Lolita, Lolita, Lolita

What to say about a novel whose reputation has eclipsed it?

I have avoided this book like the plague up until this year, my twenty-eighth trip around the sun, ignorantly and incorrectly assuming (due to the infamous and controversial subject matter) that it normalises pedophilia. “Lolita is a book for Lana Del Ray fans and infantilised women who seek out destructive love affairs with men thirty years older, viewing very obvious power imbalances through their rose-tinted heart-shaped glasses” I would say. No, no, no! I was WRONG! (This doesn’t happen very often so I’m more than happy to suck it up. I haven’t felt like such a fool since I watched a Tarantino movie for the first time – aged twenty-five – after deliberately shunning his filmography throughout the first half of my twenties because all the worst people I knew would wax poetic about Tarantino — pretentious students sat beneath the framed Pulp Fiction poster in their living rooms. “These people suck, so must his movies.” God, I played myself there.)

And here, too, it seems.

There is a temptation to conceal this book when reading it in public. Can’t bring it up in conversation—can of worms—who wants to discuss a book about a pedo, much less actually read one? But here’s the thing: Lolita does not romanticise pedophilia. It is a viscerally tragic story about a reprehensible sex abuser and his victim. A book can both describe abhorrent things whilst writing them beautifully. It reminded me of Fowles’ The Collector and, to a lesser extent, Süskind’s Perfume. Sardonic, witty; a black comedy. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, is one of the most pathetic men I’ve ever come across, fictitious or otherwise; despicable, pitiful, loathesome — laughable. He isn’t written as a sympathetic character (at all) which I emphatically argue is not and was never Nabokov’s objective. Humbert is portrayed as calculating and manipulative; delusional, coercive, jealous, possessive, his cruelty masked by his superficial concern – for himself more than anyone else. Granted, Humbert lacks social and self awareness: he grapples with moral reasoning and points out the ancient historical practices of incest and pederasty, implementing cognitive dissonance to convince himself that what he’s doing (grooming and abusing a twelve year old child) is fine — permissible. He is, in his own disturbed mind, if not innocent, then justified; being sole protector and guardian to his poor, poor orphan waif, after all. She is watered, fed (just enough to not gain weight lest she lose her lithe, spindly boy legs and flat torso, mind you), there is a roof over her head, she is positively spoilt with treats in the form of candies and toys (in exchange for sexual favours, of course). I mean, consider the alternatives for a destitute orphan in working class America — and he does consider this, and forces his poor Lolita to, as well, regularly making thinly veiled threats of reformatories and orphanages. What more could she want?

At no point is Lolita a “romance” or a “tragic love story” (and anyone I come across describing it as such will be assigned to the category of walking red flag). The subject matter is obviously very distressing (Martin Amis, in his essay on Stalinism, Koba the Dread, proposes very convincingly that Lolita is “a study in tyranny”) and yet, all of this bleakness contrasts with the genius of Nabokov’s writing: the masterful use of the language, the intricate prose, the satirical double entendres, the cunning subtext… I was left juxtaposed somewhere between anguish and incredulity.

Reading Lolita, though, has only reaffirmed my understanding that, in cases of child abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), the gravity of the tragedy is not merely culminated by the child possessed (controlled, harmed, abused etc) but the child preserved – in time, in motion, in circumstance. “Childhood innocence” is a quaint term: what is really robbed in these cases is the once seemingly boundless possibilities of life; of a future, of a wholly benevolent outside world, of naivety and promise and hope. One’s potential in this way is immediately and inexplicably limited, restricted, hindered; the effect this has on a child’s psyche is probably the cruelest and most sinister thing about abuse — the still-developing juvenile brain responding to and attempting to process what is happening to and around them; goodbye to trivial and trifling matters such as schoolwork and play: neuroplasticity ensures the brain’s alteration, adjustment — (in order to function, to endure, to survive) — and it is never the same again.

The novel lapses in time to three years later and we are confronted by the catastrophic reality that — once a smart, obstinate child with “the IQ of 120” and a gifted tennis player — Dolores Haze (aka Lo aka Dolly aka Lolita) has found herself in the suburbs, pregnant and a housewife at the weathered old age of seventeen. “He broke my heart, you merely broke my life” Dolores tells Humbert, straightforwardly and not unkindly, as they discuss her “cheating” (running away) (see also: kidnapping) at the hands of another pedophile, an associate of Humbert’s no less. What of Dolores Haze’s potential? University? Professional tennis? Hollywood billboards? A string of passionate (and – check this – consensual) love affairs? A satisfying family life that doesn’t feel like mere acquiescence to circumstance? We’ll never know, all because a creep masquerading as her mother’s boyfriend couldn’t control his depraved impulses when she was a child. Humbert’s only fractionally redeeming moment? He gifts Dolores the inheritance she is rightfully due from the sale of her dead mother’s house. What a guy.

There’s a poignant moment towards the end of the novel where Humbert finally reflects on (note: reflects on, not realises — I think he knew all along) the damage he has caused, inflicted; the life he has stolen:

The good priest worked on me with the finest tenderness and understanding […] Alas, I was never unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithopathic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me — 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), then I see nothing for the treatment of my misery.

Nabokov, Lolita, pp.257–258

How many people are walking this earth knowingly lesser-than because their emotional and spiritual development was fatally arrested by adults who were meant to protect, care for, nurture? How many amongst us – broken, battered, and bruised – have been robbed of our potential, living a life we know could have been so much more, if only, if only. To stay alive whilst waking up every day and confronting that knowledge; to mourn a life that never was, that never will be: is a bonafide superpower.

Dolores isn’t one for the luxury of self pity, however, when Humbert shows up at her doorstep after tracking her down she refuses to dwell on the particulars of the past, only hoping she can give her unborn child what she never had — a chance. She ends up dying due to childbirth complications on Christmas Day, 1952.

Dolores Haze deserved better.

How the harrowing etchings of ‘Der Krieg’ by Otto Dix have preserved the horror and trauma of World War I

Not many war tributes are as grim and unflinching as Der Krieg (‘The War’) by German artist Otto Dix (started in 1915 during his time at the front and completed in 1924) — a series that preserves in memory the horrific reality experienced by soldiers during The Great War. Join me as I examine the underlying emotions and themes represented within Dix’ pieces: from the obvious horror and violence; to the subtle nihilism, existential despair, disillusionment, and eventual empathy that so many young men found themselves experiencing whilst living face to face with unrelenting death and decay.

“The twentieth century was the most murderous in recorded history.”

O. Knowles, Wilfred Owen War Poems (1994)

Prior to the start of The War, propaganda from each side championing patriotism and nationalism was encouraging a collective ‘war fever’. This hysteria, soldiers would later discover, was nothing more than an attempt to ‘justify the righteousness of the war’. The popular Latin phrase ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (‘It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country’) became associated with the propagandist rhetoric of celebrating the dead as martyrs and heroes – something veterans, including Dix, saw right through following their return from war (Wilfred Owen, a British soldier, referred to the phrase as the ‘Old Lie’ in his eponymous war poem in which he documents the horrors of war). Most World War I poems and artwork reflect on this experience of disillusion: the shattering contrast between the idea of a glorified, heroic service ‘for king and country’ and the reality: the indignity and perversity of war and death in which there exists no such ‘glory’.

Otto Dix was twenty-four and a student at Dresden School of Arts and Crafts when he enthusiastically enlisted in the army; seeing war as an ‘inevitable part of life’ and a ‘catalyst for change’. In 1915, he was called to serve and operated as a machine gunner on the front line – however it was not until after the war, in 1924, his anti-militarist series Der Krieg was showcased. 

‘Wounded Man’ (Autumn 1916, Bapaume) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

Der Krieg is a collection of fifty-one etchings, full of barbaric realism; destruction and death set against a backdrop of foreboding misery. In the series, Dix captures his human subjects unflinchingly and candidly – he thrives on representing the most honest documentation of his wartime experiences; whether that means the portrayal of a soldier glaring at the viewer in wide-eyed agony following a blast to the abdomen, or the harsh fate shared by almost one million men: being reduced to nothing more than a skeleton on the ground, infested with worms and maggots.

‘Skull’ (Schädel) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

“Lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, shells, bombs, underground caves, corpses, blood, liquor, mice, cats, gas, artillery, filth, bullets, mortars, fires, steel: this is what war is! It is the work of the Devil!”

Otto Dix, War Diary 1915–1916 (published 1987)

Perhaps the most disturbing theme one encounters whilst viewing the series in its entirety, is a sense of unsettling nihilism. Human life devoid of any meaning or significance; death is accepted as, literally, part of the scenery: mutilated remains of the dead crudely entangled in barbed wire, decomposing bodies sinking into the barren fields and mud of No Man’s Land. Poignant in its disillusionment, Dix portrays a grim testament to reality: speaking for the men falsely promised by politicians and generals a war ‘free of lice and rats’ and assured they’d be home in time for Christmas. 

‘Dance of Death’ from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

The stylistic documentation of the works – the fact we are seeing the war experience through Dix’ eyes – is what makes Der Krieg so frighteningly realistic, perhaps even more so than the hellish acts of violence it displays; the fact that, despite conjuring those vivid images of Armageddon, this was an inescapable truth. This happened. How can we dare to doubt Dix in his conviction? He lived it. He was there. 

‘Mealtime in The Trenches’ (Mahlzeit in der Sappe) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

It is clear that everyday life for those in the trenches was abysmal. Setting aside the violent aspect, we are forced to confront the fact that this is what life can be reduced to – even for us: World War I was not the first atrocity on Earth, and it certainly won’t be the last. Dix names a panel ‘mealtime in the trenches’, a deceptively benign title which forces us to compare our own experiences of mealtime – surrounded by family in the comfort of our own homes – with a trench mealtime: surrounded by filth with nothing but a decaying corpse for company. This is interesting when considering the depictions of trauma preserved in Dix’ work: he cleverly inserts a very unsettling depiction of traumatic stress into a drawing of a mundane, everyday activity. By definition, ‘emotional trauma’ manifests as the body’s response to a sudden and shocking change. We know not every mealtime this soldier has experienced in his lifetime has looked like this one; we can see that, past his thousand-yard stare, he is a human just like us – albeit with his faculties shot and his very self isolated amidst depravity. Arguably, it was during the adjustment to trench life – the adaptation of these ‘mundane, everyday’ activities (such as mealtime) against the hostile and horrifying backdrop of war – that enabled traumatic stress to manifest.

One particularly horrifying panel depicts a soldier who, we presume upon first glance, has died from the visible injuries caused by artillery and gunfire: flesh torn from his body, unprecedented wounds, his face contorted in agony. Only, upon further inspection, do we find the title of the piece – to our horror – informing us that this man is, in fact, not dead. Rather, he is dying. Probably slowly, certainly painfully. Again, we are forced to confront the pitiful and devastating reality of the war: Dix almost thrives on the horror he’s reproducing from his memories; it is as if he’s egging on the viewer ‘I endured this, you have to, too.’

‘Dying Man’ from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

There is an element of inquisitiveness when viewing Der Krieg; it is almost voyeuristic – we may be left feeling as though curiosity has got the better of us (and perhaps even the artist himself). When speaking about his reasons for enlisting in the war, Dix talks of his need for realism, which not only explains his harrowing artwork but also supports his case of reliability further:

“I had to see all that myself. I’m such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself…”

Otto Dix, War Diary 1915–1916 (published 1987)
‘Dead Sentry in the Trenches’ (Toter Sappenposten) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

One of the most famed pieces from Der Krieg is the panel ‘Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor’ (‘Shock troops advance under gas’). Dix portrays five soldiers donning gasmasks, advancing the enemy lines. It is other-worldly, apocalyptic, and genuinely scary. Worse still, these soldiers – who, with their gasmasks obscuring their faces – have lost all trace of humanity – are crawling, scraping, hacking through dirt and barbed wire with whatever instruments they can find, and are coming for us, the viewer.

‘Shock Troops Advance under Gas’ (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

Upon contrast with other World War I artworks, Dix’ is distinct because of his refusal to conform to creating ‘aesthetically pleasing’ images: he is unflinching, brutally honest with the viewer – we cannot blend with gentle brush strokes the devastation of war and death. One might argue that too many artworks depicting war exist wherein the artist has taken great care to ensure a flattering composition complete with vibrant colours and an immaculate finish. Instead, Dix opts for stark black and white contrast, the messy – almost violent – technique of etching: creating the impression that the artworks themselves have been bayoneted, shot at, and left to decay in the muddy fields of France and Belgium like many of their subjects. The dreary, colourless hues found throughout Der Krieg only emphasise its sinister, jarring impact. Dix shows us a world sapped of colour; of life, of hope, of escape, and in doing so he succeeds in epitomising absolute horror.

‘Dead Man In Mud’ (Toter im Schlamm) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924.

It’s clear from the varying emotions channeled into each drawing – some of which evoke a calm eeriness, others which quite literally personify fear, despair, and death – that Dix used drawing ‘in the midst of boredom and misery’ during the war as a sort of catharsis. Dix’ wartime experiences were so traumatic that he would later go on to suffer from recurring nightmares, and if his grisly artwork is anything to go by, one can scarcely even attempt to imagine the memories haunting him.

“For at least ten years I kept getting these dreams in which I had to crawl through ruined houses, along passages I could hardly get through

Otto Dix, War Diary 1915–1916 (published 1987)
‘Corpse caught up in barbed wire (Flanders)’ from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

In conclusion, Der Krieg is a brutally honest and unflinching narrative of war, told by a first-hand perspective of one of its casualties (and, later, its opposers). Der Krieg forces us to acknowledge the reality of warfare and the physical and psychological effects of those whose lives it touches. Dix’ approach is aggressive – the harsh etching, the duotone contrast – his anger and terror tangible in every piece, the sputtered canvases themselves reminiscent of something straight from No Mans Land. It is almost as though Dix sees it as his duty to set straight the glorified ‘Old Lie’ by revealing the ‘truth’ – a theme of justified embitterment that many war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon explore in their work. For these men, they are united amongst an almost tangible sense of unforgivable betrayal. Their work survives and serves as retribution for the Lost Generation.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by, 
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know 
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Siegfried Sassoon