Culture Magazine

Nabakov's "Lolita" and an Example of Ethical Criticism

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I recently came across an essay by Michael Doliner, Advanced Creepology: Re-Reading “Lolita” (Counterpunch). It struck me as being a very good piece of literary criticism, and that's why I'm mentioning it here, as an example of good, if 'conventional' literary criticism. I should note that I've not read the book in decades, so perhaps it's not as good as I think it is. Still, I present it as a good way of writing about literature. Here's an example passage:
Lolita’s twelve-year-old body with it’s twelve-year-old nature reveal her as a nymphet, but Humbert remains in love with her long after it is gone. When he finds her again at the squalid home of Mr. Richard F. Schiller, he continues to love, without wavering, the woman she has become. Whatever else Humbert is, he passes Shakespeare’s test of love, namely, that love is not love that alters when it alteration finds. And since Humbert loves nymphets, she must still be a nymphet, for she is still Lolita. Humbert offers to take her away and live with her forever. Dolores declines the offer.
… and there she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits, there she was (my Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby, dreaming already in her of becoming a big shot and retiring around 2020 A.D. — and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.
Just as the nymphet need not be conventionally beautiful, she also need not be prepubescent.
He sells everything and gives her the money. His days of being transfixed by nymphets are over. He still looks at them, but there is no Erotic connection. Lolita is his one and only love. He heads out to kill Quilty. She, that is Mrs. Richard Schiller, goes to Alaska to die in childbirth.
Nabokov had tried to write Lolita several times while still in Europe. What he had been missing came to him suddenly soon after he came to America, and he wrote the novel while he and his wife Vera were on a butterfly hunting trip. To write the whole novel while spending days out chasing butterflies and driving from place to place makes it sound like the novel must have come to him in a rush. Nabokov could write Lolita soon after coming to the United States because Lolita had to be an American girl, and Humbert had to come to America. Nabokov needed Lolita to have an innocence contending with vulgarity that he discovered here. Humbert needed to be a European discovering this in America. Europe, after the second world war, is too exhausted, too jaded, too sophisticated to support a Lolita.
Lolita, a spirit who inhabits Dolores, is visible only to one who can see her lace-like existence, one led by Eros, a desire for possession of the beautiful. But when the opportunity comes, Humbert defiles her with her willing collaboration. Until the fateful moment Humbert had been more than satisfied with possession of his furtive experiences. Humbert’s physical possession of Lolita destroys her and leaves Dolores with a deep indifference. As with butterflies that Nabokov killed so as to possess their beauty, Humbert killed Lolita spiritually when he possesses her. Lolita’s existence and her destruction have the same cause, Eros unrestrained by a sufficient respect for the divine.
However, it is Lolita who initiates the actual sex with Humbert. Before that her proximity was all he dared to hope for. It was more than enough to sense the vibrations on the strands of his web. His timidity was paralyzing. To be sure she had been seductive, but it had been playful. He would not have dared to violate her. Humbert describes Lolita’s initiation of him into sex as, for her, no big deal. The head-counselor’s son had already deflowered her in camp and she thought of sex as another camp activity. It was just a thing, like tennis or canoeing. The refined Humbert sees Lolita’s diaphanous charm within her undeniable vulgarity revealed in a matter-of-fact attitude to this monstrous sin.
 As you can see from this passage, this is not academic literary criticism, it does not employ any of the various critical theories and methodologies that have proliferated in the last half century. And yet it is certainly intellectually sophisticated. One could imagine such ideas being developed via one or more or these methodologies.
I present this as an example of what, following the late Wayne Booth, I have come to call ethical criticism, as opposed to the naturalist criticism for which I have been arguing. What place does it have in the university? That's what I want someone to tell me. Surely it has a place, certainly in the undergraduate curriculum. The sorts of things discussed in this essay are what brings one to literature, what one seeks to clarify through literature. No?
Yes.

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