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On a book entitled “Lolita”

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Scott has posted a couple of things referencing John Hockenberry’s appalling Harper’s essay (Breaking news: Ian Buruma’s decision to let serial sexual abuser Jian Ghomeshi publish a similarly appalling not-mea culpa in the NYRB has apparently cost him his editorship of the journal. I would hope whoever edits Harper’s is as uneasy right now as Brett Kavanaugh’s high school and college and law school and clerkship etc. drinking buddies have every reason to be).

Here I want to focus on another aspect of the affair.  Hockenberry’s 7,000-word essay is one of the most cringe-inducing things I’ve ever read, but I recommend slogging through it anyway, because it is truly a prototypical artifact of what I suspect may come to be remembered as the Age of Narcissism.

If you’re still in a state of disbelief, as I am, that Donald Trump is president of the United States, you may find some indirect evidence as to why in the fact that Harper’s decided it was a good idea to present this astonishing document to the world between its venerable covers.

And although there is much more to be said about this literary train wreck, I’m going to limit myself for now to two comments.

First, Hockenberry seems to be under some sort of delusion that he has the right to keep making a lot of money by doing what he’s been doing for about 40 years now (journalism in various forms).  He was fired from his job in August of 2017 — technically speaking his contract wasn’t renewed — and he has had trouble finding work since.

This may come as a big surprise to John Hockenberry, but here are some perfectly legal reasons for getting fired from your job in this country:

Because your boss thinks that Sally here would do it just as well for a little less money.

Because your boss is mad that you didn’t vote for Donald Trump.

Because your boss wants to give your job to his nephew.

Because your boss decided to fire a random employee this morning pour encourager les autres.

Etc.

Hockenberry according to his own account (this is what lawyers call viewing the evidence “in the light most favorable to the defendant”) got fired for at a minimun being very difficult to work with — for being an egotistical bully who was a giant pain in the ass to his co-workers on many, many occasions. (As Scott points out, he was apparently also bad at his job in other ways, unrelated to his treatment of women per se).  Again, that HIS version.  That version allows himself to give himself a complete pass on all the sexual harassment he totally didn’t commit because women don’t read Byron anymore what with their smartphones and instagrams and casual attitude toward oral sex (Seriously, read the whole thing, I double dare you).

Being an extremely difficult person to work with is actually a great reason for getting fired. One of the very best in fact. It’s also a great reason for not getting hired again into a similar position.  Lots of people get fired every day in the Land of At Will Employment for vastly worse reasons, but they don’t get to whine about it at almost endless length in the pages of Harper’s.  Jesus.

Second, the Lolita stuff.

Now I want to say upfront that I think Lolita is a great but fundamentally problematic book.  Nabokov is a fantastic prose stylist and an acute social observer, but it’s impossible — or should be impossible — to escape the fact that Lolita in some inescapable sense exploits the serial rape of a child by her stepfather for aesthetic purposes.  This should make even the most admiring readers uneasy.  Perhaps that uneasiness is part of the book’s point, but as I say it’s a deeply problematic work.  (For those who haven’t read it, the book has no pornographic content; the problem is the plot itself).

One of the most interesting aspects of Lolita is that the narrator, Humbert Humbert, while a monstrous narcissist who indulges his continual self-obsession to the point of an almost metaphysical solipsism, is occasionally — very occasionally — granted by his creator the ability to remember that Dolores Haze is actually a human being in her own right, as opposed to a daemonic creature who has “seduced” him, which is the transparently ridiculous self-justification Humbert employs over and over again to explain why it’s both understandable and forgivable that a 37-year-old man has been raping his 12-year-old stepdaughter literally every night for several months.

Indeed there are passages in the book that I find almost physically painful to read, such as this one, that comes after a wonderfully evocative several-page description of Humbert’s and Dolly’s travels across mid-20th century America:

We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.

Or this:

I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mais je t’aimais, je t’aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one. Lolita girl, brave Dolly Schiller.

Or this:

And I still have other smothered memories, now unfolding themselves into limbless monsters of pain. Once, in a sunset-ending street of Beardsley, she turned to little Eva Rosen (I was taking both nymphets to a concert and walking behind them so close as almost to touch them with my person), she turned to Eva, and so very serenely and seriously, in answer to something the other had said about its being better to die than hear Milton Pinski; some local schoolboy she knew, talk about music, my Lolita remarked: ‘You know what’s so dreadful about dying is that you’re completely on your own’; and it struck me, as my automaton knees went up and down, that I simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile cliches, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate – dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions.

Or this, which takes place after Dolly has finally escaped Humbert’s clutches, and he finds himself on the side of a Colorado mountain, looking down into a valley after puking his guts out:

What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic—one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.

And what does John Hockenberry make of all this?

Lolita, once a novel about a man powerless to control his lusts and lorded over by a tragic teenaged sexual superhero, today feels like a literary invitation to rape the powerless girl intern whose attractions are claimed by the patriarchy in the form of a middle-aged, all-powerful white male. . .

Again, I do not dispute the sources of the anger from centuries of gender inequality. I do question as dubious the value of letting anger stifle a language of reconciliation between men and women. Lolita, in the end, had nowhere to go, Nabokov writes again and again in his novel. To my great surprise, in 2018 I find myself identifying with Lolita, her innocence lost along with any identity other than sexual. I say that knowing it may bring down a wrath from my critics and accusers much greater than what I have endured up until now.

This is the reading of a literary and moral imbecile.  That a high-status 62-year-old white man, for the moment out of steady work because he got fired from his extraordinarily privileged sinecure for doing a terrible job, “identifies” with a 12-year-old girl who has been kidnapped and serially raped by her stepfather . . . I mean what can you say, really?

These days to open a magazine or turn on a television is to often be confronted with levels of obscene narcissism that make Humbert Humbert look like a model of moral self-reflection.

 

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