“Lolita”: the undeniability of aberrant desire



I’m rereading Lolita and am struck by how incredibly accurate a depiction of aberrant infatuation and aberrant desire it is. The way the Humbert senses through a “widow’s web” (so rich!) the every movement of everyone in the house relative to his main focus Lo, diminutive of Dolores,* last name “Haze,” who is lost to Humbert when he attempts to fill in the space around her, to give her context so tight it defines her form, and so focuses on everything but the reality of her, the reality of the object of desire: the reality of the situation which makes the desire aberrant–and thus makes it undeniable. The way he, similarly, can’t describe her retrospectively, even or in his moments of contact with her, or, for that matter, at any other time. She is so strongly desired that she strains and splinters in his mind under the stress of his preternatural desire. And the way he sees her name on a grade-school class list, amid her classmates in their alphabet hierarchy, and transmutes his private access to this abstract depiction of a substantial bulk of her life into equally abstract notions of closeness to her–again, by charting her context, filling in everything around her, transforming this list of children’s names into a Spenserian bower of bliss.

All those–the widow’s web, the fragmentation, the group of names cum fallen paradise–strike me now as precisely the way one charts and fractures and fantastically plans (every moment of every day when one is awake, and likely too when asleep) one’s Lolita analogue’s every possible future. The way the object of the desire becomes not central to one’s experience, but woven throughout it, constitutive of one’s experience of the world just as oxygen nourishes and sustains one physically and thus becomes a constitutive part of one’s body. Nabokov captures that in way I didn’t believe was possible. The only thing that’d come close before–and it’s still astonishing despite being unseated–is this Carl Phillips poem:


Last night, the storm was
hours approaching.
Too far, still, to be heard.
Only the sky, when lit—
less flashing than
quivering brokenly

(a wing
not any wing,
a sparrow’s)—for a sign.

It seemed exactly the way
I’ve loved you.

The poem gorgeously captures the undeniability, or if you prefer the essence, of aberrant desire. But it also enacts the process of coming upon the essence of that aberrant desire, of reconciling yourself to its undeniability. The poem is, in other words, about reading the poem. Which, more felicitously and coming from another direction, means that merely through sympathy with the speaker, one can legitimize one’s own aberrant yet (and consequently) undeniable desires. Which is of course precisely what Lolita, beautifully, forces one to do.



*Her name is not only pain but literally a “[painful] Haze,” a stifling ether in one sense and an act of extreme violence–in the name of initiation into some dark order–in another. “The fog makes one ache,” says her name, but also “a painful ritual of initiation into something almost always at some level desired by the pained.” Her name is literally “suffocating.” But it is also both “education” and “subversion,” and both “mentoring” and “sodomy.” Her name is astonishing.


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