Are Nabokov’s definitions of pornography reliable? The difference between the
erotic and the pornographic is often as arbitrary as the one between the
sensuous and the sensual. Alain Robbe-Grillet once said that “pornography is
the others’ eroticism.” Paul Valéry went even further, saying
that “sentimentality and pornography are twin sisters.” In "On a Book Entitled
Lolita" and elsewhere, Nabokov often overstated his case to justify his poetic
treatment of sex, what I called his poeroticism.

In the book I am currently writing in English, "Nabokov's Eros", I examine that
question at some length.

Maurice Couturier

> Letter: Vladimir Nabokov Defines Pornography
> by Judy Berman. Posted on 3:00 pm Thursday Dec 1, 2011
> In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote that, while he
> couldn’t definitively state what makes a work “pornography,” “I know it when
> I see it.” Had Stewart only consulted with Vladimir Nabokov, whose 1955 novel
> Lolita was temporarily banned in France and the UK and withstood several
> reviews that stated or implied that it was pornography, he might have arrived
> at a more precise definition. In a 1965 letter to his friend Morris Bishop,
> Nabokov addressed the “irate Paterfamilias” response to the book and offered
> a characteristically eloquent take on what is and isn’t pornography:
> “‘Pornography’ is not an image plucked out of context; pornography is an
> attitude and an intention. The tragic and the obscene exclude each other.”
> See the typewritten missive after the jump, and visit Letters of Note for the
> transcription.
> Tags: Letters, Vladimir Nabokov
> ________________________________
> Wednesday, 30 November 2011
> Pornography is an attitude and an intention
> Ever since it was first published in France in 1955, Lolita — Vladimir
> Nabokov's novel about a middle-aged man's obsession with, and seduction of, a
> young teenage girl — has, unsurprisingly, courted controversy. The following
> letter was written by the author in 1956 to a friend named Morris Bishop, and
> offers in its third paragraph a fantastic glimpse at Nabakov's reaction to
> the uproar surrounding his "best book." Said uproar grew, and within months
> the novel was banned temporarily in Britain and France.
> Lolita was adapted to film by Stanley Kubrick in 1962. Numerous other
> adaptations have since followed.
> Transcript follows. Image above kindly supplied by Grant F.
> +++++++++++++++++++++++++
> Transcript
> 6 March 1956
> Dear Mr Morris,
> It was a pleasure to receive your letter and that drab little view of Nice
> 1906. Thanks also for depositing the check. We hope to see both of you here.
> In a few minutes we are setting out for New York, where I shall make
> to-morrow a recording of "ONEGIN", Canto One, for the BBC's Third Program. We
> plan to be back Thursday night.
> I have just learned that Gallimard wants to publish LOLITA. This will give
> her a respectable address. The book is having some success in London and
> Paris. Please, cher ami, do read it to the end!
> Frankly, I am not much concerned with the "irate Paterfamilias". That stuffy
> philistine would be just as upset if he learned that at Cornell I analyse
> "ULYSSES" before a class of 250 students of both sexes. I know that LOLITA is
> my best book sofar. I calmly lean on my conviction that it is a serious work
> of art, and that no court could prove it to be "lewd and libertine". All
> categories grade, of course, into one another: a comedy of manners written by
> a fine poet may have its "lewd" side; but "LOLITA" is a tragedy.
> "Pornography" is not an image plucked out of context; pornography is an
> attitude and an intention. The tragic and the obscene exclude each other.
> You know all this as well as I do -- I am just jotting down these remarks at
> random because you happened to conjure up the possibility of an attack.
> We are both very much interested in Alison's exhibition. You will have to
> tell us all about it.
> Best love to all three of you.
> (Signed)
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