By Christina Marcucci
Over fifty years after its publication, Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) has integrated into mainstream American popular culture, with pop singers such as Katy Perry, Lana Del Rey and others exploiting nymphal iconography as central to their curated celebrity personae. The twelve-year-old child “standing four feet ten in one sock” (Nabokov 9), whose youth is violated by a thirty-seven-year-old hebephile, is effectively erased and overshadowed by dominant images of adult women adopting the “aesthetic bliss” (Nabokov 315)—or the pure aestheticism—which Nabokov prescribes to the novel as a whole. This essay will interrogate Lolita’s continued influence as an American cultural artefact, whose “overvalorized [aestheticism]…[ascribes] agencies to aesthetic culture all by itself, apart from [the] social and material forces” (Melamed 20) that linger in Lolita’s subtext, and gestures toward a grim glimpse at Lolita’s real pain. I argue that Humbert Humbert’s erasure of Dolores from Lolita’s textual diegesis suggestively mimics both the Academe, as well as pop culture’s self-absorbed fixation with the realm of aesthetics, and its subsequent evasion of the material world beyond the ambit of the art object.
Nabokov has long been lauded as a linguistic genius whose prose carries the incantatory lure of deluding its readers by lulling them into passive acquiescence of Humbert’s solipsistic and narcissistic narrative. In his text Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures, Timothy Aubry claims that “Lolita’s ability to command attention over this period testifies in part to its versatility; its dense, rhetorically mercurial prose” (Aubry 140). In a survey that I posted in search of reader reception responses to Lolita, multiple anonymous respondents described Nabokov’s prose as “masterful”, “linguistically stunning”, and as “[exhibiting] the highest degree of prosaic excellence, skill, and creativity… an aesthetic masterpiece.” One of the respondents simply quoted a passage describing Humbert climaxing at the sight of an unknowing Lolita. Ten of the fourteen respondents claimed that they enjoyed reading Lolita, and twelve reported that they study/studied English literature at university. I would like to consider this small group of respondents as representing a certain interpretive community, which Stanley Fish describes as being “made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions” (Fish 207). All of the respondents come from a similar academic background, experience a comparable curricular trajectory, and are conditioned within this scholastic habitus to value certain stylistic and formal qualities within a literary text. It seems apparent that the group of respondents all appreciate and enjoy reading Lolita for its skillful manipulation of form, which lends to its status as, what some have called, an “aesthetic masterpiece.” Only four respondents reported any criticism of Lolita’s lewd and sinister content, and even in these responses, two of them they tipped their hats to Nabokov’s attractive prose: “Nabokov’s writing is absolutely stunning, but the context of the book was just too much”; “[Lolita] really made me think about the social implications of literature. At the same time, I was very self-conscious about my sense of enjoyment [as] I was continuously weighing the pleasures of aesthetics against the morality of consuming that content”. For the majority of this academic interpretive community, reading Lolita is not so much about reading the chronicles of a hebephile as it is an aesthetic experience in and of itself, divorced from its unseemly content.
Aubry traces Lolita’s critical reception from the moment of its publication. He records the initial New Critical appraisal of the novel as a formal masterpiece, the deconstructionist perception of Lolita as a piece of metafiction, and finally, the recent feminist criticism of Lolita as the story of an abused twelve-year-old girl (Aubry 141). Aubry shrewdly notes that “[b]y the time feminists and other politically minded critics turn their attention to the suffering of Lolita…it is too late: Lolita has become an obscene fixture within the academy” (Aubry 141). In other words, Lolita’s consecration as a classic, as a crucial pillar of the twentieth-century canon, gives it its defensibility, further shielded by the academe’s stamp of approval. J.D. Porter describes “two different ways of entering the canon: being read by many and being prized by an elite few—or […] [by] popularity and prestige. With these two dimensions, we arrive at a canonical space” (Porter 2). By this definition, Lolita’s success is not simply a matter of academic acclaim, but also of public praise, the combination of which has “secured [Nabokov] an afterlife, and an aftermarket, for [his life’s] work” (Harbach 9). This legacy is further sanctified by Lolita’s filtration into mainstream popular culture, which reinforces its status as a pure aesthetic object, as various pop-sensations capitalize off the appropriation of nymphal symbols. Humbert’s systematic impingement on Lolita’s childhood is erased in the montage of adult women wearing pigtails and heart-shaped sunglasses, both of which are resonant of Humbert’s description of Lolita’s style. In 2014, Katy Perry posted an Instagram photo of herself lying on a bed, scantily clad, her hair in two high buns, with the caption “feeing v Lolita rn [feeling very Lolita right now]” (U.S. Magazine Online, Celebrity News). Whether Perry genuinely identifies with the twelve-year-old child, or is simply taking a position within the field of popular culture, is not clear. What is clear is that Perry exploits the ekphrastic re-presentation of Lolita as a symbolic icon, whose aesthetic signification has come to replace the sexually violated girl-child who sobs in the middle of the night (Nabokov 142). As such, Dolores Haze has been doubly erased, first by Humbert, and then by pop-culture, whose invocation of Lolita aligns the gaze of the consumer with the gaze of Humbert. In an interview, Perry states: “for some reason I have an obsession with Lolita, and I think it’s because she’s both innocent and knows that she’s a little bit of a sex kitten as well, and she walks that line” (Youtube, “Katy Perry talking about her obsession with Lolita”). Perry’s commentary further dramatizes the total engulfment of Lolita as a pure aesthetic artefact; Perry uncritically accepts Humbert’s unreliable sexualization of Lolita. Aubry characterizes this phenomenon as “the hazards of an overcommitment to form” (Aubry 143), which begins in the academe, then filters into the mainstream, and ultimately reinforces a form of male violence and entitlement that becomes perceived in pop-culture as sexy, cutting-edge, and nostalgic.
Other pop-stars have taken the Lolita doxa one step further, and built their entire professional persona (Pop Matters, “You Know You Like Little Girls: Lana Del Rey and Dolores Haze) upon the aesthetic symbols instantiated by Humbert. A most salient example of this is Lana Del Rey, who, for all intents and purposes, resembles Lolita almost to a T with her “dark glasses”, “chestnut head of hair”, “lips as red as licked red candy, the lower one prettily plump”, and melancholic vintage aesthetic (Nabokov 39; 44). Del Rey has even written a song titled “Lolita” (2012), as well as another titled “Young and Beautiful” (2013). “Young and Beautiful” assumes the Humbertesque gaze as Del Rey takes on the persona of a Lolita figure. She repeatedly asks “Will you still love me/ When I’m no longer young and beautiful?” and “The crazy days, city lights/ The way you’d play with me like a child”. These lyrics are not to be taken out of context, or divorced from Del Rey’s already carefully curated celebrity image, which embraces Humbert’s male, pedophilic gaze. Del Rey ironically strengthens the already problematic connection between female submission, helplessness, and eroticism—a set of tropes which Nabokov’s novel exploits to its parodic ending, whereby Lolita, no longer young and nymphal, dies in childbirth.
This essay has mapped Lolita’s migration from the Academe into popular culture. In so doing, I have interrogated how aestheticizing Lolita creates a safe distance and dissociation from the sufferings of Dolores the child beyond Humbert’s self-fulfilling, imaginary narrative voice. The Lolita aesthetic has become another doxic iteration of romanticized female complacency under conditions of patriarchal oppression. Singers such as Katy Perry and Lana Del Rey have gained popularity by exploiting a cultural obsession with conflated symbols of youth and sensuality, and have done so by appropriating the misogynistic personae of “pale pubescent girls with matted eyelashes…nymphets” (Nabokov 16). John Guillory acknowledges that “the school plays the largest role in the creation of the cultural capital associated with the literary canon” (qtd. in Porter 5), and I hope to have illuminated some of the social values inherent to this claim. Studying literature is not merely the trained disentanglement of formal elements or the examination of “art for art’s sake”. There is a whole social, cultural, globalized world beyond the stuffy ambit of the text itself, and literary scholars must recognize their responsibility to address these realities, and to address them critically.
Aubry, Timothy Richard. Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures. Harvard University Press, 2018.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice, Translated by Richard Nice, Great Britain, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Fish, Stanley E. “Interpreting the Variorum.” Critical Inquiry, Vol.2 No.3, The University of Chicago Press, 1976, pp. 465-485.
Harbach, Chad. “MFA vs. NYC.” n+1 magazine, 2010.
Howley, Malka. “You Know You Like Little Girls: Lana Del Rey and Dolores Haze.” PopMatters, www.popmatters.com. Accessed 18 November, 2019.
Melamed, Jodi. “Producing Discourses of Certainty with Official Antiracisms.” Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism, Minnesota Scholarship Online, 2011, pp. 1-32.
Marquina, Sierra. “Katy Perry Shares Suggestive “Lolita” Selfie in Bed— See the Cleavage- Baring Strap!” U.S. Magazine Online, www.usmagazine.com. Accessed November 20, 2019.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Random House, United States of America, 1995.
Porter, J.D.. Popularity/Prestige. Pamphlets of the Stanford Literary Lab, 2018.
Youtube, “Katy Perry talking about her obsession with Lolita.” Youtube, https://youtu.be/2IxU_USs_s8. Accessed 19 November, 2019.
Lana Del Rey Young and Beautiful Lyrics: https://genius.com/Lana-del-rey-young-and-beautiful-lyrics
Lolita Reader Reception Survey Results: https://www.surveymonkey.com/results/SM-JNLVW63W7/