Monday, June 6, 2011


I still remember venturing into the dust-coloured Stacks looking for it. I had heard of it, of course (who hasn't?), and it seemed fitting that it was an innocuous green, clothbound, slim enough. The lettering in faded print on the spine, his name and hers, and that opening paragraph like a fever burning off the page:

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns." 

That excerpt alone, devoured under the foul fluorescent lights of the library, was enough to stash it on top of the books I should have been reading instead and whisk it down to the borrowing desk. What followed was a brief, intoxicating experience in which the pages disappeared from right to left and my stomach gradually turned as I realised how brilliantly Nabokov had wrought his protagonist. For in reading, we become completely complicit with him: we see Dolly through the haze of his lust and agree with him that she is knowing, yes, and that she invites his approaches. We feel his anxiety as he needs, increasingly, to remain with her and monitor her so that no-one else might intrude on her attentions. His revulsion at grown women is our revulsion, and we experience America through his eyes as they journey across it, its numbing expanse perhaps a precurser to the shock of encountering an adult Dolores, no longer Lolita but still compelling his selfish heart.
Lionel Trilling articulated this well before me, in 1958, writing that "we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents [...] we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting."

She is an ordinary enough young girl- she reads comic books, loves popular culture, wants to act and to be loved, is curious, impetuous and a bit obnoxious. Yet she also has that alchemical quality that compels Humbert (she is a 'nymphet') and so we also see her through the lens of Humbert: a girl who is "knowing", who we assume understands the implications of making a pass at her stepfather in a motel, and who has thus invited all of his sexual attention. As readers, we experience her in the context of him: he recreates her within his world and is rendered visible to us only by him. Any alternative reading we might make of her must be composed by the fragments of her personality that Humbert loathes or seeks to control. It is when we step away from the portrait of Lolita, nymphet and consider her as Lolita, schoolgirl, the whole warped, ironic, sweeping narrative takes on a deeply dark bent. And isn't that kind of the point?

Which is why it seems disingenuous to me when fashion magazines represent Lolita as a muse. The age of the models used in these stories are often in the orbit of the character of Lo herself- falling in the indistinct stretch of years between twelve and seventeen. These depictions could be read as an ironic continuation of the novel's themes, but I don't buy it. I don't buy it because often the Lolita is presented to us straight up- just a sexualised young girl looking down the lens.

Oyster magazine #92

The double vision of the fashion gaze is at work when we look at editorials- we want the clothes and we want to embody the model- but this Lolita angle introduces a third desire- we want to have her. Which is complicated when the model is teenaged. And further, when the politics of looking at an image of a girl positioned as an object of sexual desire are not invoked at all.
This was the case in March 2008 when RUSSH published a story with sixteen year old models Zippora Seven and Levi Clarke set in a motel and modelled on the relationship of Johnny Depp and Kate Moss, according to then-editor Natalie Shukur. Depp and Moss were approximately 31 and 20, respectively, when they started dating but never mind- here are two teens in a motel room in their underwear. The most commented upon image in the shoot was of Zippora in a bathtub, looking straight down the lens whilst Levi reclined with his eyes closed. Her lower body obscured by bubbles but not her breasts which were exposed and framed in the centre of the shot. This editorial was a part of the RUSSH aesthetic in this early to mid 2008 period, heavily influenced by a Seventies, bohemian/desert gypsy vibe- all long, tangled hair, feathers, suede and nudity. Sure, celebrate a bohemian sexuality, go crazy. But when that's played out upon the embodied selves of teen models, how are we expected to respond as readers?
To imagine that we might simply observe, 'that's a nice image, might buy those boots', doesn't sit well with me. It's ironic that a character who we don't recognise as a victim is often used as the poster girl for adolescent sexuality, her entrapment and ignorance in her "relationship" with Humbert blithely ignored so that her mythical youth and beauty might be revelled in.
It's kind of absurd.
I'm no prude and I'm certainly not criticising the models themselves: they're doing their job, directed into the stories they're employed to realise. I'm calling out the fashion magazines who employ the myth of a deeply influential, problematic novel to sexualise teenagers. The implicit message seems to be 'can't handle it? You just don't get it.'
I disagree.
I suspect magazines who do this do it to shock and to discriminate amongst their readers, a sort of 'we're not afraid to go there' sentiment. I think they're being lazy. If you're going to go down that path, make a comment to your reader once they're in the complicated position you've placed them in; don't just be complicit in producing more blank, pretty images of sexualised teenagers. Be clever. Make us feel despair or revulsion, make us aware of our privileged position as the people who gaze, criticise our culture and what has become acceptable to us. But please, whatever you do, don't just
 put a young model in suede knickers, have her smile 'knowingly', and slap an evocative connotation on top to 'elevate' your editorial from softcore to "art." It makes you look like you completely missed Nabokov's irony and there's nothing less knowing than that.

Also see:
Vladimir Nabokov, 'Lolita' 1958 (English version)
Azar Nafisi's 'Reading Lolita in Tehran' 2003