Prince Pauper

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Oh, Vladimir! So Much To Answer For?

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.

Enter Japan.

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.

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Arizona’s anti-immigration law, meet your cousin

From my comment about Anderson Cooper’s discussion with Al Melvin, Arizona State Senator and passionate advocate of the state’s latest foray into bigotry and vile ignorance, the ‘religious freedom’ bill (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/25/anderson-cooper-arizona-anti-gay-law_n_4852674.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular) :

Religious freedom is not the issue; it’s whether or not a state adopts a religion, or allows them all to co-exist freely with no state-affiliation to one religion or another, and that includes the state enforcing the atheist viewpoint, which would bother me as an atheist. The only freedom being encroached upon is the freedom to openly be who you are, or express your non-belief. I am not aware of any laws that clearly discriminate against atheism, except in some other, clearly bizarre, attempts at statehood around the world, but the bullying is more than apparent. It isn’t a lot different from what LGBT people have to endure, although clearly they suffer more. Ignorance 1-Reason 0, I’m afraid–at least in some dour pockets of what is supposed to be civil society, post-Darwin’s theory, post-emancipation of women as possessions of their husbands, and post-civil rights movements for non-Caucasians.

As for this law, what really is the point? Even Anderson Cooper’s example of a staunch Catholic troubled by having to serve a divorced customer fails to address the simple fact that when you live in a pluralistic and open society, sometimes your beliefs, or non-belief system, will be tested. You make a deal that you have to live and work with others, which means generally accepting views and ways of life that in no way harm society at large. All this law will do is intensify and legitimate bigotry, pure and simple. It clearly shares ugly kinship with Arizona’s appalling anti-immigration stance.


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And The Bible Told Me So No More

First, there was TV hillbilly Phil Robertson, and now we have legendary boxing champ Evander Holyfield weighing in on the homosexual lifestyle, both concluding that being gay is wrong because it says so in the Bible.

Wait. Did I write ‘First’ before my mention of the Duck Dynasty patriarch and his unsavory comments about homosexuality (and his baffling musings on the joys of being an African-American, at a time when segregation still existed and a dark-skinned or even female President was such an unreality) in GQ recently? Did I actually use that word? Apparently yes, so let me begin again.

Let me re-begin by saying ‘Here we go again!’ I’d like, if that is even an option here, to think that homophobia is a very rare and occasional thing, with no connection to history. It’s just a pastime for a lunatic fringe that poses no real threat to a civil society, so if ‘Here we go again!’ is still the response of the baffled, befuddled, and plainly gob-smacked among us who find any form of intolerance vile, then so it shall be. It’s only an opinion being expressed, by a person exercising his right to freedom of speech. In response, let his critics and opponents do the same, right? After all, this isn’t North Korea. And McCarthy’s remains have long since gone to the worms, so you want a fight over something like intolerance? Fine. I’ll fight back.

And so it goes.

However, what is really troubling, aside from the actual remarks themselves, is that in our so-called enlightened age, people make them and back themselves up with a dusty old religious book, a tome so full of contradictions it cannot even make up its mind about which Creation story we should consider to be true. It cannot even acknowledge, like a good scholarly work (which it is not), that its Noah and the flood opus is probably the product of plagiarism, as is its virgin birth, among numerous other dubious highlights. Its adherents still eat shell fish, even though that pops up as a no-no in its hallowed pages. Don’t get me started about how a husband should handle his menstruating wife! Look it up for yourselves, please. And as for the wholesale theft of non/pre-Christian European customs into the practices of Christianity itself, you might consider, though dare I add in vain, digging up the remains of Constantine himself just to figure how all of that worked itself out. But don’t waste your time; a long-since expired man has no answers. Nor does a perceived spirit in the sky who, should he dash my non-belief to bits on the rocks of reality and reveal himself to be, appears to spend most of his time off duty, while his ‘children’ butcher and destroy one another.

Just to play fair here, let’s pick on a nice Christian, shall we? Devil’s advocate, if you like.

In 2009, when pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed a US Airways jet that had been disabled by geese being sucked into its engines, onto the Hudson River, averting disaster and saving the lives of all aboard, he was rightfully deemed a hero, and what he did was singularly above and beyond the call of duty. The man is worthy of all the respect he got, and then some. He’s even got a peerless flight record and years of respected service to his profession. Swell chap, crack pilot!

And then he thanked God. He thanked God for guidance, rather than the human spirit, his own skills and the brass to face a difficult situation and know the outcome could turn tragic. With all due respect, Captain Sullenberger, you are one hell of a pilot, and you pulled this thing off yourself. God had nothing to do with it. Drop the humility. Of course, he wasn’t alone in invoking the role of a higher power and calling this incident a ‘miracle’; God once again had his day, gold stars and all, thanks to all of those people who sought to praise him for making this ‘miracle’ a reality.

It’s too bad God was asleep all through World War II, and even leading up to it—for quite some time, in fact, when Adolf Hitler imprisoned, tortured and murdered millions of Jews, Gypsies, invalids and intellectuals. Not one life spared, except for those fortunate enough to make haste and seek safety over the oven, but that is only one of countless tragedies in the course of our known history. What we’ve failed to record must be truly, equally awe-inspiring. Goodness knows if God could help Moses part the Red Sea to save the Hebrews from the Egyptians, surely he could have stepped in and stopped Hitler’s madness. But he didn’t. He didn’t because he couldn’t. He couldn’t because he is not.

God (or by now the concept of) also cannot, based on his word in a mediocre and haphazardly assembled holy book, stop people from being gay. He cannot insist, like Mr. Robertson and Mr. Holyfield and Mr. Falwell and Fred Phelps with his brigade of zombie followers at his tiny Westboro Baptist Church and countless other Bible-high charlatans, that being gay is wrong. He cannot because ‘he’ is the product of several interwoven fairytales that constitute his steadily crumbling religious stronghold called Christianity. Despite the troubling fact that some 60% or higher among Americans profess a belief in him, Yahweh, as this sky fairy was once known, and then Adonai when the Hebrews replaced the older term, and now ‘God’, as we call him in the English-speaking world, is as ineffectual as a house of cards against a hurricane. He is nothing more than a fantasy.

Yet people still evoke ‘him’ and his guidebook to live correctly and know the truth. They don’t reference Zeus or Thor or Shiva, just to name a mere few of the countless other deities past and present. People like Phil and Evander and Fred Phelps invoke ‘his’ word when condemning everything from homosexuality to evolution. No matter that same source of spiritual inspiration is rife with condoned slavery, murder and the subjugation of women. Honesty, shouldn’t Jonah’s escaping with his life intact after having been swallowed by a whale have set off the alarms a long, long time ago about the validity of the Bible?? To be fair, the story does get some space, with a few tweaks, in the Qur’an. Misery loves company.

I am troubled by anti-social behavior such as manifests itself in the form of bigotry and ignorance. I am even more troubled by the fact that a simple reference to religion softens the blow just enough to let these people mouth off their absurd concepts, perhaps face a bit of condemnation, but carry on because they were only saying what many people dare to merely think, plus it has the added bonus of having freedom of speech© attached. ‘Freedom of speech’ has now become a hollow mantra once religion is trotted out in defense of hatred. It’s now as if the phrase means it really is fine to be a complete idiot, so long as you retain the right to make that idiocy clear. To anyone with a shred of intellect, ‘The Bible told me so’ should be even more reason to bemoan the existence, or future, of the human race as it is.

Seriously, with influential folks—not those of us in the cheap seats—like a TV personality, a masterful boxer, a wealthy religious mouthpiece, AND Sarah Palin taking centre stage and trotting out their ages old and long-since exposed quackery, we are in trouble. Try getting away with such crap if you practice Wicca!

Therefore the best place to start is not to just take the high road or ignore these people. Continue to call them out. And for goodness sake, hit them where it hurts the most: by retiring the Bible or Qur’an, so that one day, nobody in their right mind can even think about backing up hatred, be it homophobia, racism, sexism, whatever with something based on the ancient insecurities of desert-dwelling semi-literates. ‘Here we go again’ shouldn’t, one glorious day, even cross anyone’s mind!