Afternoon of the Sex Children
Not long ago I took part in one of the conversations you’re not supposed to have. It turned on whether Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, really desired underage girls. The usual arguments came out: Nabokov was a master of personae, and Humbert Humbert a game to him. Kinbote, analogous narrator of Pale Fire, didn’t make you think Nabokov loved boys. The late novels were Nabokov’s allegories of the seductions of aestheticism, which transfigures the forbidden into the beautiful; or moral paintings of our acceptance of crime, when crime is presented alluringly. So love of the wrong object becomes a metaphor for art, ethics, personality, and so forth.
I was reluctant to say that I felt these explanations were inadequate and even in bad faith. The trouble with Lolita is plainly its ability to describe what a sexual 12-year-old looks like. What her dress is like when it brushes her knees, what her toes are like with painted nails, how the color sits on the plump bow of her lips—the phrase for this is that it is “too real”; that’s the scandal. It continues to be the scandal fifty years after publication, and it will be a scandal whenever any adult acknowledges the capacity to upend his vision and see a child, protected larval stage of the organism, as a sexual object. The girl is still a child, only now she is a sex child. Yet this makes me feel Nabokov was not a pedophile, but something he is not credited with being—a social critic.
You, too, see it, or should. The trend of these fifty years has been to make us see sexual youth where it doesn’t exist, and ignore it as it does. Adults project the sex of children in lust, or examine children sexually with magnifying glasses to make sure they don’t appeal to us. But these lenses became burning glasses. The hips of Betty Grable melted and disappeared. The breasts of Marilyn Monroe ran off and were replaced with silicone. The geography of fashion created new erogenous zones—pelvic midriff, rear cleavage—for dieters starving off their secondary sex characteristics, and for young teens, in the convergence of the exerciser and the pubescent child. The waif and the pixie became ideal. Mama and daughter look the same again before the bedroom mirror—not dressed up in Mama’s pearls and heels, this time, but in children’s wear. The dream belongs to 16, or to those who can starve themselves to 16.
The critic Philip Fisher used to note that Lolita, tightly plotted as it is, repeats one scene twice. Humbert spies a lit window far opposite. Because he longs to see a nymphet, he sees one. The wave of arousal returns, its tide dampening him up to his knees. As he nears the climax, the form is refocused as an adult woman or man. Disgusting! But this is a simple inversion of a characteristic experience of our time. A man will see a distant form, in low-cut top and low-slung jeans, and think he is on the trail of eroticism; draw near, and identify a child. Revolting! The defenses against it continue the problem. The more a whole nation inspects the sex characteristics of children to make sure it is not becoming aroused by childishness, and slyly hunts around to make sure its most untrustworthy members are not being so aroused, the more it risks creating a sexual fascination with the child. However you gaze, to accept the fantasy, or to assure yourself you see nothing, you join in an abomination.