Portrait of the sexpot as a young girl

A conversation with James Kincaid about the meanings of 'Lolita.'

Bret Fetzer: The novel Lolita is more than 40 years old, but there's no sign that our culture has gotten comfortable with its story.

James Kincaid: Lolita threatens to blow the whistle on our favorite and rather hysterical story: The child is deeply attractive, but (my goodness!) only to others, to monsters. It's therefore our duty, the story goes, to talk endlessly about how these pedophiles are everywhere (except in our own house) and it's our duty to root them out—or at least talk about it endlessly. This process gives us so much: titillating talk (porn babble), sanctimonious outrage, immunity. We have deeply eroticized "the child" in our culture and put that image on display everywhere for our general delectation; but we then displace the attraction onto a set of scapegoats, who are both freakish and everywhere. (If virtually everyone is molested as a child, virtually every adult must be a molester, right? The impulse must be irresistible, culturally central? That logic never seems to occur to us.)

B.F.:What do you think of the novel itself?

Kincaid: The novel oscillates between modes of high romance and low comedy, irony and mimetic fidelity, absurdism and tragedy. It seems to me to catch, among other things, the fact that desire itself is always shifting, never stable or fixed for us—that our own loves and sexualities are as uncertain as Humbert's and as resonant with silliness as with horror, with beauty as with garbage. We seldom know where we are or what it is we are longing for: Nabokov's gloriously unsettling novel unleashes those wild and chaotic energies in us and gives them a variety of aesthetic forms.

B.F.: How has the image of Lolita been taken up by pop culture?

Kincaid: Lolita is used in two ways, I think: as a figure to enact our desire, to give it focus and form—as in Shirley Temple or Macaulay Culkin—and as a figure we can use to denounce our own desires. The second is a frozen version of the first, an artificially devised screen between ourselves and our erotic activities and fantasies.

B.F.: Did the novel alter the pre-existing image of the nymphet?

Kincaid: I don't think it "altered" anything or invented anything . . . it gave brilliant form to cultural energies already circulating. The way Nabokov got away with it was by means of the screen of "high art." Unfortunately, the current movie uses the same screen, without anything like Nabokov's energy, vulgarity, eloquence, or down-dirty irony.

B.F.: What did you think of the movie? Does it succeed in ways that Kubrick's did not?

Kincaid: The film is able to do one thing Kubrick knew and said he could not—throw weight on the sexual relationship—and one enormous advantage [director Adrian Lyne] has is Dominique Swain, who is gloriously vulgar, coy, filled with knowledge and ignorance, more powerful than Humbert and deeply vulnerable, and very sexy. She's a delight. But she packs all the energy the film has. Jeremy Irons plays Humbert as stricken, Irons' usual paralytic manner (he'd play Falstaff that way). He's more or less a static pretty boy that Lolita uses and tosses away, deep in guilt from the first moment and unable to help himself because—get this—he is suffering from childhood trauma. Oh my. The film "explains" Humbert in the most modern pop and banal terms: He can't help himself, you see, because old Annabel [his childhood girlfriend] died when he was 14, freezing him into this abnormal state, yackety-yackety-yak. Nabokov throws this explanation in as part of his anti-Freudian irony. The film picks it up with snooty solemnity and thus lets us off the hook: We can enjoy Swain's evocative performance and know that Humbert is not us, is not anybody at all. Thus this film is the reverse of subversive: It simply retells the modern lie.

B.F.: Are there films that depict adult-child relations without being sexually charged?

Kincaid: It's not the films which are charged but the audience—or, really, the way we are instructed by our culture to view films and locate our pleasures in them. I suppose it's not possible to make a film that is impervious to our sneaky constructions; even The Bad News Bears can probably be made into a spectacle of child display. . . . Mostly, we get variations on the same old thing, like the obnoxious and deeply dishonest Slingblade, which fed us the traditional pederastic love story, protected only by the hero's slobbering nitwittedness. Ask yourself how that film would have played had Thornton's role not been so grotesquely distorted, if he had been Ward Cleaver.

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