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.