Friday, May 19, 2006
Pedophiliac rape fantasies are the sign of a cultivated mind
I was feeling a little low, like the level of wingnuttery I’ve been reading lately isn’t entertaining enough to mock. The Disco Ball must have heard my cries of woe because an angel sent to me in the form of Jill alerted me to the fact that John Derbyshire has a review of Lolita up at National Review. Yes, that John Derbyshire. It is possibly the most defensive book review ever written.
I’ll skip all the pretentious blather the Derb uses to set up the scene for his first reading of the novel when he was 16, but suffice it to say,
you get the strong impression that the Derb thinks he went to an English boarding school in the 40s,* though he admits it was actually an American high school. But do read it, because it’s so damn pretentious that if I didn’t know any better, I’d think he was a fictional pretentious twit invented by a writer who could squeeze maximum comic value out of such a character. A writer like Nabokov, for instance. Well, except I can’t imagine Nabokov writing this:
Still Nabokov’s prose was at some level beyond that. I sucked it in, reading and re-reading, of course not getting a tenth of the allusions and effects, but knowing that there was something there to be got. I even started to talk like Humbert Humbert, the book’s first-person narrator, dropping words like “callypygean” and “phocine” into my conversation, to much derision from my peers. To this day I can recall the expression on the face of one of my schoolmasters—a rugged old RAF veteran with a clipped George Orwell mustache, who had slaughtered thousands in the great bombing raids on German cities—when I slipped the term “soi-disant“ into an otherwise humdrum sentence.
I just can’t imagine Nabokov starting off a comic piece about a character who is seeking self-justification for being amongst other things, a pretentious ass and an unsubtle pervert with such an obvious joke, no matter how funny it is.
Later, in the 1970s, I got a copy of Alfred Appel Jr.’s The Annotated Lolita, and filled myself in on all the dismayingly many allusions I still had not got. I lost that book in my travels, and bought another, and lost that, and bought another. The Annotated Lolita in front of me now is my fourth or fifth.
My two major guesses for why he kept “losing” it were that it are a) his wife kept throwing it out or b) he had to replace it every time his current copy gets crusty.
Lolita was subsequently much written about, with critics lining up pro and con. Some thought it was a dirty book; some thought it nihilistic; some, to (Nabokov said) the author’s great pain, thought it anti-American.
The Derb would have you believe that Nabokov was prone to slapping crying bald eagles on his window, but I imagine that mostly Nabokov was upset that people missed his major theme of anti-"pretentious assholes who need to hang around with 12-year-olds or Jonah Goldberg to feel smart” theme.
Which brings us to the content of Lolita, the actual story. Humbert Humbert, born 1910, grew up on the French Riviera. In the spring of 1947 he rents a room in the house of Mrs. Haze, in “green-and-pink Ramsdale,” a sleepy New England town. Mrs. Haze has a daughter, Lolita, born January 1, 1935. Humbert is in love with Lolita. Mrs. Haze falls in love with Humbert. Humbert marries her to be close to the girl. The mother dies in an accident. Humbert has a sex affair with Lolita. The affair ends when she deserts him for a famous, but mediocre and decadent, playwright. After three years Humbert locates Lolita. Then he tracks down the playwright and murders him.
At this point, the ambiguity sets in for the reader of this article written by a “John Derbyshire”. Is he purposefully a bit obtuse about the plot lines implied in Lolita in order to uphold his illusion that admiring Humbert Humbert is a good thing? Or is he so blinded by admiration of Humbert that he actually believes the self-serving lies about this “sex affair” that is conducted like most “sex affairs” are, with kidnapping, murder and rape?
It is of course a dreadful story, of awful crimes narrated by the criminal. Like all criminals, Humbert is a solipsist, a person who does not really believe in the existence of anything outside himself.
I have to wonder sometimes if Nabokov made Humbert commit multiple crimes so that pro-pedophile reviewers ever after could be deliberately vague about which of his crimes they disapprove of.
Also like all criminals, he is full of self-justification.
Is he saying all NRO writers are criminals, perhaps even pedophiles?
There is really nothing to like about Humbert Humbert. The more you get to know him, in fact, the more unpleasant things you uncover.
True as this is, Humbert does tell you the worst parts of his character up front--that he’s a murderer, that he gets off on fucking young girls, and his delusional view of himself as a cultivated man is evident if not bluntly stated. If Nabokov wrote it now, though, he’s probably just make Humbert a blogger for The Corner and the rest of those things would be implied.
Discussing the book with a woman friend the other day, she pointed out a thing I hadn’t really noticed: Humbert is probably a lousy lover. Once you have been told this, it’s obvious. Why would a solipsist give any thought to another person’s gratification?
I love it--most of us would assume someone who humps a 12-year-old like he’s a dog going after your leg is the dictionary definition of a “lousy lover”, but Derbyshire had to have someone point it out to him.
And yet, by the magic of his art, Nabokov manages to bring us, at least grudgingly and partially, round to Humbert’s side—to be of Humbert’s party, as Milton made us of Satan’s. 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. That is the position the author wants his reader to arrive at; that is the position we do arrive at, if ignorance or prejudice do not get in our way.
For the first and possibly last time ever, an NRO writer comes out against ignorance and prejudice. And it’s on behalf of a pedophile, albeit a fictional one.
Ah, the realities of life! Was there ever a civilization more uncomfortable with them than ours is today? Humbert Humbert is a monster and a sociopath. He was a human monster, though, and a human sociopath. His monstrousnesses are hypertrophied growths of our own flaws; and his sociopathy consists in breaking rules for which, if there were not some fairly widespread propensity to break them, there would be no need.
If I were writing a review of Lolita in Humbert’s voice, that paragraph is pretty much how it would turn out, I think.
Some of the most vituperative emails I have ever got came in after I made an offhand remark, in one of my monthly NRO diaries, to the effect that very few of us are physically appealing after our salad days, which in the case of women I pegged at ages 15-20. While the storm was raging, biologist Razib Khan over at Gene Expression (forget philosophers, theologians, and even novelists: the only people with interesting things to say about human nature nowadays are the scientists) decided to look up some actual numbers. Reasoning that a rapist is inspired to his passion mainly by the physical attractiveness of his victim, Razib went for rape statistics.
That makes perfect sense if you assume that most men’s reaction to finding a woman attractive is to seek out a chance to violently assault her. It’s true of course. The most common pick-up line you hear in bars is, “You would look hoooot cut into pieces and tossed in a plastic garbage bag after I have my way with you.” Works every time.
He found a 1992 report (Rape in America: A Report to the Nation) from the National Victim Center showing the age distribution of female rape victims. Sixty percent of the women who reported having been raped were aged 17 or less, divided about equally between women aged 11 to 17 (32 percent) and those under eleven (29 percent). Only six percent were older than 29. When a woman gets past her mid twenties, in fact, her probability of being raped drops off like a continental shelf. If you histogram the figures, you get a peak around ages 12-14… which is precisely the age Lolita was at the time of her affair with Humbert Humbert. As Razib noted, my own “15-20” estimate was slightly off. An upper limit of 24 would be more reasonable. The lower limit really doesn’t bear thinking about.
The reason it doesn’t bear thinking about is presumably because it completely tanks his argument that the most reliable measure of a woman’s “peak attractiveness age” is how likely she is to be raped. If you take the Derb’s assertion and apply it to the very statistics he shows here, then in fact you can easily argue that women are far sexier at age 5 than 25. But the Derb pretends it’s not that his argument doesn’t hold together even if you share his assumptions. The reason he wants to write off the age group that accounts for 29% of rapes is this:
(I have a 13-year-old daughter.)
And that doesn’t even fly, because again by his very own statistics, his daughter is prime age for being raped, since 13-year-olds are so outrageously seductive than no man can pass them up.
Behind such sad numbers, and in the works of literary geniuses like Vladimir Nabokov, does the reality of human nature lie.
And now the Derb puts Humbert’s self-delusions to shame, because even Humbert admits that he’s a pervert and doesn’t try to argue that he’s got a normal man’s sexual urges.
It is all too much for our prim, sissified, feminized, swooning, emoting, mealy mouthed, litigation-whipped, “diversity”-terrorized, race-and-“gender”-panicked society. We shudder and turn away, or write an angry email.
Fuck that. I’m such a mealy-mouthed pussy that I want to actually toss men who rape young girls in jail. That’s just how we mealy-mouthed liberals are. Too weak to roll over and let child rapists run around hurting children.
The America of 1958, with all its shortcomings, was saltier, wiser, closer to the flesh and the bone and the wet earth, less fearful of itself. (It was also, according to at least one scholarly study, happier.)
Less fearful of itself but if you were a teenage girl in this fantasy version of 1958, you presumably had lots of reasons to be fearful of Daddy.
This next part is fucking great, he openly envies Jerry Lee Lewis, and not for his massive skill on the piano.
One of the first media sensations ever to impinge upon my consciousness was the visit to Britain by rock star Jerry Lee Lewis in May 1958, four months before Lolita’s American debut. This was supposed to be a concert tour, but 22-year-old Jerry had brought his wife Myra along, and the British press got wind of the fact that Myra was only 13. This wasn’t an unusual thing in the south of that time; Jerry himself had first been wed at 15 (when he already had a drinking problem). Myra was his third wife, and also his second cousin once removed. Back then country people grew up fast and close to their kin. Neither Jerry nor Myra could understand what the fuss was about. He: “I plumb married the girl, didn’t I?” She: “Back home you can marry at 10, if you can find a husband.” (This was not true, even in the south, though Myra likely believed it. She also, according to the British press, believed in Santa Claus.)
Upon thinking about sex with someone who still believes in Santa Claus, I can’t resist wondering if the Derb had a Humbert-like moment of inappropriate semen placement. This in and of itself should not be considered evidence of being a bad lover, of course.
How long ago it seems! Nowadays our kids are financially dependent on us into their mid-twenties, and can’t afford to leave home till they are 35.
For the record, that’s having your kids at home, especially your daughters, 15 whole years after they’ve passed the age where they are proper fantasy fodder.
Marriage at 13? Good grief! And so, while Lolita met with a fair share of disapproval in 1958, and was denounced from many pulpits, I believe its reception would have been much more hostile if it appeared now. It would also have been differently politicized. Back then the complaints came mostly from social conservatives, who I imagine would disapprove of Lolita just as strongly today. The Left, however, almost unanimously championed the book. Would they still do so? A woman! Who was also a child! Exploited by a man! And both of them from stifled, self-denying bourgeois backgrounds! Oh, that evil Patriarchy!
Unlikely. I know The Left and I think if he hasn’t already read Lolita, if he did, he’d probably like it. But then again, he’s a bit quicker on the uptake than the Derb and would realize that it’s a novel and not really an endorsement of lusting after 12-year-olds. He would notice also that in the 1950s America portrayed in the book, just like the one that really existed, was hardly tolerant of pedophiliac “sex affairs”, and not the patriachal utopia that the Derb seems to think it was.
Here you see one of the paradoxes of our strange times.
That a man can claim to have read the Annotated Lolita a number of times through and yet doesn’t show much evidence of grasping the basic themes and characters?
Our women dress like sluts; our kids are taught about buggery in elementary school;
NAMBLA would be a perfectly acceptable organization but for that damn buggery.
“wardrobe malfunctions” expose to prime-time TV viewers body parts customarily covered in public since “the lamented end of the Ancient World B.C."(Humbert);
Subjecting poor Derb to the unsightly view of a breast on a woman over the age of consent. Next time the NFL needs to take pity on him and strip the shirt off a teeny-bopper.
our colleges have coed bathrooms; songs about pimps rise to the top of the pop music charts; yet so far as anything to do with the actual reality of actual human nature is concerned, we are as prim and shockable as a bunch of Quaker schoolmarms.
Hear hear! Bring back the time they had the Negroes and women under control and if a man damn well wanted to fuck a 12-year-old, no one was going to stop him, by god. The only question this really brings to my mind is, “Why doesn’t the Derb suck it up and join a fringe Mormon church?”
What would Vladimir Nabokov say if he could view our present scene? I think he would weep. Political Correctness was only embryonic in the mid-1950s, and Nabokov poked some gentle fun at it in Lolita:
…according to the rules of those American ads where schoolchildren are pictured in a subtle ratio of races, with one—only one, but as cute as they make them—chocolate-colored round-eyed little lad, almost in the very middle of the front row.
Whoops, Derb got a little excited there and forgot something important--that it’s written in the first person and anything in the entire book can’t be treated as Nabokov’s opinion but the opinions and views of a fictional character called
John Derbyshire Humbert Humbert. Not that Nabokov did or didn’t agree with this sentiment, but it does well to remember everything the character says is colored by the fact that he’s an immoral rat and a delusional misanthrope to boot.
He would have been horrified to see how this how these silly but harmless and well-intentioned courtesies have swollen into a monstrous dreary tyranny, shutting off whole territories of speech and thought, acting as a sheet anchor to hold back our commercial and intellectual progress, corrupting our constitutional jurisprudence, turning unscrupulous mountebank attorneys into billionaires, and making art like Nabokov’s incomprehensible to millions who, had they been born a few decades earlier, would have gotten from it such unexpected, unimagined delight as I got among the birdsong and bowlines in the Sea Cadets’ hut at Northampton School for Boys 44 years ago.
My pet theory about Humbert’s perverse desires, at least today, is that avoiding contact with adults and conducting a fantasy relationship with a 12-year-old is the only way he can preserve his delusions of intellectual superiority to others. For some reason, this seemed a good time to bring that up. I will say that my appreciation for Nabokov’s characterization is deepening rapidly.
That we are stupider, coarser, duller, lazier, narrower of mind, more fearful of strangeness, more abject, and more craven than the Americans of 1958 is bad enough.
Nothing bespeaks of a country’s slip from intellectual greatness like the loss of a steady supply of sex partners that still believe in Santa Claus.
What really shows that our civilization is, and richly deserves to be, on its way out, is that we are less able to savor and love a surpassingly beautiful work of art like Lolita.
I wonder if the Derb would be shocked to find out it’s my favorite novel even though I thoroughly and completely condemn eroticizing 12-year-old girls. Surely you can’t appreciate a novel where the main character is an asshole through and through as well as a pedophile and not think there’s some kind of endorsement of his sexual desires lingering behind all that. Only simple-minded people can grasp that being pulled into Humbert’s world shows that Nabokov is a great writer, not that Humbert’s world has an inherent appeal to it. In fact, simple and stupid and modern reader that I am, I might even be simple enough to notice the grand joke about the book is that Humbert is prone to rhapsodizing and romanticizing endlessly in an attempt to distract from the fact that he’s screwing a child in seedy hotel after seedy hotel.
*I misread that. The Derb went to an English school. That just makes his persona as a pseudo-intellectual Europeanized jackass snarling and snapping at tawdry American culture even funnier.