NABOKV-L post 0000455, Thu, 2 Feb 1995 12:15:20 -0800

Nabstract: Lavagnino (MLA 1994)
EDITORIAL NOTE: NABOKV-L continues its series of "Nabstracts" of papers
read at the 1994 MLA and AATSEEL meetings. I encourage those presenters
who have not yet submitted their abstract to NABOKV-L and to THE

``Aesthetic Bliss'' and the Reception of *Lolita*

John Lavagnino, Brandeis University

(Abstract of a paper delivered at the Annual MLA Convention, San
Diego, December 1994)

In the afterword to *Lolita*, Nabokov expresses the view that artistry
guarantees morality: this is the idea behind his famous phrase
``aesthetic bliss.'' But this phrase has frequently been misread as
instead referring to the aestheticist position that morality and
artistry have nothing to do with each other. Moreover, because
Nabokov chose not to explain his message or defend the novel's moral
seriousness in the afterword, it was easy in the 1950s to imagine that
readers were meant to approve of Humbert's actions---all the more so
because psychoanalysis was thought to endorse the rejection of sexual
taboos, and modernist artworks were expected to be in the vanguard of
such a rejection. Those who believed that this was *Lolita*'s message
did not generally say so publicly, however, because there were
significant communities opposed to such a message; defenses of the
novel based on ``aesthetic bliss''---in the sense of
aestheticism---were more likely to win consensus, since a belief in
the authority of art was widely shared.

In today's culture, there are many forces that, we might expect,
should work against *Lolita*'s stature: the suspicion of art's effects
that is associated with postmodernism and feminism, and the new
concern with the problem of child abuse. But, while there are some
instances of attacks on the novel's morality, it has on the whole
retained the cultural authority it acquired in the 1950s and 1960s.
Recent critics, however, tend to argue against the idea of ``aesthetic
bliss,'' which (outside the community of Nabokov scholars) is still
generally misunderstood as aestheticism. Such critics reject what
they believe to be Nabokov's interpretation of the novel: in other
words, they reject Nabokov's cultural authority. But at the same time
they continue to reinforce the cultural authority of the novel itself:
it is still seen as a book worthy of discussion and capable of being
brought into line with current critical concerns.