Nabokov and why the moral act is the free act

How freedom and morality are intertwined

We think the consequences of our actions are key to whether they are morally right or wrong. However, for Kant, acts of sacrifice, duty or courtesy are the most powerful testaments of freedom, because they are in opposition to what is consequentially good. No one understood this better than Vladimir Nabokov. His characters, especially in such infamous works as Lolita, are often labelled as simply morally repulsive. Yet Nabokov’s radical philosophical inquiry, as Dana Dragunoiu suggests, lies within his characters, who show moral excellence by managing to control their corrupt inclination, interests, or passions through Kantian acts of courtesy.


Freedom was a value of supreme importance for Vladimir Nabokov, the Russo-American writer who authored, most famously, Lolita. Nabokov’s achievement includes a massive body of work that includes fiction, poetry, drama, translation, autobiography, and even scientific writing. What is more, Lolita, while the best-known of his novels, is one of many masterpieces alongside The Defense, The Gift, Invitation to a Beheading, Pnin, Pale Fire, Ada, as well as his memoir, Speak, Memory.


Nabokov’s philosophically complex account of freedom is a consistent seam throughout his major works – and it has also led to confusion in their popular and critical reception.



Forced into exile in 1917 by the October Revolution, Nabokov had good reasons to champion freedom as passionately and consistently as he did. From his point of view and that of most Russian émigrés, the Bolsheviks substituted the tsarist tyranny with a tyranny of their own. For Nabokov in particular, this was especially painful because his father had been one of the “liberationists” who dedicated his life to transforming Russia into a modern liberal-democratic state. His father’s political activism and his murder in a bungled political assassination by far-right extremists is one of the most poignant chapters of Nabokov’s biography. Nabokov’s philosophically complex account of freedom is a consistent seam throughout his major works – and it has also led to confusion in their popular and critical reception.


As a writer of a radically misunderstood text, Nabokov has at least two major precursors. Milton and Dostoevsky were also wildly misinterpreted at certain points in their reception histories: the romantics believed that Milton’s Satan was the rebel-hero of Paradise Lost and the existentialists believed that Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov was the rebel-hero of The Brothers Karamazov. A similar misinterpretation occurred in the wake of Lolita’s publication, when critics as astute as Lionel Trilling concluded that Lolita was a great love story and its narrator, Humbert Humbert, a romantic hero.


Looking at these texts together helps explain why such a misunderstanding occurred in the first place. Though Satan, Ivan, and Humbert are cast as villains in the works in which they appear, they are given the full scope of their creators’ eloquence. Their eloquence is so magnetic that readers come away believing that they are meant to fall under its spell. Another reason has to do with their shared aspiration for freedom. Satan and Ivan wish to be emancipated from the laws of God; Humbert wishes to be emancipated from the laws of humanity. The romantics and the existentialists were especially susceptible to such appeals because freedom was also the lodestar of their ambitions. Immersed in the context of the Cold War, the civil-rights movement, and the sexual revolution, Lolita’s first readers were also primed to respond with enthusiasm to Humbert’s arguments against arbitrary laws and culturally contingent taboos. 


Nabokov’s defence of freedom was as complex as that of Milton and Dostoevsky even though he did not anchor it, as they did, in a Christian world view. Like them, he knew that freedom could be confused with license or anarchy. It is not surprising that in the afterword he wrote to Lolita, he identifies Humbert as “an anarchist.” It is also not surprising that he made Humbert channel Ivan Karamazov’s famous slogan “everything is permissible” at the very moment when he fulfils his dream of having sex with the twelve-year-old Dolly Haze. The words that Dolly whispers in his ear give him “the odd sense of living in a brand new, mad new dream world, where everything was permissible.” But just as Dostoevsky orchestrates Ivan’s defeat by making him realize that some actions are impermissible, Nabokov makes even Humbert acknowledge that having sex with a child can never be justified. He also turns on its head Ivan’s statement that one “cannot expect eloquence from a murderer” when he states—famously as it will turn out—that “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” In this act of one-upmanship, Nabokov is showing Dostoevsky that one can expect eloquence not only from a murderer but also from a rapist.


Nabokov used harm as a criterion for differentiating between moral and immoral actions throughout his writings.



If we are not seduced by Humbert’s eloquence, it is very easy to see how Nabokov condemns his actions: he does so by showing the harm that Humbert inflicts upon Dolly. That harm has immediate consequences —she bleeds, she cries every night, she tries to claw her way to freedom, both by using physical force and by saving money—and long-term consequences: she gets pregnant at seventeen and dies in childbirth. Like moral consequentialists, Nabokov used harm as a criterion for differentiating between moral and immoral actions throughout his writings. But Nabokov also embraced a non-consequentialist Kantian moral theory because he understood that Kant’s moral framework offered a far more powerful defence of freedom than consequentialism.


For Nabokov, consequentialism’s use of outcomes as a benchmark for measuring the good was aligned too closely with determinist models of human identity. He saw himself as a self-fashioning subject whose personal freedom clashed with conceptions of human identity— amongst these Marxist or Freudian frameworks —that understood the self to be externally determined. He was drawn to Kant’s distinction between autonomous acts, performed from a position of freedom, and heteronomous ones, driven by necessity, self-interest, or desire. According to Kant, only acts governed by the will and answering to the call of duty qualify as “moral.” This makes him a proponent of “deontological” ethics: from the Greek deon (duty), deontology is a rule-based ethical theory that judges the morality of an action according to principles of right and wrong rather than by the consideration of outcomes. For a deontologist like Kant, the expected futility of an action is morally irrelevant.


In Nabokov’s writings, the most reliable marker of moral excellence is an act of courtesy performed by a character for the sake of duty in opposition to inclination, interest, or passion. There are at least four near-identical scenes in Nabokov’s oeuvre that serve as images of the will’s capacity to rise to the demands of duty. There are also many variations on these four scenes that elicit the same meaning. In each case, moral excellence is signalled by a heroic act of courtesy that is disinterested, has no value beyond itself, and is directed at unlikable or incidental characters. They all affirm Kant’s claim that the capacity to do what is right (sometimes even in opposition to what appears to be consequentially good) is the most powerful testament of the will’s freedom.


Indeed, Nabokov seems to be acknowledging in Lolita that the cost of doing what is right as opposed to pursuing the consequentially good is too high.



Such an example can be seen in Ada. In this case, the courtesy heroine is Lucette, the half-sister of the novel’s protagonists, Van and Ada Veen. For those unfamiliar with the novel, Van and Ada love each other even though they are full siblings. Lucette is the casualty of their incestuous romance. Lucette is so desperately in love with Van that she has determined to commit suicide if she fails to seduce him. While watching together a film in the theatre of a transatlantic liner, Lucette comes very close to seducing Van when Ada’s unexpected appearance in the film makes Van suddenly abandon the theater. Robert and Rachel Robinson, “old bores of the family,” take advantage of Van’s abrupt departure to seat themselves next to Lucette.


Though Lucette is desperate to pursue Van, she nonetheless bestows upon the Robinsons “her last, last, last free gift of staunch courtesy that was stronger than failure and death.” Lucette rises to courtesy’s demands at a moment of total psychic disarray when she could reasonably claim to be exempt from such moral obligations. In doing so, she forfeits her hard-won opportunity to seduce Van and follows through with her intention to commit suicide.


Decades later, when Van writes the “family chronicle” that purports to be Ada, he seems to hold himself to a Kantian moral standard when he invokes “Kant’s eye” in response to Lucette’s accusations that he and Ada mistreated her as a child. By way of this allusion to Kant’s accusing eye, Van—a philosopher by training—might be acknowledging that despite his romantic swagger, it is the pathetic and doleful Lucette who asserted her freedom most convincingly by extending her courtesy to the “old” and “boring” Robinsons.


Lolita too is deeply invested in showing that the harm inflicted upon a child is morally unjustifiable and that no eloquence, however alluring, can change that. This is Lolita’s deepest connection to The Brothers Karamazov and to Ivan, whose argument that only a cruel deity could allow children to suffer continues to be relevant. Still, even in Lolita, Nabokov manifests his attachment to Kantian deontology even as he recognizes that questions surrounding the harm inflicted upon children render all other moral concerns trivial. He inscribes courtesy’s capacity to rise above self-interest in Dolly’s “absolutely top-notch tennis,” but here it is no radiant marker of her freedom, but an omen of her doom. Her “politeness” (as her coach calls it) on the court turns out to be a liability, and “permit[s] a second-rate but determined player, no matter how uncouth and incompetent, to poke and cut his way to victory.” Indeed, Nabokov seems to be acknowledging in Lolita that the cost of doing what is right as opposed to pursuing the consequentially good is too high. Dolly’s tennis playing is strikingly graceful, but it is ultimately “sterile” because it yields no “utilitarian results.” As one of Nabokov’s courtesy heroines, Dolly is admirable, yet the reader cannot help wishing that she had more “consequentialist” than “deontological” agency. Whereas Humbert laments that she never managed to claw her way to victory in tennis, readers lament that she had not managed to claw her way to freedom sooner and without needing the help of another pedophile.


Commentators who believe that Humbert has reformed at the end of Lolita tend to cite the passage in which he claims to experience a new-found love for the pregnant seventeen-year-old Dolly when he visits her at Coalmont. Yet the realization that he loves her in spite of “her ruined looks” makes him ask her to leave her “incidental” husband and “this awful hole” to resume her life with him. Knowing that Humbert is not in the habit of granting favours without an expectation of reward, Dolly assumes that whatever financial help he is willing to give her depends on her willingness to fulfill his sexual desires. Thus, she initially disbelieves him when he assures her that the money he is going to give her comes with “no strings attached.” The money that Humbert gives her was rightfully hers in the first place (it comes from Charlotte’s property), but—like Dolly—we are not accustomed to seeing Humbert do what is deontologically right. The fact that he drives off to murder Quilty after handing Dolly her inheritance shows that he is still in the grip of self-interest, but this return to his usual habits of conduct should not invalidate the moral merit of having done—for once—the right thing by Dolly. If anything, it becomes supremely important because it shows that Humbert is capable of acting freely and morally even if he typically opts to do otherwise.

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