Being Cruel to be Kind: Teaching Lolita’s “Trifles” and “Telltale Tingles”

Harriet Hustis, The College of New Jersey

In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, philosopher Richard Rorty asserts, “Lolita and Pale Fire will survive as long as there are gifted, obsessive readers who identify themselves with Humbert and Kinbote” (169). Rorty’s assertion is somewhat surprising given that, in his analysis of the role of cruelty in Nabokov’s art and aesthetic theory, he seems to suggest that such readerly identification is inadvisable; for Rorty, Nabokov’s aesthetics are directly linked to a “concern with cruelty” and fundamentally divorced from the aim of “human liberty” (146, 145). In particular, he cites a lecture on Dickens’s novel Bleak House, in which the author of Lolita states that “the study of the sociological or political impact of literature has to be devised mainly for those who are by temperament or education immune to the aesthetic vibrancy of authentic literature, for those who do not experience the telltale tingle between the shoulder blades” (cited in Rorty, 147). Rorty thus characterizes Nabokov as “someone who is concerned with nothing but ‘aesthetic bliss’” and who “insists over and over again that […] the effect produced by style as opposed to that produced by participative emotion – is all that matters” (147).

Rorty’s concern with the intersection of cruelty and aesthetics in Nabokov’s work resonates for anyone who has ever tried to teach Lolita at the undergraduate level and subsequently wondered how to teach Lolita’s own “telltale tingles” without losing its “lessons in participative emotion” – lessons which, according to Rorty, a Nabokovian aesthetics firmly eschews. However, Nabokov’s infamous novel can in fact teach us how to teach it, particularly when it is read in the context of his observations on the interconnection of “details,” “trifles,” and “consciousness.” In his essay entitled, “The Art of Literature and Common Sense,” Nabokov insists upon “the supremacy of the detail over the general” and argues that “[t]his capacity to wonder at trifles – no matter the imminent peril – these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind […] that we know the world to be good” (cited in Rorty, 150-51). Although Rorty will argue that Nabokov’s insight offers “neither a metaphysical claim about the ‘nature’ of ‘goodness’ nor an epistemological claim about our ‘knowledge’ of ‘goodness’” (154), Nabokov’s conception of “the highest forms of consciousness” does in fact offer an avenue of opportunity by means of which, as both readers and teachers of Nabokov’s work, we may attempt to teach Lolita’s “trifles” and its “telltale tingles,” its morals and its aesthetics.