On Genius, Part 3: Lolita

comments 12
Book Reviews / Reflections

I finished my first Nabokov yesterday. Lolita. I thought it was shockingly good—delicate, grimy and translucent all at once—though I’m acutely aware I will need to read it another time or two if I wish to speak intelligently about it. As I sit here and wonder how to take the seething swarm inside of me and capture it somehow on the page, I’m realizing it’s an interesting opportunity to continue the vein I began in my previous post—about our innate ability to recognize truth.

I was thinking more about science and religion last time than I was about art, but there’s myopia in such a view. To speak about science and religion without speaking about art seems an empty pursuit to me, for in any human endeavor, the fundamental activity—whether we wish to admit as much or not—is the expression of who we are: of who we know ourselves to be, and of who we are becoming.

I should say that I can appreciate why Lolita is a controversial work. It is, in its most parsimonious form, the story of a middle-aged man’s perverse subjugation of a twelve-year-old girl. For some readers, I know—as well as appreciate and respect—there is no degree of linguistic brilliance or artistic distillation that could be summoned to redeem such a foundation. For me, however, the work was sublime, and this is how we arrive once again at the seeming incongruity of our appreciation for exactly what it is that events, and moments, and encounters actually consist of.

While some see Lolita as a book written by a man, and narrated by a man, who self-indulgently recounts his barbaric relations with his stepdaughter, others confess to having been so taken in by the subtlety and effulgent beauty of Nabokov’s prose as to have missed the true depth of his protagonist’s evil. But for me, neither of these readings does more than scratch the surface, and what lies beneath is infinitely more difficult to wrestle wholly into view. It is precisely here, I think, that great art begins and ends.

We are ushered, before we’ve realized it has happened, into an enigmatic void, where both sweet and sour obtain, where we resonate with what we despise even as we find ourselves suddenly skeptical of all that we abide. The question is whether we can suffer such difficulties long enough to see where they lead, if anywhere, or instead find ourselves so breathless in the presence of this paramount candor that we must insist on wrapping its arm around our necks, so that we can tap out with our dignity intact.

What I think Nabokov has done, somehow, is lure those who will follow into the place where categories intermingle and mutually dissolve, where the trite cannot subsist, and the compass needle is rendered impotent. It is not a work to say that truth is in this or that; it is a work that points to the existence of a trap door in our awareness, and asks, have you seen this, too?

The foreground of this work is alarming, and it is given to us by Nabokov with such alluring, iridescent prose, that it is all too easy to be deceived. But when those two curtains part, for those still in their seats, what remains is an encounter with the abyss of stray connections, frayed ropes and discarded belongings that could lead to just about anywhere. What this vacant stage will not do, however, is field questions. The lights will not come on and reveal that all this time we’ve simply been in a theater surrounded by carefully parked cars and ice cream shops and cloudless skies. The lights have come on, in fact, and revealed the faceless potency over which all our fabrications have been laid.

And this is where the truth emerges for me, in all great art—in this whipping of our world suddenly from view, to expose the fathomless marrow of being in which we are all equally ensconced. The madness of art is that to bring such a primordial distillation of ourselves into view we must be profoundly faithful to the details of our mirage. We must illumine the fabric of what is right before us each and every day with a nearly-blinding light. We must tease and pluck apart the bolster, examine each and every thread until it, too, is found wanting—too friable to have carried the real weight of being—and we are left with nothing of which we began. Only now we’ve found what everything is.

The fragmentation of our hearts and minds that I spoke about last time can be viewed as a means of retreating from this uncanny position. This retreat is what Reich described as armoring, when I quoted him saying, “There is much good reason to assume that in such experiences of the self man somehow became frightened and for the first time in the history of his species began to armor against inner fright and amazement.

This seemingly gaping core that we witness can be staggering, but it is only so for an instant—that instant being whatever duration of time is required for us to release our grip upon the fabricated notions of self and world to which we cling. The other side of that instant is the fullness of all that we are, rampant and unbroken. It is all that we have inadvertently deprived ourselves of coming to know, and join with, because of our fractured rigidity and our self-deceptions.

Great art—genius art—pierces the veil of conceptuality, and invites us to breathe deeply the luminous air that lives within us all.


  1. beautifully expressed thoughts
    & review of this book, which
    admittedly, I’ve not read myself, Michael.
    i’m smiling to your wordsmithy gumbo
    of science, religion, humanities and art.
    i’m nudged to say that in our culture
    we have not to come to grips
    with our innate sexual energy, imho.
    perhaps there will be a time
    when sexual relations will occur
    only after patience, understanding, true love
    and a long-term, mutual commitment.
    how courageous to peek into the pandora’s box
    of meeting our sexual needs while being respectful.
    at least we’ve progressed from those cave
    man ways of abusive procreation. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

      • smiling to your kindness, Julie! i’ll admit that my comments on posts
        are completely spontaneous and unfiltered. this comment reflected personal misfortune & insights regarding sexuality. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, I agree David. I feel fortunate to have been raised in a family that modeled and taught these types of values. But it’s tricky… For me the measuring stick isn’t how long a relationship lasts, but how much presence we’re able to bring to it. When sex devolves into an expressly physical pleasure rooted in “taking” from another, or manipulating another so that our perceived needs may be met, it becomes distorted. But as a genuine expression of giving and receiving, and as a vehicle for expressing and sharing the love that we are… it can be a most beautiful and wholesome encounter…


      Liked by 1 person

      • smiling to this sincere invitation
        for sexuality with openness and non-harming, Michael!
        ohh la la.
        also, thanks for helping me convince wp to stop having my comments go
        going directly to spam. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael I would need to read and consider your words more closely if I were to more aptly reply here. I read Lolita when I was a young teenager and it disturbed me. I can see it possible that I could read it at another point and have a different point of view, but there’s just so much good literature out there, and time is limited. It might be “good enough” to appreciate looking via your lenses as I borrow them momentarily, through your words.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Ka,

      I have just come across, in the past few days as I’ve begun to read reviews of Lolita, a number of stories like yours–where a woman has noted that she first read Lolita as an adolescent or young teenager–and each time I’ve been floored. To be honest, and show my ignorance, I didn’t really know what it was when I bought it. I read a book this winter by Marlon James, and then I found an interview he gave for a literary magazine where he was asked about books he’d read more than once. He named Pride and Prejudice, Lolita, and The Song of Solomon. I’ve now read them all, but I thought Lolita was a love story when I picked it up! I looked again at the back jacket of my copy tonight, and it’s just so vague on what it contains! It is hard for me to imagine not being disturbed as a young teenaged woman when reading this one…

      I really did find it to be amazing, and I will certainly read it again, but I would never have been able to read it as a young teenager the way I did this weekend. There’s so much depth and subtlety and careful exploration that I think would have been lost on me. Anyway, I’m not asking you to run out and read it! If I could share anything, it would be just that exquisite, innermost feeling of wonder, uncertainty, and hope all mixed together. As if you’ve just seen another human being for the first time or something, or walked across Kansas only to find yourself at the edge of the sea…

      Anyway, thanks for sharing, Ka. I can appreciate the challenges with this one.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for your understanding, Michael.

        A challenge is a challenge, that was a long time ago, and I probably was more aware of how “great” people thought the book was then, so that was why I read it. Nowadays, that is not a reason for me to look into a book. I am not an English teacher, nor a writer, nor novelist. Not that I have to be to be a blogger, or commenter (or human with an opinion) for that matter, but I am not inclined to try to be sophisticated in my reading and writing at this time. So – that being said, it’s not a “requirement” for me to embrace this book or revisit it unless I really decide I want to. I still think I can explore human complexity with other media and within myself and as a layman. I do remember at the time wanting to educate myself about anything and everything but it was not for a school assignment that I read it, probably a book list that I found. i didn’t discuss it with friends or family or teachers, or anyone. I haven’t read too many classics, and it was a short phase of my life. I’m glad that you read other people’s reviews, and saw that I wasn’t alone in my youthful reflection. I certainly had no idea. I started looking further at other responses, after you mentioned it, I was just being genuine in my own, and somewhat candid response, as I wanted to let you know I had read it and was considering your words (still am). Many people actually young teens, loved it- but not all, no. I did and do appreciate your writing style and elegance and the fact that you liked it as you did. I simply didn’t agree with the genius part. No problem. Even though I wrote that it disturbed me at the time, I didn’t write a review and give a lot of thought about this distant memory, disturbing is only one dimension of my reception. I’m not sure that I find genius in the same things as others, for me genius isn’t necessarily controversial, but a lot of times it is for others. I’m also willing to miss the depth and subtlety, I suppose. At least, for now. Pedophilia is a tough subject (esp for a young female who could be victim or who wouldn’t know better or who is just unfortunate) but this book is probably about so much much more – considering all the social dialogue added to it.

        All my best wishes to you in all your reading and writing adventures, I hope you always get the feedback you are looking for.



  3. J.D. Riso says

    Michael- this essay is simply stunning. Lolita is a perfect example of shining light in the darkest of places, illuminating the complexity of human behavior that exists in the shadowy borderlands between good and evil. It is indeed a work of genius.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Julie! I really appreciate it. It is as you describe. It defies describing in a sense. I look forward to reading it again in six months or a year, as I’m quite certain there is much that I missed… It’s always where two tides meet that things are the most fertile for inspection, isn’t it–where the river meets the sea, the day the night, the good and the evil as you say… our brokenness and our light…



  4. Deep and poetic, MM. Your brave and inclusive words point to beyond the world of definitions, where everything exists, nothing is excluded, and the contrasting of beauty and shame are seen in the dance of interconnectivity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well said, Marga. Yes, it’s a sublime place, and everything is there. We can’t just chuck certain things over the side whenever the desire strikes us. But in the context of that place, all the good and the bad just melt somehow, and until you’ve witnessed this it seems as though we’re saying that suffering is good, or something insane like that. But really we’re saying there is a way of being wounded that heals. There is a way of running out of light that illumines. And the words for it just don’t exist, but thankfully we have those among us who can dredge the light right out of the ground so that we can see what is happening down there!


      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.