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Artists and Philistines, Part 1

with 4 comments

So, here’s the thing.  The last few days, while I’ve been writing about mystery novels and mystery stories, I’ve been reading my way through a volume of essays/letctures on Russian literature by Vladimir Nabakov.

For those of you who find the name not at all familiar, or sort of familiar but you don’t know why, Nabakov is the Russian-born author of the novel  Lolita, which he wrote in English.  And, for that matter, after his emigration here, he tended to refer to himself as an American novelist.

All this stuff is necessary background, because Nabakov is, I think, a very odd man.  Certainly Lolita is an odd phenomenon, a book about a man who marries a woman to get to her teen-aged daughter, with whom he is sexually obsessed.  The teen-aged daughter is herself sexually obsessed, not with Nabakov’s hero (Humbert Humbert), but with sex per se.  She is, in fact, the absolute antithesis of everything we now “know” about “pedophilia”–or, really, older men’s sexual attraction to teen-aged girls.

She is, in fact, exactly what all those older men have been saying all those teenaged girls really are–what they still say all those teenaged girls really are.  In her thoughts, her feelings, her movitivations, she is both thoroughly sexualized and thoroughly predatory.

Lolita is, as you can imagine, a very uncomfortable book in more ways than one.  It is also a spectacularly well written and well constructed one, with an honest chance at being one of the very few truly great novels to have been written in the second half of the twentieth century. 

I was thinking about Lolita the entire time that discussion about morality and literature was going on in the comments.  On the one hand, there is certainly an argument to be made for its greatness on purely aesthetic grounds, and that argument should be made. 

And I’m a firm believer in aesthetic grounds.  I don’t believe that they’re “just opinion” or “just a matter of taste,” and I think it’s important to learn to understand them.  What’s more, I think it’s important that art be judged as art, first and foremost–that the decision as to whether or not a work of art is good art should be a matter of aethetics and not of whether the work says what we want it to or  promotes what we think is right and proper.

All that said, Lolita was, from the beginning, a book that made most people very uneasy.  Long before our present day obsession with child sex, almost the first thing most people did when they tried to defend this novel was to write interpretations of it that seemed to make it say something other than what it was actually saying. 

The book may seem to be saying that Lolita entices poor, hapless Humbert Humbert into the affair with her–that she preys on him and that he is helpless to resist–but if you read closely enough, that’s not what the novel is saying at all.  When you think you’re seeing that, what you’re really seeing is the novel expressing Humbert Humbert’s rationalizations.   The novel is really about—well, how we’re all slaves to our own appetites, maybe, or how we all rationalize doing what we want to do even when it’s wrong, or…

Even at the time, none of these explanations really rang true.  These days, with an entirely different climate about teen sexuality, and especially teens have sex with older men–we forget that, in the Sixties, it was conventional wisdom that the instigator in such cases was always the teen-aged girl–they just sound lame.

I don’t think it’s philistinish to note that, in all probability, Nabakov had something of Humbert Humber in himself, or even that he might not be wrong in thinking that there is something of Humbert Humbert in most men.  Nor do I think that it’s philistinish to note that the underlying message of this novel is, on any factual level, mostly untrue.

The internal tension between these two things–the worth of a work of art as art and the utility of it as a factor in the overall climate of a civilization–has been with us at least since Plato dissed Homer, and is likely to be with us for the rest of time.  I’m not going to solve it here.

What made me bring this all up is that I find it an interesting background to Nabokov’s essays, and especially to his valoration of Tolstoy and his nearly hysterical repulsion for Dostoyevski–pretty much the exact opposite of the way I feel about those two writers, and for reasons that I don’t find very clear.

Well, I do find his reasons for preferring Tolstoy clear, and I also find it a little funny that in order to uphold Tolstoy’s superiority as an artist Nabakov has to strenuously deny that Tolstoy’s moral message is what it is.  That is, he has to deny that Tolstoy was a thoroughgoing Orthodox Christian conservative when it came to morals, that he upheld exactly the bourgeoise family ideal Nabakov himself so virulently despises.

All of this might have caused him less trouble if the lecture he was giving had been about, say, War and Peace–okay, I don’t know that for certain, because I can’t seem to make myself read War and Peace.

The problem is that Nabokov is writing mostly about Anna Karenina, the story of a woman whose attempts to express her love at the expense of her marriage end in suicde.  Anna Karenina is one of the most moralistic novels in existence, and Tolstoy himself spent the latter part of his life as a very publicly devout–and very conservative–Orthodox Christian.

Part of what’s going on here is explicable in terms of biography.  Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg in 1899, and his family had to leave Russian in 1919 when the Revolution came fully into power. The Russian literature Nabokov knew best was the literature “of ideas,” as he called it–the literature of social commentary really, both in the examinations of politica and intellectual movements in the Russian nineteenth century novel (like, um, Dostoyevski), or in the Soviet Realism state-imposed really bad writing of the Stalinist and Cold War years.

Part of Nabokov’s really peculiar reaction to all things Dostoyevski may be simply his hatred for all novels that deal in politics, no matter what the politics are–that Dostoyevski, who opposed the rise of socialism and Communism, seemed no different to Nabokov than the writers that heralded and celebrated it.

Still, I wonder how much of it has to do with Tolstoy’s truly excreable ideas about women.  Anna Karenina is an adulteress, and she isn’t the only one–and Tolstoy’s adulteresses are all expression of the female nature, the real expressions of the female nature.  Women are bad, sexually predatory, sexually impure, sexually foul.

That’s true of Anna, and it’s true as well of the wife of the murderer who tells his story to the passengers on the train in “The Kreutzer Sonata.”  Tolstoy managed to name that one after one of Beethoven’s greatest pieces for piano. 

In other words, I wonder if what Nabokov sees in Tolstoy is a similar attitude to the nature of women, a similar repugnance at the fact of femaleness and a resentment and anger at still being attracted to that femaleness.

I’m beginning to write very convoluted sentences again.

But it’s been bugging me the entire time I’ve been reading this book, and I haven’t even gotten to the stuff about the Philistines yet.

But more on that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 2nd, 2010 at 7:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Artists and Philistines, Part 1'

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  1. I’m not sure it was accepted back in the 1960s that teenaged girls lured adult men (and by ‘adult’ I mean much older men, not 21-year-olds). That SOME teen-aged girls were sexually active and very interested in older men, yes, sure. That was generally accepted in a way it isn’t now, although such relationships were much disapproved of. But I still think a lot of the blame if such relationships actually occurred attached to the men who ‘were old enough to have known better’, as people used to say, even if a really sexy under-aged girl ‘threw herself’ at them, to use another old term. And that doesn’t fit with the idea of resentment and anger among males at the fact of femaleness and/or predatory females.

    But I can’t really say how widely what I assumed to be the standard sixties and early seventies attitudes I observed actually prevailed.

    And I have never read any of the authors named, although I think I tried Nabokov, when ‘Lolita’ was such a scandal, and couldn’t get into it. Or maybe that was something else. It’s a long time ago.

    Cheryl

    2 Jun 10 at 7:48 am

  2. I read ‘Lolita’ sometime in the mid to late 70s. Even then I recognized that it was very well written…and that it was at the same time, absolutely odious. The subject matter, and the treatment of the people in it, that is.

    I was, at the time, just 20 or so. I was slender, pretty and (looking back) terrifically naive. So I had met enough older men with qualities like Humbert, creepy guys hanging around where they weren’t welcome, making comments just this side of nasty, clearly wanting to do things they would like and I wouldn’t. Humbert wasn’t a stranger to me, in other words. Lolita, on the other hand, was an alien.

    She was written by (as far as I was concerned) a creepy old man in his own image. She was nothing like my own teenage years, so recently past. She was nothing like any girl I knew. Only an obsessed and deluded man could believe that girls, or women, operated from such motivations, unless they’d been abused or damaged previously. The largely incidental mother was a cipher to me, that she wouldn’t be more present, to both control and protect her daughter.

    Thinking back, of course, I see the story as being about the fear that men have of female sexual power. Lolita’s age is incidental, except that it gives scope for Humbert’s delusions that he can have power over her. Men have always needed and desired women, while fearing their power and wanting to control their sexuality.

    It may be, of course, that the greatness of the work lies in the vast number of interpretations that can be hung upon it. I’m certain there are many masters & doctoral theses that have analyzed it. It doesn’t make the superficial story line any less creepy, though. Genius. Creepy genius.

    Lymaree

    2 Jun 10 at 12:42 pm

  3. The Nabakov/Tolstoy bit may well be part of a widespread way of thinking. Itruns roughly:
    A. I like Joe Smith’s novels
    B.Therefor, Joe Smith is a Great Man and a Great American.
    C. Great Men and Great Americans CAN’T believe X.
    D. So no matter what evidence is presented to the contrary, Joe Smith didn’t REALLY believe X. Perhaps he was joking. Perhaps he just hadn’t thought the matter through.
    Call it the Heidigger Fallacy.

    As for what novels will still entertain, inspire and be regarded as worth studying in 50 or 100 years, I’m not sure who should hold the bet, nor in what currency. However, on the basis of the past two centuries, I’d be willing to wager a small sum against the literary establishment’s contemporary favorites.

    robert_piepenbrink

    2 Jun 10 at 6:30 pm

  4. Oh, no, Nabokov didn’t think Lolita “wanted it.” Not at all. He depised Humbert Humbert and considered Lolita was his most tragic character.

    He loved Tolstoy for his absolutely perfect pitch for the way people talked, his ability to create people and their surroundings that were completely imagined and that rang true. He despised Dostoevsky for his “unreal” characters (the opposite of Tolstoy’s) and his cheap psychological portraits.

    mab

    3 Jun 10 at 7:19 am

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