Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thank you, Rebecca Solnit. Just thank you.

Over at LitHub, Rebecca Solnit has a follow-up to her recent and provocative "80 Books No Woman Should Read"  called "Men Explain Lolita to Me." You should read it. Everybody should read it.

A sample, with added boldface:
It all came down to Lolita. “Some of my favorite novels are disparaged in a fairly shallow way. To read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov,” one commenter informed me, which made me wonder if there’s a book called Reading Lolita in Patriarchy. The popular argument that novels are good because they inculcate empathy assumes that we identify with characters, and no one gets told they’re wrong for identifying with Gilgamesh or even Elizabeth Bennett. It’s just when you identify with Lolita you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years. Should you read Lolita and strenuously avoid noticing that this is the plot and these are the characters? Should the narrative have no relationship to your own experience? This man thinks so, which is probably his way of saying that I made him uncomfortable.
. . . . 
But “to read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov” said one of my volunteer instructors. I thought that was funny, so I posted it on Facebook, and another nice liberal man came along and explained to me this book was actually an allegory as though I hadn’t thought of that yet. It is, and it’s also a novel about a big old guy violating a spindly child over and over and over. Then she weeps. And then another nice liberal man came along and said, “You don’t seem to understand the basic truth of art. I wouldn’t care if a novel was about a bunch of women running around castrating men. If it was great writing, I’d want to read it. Probably more than once.” Of course there is no such body of literature, and if the nice liberal man who made that statement had been assigned book after book full of castration scenes, maybe even celebrations of castration, it might have made an impact on him.
What she says so well is what I was trying to get at here:
Oddly enough, though, it was all right to dissect the thought processes of Tess Durbeyfield and figure out whether she was raped or just seduced because of Nature coursing through her veins and her attraction to Alex d'Urberville. We were supposed to admire the intricate wordplay of Lolita and feel compassion for Humbert Humbert because he is a literary construct and in the grip of compulsion and anyway, look how Lolita behaves.  See, she's really in charge and he is helpless. I didn't buy it then, emotionally speaking, [and I don't buy it now] but I know a party line when I hear one and after one protest (met with scorn: "Can't you see that he's a literary construct?"), I shut up.
Solnit's "nice liberal men" mansplaining the book to her as though she just didn't get it--well, it took me back a few decades to when I had the same losing argument. I shut up, because I was a student and it was already a timeless classic, and if I couldn't see that, guess who was wrong?

There were only two possibilities:

1. You ignored Lolita's plight and reveled in all the nuances and games-playing and puzzles, etc. etc. etc.
2.  You expressed discomfort at Lolita's plight, which revealed your obvious inability to "get it"--just as Solnit's commenters have said to her.

Literary criticism has developed many ways of shutting people up, but this one is the most common. If you express discomfort at the subject matter, you just don't get it. Irony, satire, subtlety--all are beyond you because you're expressing emotion, like a fool (or a woman?) rather than reason and being smart. Remember, the adjective we prize most as academics is "smart" ("it's a smart book," "that's a smart argument") meant in a very specific way.

Criticism loves the transgressive and gruesome, of course -- still does -- and this was transgressive for the time.* It was the same mindset that said if you don't laugh along with Hemingway at the comical spectacle of the horses gored in Death in the Afternoon and The Sun Also Rises, you just didn't get it. You don't have aficion. You're not Lady Brett Ashley, as you should be.

What we find transgressive today isn't what was transgressive then, but it's the same impulse.  "Don't be sentimental," we hear, although the single most sentimental thing I ever saw was the movie Leaving Las Vegas, much praised for its unsentimental toughness because its subject was a male alcoholic writer (which critics love as a subject, because alcohol + writer = tough and manly) drowning in self-pity, or what would have been called self-pity if he had been a woman.

But as with tech enthusiasts (I am one, really), to balk at something doesn't mean that you don't get it. Maybe it means that you're operating from a whole different set of ethical or social premises, and maybe, just maybe, those stirrings of discomfort deserve a second look.

* Exhibit A: Current literary darling Mary Gaitskill. From Alexandra Schwartz's "Uneasy Rider," The New Yorker 9 November 2015, p. 77: "By reputation, Mary Gaitskill is a writer not only immune to sentiment but actively engaged in deep, witchy communion with the perverse."  Critical jackpot: "immune to sentiment" and "perverse."


nicoleandmaggie said...

We saw this brilliant article (and the 80 books one too) today too. Great commentary here on it as well.

undine said...

Thank you, nicoleandmaggie!