We have little problem when a Dostoyevski brings us up a set of stairs to bury an ax in an old woman’s head. But when Nabokov brings us on a little tour of the United States and has Humbert Humbert bury himself in his insane fantasy of a twelve year old nymphet, we are quick to call Nabokov an immoral pervert who encourages pedophilia. Indeed, when vandals attacked the St.Petersburg museum dedicated to Nobokov, they left a note which read, “How can you remain unafraid of God’s wrath promoting Nabokov’s pedophilia?”
Yet even literate readers level a similar charge against Nabokov.
Just this week, I debated a scientifically-minded philosopher on the topic. He told me that Nabokov is a horrible man for penning such immoral smut. He told me that such a book does not belong on any shelf a teenager might peruse. He admitted that he had not read the book.
Having got his confession, I told him that when my one year old daughter is literate and mature enough, I want her to read the book — the sooner the better. I want her to be wise to the Humbert Humberts of the world.
We should be thankful that we have such a beautiful, moral book as Lolita. We should be thankful we have this first-person account so that we may explore perversion sublimated par excellence. I for one am thankful for having been made wiser to the world for having read this first person account of a cruel, mad mind, driven to divine idolatry.
Countering, my philosopher friend gave an account of a scientific book which gives us to understand how rape is an unsavory impulse embedded in our genetic pattern, and that understanding this scientific account can help us to understand why we should not throw gasoline on that little red coal which burns in the darker corners of the human genome, of hotels, and of Hollywood.
And yet he did not think his scientific book an immoral book. Yet he, like so many, considers Lolita smut, perverse and pornographic.
I pressed him to distinguish why Nabokov’s account of a child rapist is a sick and immoral account, while the scientific account is not.
I asked him if it had to do with presentation, if it had to do with our relation to pronouns, if it had to do with the fact that a scientific account is not given in the first person, but is rather given in the third person or in the passive voice, in which the personal pronoun is neatly and happily hidden, like so many in our culture.
(According to Humbert Humbert, some seventeen percent of men have enjoyed a nymphet — yet Humbert Humbert is not a scientist. He is an unreliable narrator, and Lolita is unreliably narrated.)
My philosopher friend considered, and we have yet to conclude this conversation. Nonetheless, this lively debate led me to think about what we fancy Literature to be, and what we imagine Literature to give us. Scientific Literature, the prejudice goes, gives us knowledge — impersonal, sane and sanitary. Literature Literature, on the other hand, can give us a Humbert Humbert — but not knowledge.
Literature Literature alone can present for us the first person account, alone can present us with precision an individual, and alone can widen our understanding, knowledge, and humanity as the third person or passive voice cannot. Literature Literature can show us with precision what the scientific imagination alone cannot.
“A writer should have the precision of a poet, and the imagination of a scientist.” —Nabokov