"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-tah."
With that line, Vladimir Nabokov began one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. The subject, so unthinkable in the 1950s that Nabokov had difficulty finding a publisher, was a middle-aged man's love for a young girl.
If the novel's plot now seems somewhat mundane by today's desensitized, Geraldo-ized standards, the title has taken on a life of its own. You don't need to read "Lolita"-the-book to know Lolita-the-cultural-icon.
There is "Long Island Lolita," as she was recently dubbed by a New York tabloid, a teen-ager who shot and wounded her 38-year-old lover's wife. "Lethal Lolita," drools the US magazine blurb for the new Drew Barrymore film, "Poison Ivy," in which a high school girl has sex with her best friend's father.
Part of this seems to be a mania for pop culture references. Jeffrey Dahmer is compared to Hannibal Lecter. A woman who murders a lover or his spouse has committed a "Fatal Attraction" killing. The fictional character or situation becomes shorthand, a quick way to reduce a complex event to something that is juicy and accessible.
But what happens when the reference is wrong? And why do we want to believe in "Long Island Lolita," whose alleged crime makes her an anomaly in the criminal justice system, while the world is full of adults who prey on children?
Consider how far Lolita has strayed from her fictional roots. Dolores Haze, the character's real name, is a nymphet, the peculiar obsession of narrator Humbert Humbert. He defines this as a girl between 9 and 14 (the age at which he begins to refer to Lolita as his "aging mistress.")
Humbert comes with a rather tidy explanation for his pedophilia, so neat that one wonders if Nabokov wasn't mocking the kind of Freudian novel he so despised. As an adolescent, Humbert never consummated his first romance. Lolita, although not the first young girl to excite the adult Humbert, brings that child back to him.
This is how Humbert first sees Lolita, sunning in the backyard of a home where he is a boarder: "It was the same child -- the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair . . . her lovely indrawn abdomen . . . those puerile hips . . . (her eyes blinking over those stern dark spectacles -- the little Herr Doktor who was to cure me of all my aches)."
Lolita eclipses Annabelle, Humbert's first love. In the public imagination, the cinematic Lolita (Sue Lyon, playing a curvy 14-year-old far from nymphetry) soon supplanted the novel's child. In one poster for the film, Lyon peered alluringly over heart-shaped sunglasses. These seemingly small changes -- from 12 to 14, from puerile hips to round ones, from stern dark spectacles to heart-shaped ones -- may mark the
beginning of our confusion over the true meaning of Lolita.
Stanley Kubrick's film changed the character's age and invented her adult sexuality because the public in the early 1960s simply could not accept the novel's premise. We pretend to be more sophisticated today, but the misuse of "Lolita" suggests we are not. We prefer a fake problem (teen-age vixens) to the real one (child victims). We want to implicate Lolita in her fate, to blame her for Humbert's seduction.
Humbert, at least, acknowledges how unhappy the child is, and how his love for her is something sordid. "And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night -- every night, every night -- the moment I feigned sleep."
When we choose to give Lolita's name to scheming young women, it's not just a literary crime. Like Humbert, we are closing our eyes to the true crimes around us, feigning sleep in order to ignore something we cannot bear to face.