Integrity in the Triune

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According to Plato the integrity of any given thing is made up of three separate but overlapping properties--truth, beauty, and goodness. Lacking one of these three, an object cannot have integrity in an objective sense. But one of these three overrides the other two--if a beautiful and truthful seeming object lacks goodness, then it is neither beautiful nor truthful. However, an object can lack perceptible beauty and still be good and truthful and hold its integrity. Likewise an object or idea can lack seeming truth (at least truth as we're inclined to recognize it) and still be good and beautiful (and these might be clues to its truth.)

This idea, as poorly articulated as it is here, is important in dealing with "important" works of literature and film that lack one of these dimensions. During our book-group meeting yesterday, we discussed Reading Lolita in Tehran as something worth our attention. And I asked the question, "Why Lolita?"

The problem with Lolita is central and not avoidable. Nabokov writes a well-constructed even beautiful story around an essentially immoral, sinful center. The point is not to condemn Humbert Humbert for his depredations--and, given modern parlance, there is even some implication that Lolita is responsible in some way for her own despoiling. This is repugnant to the sensibilities and renders the novel an aesthetic nightmare, being beautiful and true (within itself) but lacking any core of objective goodness outside of the writing itself.

It is possible to construct good and worthy fiction around essential immoral acts, but it is always necessary to emphasize the objective immorality of the central act for the work to have integrity. I think here of both Anna Karenina and The Scarlet Letter. In Anna Karenina there is the struggle with Anna's adultery and love of Vronsky which ultimately results in tragedy. So, too, with Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter the essential message is not that Hester Prynne's adultery is excusable but that Dimmsdale should have suffered similarly. It is only Hester's nobility of spirit and independence that protects him from being ousted from the community.

But Lolita and works like it--we would do well to warn the world that no matter how lovely the surface, the core is corrupt. We would do well to remember ourselves that Satan may often appear as an Angel of light. But we must balance that impulse with the impulse that judges all things by their appearances, condemning The Scarlet Letter for the same reasons as one might condemn Lolita. The aesthetic and moral impulses that drive the two are completely different.

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Well, I guess we must assign "Hamlet" to the ashheap, then? Unless you can show me a moral center to that play that is not readily apparent to me.

Dear Rob,

If you can't identify it yourself, I'm afraid I won't be of much help to you. But you might start with "Vegeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, I will repay" conflicting with "Honor thy father and thy mother." And what happens when the former is violated.

And even if it did have to be so consigned--"If thine right eye offend thee, pluck it out." There is a great deal that we really don't need on the way to salvation, and a great deal that serves more to distract from it. If Hamlet is one of those things for you, I suggest you forego it. But to compare the problems of Hamlet with the exaltation of pedophilia (Lolita) really does tend to take the matter by the wrong end.



Hamlet: Murders, betrayals, abandonments, incest, suicide, and none of it cause for the ultimate seeking of redemption. At the end, most everyone's dead, and nobody has learned a thing, with the possible exception of the audience.
In this, Hamlet functions in the same way that Lolita functions.
To me, they are both extraordinarily good works, and I would not change either of them. Lolita is anything but an apology for pedophilia.

DEar Rob,

I don't buy it; I've always wanted to, but never have.

Nabokov's work blames Lolita as much or more than it does Humbert. There is no redemption, nor anything uplifting about the work.

So, because I would like to see in this work what some others evidently do see, I'd appreciate it if you would drop me a private line on this thread. Perhaps if I can get over a systemic uneasiness regarding the work I could enjoy it more. And given your view of things, you would be a most trusted guide. My instincts are not always spot-on, and my sensitivities are very, very highly charged for some things. But if you think Hamlet and Lolita are in any way comparable, then it is worth follow-up.



Both works are cautionary. Both works display to the horrified fascination of the audience, the depths to which human beings can sink if they attempt to "play it by ear" rather than being guided by strong and consciously held moral principles.
In Hamlet, every character is a victim, and every victim is to blame. It's no different than Lolita in that respect. Lolita is precociously sexually active and consciously seduces Humbert in order to torture him. For his part, Humbert is a wanna-be seducer of "nymphets" which weakness makes him easy prey for Lolita. There are lessons to be learned from the observation of these things, just as there are lessons to be learned from watching the anguished indecision of Prince Hamlet, which also results from a lack of moral rootedness.

I think that it is unfair to think that Lolita is an immoralist work. This would not jibe well with the body of Nabokov's work. A quick google turned up many essays on Nabokov as a moralist, from one of which I clipped this paragraph:

Nabokov as Moralist

For many students of twentieth-century literature, Nabokov's work is understood as purely aesthetic, in both content and concern. He is amaster of language and technique in both Russian and English, but his work is not viewed as having a moral dimension. For those who do not know his work well, who may be familiar with the reputation of Lolita (but may not have read that novel), the name Nabokov conjures up the image of an aging rouè, perhaps a cleaned-up Charles Bukowski, an aging litterateur inexorably drawn to prepubescent girls (a view enshrined in the Police song "Don't Stand So Close to Me": "It's no use, he sees her, he starts to shake and cough / Just like the old man in that famous book by Nabokov"). Careful scrutiny of Nabokov's life and work, however, reveals a deeply moral man and a profoundly moral body of work. Nabokov noted in his journal: "There are moral principles passed down from father to son, from generation to generation."2 He strove to express these moral principles in his fiction—and in his life.

Dear Rob,

I cannot agree that it is unfair. It is perfectly valid to judge a work qua work and not to judge it as representative of a life. Moreover, other critics are in profound disagreement with the evaluation you put forward.

To suggest that it is unfair is to suggest that the aesthete critics have nothing on which to base their opinions, and given my review of Nabokov's own published statements about his work, I would side with the aesthete's. He over and over again professed no interest whatsoever in propounding "moral fiction." For him it was all "the art."

So, while I will agree that it can be viewed in many ways, I will not lable a view that Nabokov himself encouraged as unfair to him.

Moreover, as to your previous, the is an air of prurience and a surfeit of detail in Lolita that leaves me distinctly uncomfortable with giving it a pass or comparing it to Hamlet. You may have like the work or had a very good professor explicating the work, but it is at best, problematic, and at worst amoral or immoral. As to the last, I don't venture to say, but my experience so far (I've read it once and tried again when everyone told me how wonderful it was) supports this view.

I'll look again, but only after I've had time to assimilate some of the things you've written here and only when I feel that I could give Nabokov a fair hearing. The review of his work in both Smiley's book and in Harold Bloom do not suggest the elements of high morality you seem to find in the work. And as I know you somewhat more personally, your opinion carries a good deal more weight. It will just take time to steel myself to the task of not being offended by the subject matter.

Thanks for writing.



I don't claim that Nabokov was in the practice of writing "moral fiction" in the John Gardner sense. I am only saying that he was not writing fiction, including Lolita, for starkly prurient reasons. Lolita is satire. It is very funny, and actually not very erotic at all. It does not, at any point, flout morality per se while depicting the breakdown of personal morality.
But my point about Hamlet stands. What direct moral message does Hamlet impart in the midst of all the moral degradation that is dramatized?

I guess ultimately what I'm saying is that I don't much like your choice of Lolita to illustrate your point. I might more easily accept The Tropic of Cancer or even Portnoy's Complaint as examples of "literary fiction" that use sexual material largely for its shock value and, at the time of publication, to push the envelope. Like Lolita, both are funny, and both are satirical, but both are much more over the top than is Lolita. Or is it primarily the pedophilia that concerns you?

Dear Rob,

You hit the nail on the head. Not only is it pedophilia, but because of the portrait of Lolita herself it is "justified." A twelve year old who has been abused may be capable of seduction; however, it is up to the adult who is being seduced to resist that.

To my mind, the prurience and shock value of both of the other works you mention are actually nil. The points of both books would vanish without that information within. Moreover, we're generally talking the run-of-the-mill sexual encounter that is implicit in Tolstoy, Hardy, Smollett, and others, made explicit. I find little difficulty with that treatment.

What disturbs me profoundly about Lolita is the kind of giggling prurience and justificaiton of Humbert Humbert's whole approach by Lolita's "sluttishness." I see this as a "blaming the victim" strategy.

Sexual immorality is a sin. But sexual immorality directed at a child and then blamed on the child is too horrendous for any words.

THAT is the issue for me. And I think Nabokov made a point that he used this whole situation for aesthetic effect. When I wrote about him writing "moral fiction" I was not using the phrase in the Gardner terminology. Nabokov was saying that he did not write for a moral purpose.

To proclaim him as a highly moral writer because his life was exemplary is simply not judging the writing on its own merits. There are probably a great many very highly moral pornographers. If one went to their homes, they would find typical suburban families and no evidence of anything whatsoever immoral.

I'm sorry you don't like my choice; however, until I am convinced otherwise--and I may well be--it will stand. At such time I will, as I have done in the past retract it. But for the present, I think Nabokov gets to easy a pass on this particular item--too many apologists for it.

As I said to you before, I trust your judgment. What you say is very probably true. And I will look at it as objectively as I can. However, I can't honestly look at it just now as witness the statements above.

As to Hamlet, I find it very easy to see the morality of the writing because Shakespeare is only one step removed from both the revenge play and the morality play.

"What a piece of work is a man. . ."



I can certainly understand your point of view. It's been some time since I've read Lolita myself, and perhaps my reaction to it would be different now than my memory of it suggests.

Dear Rob,

I have to be honest, and it may be that my initial distaste and dislike has been so colored by recent pedophilia scandals in the Church and elsewhere that I'm blowing an issue out of all proportion. That's why I say that I trust your good judgment enough to want to go back and see what everyone else sees in the novel. I really do. But I also know that some part of me is too reactive to be fair. When I go back, I want to do so with relatively little doubt about the work forward in my head.

I don't react this way to other books or works of literature. But then, Michael Jackson, whatever he may have been doing, does not get a pass from me either. And I have some harsh words for parents who let their children hang around Mr. Jackson even if his encounters with the children are as innocent as he and his spokespersons paints them.

I guess I just dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist enough that some things are never fair game--and Lolita ventures into that territory.



But virtue, as it never will be moved
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel linked
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.

Shakespeare, HAMLET

Does Lolita contain any such prose to inspire us to refrain from destructive lust?

An interesting discussion. I am also troubled by Lolita, but I have a question to ponder.

The novel is told in the first person by Humbert so could we assume he is what literary critics refer to as an unreliable narrator? We only have his word for it that Lolita seduced him. As you yourself said this is a "blaming the victim" strategy. But who is blaming the victim, Nabakov or Humbert?

One of my frustrations as a teacher of literature is with students who are unable to separate the author's values from those of a narrator. The classic example is Swift's A Modest Proposal. There's always a handful of students who don't understand the distinction between Swift the author and the unnamed narrator. They think Swift is advocating cannibalism when in fact he is more repelled by the prospect than some of the students.

If Lolita is a satire as the previous commentor claimed, then we would have to make a distinction between the values of the author and the values of the narrator. It is possible Nabakov is as repelled by pedophilia as you are but is simply painting a psychological portrait of the interior workings of such a person. Of course, that begs the question of why he should do so and whether such a portrait is useful or good. But at least it sets up a different line of inquiry.

I look forward to seeing your response.

Also, I was hoping when I first saw this entry that you'd write some about your impressions of Reading Lolita in Tehran. I read it lst year and like you I asked why Lolita. But I rather liked the book.

Dear Melanie,

Thank you. You and Rob are asking just the right sort of framing questions to help me gain perspective on the issue. Of course, you are correct with regard to Humbert. You also bring up the question of why such a portrait of such a man. I think this is also something to consider. However, armed with this set of questions I can go forward to look at the work in a different light. There are some things that shake one loose from the ability to be completely objective.

I didn't comment on Reading Lolita in Tehran because I haven't read it yet. Believe it or not, the choice of which work was just sufficiently off-putting to make it impossible for me to take the book seriously. I've now overcome that hurdle and I'm looking forward to reading it.

I asked Lolita at first, but I recognize that the title has a lilt and a rhythm that it would not have with some other titles. Moreover, I suspect the author wanted to suggest a "transgressive" work that completely demolishes the mores of a repressive muslim regime. What would be more unlikely than a group of women in purdah sitting around and reading Lolita? Certainly Jane Austen doesn't create the same effect. The only thing close might be Henry Miller--and his titles are not particularly appealing. Perhaps it could have been Reading Balthasar in Tehran but it has neither the rhythm nor the ready recognizability as a "transgressive" work. So, I've analyzed it. Whatever the reason for the title, I've now kicked myself around to wanting to read it.

Once again, thank you for your comments. Along with what Rob has said, they do provide a means of focus that may allow me access to a work that, when young simply bored me, and in my present age simply horrifies me.



I think Melanie makes an excellent point. When you read Lolita, you come away knowing that Humbert Humbert is a pathetic and contemptable figure; you certainly don't want to make the mistakes he made. Much the same is true of Hamlet. Though perhaps less contemptable, he is no role model. The unfortunate message of both Lolita and Hamlet is that each is a powerful work of art because we are able to identify with their anti-protagonists (if that is a legitimate term). What is most horrifying to us is what we see in ourselves and in our society, once we admit that we understand Hamlet, or Humbert, and the contexts in which they move and act (or fail to act). Art treats of unpleasant, painful, depraved, and repulsive themes because life itself is replete with these things. Dare we, as moral agents, just look away and pretend they don't exist? Recent highly publicized sting operations shown on television have exposed just how many Humbert Humberts there are among us. Jesus did not avoid coming in contact with the morally sick and the crippled; nor should we, I think.

It's been a while since I read the book, but as I recall Lolita doesn't actually play as much a part in the story as, say, Pride and Prejudice so I think you are exactly right with your guesses as to why that title.

In fact as I recall I was initially put off by the book for the same reasons. But it was given to me as a gift and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
I was expecting a fairly feminist screed on the oppression of women but it was much more an exploration of literature, the juxtaposition of Western and Eastern values, the lives of ordinary women in an extraordinary time (the revolution in Iran.) I especially liked that the author was a professor of literature like me.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on July 23, 2006 12:33 PM.

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