Seduction and censorship: Nabokov
This past Thursday, Lolita turned fifty. No, not the prepubescent sex object who will forever remain 14, but the book by Vladimir Nabokov that introduced her to the public.
When the book was released in 1955 its content caused a public uproar. Half a century later, not much seems to have changed. Lolita has aged gracefully, maturing from a sensational cultural bomb into a controversial classic. However, even on her fiftieth birthday, hundreds of books that follow in her path are still met with challenges across the country.
Everyone knows who Lolita is; despite the initial opposition the book met, the name has entered our cultural vocabulary. ?Lolita? is the standard term for any underage seductress, and she is frequently accompanied by an older (much older) male counterpart. But in Nabokov?s book she has a full name: Dolores Haze, twelve years of age, living with her mother in a sleepy suburban town, and put on a pedestal by her mother?s angst-ridden and unbalanced lodger, the improbably named Humbert Humbert.
Humbert Humbert falls in love ? and lust ? with spunky Dolores, nicknamed Lolita, and in a desperate and daring move marries her mother to stay close to the girl. But a couple of years and a few convenient deaths later, he and Lolita are on the run and in an intense sexual relationship. The rest of the book is a whirlwind of sex, drugs, and teen pregnancy, spiced up with a good murder or two.
In a decade when husbands and wives were supposed to sleep in separate twin beds, it makes sense that a book like this would meet with considerable resistance. However, it?s not the material that truly makes the book dangerous. It?s the fact that, even though we cannot completely love Humbert Humbert (he is a pedophile, after all), we feel badly for him, and therefore we identify with him. And even though we cannot completely approve of Lolita, we admire her, as she seems to have the upper hand in the relationship. These characters are not completely out of our scope, and that frightens readers.
Have we, like Lolita, grown up since then? Not really. In 1962, a film version of Lolita, by the gifted director Stanley Kubrick, that was met with guarded interest. Perhaps more telling of our attitude toward Lolita, however, is the story behind the 1997 version. Starring Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert and Dominique Swain as Lolita, the movie was made when Swain was the correct age for the part, but it wasn?t released until she was about seventeen. Why? Because it sat on the shelves for two years, unable to find a distributor willing to take on its ?controversial? content. So much for maturity.
Lolita doesn?t exist in a vacuum. In the United States there are still hundreds upon hundreds of books that are banned from public libraries, challenged by interest groups, and, in the case of many Harry Potter novels, burned in bonfires a la Fahrenheit 451 (and Nazi Germany). The American Library Association has published a list of the top 100 most challenged books from 1990 to 2000. The titles range from the expected (Madonna?s Sex, The Anarchist Cookbook) to the eyebrow-raising (To Kill a Mockingbird, Julie of the Wolves) to the downright ridiculous (James and the Giant Peach ? pardon me?). Reasons for these challenges include ?portraying witchcraft? ? oh yeah, because every kid I know really believes that he can get into Hogwarts ? to ?sexuality,? ?violence,? and my personal favorite, ?political views.? Apparently the First Amendment has a loophole for literature.
It seems the point most people are missing is that reading something doesn?t mean you have to believe it. Flipping through American Psycho won?t make you one; publicly setting fire to it in front of a library might. We live in a country that is kind enough to support most freedoms of expression, and we have almost unlimited access to hundreds upon thousands of ideas. Don?t like a book?s message? Just put it down.
There may be hope for us, however. One book that didn?t make it onto that top 100 list: Lolita. If she can grow up, maybe we can too.