“My sin, my soul”. How Lolita can help us understand our sexual predators

It’s a week the BBC hopes passes quickly, with other news becoming more dominant but the publication of Dame Janet Smith’s report on the sexual abuse carried out by Jimmy Saville will mean a permanent record is now part of it’s history.

The media is full of comment and opinion.  I have only a small thing to add to this; I worked for the BBC in radio and television during the 1990s and early 2000s and I never saw or heard of any inappropriate sexual behaviour. I don’t know if this is because the people involved had moved on, if the management had addressed it (covered it?) already, or whether I was just lucky to avoid it – it is a huge organisation.

An attraction to pubescent girls. Accommodated in culture for centuries, and though now considered more revolting than romantic; it’s still around us, lurking and sleazy and harmful. Whatever the social mores of your community/conscience, in the UK, sexual acts with a minor are illegal. Some of the perpetrators are even getting caught; it’s been a year for jailing: “entertainers” Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall,  the ever-alarming “grooming rings” and possibly soon; footballer Adam Johnson.

The current day news stories of sexual predators appear to make the boundaries clear; grooming of teenagers is wrong; permitting your 15 year old daughter to sleep with her boyfriend at home, maybe not. It seems modern moral codes blur depending on where the balance of power and control lies…

Nabokov saw this quite clearly over 60 years ago. His classic novel “The confessions of a white, widowed, male” or Lolita as it’s more commonly known was published in 1955 (and immediately banned). In its frank discussions of forbidden desire and sexuality, Lolita was revolutionary for its time. The aim was to look at the darker side of sexual attraction and find the boundaries of acceptability.  In-so-doing Nabokov created 2 literally characters that live on in our minds today – Humbert Humbert and Lolita.  The novel broke uncharted territory; it was considered controversial and uncomfortable… and it’s still considered so today.

 

Lolita (1997) directed by Adrian Lyne

 

Humbert Humbert is a European intellectual adrift in America, haunted by memories of a lost adolescent love. When he meets his ideal nymphet in the shape of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, he constructs an elaborate plot to seduce her, and so begins the entwining of two dysfunctional lives and the many events that will lead to tragedy for them both.

Lolita is filled with sordid subjects, including rape, murder, pedophilia, and incest. Humbert is a pedophile and a murderer. So why is the book so revered? Because the author is a master of language, it’s Nabokov’s skills as a writer (in his non-native English) that turned this into a classic. Nabokov was a master craftsman, a wordsmith who believed that proper language could elevate any material to the level of art. In telling this story, he uses puns, literary allusions, and repeating linguistic patterns turning this dark tale in an enchanting form. Indeed it’s around the writing style that most reviewers frame the praise for Lolita

Here’s the opening paragraph.

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.” Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

But there are other reasons to look again at Lolita.  The novel may also help us today, to understand the development of a sexual predator and the contexts in which they flourish:

Characteristics:

Talented – Nabokov was undoubtedly creatively talented. Reverence of “artists”, people who have a skill most of us won’t ever emulate help to alleviate them out of social norms.

Charmingly manipulative – Humbert seduces his readers as fully and slyly as he seduces Lolita herself. Words are his power, and he uses them to distract, confuse, and charm.  Readers fall for this, they remain sympathetic to the pedophile protagonist and find themselves compelled to read further.  A snake, charmer. We’ve all met them.

Narcissistic – Humbert knows that his proclivities are forbidden by society, so he puts on a highy respectable façade.  He makes the reader believe his feelings for Lolita are an enchantment or spell, closer to magic than to science. He tries to prove that his love is not a mental disease but an enormous, strange, and uncontrollable emotion that resists easy classification. This was an intent, Nabokov wanted readers to view Humbert as a unique and deeply flawed human being, not an insane one. Narcissistic people may love themselves more, but this all- encompassing love can reflect outwards too, beguiling and bewitching other hearts.

Game player – Almost all the characters in Lolita engage in games.This sense of play reinforces the fact that Lolita is still a child and that Humbert must constantly entertain her. Games also distract characters from more serious issues and allow them to hide sinister motives.  Games that start out as innocuous and childlike become sinister manipulations – victims of a sexual groomer or grooming gang know this all to well.

Contexts:

Cultural incompatibility – The interactions between European and American cultures result in perpetual misunderstandings and conflict.  There’s snobbery;  the sophistication and worldliness of Europeans versus the superficiality and transience of American culture. There’s no mutual understanding or acceptance in this love affair. Then there’s a mis- embracing of this “openness” resulting in vulgar behavior – haven’t we recently heard about this in Germany, in Cologne?

Alienation –  Humbert chooses exile and comes willingly from Europe to America, while Lolita is forced into exile when her mother Charlotte dies. Together, they move constantly and belong to no single fixed place. In open, unfamiliar territory, Humbert and Lolita form their own set of rules, where normal sexual and familial relationships become twisted and corrupt. Our recent legal history is full of perpetrators who have disconnected from ordinary society. People who have become so alienated; they no longer fully recognize their morally depraved actions.

Complicity – How much Lolita was complicit in the seduction by Humbert is arguably the key to how the reader ends up feeling about the characters.  The judgement – who is more right or more wrong, Lolita or Humbert? – is left up the individual to decide here.

And so it is in this, the judgement of complicity, that we also judge these high profile sexual predator cases. And this becomes the line the victims are also judged by  – how far where they complicit with their predator? A line they will end up having to live with…

But what is becoming more clear it that a sexual predator can only operate in a society that permits him or her to do so.  This is why the BBC report is important headline news. It’s an attempt to work out it’s own role. And it does give itself a proper telling off – The BBC “…turned a blind eye, where it should have shone a light. And it did not protect those who put their trust in it.” (Rona Fairhead, BBC Trust chairman). But the extent of how much it “allowed” Jimmy Saville to commit his terrible crimes will probably never be truly known.  Many of the key figures are dead or very elderly. Too much time has passed. Memories are hazy, the cultural mores are different. It will now become about the compensation.

Lolita’s classic status is today taken for granted, but it nearly never happened. Initially the novel was rejected by several American publishers, who feared printing it could mean prison. It was first published in France, but many countries then banned it for it’s “filthy” content.  But for all it’s unpalatability, it’s clear Nabokov understood the psychology of a sexual predator. Sometimes we need “art” to show us our dark side. It brings us understanding – 60 years later.

For further reading:

Analysis – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/23/100-best-novels-lolita-vladimir-nabokov-nymphet

Putting pictures to the story: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/designing-lolita 

High brow comment and analysis – Yale University lectures on Lolita by Professor Amy Hungerford.  http://oyc.yale.edu/english/engl-291/lecture-5 

 

 

 

 

 

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