Jessie Kunhardt of the Huffington Post writes “Lolita is far and away [Nabokov’s] most well-respected novel. It [is] groundbreaking in terms of its intricate style, its fascinating and unreliable narrator, and its controversial subject matter.” Though many have accused Lolita of being mere pornography and perversion, the intelligent reader knows that Lolita is no dime-novel, no tawdry paperback. Rather, it is a masterful work of literature that delves into the human psyche and leaves its readers shuddering in the mind long after the last page is turned. Setting aside, however, the brilliant prose, middle-American landscape, French sensibilities and depiction of adolescent whimsy that create the text’s world, the fact remains that Lolita is still largely concerned with pedophilia, so an examination of Humbert perversions is in order. Pedophilia is not the only concern, however; pedophilia is a secondary concern, as it is only one form of what should be the primary concern—Humbert’s raging psychosis, which manifests itself primarily in pedophilia, but also in narcissism and schizophrenia.
Let us, then, begin our psychoanalytic exploration with Humbert’s most obvious problem—the aforementioned pedophilia. Margarette Gullette writes asserts that “pedophilia represents in an extreme form a normal problem of human development, the transition from latency to accepting adult sexuality and therefore aging” (Gullette 215). In her article, “The Exile of Adulthood: Pedophilia in the Midlife Novel,” Gullette paints the pedophile of literature as a sort of Peter Pan figure, bent on possessing youth in whatever way they can. Gullette writes that “behind every story of pedophilia is a drama of […] human regret at growing older in the body, distorted by the protagonist's illusory attempt to circumvent his aging in this particular way, by trying to possess youth vicariously through the bodies of the young” (215). In particular evidence of this, Gullette points to the “value-laden tones of longing and nostalgia” characters like Humbert use in their discussion of “pre-adult” stages (216). And indeed, Humbert is certainly guilty of this. One need look no further than the first four chapters to locate Humbert’s fond, obsessive ruminations of the past, his eagerness to relay to the jury his love affair (during his own incipient adolescence) with young Annabel—Lolita’s precursor, to Humbert’s mind. Humbert poetically narrates: “The days of my youth, as I look back on them, seem to fly away from me in a flurry of pale repetitive scraps like those morning snow storms of used tissue paper that a train passenger sees whirling in the wake of the observation of a car” (Nabokov, 16). It is not hard to imagine his soft sigh upon putting down his pen.
“I leaf again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity?” (Nabokov 14). Here one must pause; certainly, a crush or even bout of puppy love is no matter of psychosis or neurosis, but rather a normal, healthy expression of burgeoning sexual desire. But “puppy love” is not the picture Humbert paints. Humbert describes his love for Annabel (both only thirteen) as mad, frenzied, clumsy, shameless, wild and agonizing (12) and takes pains to impress upon the reader the obsession and desperation which marked their affair—clawing at each other in the sea, attempted intercourse on the sand, and Humbert’s desire to “actually [imbibe and assimilate] every particle of [Annabel’s] soul and flesh” (12). Herein, it becomes clear that young Humbert’s tryst with Annabel is, in fact, evidence of a singularity, but not, however, an inherent one.
To call it inherent, of course, implies that Humbert’s longstanding psychosis was built-in, so to speak—present, upon birth. If we turn to Freud and his developmental theories, we discover that Humbert’s psychosis more likely rooted in the pre-Oedipal stage, wherein a glitch occurred; I argue that Humbert’s psychosis is a product of his ego’s failure to ever be established. Freud’s famous “Oedipus complex” centers around the assertion that every child longs to sleep with his or her mother—“only the father’s intervention, separating mother from child, prevents incest […] All civilization is founded on the prohibition expressed in the father’s intervention” (Rivkin and Ryan, 391)
The intervention occurs during the phallic phase of Freudian psychosexual development, when the child becomes aware of his or her possession or lack of a penis. The male child realizes the potential for castration at the hands of his father should he cross the father by sleeping with the father’s mate, his mother:
“The trauma connected with this phase is that of castration, which makes this phase especially important for the resolution of the Oedipus complex. Over this time, you began to deal with your separation anxieties (and your all-encompassing egoism) by finding symbolic ways of representing and thus controlling the separation from (not to mention your desire for) your mother. You also learned to defer bodily gratification when necessary. In other words, your ego became trained to follow the reality-principle and to control the pleasure-principle, although this ability would not be fully attained until you passed through the latency period. [..] [There is] an internalization of the parental function (which Freud usually associated with the father) that eventually manifested itself in your conscience (and sense of guilt)” (Felluga).
I hold that, for Humbert, this never happened. To begin with, Humbert’s father is painted as a jovial, gallant, womanizing, and preposterous figure (“a gentle, easy-going person”  with a “delightfully debonair manner” ), who is more absent than present during Humbert’s childhood. Furthermore, Humbert’s mother died when he was a toddler; Humbert narrates: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which […] the sun of my infancy had set” (10). Humbert’s mother lived long enough for Humbert to develop a sexual attachment to her, but passed before it was ever necessary for his father to have to intervene. Because of this, adult Humbert can be seen as stuck in the pre-Oedipal stage, wherein the pleasure-principle (the pursuit of pleasure and/or gratification at the potential expense of propriety and/or reason) reigns supreme and no attention is paid to the reality-principle.
In the pre-Oedipal stage, a child is driven by his id, that is, “the biological, inherited, unconscious source of sexual drives, instincts, and irrational impulses” as opposed to the ego, which “develops out of the id's interaction with the external world. It [the ego] is produced from the non-biological (social and familial) forces brought to bear on one's biological development and functions as an intermediary between the demands of the id and the external world.” (Quigley) For Humbert, this development was thwarted. Humbert can be seen as never having passed through the castration complex.
Jacques Lacan theorizes that the Law of the Father, realized through the castration complex, is what ushers in a child’s understanding of externality, or Freud’s reality-principle. Essentially, “when the child accedes to castration, it accedes to the impossibility of it directly satisfying its incestuous wish” (Sharpe).
For Humbert, incest with his mother is an impossibility, but only because she is dead. The fact remains, however, that he stagnates in a pre-Oedipal, id-driven state. Lacan explains that, ideally, when an ego is formed (in response to the id, coinciding with the introduction of the Law of the Father, an “identification with and within something that cannot be seen, touched, devoured, or mastered [occurs]: namely, the words, norms and directives of its given cultural collective” (Sharpe). Thus, Humbert never passes through latency or the genital phase, wherein he would have learned to suppress and sublimate his desires, move beyond childhood egoism, and develop a drive to procreate (Felluga). He remains ruled by the pleasure-principle.
Herein lies the basis of his psychological turmoil. To begin with, he never established a sound ego. But why psychosis? Furthermore, why psychosis in the eventual form of pedophilia? To answer this question, we must look to Carl Jung. Earlier in this blog, I referenced Jung’s article, “Anima and the Animus” in relation to Dick Diver’s romantic liaisons in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Once again, a discussion of anima proves profitable. I wrote:
“Jung explains that in every individual there exists anima and animus; anima refers to the unconscious feminine principle and animus refers to its masculine principle. A man’s anima, in this framework, constitutes the man’s ideal female partner; Jung writes that the man, ‘in his love-choice, is strongly tempted to win the woman who best corresponds to his own unconscious femininity—a woman, in short, who can unhesitatingly receive the projection of his soul’ [Jung 159]” (Kiara).
In this manner, Jung provides a psychological explanation for individual’s attractions. This psychology is undeniably Oedipal, moreover, when we note that “the anima of a man will have many characteristics of his mother” (Von Franz 188). Just as Humbert’s ego was malformed, so was this basic anima. With no memory of a mother, save for her beauty, young Humbert was forced to create his anima from something or someone else—Annabel, his first love. Though they were together but a few summer months before she died of typhoid, that brief time was long enough for her to leave a lasting imprint on Humbert's fragile psyche. The thirteen-year-old girl, and all that she represented, became the constitution of characteristics that would forever make up Humbert’s anima. “The ache remained with me,” Humbert narrates, “and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since, until at last, twenty-four years later, I broker her spell by incarnating her in another” (Nabokov 15-6).
So despite what Humbert refers to as a “happy, healthy childhood in a bright would of illustrated books, clean sand, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas and smiling faces” and a “cher petit papa” whom he “adored and respected” (10), Humbert’s psyche was delicate from the very start, and, moreover, doomed to begin with.
As an adult, full-fledged psychosis emerged, limited not only to pedophilia, but to narcissism and violence, as well. He murders Clare Quilty, of course, and entertains the thought of killing his second wife Charlotte Haze. In his introduction to Lolita, Martin Amis points out that Humbert is also “something of a bourgeois sadist with his first wife, Valeria. He fantasized about ‘slapping her breasts out of alignment’ or ‘putting on [his] mountain boots and taking a running kick at her rump’ but in reality confined himself to ‘twisting fat Valechka’s brittle wrist’” (viii).
Then there is the narcissism (Freudian narcissism, that is, rather than Lacanian); Humbert refers to himself as “a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood” (41). He peppers his narrative with polite reminders to his readers of how handsome he is throughout the entire text, and states, quite simply that “despite his malheurs, I am an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, gall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor. Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject’s displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertain to what he was to conceal. And this was my case. Well did I know, alas, that I could obtain at the snap of my fingers any adult female I chose; in fact, it had become quite a habit with me of not being too attentive to women lest they come toppling, bloodripe, into my cold lap” (26). Humbert’s self-love and self-indulgence abounds, and his view of himself is nothing short of megalomania.
Freud writes that “in neurosis the ego suppresses part of the id out of allegiance to reality, whereas in psychosis it lets itself be carried away by the id and detached from a part of reality”; that readiness to allow the desires free reign and to detach oneself from reality is made manifest in all of Humbert’s actions—his pedophilic affair with Lolita, his wild murder of Quilty, and his extreme narcissism.
In fact, the entirety of Lolita can be seen as yet another of Humbert’s indulgences, as he devotes thirty-six chapters to his own story, which the perceived audience (the members of the jury) will be forced to read through.
With all his evils and eccentricities, examining Humbert with a psychoanalytic lens becomes highly profitable. Humbert writes: “When I try to analyze my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past” (Nabokov 14); though Humbert gets lost in the sea of his own psychosis, a careful Freudian analysis allows for a clearer picture—horrific, still, but clearer.
In an interview with Nabokov from 1967, Alfred Appel, Jr., says the following: “You have often expressed your hostility to Freud, most noticeably in the forewords to your translated novels. Some readers have wondered which of Freud's works or theories you were most offended by and why […] Would you comment on this?” Nabokov responds thus: “Oh, I am not up to discussing again that figure of fun. He is not worthy of more attention […] Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts. I really do not care” (Nabokov, Wisconsin Studies).
While Nabokov claims not to care about Freud, he nonetheless creates in Humbert a character rife with possibilities for Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud’s theories, one must remember, are first and foremost a text (Nabokov’s reminder that they are, at a foundational level, “old Greek myths” is spot on) with which to compare other texts. And though Nabokov does not care, that, by no means, means that we should not; Freudian analysis reveals a rich complexity to Humbert that fosters far more concern that summarily writing him off as a pedophile. Humbert is first a madman—second, a pedophile.
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