My experience reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was a pleasant one, an aesthetic experience that, as Susan Sontag states, appealed to my consciousness. Sontag suggests that art is better understood as something that "enliven[s] our sensibility and consciousness" rather than as a blanket statement of moral code. In other words, genuine works of art operate within the aesthetic sphere of experience and do not aim at antagonizing consciousness or action. However, while my reading of Lolita was enjoyable and moral, it was not without its challenges. In fact, several times I had to wonder at the character of Humbert and his perspective and whether his thoughts and actions revealed anything to me about myself. In this paper I will examine the meaning of my experience reading Lolita in light of Sontag's assertions about morality and aesthetic pleasure and show why Nabokov's book may be viewed as a genuine work of art that is moral and promotes the awakening of consciousness.
The first reason I believe Nabokov's book is moral is the fact that it is written in such a splendid poetic style. Nabokov uses poetic prose to illuminate scenes and elevate language. Reading it is like listening to music. It is an engaging exercise of the mind simply to follow along with the author's use of language. "The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta" (Nabokov 9). I find the alliteration and the consonance to be enthralling and hypnotic: it draws one into the novel so quickly that before you know you are in the midst of a murderer/pedophile. This sudden and surprising revelation may be why some readers are so shocked and so quickly call the book immoral. They are unused to finding themselves in such unapologetic company. Yet, to me, it appears that Humbert knows that he is diseased -- even if he attempts to place the responsibility of that disease on Lolita rather than on himself. (He does call his/her "sin" and his "soul") (9).
But Sontag appears to have the answer for those who doubt whether keeping company with such a villain can be morally acceptable. Sontag states that "it is sensibility that nourishes our capacity for moral choice." What Nabokov suggests through Lolita is that we must not lack the necessary sensibility to process the aesthetic experience that he presents us. Humbert is one who lacks the necessary sensibility to see that he himself is misguided. His use of language is so seductive that it is easy for the reader to suddenly see Humbert as their "tragic" hero and Lolita as the seductress. However, the characters are unfit for either role. The moral reader is the one who allows his consciousness to process the information that Nabokov presents to him in the book and not to be fooled by any poetic devices Humbert might employ to tell his strange tale of obsession. The engagement of the mind with the work is what enables the moral process to occur.
Lolita, after all, offers the clues to how I came to understand Humbert. Humbert recalls Lolita's resistance of his advances: "You would give me one look -- a gray furry question mark of a look: 'Oh no, not again'…for you never deigned to believe that I could, without any specific designs, ever crave to bury my face in your plaid skirt…" (Nabokov 192). What I see in scenes like this is the sensual longing of Humbert for the girl-child Lolita, who does not quite understand his longing or what he desires of her. She is only now coming of age and awakening to her sexuality.
Sontag's view that morality is a code that comes into being with consciousness may be applied to Lolita, whose awakening to consciousness (so to speak) coincides with Humbert's desire for her. Like any great work of art, Lolita acts as a mirror, a satire: it reflects the world around it. What Nabokov does with Lolita is hold the mirror up to a culture that is as obsessed with seeming prudish as it is with consuming that which is pornographic. It is not the theme that disturbs us -- it is the fact that it touches a nerve in us: we fear that Humbert represents us.
Thus, Nabokov challenged me to assess Humbert and myself. As Sontag asserts happens when the mind is engaged in aesthetic experience, my consciousness began to awaken and I needed to understand these characters and their choices and how I was being affected by them. Could I sympathize, empathize? Should I condemn? Was that the moral thing to do? Sontag implies that morality is not the act of condemning but rather the act of understanding. Therefore, for me to explain why I found the experience of reading the novel to be morally meaningful, I should explain what I understood about the novel.
Lolita at times appears as the personification of a mythologized sexuality -- at least to Humbert. Or, a better description of the way in which Humbert and even I myself, I must admit, saw her was as Eros. But this was a mistake on my part. I would begin to see things the way Humbert saw them, and then there would be scenes that would remind me of the reality of Lolita -- that she was not a goddess or a temptress but a girl-child, the sudden obsession of a man with a penchant for young girls. As I read, it seemed that this was what she appeared to be to Nabokov as well: she is a human girl -- no goddess, no temptress, and surely no deviant -- merely a girl, whose sexual awakening happens to draw the attention of a man who has submitted his intellect to his passions. Humbert's appeal to poetic devices disguises this fact and is an attempt by him to view his actions as moral and pure. But the reader is in a better position to judge. That is what I realized in light of Sontag's "On Style" -- I am in a better position to judge simply because I know I do not have to judge: I neither need to accept nor reject Humbert and his tale. All I must do is understand it.
If the novel Lolita performs, as Sontag suggests, a "moral task," it may be found in the "aesthetic experience" -- "the awakening of the feelings," as Sontag describes them. Aristotle similarly described the task of drama: he asserted that drama should produce a cathartic effect. This appears to be the conclusion that Sontag wishes to express. Through an aesthetic experience, works of art like Lolita can help bring "grace" and "intelligence" to the reader and enable the reader to develop a better "moral response to life" (Sontag). The moral response that the reader might develop from the meaning of Lolita may be understood in light of Nabokov's object in writing it: he viewed Lolita as a heroine, not as a temptress. The novel was written from the murderer Humbert's perspective not because Nabokov sympathized most with his perspective -- but because it was the one from which he simply chose to approach the story. To better understand the meaning of the novel, therefore, it certainly helps to better understand Humbert.
I view Humbert as he views himself: as a kind of second Adam: in other words, as pure as Christ. Thinking himself a second Adam (free of sin) is as dangerous for Humbert as it would be for me were I to follow in Humbert's thinking. To see such a position manifested on the page, with all its gruesome consequences realistically and psychologically depicted, does shock -- as Nabokov intended. I see…