Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001254, Tue, 27 Aug 1996 10:15:51 -0700

:Dolorology: Lolita To Blame? (fwd)
From: Mary Robinson <J.Goodenough@uea.ac.uk>

The chances of the upcoming film of 'Lolita' getting any
kind of release in the cinema or (especially) video in the
UK may not be too good. Yesterday's national press carried
an astonishing and vituperative assault on the film, the
book, and Nabokov himself, by leading Anglo-Catholic and
right-wing commentator William Oddie. This appeared not in
any minority journal but in Britain's biggest-selling
middle-brow Conservative (and conservative) national
newspaper, the 'Daily Mail' (daily circulation in excess of
1.5 million), as one of a regular series of 'why-oh-why'
articles (usually by Paul Johnson) tracing the decline of
modern British society to the permissive society, the
sixties, the Beatles, the fifties and 'angry young'
playwrights like John Osborne, and even (I kid you not) the
acceptance of jazz music in British Society back in the

This might be a joke in rather poor taste were it not for
the remarkably offensive and thick-headed nature of the
article, and the fact that the Mail has a record as a
campaigning newpaper (they recently bludgeoned the
Conservative government into amending a piece of divorce
legislation the Mail thought too liberal, so they are not
entirely without clout here). As usual with moral censors,
Mr Oddie (to judge from the howler about Charlotte he
commits half way through his article) appears not to have
read the book he is condemning too closely. The article

Jerry Goodenough
University of East Anglia
Norwich NR4 7TJ

As an explicit new version of Nabokov's story on one man's
obsession is filmed.....


By William Oddie (Daily Mail 26 August 1996)[Accompanied by
quarter-page photo of Sue Lyons and James Mason from
Kubrick's film]

The latest Sixties revival, Lolita - the story of a
middle-aged paedophile's obsession with a 12-year-old girl -
seems set to reawaken a controversy we all thought was long
The controversy is bound to be all the more intense
today. Forty years ago, paedophilia was not perceived as a
serious social problem or a danger to young people.
Now, we reel from one horrific revelation to the next.
The Belgian government appeals for international
co-operation to crush paedophile rings as the bodies of two
little girls, horribly abused by a child-sex gang, are
discovered. The Internet is awash with paedophile filth.
Very young girls ply themselves for hire on our streets, and
nobody is prosecuted for abusing them.
In the middle of all this, a sexually explicit new film
version of Lolita is to appear, starring Jeremy Irons.
Hardly surprisingly, it has not yet found an American
Ironically, the film's supporters are putting this
reluctance down to 'political correctness', as though
wariness about the theme of child abuse were on a par with
disapproval of smoking in public places.
We are told that only slight resistance to the film's
graphic sex and nudity - involving a 14-year-old actress -
is expected from European censors.
But perhaps the American film distributors have got it
right. Perhaps we should not always assume that it is a bad
thing to forbid such things to be shown, to be reluctant to
allow the unthinkable to be so graphically acted out.
When Nigel Nicolson MP, co-founder of publishing house
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, published Lolita in Britain nearly
four decades ago, his constituents deselected him. It was
the end of his political career.
But, he wrote last week in a newspaper column: 'I had
this consolation - that we had fought against outrage,
humbug, censorship and puritanism, and won.'
He - and others - won that battle, for a generation at
least. But at what cost?
Lolita, as everyone knows, is the story of how a
middle-aged man, Humbert Humbert, marries the mother of a
'flirtatious 12-year-old, a sex kitten, an embryonic Bardot'
(Nicolson's description), then murders her in order to get
sexual access to her daughter.
On the same page as Nicolson's column, apparently
coincidentally, there was a major article about the growth
of child prostitution in our major cities. Girls of 11 and
12 as objects of sexual desire are now big business in our
debased culture. Lolita is on the streets.
Have we learned nothing? It is surely harder and harder
to argue against the proposition that the battle over Lolita
did more to make it intellectually respectable to think of
very young girls (nymphets, author Vladimir Nabokov called
them, and the word significantly passed into the language)
as objects of sexual desire than any other single event in
this country.
In all sincerity, Nicolson deploys the standard defence
at this point - that Lolita is almost a kind of moral tract
against sexual perversion. Lolita is a tragedy: 'It condemns
its two chief characters,' he argues.
'How could any reader be corrupted by it? It was more
likely to have the opposite effect. A book about immoral
people is not necessarily immoral.'
But Lolita was certainly not moral, either. The book's
tendency to corrupt is that it sidelines morality as being
an irrelevant absurdity - in this it preached the greatest
and most insidious heresy of the Sixties: 'It is forbidden
to forbid'.
Nabokov himself firmly rejected the idea that he had any
moral intention in writing the book, and even wrote a
contemptuous parody of what a moral justification for Lolita
might look like.
Lolita, Nabokov makes a fictional critic write, 'should
make all of us - parents, social workers, educators - apply
ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the
task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world'.
Perhaps this was hilariously funny to the Fifties'
intellectuals who established Nabokov as the most overrated
writer of that or any other decade. But the joke is wearing
very thin.

Nigel Nicolson is scathing about his constituents whom, he
says, accused him (shades of Socrates) of corrupting the
young. But the question now has to be: Have these old Tory
fuddy-duddies not been abundantly proved right? - and not
only about the young.
For the book's opponents also claimed that it would
corrupt the middle-aged potential Humbert Humberts, who in
Nicolson's incredulous words would 'look at little girls
with a new eye'.
Well, the fact is that now they do precisely that, and in
large numbers. And it is not just the wretched men who
cruise the back streets of Birmingham looking for 'young
flesh' we need to worry about - the paedophile mentality has
affected our entire culture.
Consider, for instance, its effect on the fashion
industry, which more and more, it seems, looks 'at little
girls with a new eye', touching up their faces with paint
and dressing them up in clothes which are designed to
attract sexually, selling the clothes they model through a
potent mixture of innocence and sensuality which amounts
almost to a visual definition of the word 'corruption'.
What happened can, surely, hardly be in doubt. The
publication of Lolita contributed directly to the creation
of a climate of opinion which saw all sexual inhibitions as
bad in themselves, and in which the idea that there was any
such thing as sexual deviancy was itself part of a culture
which had to be destroyed.
The famous Kinsey reports into male and female behaviour
in America (now largely discredited) were designed to
undermine traditional sexual morality by proving what Kinsey
wanted to prove - that, in his words, 'there are no sharp
divisions between normal and abnormal, between right and
The publication of Kinsey was a milestone towards
installing this nightmare vision as normality. The
publication of Lolita was another.
It was made possible in England by Roy Jenkins's first
legislative success - achieved, let it not be forgotten,
with the support of a Tory Government - the private member's
Bill which became the Obscene Publications Act 1959. The
effect of this (not perhaps obvious to everyone who voted
for it) was to make violence and obscenity virtually
impossible to prosecute.
The following decade saw an avalanche of 'reforming'
legislation, leading to what many called 'the permissive
society', but which Jenkins called 'the civilised society'.
This he defined as 'a society based on the idea that
different individuals will wish to make different decisions
about their pattern of behaviour, and that... they should be
allowed to do so within a framework of understanding and
Lolita was the first fruit of this 'civilised society'.
The police considered prosecuting its publishers. Jenkins
noted, with fastidious distaste, the attitude of a
reactionary police officer who thought Lolita should be
proceeded against because 'it was in his view a sordid story
of an oldish man taking advantage of his 12-year-old
step-daughter'. The prosecution never took place.
But was that police officer so very wrong in his
assessment? How many stepfathers have sexually molested
their stepdaughters because of the more 'understanding and
tolerant' atmosphere helped along by, among other things,
the publication of Lolita?
Even the great ultimate defence of the literati - that of
'literary merit' - is surely, at this date, hard to sustain.
Consider the following passage, at once prissily pretentious
and viscerally repulsive. The scene is a swimming pool full
of nymphets.

'Pubescent sweetheart! How smugly would I marvel that she
was mine, mine, mine... and slitting my sun-speared eyes,
compare Lolita to whatever other nymphets parsimonious
chance collected around her for my anthological delectation
and judgement; and today...
'I do not think that any of them ever surpassed her in
desirability, or if they did, it was two or three times at
the most...once in the hopeless case of a pale Spanish
child... and another time - mais je divague.'
This tortured prose is Nabokov's idea of good English
style (Frech phrases occur from time to time in this way to
raise the literary tone).
Enough is enough. Let us be sure that the new, authentic,
honest, fearless and explicit film version of this dreary
and poisonous tract for our misbegotten times gets its just
reward - critical obloquy and a box-office disaster.
History has come full circle. Let the Sixties at last
sink finally into their unquiet grave.