Dolorous Laughter
by Eric Lemay


I, Mr. A. Amis Tin, am not unaware of the repulsion with which random readers may regard these pages, when thrust at them by the zealous-eyed but seldom-scrubbed Apostle (also Mr. A. Amis Tin) of the new Revisionist Visionaries (refounded by Mr. A. Amis Tin), who often lurks outside the local post office or public library, so I pen this preface to persuade them that, though I reek, I reek with righteousness, and preach with pestiferousness, like the great prophets before me, to disease those at ease, to infect those unaffected, in short, to save those who refuse to fear for their immor(t)al "souls."1

Delivered on the final Sabbath of the last millennium at the first meeting of the original Revisionist Visionaries, this secular sermon served as our foundation, the flawless diamond, if I may speak metaphorically, from which the dissenters splintered. But let the Revisionary Visionists (founded by Mr. Eugene Swums and wife) and The Revising Revisioners (founded by Ms. Teal Tekkle, M.S.W.) suffer in their loathsome little sects. I do not wish to spit an "Et tu" into their brutish faces, like a Caesar clutching at the tears in his blood-and-tear-soaked toga. No, I wish only to tell the truth of one belief which brought our congregation of four to the Cook County Recreational Center on a cloud-shrouded Sunday in December. We believed then, as I do now, that our Puritan forefathers set forth a foul precedent by preaching from a solitary text (the Bible). We further believed that the horrors of American history might have been averred had the Puritans introduced other texts into their orthodoxy. And so, clouds clearing, we swore to revisit, revice, and renew the Puritanical vision for our post-millennial, post-melting-pot, post-postmodern America. Thus was our dream, then was this sermon. On novelist Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, text of our troubles, test of our tenacity. Our origin, our end.

The legal action which presently ensnares the new Revisionist Visionaries (see "Swums vs. Swums," case #24509, Cook County Divorce Courts) does not prevent me from publishing this pamphlet, which readers may reproduce as the "spirit" moves them.2 For I seek no fiscal satisfaction from my missionary position among the country's dissatisfied multitudes, those stranded on Liberty Island, those lost in the City of Angels, those hung like Old Glory from the high mast, dead feet dangling in a patriotic breeze. Readers, read this and live.

Mr. A. Amis Tin
Skokie, Illinois
February 29, 2001

. . . and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.

(Lolita, pt. 2, ch. 36, para. 3, sen. 12, wrds. 26-50)

Let us set our text in the context of the text entire: Beast has lost Beauty. Humbert Humbert, our confessor, has shouldered his sedan on the side of an old mountain road, where he has suffered a bout of non-Sartrean nausea, (w)retching not from a sense of his own execrable existence but from an excess of stomach acid and a lack of Lolita. (She, too, has slipped through his malicious maw.) To recompose his decomposing self, Humbert staggers through the reckless weeds to a rocky precipice, perched high above a mining town, all clapboard and burn-off, wherefrom rise the sounds of unseen children playing among soot-stained streets.3 Theirs is the laughter from which Lolita's is absent.

This concord also climaxes the confession. For although Humbert recounts events which occur after he hears these children, he plucks their chord last, allowing it to echo beyond the book's end, like the final "Amen" of a hymn that aches within a cathedral's carved arches. This melodious moment, then, is the pedophile's epiphany.


Amoral, moral, or immoral art? The question roused readers of Lolita when Nabokov first began to seek a publisher for his masterpiece, which one abhorred editor recommended he bury under a stone for a thousand years (for a thousand years the stone would have sung), and remains unresolved some fifty years after its publication with Olympia Press in 1955, among a list of titillating titles like Until She Screams and Savage Ravage, Nabokov's novel a disguised princess forced to mingle with foul-breathed beggars and one-eyed onanists. Although asked again and again, this question has been answered, again and again, in two opposed ways, two stones thrown up opposite sides of Sisyphus' hill, only to tumble--plink, plunk, plop--back down to the throwers' toes. If we perch upon the hill's mythic peak and, like Humbert, harken to the harmonies below, we hear both accusations and exculpations.

First, the accusers. Lolita, say they, is a bad book ("Bad!") because it is an immoral book, and art has all to do with morality. A novel about a pervert's prolonged abuse of an adolescent fails to achieve a decent moral stance and thus fails as art. In a 1959 review, for example, novelist Kingsley Amis (our names, as we shall soon and sadly see, escape us) decreed and decried Lolita as "thoroughly bad in both senses: bad as a work of art, that is [=] morally bad." And in 1960, Adolf Eichmann, then on trial in Jerusalem for the crimes against humanity he committed as an S.S. officer in the second World War, judged Lolita, "Quite an unwholesome book."4 I suspect our Ms. Tekkle shares their judgments, since she has threatened to secede from the Revisionist Visionaries if I insist on preaching about Lolita. Perhaps the black blossom of her threat stems from her work as a conceptual-art therapist for troubled teens? Perhaps not? Her stubborn silence leaves me to speculate rather than placate, so I must insist.

Second, the exculpators. Lolita, say they, is a good book ("Good!") because it is an amoral book, and art has naught to do with morality. A novel that contains some of the most stunning sentences ever written in English succeeds in achieving a stylistic sublimity and thus succeeds as art. In a 1957 review, for example, poet Howard Nemerov asserted that "Nabokov's own artistic concerns, here [in Lolita] and elsewhere [not in Lolita] . . . have no more to do with morality than with sex." Nemerov nimbles on, "His subject is always the inner insanity . . . and this problem he sees as susceptible only of artistic solutions." Nabokov himself affirmed such an appraisal, put forth by poet John Hollander in 1956, when the novelist professed Lolita his love affair with the English language. The Swums, too, seem to savor Nabokov's delectable style, as seen by the many messages Mr. and Mrs. left blinking beneath my answering machine's red light, not unlike the notorious district. They "just had to share" particular passages they were then passing. (And the lovely lilt of Mr.'s flounder-like voice!) How I lament my answering machine's mysterious malfunction, leaving me with a mere thirty-three messages.

Rather than repeat the either/or of these reviewers, I will reconcile them, for the greatness of Lolita lies in its revealing of art's greatest danger, namely that a great artist, such as Humbert, may make the monstrously immoral appear marvelously amoral. Nevertheless, a greater artist, such as Nabokov, may make the marvelously amoral miraculously moral, for he forces his readers to reckon with this danger, to recognize that the monsters in art's mirror may be our own reified reflections, which only we may shatter. Thus Nabokov's novel is good ("Good!"), that is morally good, because Humbert's confession is bad ("Bad!"), that is morally bad, because it is good ("Good!"), that is artistically good. Good because bad because good.

To rinse the rheum which may gummy our mind's eye (sympathetic stare at Mrs. Swums), I must mist us with the sea's salt spray, setting us on ship with that wayward wanderer, Odysseus, as he succumbs to the most seductive--the most destructive--of songs, as sung by the immor(t)al Sirens. We know the legend: Odysseus' ship, scorched under an Ioanian sun, nears the Sirens' isle, whose inhabitants lure sailors into the razored reefs. Wily Odysseus, however, contrives to hear their song and still survive. He seals his sailors' ears with wax and then has them lash him, ears agape, to the mast. As his deafened men row their oblivious oars, Odysseus listens to the Sirens. His heart soon lashes at its lashings. His brows raise and flail, like frayed flags of surrender torn from a burning main sail. His men tie him tighter, tighter, until the isle shrinks to a speck on the receding sea and Odysseus, sane again, slumps his massive shoulders. Only then do his men unlash him, to live on as legend. This we know. We also know that the Sirens' song cautions we who hear of it. "Beware beauty," Odysseus warns us. "Beauty begets death." And since the Sirens have become an essential myth of our Western world--their minor mention in the epic reverberating over three-thousand years into epic proportions--their song stands in for all art which leads its audience into peril. The Sirens sing in Beethoven's symphonies and Michelangelo's murals, and we follow them from our lives, uncertain of our return. This we also know.

What we do not often know is what the Sirens sang, what wondrous words poisoned the otherwise poised Odysseus. Listen to their lines as I have lineated them:

O glorious Odysseus!
Desired above all other guests,
You must not sail your ships past us,
Since we have honey in our breasts
So sweet on the tongue's tip, so blest,
Even the gods have drunk our song.
Unbind yourself and take your rest,
So we may sing of you, forever long!
The Sirens promise to praise Odysseus. Their voices tempt him not through their mellifluousness so much as their matter.5 Odysseus would hear only of Odysseus, forever and forevermore. Thus the death he would suffer, bones whittled white by the bright mouths of angel fish, would result not from the Sirens' but the self's spell, cast upon the self, that of absolute self-absorption. The Sirens do not lure Odysseus toward themselves but into himself. Yet we mortals must mire ourselves in the selves around us to remain ourselves. To reject the world for words, to sing and celebrate solely one's self, ends, in the end, in oblivion. A song of myself is a death of myself. The Sirens would widen the great "O" of Odysseus until it consumes the whole world, including Odysseus, singing, over and over, "Odysseus, Odysseus, Odysseus..."

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1. Note that "'souls'" shimmers between scare quotes, which denote Mr. A. Amis Tin's highly self-conscious and dare-say startling use of religious rhetoric in an America where religiosity in aesthetic and social forms is usually dismissed by the artistic and social elite as an indication of either simpleton vulgarity or sanctioned insanity. [Editor's (again Mr. A. Amis Tin) note]

2. Note, as regards "'spirit,'" previous note. Note also Mr. A. Aims Tin intends his use of cliché to go, as do most clichés, unnoticed by the reader, so that when he makes an astute aside, wherein he argues that the collective consciousness of the West remains, at present, so steeped in religious structures of thought that these structures go, as do most thought structures, unnoticed, the unnoticing reader's un- and/or subconscious will be primed for his point and thus will assent to his surgeon-like rhetorical incisions on this reader's "soul." [Ed.]

3. Note that Nabokov notes the non-fictional source of this fiction in his author's note, "On a Book Entitled Lolita," which originally appeared in a 1957 issue of The Anchor Review, along with excerpts from the novel, then under embargo by squeamish American publishers. Butterfly hunting at 10,500 feet, above the town of Telluride, Colorado, lepidopterist and novelist Nabokov listened to like sounds on a mountain slope steeped in lupines and turret flowers, where he captured the first female specimen of Lycaeides sublivens, a North American Blue, on July 18, 1951. That our author happened to hear the laughter he later lays in the ear of his character should not lead us to link creator and created. Humbert Humbert is a mere (mirror) shadow of Nabokov's substance, a genus of his genius. So although God may admit to making man in His own image, only to crush him once again--as we all must be--into disobedient dust, Nabokov makes no such mistake, and Humbert spies no butterflies. [Ed.]

4. Note how, even mentioned, the Holocaust hovers over these words like the legions of angels God shall send on Judgment Day to raze the empires of the earth. Our fear and trembling reveals, seismographically, the extent to which our belief in the Sacred has been grafted onto our abhorrence of the Profane. Now we are not awe-struck by the ineffability of God but the inhumanity of man. Our own horrors have become the heralds of what we dread shall come. (The beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born is ourselves.) And so we make Sacred the Profane sites of Auschwitz and Dachau, Belsen and Treblinka, which become a via negativa--a negative way--we pray may lead us from the inhuman to the humane. Might we (dare we) write of the Profane? A new Sacred Text to warn ourselves against ourselves? to save ourselves from ourselves? Mr. A. Amis Tin makes no pretension to achieve such an aim and often wonders whether, were one written, anyone would read it, which is to ask whether our hearts, for all their apparent warmth, are made of lead, like bullets. [Ed.]

5. Note that Mr. A. Amis Tin's translation makes only minor claims to literality, since a literal translation would require a greater gloss than the attention spans of his audience could sustain. Hence he has translated the essence of Homer's passage, with an ear tuned to the pulchritude, if not the exactitude, of phrase. Those few who require his translation be right as well as true may read on. Specifically, the Sirens swear to sing about the events endured by those Argives and Trojans who were present at the siege of Troy, which includes Odysseus. The Sirens also claim to know of all things under the sun (past, present, and future). No doubt the sun-baked Odysseus hears his own tantalizing self in their song, and were he to wend his way to the Sirens' isle, we wonder what these singers would sing when they started singing about themselves singing their song to Odysseus. The snake that swallows its tail, what tale does it tell? [Ed.]

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