Sometimes I start a post and then it just sits in my draft box until some relevant circumstance wakes it up and sets it free.
In this case: some time ago, back when I was re-watching Scandal with my visiting friend, this same friend mentioned that she’d recently read Lolita and was blown away. Reading Lolita is indeed a very blowsy experience; I remember feeling swept up in Humbert Humbert’s vortex of self-abasement and ego-puffing, even finding myself annoyed with Lo at times, although I recognized her as a prisoner, a survivor whose struggle is submerged in Humbert’s seductive first-person narrative. That’s why I find the book remarkable: it offers a strenuous exercise in reading with empathy. It’s challenging to look past a privilege narrative and to strain to hear the voice of the oppressed, but as I have asked before: why do we read, if not to identify with others?
Right after we had this conversation, we went to a brewcafe to write and saw a bottle of “wild ale” called Lolita. Because it’s pink and tart, I guess.
I was struck by the coincidence and considered posting a catalog of all the other ways Lolita’s highly recognizable name has been taken way out of context, used as shorthand for the coquettish nymphet that Humbert believes her to be rather than the survivor she actually is. But a quick Google search for Lolita-related products was too demoralizing for me to carry the idea out, so it had to stay in the hopper.
And I didn’t think of it again until today, when I read this dubious contribution to the ongoing debate about trigger warnings, which opens with a flashback to the moment that a graduate school professor supposedly destroyed the author’s love for Lolita and, somehow, his unpublished first novel.
Let me back up a moment and say that I do not understand why there is even a debate about trigger warnings. It seems like a very simple case: go ahead and note on your syllabus when the classroom discussion is going to have an in-depth discussion on difficult material. Don’t like it? Doesn’t apply to you? Don’t understand it? Don’t worry about it! There is literally nothing a trigger warning can do to hurt a student or reader except take away the element of surprise, which would hardly have much of an enduring impact in a classroom setting anyway. The argument that trigger warnings are somehow softening or weakening the classroom experience makes zero sense to me.
To explain why, let’s go back to this one author’s ground zero: he’s been re-reading Lolita periodically for years, he finds that reading it refills his well of creativity, and bam–one day, all lost, because his graduate seminar professor said: “When you read ‘Lolita,’ keep in mind that what you’re reading about is the systematic rape of a young girl.”
But the fact is that if you do not keep that in mind when you read Lolita, you are reading it badly.
There is literally no reading of Lolita that makes sense unless you understand that the narrative, seductive and curlicuing and hilarious though it may often be, is a narrative about a predator who stalks, traps, and imprisons a young girl. If you’ve somehow lost sight of that, you’ve lost, period. Bad reader. You’re basically the brewers of tart pink Lolita beer or the guy who thinks Humbert Humbert is a tragic romantic figure.
You know who will not be able to lose sight of the fact that Lolita is about the systematic rape of a young girl? Anyone in that classroom who has experienced sexual assault or coercion. Which, statistically speaking, is likely to be more than one student even in a small seminar. Students who, if the professor had not dropped that truth bomb, may have spent that section of the syllabus squirming in quiet horror while all the lit-loving bros blithely debated the novel’s formal qualities and trotted out the Vanity Fair “only convincing love story of your century” chestnut. Who very likely would keep silent and not challenge the lit-bros and just write about some other text for the final paper because in many classrooms, it’s the argument with the least emotional power that wins the debate. I can tell you that for a fact, because I’ve been that student.
By the way, this example is not even a trigger warning, really, so I’m not sure what purpose it serves in a New Yorker article ostensibly about trigger warnings. (To me, this just goes to show that the arguments that are getting the most airtime on this debate are so far from the point that it’s clear that the authors feel something else precious is being threatened.) An example of a trigger warning might be this: my class is going to be spending several days on a novel that includes some graphic scenes of self-harm and sexual violence, and it’s important that we discuss those scenes, but I am for sure going to mention that in advance of the discussion, because the last thing I want is for the students in the classroom who have experienced self-harm or sexual violence to be taken by surprise, and to feel alienated and fall silent while the discussion is carried on by anyone else who has less emotional stake in the topic.
Literature has emotional stakes. We want it to have high stakes. That’s the reason the whole debate has blown up in the first place: the way we read literature matters.
All the more reason, then, to make learning spaces safe for those for whom the emotional toll of text is the highest.