[ a literary discussion about girls and honour ]
When I came across the book The Annotated Lolita in my local charity shop the other day, quite a few things fell into place. Having just finished Casanova’s memoirs a few weeks earlier, and always having been acutely aware that Lolita is no ordinary book at all, Alfred Appel, Jr.’s annotations (I’m pretty sure this is another tongue-in-cheek pseudonym of ‘magician’ Nabokov, it does bear all the signs and hallmarks) were a timely further eye-opener. Hearing so many tales and behind-the-scene infos about Nabokov and what he was doing with the novel, suddenly so many things tied into the cultural pastiche rendered by Casanova that I decided to contribute a few trails of thought to the cause.
The first thing is the cultural background of Nabokov, him having gone through the final decline of his family’s long ties with Monarchic tradition (as the astonishingly sound and stylish intellectual that he was). That tradition, during Casanova’s time was the normal state of existence and portrayed by him in a very real, down-to-earth fashion.
The second thing are the girls.
Reading Casanova’s biography is fascinating in many ways. For one, the legend passed on through popular tales and references doesn’t usually make it clear that most of the girls crossing his amorous path, despite their spot-on wits and oftentimes profound wisdom (both of which surpass many a ‘grown’ woman of today’s world), were actually what’s called today ‘underage’. Some were as young as eleven. In other words, rather than electing one single nymphet like Lolita for one forbidden love’s compulsive desire, Casanova was actually wading through an entire sea of nymphets. Most of them would’ve given themselves for life to the ‘conquering hero’. They were genuinely ‘in love’ and ready to follow him wherever he was meant to go.
None of the ‘shattered pieces’ that Casanova oftentimes left behind were caused by a cynical abuse of his compelling presence (probably a bit like Claire Quilty) but rather by life’s circumstances and mysterious trajectories of fate (Humbert’s crushing Mrs. McFate). He always genuinely cared and loved back the girls that ‘fell’ for him. He usually adored them. He could ‘read’ all of them clearly and they felt in turn ‘seen’ and ‘read’.
We could say that Casanova’s character was the successful combination of the seperated Humbert and Quilty double – the split personality that by the time Nabokov did his thing was perhaps the only way left to openly tackle the seriousness of the child-bride subject. Furthermore, there was no need for Casanova to be regressing into a caricature that is either obnoxious and snobby (Humbert) or lecherous and crazy (Quilty). Casanova was as genuine as one can be. He was highly educated, talented to the extreme and generous with heart, time and money. Doing what he was doing in terms of love’s ‘adventures’ simply was an accepted flamboyant way of life for a man in his position during that time. For all the ‘sins’ he committed (unlike Humbert and Quilty who’d long have turned their back to anything related to being ‘righteous’) Casanova was wholeheartedly tuned-in to the Divine. He’d actually been well on his way to becoming a priest when he was young. Though, obviously, walking through such a tumultous life without really ‘cultivating’, he later lost his bearing. Yet never his faith.
Below the line of Casanova’s staggering account of beautiful girls lies the intricate life-like painting of the cultural landscape of Monarchic Europe. And this, in turn, connects us back to Nabokov. One of Nabokovs’s most venerable character traits might’ve well been that despite losing everything during the Russian revolution’s confiscatory sweep and his subsequent lifelong status as an Emigre (a stranger in a foreign land, someone who ‘had to leave’ his true home), he’d always uphold the upright and noble spirit that had been nurtured throughout many generations of monarchic farsightedness. The word poshlust that he later used to describe one of the most fundamental problems of popular culture implied the pettiness of the desire of lower and middle classes to be given some shiny sense of self-importance. Throughout his continued experience of going about life while in exile, eventually there was hardly any cultural output left (cinema, books, art, television, advertising), or any proclaimed heroes and achievements, that would not stir-up this particularly sinister flaw of culturally ‘handicapped’ people. Poshlust.
Like Lolita, it destroyed millions of girls everywhere in the world by displacing them from any tradition and purpose. Claire Quilty, for instance, didn’t even need to go as far as ‘casting’ Lolita into his ‘art movies’ – done with stern old women behind the cameras to shoot young and slithery ones in front of them – in order to thoroughly debauch the “poor nymphet”. Fame and supposed crazyness of the “conquering hero” were enough of a handle, for her to willingly lift her skirt for him. Her seemingly virtuous refusal to “blow his boys on camera” would give her the false impression of being a good girl who’s only doing it for love. A self-deception which surely would’ve only contributed to further titillation, infusing the already enormous leverage exercised by the iconic unharmed pedo-figure of Claire Quilty.
Humbert Humbert, on the other hand – as we’re giving his character another, not readily talked-about shade of meaning here (and to this end switching our discourse from past into present tense) – actually cares about Lolita. Like Quilty, switched-on intellectuals as they both are, he’s fully able to perceive the big-time cultural deception that surrounds them. Yet, the way Humbert deals with it is more a kind of muted sorrow, an eloquent clownesque joking about, an openly embarrassing wallowing in the tremendous pangs of his existential self-pity – rather than Quilty’s cynical, destructive re-staging of life’s hilarity through the unabashed surrender to serial child abuse. Humbert is, in this particular way, actually acting as a ‘saviour’ for the vulnerable girl that Lolita essentially is (“You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.”).
Behind Lolita’s girlish escapades of “innocent evil”, wannabe saviour Humbert can still sense her profound grace and inherent beauty. From beginning to the end, he’s never made it a secret of him being fully aware that he abuses her (“Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape.”). Yet in all of his authentic patheticness, he can’t see any other way than intimately ‘consummating’ her in order to break through her brainwashed, culturally conditioned agendas. And it is this ultimate, larger-than-life-and-death failure, a failure to save a Lost Soul, which makes Humbert’s “singing violin” even more devastatingly real and touching – the whole ‘parody of death’ that is the novel Lolita even more disheartening and perplexing. It is as if Humbert Humbert is being operated on while fully awake. He’s acutely aware of the stupidity around him that is destroying all past cultural achievements of mankind in one fell swoop – while regardless, Mrs. McFate will still continue to crush not only him but his loved one as well. He wants to save the girl, has the material means, intellectual faculty and the determination to do so. Yet how? There’s no way he can save even himself. He’s already long ago handed himself over to only being a sad, longing caricature of what he might’ve been or should’ve been. The girl on the other hand, although in terms of social status can be regarded helpless, would still possess the required power of youth, or the primal girl-spirit, to maintain her most integral Self (“She would mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom, whereas I use[d] for my desperately detached comments an artificial tone of voice that set my own last teeth on edge”). Both put together, in front of the backdrop of powers that they can not possibly compete with, they’re plain doomed. Each one of them in their very own way. Mrs. McFate calling.
Humbert killing his cynical double Quilty only amounts to killing himself. Lolita marrying “awfully sweet” Dick Schiller is likewise only preparing the stage for her subsequent death at a stillborn girl’s birth in end-of-the-road Grey Star. From dust to dust. Isolation to isolation. The way that we live now. Silence permeating the pretentious chitchat in a futile attempt of passing time.
Casanova’s human casualties were numerous and enormous, too. But it was always a one-on-one encounter. Never were there any external factors pressed-in between people other than again human ones. Even if conspiracy happened, like Casanova’s arrest and solitary confinement in Venice’s infamous lead chambers, it was humans’ scheming at work, with full name and address, and it was always humans running-up bills and either paying them back or not paying them back. While paying them back later simply meant to pay more. Debts accumulate. It’s the way how the world works and everyone knew there’s no escaping it in the long run.
As to women, they do come across ‘equal’ through Casanova’s eyes and ears (although diametrical opposite, that’s for sure) and have gotten involved in love affairs entirely out of their own choosing. No one forced them and neither had most of them a social disadvantage that was being taken advantage of. Many of the girls’ statuses were in fact higher than Casanova’s. While he himself would always refuse the advances from more esteemed or well-off women whom he didn’t find interesting or attractive.
There was a universal moral code running through Casanova’s society that was ‘protecting’ a girl. Primarily it was set down and enforced by religion. Marriage was what a girl was ultimately aspiring to. (Or becoming a nun if she got on in her years or had other reasons to be ‘sacrificed’). Yet, the ideal husband was oftentimes “awfully sweet” Dick Schiller. While any amorous adventures before or after marriage had to be done at her own risk and in secret. Even if they were very young, girls all knew that this is the way how the world works. Some countries were more liberal, like the Dutch. Some rather more restrictive, like my own Holy Roman heritage where Empress Maria Theresia would, according to Casanova, not allow any young girl to be seen on the street, except with chaperone or an openly displayed rosary on her way to the church.
The power of youth and purity being the ultimate asset for a girl was something Nabokov was fully aware of. The tradition had been seamlessly passed on through Russian literature and its accompanying universal cultural values. He himself had used or at least mentioned the archetype of the nymphet on numerous occassions. And he must’ve secretly laughed at the hypocrisy that attempted to wipe away this truth by the poshlust rollout of collectively rendering wives like Dolores Haze as the new normal for modern people. While on the other hand putting in place the double-bind-trap of scapegoating so-called pedophilia – and yet destroying young girls through deception into promiscuity from a very young age. In psychotherapy, the split between an authentic emotional experience (‘truth’) and its discrepancy to an externally wrapped-on framework of supposedly proper conduct (‘lie’) is oftentimes referred to as schizophrenic. We’d say, it is simply a matter of good old hypocrisy. Or, in Plato’s words, an existential dilemma of “The uncriticized life is not worth living.”
Long gone are the days of Casanova where the world was still ‘open’ enough to just go out and chat with Frederic the Great or Catherine the Great (or if you’re too shy, just slip them a letter into their passing-by hands) while they invited the public to approach them during their strolls through the publicly accessible section of their Royal parks. Could this be one of the reasons while they were dubbed ‘the Great’?
If it was theirs to be the acting, responsible Soul of their country, then the real-life experiences of each one of their subjects – particles of the whole – would’ve surely been some of their main concerns?
Revolution was meant to destroy this.
Therefore, long live Nabokov and Casanova.
[ tags: courtship, honour, girls, virginity, poshlust, nymphs, monarchy, revolution, marriage, underage, abuse, rape, virtue, double-bind, hypocrisy. saviour, fame, royal decrees, direct links, cultural decline, annihilation of values, destruction of girls, … ]