Such a judgment makes sense only from a grounding in some mature moral vision. It cannot be fitted at all into the infantile who-whom dogmas of our own time.
And what a peculiar time this is! Never has the denial of human nature been taken so far, or defended so hotly. Think of the Larry Summers affair; think of the endless litigating over "discrimination" and bogus "rights." The Victorian housewife who hid the "limbs" of her piano in frilly ruffs lest they embarrass or excite anyone is a cold-eyed realist by comparison with ourselves. Our acquaintance with the Old Adam, with our own invariant essence, has, like a friendship not kept up, weakened and faded. At the same time, science is at last beginning to deliver some actual facts about the origins and mechanisms of our beliefs, desires, intentions, and abilities. Some crash must be coming, some terrible disillusioning. The novel-readers of 1958 would have coped much better than we shall.