Men Explain Lolita to Me
Rebecca Solnit: Art Makes the World, and It Can Break Us
It is a fact universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of an opinion must be in want of a correction. Well, actually, no it isn’t, but who doesn’t love riffing on Jane Austen? The answer is: lots of people, because we’re all different and some of us haven’t even read Pride and Prejudice dozens of times, but the main point is that I’ve been performing interesting experiments in proffering my opinions and finding that some of the men out there respond on the grounds that my opinion is wrong, while theirs is right because they are convinced that their opinion is a fact, while mine is a delusion. Sometimes they also seem to think that they are in charge, of me as well of facts.
It isn’t a fact universally acknowledged that a person who mistakes his opinions for facts may also mistake himself for God. This can happen if he’s been insufficiently exposed to the fact that there are also other people who have other experiences, and that they too were created equal, with certain inalienable rights, and that consciousness thing that is so interesting and troubling is also going on inside their heads. This is a problem straight white men suffer from especially, because the western world has held up a mirror to them for so long—and turns compliant women into mirrors reflecting them back twice life size, Virginia Woolf noted. The rest of us get used to the transgendering and cross-racializing of our identities as we invest in protagonists like Ishmael or Dirty Harry or Holden Caulfield. But straight white men don’t, so much. I coined a term a while ago, privelobliviousness, to try to describe the way that being the advantaged one, the represented one, often means being the one who doesn’t need to be aware and, often, isn’t. Which is a form of loss in its own way.
So much of feminism has been women speaking up about hitherto unacknowledged experiences, and so much of antifeminism has been men telling them these things don’t happen. “You were not just raped,” your rapist may say, and then if you persist there may be death threats, because killing people is the easy way to be the only voice in the room. Non-white people get much the same rubbish about how there isn’t racism and they don’t get treated differently and race doesn’t affect any of us, because who knows better than white people who are trying to silence people of color? And queer people too, but we all know all of that already, or should if we are paying attention.
This paying attention is the foundational act of empathy, of listening, of seeing, of imagining experiences other than one’s own, of getting out of the boundaries of one’s own experience. There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not. Or to go deeper within ourselves, to be more aware of what it means to be heartbroken, or ill, or six, or ninety-six, or completely lost. Not just versions of our self rendered awesome and eternally justified and always right, living in a world in which other people only exist to help reinforce our magnificence, though those kinds of books and comic books and movies exist in abundance and cater to the male imagination. Which is a reminder that literature and art can also help us fail at empathy if it sequesters us in the Boring Old Fortress of Magnificent Me.
This is why I had a nice time last month picking on a very male literary canon lined up by Esquire as “80 Books Every Man Should Read,” 79 of them by men. It seemed to encourage this narrowness of experience and I was arguing not that everyone should read books by ladies—though shifting the balance matters—but that maybe the whole point of reading is to be able to explore and also transcend your gender (and race and class and nationality and moment in history and age and ability) and experience being others. Saying this upset some men. Many among that curious gender are easy to upset, and when they are upset they don’t know it (see: privelobliviousness). They just think you’re wrong and sometimes also evil.
There has been a lot said this year about college students—meaning female college students, black students, trans students—and how they’re hypersensitive and demanding that others be censored. That’s why The Atlantic, a strange publication that veers from progressive to regressive and back again like a weighty pendulum recently did a piece on “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It tells us that, “Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke,” with the invocation of these two white guys as definitive authorities.
But seriously, you know who can’t take a joke? White guys. Not if it implicates them and their universe, and when you see the rage, the pettiness, the meltdowns and fountains of male tears of fury, you’re seeing people who really expected to get their own way and be told they’re wonderful all through the days. And here, just for the record, let me clarify that I’m not saying that all of them can’t take it. Many white men—among whom I count many friends (and, naturally, family members nearly as pale as I)—have a sense of humor, that talent for seeing the gap between what things are supposed to be and what they are and for seeing beyond the limits of their own position. Some have deep empathy and insight and write as well as the rest of us. Some are champions of human rights.
But there are also those other ones, and they do pop up and demand coddling. A group of black college students doesn’t like something and they ask for something different in a fairly civil way and they’re accused of needing coddling as though it’s needing nuclear arms. A group of white male gamers doesn’t like what a woman cultural critic says about misogyny in gaming and they spend a year or so persecuting her with an unending torrent of rape threats, death threats, bomb threats, doxxing, and eventually a threat of a massacre that cites Marc LePine, the Montreal misogynist who murdered 14 women in 1989, as a role model. I’m speaking, of course, about the case of Anita Sarkeesian and Gamergate. You could call those guys coddled. We should. And seriously, did they feel they were owed a world in which everyone thought everything they did and liked and made was awesome or just remained silent? Maybe, because they had it for a long time.
I sort of kicked the hornets’ nest the other day, by expressing feminist opinions about books. It all came down to Lolita. “Some of my favorite novels are disparaged in a fairly shallow way. To read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov,” one commenter asserted, which made me wonder if there’s a book called Reading Lolita in Patriarchy. The popular argument that novels are good because they inculcate empathy assumes that we identify with characters, and no one gets told they’re wrong for identifying with Gilgamesh or even Elizabeth Bennett. It’s just when you identify with Lolita you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years. Should you read Lolita and strenuously avoid noticing that this is the plot and these are the characters? Should the narrative have no relationship to your own experience? This reader thinks so.
All I had actually said was that, just as I had identified with a character who’s dismissively treated in On the Road, so I’d identified with Lolita. I read many Nabokov novels back in the day, but a novel centered around the serial rape of a kidnapped child, back when I was near that child’s age was a little reminder how hostile the world, or rather the men in it, could be. Which is not a pleasure.
The omnipresence of men raping female children as a literary subject, from Tess of the d’Urbervilles to Less Than Zero, along with real-life accounts like that of Jaycee Dugard (kidnapped at 11 in 1991 and used as a sex slave for 18 years by a Bay Area man), can have the cumulative effect of reminding women that we spend a lot of our lives quietly, strategically trying not to get raped, which takes a huge toll on our lives and affects our sense of self. Sometimes art reminds us of life.
Hardy’s novel is in fact a tragedy of what happens when a poor young woman’s lack of agency, beginning with her lack of the right to say no to the sex forced on her by a rich man, spirals out to destroy her life in a grand manner. It could be recuperated as a great feminist novel. There are a lot of male writers, even a long way back, who I think of as humane and empathic toward female as well as male characters: Wordsworth, Hardy, Tolstoy, Trollope, Dickens come to mind. (That none of them are blemishless human beings we can discuss another time, possibly after hell freezes over.)
There is a common attack on art that thinks it is a defense. It is the argument that art has no impact on our lives, that art is not dangerous, and therefore all art is beyond reproach, and we have no grounds to object to any of it, and any objection is censorship. No one has ever argued against this view more elegantly than the great, now-gone critic Arthur C. Danto, whose 1988 essay on the subject was formative for my own thinking. That was in the era when right-wing senators wanted to censor art or cancel the National Endowment for the Arts altogether. The argument against this art, which included Robert Mapplethorpe’s elegantly formalist pictures of men engaged in sadomasochistic play, was that it was dangerous, that it might change individual minds and lives and then our culture. Some of the defenders took the unfortunate position that art is not dangerous because, ultimately, it has no impact.
Photographs and essays and novels and the rest can change your life; they are dangerous. Art shapes the world. I know many people who found a book that determined what they would do with their life or saved their life. Books aren’t life preservers; there are more complex, less urgent reasons to read them, including pleasure, and pleasure matters. Danto describes the worldview of those who assert there is an apartheid system between art and life: “But the concept of art interposes between life and literature a very tough membrane, which insures the incapacity of the artist to inflict moral harm so long as it is recognized that what he is doing is art.” His point is that art can inflict moral harm and often does, just as other books do good. Danto references the totalitarian regimes whose officials recognized very clearly that art can change the world and repressed the stuff that might.
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You can read Nabokov’s relationship to his character in many ways. Vera Nabokov, the author’s wife, wrote, “I wish, though, somebody would notice the tender description of the child, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along…” And the women who read Nabokov’s novel in repressive Iran, says Azar Nafisi of Reading Lolita in Tehran, identified too: “Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such she becomes a double victim—not only her life but also her life story is taken from her. We told ourselves we were in that class to prevent ourselves from falling victim to this second crime.”
When I wrote the essay that provoked such splenetic responses, I was trying to articulate that there is a canonical body of literature in which women’s stories are taken away from them, in which all we get are men’s stories. And that these are sometimes not only books that don’t describe the world from a woman’s point of view, but inculcate denigration and degradation of women as cool things to do.
Dilbert comic Scott Adams wrote last month that we live in a matriarchy because, “access to sex is strictly controlled by the woman.” Meaning that you don’t get to have sex with someone unless they want to have sex with you, which if we say it without any gender pronouns sounds completely reasonable. You don’t get to share someone’s sandwich unless they want to share their sandwich with you, and that’s not a form of oppression either. You probably learned that in kindergarten.
But if you assume that sex with a female body is a right that heterosexual men have, then women are just these crazy illegitimate gatekeepers always trying to get in between you and your rights. Which means you have failed to recognize that women are people, and perhaps that comes from the books and movies you have—and haven’t—been exposed to, as well as the direct inculcation of the people and systems around you. Art matters, and there’s a fair bit of art in which rape is celebrated as a triumph of the will (see Kate Millet’s 1970 book Sexual Politics, which covers some of the same male writers as the Esquire list) . It’s always ideological, and it makes the world we live in.
Investigative journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong just published a long piece about how police caught a serial rapist (and how one of his victims was not only disbelieved for years but was bullied into saying she lied and then prosecuted for lying). The rapist told them, “Deviant fantasies had gripped him since he was a kid, way back to when he had seen Jabba the Hutt enslave and chain Princess Leia.” Culture shapes us. Miller and Armstrong’s grim and gripping essay, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” bears witness to both the impact of popular culture and of women’s stories being discounted and discredited.
But “to read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov” said one of my less friendly readers. I thought that was funny, so I posted it on Facebook, and a nice liberal man came along and explained to me this book was actually an allegory as though I hadn’t thought of that yet. It is, and it’s also a novel about a big old guy violating a spindly child over and over and over. Then she weeps. And then another nice liberal man came along and said, “You don’t seem to understand the basic truth of art. I wouldn’t care if a novel was about a bunch of women running around castrating men. If it was great writing, I’d want to read it. Probably more than once.” Of course there is no such body of literature, and if the nice liberal man who made that statement had been assigned book after book full of castration scenes, maybe even celebrations of castration, it might have made an impact on him.
I hasten to add that I don’t think I’m injured by these guys at this point in my life, and I don’t feel sorry for myself. I just goggle in amazement at the batshit that comes out of them; it’s like I’m running a laboratory and they keep offering up magnificent specimens. Apparently over the horizon some of them got so upset that no less a literary voice than this year’s Booker Prize winner Marlon James said, “Liberal men. I’m not about to stop your inevitable progress to neo-liberal and eventually, neocon, so let’s make this one quick. It seems some of you have a problem with Rebecca Solnit’s new piece. There is censorship, and there is challenging somebody’s access to making money. This is not the same thing.”
And though I was grateful to James for calling them out, I wasn’t even challenging anyone’s access to making money. I just made humorous remarks about some books and some dead writers’ characters. These guys were apparently so upset and so convinced that the existence of my opinions and voice menaced others’ rights. Guys: censorship is when the authorities repress a work of art, not when someone dislikes it.
I had never said that we shouldn’t read Lolita. I’ve read it more than once. I joked that there should be a list of books no woman should read, because quite a few lionized books are rather nasty about my gender, but I’d also said “of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty.” And then I’d had fun throwing out some opinions about books and writers. But I was serious about this. You read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.