“Extreme Polarities of Game in Nabokov’s “Lolita”” by Dana Sala

If you all wonder what I do in my spare time, well, I like to feed my brain and work out my brain, mostly by reading things that I find very hard to understand. The harder it is to understand, the more I like it.

Here is an article I read recently. It’s Literary Criticism. Some of this stuff is extremely hard to understand. In fact, it is some of the most hard to understand stuff out there. Some people say that that is because it’s all nonsense, but I think a lot of it is just really thick and hard to figure out. It’s operating on a higher plane that most of us are.

I’m honestly not sure if this article is nonsensical and full of crap or if it actually means something. I think it probably means something, but I’m just not smart enough to figure it out. I’m not sure if Literary Criticism is full of nonsense yet. For some reason I doubt that it is.

Anyway, if you want to see the sort of thing I spend my days reading, here you go. And by the way, you are welcome to try to understand it yourself.

Extreme Polarities of Game in Nabokov’s “Lolita”

by Dana Sala

Abstract:

An aesthetician in the sense of Kierkegaard, Humbert wants to savor life without being limited by moral rules. Any writer might find himself reflected by the myth of Don Juan, identifiable with the eternal seducer of the reader. Lolita is a real presence, not a Humbertian alter-ego. Humbert the Seducer yearns to be seduced.

His existential game can furnish things for analysis to Humbert the Casuist provided that he has a counterpart – the game of Lolita, less spiritualized, less intellectual, but closer to the generic notion of game.

Fluctuating between life and death, the game of Don Juan longs to explore the other type of game, the active one. The game that resents reality (the imaginative game) is challenged by the game that
bravely assumes it (active). A perennial Manichaeism between these disjunctive components renders the necessary tension to any game – ultimately a result of two extreme polarities playing against each other.

Key words: casuistry; innocence; seducer or seduced; active and imaginative game; Nabokov; Lolita; Kierkegaard; seduction of literature; nymphets; kitsch; the ineffable; Narcissus; art and gratuitousness.

Fatally enslaved to innocence, Humbert Humbert cannot escape casuistry, as it offers both a compensatory means of transcending an undesired reality and a way of exploring it. Lolita is frantically desired and perverted during Nabokov’s discourse not by granting her money in exchange for her dearness but because of Humbert’s turning into a casuist.

Innocence cannot be re-found by analyzing a self already schizoid. Humbert can vaguely sense again the innocence in the company of a nymphet, of every nymphet (that’s why his ceaseless hunting of nymphets, even if he must have been satisfied with Lolita, is an impulse of living, not a sign of perversion). Humbert’s real perversion lays in his casuistry.

Another perversion is to be so refined in the art of seducing the reader. None of Don Juan’s acts of seducing could be accomplished without gratuity. An aesthetician in Kierkegaard’s sense, Humbert wants to savor life without being limited by moral rules. Innocence grants both Johann the Seducer (in Kierkegaard’s writings) and Humbert Humbert a life lived within the aesthetic stage of existence.

Paradoxically, Lolita is a consumer without any remorse of what Humbert (and this time Nabokov either) hated most: the stereotyped society, sterile imitation, commercial kitsch. In this respect, Lo is not individualized but conventional, as conventional as a nymphet could be. The difference between Lo as a nymphet and a stereotyped woman (any from Miss Opposite to Charlotte Haze) is that Lolita does not live according to these clichés.

Her life may be governed by them, she is gravitating around them, turning them into commodities, but her nymphic glimpse makes her incorporate all these consuming goods. Thus they are made her own.

Humbert’s narcissism lays in the fact that he is more eager to know the inner world rather than the outer one. The paths of exploring the world go through the inner self. Loving Lolita becomes an act of a 20th Century Narcissus. We are very far from the commonsensical situation when a powerful male personality transforms the beloved one into a reflex of his own self.

Humbert could be a perfect illustration of the Narcissus myth not because he loves himself in Lolita but because he wants to set in permanent forms the beloved image.

Any writer might find himself more or less anamorphotically reflected by Don Juan’s myth, identifiable with the eternal seducer rather than the ceaseless lover. The exertion of demiurgic valences of an author, generically speaking, could be equated with a Don Juanesque temptation to construct a suffocating intrigue around the victim since the authentic Don Juan will never disrelish demiurgic enticement.

In order to be perfectly overlapped, both writer and seducer must be possessed by the demon of the intellectual game. In Nabokov’s Lolita and Kierkegaard’s The Diary of the Seducer Don Juan is not only an archetype but also the main character, seductive as narrating self, seduced as character.

For Nabokov, fiction is a game and a contest with the reader:

I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay. (Nabokov, Lolita: 13).

Like every other bit of existence in this book, game has in turn its right to Siamese twinning. Therefore, an essential distinction in Nabokov’s fiction would be that between the two facets of the twofold game.

One is the imaginative game; the other is the active one. A perennial Manicheanism between these disjunctive components renders the necessary tension to any game – ultimately a result of two extreme polarities playing against each other. Nabokov, the writer who suffered a second exile, a linguistic one

paved the way for the truly postmodernist novels that were to follow

M. Couturier, 1993: 257

The imaginative game is high-minded, aware of its own uncertainties, and non-finite because of its endless combinations of virtual realities. This is the game of fiction, the authorial game, the Humbertian one, the contest of minds with the reader. Humbert is playing this game with the other Humbert, and Nabokov is playing it against Humbert and Quilty, by whom Humbert might be written.

The imaginative game means perpetual replacement and recreation of realities. The so-called active game is the one engulfed by reality. This game resents the non-finite reality of mind, preferring the genuineness of the conceivable world. Humbert Humbert’s game is centripetal; Lolita is centrifugal.

The active game is attempting to find a way of real manifestation. For the fictional game, the outer world is too suffocating, whilst for the active game, the inner world is too broad. Lolita’s playing with Humbert, Lolita’s disclaiming virginity to Charlie Holmes, the nymphic games integrating an immobile Humbert – these all belong to the active nature of the game.

By means of imaginative game, “reality” (one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes) is transcended to the aesthetic level of being. Humbert shares with Nabokov the appetite for autoscopic game. A sample of the authorial imaginative game is the intrusion of a preface teller illustrating the conventional moral view point, telling us what we must not understand from the novel.

Dr. John Ray Jr. would not be able to recognize himself mocked – as a exponent of a certain category of people – since the capacity of reflection, of playing dangerously with your double, cannot be understood by all readers.

As a case history, “Lolita” will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac- these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils.

“Lolita” should make all of us – parents, social workers, educators – apply ourselves with a still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.

Nabokov, Lolita: 5

Both Nabokov and Humbert Humbert’s fictional games have no expressed target.

It would be inappropriate to see it as a mere justification of a murder or of a pervert.
Fluctuating between life and death, Don Juan’s game longed to explore the other type of game, the active one. The game that resents reality (imaginative) is challenged by the game that bravely assumes it (active).

Humbert the child was probably playing active games with Annabel Leigh (disclosed later as Annabel Lee with a frankness borrowed from or mimicking nymphic behavior). That must have happened before he was assaulted by two barbarian intruders who actually raped his androgynous clumsiness.

This moment coincides with the implicit revelation of the postponed fulfillment and with the intermission of an irreversible personality split:

My world was split. I was aware of not one, but two sexes, neither of which was mine; both would be termed female by the anatomist. [ … ] Taboos strangulated me. Psychoanalysts wooed me with pseudoliberations or pseudolibidoes. The fact that to me the only objects of amorous tremor were sisters of Annabel’s, her handmaids and girl-pages, appeared to me at times as a forerunner of insanity.

Nabokov, Lolita: 18

While Humbert underwent the inexorable metamorphosis into a mature schizoid, Lolita,
although twofold nature herself, presents the extremes of vulgarity and innocence fused
together. Her personality is not painfully split. Humbert the Casuist admits that Humbert the
Seducer will be lured by the genuineness of a nymphet that refuses to be shaped.

A Humbert, the first or the second, we will never know, is the mirror reflection of the other one. That is why the first Humbert can charge the second Humbert with abominable features, while his true desire is to be seduced by innocence.

Lolita arrived in her Sunday frock, stemming, panting and then she was in my arms, her innocent mouth melting under the ferocious pressure of dark male jaws, my palpitant darling! The next instant I heard her – alive, unraped – clatter downstairs.

Nabokov, Lolita: 66

Lo as a nymphet means a permanent resuscitation of Humbert’s erect attention, as this erotically un-evolved widower will always run away from fulfillment. For Kierkegaard, the happy marriage or happy love is inconceivable. In the same spirit, “Lolita” illustrates the doctrine of Eros Kosmogon, saying that Eros, as a daimon, as a mediator of two principles, exists as long as these two principles fail to unify (see J. Evola).

Therefore the moment of coupling coincides with the annihilation of Eros itself, viewed as longing of the being to be coupled with the non-being.
Nabokov and Kierkegaard’s casuistry reveal the dramatic condition of the overlucid Don Juan endowed with an ontological contempt of the stereotype of femininity.

Don Juan accepts only an equal partner who rejects becoming a mere reflex of his own self. Thus the myth of Pygmalion is reversed. The aesthetic pleasure is not given by the act of engulfing the feminine presence into the male self. On the contrary, Don Juan is attracted only by the ineffable type of women, respecting the noumenal part of femininity.

In this way, Lolita is a real presence, not an Humbertian alter-ego. Humbert the Seducer yearns to be seduced, as his existential game can furnish things for analysis to Humbert the Casuist only when he bumps into a corresponding replay – Lolita’s game, less spiritualized, less intellectual, but closer to the generic notion of game.

As Huizinga stated, game is beyond good and evil. Vladimir Nabokov’s seducer and Kierkegaard’s Don Juan can be looked on as aestheticians, belonging to the first level of being in Kierkegaard’s term.

For Kierkegaard the essence of a man is defined as aesthetic, and this represents the first stage of being. Consequently, the aestheticism is not necessarily the artist but someone who has discovered in pleasure the purpose of his life, denying the presence of good and evil. The
aestheticism’s act of living is achieved through the aesthetics of his self.

Every aestheticism lives so that he could voluptuously respond to all desires commanding him. Moreover, his quest tends to reveal more and more yearnings to be fulfilled. How the outer world reacts to this has no relevance for the aestheticism.

Humbert’s perversion can be seen in his attitude to the reader rather than in his pedophilic propensities. It is the demoniac glimpse which differentiates a nymphet from any other adolescent and helps Humbert Humbert localize her. Humbert’s intention is in fact to suspend the instant and isolate it.

Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and 14 there occur maidens who, to a certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets”.

Between those age-limits, are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we, lone voyagers, we nympholepts, would have long gone insane.

Nabokov, Lolita: 17.

Humbert Humbert’s aversion to stereotype makes him an unreliable narrator. Craig Raine remarked that

“Nabokov’s galère of unreliable narrators (Hermann in Despair, Kinbote in Pale Fire) represent unreliability in its extreme form. They are reliably unreliable. They get nothing right.”

Craig Raine, Afterword: 322

A twofold nature himself, a paragon of exactitude and a miracle of meticulousness fused with “hallucinative lucidity,” Humbert Humbert abhors the Hollywood stereotype of a woman. Lolita is a consumer of the same type of clichés, but this does not diminish her seductive potencies. She would prefer a Hamburger to a Humburger.

Hummy has striven all way to find an equal partner, double-natured. Vulgarity can coexist with shamelessness and purity. By the end of the novel, Humbert wholly regrets not having taken the angelic line of conduct at the “Enchanted Hunters.” He sees himself now as a maniac who has deprived Lolita of her childhood. Lolita, neither saint nor slut, but a complex mixture.

And neither is she the fragile child of a feminine novel.

What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet – of every nymphet, perhaps; this mixture in my Lolita of tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity, stemming from the snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures, from the blurry pinkness of adolescent maidservants in the old country and in the very young harlots disguised as children in provincial brothels.

And what is most singular is that she, this Lolita, my Lolita, has individualized the writer’s ancient lust, so that above and over everything there is – Loli ta (Nabokov, Lolita: 44).

Annabel was meant to be the vanished angel. Lolita as her reincarnation outdid the prototype, as she had an extra demoniac glimpse and a twofold nature. On the other hand, Humbert Humbert attempts to analyze the ineffable nature of the nymphets, as he will always long for his androgynous state with Annabel:

My little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on the same enchanted island of time.

Nabokov, Lolita: 17

Unable to seduce Lolita, who acts physiologically, defying any metaphysical concepts, Humbert seeks compensation in seducing his readers. Humbert the pervert, comparable with Johannes from Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary, attempts to detect the resort of innocence and fails, perverting it.

Their supreme refinement is the fact they try to do so in writing. Losing virginity coincides with the revelation of the end, of the finite. This is valid for Humbert who becomes from that moment Humbert Humbert. Reaching enlightenment, Humbert Humbert cannot ignore or deny knowing.

It is impossible for him to pretend that the sense of his quest has not changed irreversibly. For Lolita, the Charlie Holmes experience is just a childish game. Her authenticity has not been endangered, and the world has not changed its coordinates.

Lolita’s innocence belongs to the category of “ignorant innocence”. Humbert Humbert, now that he knows the world is limited and love subdued to Death, is fascinated by this type of innocence, totally devoid of shame. All his strategies of seducing Lolita reveal in fact a surprising timidity. Humbert Humbert does not exactly plan how to make Lolita love him but how to derive small satisfactions without her approval.

Recomposing his identity is a playful way of guaranteeing the subjective truth. This attitude is preserved in approaching the nymphet. The greatest Humbertian joy now is to let the nymphic nature fully manifest itself and recompose all these images in silence so that the White Widowed Male could “blissfully digest” the “rare drop of honey”.

In a way, Humbert has the intuition that the besieged Lolita is able to surprise the hunter and turn it into a “Hunted Enchanter”. Her natural way of becoming her stepfather’s mistress is the climax of her nymphic manifestations:

The hollow of my hand was still ivory-full of Lolita- full of the feel of her preadolescently incurved back, that ivory smooth, sliding sensation of her skin through the thin frock that I had worked up and down while I held her. [ … ]I felt proud of myself.

I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor. Absolutely no harm done. The conjurer had poured milk, molasses, foaming champagne into a young lady’s new white purse; and Lo, the purse was intact. Thus I delicately constructed my ignoble, ardent, sinful dream; and still Lolita was safe – and I was safe.

What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lo1ita –perhaps more real than Lo1ita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness- indeed no life- of her own.

The child knew nothing. I had done nothing to her. And nothing prevented me from repeating a performance that affected her as little as if she were a photographic image rippling upon a screen.

Nabokov, Lolita: 62

Had Lolita remained Humbert’s only in his imagination, she would have perfectly replaced Annabel, and she would have belonged to Humbert’s own reality. But Lolita has a life of her own, a self-sufficient existence that makes no room for moral dilemmas. She needs to be more than a prototype for Humbert’s recreation of another Lolita.

Humbert considers pathetic his hypostasis as a nymphic purity protector. This would be
the only possible way to fix Lolita in eternity, to set her unchanged. But Humbert can do so
only on the realm of arts. Art reconciles and stirs Lolita and Humbert’s games and destinies.

Don Juan is innocently seduced by innocence. The twofold nature of Humbert the Don Juan and Lolita are heaven and hell, life and death:

This is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood and beautiful bright-green flies. At this or that twist of it I feel my slippery self eluding me, gliding into deeper and darker waters than I care to probe.

Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book.[… ] I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lo1i ta. (Nabokov, Lolita: 309).

The beginning is given new valences. Trying to seduce the illusion of Lolita, Humbert has engulfed the real one so deep inside that he can take her out only for the sake of his autoscopic view: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”

Works Cited :

Baudrillard, J. (1979) De la séduction, Paris, Galilée.

Couturier, M. (1993) Nabokov in Postmodernist Land, Critique, 34(4): 257.

Evola, J. (1993) Metafisica del sesso, Edizioni Mediterranee.

Jenkins, J. L. (2005) Searching High and Lo. Unholy Quests for Lolita, Twentieth Century
Literature, 51(2).

Kierkegaard, S. (1997) The Seducer’s Diary, with a foreword by John Updike, Princeton University Press.

Nabokov, V. (1995) Lolita, Afterword by Craig Raine, Penguin Books. Copyright The Journal of Humanistic Studies, 2009

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