THE EXORCISM OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV
There’s no doubt that literature and writing is a form of catharsis. While that is certainly true, I believe that it can be much, much more. Not only is it a form of healing, or an escape, it can be considered an exorcism. We’ve discussed the biological nature of words and ideas and how they can possess; yet, once possessed, how does one rid themselves of this possession? As we saw with Dostoevsky, his exorcism of the doubt and sickness in himself was possible through Smerdyakov’s suicide in The Brothers Karamazov.
When artists have these addictions and impulses it is not uncommon for them to use their art as a means of exorcism, as a means of ‘killing off’ the part of themselves that returns to addiction. Lolita, as Nabokov once said, was more than his affair with the romance novel, it ‘…was a romance with the English language.’
I think it’s much more than that; it was a way for him to exorcise what he believed, either consciously or unconsciously, to be possession. Lolita was that obsession, that idea. Remember Marco Polio, I illustrated how it could be contracted, but for the purpose of this essay, how can it be cured?
In a course at Yale University in May of 2008, American Novels Since 1945, professor Amy Hungerford spent three lectures talking about Lolita, although the second was a guest lecture by Andrew Goldstone, and only freakin’ one lecture talking about a much more complex book by Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49. The first thing she discussed was Vladimir Nabokov’s idea on the autonomy of a work of art, the idea that it could be alive and, transversely, if it could be alive, it could be killed. This reminded me of another of Nabokov’s novels, Pale Fire.
Pale Fire is a lesser known work from later in Nabokov’s career, yet it is revealing. The book is framed as a 999 line poem, the eponymous Pale Fire, by deceased poet John Shade. The poem is between an introduction and a critical study by Shade’s friend, Charles Kimbote; a professor of literature and emigrant from the fictional country of Zembla. This has a close is similar to Nabokov’s own experiences as a professor of literature and emigrant from the fictional country of Russia.
In Pale Fire you have can see Nabokov’s identification with the character of a professor. His annotations of the poem reflect his published works Lectures on Literature, in which he writes about James Joyce, Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Franz Kafka. He also produced Lectures on Russian Literature, which included Gorky, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekov, and Bulgakov. Nabokov was very well read. As a sensitive connoisseur of world literature and essayist, Nabokov shows his acuity and understanding; he understood that art and literature placates a myriad of human needs myriad of human needs.
The best books and works of art allow us to better understand ourselves. By casting Charles Kimbote as a professor of literature in Pale Fire, he inadvertently, albeit subtly, confesses to a guilty secret: although the main character in Lolita may not be Nabokov himself, it is, at least, the personification of Nabokov’s guilt. The confessional nature of the novel is belied by the introduction by John Ray, Jr., Ph.D; in it, a psychologist named Blanche Schwarzmann, is quoted: Blanc is the French word for white while Schwarz is German for black. For linguists, this isn’t even subtle; Dr. Whiteblack. This is thought to be a slight on Freudian interpretations of the novel. I think it could be a playful way of commenting on and circumventing any potential over-analysis of the novel’s content. Nabokov loved these little word-games: a well-known bit of trivia about Lolita is also revealing: Quilty’s mistress is also famously implicative: Vivian Darkbloom—an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov.
Although Nabokov is believed to have gotten the idea for Humbert Humbert’s unique name from Edgar Poe, which may be consciously true, nconsciously, however, I believe it to be an accidental allusion to a more subtle attribute of the relationship between the books’ characters and its author. Quilty, the eccentric counterpart, also falls in love with Lolita. The difference between Humbert Humbert’s reserved obsessions and Quilty’s obsessions are their attitudes; Humbert Humbert is ashamed of his own behavior and sees Quilty as what he is in danger of becoming: indulgent, perverse, hedonistic, and unashamed.
A hint to this possibility is easier to identify in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel, the screenplay being co-written by Nabokov himself. Kubrick did nothing without purpose and the same is true of his shots. So when you see elements of historical importance in Quilty’s home, it is there for reason, a very precise reason. ou can see the elements of historical importance in Quilty’s home. It’s filled with the kind of artifacts one would expect to find in the home of a history professor’s house—in Humbert Humbert’s home.
The last novel I wrote was written during a tumultuous period in my life. I had struggled with addiction to sleeping pills and painkillers since my early teens and had developed a seriously unhealthy habit. The book was originally conceived about six years before it was written. The idea was to do a story about a con-man; he would go from city to city, always giving a fake name and history, and the idea for the novel was for this conman to forget which of his life stories were true and he gradually forgets who he really is.
For me, the title is the impregnation; it gestates in your mind over time. Once I have a title, the novel is conceptually complete in my head within an hour and then, once I have the book cover, to continue to metaphor, I go through a grueling birthing process. You don’t need to have an outline. The important thing is to have a sense of where you’re going, not the exact directions. What came out half a decades later was Nobody, the story of a slave who kills his master, his master’s wife, and runs away, escaping to the north. Along the way, he encounters many manifestations of his slavery.
For the purpose of this essay, I looked for (and found) a paper from a former student in which Nobody is being analyzed:
The name of the slave Neddy is taken from the Sanskrit term Neti Atma, which means Not Myself. Begins to feel guilty after seeing photos, is tormented by the memory of what he has done (murdered the Master and wife) [sic] … Neddy experiences Nirvana for the first time. … The narrative changes from straightforward prose into fragments of Neddy’s thoughts are right over another, disconnected and out of order. … Nobody is beginning to talk as his thought processes begin to break down.
Begins fabricating stories about who he is, feels ashamed (he is trying to escape from what he has done. … Halfway through the book the author began withdrawing from heroin and morphine leading [to] further paranoia and disjointed images. …
All of these obvious associations weren’t so pronounced in my mind during the writing process; none of it was directly connected to drugs; but each character that acts as an intermediate protagonist (the protagonist itself is not an external person or system) can be seen as embodying characteristics of different feelings related to withdrawal.
I’ve said that one of the benefits of schizophrenia is to understand your subconscious.
On the 22nd chapter, I took my last shot. For the first twenty-one chapters, the novel is somewhat straightforward. Once I started writing while going through withdrawals, it inadvertently became an homage to Dante’s metaphysical journey through hell. Except I didn’t have Virgil as a guide; I had one person, my editor Katie Chiles, a bed and a bucket and a notebook. What came out of that pen was not something one would consider coherent writing, but it changed my philosophy in regards to metaphysical writing in creating the inner-world of a character’s mind. When I realized how this was done, Finnegan’s Wake began to make a lot more sense.
The novel ended three weeks after I took my last shot with the Slave committing suicide. I later realized that this was a way of using literature as means through which one’s demons could be excised; it’s how I externalized the addict and killed that aspect of my character, that slave inside of me.
I didn’t think this was a common practice in art and literature. I believed that Dostoevsky’s externalizations were ways of contrasting philosophical perspectives. While that is certainly true I didn’t know at that point the extent of writing’s. Looking back with this perspective made me further consider the idea that Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha, as the mind, body and soul, were intended to parallel the Christian trinity. When I first shared the essay with a friend, a creative writing major, she thought the essay was incomplete. And it was. Smerdyakov’s exclusion in the representation made his character something else: it made him an antagonizing agent of the trinity and most importantly—the lamb on which all sin is leveed in order that its sacrifice brings redemption of the rest of the flock. It was a thematic echo of the Biblical account of Jesus and it made sense for Dostoevsky to draw this analogy; his whole schtick is the necessity for suffering in salvation—something even casual fans and non-readers of Crime and Punishment know about Dostoevsky by now.
Dostoevsky wasn’t fond of the epileptic bastard and atheist Smerdyakov because Dostoevsky was all of these things: he was an epileptic, his father was murdered by servants, and he was an atheist for a time. As such I wasn’t particularly proud to continue selling all of my nice things for drugs or hanging out in rundown apartment buildings where groups of less dead people robotically move from the floor to the flame throughout the day. And Nabokov, being a charming emigrate and professor in upstate New York at Cornell, surely found himself the object of attention and respect of many young and lovely female students.
In the film, the first sign of attraction occurs while watching a horror film when Lolita grabs his hand. It the book, however, the attraction begins because Humbert Humbert of which Lolita was fond. Another difference is substantial in giving credence to this theory: the hotel at which Dolores and the stage-play by Quilty, which Dolores prepares to perform at her school is called The Enchanted Hunter in the book, a reference to Humbert Humbert; in the film, the play is renamed The Hunter Enchanted. This changes the dynamic between Humbert Humbert and Dolores. The Enchanted Hunter puts more emphasis on the hunt; The Hunter Enchanted puts more of an emphasis on the hunter’s enchantment. By enchanting the hunter, it puts a distance between his condition and his goal; while in the book the focus is more on his goal as caused by his condition. In the book Lolita is only used by Humbert Humbert as a pet name, as prey; she is the object of his pursuit. In the film Lolita is a named used by more than one of the characters and the title change alleviates some of Humbert Humbert’s guilt, making the focus on Lolita as a seductress, not Humbert Humbert as a hunter. This title actually suggests she may be conscious of what she is doing, while the other title is only indicative of Humbert Humbert’s desire. With the combination of these two titles, both of them are responsible for what happens.
This isn’t just the result of Stanley Kubrick’s desire to put a personal touch on the adaptation. Nabokov co-wrote the screenplay so, while it is possible that it didn’t occur to Nabokov that Lolita was a confession when he was writing the novel, it is also possible that, upon reflection, Nabokov realized this and shifted the emphasis and blame to the object of desire.
Vladimir Nabokov was a professor of Lit 312 course at Cornell University in upstate New York. Nabokov, as an aging author and academic, would have been highly susceptible to a friendly face, a flattering young woman. Writers, more so than perhaps any other workman, are particularly susceptible to flattery. And there are some very, very lovely young ladies in at Cornell University.
It’s also possible that this assessment only serves to further demonstrate the problem with allegorical extraction and application in the interpretation of popular literature. Lolita is a great book, a work of art and, as I’ve said, the best works of art mean what we, as readers and evaluators, need it to be. And Lolita succeeds for this very reason; it reminds us that our sin is impermanent, soluble through that unique witchcraft art.