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Nabokov Studies 3 (1996) Forum SARAH HERBOLD (Berkeley) Reflections on Modernism: Lolita and Political Engagement, or How the Left and the Right Both Have It Wrong "A good reader is bound to make fierce efforts when wrestling with a difficult author, but those efforts can be most rewarding after the bright dust has settled." Strong Opinions 183. In The Concept of Modernism, Astradur Eysteinsson asserts that the most important task facing modernist studies is to answer the question of how modernism can at once be seen as confronting and avoiding the real world. Why is modernism sometimes described as an attempt to evade the alienating and fragmenting conditions of twentieth-century life by escaping into the redemptive aesthetic autonomy of art, and at other times as what Eysteinsson calls "a historically explosive paradigm," which actively contests the status quo (16)? Eysteinsson passionately defends modernism against the charge that it is either a fugitive or complacent ivory-tower mode; he asserts that modernism is revolutionary because it presents modernity with a distorted image of its own state of distortion, and so constitutes (in the words of Harry Levin) a "conscience for a scientific age" (21). Yet Eysteinsson's argument sometimes seems paradoxical to the point of self-contradiction. He argues, for example, that even the insistence on art for art's sake can be seen as a form of resistance to the alienation of bourgeois capitalism, without explaining how this can be so, or what the implications of this insistence might be (208). He also admits, "I do not think modernist practices have decisively challenged prevalent signification systems of the cultural order. Modernism has largely remained a branch of 'idiolects'" (219). And he concedes that "it is hard to imagine the impact of modernism's 146 Nabokov Studies cultural reorientation . . . because of the very 'openness' of the semantic revolt" (222). Furthermore, Eysteinsson does not show how particular modernist literary works succeed in subverting the status quo, or how subversion of literary conventions might also contravene social norms. Let us consider Lolita as a test case. Nabokov's professed disdain for the novel of social engagement is well known. He spurned what he called the ordinary novel's "bogus profundities, . . . social comment, humanistic messages , political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know" (Strong Opinions 101). In Speak, Memory, Nabokov defines his art as an attempt to escape the "prison of time" and ravages of history by constructing a "free world of timelessness" (20). Nabokov writes, "I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet after use in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip" (139). In the afterword to Lolita, Nabokov connects his removal from ordinary time with his rejection of social concerns: "I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction . . . Lolita has no moral in tow. 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. There are not many such books. The rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas ..." (316-17). Nabokov thus invites readers to view Lolita as a pure aesthetic artifact that ignores social reality in order to create a highly wrought refuge of "aesthetic bliss" whose principal beneficiary and inhabitant is the writer himself . In the afterword, Nabokov claims Lolita as his private solace: "Every serious writer, I dare say, is aware of this or that published book of bis as a constant comforting presence. Its pilot light is steadily burning somewhere in the basement and a mere touch applied to one's private thermostat instantly results in a quiet little explosion of familiar warmth" (317). The sexual implications of "basement," "one's private thermostat," and "a quiet little explosion of familiar warmth" (and of the term aesthetic bliss itself) actively solicit the reader's indignation. Our taboo against autoeroticism is broken at the same time that our importance—indeed, our very existence—as...


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pp. 145-150
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