Tabula rasa, we’re born: helpless, able to distinguish only elementary pain or pleasure; from our first cry to that last, weak sigh, we’re required to learn from every sensation, or suffer by our ignorance. Suffering companions us nonetheless. Waking and sleeping, how obtuse we are, subsisting more or less semi-conscious, scarcely sentient, though presuming we wake. If so, we are not much more awake than a somnambulist. So trammeled up by these dulled senses — blind to the light of light, deaf to the sound of sounds, — and so abstracted from our own phenomenal being and from that of those who present themselves before us, we must momently be beginning, even at our very end. Inattentive unless roused, we apprehend by fits and starts and accidentally the reality we are immersed in, like that creature Caliban, who lived on a blessèd isle yet believed himself mocked by music from wandering spirits glimpsed like a rainbow-hued flash on the tropical air. Deficient as we are, fortunate is the one that finds a teacher.
On the other hand, we are taught by culture and experience — sometimes formally, sometimes informally, usually by chance. Our waking state is somnolence, a condition seldom recognized let alone acknowledged, or if so scarcely comprehended for what it is. For each there may come a singular moment of truly conscious hearing and sight. When it does, it is revealed with the shock of the primordial, a moment like that in which Moses, solitary in the desert, saw a bush that burned yet was not burnt, and heard a voice calling from it, indeed calling to him. Dazzling, deafening! That is the archetype of our first seeing and hearing. But, to read of such an event is to rehearse a singularity. Although we may recite the words, we do not speak the poetry that uttered them first, since after the event they are words only, however important.
Our walking in darkness may however not be due simply to a defective nature. Perhaps we see all-too clearly, as we did once in childhood. To contemplate directly a face or form, any face or form, can seem almost unbearable. Medusa, the only mortal of the three mythical great females of the Greek legend, to gaze upon whom was to be turned to stone, could be approached and slain by Perseus only because he looked at her image in the mirror of his shield. Hence the ancient similitude of Art as Mirror. We require the mediation of art because the other person, seen as a person, is luminous, overwhelming. Not only persons, but things: trees, stones, mountains, rivers and seas — everything there is before us. We are in the presence of The Sublime (a fancy term for Reality) when we see what we see, and hear what we hear, touch and feel and taste what we do. The seldom attended-to consciousness of being conscious is another aspect of The Sublime. The astonishing thing about ourselves is that we can get through each waking moment, in which we handle things and persons, like the newborn infant for example, and yet survive — and we do survive because we have learned fear, and keep ourselves at a safe remove. Thoreau’s magnificent prayer to Reality in WALDEN, in which he declares his hope to see it some day — though he knows it must be a mortal moment — reminds us that we persist in our waking dullness, complaisantly muffled, or as Eliot put it a century later, “distracted from distraction by distraction.”
In the mid-1940s I read Joyce’s A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN. I was fourteen. I recall the free-standing bookcase in the Fordham Road branch of the New York Public Library; I can almost feel the thick green cloth library binding of the first edition; I remember its faded, brittle pages, my fascination with that musical prose. The novelty and the challenge of that discourse on æsthetics imposed by Stephen Dedalus on his salacious, wiseacre friend Lynch as that pair of peripatetics wandered Dublin’s night time purlieus remains vivid in memory. To a boy it was a marvel of ordered commentary on Aristotle and Aquinas regarding primary and secondary phenomena, wittily accompanied by a casual allusion to the fig seed caught in Lynch’s teeth, the acrid smoke of his cigarette as Stephen pursues his razor-sharp logic, his quiddities parsing the whatness of the ineluctable modalities of the visible and the audible. That bawdy braininess of a meditation on high and low, its intermingling of sacred and profane, offered this teaching: the artist reveals the ordinary world through epiphany.
In Joyce’s secular language, it is not Gabriel’s appearance kneeling to present to the maiden Mary a message for time and times to come, or the reproach by a risen Christ to doubting Thomas, but the apparition of a bare-legged girl, her skirts rolled and tucked up high on her thighs, as she walks the shore’s edge at Sandymount. Glimpsed in the plain light of day, that girl is also seen as a heron by a Dedalus on the qui vive for “the signatures of all things.” It signifies the instant of his coming to maturity, the source of his vow to take wing, like his namesake “the Great Artificer,” to escape the nightmare prison of the quotidian — and history, which holds us fast in “mind-forged manacles.” In Joyce’s case, they were Ireland’s history — family, church, country — figured as the sow that eats her farrow or the cracked looking-glass of a servant.
Dedalus was but half-jesting when he proposed to write a book of epiphanies, intended as revelations of the human mundane. Earthy yet sublimely symbolic, those unexpected visions should convey its pathos. They were to be the artist’s parting of the veil, so to say, exposing and presenting the truth concealed in our world. Joyce gently mocked himself in ULYSSES, when he has Stephen ruminate, “Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?”
From that time, I hoped such a moment might show itself to me out of the welter of the quotidian banal. I believed that a life in art was possible. Whether their manifestation depended on luck, or patience, or ready attention, who could say? I knew neither fasting nor prayer was the means or the way. Alberto Giacometti remarked that one night he “saw” his etiolated and essential human forms all about him in the darkness of a Paris movie house and later as they went into the gray night street. Such an experience may be the secret source from which the work of the great artist springs. Who can foreknow at what unguarded hour it may come? If it does, it will teach us to see and to hear. Particularly and peculiarly, it informs us that something, someone partakes of the numinous. A single, solitary exemplar supplies the spirit for a lifetime with the promise of sight, and insight. It needs but the epiphany, as founding moments in religious history prove, for the one and only to stand for infinitely many. No mystery in that; but if there is, it’s the mystery of metaphor, by which we see that as the sacred is to the profane, so poetry is to the everyday.
The notion of Art’s secular epiphany takes us to Vladimir Nabokov, a reader of Joyce. As I recall, it was about 1956 or so that an excerpt of his then unpublishable LOLITA appeared in an early number of Anchor Review. I was working at Harcourt, Brace & Company that year. I was convinced from just those few pages that here was something serious and important, and did my best to try to talk senior editors into recognizing a wonderful opportunity. As we know, it was Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press, a Paris firm subsisting on pornography and a few “avant garde” writers, which seized it. The rest is history. I read the novel in 1957 in Olympia’s paperback edition, which I came upon already catalogued, in the library at Hamilton College, where I’d gone to teach. In its thrall, I “taught” LOLITA at UCLA from the 1970s on, and reread it yearly with an eye to finding new things to disclose to students — not that college-age kids clawing their way out of adolescence could clearly remember or understand that period from nine to twelve in their own lives or grasp what its author meant by “æsthetic bliss,” the effect he aimed at. Nabokov used that term to make a distinction between the novel that provides “æsthetic bliss” and those that purvey what he put down as “topical trash.”
In an era like ours, saturated by easy and ubiquitous pornography, Nabokov’s readers will have become inured to the vapid and vulgar avatars of Lolita advertised everywhere, in her “real” as well as her fancied permutations. There’s a too-easy notion of what the author meant by “nymphet.” Whether it be a child-girl, an incipient girl-woman, that vicissitude in the life cycle of the butterfly, or the ghost of E. A. Poe’s Annabel Lee that hovers over the pages of Humbert Humbert’s pseudo-confession, all our Lolitas are poor facsimiles, commercial and sterile icons coarsely fleshed — too-too solidly fleshed. Stand-ins for an ethereal, ephemeral trope, they display what Humbert loathes: their immanent resemblance to Dolly Haze’s hungry, hapless mother. The mystery of their ephemeral attraction, I mean Lolita’s mystery, is hardly resolved when Nabokov informs us that his inspiration derived from the germ of a short story suggested by a newspaper piece about an ape caged in the Paris zoo. That creature, supplied with paper and crayon, had scrawled the world he looked out at — a world seen through his bars. How is one to connect the crude, vertical lines of such a sketch, and its vague shadowy forms with the story of Humbert Humbert’s sad life, written in jail while awaiting a jury’s verdict? Even if there ever was a French experiment in animal psychology, the anecdote smacks of parable — it is au fond Humbert’s imprisoned apologia for the former mad quest of the Platonic erotic by his hirsute self.
And yet, in thirty years of lectures, presenting, or re-presenting the book with its ghastly comedy, I was uncertain I had myself taken Nabokov’s altitude. Did HH offer a true, fictional person, who lives through his elegant and sardonic self-portrait, or is he a surrogate voice with a made-up biography, like an impostor seeking a visa to gain entrance into our hearts? If so, who is that someone else he speaks for? Surely not a perverse version of the secret fantasy life assumed to be Nabokov’s, his creator, who was pilloried for it? Surely not. Perhaps Humbert Humbert is the susurrant echo of the voice of Baudelaire, who warns his reader that “Charles Baudelaire” is his own twin and brother? Moreover, that spectral person is himself a ghost of the fratricidal suicide who narrates Poe’s “William Wilson,” just as Humbert more than a century later is the killer of that mirror image, the rascal Clare Quilty, whose name is a Joycean pun in Franglais, deriving directly by this way of recirculation from Poe’s Will, i.e., Will the Son of Will (Qu’il ti as, Qu’il ti es, or, C’est clair, qui… etc.).
I suppose the rejection of LOLITA by 17 and more American publishers, and the subsequent (and continuing) revulsion of critics and readers in this country when it did at last appear, was driven by their subconscious affinity and denied affiliation with Humbert (the Hummer). The value of virgins, even pre-nubile girls has always been very high. Such readers, who are legion, may have felt they were indeed his semblable, all-too capable of committing his crime, if too untalented to write about it in such superlatively witty and captivating prose. The outrage of envious inferiors is what they express. In any case, the girl Dolores Haze was no longer a nymphet on the night Humbert drugged her and took her as his “bride” in their room at The Enchanted Hunters in Briceland, since that night was the time of the onset of her first menses. For that matter, her virginity had been lost earlier at a summer camp.
I have always been bemused by Humbert’s author, who called attention to Freud and Freudians from his first novel on, who mocked psychoanalysis yet nevertheless has Humbert discuss the origin of his “fixation” on pre-nubile girls in a cataclysmic hour of boyhood — his interrupted, never-to-be-consummated deflowering of a lovely girl-child (herself explicitly an avatar of Poe’s Annabel Lee) —- an hour simultaneous with the death of his mother, absurdly struck by lightning (“All the night tide, I lie down by the side…” — in a tomb by the sea!). My bafflement is caused partly by the Joycean richness of the layer of fictive reality superimposed on “real” reality, both realities inhabited by the semblables of mythological and metaphysical “reality.” “Briceland,” for instance, is a variant of Broceliand, the forest where the great wizard Merlin was held captive by a fairy girl, herself retrieved dwelling in a grotto centuries later by Keats’ knight errant, who only after waking ruined and abandoned after a dreamed night of love recognizes her as “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” [But to pursue her archetype would lead us us back through millennia and around the world.] Taken together, and as demonstrated in Nabokov’s late investigation of Time and Death in LOOK AT THE HARLEQUINS! and TRANSPARENT THINGS, they constitute a complexity that saturates our being with Beings. His nymphet is an image of images, an image of the Image, which represents the Platonic Idea itself. Perhaps that is the way artists show The Thing-in-Itself, which is impossible to know, though we may chatter about it. Though it is easy know what words say, I waited more than a half-century to glimpse what they might mean. I take Joyce’s words about epiphany as my clue.
So far as concerns Woman, not that She of Goethe’s Ewige Weiblichkeit, but the female in herself, I, like most males, have been acquainted with their corporeality. She is no stranger, neither in health and illness nor yet in puberty or old age. Apart from the vicissitudes of the erotic, rather, the sexual life, I have held and been held in her arms, — as infant, as son and lover, as husband, father and grandfather. This is our common experience, for both for male and female. The sex’s palpable reality is a given, our banal, daily commonplace from time immemorial. Nevertheless, as anthropology, mythology and folklore tell us, her sheer physicality constitutes for men (and for women too, it may be supposed) the barrier to the perception of whatever it is that Joyce wanted to suggest by his epiphany — that instant of “realization” in which the apparition of something like yet nonetheless other, altogether and essentially other, is manifested.
In literature, that moment is what the short story seeks to come at, in Joyce’s DUBLINERS, in most of Poe’s fictions, as well as in de Maupassant, Chekhov or Babel. It is recognizable now and again in long forms too, in Homer, in Indian epics, in myths and fairy tales. There is a paradox when the noumenal is revealed or reveals itself, since we do not easily recognize the sacred in the instant it inhabits or assumes a form in the protean profane. An epiphany may regarded as the reverse of apotheosis. But, we should bear in mind that when Athena shows herself as herself to Odysseus, for instance, it is not an original event (if there ever was such) — it is a recounting, an event we hear about in words. All praise to the poet! Still, Homer recites what is said to have happened once upon a time. On the other hand, in LOLITA the instantiation of the Nymphet as his own nymphet is precisely what obsesses Humbert Humbert, what he has desired to take and hold so as to complete that never-consummated act of union lost by mischance in childhood when an old man, a Proteus, popped up from out the Mediterranean with a shout beside the little cave on the strand, sundering the pair of children not yet quite joined. Inevitably, since every moment from the beginning of time is novel and nothing can be the same again, he is doomed to fail.
Over the past decade, what with all the wealth piling up, my neighborhood in Santa Monica has witnessed startling changes. During most of the nearly 40 years since I settled here in 1961, it remained tranquil, a couple of square miles of streets of mostly small houses built in the late 1920s; brick, California-Mexican stucco, mid-West wooden, pseudo-Tudor and such; nondescript two- and three-bedroom homes on narrow lots averaging 50′ by 150′. Real estate values have risen, about 5% a year since 1945, and its residents, long-lived, small-business types, occupied modest homes unchanged, most of them saved from forced exodus by the California tax revolt known as Proposition 13, a constitutional amendment that protected lower middleclass families. In the 90’s, however, what with the increasingly acute shortage of fresh air in Los Angeles, we suffered an invasion of young media folk, affluent industry execs who couldn’t afford 3 million-dollar shacks in Beverly Hills, but needed to be out here on the West Side if they hoped to get to work on time or ferry their kids to the private schools that sprung into existence. Our shabby property turned vastly attractive. Run-down houses that couldn’t sell in the 1980s for $200,000 now went for $1,000,000+. Tear-downs on every street came on the market: a bulldozer would visit, and in the morning empty lot stood scraped bare. What remained was the front door of an old cottage or a naked wall with a window left standing in a bare front wall for tax and zoning reasons, around which an immense structure would be built — “mansionization” — 5 bedrooms/5 baths, professional kitchen, maids’ room, three-car garage, den, studio, guest house — never mind digging out the swimming pool that had been a selling feature in the 60s and 70s. In fact, there were People Mag people moving in up and down our street. Santa Monica boomed.
Well and good; no problem for an aging, low-budget writer or pensioned teacher who looked forward now to enormous growth in equity, albeit a future fat probate problem for the heirs. Turnover continues, rebuilding accelerates: 1 million $ has grown to 2 million or more. Except, since so many new owners are media or agent or broker types, a fresh “tradition” has come to pass, fostered four doors down by an “affluent” couple whose business is the deploying of traveling circuses through rural America. Coming from the “carny” world, they naturally commenced to make of Halloween a sort of little Universal Studio tour, a Disneyland charivari. Not enough, that this peculiar holiday, peculiar in America at least, has been transmogrified into a sales riot for candy-makers and vendors of ersatz throwaway-costumes for kids; not enough, that parents turn into big kiddies, themselves as they were in the 1970s, cavorting with their little kiddies, disguised by the grotesque masks and corny outfits from old musicals. What for Mexicans is the Day of the Dead, and for Catholic Europe that archaic All Souls’ Eve for a late Mass, is rendered a live-action comic strip. In the past few years they cavort and clown, prancimg through the dark with their little ones, schlepping shopping bags and banging on doors, to demand treats.
Our resident impresarios Mr. and Mrs. O. undertook to set up a stand and booth on their front lawn; rent an inflatable house for kids to jump around in, mount loudspeakers and strobe lights floodlightimg motorized Frankenstein knockoffs, flying witches, and broadcast the wailing of recorded ghouls amongst plastic tombstones scattered across the lawns everywhere. Today their productions offer candy-making machines, waiters grilling and handing out hotdogs, spun, pink sugar cones, soft drinks, free toys and dolls, the sort of junk they import by the carload for his sideshow business. Their notion was to “entertain the little ones” and their hope to “civilize” the block by keeping at bay the vandal junior high and high school brutes and brigands of yesteryear, those hooligans who wrapped trees with rolls of toilet paper, sprayed cars with shaving cream and splattered eggs against front windows.
Not altogether a stupid idea. My children, who’d grown up fearing razor blades stuck inside jellied apples by the local hags, now brought their own and little ones, as did everyone else. Now it was a safe, if tumultuous and raucous block party. The media moguls at the corner some doors away have horror-house setups trucked in from their property warehouse; they light kliegs behind stereophonic, loud-speaking caves of creepiness, devising for their lawns ever more elaborate graveyards with plastic headstones that read O.K. CORRAL and DRACULA’S BEDROOM, and park vintage convertibles on the sideway, filled with dummy skeletons that sport lizard helmets from outer-space. Hysteria; frenzy; mania. Worse, it has now devolved, having drawn non-neighbors. By 2000, busloads began to arrive, like gypsies coming from many miles away. The word was, our street was safe for kiddies, and fun too. By tens, by hundreds, and after 2000 thousands descended on us. Some of the crowd made their incursion from poorer sections of Santa Monica, Black and Latino neighborhoods; others swooped in from as far as the San Fernando Valley or even North Hollywood. Cans and bottles and wrappers littered the sidewalks and lawns after midnight. Anyone who was not out there with a BBQ stand or unwilling to set up for 500$ worth of throwaway junk hoped that 50 pounds of bulk candy might get them through the evening.
Our Halloween climate is dry, warm and pleasant, quite unlike what was usual for my childhood on the East Coast: drenched often as not by sleet, and dispirited by the rotten apples and stale marshmallows reluctantly handed out. Resigned, you simply hunker down, having set out a pumpkin jack-o’-lantern; hung the skeleton and crepe paper goblins from the lower limbs of the tree, and pray to escape damage. Most lawns seem to been occupied by baboon troops of squatters or hoo-hawing, animated effigies of the Addams family.
Last year’s loonies might have been auditing for Reality TV prizes. About 6 p.m., the march of the mad munchkins commenced. We sent our little ones into night to frolic with gaggles of dopey kids chaperoned by middle-aged yuppie Moms and Dads, traipsing up and down and around the block’s long gantlet, shouting grownups and screaming kids staggering from lawn party to lawn party. By 8 o’clock the youngest were already feverish. Our stock of candies was exhausted in an hour; yet trudging towards our door came an endless, weaving queue, all in their grisly or spooky Disney makeup, like motley ants on the trail of sweets. Knocking, ringing, yelling and shoving, they came and went by the dozen, trampling the grass of lawns where the cotton candy machines whirred and loudspeakers blasted and blared their insane, canned funhouse hootings. Our own little beggars were out in that night, traipsing behind Schwarzenegger guards and cronies, together with the rest of the Paramount, NBC, CBS, and Fox types, while buses from afar stopped to disgorge their antic cargo.
And then, about 11:00 there fell a sudden hush over our front lawn, though the racket continued to boom and echo from the other streets. I’d made coffee meantime; we hoped to breathe easier, sitting at the rear of the house, away from the darkened front rooms. I thought it might at last be finished. Then, there came then a rapping, as of someone knocking at our door. It seemed gentle after the racketing hours as the banged away with our brass knocker. I sighed and rose.
When I opened, I saw a little girl standing quite alone, without parents or friends, or even some guardian. The child was clad head to toe in white satin, from furred, sequined tiara to sparkling ballet slippers: white as only white satin can be, and as pure. Her glowing blonde hair was long and straight; it lay spread out over her bare shoulders,. Her eyes were sky blue, limned by dainty mascara; her fine brows were sparkled with powdery sequins. Tracery wings jutted behind from her shoulder blades; white, butterfly wings, sparkling with encrusted silver dust. She stood erect, no more than four feet tall, and held out a white silk bag opened with a drawstring. You may have seen her somewhere, carved, say, on a cathedral’s wall in France; or noticed that wide-eyed, innocent, and grave countenance, a face from Renaissance frescoes and paintings, to be found in Annunciation altarpieces. This girl, though, was yet a child, not the maiden who reads to herself about herself in an elegant study outside which a dove descends, projecting a beam of light that carries her tragic future hidden within it.
But — you will not have seen her as I did, demure as she stood on our threshold, thin-boned as pigeon and self-possessed, poised in that black, Halloween-crazed night, its air crackling and shuddering with the hullaballoo of a thousand zanies herded by manic parents as they plodded along trampling down azalea hedges and knocking over sprinkler heads. As I gazed at her, all that hellish, synthetic Boscherie faded into a distant din. It was as though she were enveloped by a great transparent globe of still tranquility. The street lamp over the curb and our hall light shining behind me were the only illumination by which she shone.
“Trick or treat?” she said shyly. I felt my breath stop, my head start to swim. I fished in the sack I’d carried to the door. I tried to her all in view; to contemplate if but for that instant that lovely head set atop a delicate, long neck. Those little, bare, white shoulders, their sharp collarbones in relief above the bateau-neck of her plain, white dress.
“And what are you, darling — an angel?”
Gravely the child replied, “No, sir, I am a fairy.”
I poured a double handful of candy into the purse she held out; and then another, and another. My eyes were fixed upon her. I feigned vague indifference. I saw her, yes, with a consciousness that floated in the time-out-of-time endless moment of which poets speak. Meaning to keep her there, if but for an eternity longer, I heard in my thoughts Faust’s plea, Wait, stay but a moment longer, you’re so beautiful!
I said, “And how old are you?”
In a voice of candid innocence, she answered, “I’m nine, sir.”
From a remote sector in the cavern of my head I heard a silent shout: Good god!
Even as I argued with myself that I had no excuse to detain her, to elicit just one more musical phrase, I also wished my devouring wish: If could kiss that fine, naked collarbone just beneath her throat? and, Just to brush that frail shoulder with my lips?
Yet I knew that even to incline towards her would be to profane, to violate, and betray …. Yet betray what? I might set out a handbook of injunctions; but they would beg the moral question. Worse, they would sound as inane and asinine as Humbert Humbert’s hideously tortured, and grotesque, swooning ejaculations. Nabokov did after all articulate this very phenomenon. Was he spinning mere fantasy? Had he ever seen a child like the ethereal creature who stood before me?
“Good night,” I said. I said, “Be careful, dear, won’t you?” And added, haplessly, “Good luck.”
She curtsied like a ballerina and turned away, skipping into the darkness. I waved at that vanishing apparition in white, that fairy visitor. I was aware my wife had come to stand beside me. She looked amused when I croaked, “Did you see that?”
“Pretty thing. But — alone out there on this night?”
She sighed. Her maternal concern was nothing to me. I was exhilarated. No, no, Monsieur Humbert, I muttered, you never saw anything like that! Your Lolita, your little Lola, was but a shell, a dried, dull cocoon, a fading relic of the nymphet she had been before you ever found her. Your Dolores Haze had already left the true stage of the nymph behind her when she offered you a nibble at her apple that afternoon. This child, this nameless fairy, is the thing itself!
I closed the door. My knees trembled, my heart was choked with a sense of exaltation. Not with desire or longing, such as Humbert Humbert had wished to invoke or evoke from out the whirlwind of time past. This was sorrow. This was that deeply deep sorrow that may drift over one on the first fleeting day of Spring. I’d been graced for a moment. What else is grace? It was something scarcely to be believed in the evanescence of our existence in this world; something seldom given credence. It was that fantastic something suggested only in art. I had seen before me what poets like Keats or Joyce or Wallace Stevens — or Nabokov — strive to express, when they attempt to convey an essence that offers itself but fortuitously — and for a moment blinds us by its glory of Beauty incarnate.