Jeffrey Epstein's Lolita?

Included in a recent edition of Air Mail News is an exposé by Edward Jay Epstein on his final conversation with Jeffrey Edward Epstein. The former Epstein notes the latter “Epstein said that [Vladimir] Nabokov was his favorite writer and he kept a copy of Lolita next to his bed and on his plane.” The subtext is painted across the page in the same ridiculously large capital letters as Ludwig Feuerbach’s deity: not one of correlation, but one of causation is the relation between Jacob Epstein and Lolita (1955). The relative morality of Lolita aside, Nabokov undoubtedly would have relished the doubling of names and the confusion it would foster, but this essay is not about Nabokov’s sense of humor. Nor is it about the Epsteins; though one relishes—one really relishes—the grotesque coincidence of the names Edward J. Epstein and J. Edward Epstein. Surely the editor enjoyed this. Had we not known that these are real people with individual lives, one imagines them as characters in a Nabokovian novel, reminiscent of the anagrammatic pair of Pale Fire (1962), Jakob Gradus and Sudarg of Bokay, or the ridiculously repetitious Humbert Humbert of Lolita. But neither is this essay about the moral significance of doubling in Nabokov’s fiction. Rather, I am concerned solely with the question of morality broadly conceived within Nabokov’s art.

Nabokov is a preeminently difficult writer. Much of this difficulty is due to Nabokov’s concerted efforts to ensure that in each of his works the moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical senses not only mutually illumine one another, but are intelligible only in direct reference to one another. Thus the palindromic pair of Pale Fire is not merely an instance of anagrammatic play, but suggests the novel’s mirror theme and its concomitant metaphysical import: “What is an original?”; “Of what or whom are we pale fires?”; and related questions.

The prose style of any one of Nabokov’s novels may similarly be as much an effect of aesthetics as an indication of the novel’s moral dimension. Nabokov’s English prose, which is exemplified in Lolita, is as supple as one may find throughout the history of English letters, his second home. In 1964, John Updike accorded Nabokov “the best writer of English prose at present holding American citizenship.” Thus the soaring prose of Lolita, whose affective beauty even the staunchest Puritan cannot deny absolutely, is itself one of the central moral problems of the novel as a piece of literary art: Can evil (Humbert Humbert) produce beauty (the novel); and if Humbert appears to have done so, what does this tell us about the nature of beauty?

I ask the theologians: Is the assertion made by Nicolas Berdyaev—whom Nabokov knew personally during their shared time as émigrés in France—rendered romantic rot in the grotesque light of Lolita?

An artist may be driven by demonic powers or may have a demonic imagination . . . but, inasmuch as it is given to him to perform a truly creative act, his demonism is consumed in the fire of that creativity. These things are not susceptible to moralization . . . The creative impulse . . . is absolutely . . . lawless.[1]

For all his mastery of English prose, it is in fact the delicate dexterity of his literary structures which are his real psychopomps into the immortal halls of both the Russian and the English literary traditions. Hebrew Bible translator Robert Alter, writing of Pale Fire, warns:

If you don’t relish word-games and codes and teasingly concealed patterns and if you don’t enjoy the exuberance of sheer fictional invention . . . you are liable to toss away Pale Fire in disgust before you get halfway through.

However, it is Nabokov’s literary structures which best witness to the metaphysical and otherworldly telos of Nabokovian art.[2]

Yet the world is no longer what it was in 1955, when the publication of Lolita firmly lodged its author’s name into the English literary consciousness. This is due in no small part to the difficulty of placing him in the literary canon. Born in Russia and fluent in English and French since childhood, Nabokov published first in Russian while an émigré in Germany. After nine Russian novels, he traded his “untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English,” going on to write eight novels and an autobiography throughout the latter half of his life spent in America and Switzerland.[3]

Personally acquainted with members of the Russian Symbolists, he avowed himself as no Symbolist. He left Russia for Germany, and so, he is not commonly included in 20th century Russian literature courses. Not American by birth, Nabokov is hardly a feature of American literature courses despite Updike’s appraisal and his rightful inclusion in The Library of America series. He is also largely absent in world or comparative literature courses—the Russians have their own faculties, thus Nabokov is conveniently refused yet another possible home.

Yet, when Nabokov is given the uncommon privilege of a course dedicated to his fiction, students are faced with the difficult decision of whether to read the author responsible for Lolita even if the novel is not among the required reading: the decision to read Nabokov is for many a moral one. It should be no surprise, then, that Nabokov is not to be found in the common anthologies theologians have at hand when considering literature. The singular notable exception is David Bentley Hart (no Nabokov scholar), but, as his First Things article evidences, certainly one of the most well-versed non-specialist Nabokovians. Robert Alter, (himself no theologian) and largely disinterested in theological aspects of Nabokov’s art, might also be included; he was an influential Nabokov scholar long before translating the Bible.[4]

Despite Graham Greene’s help in actualizing the publication of Lolita, Nabokov’s “utter indifference to organized mysticism, to religion” has helped neither his reception by Christian audiences nor by the theology-and-literature guild more generally.[5] The tendency of some scholars to exaggerate his disinterest has only exacerbated the common and entirely erroneous misunderstanding that Nabokov had no interest in theological matters. It is the institutional elements which he found disinteresting. Concomitantly, his professed disgust at works of art which have morals “in tow”—those works which parade themselves as art while being nothing more than moralist propaganda—has given pause to some religious readers: surely art must not and cannot exist in a moral vacuum!

Such protestation misses the point: had Lolita had a moral in tow, Lolita would be reduced to a moralistic story about the evils of pedophilia. Surely one does not need art for that lesson, as much as it might, as in the hands of the latter Epstein, exacerbate it—at least, that is what the allusion to the novel in the former Epstein’s article suggests. To judge Lolita, and thus Nabokov, upon the merits of his worst readers is childish. One does not blame Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the ineluctable beauty of Pluto and Proserpina, a.k.a, The Rape of Persephone (1621–1622); nor does one hold against him whatever a Humbert or an Epstein, armed with the perverted pleasures of Mnemosyne, does around the corner.

As has been perhaps intimated, Nabokov’s aesthetics and ethics are peculiarly intertwined. The problem of Nabokov’s morality and its relation to his aesthetics is unnecessarily and inordinately heightened by those readers whose readerly modus operandi is founded upon the spurious assumption that authors write only what they know, that is, what they know by experience. Let us not psychologize our authors, beloved or not, so soon. Otherwise we might suppose that Bernini glorified rape, or that whomever is responsible for the writing and dissemination of the Book of Judges is a masochist. Good authors (or redactional communities) are not so imaginatively constrained as their worst readers.

No doubt, Nabokov’s ethical and moral senses, and their relation to his aesthetics are difficult to fully grasp. Thus, while the late Gennady Barabtarlo, an Orthodox Christian and one of Nabokov’s preeminent readers, notes that Nabokov’s ethics and morality are “Christian sensu lato” both in what they uphold and denounce, a glaring difficulty remains for many readers.[6] How does someone whose moral sense is supposedly “Christian sensu lato” create such deplorable characters as Humbert Humbert (Lolita), Hermann (Despair, 1936/1966), and Van Veen (Ada Or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, 1969), and causes his purest protagonists to suffer deranged torments—as Adam Krug (Bend Sinister, 1947), Cincinnatus C. (Invitation to a Beheading, 1938/1959), and, most pitiably, Adam Krug’s son and the young boy of “Signs and Symbols” (1948)? One might also wonder how God, being good, upheld in being the latter Epstein. For some, the problem of Nabokov’s authorial morality is tantamount to a literary theodicy; and one is often tempted to conceive of evil as a substance unto itself, forgetting that, for Nabokov as for Augustine, evil is parasitic—that evil is only in parasitic relation to the good.

Within the Christian academy, we are perhaps too accustomed to those writers who, by comparison, do not make us work too hard for their moral or religious sense. This is in part caused by some theologians—and perhaps Christians more broadly, if we are to take the introductory essay to The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought as an indicator of the general consensus—which erroneously counts Nabokov among those authors “wishing to evoke a rich aesthetic sense that was divorced from transcendence and even espoused the nihilist flux of all things.” I recently had the opportunity to quote this statement to Michael Rodgers[7], who, unsurprisingly, could not possibly understand how any reader could reasonably come to this conclusion. One genuinely wonders which of Nabokov’s works were read, and with how much haste, to encourage the comparison. Certainly not his autobiography, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1967), which on purely literary grounds ranks perhaps higher than Augustine’s Confessions. Nabokov may certainly be conceived as one of the greatest proponents of some version of “art for art’s sake,” yet he certainly did not espouse the divorce of aesthetics from transcendence or ethics and morality. Indeed, following the confession of Nabokov’s wife, Véra, numerous scholars consider transcendence, the “otherworld”—even if not his “main theme,” as Véra considered it—at least an indispensable one.[8]

Nabokov is no nihilist—moral or metaphysical. For Nabokov, art from which a moral could be extracted with relative ease, that is, without having damaged the aesthetic integrity of the work, is a philistine perversion of true art: it is art for the “general reader,” the lowest common denominator of literature. Rather, Nabokov understands “art,” which he glosses in his afterword to Lolita as “curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy,” as a transcendental in which notions of goodness and truth ineluctably co-inhere. Barabtarlo thus rightly notes that it is not with Nietzsche that Nabokov’s ontology of beauty agrees, but with that of Hans Urs von Balthasar, for whom the “severance of beauty from good and truth” robs from ontology the “splendor reflected from eternity.”[9] Nabokov believed that:

Beauty is preordained, that its goodness is axiomatic, that goodness is a function and agency of love permeating the universe, and that an artist seeks to discover it, find the right expression for it, and impart it. And if it cannot be imparted even artistically, or preserved in its unutterable essence, then the artist can describe its very ineffability in such a way as to make that truth and love somehow shine round and over and through his words.[10]

Thus, the moral sense of Lolita suggests much more than “do not be a sexual predator.” In the first place, the moral sense asserts that the severance of ethics and morality from aesthetics, as Humbert Humbert does in his attempts to have Lolita “safely solipsized,” inevitability destroys the humanity of both predator and victim.[11] There is no beauty that is not good, and any beauty that is not good is a harlequin.

There are two others which are like the first: the second is an assertion and the third offers a generous vision couched in the subjunctive. Evil, as parasitic, cannot destroy the beautiful and its inherent goodness totally. Moreover, if the harlequin should come to find some semblance of the good and thus the beautiful within what it had considered ugly, might it not then be possible, as Berdyaev had asserted, that it “re-create in [its] imagination the image of beauty” and thereby attain some sort of redemption, some kind of ontological gift, through this creative act?[12] Is this possibility not the premise of the words spoken to Dante by Cunizza da Ramano, who burns with divine eros within the sphere of Venus:

. . . I blaze here
because the light of Venus vanquished me.
But gladly I myself forgive myself
that influence. It does not brood on me—
which will, to humdrum minds of yours, seem hard?[13]

Unfortunately (to some at least), wrestling with the possibility of this truth might mean that one must endure Lolita, from its opening delectation to its concluding clarion call:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta . . . I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.[14]

All of which is to say that the latter Epstein pornographized Lolita, but that is no reason to do away altogether with either Nabokov’s novel or Bernini’s Pluto and Proserpina.

The opinion that Nabokov is some sort of moral nihilist with no sense of transcendence is so preposterous that it is nearly impossible to refute—not because one cannot find examples to refute the claim, but because his art flatly refutes it. Part of the difficulty in refuting this notion is that Nabokov interweaves irony so intimately throughout his works that one is hard-pressed to identify Nabokov with any one of his characters, or even a single quotation, as an unqualifiedly faithful representation of Nabokov’s views. Nabokov’s beloved characters are not icons through whom we gaze upon Alyosha and Zosima’s author. The closest authorial approximation is Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, the protagonist of Nabokov’s final Russian novel, Dar (1938) (The Gift, 1963), who, reflecting upon the gifts of the day, ponders:

Where shall I put all these gifts with which the summer morning rewards me—and only me? Save them up for future books? Use them immediately for a practical handbook: How to Be Happy? Or getting deeper, to the bottom of things: understand what is concealed behind all this, behind the play, the sparkle, the thick, green greasepaint of the foliage? For there really is something, there is something! And one wants to offer thanks but there is no one to thank. The list of donations already made: 10,000 days—from Person Unknown.[15]

Yet even here things are not so readily apparent. For there is in the assertion “there is no one to thank” an opportunity for the reader to cry metaphysical nihilism and materialism. Yet, this possibility is immediately undercut by the presence of that “something” which, embodying a poetic similar to Augustine’s interior intimo meo, is so intimately present within the created world that those who have neither the patience nor the skill to see iconographically might mistake it as absent, as nothing more than a fictionalized projection of human gratitude onto an azure sky. “Person Unknown” signifies nothing less than G. K. Chesterton’s “Ethics of Elfland” refracted and made strange through the prism of Nabokov’s prose.

Against Nabokov’s nihilistic detractors, The Gift may be read as a parodic attack against metaphysical materialism and nihilism. The shining example of this parodic irony is, of course, Alexander Yakovlevich Chernyshevski. Dying in his hospital room, Chernyshevski appears to have “a moment of lucidity” and concludes:

“What nonsense. Of course there is nothing afterwards.” He sighed, listened to the trickling and drumming outside the window and repeated with extreme distinctness: “There is nothing. It is as clear as the fact that it is raining.” And meanwhile outside the spring sun was playing on the roof tiles, the sky was dreamy and cloudless, the tenant upstairs was watering the flowers on the edge of her balcony, and the water trickled down with a drumming sound.[16]

Chernyshevski, the embodiment of all Nabokov loathed about “commonsense,” pounces upon the available phenomenal evidence and with philistine certainty pronounces that after death there is nothing.[17] Nabokov ridicules claims to absolute certainty in the tradition of Enlightenment materialist rationality. Whether or not there is a transcendent realm beyond (physically, chronologically, existentially?), to determine its irreality based solely upon empirically verifiable evidence is tantamount to concluding that a musical note has no length because one has measured it with a ruler.

The reader sufficiently familiar with Nabokov will also notice the similarity between Person Unknown’s concealment “behind the play, the sparkle, the thick, green greasepaint of the foliage” and Charles Kinbote’s musings on his temptations to suicide in Pale Fire:

When the soul adores Him Who guides it through mortal life, when it distinguishes His sign at every turn of the trail, painted on the boulder and notched in the fir trunk, when every page in the book of one’s personal fate bears His watermark, how can one doubt that He will also preserve us through all eternity? So what can stop one from effecting the transition? What can help us to resist the intolerable temptation? What can prevent us from yielding to the burning desire for merging in God?[18]

In spite of the fact that Nabokov was not a Christian, and therefore that Kinbote is to a certain degree an object of pitiable ridicule, Kinbote’s Christianity nevertheless functions as an ironic evocation of Nabokov’s own metaphysical sense, which stands, as it does, in more faithful relation to Kinbote’s apophatic Christianity than with “le grand néant” of the novel’s poet, John Shade.[19] Robert Alter therefore rightly asserts Nabokov “clearly converge[s] in this ringing affirmation by Kinbote of what God is not”:

How much more intelligent it is—even from a proud infidel’s point of view!—to accept God’s Presence—a faint phosphorescence at first, a pale light in the dimness of bodily life, and a dazzling radiance after it? . . . I think I know what He is not: He is not despair, He is not terror, He is not the earth in one’s rattling throat, not the black hum in one’s ears fading to nothing in nothing. I know also that the world could not have occurred fortuitously and that somehow Mind is involved as a main factor in the making of the universe.[20]

Not every Nabokov scholar will agree with what I am about to say; I suspect it is because the phrase I am about to use is perhaps insufficiently apophatic for those who consider Nabokov antagonistic towards “the religious” in the broadest sense. For those, surely the theologically loaded meaning the first of the two terms has had since Nicaea I will only exacerbate the matter. But, here I go. Across Nabokov’s Areopagus is scrawled Person Unknown.

[1] Nicolas Berdyaev, Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Autobiography (San Rafael, CA: Semantron, 2009), 218. Cf. Nicolas Berdyaev, The Meaning of the Creative Act (San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2008), 164. Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton: PUP, 1990), 506: Nabokov had met Berdyaev “through common friend [Ilya] Fondaminsky.”

[2] Vladimir Alexandrov, Nabokov’s Otherworld (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s Ada: The Place of Consciousness (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985); David S. Rutledge, Nabokov’s Permanent Mystery: The Expression of Metaphysics in His Work (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2011); Leona Toker, Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).

[3] Vladimir Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita, ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. (London: Penguin, 2000), 316–17.

[4] Robert Alter, “Invitation to a Beheading: Nabokov and the Art of Politics,” TriQuarterly 17 (1970), 41–59; “Nabokov’s Game of Worlds,” in Partial Magic: The Novel as Self-Conscious Genre, 180–217 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); “Ada, or the Perils of Paradise,” in Motives for Fiction, 76–91 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

[5] Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (London: Penguin, 2011), 33.

[6] Gennady Barabtarlo, “By Trial and Terror,” in Michael Rodgers and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney (eds.), Nabokov and the Question of Morality: Aesthetics, Metaphysics, and the Ethics of Fiction, 87–108 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 97.

[7] Whom the International Vladimir Nabokov Society recently awarded The Jane Grayson Prize for a first book which makes a significant contribution to Nabokov studies; see his Nabokov and Nietzsche: Problems and Perspectives.

[8] Véra Nabokov, “Predislovie,” in Stikhi, by Vladimir Nabokov, 3–4 (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1979), 3. Nabokov’s novels are “complex experiments staged in the hope of discovering, by extraordinary extrapolation, the ultimate truth of this world and the next,” Gennady Barabtarlo, “Taina Naita: Narrative Stance in Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 6, no. 1 (2008): 57–80; 75. Cf. Alexandrov, Nabokov’s Otherworld, 3–20; 3: “An aesthetic rooted in his intuition of a transcendent realm is the basis of his art”; Toker, Nabokov, ix: “The magic lay in the earnestly playful eschatology that transpires through his books.”

[9] Lucy Beckett, “Rev. of A Key to Balthasar,” by Aidan Nichols, Times Literary Supplement 28 Oc. 2011: 29, quoted in Barabtarlo, “By Trial and Terror,” 103.

[10] Barabtarlo, “By Trial and Terror,” 89.

[11] Nabokov, Lolita, 60.

[12] Berdyaev, Self-Knowledge, 221. Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, I: Seeing the Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 22: “Man must make himself into God’s mirror and seek to attain to that transcendence and radiance that must be found in the world’s substance if it is indeed God’s image and likeness.”

[13] Dante, Paradiso 9.32–36, in The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso (London: Penguin 2012).

[14] Nabokov, Lolita, 9, 309.

[15] Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift, trans. Michael Scammell and Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 328.

[16] Nabokov, The Gift, 312.

[17] On “commonsense” in Nabokov’s private dictionary, see Vladimir Nabokov, “The Art of Literature and Commonsense,” in Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers, 371–80 (San Diego: Harcourt, 1980).

[18] Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, in Vladimir Nabokov: Novels 1955–1962, ed. Brian Boyd, 437–667 (New York: The Library of America, 1996), note to l. 493.

[19] Nabokov, Pale Fire, l. 618.

[20] Nabokov, Pale Fire, note to l. 549.

Featured Image: Giuseppe Pino, Vladimir Nabokov in Boxing Gloves, 1960's; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.


Erik Eklund

Erik Eklund is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nottingham researching theological aesthetics and subtexts in the prose writings of Vladimir Nabokov. The International Vladimir Nabokov Society has awarded him the Dieter E. Zimmer Prize for Best Graduate Work on Nabokov (2018) for his essay, “‘A Green Lane in Paradise’: Eschatology and Theurgy in Humbert Humbert’s Lolita.”

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