Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reflections on Humbert Humbert

Recently, I finished Lolita, Nabokov's masterpiece, his quiet yet disturbing demonstration to the world of his power as a prose writer and mastery as a story teller. Had I read it just a few years earlier, the full force and majesty of the novel would have totally escaped me. Not to say that I am either, but I believe the enjoyment of Lolita increases exponentially with the reader's emotional and philosophical maturity.

Most people are familiar with the subject matter of this novel. A 40-something hebephile Humbert Humbert has a carnal relationship with a 12 year-old Dolores Haze, his Lolita, Lola, Lo. In sexually conservative America, this book stabs through the fabric of societal mores and became famous and infamous because of it. But there's something more to this novel than just the shocking, lewd, and obscene subject matter. It is an illuminating examination of a shadowy recess of the human condition.

The story told in the first person does not make Humbert a sympathetic antihero, rather it makes him understandable. We understand why he does what he does, but there is nothing to mask his ugliness as a human being. He is contemptuous of everyone except himself and Lo. This contempt is spread all around to his ex-wife Valeria ("brainless baba"), to his landlady Charlotte ("big Haze"), and even to his friend and chess buddy Gaston ("glum repulsive fat old invert"). No one is spared his venom, yet no one knows its sting, because what he thinks he does not say. Humbert is a coward who fancies himself otherwise. When his ex-wife left him, he thought of "hurting her very horribly", but found that "impossible to put into execution with the cursed colonel hovering around all the time". In short, Humbert will strike a woman, but will not risk a confrontation with another man.

The most revealing aspect of Humbert is, without a doubt, his dysfunctional relationship with Lolita. It cannot be accurately described as a love. Humbert paints to great length of how he ached for her, longed for her, and desired to possess her. What troubled me was that his love was all physical.

There my beauty lay down on her stomach, showing me, showing the thousand eyes wide open in my eyed blood, her slightly raised shoulder blades, and the bloom along the incurvation of her spine, and the swelling of her tense narrow nates clothed in black, and the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs.

Humbert loves Lo not as a man loves a woman, but as a man who loves his own lust. His love is the pinnacle of selfishness. He tries to fill two roles for Lo, that of the guardian (Lo calls him "dad") and that of the lover. He utterly fails at both. When he tries to be a good step father, he invariably becomes consumed and succumbs to his desires. His inability to make Lolita fall in love with him also makes him a failed lover. He admits that Lo has never "convulsed" during their intercourse and yet he has had "two years of monstrous indulgence". It took a long time, years after his relationship with Lo had ended, before Humbert found clarity in the most beautifully written (and longest) sentence of the entire novel.

... I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile cliches, there was a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate -- dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions; for I often noticed that living as we did, she and I, in a world of total evil, we would become strangely embarrassed whenever I tried to discuss something she and an older friend, she and a parent, she and a real healthy sweetheart... might have discussed -- an abstract idea, a painting, stippled Hopkins or shorn Baudelaire, God or Shakespeare, anything of a genuine kind.

That was the only redeeming quality of Humbert: the flashes of honesty he often writes of himself. It is only through these tiny viewports that we shine the light on his and Lola's inner condition.

I don't blame Humbert for his predilection towards his nymphets, because it is a preference. Just as some are attracted to buxom blondes and others to skinny red-heads, Humbert has his peculiar preference. This brings me to an interesting philosophical thought experiment. If my preferences were a little different, would I become a hebephile too? Is the difference between me and Humbert merely a difference of taste? I admit, this question bothered me as I read the novel, but at the end I reached my conclusion. The key difference of Humbert and the rest of us is not a matter of preference, but a matter of control. Humbert is a slave to his desire, to his lust. The rest of us, too, full of desire and lust, are, for the most part, able to control them and harness them towards love and self-improvement instead of having them control us and destroy us and all those around us in the process.

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