No Desert Island: Towards A Gutsy Aesthetics Via Nabokov

(x-posted to the Valve)

Uh-oh. It’s that time again. Soon, every website remotely dealing with culture, plus a wide variety of magazines, will be talking up their “end of the year” lists. Regardless of your chosen demographic, this affects you: you’re listening to the year in review on NPR, or you’re reading the lists on Pitchfork. You’re reading the New York Times Notable Books for 2006, or you’re reading your own newspaper’s list of the year’s best movies. I will probably be doing all these things, and making lists of my own.

That’s why now seems like the perfect time to raise the troubling question of taste. Can we still talk sensibly about good taste and bad? Is there any way to deal with differences in taste without awkwardness or sudden outbursts of minor violence?

I will do my best to answer these questions, and to suggest why we still need to have discussions about taste. I will also propose an alternative to the uncomfortable moratorium that always seems to arise among those people who, ironically, care the most about art.

1. Lolita

[Lolita is] the record of my love affair with the English language.
-Vladimir Nabokov

It’s just that when a group like Spank Rock achieves a certain status with tastemakers, so much of its ethos remains uncontested and unclear.
-Sean Fennessey, writing for

We might all be better off if Nabokov had never made that pronouncement. I, for one, have the feeling that he is laughing at us from beyond the grave. When Nabokov described his novel in purely linguistic terms, he popularized a form of aestheticism that happens to work perfectly with modern consumer markets, and trapped us within the very patterns of behavior that the novel Lolita seeks to expose and satirize.

This aestheticism offers pleasure in its purest form, based entirely on the playfulness and elegance of language. Lolita, Nabokov reassures us, is not a girl. She is an opportunity for language. She is the occasion for his love affair with English, and our love affair with the resulting book. Naturally, whenever anyone tells you about Lolita, they hasten to relate the same old story about how it initially sickened them, until they fell in love with “the language of it.” If you are particularly unlucky, they will even tack on the quote from John Updike about Nabokov writing “ecstatically.”

Lolita is a novel about a pedophile; it is about convergences between pedophilia and more normal kinds of love, and it is about the extent to which it is possible for a reader who does not share Humbert’s symptom (to borrow psychoanalytic language) to understand his obsession with Lo. It is about the diseased, tyrannical, and insane facets of consuming love.

It can also be considered from a formal perspective. On the basis of its structure and style, Lolita is meticulous, tricky, Romantic, and viciously elitist. The book delights in putting morality and passion at odds; it is riven by an almost Kantian distinction between the solipsistic experience and narration of love, and the beloved as a “thing-in-itself” who should not be appropriated as a means to enjoyment. It is constructed almost like a game, one with intentional “holes” that may signify a satiric, cynical absence of meaning in the work.

Reading through particularly well-known critical responses to Lolita, one finds, instead of these elements, a series of moralizing accounts of the novel, most of which are both convincing and anaesthetizing. For example, Martin Amis compares the relationship between Lolita and Humbert to the relationship between the people of Russia, and their oppressive Communist leaders. This is a reasonable allegorization, but it has the effect of downplaying the criticisms of American society that give the novel so much of its substance.

In Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, the novel becomes a story about “the perverse intimacy of victim and jailer.” Nafisi and her students compare themselves to the girl: “Like Lolita we tried to escape and create our own little pockets of freedom.” While this is a reasonable reading of certain events in the novel, Nafisi has nonetheless taken Humbert’s book and turned into a transparent picture of Lolita. She does not, for example, consider the possibility that Lolita’s “pockets of freedom” are available to us because they are expressions of Humbert’s conscience bringing pressure to bear on what he tells. Above all, Reading Lolita in Tehran makes free use of the frisson of scandal attaching to the text, without allowing even a trace of that scandal to survive in the proferred analysis.

Of course, the moment we turn Humbert into Stalinist Russia, or the government of Iran, or “tyranny” in general, we erase him. As Stephen Metcalf writes in an article for Slate, entitled “Is Nabokov’s Masterpiece Still Shocking?”, “submitting one’s inner life—the unique hazard of one’s personality, the camera obscura of one’s own personal store of memories—to a set of deterministic explanations was for Nabokov an indignity on par with the expropriations of the Bolsheviks.” The completely digestible reading of the novel by Nafisi coincides with an ongoing media scare over adults preying on children through the new(-ish) medium of the Internet. The result has been a lot of hype and a renewed interest in surveillance, particularly lifelong surveillance of convicted sex offenders, and the surveillance and restriction of children by parents.

This craze for surveillance is quite different from teaching children practical skills for staying safe, or with a greater investment in treatment and outpatient programs for pedophiles, who are mentally ill. The irony of Lolita‘s greatness, when Humbert is not metaphorized out of existence but remains a man, is that he uses the rhetoric of parental concern to cover his own incessant surveillance of his “daughter.” Keeping Humbert around, without de-clawing him, helps keep us from becoming him.

On the other hand, reading Lolita merely for the beauty of the language exonerates Humbert. He can do anything he likes — seduce a child, kill another person, or simply be unflaggingly nasty –- and we don’t care, so long as his words pass on to us a quantity of thrills. What is then justified, on aesthetic grounds, is the very incuriosity about Humbert that Richard Rorty finds so damnable in the character of Humbert. Even if we make Humbert’s love for Lolita into an abstraction, as Metcalf does in praising the “exquisite particularity” of each person’s experiences and psychic makeup, the novel confounds us with doubts. After all, the reason Humbert finds Quilty so irritating is that Quilty is similar to him, and thus ruins Humbert’s narcissistic enjoyment of his own condition.

Suppose one were to ask the following questions:

• What are the demands made by the novel? (In addition to freedom from tyranny, and the right to innocence, these undoubtedly include passion, exceptionality, and beauty. That is to say that they include what Humbert wants. I am not referring here to the specific symptom of pedophilia.)

• How do Humbert’s crimes satisfy a number of these demands?

• What tools does the novel provide for satisfying these demands differently, without causing harm?

This is the only way to transcend Humbert, something his crimes compel us to do, without erasing or ignoring him.

2. The Pitchfork Effect: Tolerance, Immanence, Transcendence

Humbert’s actions are outside the bounds of tolerance, but Nabokov himself was not, and there was a lot of Humbert in him. To borrow the terms I used to describe the style of Lolita, Nabokov comes across in works like Speak, Memory as “meticulous, tricky, Romantic, and viciously elitist.” Nabokov’s books celebrate this sensibility, and also make the strongest possible critiques of it. This way of creating art is also the best way of interpreting it: to recognize within the work both the elucidation of a Weltanschauung, and the limits and failings of that worldview.

In my post on Paul de Man, I wrote that “in the best satires, we are laughing at our own entanglement in stupidity, madness, and error, which is inevitable given our limitations—our finitude.” Nabokov saw the attractions of his own patrician aestheticism, and he also saw that it was madness. So with each piece of art, one should ask the same questions one asks of Lolita. That way, one reveals two things: first, the immediate necessity of the whole text, pathological or not, and the eventual possibility of transcendence, not towards perfection, but certainly towards a new set of questions.

This means, for each individual, more tolerance of persons and less of texts. My biggest problem with the spate of articles criticizing the Pitchfork site (such as this one at Crooked Timber) is that a simple desire not to be accused of bad taste underlies the other, easily disprovable argument that Pitchfork gives cynically provocative ratings. Henry at Crooked Timber is upset that Pitchfork didn’t smile on the band House of Love. I, on the other hand, like Pitchfork because it is relatively more full of strong opinions than All Music Guide or PopMatters. It is good to be provoked. The exigencies of the moment may mean being as hard on Freud as Nabokov, or being as hard on the Romantics as T.S. Eliot. This is the alternative to the uncomfortable agreement to disagree: Differences in taste ought to be preserved, but preserved as differences of problematic.

In the comments section below Henry’s post, aaron_m writes, “The problem with Pitchfork critics is that they have an adolescent relationship to music. Their musical development has remained at that self-conscious teenage faze where what you listen to defines who you are in a direct and unsophisticated way.”

The “sophisticated” alternative to this is, of course, the idea that music has no relation to who one is, which gets us back to Nabokov’s claim (also implicit in Humbert’s solipsistic narrative) that Lolita is just about a passion for language. By the same token, every piece of music is “about” our passion for music, and not about the specific emotions, lyrics, and style in the music. Dr. Dre, Antonio Vivaldi, Billie Holiday, and Radiohead all boil down to the same thing. Here is the result, as described in the original “Pitchfork effect” post by Matthew Yglesias:

A website that regularly recommended bands that turned out to suck would be a real problem. You’d waste money on albums and shows that you didn’t enjoy. But if the website merely fails to recommend albums that are, in fact, good you won’t notice. You just won’t buy them. Instead, you’ll buy other things that they do recommend. And as long as those things are non-terrible, your life will proceed just fine — you’ll still have plenty of good music to listen to and there won’t be an incentive to seek out alternative opinions.

This is a horribly boring prospect. Is one really supposed to robotically purchase a random collection of recommended albums? So, the eccentric self comes roaring back, with the following motto: “Because I like what I like, all that was bad shall be made good again.” Liberated by its own claim to bad taste, aesthetic identity becomes something fixed, to be celebrated in total obliviousness to its own insufferability. The culmination of this identity myth is the list of books, records, etc that one would want on “a desert island.” In other words, it is only in total, alienated isolation that I can be who I am, the lover of Hamlet and Rubber Soul. This perfectly mirrors the isolation of listening to an iPod; it mirrors the Babel-like divides between medievalists, Victorianists, students of cultural studies, etc. in English departments, not to mention the divides based on philosophical differences. It doubles the amount you have to buy: you have to buy the recommended stuff, because it is “objectively” good, and you have to keep up with the artists that you like “just because.”

Adam Roberts did a good job defining, in his post on Genesis, what is insufferable about the rawk stereotype, as embodied by bands like AC/DC:

But what is more stultifying than the pressure to confirm to the rawk stereotype? You must go out and drink an entire bottle of Jack Daniels whether you like it or not. You must party hard no matter how tired you feel. Because, precisely, the procrustean bed that Rock has become is such that one is not allowed to be nerdy-uncool.

This is true, and very amusing. Unfortunately, every artist, and every imitative stereotype, is insufferable. Jane Austen is insufferable. Mick Jagger is insufferable. Mark Rothko is insufferable. Sylvia Plath is insufferable. Federico Fellini is insufferable. Each of them, taken as an end rather than a means, becomes ridiculously idiosyncratic and repetitive.

We need Nabokov to help us avoid both Scylla and Charybdis. If we give in to the myth of the “love affair with language,” which is also the capitalist myth of total exchangeability, then we cannot ask the text anything. We become monsters of incuriosity, to return to Rorty’s phrase, swallowing so-called “important” culture because it is about Stalin or tyranny or something. In the process, we fail to ask why Humbert should be in love with Lolita. If we compound this by re-discovering our precious identities, then we give in to the “enchanted island of time” (Humbert’s phrase), the desert island where the reading list is fixed and thought has succumbed to the unchanging complex.

Between these lies a more promising method of introspection and struggle. Let’s write end of year lists, or haphazard reflections, that celebrate the moment: its triumphs, its costs, and the horizon of its passing. Understanding those moments in each other is the beginning of real tolerance and productive disagreement.