Taibbi: On Good People And Bad People
I reread Lolita this weekend, as I do every few years or so, usually when I’m down or uninspired or feeling like I’ve forgotten why people choose the writing life. I revere the book for a hundred reasons, most having to do with its extraordinarily savage humor, but this time around, affected by depressing thoughts I’ve had reading news of late, I found myself asking a new question: how can I like Humbert Humbert?
Vladimir Nabokov was obsessed with puzzles, tricks, and ploys. All his novels make treasure-hunts out of his effusive wordplay (“We had breakfast in the township of Soda, pop. 1001”), and his fascination with chess is such an overt theme that one starts to feel the logic of the game everywhere. When protagonist Humbert incautiously dismisses the danger of recording his pedophilic fixations in a diary by saying, “Only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script,” and a short time later comes up with his too-clever-by-half plan to rape the daughter by way of marrying the mother, it hits us like revealed check when Charlotte Haze really does discover, and read, the devastating journal — the twist was sitting there all along. Humbert was a laughably clumsy criminal, but a flawless narrator whose confessional is a succession of such devious gambits and traps, in which he exults in thinking nine moves ahead of his reader-judges. Is conspiring to trick us into sympathy with the unforgivable another of his ruses?
It isn’t. In a story that piles word-games atop word-games — the whole subplot involving Humbert’s Dostoyevskian opposite Clare Quilty is a chess match, in which Humbert loses his queen — the most confounding plot device of all, the question of how we can not only tolerate but become fast friends with the book’s demonic narrator, is no manipulation. Humbert Humbert is nearly a purely evil character, who not only kidnaps and rapes his “darling” twelve year-old Lolita but conspires to have a baby with her and rape that child. His “confession” is nothing of the sort. He’s not retelling his breathless story to expiate guilt, in the Christian sense (the idea would have bored him to neuralgia). That he presents his appeal to the “winged gentlemen” of his cosmic jury as such is another of his chess-ruses, and a particularly disgusting one. He recounts the vilest scenes of his crime spree in such ecstatic slow motion that we realize he’s conned us, like a serial killer who, having led police to his burial ground, pants and grabs at himself with pleasure.
But we’re repulsed by that character, while we don’t feel the same way about Humbert. Even after we realize his game, we keep reading and, worse, keep laughing at his jokes. After the first rape, he describes an imaginary mural he’d have painted in the dining room of the Enchanted Hunters hotel, which to him is no crime scene but a Sistine Chapel of predatory ecstasy. “There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony,” he writes, “helping a callypygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of juke boxes…” We don’t balk at all that absurd self-congratulatory over-alliteration, which Humbert flaunts as a way to convey his excitement in reliving the moment; it’s that same panting. No, we just imagine it, feeding his perversion by providing the enthralled audience he craves.
No story can survive an unlikable narrator, especially if you employ the high-flying, 360-tomahawk-dunking form of English Nabokov uses. Oddly enough this was a problem with other Nabokov books with more conventional protagonists. It’s a quirk of literature that readers will cheer the Acapulco polysyllable dives of a child rapist but find the same style pompous in the diary of an inoffensive emigre professor. Nabokov, who famously despised the “literature of social intent,” might have puzzled at the effectiveness of Humbert as a narrator but surely didn’t worry about it. He wrote that the only “discomfort” he experienced in writing Lolita was sitting “in my workshop among discarded limbs and unfinished torsos,” i.e. he only cared about whether or not his creations were alive, and Humbert was. The fact that the story worked wasn’t a trick but just had some mysterious thing to do with human nature, and who cared what — it wasn’t his job to worry about why.
Was he wrong to create Humbert? The woke perspective would say yes, but both the book and the author have oddly escaped cancelation (Nabokov would have roared with laughter to see a titan of middlebrow entertainment like J.K. Rowling set upon by moral mobs while his cackling portrait of tumescent evil continues to be taught in universities). As I read the book this weekend, it occurred to me there might be another reason Lolita survived. In the social media age, our conception of both good and evil has been dulled to the point where the horror the book represents, and what it says about the absurd nature of human morality, has become invisible to modern readers. The flip side of the woke revolution is that it’s so trivialized the idea of evil that a generation is growing up unable to see and understand the depths of the real thing.
Scan Twitter this morning and you’ll see a smorgasbord of news stories superficially concerned with human villainy. The news for years now has been obsessively interested in taxonomic surveys of Good and Bad people, constantly separating one from the other and galvanizing the former to attack the latter, who are identified and attacked with machine regularity: R. Kelly, Bret Kavanaugh, Trump, Flannery O’Connor, Chris Pratt, Trump again, the unvaccinated, etc.
The villain du jour is Andrew Cuomo, whose crimes have been set out in a 165-page report by Attorney General Letitia James, which I had the misfortune to also read last week. In the context of Cuomo’s career, it’s a bizarre document. There are 2-3 flash allegations of genuine crime — a hand up a blouse to grab a breast, an apparent improper promotion of a female trooper as a come-on — surrounded by a mountainous chronicle of gray-area dickishness/inappropriateness/cluelessness, from referring to female staff as “sweetheart” or “honey” to “allowing senior staff members to sit on his lap” and holding “discussions about the age differences of partners.”
When Cuomo meets his maker I seriously doubt more than a handful of these episodes will make the first draft of what assuredly will otherwise be a lengthy case for hell. Morally, almost none of it compares to the other things we already knew he’d done: deliberately undercounting rest-home Covid-19 deaths to head off a federal civil rights investigation, taking money from Harvey Weinstein’s lawyers before halting an investigation into the handling of Weinstein’s case, keeping a right-hand man who took hundreds of thousands in bribes, or any of a dozen other episodes reflecting calculated transgression as opposed to generalized, anachronistic horniness.
With Cuomo as with anyone else in the Internet age, the important issue isn’t right or wrong, but whether or not he’ll survive. Bad People news stories now inevitably devolve into Twitter math contests, where the goal is to topple a career once the right ratio is reached. We see public opinion shifting against Cuomo, with 70% of New Yorkers calling for his resignation. If he quits, he goes into disgrace, a one-size-fits-all afterlife which is always permanent now — Al Franken and Louis C.K. get disappeared down the same chute as Weinstein and Cosby, and almost no one comes back from the other side.
Morality in this sense has become a pass/fail exercise, with everyone divided into just two categories, viable and disgraced. Which of the two one lands in depends entirely on how high levels of public disgust and emotion reach at the peak of viral mania, versus how entrenched the target is or isn’t. The thing about someone like Cuomo is he could easily choose to stick out the furor and beat back the bureaucratic assault on his position. If he does, bet on it, public opinion will change again soon, and he’ll be back on cable giving his own insights into the next Bad People controversy six months or a year from now.
Contrast this with the experience of Amy Cooper, also in the news this week. The infamous Central Park dog-walker became the poster child for cosmopolitan racism when video of her calling police on a black man, coincidentally named Christian Cooper, went viral in the middle of America’s post-George Floyd meltdown. Reporting by Kmele Foster has since uncovered that important background to the Cooper story may have been left out, perhaps even intentionally, by news media hot for a fitting villain during a national furor. Among other things, there appears to have been testimony from other dog-walkers, including a 30 year-old black man, that Christian Cooper was a self-appointed leash police oddball who threatened to pick up other people’s dogs.
It’s bad enough that in the Internet age the presence of a functioning cell phone camera during 15-30 seconds of lamentable judgment can consign one person to a life of infamy while someone who traffics in genuinely evil choices on a daily basis, dumping deadly toxins or doing PR for dictators or governing the State of New York by tribute, can still win Man of the Year or a key to a city with a donation or two. Worse than that, we don’t even fact-check our pass/fail reactions to those 15-second outbursts, and when information surfaces suggesting a mistake, we tend to double-down instead, with headlines like, “Central Park ‘Karen,’ Amy Cooper, Remains Unrepentant About Central Park Karen-ing.” Not only are we totally uninterested as a society in concepts like redemption, we revel in the careless, emotional quality of our judgments. People are just Bad or Good, and the Bad are all Bad.
Nabokov despised these tendencies. His mock introduction to Lolita by the tendentious pseudo-intellectual “John Ray, Jr., PhD” even quotes a “Dr. Blanche Schwartzmann” as a not-so-subtle dig at duncecap moralists who see the world in black and white. Nabokov even anticipated the preposterous hand-wringing of the safe-space era with the conclusion to “Ray’s” preface:
“Lolita” should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.
You have to have a well-developed fear of hell, and some consciousness of what it takes to fully deserve it, to appreciate the humor and poetry of a book like Lolita, and we’re clearly no longer the kind of society that thinks much about such issues. Cancelation is a poor replacement for damnation, and for a society that spends so much time judging, it’s pathetic that we’ve lost sight of the difference…
A quick note to TK subscribers. I’m going away with my wife and children soon, for a few weeks of whale-watching and beach time. I’ll still be filing on vacation, but I also plan this week to empty as best I can some of what’s become a long queue of unfinished material, including a few interviews and a video or two. Thanks in the meantime for your patience and support this summer, which I hope has been a happy and healthy one for all.
Mon, 08/09/2021 – 14:42