“What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet–of every nymphet, perhaps; this mixture in my Lolita of tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity, stemming from the snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures, from the blurry pinkness of adolescent maidservants in the Old Country (smelling of crushed daisies and sweat); and from very young harlots disguised as children in provincial brothels; and then again, all this gets mixed up with the exquisite stainless tenderness seeping through the musk and the mud, through the dirt and the death, oh God, oh God.”
–Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
The fastest track toward the most titillating kind of filth often lies in the age-old device of draping it in some universal concept of innocence. This is by no means a plot unfamiliar to us, and we no longer judge ourselves for the feeling of satisfaction derived from an old theme soundly realized even as we are horrified by this innocence’s inevitable corruption. Nabokov’s Lolita is the kind of deliciously despicable novel that gives (and really, should give) responsible adults the sick willies even as they find themselves unable to stop turning the pages. Humbert Humbert, a grown man of worldliness and intelligence, is fixated on the pubescent Lolita to a degree that, while undoubtedly gross, also has the kind of idealistic luminescence that mirrors what adults find charming about children. This makes it very difficult not to sympathize with his character, even as he commits the sorts of crimes that if revealed in real life would result in public outrage. At the novel’s end, we must reassess whether the loss of innocence is perhaps a necessary part of growing up–a part which the seducer, lost in his obsessive dreamworld, has somehow not completed himself. I know that by the end of the book, I inevitably feel sorrier for the ruined Humbert Humbert than the compromised but seemingly well-adjusted adult Lolita.
Perhaps the most fascinating and disgusting part of Humbert Humbert’s inappropriate attraction to his nymphet is his certainty that it has been specifically engineered by her for the purpose of attracting him. To read this book as a grown woman is a leap of faith–I am sure there are few of us out there who have not been around enough men to understand that they all think like that, criminal or Eagle Scout. The point of the book–which is that it takes a special kind of perv to act on this secret everyman certainty with a thirteen year old–is not lost on me. However, the loving detail with which Humbert Humbert recalls every offhand gesture of his Lolita’s as a sexual overture intended for him resonates right between the bones of sorest misunderstanding between women and men. To read Lolita as a woman is to realize all over again that dreadful sense of recognition the first time you heard that boys didn’t really want to be your friend. You don’t really have to be thirteen or dating a pedophile to feel threatened by this.
Scratch what I said earlier about feeling sorry for Humbert Humbert: after completing this novel, I felt far sorrier for myself than any of the characters involved. The whole idea that women are still seen (by men) as passive in their relations with men even while participating in them is scary, upsetting, and completely paralyzing if you, you know, care. It forces you into making an unfair and distasteful choice: rejecting entirely this idea of yourself as some kind of zoo exhibit to be observed and judged and therefore finding yourself constantly misunderstanding and misunderstood by men, or manipulating it to your own advantage, which involves a certain degree of both acceptance and pandering.
On a good day, a safe day, the kind where the men in your life are loving and familiar and supportive, the idea of making this choice seems ludicrous, like something only a desperate woman would even consider. It doesn’t take much to flip a safe day, though. There will be some guy in the park, some offhand comment from a boyfriend about another woman, some line on a TV show, some book like Lolita, some reminder of the way some men really do see women, at least sometimes, perhaps on unsafe days of their own. And in either desperation or a kind of cold-blooded rationality, you will find yourself wondering whether to shave your head entirely or put your hair into some cutesy pigtails. To snarl at the inevitable catcall or to smile. To demand more or trick yourself somehow into needing less. None of this will be what you actually want for yourself. It will be purely defensive. When you realize what you have been doing, it will seem far more humane for a car to come barreling out of a convenient plot device and run you over than to untangle all of this into something you can actually live with. Meanwhile, part of you is still thinking, “poor guy. I make his life so hard.”
I thought I was making peace with this conundrum when I worked in strip clubs. The idea of pandering to an idea of what men wanted from women was comfortable when I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. Before I danced, the male gaze often just seemed inappropriately omnipresent and malignant, something I begrudgingly had to take into consideration while trying to live my life. In the strip club, it was just cut-and-dry commodity. And I felt a hell of a lot safer pandering than rejecting. It is a perfect temporary solution to feeling unsafe. But wait for the resentment to build up. Wait until you see yourself turn into some angry bitch who really isn’t satisfied with anything. Then comes the part where you realize and try to blame yourself for even that in hopes that with claiming responsibility, it will go away. Watch it persist anyway until you find yourself in the middle of a conversation with a man where you are trying to get what you want and he is being resistant and you are getting frustrated and then you look up at him and can see that he’s trying to be on your side, lizard brain and all. He wants the same basic thing Humbert Humbert wanted from Lolita, which is for you to hang out with him so that he can watch you be you up close for awhile, in peace and quiet, but he wants this badly enough to work out the rest of it. After all the shit you’ve been through, thinking about this stuff, this will be simple enough to make you want to scream.
But here’s the point: you’re not Lolita. You’re a good fifteen years away from that, making his interest in you fully legal, mature, normal, and therefore something you should also be able to deal with as an adult. And considering that you’d been identifying with a thirteen year old this whole time, isn’t it maybe time to rewrite yourself out of the one about The Hapless Dude and His Object and into something that suits you a little better?
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