How much responsibility must an artist hold for work that, for any number of reasons, becomes controversial? Here’s a question that has been asked and has divided lines for so long, one cannot even imagine when the first public uproar over something like a book or piece of visual art caused riots or tumbled its participants and opponents into courts and tribunals over obscenity.
Written in the author’s second language and published in 1955, the novel Lolita, by Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, was not the first of his English works—The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Bend Sinister (1947) were both English first before any translations, but Lolita had to wait until 1965 before the author himself would translate the novel into his native Russian.
‘Lolita’ is not in fact a character’s name in the novel, but the nickname for the story’s 12-year-old Dolores, for whom protagonist Humbert Humbert, a man in his late 30s, has fond affections that cross delicate lines, when he has sexual relations with the young girl after becoming her stepfather. The name ‘Lolita’ has now become synonymous with adult male infatuations for young girls that may—and often do—border on the sexual. The term ‘Lolita complex’, which first came into prominence following the publication of author Russell Trainer’s book of the same name, is now used so widely many people have forgotten that Nabokov’s controversial novel, one that still makes many people feel squeamish, inadvertently became its inspiration. Uncomfortable topic matter aside, two adaptations of the story have been rendered into films—most notably director Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 classic, starring James Mason as Humbert, Quilty portrayed by Peter Sellers, Sue Lyon as Dolores, and Shelly Winters as Charlotte Haze, the young girl’s mother.
In light of its general acclaim and controversy, Lolita has influenced a score of authors subsequently following its original publication—count among them writers Martin Amis, John Updike, and Salman Rushdie (some of whom have cited the novel in their own works). ‘Lolita complex’ is now used commonly when referring to adult males who, to put it simply, like young girls. For many, this is little more than paedophilia. Not even the 1997 update of the story for the big screen could distance the term from this story—a novel that may have, but by no means intentionally, made sexual feelings adult males have towards young girls a subject we at least can talk about in polite society.
In Japan, where popular culture is rife with imagery of young girls—particularly adorned in real or stylized ‘seifuku’—the ‘sailor’ school uniforms of school girls across the country, in both real life forms (low-teen pop stars are not uncommon in Japan—witness the success of all-female pop phenomenon AKB48, with members ranging in age from about 13 to women in their 20s) and in print (adult manga, in particular), ‘Lolita complex’ has become so widely used that it has a truncated form, ‘rorikon’, which is basically a compact rendering in Japanese pronunciation. In 1997, Japanese photographer Kishin Shinoyama, whose iconic photo adorns John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1980 album, Double Fantasy, published Shinwa Shoujo, featuring a then 13-year-old Chiaki Kuriyama. The book, later withdrawn due to nude photos of the model and actress most westerners know for roles in the Kill Bill films, barely caused a ripple in a society that has never felt particularly uncomfortable with the ‘rorikon’ phenomenon—the low-teen modelling and pop singer/idol market thrives. Supposedly even housewives will dig out their high school uniforms to enhance sexual experiences with husbands or partners. As an English teacher in Japan, I have even taught females in a college, recent high school graduates, who yearn so fondly to return to their past, and some look for any chances to wear their old uniforms, that as part of a Halloween event one year, several gleefully did just that!
Has this all been fair to Nabokov, whose hardly sympathetic protagonist narrates Lolita? This is not to say Nabokov is overtly judgmental (his own affection for Lewis Carroll, whose historical, murky relationship with children has never been clarified as outright paedophilia), but it is fair to suggest that in exploring the blurry area between adult–child relationships through a prickly fiction, Nabokov at least opened the door into a world where many people are still fearful to tread. Can a man find a young girl attractive? Can that extend to sexual feelings? In short: thoughts are untouchable, whatever morals one hopes everyone else should follow. Should that man pursue his interests through sexual relations with minors? According to the laws of most countries, the answer is obviously no. For reasons of economy, I will not delve into what people do in private, laws notwithstanding.
The notable difference between my questions is apparent: can and should are more than simply modal verbs. Just because a novelist explores a tricky topic, or a real-life person—not a novel’s character–harbours thoughts deemed inappropriate by many, what is the response, if any at all? Censorship, most certainly, is not an option. As for life aping art, or simply private thoughts that cause no harm to anybody, no amount of mob mentality is acceptable, nor should there persist the annoying view that the possible influence of art—be it fiction, heavy metal, or whatever the moral brigade wishes to blame, is reason enough to curtail thoughts, or literally ban or burn art.
Taking Lolita as a prime example, I think even well before his death in 1977, Vladimir Nabokov probably felt no need to answer for anything, that his singular, most controversial work in fact both caught its public off guard and followed in the great paths of art and science to simply ask the questions, and then hope that a morally indignant public will be forced to confront some things it does not like, through life’s great pursuit of knowledge and artistic appreciation.