Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Thematic Essays—Authenticity

Anything But True Love

Vladimir Nabokov’s Anti-Erotic Masterpiece

Talbot Brewer

Thérèse (detail), 1938, by Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) (1908–2001); bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1987 (1987.125.2), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA; image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.

A blurb on the cover of my copy of Lolita calls the novel “the only convincing love story of our century.”11xVladimir Nabokov, Lolita (New York, NY: Vintage, 1997); all subsequent citations refer to this edition. First published 1955. In the 1986 Vanity Fair essay from which this endorsement was drawn, the author—novelist Gregor von Rezzori—goes on to describe Vladimir Nabokov’s incendiary work as “a deeply touching story of unfulfillable longing, of suffering through love, love of such ardor that though it concentrated on its subject monomaniacally, it actually aimed beyond it, until it flowed back into the great Eros that had called it into being.”22xGregor von Rezzori, “In Pursuit of Lolita,” Vanity Fair, August 1986, The publisher’s own back-cover description echoes Rezzori’s assessment: “Most of all,” the prospective reader is told, Lolita is “a meditation on love—love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.”

I feel I am on safe ground when I say that this is false advertising. Lolita is not a story of love. It is a story of child rape. Indeed, this ground is so safe, and surrounded by ground that has recently become so treacherous, that my motives for saying such a thing might plausibly come under suspicion. Yet I am convinced that in this rare case the safe thing to say also happens to be true. And not only true but worth insisting on, because these blurbs express a widespread and disastrous confusion about what love is. Just as importantly, they express a widespread confusion about what Rezzori calls “the great Eros”—the ecstatic force that inspired some of Plato’s finest dialogues, and that might at any moment erupt in our own psyches in the form of overwhelming desire.

A quick Google search reveals that I am not the first to be repelled by these characterizations of Lolita. Many others have denounced them, insisting that Humbert Humbert’s mania for twelve-year-old Dolores Haze cannot properly be called love. Yet on the whole, their objections do not seem to pinpoint the problem. Some think this is not love because it is so thoroughly one-sided. Presumably, the thought is that Humbert’s feelings would be transformed into love if only they were directed at someone who was old enough to be capable of reciprocating them and who happened to do so. But while this would make Humbert’s actions licit and perhaps entirely unobjectionable, it would not turn his feelings into love. We would have two failures to love, not two successes. Others suggest that Humbert’s feelings are not love because they are obsessions. This too seems mistaken. Real love often gains an obsessive hold on us, inciting an ecstatic self-forgetfulness that borders on madness. Love would be a far less remarkable and transformative experience if it did not. The trouble with Humbert’s love is not that it obsesses him; the trouble is that the consummation he so obsessively desires is so unspeakably awful.

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