Via Figleaf’s Real Adult Sex, I have learned about a way of depicting young girls as sexualized known as “lolicon,” a bastardization of “lolita complex,” which (I am not making this up) “has a nicer ring to it than pedophile."
I have three things to say.
2. Ditto to everything Figleaf says in his response to the topic.
3. Have any of those people proclaiming their interest in lolicon ever read Nabokov’s damn book? Because it doesn’t make sex with a budding pubescent (a.k.a. nymphet) particularly appealing.
Ten years ago or so, I got an email from one of my friends, who’d snagged an easy gig writing up a piece on “the ten sexiest novels of all time” for some women’s mag. She wanted suggestions. I don’t remember what I told her she should include, but I do remember telling her two books I thought SHOULD NOT be on the list.
The first was The Story of O. I said something like, “I know everyone thinks this is all sexy, because it has fetishwear and fucking and bondage and total submission to sexual servitude, and that turns a lot of people on. I just don’t buy it. I don’t see why O goes along with the whole thing--why she doesn’t say, ‘Look, I really need to get back to my apartment and feed my cat, and oh yeah, I promised to call my mother this weekend.’ What happens to all her stuff back in Paris? Who pays her rent? Don’t any of the people she knew who didn’t want to turn her into a sex slave ever wonder what happened to her? I realize I’m not staging much of an argument for why it’s not sexy, except to say that I’m more persuaded by fantasies I can believe, so for me, The Story of O is just too impractical to be genuinely erotic.”
Of course my friend included it in her list anyway.
The other book I said shouldn’t be on the list was, of course, Lolita. I defy anyone to find a passage from that book that is really truly sexy. Consider this example in all its euphemistic obscurity and see if its depiction of a young girl's reaction to sex is hot--or not:
I liked the cool feel of armchair leather against my massive nakedness as I held her in my lap. There she would be, a typical kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove.
Yeah. A naked adult man in a leather armchair, straddled by a girl he has had to bribe into allowing him to touch her, and even still, the only way she’ll tolerate sex with him is if she can read the comics while it’s happening and completely ignore what she's sitting on. I don’t think that’s hot, and I don’t think for a second that Nabokov wants us to find it hot.
There’s a way in which Humbert Humbert doesn’t even LIKE Lolita. He complains that “Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl.... She it was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster.” And she doesn’t much care for him--in fact, he realizes very early on that to her he was “not a boy friend, not a glamour man, not a pal, not even a person at all, but just two eyes and a foot of engorged brawn” and she hates sex with him. OK, he claims that the first time they have sex, she seduced him. But aside from that one time, he has to bribe or blackmail her in order to get her to consent to anything at all.
How sexy is this?
Her weekly allowance, paid under condition she fulfill her basic obligations, was twenty-one cents at the start....and went up to one dollar five before [the] end.... She was, however, not easy to deal with. Only listlessly did she earn her three pennies--or three nickels--per day; and she proved to be a cruel negotiator whenever it was in her power to deny me certain life-wrecking, strange, slow paradisal philters without which I could not live more than a few days in a row, and which, because of the very nature of love’s languor, I could not obtain by force. Knowing the magic and might of her own soft mouth, she managed--during one schoolyear!--to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, and even four bucks... she would firmly clutch a handful of coins in her little fist, which, anyway, I used to pry open afterwards unless she gave me the slip, scrambling away to hide her loot.... then I would burgle her room.... what I feared most was not that she might ruin me but that she might accumulate sufficient cash to run away.
He knows just how much she wants to run away, because he would hear “her sobs in the night--every night, every night--the moment I feigned sleep.”
He knows this. And he keeps her prisoner anyway, until she is lucky enough to escape him. And Nabokov wants us to know that HH knows this; wants us to know that HH understands what his question and her refusal mean when, after he finds her, married and pregnant, he asks her to leave her husband and go with him:
“I’ll die if you touch me,” I said. "You are sure you are not coming with me? Is there no hope of your coming? Tell me only this.”
“No,” she said. “No, honey, no.”
She had never called me honey before.
“No,” she said, “it is quite out of the question. I would sooner go back to Cue. I mean--”
She groped for words. I supplied them mentally. (“He broke my heart. You merely broke my life.”)
This isn’t a book about the tragedy of being a monster in love with a nymphet. It’s a book about how tragic it is to be the nymphet a monster makes captive. HH is intelligent and articulate, a very compelling narrator, far more articulate and sophisticated than Dolly Haze could have been. But at crucial moments, Nabokov undercuts HH’s lust and ecstasy with the very real and poignant grief of a little girl who has realized “during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif.” And Nabokov has HH state this:
Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me--to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction--that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze has been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.
Which is why I always think people who worry about whether or not HH loved Lolita sort of miss the point. I personally think he did love her, as much as he could love anyone, but SHE HATED HIM.
I love the novel Lolita. I think it’s amazing, and compelling, and brave, and wise. It’s one of the few books narrated by a monster--Grendel by John Gardner is another--that I really admire. But how someone can read it in any but the most superficial way and think it’s sexy, I don’t understand. I told my friend all that. But of course she found something to quote from it, and included it in her list of the ten sexiest novels, and earned about $4,000 for 1,000 words, most of them written by someone else. (Yeah, I admit, I was jealous of that.)
Anyway. All of this has to do with this larger meditation on lust I’m working on. Humbert Humbert’s lust is overwhelming, all-consuming; Lolita’s lust is either non-existent or irrelevant--the one person she wants, Quilty, wants only to watch her screwing someone else.
I’ll continue with this later.