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Opinion The Politic Blog

PECK: Reading “Lolita” in New York

When it was first published 65 years ago, Vladimir Nabokov’s magnum opus, Lolita, was received with horror and scorn throughout the English-speaking world. After a series of rejections by publishing houses in the United States, Lolita scraped its way into the public domain by way of the Paris-based Olympia Press (a publisher known primarily for its production of erotic fiction and pornography). The novel was quickly banned by British Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George and French Ministre de l’Intérieur Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury, and nearly erased from history forever. It was hardly a glamorous introduction for an aspiring literary great. 

The problem then, in 1955, was that Nabokov’s work was seen as eroticism for eroticism’s sake—a vulgar account of a sexual relationship bereft of an important moral lesson. The book’s critics missed the true motive behind Nabokov’s work: to explore the twisted power imbalance so frequently exploited by the wealthy and powerful to satisfy their sick sexual fantasies. After Jeffrey Epstein was arrested in July 2019, for sexually exploiting underage girls, many in the media consciously and appropriately dubbed his private plane the “Lolita Express.” In a grotesque parallel to Nabokov’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, Epstein used his advanced wealth and age to coax his victims into his New York home and engage in sexual acts. His victims were encouraged to recruit others for the same purpose. 

The sexual acts that took place between Epstein and his victims were not only between an adult and a minor, but also between a powerful man and a vulnerable woman. Epstein hosted scores of influential and morally questionable men on his private plane. The flight logs of the “Lolita Express” read like a catalog of sexual autarchs, each of whom had used their social power to take advantage of the less powerful. Kevin Spacey and former President Bill Clinton joined Epstein on a multi-country tour of Africa in 2002, to name only one airborne meeting of pedophiles and the sexually promiscuous. 

The latter (for whom all members of the Democratic establishment have acted as apologists for), is one of the most obvious examples of how power enables and protects those who take advantage of their status for sexual exploits. Despite having coerced an insubordinate into a series of sexual acts, lied about it, and left his partner’s reputation in shreds, Clinton remains largely unscathed. One thinks of Monica Lewinsky when Lolita exclaims to Humbert, “[other lovers] broke my heart. You merely broke my life.” 

Long before the #MeToo movement, Nabokov demonstrated that consensual sexual acts may be consensual in name only, for power imbalances both influence and corrupt  consent given by the insubordinate actor. The former president’s escapade with the young intern showed his disgusting level of comfort with pressuring an inferior to fulfill his sexual bidding. This should be incriminating enough, even before one considers the credible accusations of rape and sexual assault made against him by Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey. Yet, these names were apparently forgotten by attendees of the 2016 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, who gave a standing ovation to the former president. The irony of that moment, coinciding with the nomination of the Democrats’ first female candidate, was apparently lost on those in the convention hall. 

Today, just as in 1955, at the time of Lolita’s publication, socially powerful men use their positions of power to take advantage of women. Even in the highest office of the land, Clinton (like Presidents Cleveland, Jackson, Kennedy, and Johnson before him) was part of a larger pattern, rather than an anomaly. It wasn’t long before one potential presidential rapist made way for another. In 2016, Donald Trump, like Clinton, found himself behind the most powerful desk in the world.

Even by Epstein’s standards, the current occupant of the White House is a truly disgusting figure. In a way, it makes sense that Trump would be drawn to Epstein. Who can really expect anything else from a man who boastfully recalled venturing into the changing rooms of the Miss America Beauty Pageant to “inspect” the exploited teenage girls who were inside and, on one sickening interview on The View, incestuously drooled over his daughter’s figure and alluded to his desire to date her. Not many would be able to exhibit such a sense of incestuous sexual entitlement over a young person, but Trump certainly had no difficulty. Let us not forget, in Nabokov’s novel, Lolita is the step daughter of Humbert Humbert. The similarity between Trump’s vocalized desire and that of Nabokov’s protagonist would surely leave Nabokov screaming in his grave.

The president has committed acts of sexual domination that, while not necessarily pedophilic, nevertheless demonstrate the sickening exploitation of power imbalances for sexual means. Wealth, power, and influence are tools of sexual domination for those with a low enough sense of self-worth to use them. Then, when these methods of influence do not work, powerful creeps turn to more violent methods: as Clinton did with Broaddrick and Jones, and as Trump did when he raped Ivana Trump. 

The great problem with the majority of these perpetrators is that they haven’t been held accountable. How sad it is that, given Humbert Humbert’s arrest at the end of the novel, Lolita portrays a more utopic vision for justice than present day America. When the New York Times and the New Yorker first reported on the crimes of Harvey Weinstein back in October 2017, it was a victory for social justice. The #MeToo movement that followed toppled scores of powerful men who, like Weinstein, had used their power to dominate their victims. In the face of widespread sexual violence, it was a measly victory, but one could at least garner a small amount of satisfaction watching one public figure after another lose their job and reputation after ruining the lives of so many. It is a great disservice to so many victims, however, that legal justice did not rise to the level of social justice and largely failed the victims it promised to serve. 

Despite 92 women accusing Weinstein of sexual assault, 14 of whom detailed cases of rape, Weinstein spent all of 10 minutes in Manhattan Criminal Court in 2017 before posting a $1 million bail. His 23 year sentence in March 2020 was issued based on only two of his countless crimes. The most serious alleged crime: forcing oral sex on a production assistant, Miriam Haley, in 2006, carried the larger sentence of 20 years. The latter sentence of third degree rape increased Weinstein’s sentence by a measly 3 years. Because of the statute of limitations imposed by the state of New York, many of his crimes will go untried and many of his victims will not see justice. These 92 survivors join the 25 women who were allegedly assaulted by Trump, the four women who say they were assaulted by Clinton, and the thousands of others abused by the rich and powerful in being disregarded by the justice system. 

Even if any of these men were found guilty, one wonders whether they will simply face the sunny fate of Epstein in 2008, who served the majority of his already short sentence from the comfort of his own home. Or the fate of Epstein in 2019, who never had to answer for his crimes.

Vladimir Nabokov once said that the inspiration for Lolita was found in a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes. After months of coaxing by a scientist, the story goes, the ape produced “the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal.” It was a celebrated achievement that demonstrated advanced cognitive ability on the part of the ape. What the poor creature chose to depict, however, were the bars of its own cage. It is this duality that inspired Nabokov to create his deuteragonist Lolita, a character cognizant of her isolation and forced subordination, yet nevertheless powerless to change her situation. 

In the post #MeToo age, when the call for social justice has only grown louder but the justice system remains weak, one is reminded of that monkey in the Jardin des Plantes. Like the ape—like Lolita—many sexual assault survivors will remain keenly aware of their own predicament, but will be powerless to do anything about it. 

According to that famous apocrypha (frequently and wrongly attributed to Oscar Wilde), “everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power.” For as long as we can remember, social and economic power imbalances have been frequently employed by the influential for sexual advantage. Economic and social inequality reinforce this imbalance in every part of society. Trump, Clinton, Epstein, and Weinstein are only a few of the many figures accused of sexual violence. The scourge of sexual manipulation has spread like a cancer into every office of every institution worldwide. Rising wealth and social inequality, in all parts of society, only exacerbates the potential for these sexual power imbalances. It is time people reread Lolita, and consider how much of themselves they see in that “pentapod monster”: Humbert Humbert.