Intertextuality Revisited: Nabokov's Lolita and Poe's Biography

Nikita Nankov

(i) The scholarship on the intertextual link between Nabokov's novel Lolita and Edgar Allan Poe, no matter how diverse, shares three common features: (a) its method (usually not explicitly formulated) is that of the strict intertextuality (i.e., text A is perceived as tracable in text B); (b) it assumes that Lolita refers to Poe directly; and (c) it thinks of Poe as a predominantly romantic writer in the Platonic tradition.

(ii) In this paper, I approach this problem in a new way:

(a) methodologically, I underscore the radical intertextuality, i.e., the relation between any text and the infinite network of signifying practices producing meaning (Baxtin, Kristeva, Barthes, Culler, etc.).

(b) I argue that Lolita (and Nabokov in general, in both his artistic and nonartistic texts) is in intertextual relations not directly with Poe (though it explicitly refers to Poe's works and biography), but with cultural utterances (in the sense of Baxtin) about Poe. These utterances were produced in American and European (mainly romantic/modernistic) literature between the 1830s and the 1920s, and they express the interests and values of their (collective) creators. Nabokov, as an empirical author, was not aware of this, but he, as a Model Author (Eco), employs these utterances for his artistic purposes. By refering allegedly directly to Poe, Lolita, through a series of relay stations (Ricoeur) in the form of historically constructed utterances about Poe, refers to some basic principles of romanticism/modernism. Thus, by studying Lolita's usage of Poe, it is possible to see how Nabokov, in Lolita and in general, both rejects (in parodic and postmodern sense) and continues certain romantic/modernistic traditions.

(c) From (a) and (b) it follows that Nabokov's Poe is only the modernistic/Symbolist utterances about the American writer but by no means all existing historical utterances on Poe. The fact that the modernistic/Symbolist European utterances were and still are culturally the most palpable ones explains why Nabokov and his contemporary students unconsciously, led by a cultural inertia supersede all the utterances on Poe (many of which are already forgotten and need special reconstruction to be perceived) with only the modernistic/Symbolist ones (eg., Poe as a Platonic romantic).

(iii) These broad methodological and historical points are illustrated by a demonstration of how the three biographical utterances about Poe operate in Lolita. These utterances are: first, the romantic American glorifying (auto)biography (which I, using some historical key phrases, term the "Mr. Poe" biographical utterance); second, the American degrading biography (the "swine of genius" biographical utterance); and third, the European modernistic glorifying biography. Lolita is built on two complementary principles explainable through the intertextual use of these biographical utterances.

(a) The use of the "Mr. Poe" utterance as a type of romantic/modernistic individual consciousness (Hegel) creates the split fictional world of Lolita. This is illustrated by an analysis of the episode with the White Russian ex colonel Maximovich.

(b) The intertextual use of the historical dialogue between the "Mr. Poe" and the "swine of genius" utterances models the dialogical basis of Lolita: a self praising individual consciousness defends itself from an accusing Other. This principle is clarified by an analysis of the fictional "Forward" by John Ray and Nabokov's article "On a Novel Entitled Lolita."