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Nabokov and Bergson

Nabokov and Bergson
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  Humbert, Bergson, and Pity Lolita’s  lilting prose is often lauded as a success over its sordid, scandalous, and shocking subjects, Humbert Humbert the Horrible and his hideous affliction. Indeed, so says the so-called ‘  John Ray Jr. ’  in his preface, calling H.H. a “shining example of moral leprosy” 1  while ceding that “his singing violins can conjure up a tendresse  , a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author” 2 . But, perhaps he, and we, are wrong to think that this is a great novel in spite  of damned and doomed Humbert . “Beauty plus pity— that is the closest we can get to a definition of art” 3  , so says Nabokov. Humbert the Fe cund’s verbose prose is certainly beautiful, but I will argue that it’s pity ing monstrous Humbert the Heartbroken, and his broken life, that leaves such a lasting impression in, though not on, Lolita . In Section I, I will out line Bergson’s notion of qualitative multiplicities which informed Nabokov’s work . In Section II, I will show how Humbert qualitatively progresses because of his life-failure, impressing true pity on us. And now, if you’ll forgive my fanciful - but frankly abominable- aping of our ape 4  , we can begin to unravel his “ tangle of thorns ” 5  , and see why, without the tragedy of Humbert, Lolita  could scarcely be art. 1   The Annotated Lolita  , Vladmir Nabokov (Penguin Classics: New Edition (ed. Alfred Appel), 2000), pg. 5. 2  Nabokov, pg. 5. 3   Lectures on Literature  , Vladmir Nabokov and Fredson Bowers (Mariner Books, 1982), pg. 251. 4  The inspiration for Lolita   came from an article about an ape who drew the bars of his own cage. ( On a Book Entitled Lolita  , Vladmir Nabokov (In: The Annotated Lolita  , Penguin Classics: New Edition (ed. Alfred Appel), 2000), pg. 311.) 5  Nabokov, pg. 9.  Humbert, Bergson, and Pity 2 I Bergson’s Multiplicities  Bergson, in Time and Free Will  , distinguishes two types of multiplicities. A quantitative multiplicity “enumerates things or states of consciousness by means of externalizing one from another in a homogeneous space” 6 . So, suppose we see a herd of cows. Each cow is spatially separated from the others, and occupies its own location. Then, we could count each cow. Suppose we see nine cows, which we represent with the symbol, ‘ 9 ’ . This herd would contain all the permutations possible for sets of ‘ 8 ’  cows, ‘ 7 ’  cows, ‘ 6 ’  cows, and so on. In other words, the greater number contains all of the lesser ones. Bergson would dub such a multiplicity “ex tensive and measurable” 7 . But, moral and aesthetic feelings forgo such classification. Bergson asks, “how can a more intense sensation contain one of less intensity?” 8  Feelings, unlike herds of cows, or natural numbers, do not occupy a singular, homogenous space. Instead, they are heterogeneous, continuous, oppositional, and temporal 9 . But,  just what does he mean? True Pity   Perhaps we can clarify Bergson’s philosophy  while also crafting the mise-en-scène  for our discussion of Humbert’ s life-failure . Pity begins by “putting oneself mentally in 6   Henri Bergson  , Leonard Lawlor and Leonard-Moulard Valentine (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (ed. Edward N. Zalta), 2016), pg. 8. 7   Time and Free Will  , Henri Bergson (Allen and Unwin: Sixth Edition (trans. Frank Lubecki Pogson), 1950), pg. 3. 8  Bergson, pg. 2. 9  Lawlor and Valentine, pg. 10.  Humbert, Bergson, and Pity 3 the place of others, in suffering their pain.” 10  However, if this were all, we would run scared from the desolate! Who would needlessly subject themselves to pain? Instead, we desire to help; we’re  sympathetic. But, why should we do this for the wretched without want of reward? Is it merely a fear that, should we need help in the future, and don’t help now, n one will come to our aid? 11   Perhaps. But, to Bergson, this isn’t the whole story. Instead, true  pity is not fearing pain, but wanting it 12 . Such a desire is faint, and we hardly seek it out, but we can’t help but form it. It’s   “as if Nature were committing some great injustice and it were necessary to get rid of all suspicion of complicity with her.” 13  But, in desiring this pain, we forgo sensuous pleasure. Through our aspiration downwards, we feel superior to a base individualistic and hedonistic impulse from which our thoughts become temporarily detached. As the intensity of our pity increases, we feel a qualitative progress, transitioning from “repugnance to fear, from fear to sympathy, and from sympathy itself to humility” 14 . These four states are heterogeneous, but feeling one does not preclude the possibility of feeling another, even if they may be in opposition, or of greater and lesser intensities. The Aim of the Artist 10  Bergson, pg. 18. 11  Lawlor and Valentine, pg. 9. 12  Bergson, pg. 19. 13  Bergson, pg. 19. 14  Bergson, pg. 19.  Humbert, Bergson, and Pity 4 But even so, why should pity play a role at all? Humbert is morally repugnant. Why shouldn’t we celebrate his life -failure with relish, gorgeous prose be damned? To Bergson, such a notion would be contradictory. The artistic process does n’t  solely express beauty, but impresses feeling. T he aim of art is to “put to sleep the active or rather resistant powers of our personality, and make us responsive to suggestion.” 15  It is, in a sense, akin to hypnosis. The artist is then able to give us a share in the experience they would like to convey 16 . Humbert’s deft linguistic dexterity lulls us into pitying our pathetic paedophile, and Nabokov knows we can do nought to stop this. II Humbert the Repugnant The most obvious evidence of this intention comes at the end of the beginning, wh ere Humbert declares, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” 17 ; shortly after dubbing the “fire of his loins” 18  a girl-child in slacks, still in school. He then unabashedly- indeed with relish- facilitates a description of Humbert the Horrible’s beloved nymphets,  substituting temporal symbols –  bland, quantitative multiplicities –  for spatial ones. “I would have the reader see “nine” and “fourteen” [the ages between which nym phets reside] as the boundaries, the mirror 15  Bergson, pg. 14. 16  Bergson, pg. 16. 17  Nabokov, pg. 9. 18  Nabokov, pg. 9.  Humbert, Bergson, and Pity 5  beaches and rosy rocks, of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea.” 19   We don’t pity Humbert for his  brusque descriptions of his mother’s death (“picnic, lightning” 20 ), Aunt Sybil the poetically superstitious poet’s  prophesised demise, nor indeed Annabel ’s  fatal typhus, the potential cause of all our melancholy main man’s misery. He doesn’t ask us to. He suggests no present pain, so we feel none. Indeed, the principal hint Humbert provides that he’s a pitiable person only comes after he sets all “paradise loose” 21  while Lo, left alone, sits on the lap of the self-described dog 22 . Humbert enjoys his carnal ecstasy to Carmen  , but absolves himself of mo ral responsibility claiming, “absolutely no harm done… [to the child I] adore so horribly” 23 . No, not horribly, but pathetically. “Pathetic   –  because despite the insatiable fire of my venereal appetite, I intended, with the most fervent force and foresight to protect the purity of that twelve-year- old child.” 24  At first glance, it seems as if monstrous Humbert the Hobgoblin is decrying his own inability to act on his perverted impulses. He thinks he’s  pitiful for his feeble inability to act on his wolfish desires or dispatch the horrid Haze woman? The malignant ogre! Indeed, such would seem to have been the belief of most prospective publishers, who saw no possible redemption for this wretch, or so says Nabokov. “Publisher X whose 19  Nabokov, pg. 16. 20  Nabokov, pg. 10. 21  Nabokov, pg. 60. 22   Humbert refers to himself as “Humbert the Hound” (In: The Annotated Lolita  , Penguin Classics: New Edition (ed. Alfred Appel), 2000, pg. 60). 23  Nabokov, pg. 62. 24  Nabokov, pg. 63.
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