Misreading Lolita

I posted an earlier version of this as a Facebook note last September, when Polanski was arrested, but given the award he’s just won and a renewed spate of celebrity support for him, I thought I might revisit it.

I am a core team member of a volunteer-led campaign to abolish marital immunity for rape in Singapore. We received some flak for calling it No To Rape. Isn’t it so obvious? Aren’t you caricaturing disagreement with you? Who on earth would say “Yes To Rape”? It wouldn’t – giggle, chortle, how clever I am – be “rape” then anymore, would it?

Apparently our name was self-evidently silly. Except that, you know, during our petition drive, lots of famous and influential people signed another petition saying, in effect, “Yes To Rape”.

As others have noted, the list is staggering and in some cases heartbreaking. Special dishonourable mention must go to Bernard-Henri Lévy, a “moral” philosopher, for initiating the petition when his latest book is subtitled “A Stand Against the New Barbarism”. Some stand, that.

Roman Polanski fed alcohol and drugs to a 13-year-old girl before vaginally and anally penetrating her while she cried and said “no”. He then left the jurisdiction to escape punishment for an act he had acknowledged committing. If those aren’t “rape” and a “flight from justice”, how do you avoid the conclusion that both of those are null sets?


These events had me thinking of a longstanding complaint of mine about (of all things) a book. “Lolita” has become a byword for the idea that some little girls can quite ethically be the target of sexual advances by adults because their essential nature is one of “promiscuity” and they are therefore unrapeable. This is ironic in a particularly sickening way, because Nabokov’s novel is about the monstrous connections that may exist between acts of genius, or creations or experiences of sublime beauty, and the infliction of cruelty. The central question is whether – to borrow from Richard Rorty – “ecstasy” and “iridescence” are fundamentally detached from curiosity about and empathy for the pain of others, and what that means for those of us who pursue these things, like the paedophile Humbert Humbert, and the complicit readers (all of us) who thrill to the irresistible splendour of his language.

In other words, Lolita is about, precisely, the evil of refusing to hold someone like Polanski accountable for his crime on account of his “genius”. The common perversion of this insight struck me with especial force in the face of this phalanx of famous folks closing ranks behind their own, to protect a “great” man from any consequences for the piteous and irrelevant fact that he caused real human suffering.

Unless it can be proven to me – to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction – that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.

From Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, emphasis mine.