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.

The novelist Mary Gaitskill does considerably better than Rezzori or the publisher’s copywriter, offering an admirably complex assessment of the case at hand.33xMary Gaitskill, “Pictures of Lo,” Design Observer, August 14, 2013, Gaitskill is commenting on an early imprint of the 1997 edition. The cover art had been changed by the time the Fiftieth Anniversary version appeared, presumably in 2005. The blurbs under discussion remained, although the Rezzori quote was moved from the front to the back cover. She begins by averring that it is “quietly outrageous” for the publisher to have juxtaposed, on the novel’s cover, the claim that what is inside is a story of love, with a photo of a young girl’s bare legs, cropped free from their possessor’s face and torso, in a posture suggesting both precocious sensuality and fright. The trouble, presumably, is that the photo invites us to join in the fear-inducing stare of the pedophile, while the promotional text encourages us to credit our intrusive gaze as an expression of love. Despite her qualms about this juxtaposition, Gaitskill is prepared to accept at face value Humbert Humbert’s insistence, from his jail cell and to his imagined jury, that he truly loved Lolita. As Gaitskill sees things,

Purity of feeling must live and breathe in the impure gardens of our confused, compromised, corrupt, and broken hearts. Love itself is not selfish, devouring or cruel, but in human beings it suffers a terrible coexistence with those qualities; really, with any other vile thing you might think of. These oppositions sometimes coexist so closely and complexly that the lovers cannot tell them apart. This is not only true of sexual love, but also of the love between parents and children, siblings, and even friends…. That Lolita renders this human condition at such an extreme, so truthfully, and yes, as von Rezzori says, convincingly, is the book’s most shocking quality. It is why it will never be forgotten.44xIbid.

There is much that is right about this elegant passage. We humans are a complex lot. Even the most beautiful of our impulses are alloyed with others not so lovely, some of them, indeed, indelibly shameful. But is love so discrete and impregnable a thing that it can subsist (and even, as Gaitskill suggests, retain its purity) in the midst of the most repellent undertakings? To turn to the case at hand: Can one truly love a child, as Humbert loudly proclaims he has and still does, while raping her night after night, well aware that the cumulative effect of this treatment will be to leave something broken inside her (232)—not, to be sure, to break her heart, which was never Humbert’s to break, but to break “her life” (279)?

I think it is clear that one cannot. Given the role I believe love has in revealing the contours and urgency of the ethical domain, I am deeply committed on this point. So is everyone who inclines toward an ethic grounded in love—that is to say, every Platonist, every Christian, and everyone who affirms some descendant of these intertwined traditions. For here is how things stand: If genuine love provides us with the clearest appreciation available to us of the inviolability of the other, hence of what is impermissible and why, and if Humbert Humbert’s love for Lolita is genuine, then even the clearest appreciation of the inviolability of others does not include an appreciation of the vileness of the serial rape of a child. But if the serial rape of a child is not beyond the pale, then nothing is. God may as well be dead, the good unreal, because everything is permitted.

So I think Gaitskill is wrong to take Humbert at his word when he “shout[s]” from his cell his “poor truth,” that he genuinely loved Lolita. Indeed, just a few pages later, Nabokov arranges for Humbert to elaborate on his “poor truth” in such a way as to make clear that it is not true. The passage begins with Humbert directly addressing Lolita, then shifts to the more revealing voice of undirected recollection:

I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you…. And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hard to know it, my little one…. I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her—after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred—I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness…and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this agonized, selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again—and “oh, no,” Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure—all would be shattered. (284–85)

What Humbert here describes is, I say, not possible. I do not mean that “lust” could not possibly “swell” in the midst of a loving adult’s embrace of a child. What I mean is that if the “swelling of lust” (to stick, reluctantly, with Humbert’s evasive soft-focus language) really did have the power to shatter all tenderness, then what it intruded upon could not have been, after all, a moment of genuine love. And if this shattering of tenderness, and the child’s ensuing “oh, no,” and the ensuing rapes were to recur night after night—on a yearlong odyssey that zigged and zagged across the United States, then for another year of secretive nights in a quiet New England town, leaving the child sobbing “every night, every night” (176)—as they did in the case of Humbert and Lolita, what then? Surely, in that case it would be grotesque to speak of whatever tenderness preceded these violations as love.

It seems to me, then, that Gaitskill is wrong to suggest that the enduring relevance of Nabokov’s book depends upon its having shown how genuine love could coexist with the prolonged molestation of a child. If this is the book’s claim to enduring relevance, then it utterly deserves to be forgotten. But it does not. Lolita is without doubt a searing and morally dangerous text. It is ripe (as we have seen) for misreading. It is also ripe (more gravely) for misuse. Yet it is nevertheless a masterpiece, and it deserves to be read and re-read—at least by those whose life experiences do not make it too excruciating to endure.

No simple summation of Nabokov’s achievement will do, since Nabokov is by no means simple, and neither is his book. Yet I would venture to claim that one of the novel’s signal achievements is to permit us to come to grips with certain pathologies that often accompany and disfigure human love, but whose essence is far easier to grasp when writ large. They are easier to see, for instance, when they metastasize and destroy their host, as they destroy Humbert and his capacity for love.

In a sense, then, I am prepared to accept, even to insist upon, the publisher’s suggestion that the book is a meditation on love, just so long as we do not follow what I take to be the publisher’s additional suggestion that Humbert’s “outrageous” and “hallucinatory” fixation on Lolita is the “love” on which we are to meditate. The book provokes meditation on love, but not by putting an instance of love before us. It does so by presenting us with a terrible and haunting counterfeit of love—terrible because of the harm it does its victim, and haunting because of the lines of continuity that run between it and the more ordinary corruptions of love with which we are all too familiar.

If we are to take steps from here toward an ethic of love, we can’t stop with the unrevealing truth that Humbert is no lover. We must put our finger on those particular elements of Humbert’s mindset that give the lie to his claim to have loved Lolita. Suppose, then, that we read the book with this objective in mind—enlisting Nabokov’s prose, as it were, to controvert the cover someone unadvisedly designed for it. What might we find? That Nabokov, despite his oft-professed lack of interest in conveying moral lessons, has (inadvertently?) woven into his tale the makings of an answer to our decidedly moral question? I think we would.

The first clue comes early on, in Humbert’s retelling of an encounter with a French child prostitute (22). Humbert recalls certain details with special relish: her “curiously immature body” and “small hands,” her “Parisian childish lips.” He reports that “among the 80 or so grues I had had operate upon me she was the only one that gave me a pang of genuine pleasure.” Yet when he tried to reproduce this rare moment of pleasure the next day, he relates, “it was less successful, she seemed to have grown less juvenile, more of a woman overnight” (23). “So,” he concludes, “let her remain, sleek, slender Monique, as she was for a minute or two.” This account accords perfectly with Humbert’s cardinal wish for the “nymphets” he thinks he sees among groups of young girls at play: “Never grow up” (21).

This longing for stasis—for an object of lust that wholly lacks the dynamism of an actual human life—plays a recurrent and central role in Humbert’s story. It shows up clearly in his descriptions of the experience he misidentifies as love:

I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew that she would not be forever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a “young girl,” and then, into a “college girl”—that horror of horrors. The word “forever” referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood. The Lolita whose iliac crests had not yet flared. (65)

So this is what Humbert calls “love”: the detaching of an image from the being who inspires it, and the freezing of that image so that it holds fast, as an object of adoration, unsullied by the growth of its source toward a mature and fully actualized form of being. This could be genuine love if its object were something static, something whose essential business was not to grow but to stay precisely the same—a keepsake, say, or a statue on a grave. By contrast, it cannot be genuine love of the kind of being whose essential task is to become more fully what she or he is meant to be. Yet we humans are just such beings. So this could not be—could not be—the mode of appreciation and concern demanded by and fitting for beings of our kind. Humbert does not see what he holds in his arms when he holds the child he calls his “aging mistress” (190). And if he does not see what is in his arms when he holds Lolita, how can he love her?

I am speaking here of what might be called a categorial error about Lolita. But the categorial error goes hand in hand with an utter lack of curiosity about what is going on in the head of the one Humbert holds in his arms. Because he does not see Lolita as a living, growing human, he is uninterested in the preoccupations, desires, and dreams that are the fuel of her growth. We learn about Lolita entirely from Humbert, the narrator of our story, and what we learn is remarkable for its superficiality. It is not until very near the end of his story that he is struck by the bald fact that he “simply did not know a thing about [his] darling’s mind” (284). That this has not occurred to him before, or bothered him deeply, is the clearest possible indication that he has not after all loved the human being named Dolores Haze. If he has loved anything at all, it is the image of Dolores that played a leading role in his fantasy life, under the name of Lolita.

As we have already seen, Humbert has an intense aversion to college-aged women. In them he sees nothing but “the coffin of coarse female flesh within which my nymphets have been buried alive” (175). This is how he sees growth, which for a youth is another word for life: as an entombment, as a living death. Here we can see the starkest possible opposition to the Diotimic conception of eros as presented in Plato’s Symposium. For Diotima (and, I presume, for Plato), eros is enthusiasm for and midwifery of the birthing of the new, whether in oneself and one’s own activities, the realms of thought and art, or the life of the beloved. Living erotically is, we might say, being toward birth. If we consider Humbert through this Diotimic lens, he is revealed to be a paradigmatically anti-erotic soul, and the novel he narrates—which has often been miscategorized as erotic literature55xReference works that categorize Lolita as erotic include The Facts on File Companion to the American Short Story, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Desmond Morris’s The Book of Ages, Michael Perkins’s The Secret Record: Modern Erotic Literature, and Esther Steinman and Catherine Loeb’s Women’s Studies: A Recommended Core Bibliography.—is revealed to be a paradigmatically anti-erotic novel. Humbert is the consummate anti-erotic because he is unable to bear the thought that Lolita is meant to have a life, one in which an adult will slowly be birthed from the cocoon of childhood.

Nabokov has arranged for Humbert to offer a particularly illuminating diagnosis of this pathological condition, while remaining wholly oblivious to its implications. Humbert says he loves the “eternal Lolita”—the one who will remain in his memory forever. But to love the eternal Lolita is precisely not to love the actual Lolita. It is to love an image of Lolita, frozen in early adolescence. Humbert mistakes this keepsake for Lolita, and thinks of the eventual adult Lolita not as Lolita herself but as her walking tomb. This is, of course, precisely backward. The “eternal Lolita” is lifeless. The real Lolita is mortal. Like any human being, she can remain in existence only by aging.

As an aside, and possibly a cheap one, I can’t help feeling that Nabokov’s lifelong passion for lepidoptery—that is, for the capturing, preserving, and studying of rare butterflies—resonates in the background of Lolita, transposed into a darkly maniacal key. Without placing much weight on this rather speculative impression, we can at least say that to love a butterfly in this way—say, on a pin in a glass case—is one thing, and, if wrong at all, at least not unhinged. But to have a similar “love” for human beings—to wish to fix them on a pin and preserve them, perfect and unmoving and unchanged—is quite another thing. Saying that it is wrong misses the mark by vast understatement. It is the stuff of horror movies—not merely wrong but insane, indeed, nightmarishly deranged. At heart this is the sort of “love” Humbert has for Lolita—the sort that causes him, on the night he has envisioned as his great conquest, to attempt to drug her with a powerful sleeping pill so that she will not be present.

Humbert has procured forty of these sleeping pills, and plans to play out his fantasies for forty nights on Lolita’s sleeping body. But the pills aren’t worth a damn. The real Lolita refuses to absent herself while Humbert has his way with her. And so he projects his fantasies, instead, upon the real Lolita—who only incidentally and temporarily matches these fantasies well enough to be cursed by them. Humbert’s horror of aging causes him to oscillate madly among conflicting pictures of what sort of future this essentially unstable arrangement might have:

I could switch in the course of the same day from one pole of insanity to the other—from the thought that around 1950 I would have to get rid somehow of a difficult adolescent whose magic nymphage had evaporated—to the thought that with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be dans la force de l’âge; indeed the telescopy of my mind, or un-mind, was strong enough to distinguish in the remoteness of time…salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad. (174)

That these passages have lost not an iota of their power to shock, even in their eighth decade, indicates that we are dealing here not with a mere prejudice of this or that time (a view occasionally suggested by Humbert, with supporting mention of this or that pharaoh or emperor’s brazen pedophilic habits), but a fundamental intuition of abject wrongness. That is, it indicates that despite the relentless and dizzying shifts in our sense of propriety, and especially of sexual propriety, we remain in firm touch with at least a few basic mores that are sacred and immovable. What Nabokov has achieved is a realistic depiction of a psyche capable of flouting these sacred mores. What gives this particular depiction its power is that the psyche in question—that of Humbert Humbert (the narrator chooses this pseudonym for himself to accentuate his own “nastiness” [308])—differs from our own principally in that certain strands that in us merely dilute or distort our love (our resistance to change, our cult of youth, our eroticization of pornographic imagery, our distaste for the outward manifestations of maturity) take on an outsized and monstrous form in him. This is why the novel is unforgettable. It shows us what is at stake when we wrestle with our own temptations to recoil from the most fundamental and difficult element of the human condition—namely, that we are born in time, and grow in time, and die in time; that (to quote the philosopher/poet Delmore Schwartz) “Time is the school in which we learn, and Time is the fire in which we burn.”66xDelmore Schwartz, “Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day,” in Selected Poems (1938–1958): Summer Knowledge (New York, NY: New Directions, 1967), 66. First published 1959.

Diotimic eros devotes itself to reproduction—again, taken in the widest sense, so as to sweep in the proliferation of good character, goods words, and good deeds—in such a way as to make a lasting contribution to the human project on earth. This is reproduction in service of the good of others, and, further, in service of growth—that is, of the kind of change that moves toward the good. Such reproduction offers itself up generously to a future it cannot entirely fathom but wishes to enrich. Part of what is shocking about Humbert’s nasty little flight of imagination is that he reimagines reproduction as a means of freezing the world so that it answers, as stably as possible, to the image of his own achieved desires, with no apparent concern for what might succeed him or exceed these desires. This is not merely the refusal, but the exact inversion, of Diotimic eros.

Let us circle back to Gaitskill’s reading of Lolita. As I have perhaps made much too clear, I am not prepared to join her in crediting Humbert with love for Lolita. Yet I do acknowledge that there are signs of growth, and a flicker of redemptive feeling, in Humbert’s final encounter with Lolita, who is now married and with child. In particular, he has grown, in the direction of tolerating her maturation, if not exactly welcoming or wishing to serve as its midwife, and, more specifically, of her actual pregnancy. Indeed, he is prepared to spend the rest of his life with her. Still, he rues what he sees as the “hopelessly worn” condition of her seventeen-year-old body, with its “adult rope-veined narrow hands” and “gooseflesh white arms” and “ruined looks” (277). This is not a gaze that welcomes the continuing emergence of Dolores as a fully formed adult. It is not the gaze of love.

Yet there is a grain of truth in Gaitskill’s reading of the novel and of the aspect of the human condition she thinks it captures. I think she is right in asserting that love’s light can flash in the consciousness of even the most depraved human being, and I think that Nabokov arranges for the light of love to flash at certain isolated moments in Humbert Humbert. I think, here, of two passages that for me are related as question and answer, or, more exactly, as challenge addressed to no one in particular and response to that challenge rising up silently from a very particular no one. Here is the challenge:

Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me—to me as I am today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction—that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. (283)

Nabokov has arranged for Humbert to give us articulate art, but—at least for Humbert—it is no palliative. If Humbert’s misery could be alleviated by proof that it does not matter that he deprived Dolores Haze of her childhood, then the source of this misery must be his inescapable sense that what he did to Dolores indeed matters. And if it matters that Dolores has been deprived of her childhood, this can only be because Dolores herself matters. So if Humbert is miserable, this must be because he perceives that Dolores matters. And Humbert’s story brings him and his readers to a strikingly articulate perception of precisely this fact.

The moment of perception comes just after Humbert has committed the murder that has landed him in jail. As he leaves the scene of the crime, Humbert drives on the wrong side of the road and ignores all stoplights and traffic signs. As he tells himself, “Since I had disregarded all laws of humanity, I might as well disregard the rules of traffic.” Finally, a police blockade forces him off the road and he bounces to a stop on a high, grassy slope, “among surprised cows” (306). Now in his last moments of freedom, he is overcome by the recollection of an earlier moment, after Lolita’s escape, when he was traversing the country in desperate search of her. Then too he was perched high on a hill, and he could hear a sound rising up from a town far below:

Reader! What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic—one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon…. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord. (307–8)

This, I take it, is the answer to Humbert’s question, or challenge—the proof that the harm he did to Dolores Haze matters, and hence that she matters. It is the only sort of proof that such a proposition admits of, for if we cannot see the value of others, we stand in need of an awakening, not an argument. And it is a perception in the key of love—meaning that if it were to consummate itself in the form of a stable and vivid appreciation of reality, it would just be love. That it emerges here, in Humbert, suggests that Nabokov believes that even the most monstrous human beings are sometimes transfixed by the light of love. And that its emergence in this character is wholly credible suggests that Nabokov is right to believe this.

Have I, then, accepted Gaitskill’s view of things despite myself? I don’t think so. To love another person requires a vivid sense of and concern for that person’s flourishing, which, especially for a child, means her further growth. Humbert never musters more than a begrudging toleration of the process that has “ruined” the looks of his “aging mistress” and left her body “hopelessly worn.” Yet without an inkling of the view of others that rises to its sharpest clarity in love, the remorseful perception of absence that Humbert experiences on that summer afternoon would not be possible. From that flattened perspective, the absence of one young girl from the kids at play in one small mining town would not “matter a jot.” Life would be a joke.

Much of Lolita moves in the rhythm of dream, and for me the most dreamlike character is the one Humbert eventually feels compelled to track down and riddle with bullets—namely, the playwright Clare Quilty. He is there, recognized by Lolita but not by Humbert, at an inn called the Enchanted Hunters where Humbert is plotting his first rape of the girl. As Humbert waits on the inn’s porch for the sleeping pills to tranquilize his prey, Quilty addresses him out of the darkness, his face invisible, demanding to know “where the devil” Humbert found Lolita, and calling him a liar when he replies that she is his daughter. That Quilty’s voice arises in a disembodied form, from some obscure source, and that he levels accusations while pretending not to, and that he appears to occupy a place of omniscience concerning Humbert’s despicable plans, suggests that he represents some poorly integrated element of Humbert’s own consciousness—his conscience, perhaps. This impression is strengthened later in the book, when Quilty appears to be following Humbert and Lolita across the country, popping up in a dizzying whirl of different cars and disguises, as if arising from the boundary line between paranoia and repressed knowledge.

Quilty goes on to write a play named after the inn where he caught Humbert on the verge of his crime. By wild coincidence, Lolita is cast in a school production of the play as an ordinary farm girl—a “rustic, down-to-brown-earth lass” (201)—who pretends to be a woodland nymph.77xThe character she plays is called “a woodland witch, or Diana, or something” by Humbert (200), but the school principal, while attempting to persuade Humbert to remain in town long enough for Lolita to appear in the play, says that she was “such a perfect little nymph in the tryout” (196). A series of “hunters” are completely taken in by her act, so much so that by the play’s end this “nymph” has to take on the task of showing one of these hunters that she and the other “entertainers” are not mere figments of his imagination, but flesh-and-blood human beings. She succeeds in bringing him to his senses, partly by kissing him, and the kiss is supposed “to enforce the play’s profound message, namely, that mirage and reality merge in love” (201). I read the “profound” in this sentence as a bit of sarcasm on the part of our narrator, Humbert, but the fact that he is dismissive of this message is perhaps an indication that Nabokov is not. After all, who would defer to Humbert Humbert for profound insights into love?

In any case, I am very nearly willing to accept the truth of the message put forward here. I agree that the erotic lover sees the beloved in such a way as to bring the actual and an image of the possible into a single apprehension. Yet the apprehension in question is not best described as a merging of the two. A merger would be called for in the case of a static and already perfect being. Hoping for a merger in the case of a human being is a formula for failing to see the beloved, and, due to this failure, for freezing the beloved in the straitjacket of what one supposes to be an already achieved perfection—one that is to be preserved from all change. Eros, by contrast, is partisanship for a specific kind of change—change in the direction of the good. When directed at a human being, its gaze involves a permanent and creative dissonance—a stereoscopy that coincides with the fact that we become ourselves in time and never arrive at a time when we have finished doing so. What is seen in the other, as the aura of potentiality that lights up the other as beloved, is not a mere imposition of one’s own wishes, however benevolent they may be. It is a perception of the potentiality for emergence toward the good that resides in this particular one, and is there to be seen by the eye of the lover. I would not, then, characterize it as a mirage, but as a calling. And I would say that it does not merge with but shines forth from the beloved as the promise, the whither, that must be appreciated if the beloved is to be appreciated. Humbert cannot see this promise. His eye is not the eye of love.