Lolita

I realize it’s been forever, and I apologize to those of you who visit T&L every day just waiting for an update. Wink, wink.

These past few months have been crazy and busy, but I’m back, having read two novels and one novella already since graduation. (Another wink.)

I have two lists of books taped to my wall. Both come from the City of Books, Powell’s, in Portland. One list is of all the Pulitzer Prize fiction recipients. The other is the 100 best novels of the 20th century. I have little check marks (far too few check marks) next to all the ones I’ve read. It’s my goal to read every book on those lists.

So I read Nabokov’s Lolita, #4 on the best novels list, just after Portrait of an Artist and right before Brave New World. 

I’ve told a lot of people, honestly, that I wanted to read this book because I should read this book. It’s an important one (it’s #4, after all). But I also wanted to read it to understand more about darkness, the darkness of sexual abuse, the darkness of manipulation and power-wielding.

In my Theology II class this spring, we spent weeks talking about trauma and the role of the Spirit in trauma. Is it that the Spirit of God hovers only where there’s life and love? Or does the Spirit of God hover over darkness? And perhaps the Spirit is most present, is most active, where she feels the farthest away–in the darkest depths of hell.

I underlined only one sentence in the entire book, the one that made me the angriest and saddest. This (and the whole book) is narrated by Humbert Humbert, Lolita’s step-father and abuser:

I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.

Of all the gross and grotesque words written by our narrator, this is the one to haunt me. I think it’s because we’ve heard it so many times. Raped women “had it coming.” If only you weren’t dressed so sexy.

Over the summer, the Internet went wild when Christianity Today posted an editorial by a man, a convicted rapist, who warned against the “slippery slope” that got him where he was, in prison. Of course, he wasn’t talking about his preying upon a minor. Instead he spoke of his extramarital affair, speaking of the abused, his Lolita, as merely his partner in crime. They were equally guilty.

The problem is, as many people have pointed out, that this man wasn’t willing to admit his real crime–statutory rape. He didn’t acknowledge his power as youth pastor over the girl he seduced. And then there’s the problem of CT giving voice to someone who has already abused his authority, who has too much of a voice. Why not give voice to the victim?

Eventually CT took the post down, and their women’s blog Her.meneutics (face-palm) published a wonderful counter-post written by a woman who was abused, who was a victim. She, Haley Gray Scott, begins her post quoting Lolita, saying,

Last week, when I read [the editorial] I had much the same reaction as when I first read Lolita. “This is a narrator who cannot be trusted. This is the voice of a sexual predator.” For many people, like me, it was all too familiar. We readily recognize the biased perspective of sexual predators because we’ve been on the other side, as victims.

This is what led me to pick of Lolita, finally, and read it. I wanted to ask, how does the gospel speak to Lolita and to other victims of sexual abuse and violence? Where is the Spirit of God? Is she with Lolita? Where is the justice of God? Will there be satisfaction?

My friend Michael and I are reading through Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be one of those must-read theology books of the 20th century. (Perhaps there’s a Powell’s list for those!) I told Michael how I was so nervous to discuss the book with him, another theologian-in-training, because, oh my gosh, what if I sound like an idiot? What if I know way less than my M.A. in Theology lets on?

Then he reminded me that as a reader of books, as a fiction-loving bookworm, I understand more of the human condition than maybe a lot of other people.* (And Tillich, if you know him, writes all about the human condition.)

And that’s what books do; that’s what all stories do. They reveal to us a bit more about what it means to be human–a broken human, an abused human. And they beg us to ask questions, then, of God. Are you here? Do you care?

 

* That’s a total paraphrase.

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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