- Nabokov's Gradual and Dual Blues:Taxonomy, Unreliability, and Ethics in Lolita
I've taken great care to separate myself from him. For instance, the good reader notices that Humbert Humbert confuses … hummingbirds with hawkmoths. Now I would never do that, being an entomologist.(Nabokov, "Vladimir Nabokov and Lionel Trilling Discuss Lolita," 26 Nov. 1958)
I cannot even copy his manner because the manner of his prose was the manner of his thinking and that was a dazzling succession of gaps; and you cannot ape a gap because you are bound to fill it in somehow or other—and blot it out in the process.(Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight 35)
No wonder that even the crowning achievement among his biological reflections, that wonderful theory of "natural classification," to which we now turn, has so far found no followers in Russian, and has penetrated abroad rather haphazardly and in incomplete, muddled form.(Nabokov, Nabokov's Butterflies 213)
Early in the poem at the heart of Pale Fire, John Shade describes the falling dark as "the gradual and dual blue" (33), a phrase so pleasing to the eye and ear that it is easy to overlook its seeming contradiction. "Gradual" bridges the division implied in "dual," which, in turn, dissolves the shadings of the "gradual." The point at which day becomes night is indefinite, [End Page 53] yet eventually day will have definitely become night. There is no real contradiction, however: it is a matter of the viewer's perspective whether nightfall is a finely incremental darkening or an abrupt shift between two distinct states. Shade expresses no preference between the gradual and the dual. In general, however, Nabokov's fiction stages such mergers of the gradual and dual as a choice between unequal ways of seeing and valuing the world, privileging the recognition of division within a series over the equation of gradation with sameness. These mergers amount to a test of readerly acuity and discrimination, and as such represent one of the closest points of convergence between Nabokov's art and science.1 As invitations to find the demarcative gap within a spectrum of fine gradations, such mergers enlist readers to demonstrate the attention to detail and judgment Nabokov honed as a taxonomist. By calling his taxonomic trope the Gradual and Dual Blues, I thus allude not only to Pale Fire but also to Nabokov's monumental re-classification of the Lycaenid butterfly family, or the Blues.
The stakes of Nabokov's taxonomic trope are highest in Lolita, whose central crisis hinges on the narrator's failure to draw a moral line within a graduated series (namely, the age spectrum linking childhood to maturity).2 In a rare moment of insight, Humbert senses his inability to draw such a moral line: "I am trying … to sort out the portion of hell and the portion of heaven in that strange, awful, maddening world—nymphet love. The beastly and beautiful merged at one point, and it is that borderline I would like to fix, and I feel I fail to do so utterly. Why?" (135). Why? Because his lapses in artistic and ethical vision—beauty and beastliness have both aesthetic and moral implications—is our chance to see what he has missed or dismissed. The Gradual and Dual Blues serves as a crucial indicator of Humbert's unreliability and as primary motivation for Nabokov's use of unreliable narration. Like other forms of verbal irony, unreliability inheres in the ascertainable gap between what is said (by the narrator) and what is meant (as agreed upon by the implied author and the reader). Unable or unwilling to divide "the beastly" from the "beautiful," Humbert is a bad taxonomist. It is because he cannot, or will not, "fix" that crucial "borderline" that he permits himself to act as if there were no "point" (135) at which beauty becomes beastly. When Humbert misclassifies, we are offered evidence of the alternative, authorial perspective. The option to read a gap into a structure Humbert interprets as being perfectly graduated [End Page 54] constitutes one of Lolita's most consistent means of marking unreliability. It is a subtle version of what...