- Understand All, Forgive Nothing:The Self-Indictment of Humbert Humbert
For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.—Vladimir Nabokov, "On a Book Entitled Lolita"
Pride is the tendency to overestimate oneself, or underestimate others. In either case, a proud person overestimates his own qualities. Since such a person is inclined to view others as inferior and his own actions as admirable, a proud person is disposed to underestimate the suffering he inflicts on others, or worse—to try and justify it. Curiosity about others, tenderness, and kindness, rarely accompanies pride. Thus, it often conflicts with a charitable view of others, and begets cruelty and callousness. Pride is often accompanied by the desire to be admired by others. This desire gives rise to vanity, or vainglory: a vice that seems destined to give rise to further vices. Aquinas clearly expresses this view in the Summa Theologia:1
. . . the vices which by their very nature are such as to be directed to the end of a certain capital vice, are called its daughters. Now the end of vainglory is the manifestation of one's own excellence, as stated above (A1, 4). To this end a man may tend in two ways. On one way directly, [End Page 158] either by words, and this is boasting, or by deeds, and then if they be true and call for astonishment, it is love of novelties which men are wont to wonder at most; but if they be false, it is hypocrisy. On another way a man strives to make known his excellence by showing that he is not inferior to another, and this in four ways. First, as regards the intellect, and thus we have "obstinacy," by which a man is too much attached to his own opinion, being unwilling to believe one that is better. Secondly, as regards the will, and then we have "discord," whereby a man is unwilling to give up his own will, and agree with others. Thirdly, as regards "speech," and then we have "contention," whereby a man quarrels noisily with another. Fourthly as regards deeds, and this is "disobedience," whereby a man refuses to carry out the command of his superiors.
However, whereas pride is an attitude that a person has towards himself, vanity involves a relation with others which pride does not: it emanates from the need to manifest one's excellence to others and gain their approval. Thus, since the proud person does not engage with the opinions of others, his view of himself remains secure. Vanity, on the hand, can prove to be a blessing in disguise: the attempt to gain approval could lead to self-awareness.
The pride of Humbert Humbert, the main character and narrator in Nabokov's Lolita, is the pride of an aesthete: intellectually superior, and determined to pursue his appetites. But Humbert is not only proud.2 He is also vain. Vanity leads him to seek the approval of others, and underlines his artistic aspirations. He undertakes the writing of a manuscript, designed to be a masterpiece that vindicates his actions. In his manuscript, Humbert tries to elicit the reader's sympathy, in the conviction that sympathetic identification would lead to acceptance. However, while he successfully challenges and threatens the reader's moral outlook, writing the manuscript has an unintended effect: it shatters Humbert's own convictions and leads to moral transformation. The reason for this transformation is that he recognizes the aesthetic faults of his work, and traces these faults to his own moral faults.
The claim that aesthetic considerations can play an important role in moral thinking cannot be taken for granted. First, the threat of an empty aestheticism must be addressed, because it seems that aesthetic considerations and the pursuit of aesthetic ideals compete with moral considerations, rather than complete them. As Humbert illustrates, aesthetic pursuit motivates acts of cruelty and callousness, and aesthetic ideals are often devoid of any moral significance. Second, if aesthetic [End Page 159] considerations...