Literary License

Whenever I orient myself to a new place, I tend to do so by the writers who’ve lived there. As a family we used to take “literary trips” to visit locations associated with famous writers. While in the Midwest it was often Laura Ingalls Wilder, and once, Mark Twain. Here in the east there has been considerable diversity. Several locations associated with Edgar Allan Poe have informed our travel plans. H. P. Lovecraft (although, to be honest, we always had other reasons to be in Providence) naturally followed on from Poe. We visited the property of Edna St Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York, and later in the same trip Sleepy Hollow, to find the haunts of Washington Irving. Famous writers can be found in just about any major city and many small towns. Now that Ithaca is in our regular orbit, I’ve begun to consider the implications.

Carl Sagan is probably the most well-known of the city’s past celebrities. His premature death added an almost Gothic element to his fame. Certainly among the sphere of his fellow academics known for fiction is Vladimir Nabokov. An entomologist by trade, Nabokov turned to writing and teaching. His lasting renown in this field was for the novel he tried to burn before it was published, Lolita. Before I knew Ithaca would be in my future, and indeed, before I knew that Nabokov was either a former resident or an entomologist, I read the novel. It’s a challenging book. Humbert Humbert is as flawed a protagonist as one might find, and any character guilty of child molestation is difficult to read even in the protection of fiction. Perhaps that’s why the novel won such acclaim. The experience of men and women who read it, I suspect, is very different. It’s a novel of moral urgency.

In perhaps a more innocent time, E. B. White attended Cornell. Apart from The Elements of Style, his book-length oeuvre was mostly in the realm of literature for children. This brings the the focus back to youth. Our childhoods—whether we acquiesce to what fate seems to demand or challenge our lot hoping to improve it—make us who we are. As the years increase in number the memories become more fiction and less fact, they nevertheless remain the touchstone for anchoring our understanding of self. Some of us constantly measure ourselves against the future we clawed for as a child, like those pencil marks on the doorpost showing our physical progress. Having been unable to afford the luxuries of travel when I was young, I add a notch to my literary belt every time I travel to Ithaca, knowing full well that only the slimmest of minorities could find my very obscure hometown on a map. If I remember correctly.

Afraid for God

ReadingLolitaInTehranReading Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, is not easy. It is, however, rewarding. Appropriate for Banned Book Week, we might want to remind ourselves what a society that bans books actually looks like. Nafisi, an Iranian teacher of English literature, had broadened her mind and had traveled abroad. When she returned to her home country to take up a teaching post, she discovered that the world you always knew can be very unstable. It can change without you realizing it. (Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, left even the sages scratching their heads.) The Revolution, as it was known in Iran, brought in the radical conservatism of religious outlooks that saw women as little more than temptations for men. The wearing of the veil was enforced by law. Nafisi was told it was a small price to pay for the greater good. The rhetoric is the same every time I’ve been frisked at the airport, although I’m a lifelong pacifist. In Iran, things were much worse.

Nafisi recounts gathering a group of her women students together after she was forced out of the university. They would meet at her apartment to discuss literature, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. How must it feel to be a woman reading about a man’s obsession with a girl so young? As Nafisi points out, girls of Lolita’s age are considered marriageable in some Islamic states. It isn’t Islam that’s the problem, it is extremism. When I read about how she became “irrelevant,” I literally shuddered. In my own way too, I had been made irrelevant to higher education by those who felt any means would justify religious ends. And the bookstores in Tehran were closed, for they sold dangerous ideas. The irrelevance of one woman, or even half the population, is a small price to pay for self-righteousness.

“You say you’re afraid for God,” Ellen Hopkins wrote in “Manifesto.” Afraid for the Almighty. Such a strange concept. Fundamentalists of all monotheistic stripes believe in an all-powerful God whom they arrogantly presume to protect. How can a human even conceive such hubris? We feel secure in our Bible-emboldened superiority, challenged when reminded that the Quran, the Book of Mormon, or even Science and Health came later, and by definition supersessionism inevitably takes hold. “Paranoia is in bloom,” Muse reminds us. Missiles fall on Tehran, killing women and children. We elect, however, officials who agree that healthcare for women is politically negotiable. The reason has nothing at all to do with justice. It has everything to do with using a black-bound book for power over those who are just twelve-year olds wondering how any of this is even possible.

Lola Lolita

LolitaAs a father, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is difficult to read. With Banned Book Week upon us, however, and with my wife suggesting I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, I figured I’d better read Lolita in New Jersey first. It’s not the kind of book you want to be seen reading on the bus. As is well known, the novel is written from the sympathetic point of view of a pedophile. It is distinctly creepy and yet also strangely sincere. Effacing the distinctions between love and lust and healthy and ill psyches, the story draws you into the life of a single-minded Humbert Humbert and his twelve-year-old obsession. I had been prepared for the end of the story, having seen Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version some years ago, still, this tale distresses. Banned books take us to places we’d rather not be, and cause us to linger there. This is part of their secret appeal. These authors are honest enough to make us question assumptions. You have floated out of sight of land.

Lolita, through euphony, if not something more, reminds me of “Lola.” The Kink’s hit. I first heard “Lola” while I was in seminary, although it had been released a decade and a half earlier (I tend to run a little behind the times). When I listen to songs I pay attention to the lyrics, and I was disturbed to find that “Lola” was a catchy tune with a (to me, at the time) disturbing message. I confessed to a friend that I liked the song, but wasn’t sure that I should. We ban songs just as we ban books, because they bring us to a place where we question what we thought we knew. In my case, it often doesn’t take much. My friend Dave gave sage advice not to overthink the whole thing. If you like a song, you like a song. Let the music play on.

“You say you’re afraid for children,” Ellen Hopkins’s second stanza of “Manifesto” begins. (I confess to following a different scansion of the poem, call it poetic license.) I believe, however, our fear is for ourselves. We know that we could have a monster lurking inside. Lolita does not encourage pedophilia. Like many social crimes, pedophilia is the manifestation of an illness that some people, like sociopaths, unfortunately suffer. The lack of empathy for others is a frightening thing indeed. It makes for some of the scariest movies, and headlines, that I have ever seen. We do ourselves no favors, however, by pretending it doesn’t exist. I know little of the life of Nabokov, but I know that he died in Montreux. I know that he could afford to live there at least in part because of the royalties from Lolita, a novel whose manuscript he had once attempted to burn. And I know that in Montreux “some stupid with a flare gun,” well, you know the rest.