A Typical Kid Picking Her Nose

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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.

1. GROSS.

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.

14 Comments

I'm curious if you have ever read "Reading Lolita In Tehran?" It is an interesting take on Nabakov's novel, and Nafisi relates that it is more about the idea of HH wanting to control Lolita than having sex with her. Nafisi suggests that looking a it from merely the point of view of pedophilia is missing the point of the story.

Nafisi writes: "I want to emphasize once more that we were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert, and this republic was not what Humbert called his princedom by the sea. Lolita was not a critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives."

Let us also not forget that, indirectly, HH causes the death of Lolita's mother as well, allowing him complete control over her.

I'm enjoying this blog, you write very well. I am glad a friend recommended it.

Ugh. And I thought RomCom was stupid. This is, as you rightly say, just gross. My daughter is 11. This stuff scares me.

Hi Mr. Midnight--thanks for showing up. I'm delighted to know A) that people actually read my blog and B) that they recommend it to others and C) those who get the recommendation find it worth their time. In other words, you've made my day.

Yes, I've read RLIT, and as far as the literary criticism goes, Nafisi's analysis of Lolita is what I admire most. I had forgotten about Nafisi's insights; thanks for bringing them up here.

Hi GT--I had to google "romcom." I guess I'm just not one for shortened terms--I mean, I see the value of brevity, but the cleverness factor gets on my nerves from time to time. Anyway, I hope your daughter manages to avoid all that grossness and the people it appeals to. It's bad news.

"C) those who get the recommendation find it worth their time. In other words, you've made my day."

Glad to oblige. I am a freelance writer myself, though I have not attempted the daunting task of even thinking about writing a book. Maybe in a few years.......

I haven't read The Story of O so I couldn't really comment on it but you make a compelling reading of Lolita. I also haven't read your friend's article. But doesn't it seem like these two books would end up on this list because, due to their reputations or the "common sense" of what might count as sexy, people who hadn't read them would assume that they were sexy? Had your friend read them?

It makes me wish you had written that article instead. It seems to me you've given careful thought to what might count as sexy writing. It would have been much braver to leave the "common sense" books off the list. Still, I have to admit that I am finding it difficult to come up with a list of 10 myself. Maybe that's because of the kind of stuff I tend to read -- not usually "sexy", at least not in the way most people would think of sexiness: for example, I have just about finished reading Hannah Pitkin Fenichel's Fortune is a Woman. It's political theory, pretty heady stuff, but then I've always found highly intelligent women to be sexy.

Oops. This is a bit embarrassing. Her name is Hannah Fenichel Pitkin (many apologies); the book is Fortune is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli. And I really hope the sentence doesn't imply that I find Professor Pitkin sexy (it seems to read that way); I have never even met her. It's that an important part of what I find sexy is intelligence. Which, regrettably, seems to have been lacking when I drafted this comment.

Hi Spike--I appreciate your vote of confidence, but I don't think I could have written the article. Like you, I find intelligence sexy, but like you, I have trouble coming up with a list of ten books I find really sexy. OK, there's Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King, which I am always trying to get people to read, but as for the other nine? Even I balk at calling Pride & Prejudice sexy, no matter how compelling and intelligent the main characters and their romance.

I read your blog, Holly, and, as I just have, I recommend it to others. Speaking only for myself I found your dissection of Lolita incredibly worth my while. The paragraph you excerpted is just a perfect illustration not of pedophilia but of the specific *kind* of object men have indoctrinated ourselves to expect of *all* women. Yes, HH exemplifies the empty selfishness of modern evil but that means only that the depredations he imposes on Dolores and himself are only worse, not different, from what other men expected to impose on ourselves and the women in our lives.

Take care,

figleaf

I think you raise a really interesting point, but I'd like to point something out as well. I'm writing my thesis on Nabokov (not Lolita, some of the later works, but FL's post on your post jumped right out at me), and surprisingly often, when I mention this to friends, they hesitate and look at the ground and bite their lips and finally say, "Do you...do you think it's ok that Lolita kind of turns me on a little bit? Is that...is it creepy and disgusting?" And to that I always say, of course not. The fact is, the writing itself isn't sexy at all, you're right about that. But you've raised what I consider to be one of the most important parts of the book--Humbert is an unbelievably charismatic, compelling narrator. Compelling enough, I claim, that for some readers the unbelievable, overwhelming power of his lust rubs off a little bit. I think that's part of the point...Nabokov is trying to make us feel uneasy. He's subverting our sense of what our sexual boundaries are by creating something which is certainly not sexy, but in a strange way erotically compelling.

Holly, I found my way here via figleaf. I'm not really qualified to comment, having not read Lolita. But what you describe amounts to 1) child prostitution, and 2) rape. Not sexy on either count.

You've done a very nice job of taking this apart.

I remember reading Lady Chatterley furtively under my desk during math class my senior year of high school, looking for the "naughty" parts and being sorely disappointed. Makes you wonder how many of the canonical "sexy" books really aren't all that.

Hi Figleaf--I've been really pleased and flattered by the entries you've written linking to my blog. I thought your further analysis of this issue on your blog was excellent.

Hi Madeline. I hope you're enjoying your thesis. I became completely smitten with Nabokov as an undergrad when I read Speak, Memory. I have not read as much of him as I should--people keep telling me I must read Pale Fire but so far I've managed not to.

I think I would state slightly differently my assessment of what the turn-on in is in Lolita. The fact is, the novel turns me on--just not the sex in the novel, nor the sexual scenarios nor the depictions of sex. But the prose.... My god, the prose. I LOVE the bit I quoted above about "I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art." I actually think that's a pretty apt assessment of the human condition in a lot of ways. What turns me on in the novel is the incredible intelligent overseeing this piece of art. I think I would HATE the book if it were a memoir; the fact that it's a novel makes all the difference here.

Hi Sungold. I hope I haven't turned you off the novel, because it really is a great book. And come to think of it, Lady Chatterly's Lover was on that list my friend compiled.... I've never read that one, not having been able to stomach anything else by Lawrence. I tried to read Sons and Lovers in grad school and just couldn't finish it. I don't like the way Lawrence views women at all, and his obsession with anal sex really annoyed me after a while--we spent a lot of class time talking about that.

Anyway, thanks to all of you for stopping by.

Holly, you haven't turned me off the book; I might read it sometime. Luscious prose does it for me, too. So maybe you've inspired me to tackle it, even as you've convinced me that I'll find it more disturbing than I might have otherwise expected.

And yeah, Lawrence and women! Ugh.

I always think lolita is a great case for book burning.
Proper use of book burning is a great thing.

We need more of it.

This is not a joke. I am NOT kidding. People need to VOLUNTARILY burn a TON of books that are crap.

i do NOT believe in government sponsored book burning cause i believe government should be so TINY as to have no matches.

but your local library... has a great conflagration just waiting inside!

BURN THE SHIT!

Kent Johnson:

You are vile. I have published your comment only to preserve evidence of your vileness.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on January 20, 2008 10:07 PM.

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