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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

My successful “enchanted hunting” for an extraordinary hidden allusion in Lolita

In the Nabokov-L listserv, the very skeptical Jansy Mello responded as follows to my post about the veiled allusion in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park that I see in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita:
“…I’m not one of the dull elves either but, perhaps, I’m a prejudiced one. In my humble opinion the kind of “covert wink” to Jane Austen, and to rape in MP, which you are describing leads nowhere inside the novel or outside it (it would be an “inconsequential” denouncement on VN’s part by its being only “a covert wink”).”

Jansy, I couldn’t disagree more, but I also have no wish to argue with you about the significance of Nabokov’s covert allusion, in Lolita, to Mansfield Park—you read literature very differently than I do, and I bring these discoveries forward for those (like Mary Efremov, who responded positively to my post).who share my belief in their interpretive value.

Jansy also wrote: “It is different in spirit from Ada’s, I, ch.1 (explicit) homage with several other implicit indications…”
In response to that very thinly veiled critique of claims like mine about veiled allusions, it just so happens that as I followed up on the Austen allusion in Lolita, I came across another veiled allusion in Lolita, that you will have more trouble dismissing out of hand as “leading nowhere”. And, as with so many of my discoveries in great literature over the past decade---literature that, like Lolita, that has been studied closely by many brilliant scholars over a long period of time----all it required was for me to be curious about an unusual turn of phrase, and Google it!

And that unusual turn of phrase in Lolita is (as my Subject Line hinted)….”Enchanted Hunter”!

A number of Nabokovians have speculated over the years about the meaning of the extensive wordplay in Lolita which relates to the name of the fateful motel where HH first consummates his lust for Lolita.  Here’s what has to say as a quick general introduction:
“This phrase comes up many times during the course of the novel, and often in highly suggestive variations, such as "The Hunted Enchanters." It is first mentioned by Charlotte, who proposes that she and Humbert have a romantic little getaway at a hotel by that name. Most importantly, The Enchanted Hunters is the name of the hotel where Humbert and Lolita first have sex. Later, Clare Quilty names his play The Enchanted Hunter and clever Humbert doesn't make the connection – remember that man who speaks to him about Lolita on the dark porch of hotel? Quilty, gathering material. Humbert admits that he thought the name of the hotel and the name of the play was a coincidence. The phrase echoes some of the meanings of "nymphet" because it implies that the one who hunts is "enchanted," almost under the spell of the girl being hunted. The hunter is drawn as if by a supernatural power that cannot be helped or hindered. Despite this connotation, the object of the hunt is clearly Lolita. Along these lines, Humbert often characterizes himself as a predator – like a spider or a monster, at one point saying that he prefers his prey to be moving rather than motionless. Clare Quilty is another of Lolita's hunters, following Humbert and Lolita around the country and finally snatching her up in Elphinstone.”

One particularly excellent scholarly article I found yesterday in that regard is “The Tale of Enchanted Hunters:  Lolita in Victorian Context” by Olga Voronina, in Nabokov Studies 10.1 (2006) 147-174, in which Voronina unpacks a number of disturbing allusive sources, including Carroll, Ruskin and Tennyson. Another is “The Enchanted Hunters: Nabokov's Use of Folk Characterization in "Lolita" by Steven Swann Jones in Western Folklore, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Oct., 1980), pp. 269

So, in my argument that follows, below, I am not for a moment suggesting that Voronina, Jones, or any other Nabokov scholar is wrong in asserting the various allusive sources they see for “Enchanted Hunter”—it seems clear to me that Nabokov packed allusions into Lolita very densely, thereby achieving a dizzying and dazzling polyphonic effect. And the one I just found yesterday is at least as interesting as  those others previously identified—or at least, to paraphrase Jansy, I am certain that it “leads somewhere” in terms of our understanding of Lolita.

Without further ado, then, here is what Google Books led me to:

In the Harvard Oriental Series, edited by Charles Rockwell Lanman (1921) 
Buddhist legends translated from Pali, Dhammapada Commentary   Book IX. Evil, Papa Vagga   Synopsis of Legend 8.  THE ENCHANTED HUNTER.
“A rich man's daughter looks out of her window, sees a hunter pass through the street, and falls in love with him. Learning through her slave that he expects to leave the city on the following day, she leaves the house secretly, joins him on the road, and elopes with him. Seven sons are born to them, and in the course of time marry and set up households of their own. One day the Teacher, perceiving that the hunter and his sons and daughters-in-law are ripe for conversion, goes to where the nets are spread, leaves a footprint, and sits down under a bush. The hunter, having caught nothing, suspects that some one is setting the animals free; and when he sees the Teacher, draws his bow. By the power of the Teacher he is unable to release the arrow and remains rooted to the spot. The same thing happens to his seven sons. The wife comes and exclaims, in riddling phrase, "Do not kill my father!" The hunter and his sons ask pardon of the Teacher and become his disciples. The monks complain that the wife, although a disciple of the Teacher, has assisted her husband to take life, but the Teacher assures them that such is not the case.”

Earlier in that same volume, I found a longer synopsis of that very same ancient Buddhist legend:

When we read about a daughter who leaves her parent’s house to elope with an enchanted hunter, it is obvious right off the bat that Nabokov must have been especially interested in this particular Buddhist legend, for him to use its title and the name of its central character to allude to it via his naming of perhaps the most significant location in Lolita, as well as in the title of Quilty’s play. But, as I will briefly illustrate, there are several significant wrinkles in this allusion that give it even greater significance in Lolita:

First, the longer synopsis included the following excerpt pertaining to the rationale the Teacher gives for asserting that the wife had not done evil in assisting her husband, the “enchanted hunter”, to take life:

“If a man's hand be free from wounds, even though he take poison into his hand, yet the poison will not harm him. Precisely so, a man who harbors no thoughts of wrong and who commits no evil, may take down bows and other similar objects and present them to another, and yet be guiltless of sin." So saying, he joined the connection, and preaching the Law, pronounced the following Stanza.  If in his hand there be no wound, A man may carry poison in his hand. Poison cannot harm him who is free from wounds…”

Consider that discussion of poison and wounds in light of Humbert Humbert’s description of poison and wounds vis a vis his first love, Annabel, when they were both “faunlets” (i.e., young deer, as in the deer trapped by the legend’s “enchanted hunter”:

“When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a FAUNLET in my own right, on that same ENCHANTED island of time; but today, in September 1952, after twenty-nine years have elapsed, I think I can DISTINGUISH HER IN THE INITIAL FATEFUL ELF OF MY LIFE. We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives. I was a strong lad and survived; but the POISON WAS IN THE WOUND, and THE WOUND REMAINED EVER OPEN, and soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.”

That intimation of Lolita as a reincarnation of Annabel is an obvious echo of the reincarnation that is central to the Buddhist legend, and that’s not the only one in Lolita, there’s also this highly sexualized passage that follows soon thereafter:

“I have reserved for the conclusion of my "Annabel" phase the account of our unsuccessful first tryst. One night, she managed to deceive the vicious vigilance of her family….She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I have her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion. I recall the scent of some kind of toilet powder--I believe she stole it from her mother's Spanish maid--a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume. It mingled with her own biscuity odor, and my senses were suddenly FILLED TO THE BRIM; a sudden commotion in a NEARBY BUSH prevented them from OVERFLOWING--and as we drew away from each other, and with ACHING veins attended to what was probably a prowling cat, there came from the house her mother's voice calling her, with a rising frantic note--and Dr. Cooper ponderously limped out into the garden. But that mimosa grove--the HAZE of stars, the TINGLE, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since--until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by INCARNATING her in another.”

Moving right along, we come to the following two passages in Lolita which refer to motion during a hunt, just as the Teacher immobilizes the enchanted hunter to prevent his killing him:

“My darling, my sweetheart stood for a moment near me--wanted the funnies--and she smelt almost exactly like the other one, the Riviera one, but more intensely so, with rougher overtones--a torrid odor that at once set my manhood astir--but she had already yanked out of me the coveted section and retreated to her mat near her phocine mamma. There my beauty lay down on her stomach, showing me, showing the thousand eyes wide open in my eyed blood, her slightly raised shoulder blades, and the bloom along the incurvation of her spine, and the swellings of her tense narrow nates clothed in black, and the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs. Silently, the seventh-grader enjoyed her green-red-blue comics. She was the loveliest nymphet green-red-blue Priap himself could think up. As I looked on, through prismatic layers of light, dry-lipped, focusing my lust and rocking slightly under my newspaper, I felt that my perception of her, if properly concentrated upon, might be sufficient to have me attain a beggar's bliss immediately; BUT, LIKE SOME PREDATOR THAT PREFERS A MOVING PREY TO A MOTIONLESS ONE, I planned to have this pitiful attainment coincide with the various girlish movements she made now and then as she read, such as trying to scratch the middle of her back and revealing a stippled armpit--but fat Haze suddenly spoiled everything by turning to me and asking me for a light, and starting a make-believe conversation about a fake book by some popular fraud.”

“Now this was something the intruder had not expected. The whole pill-spiel (a rather sordid affair, entre nous soit dit) had had for object a fastness of sleep that a whole regiment would not have disturbed, and here she was staring at me, and thickly calling me "Barbara." BARBARA, WEARING MY PAJAMAS WHICH WERE MUCH TOO TIGHT FOR HER, REMAINED POSED MOTIONLESS OVER THE LITTLE SLEEP-TALKER. Softly, with a hopeless sigh, Dolly turned away, resuming her initial position. For at least two minutes I waited and strained on the brink, like that tailor with his homemade parachute forty years ago when about to jump from the Eiffel Tower. Her faint breathing had the rhythm of sleep. Finally I heaved myself onto my narrow margin of bed, stealthily pulled at the odds and ends of sheets piled up to the south of my stone-cold heels--and Lolita lifted her head and gaped at me.”

And now, the famous excerpt regarding the playlet entitled “The Enchanted Hunters”, which refers to it as “just another, practically anonymous, version of some banal legend”—a cynic’s description, to a tee, of that same Buddhist legend!:

“By the time spring had touched up Thayer Street with yellow and green and pink, Lolita was irrevocably stage-struck. Pratt, whom I chanced to notice one Sunday lunching with some people at Walton Inn, caught my eye from afar and went through the motion of sympathetically and discreetly clapping her hands while Lo was not looking. I detest the theatre as being a primitive and putrid form, historically speaking; a form that smacks of stone-age rites and communal nonsense despite those individual injections of genius, such as, say, Elizabethan poetry which a closeted reader automatically pumps out of the stuff. Being much occupied at the time with my own literary labors, I did not bother to read the complete text of The Enchanted Hunters, the playlet in which Dolores Haze was assigned the part of a farmer's daughter who imagines herself to be a woodland witch, or Diana, or something, and who, having got hold of a book on hypnotism, plunges a number of lost hunters into various entertaining trances before falling in her turn under the spell of a vagabond poet (Mona Dahl). That much I gleaned from bits of crumpled and poorly typed script that Lo sowed all over the house. The coincidence of the title with the name of an unforgettable inn was pleasant in a sad little way: I wearily thought I had better not bring it to my own enchantress's notice, lest a brazen accusation of mawkishness hurt me even more than her failure to notice it for herself had done. I assumed the playlet was just another, practically anonymous, VERSION OF SOME BANAL LEGEND. Nothing prevented one, of course, from supposing that in quest of an attractive name the founder of the hotel had been immediately and solely influenced by the chance fantasy of the second-rate muralist he had hired, and that subsequently the hotel's name had suggested the play's title. But in my credulous, simple, benevolent mind I happened to twist it the other way round, and without giving the whole matter much though really, supposed that mural, name and title had all been derived from a common source, from some local tradition, which I, an alien unversed in New England lore, would not be supposed to know.”

And that very same excerpt then shortly turns to a description of seven hunters, the very number of sons of the original “enchanter hunter” who participate in his hunting operation:

The red-capped, uniformly attired hunters, of which one was a banker, another a plumber, a third a policeman, a fourth an undertaker, a fifth an underwriter, a sixth an escaped convict (you see the possibilities!), went through a complete change of mind in Dolly's Dell, and remembered their real lives only as dreams or nightmares from which little Diana had aroused them; but A SEVENTH HUNTER” (in a green cap, the fool) was a Young Poet, and he insisted, much to Diana's annoyance, that she and the entertainment provided (dancing nymphs, and elves, and monsters) were his, the Poet's, invention.”

So….what does it all mean? I invite you Nabokov mavens to react, and speculate about why Nabokov would have chosen to hide in very plain sight at the center of his novel a Buddhist legend, the moral of which was described nearly a century ago, and three decades before Nabokov published Lolita, as follows in the American Ecclesiastical Review (1922):
“The story of the Enchanted Hunter with its supplementary tale points the lesson that great merit acquired in a previous existence may have its fruit in conversion to the Buddhist faith in a subsequent existence whereby the dire consequences of years of crime may be happily avoided….”

Sounds an awful lot like the moral questions that hover over Lolita like a swarm of vulture, when we think about HH’s crimes, and how in many senses he took Lolita’s life.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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