David Andrews, when asked to define Nabokov’s own philosophy on aestheticism and novels in his book Aestheticism, Nabokov and Lolita, he states, “For Nabokov, art is not a window but the representation of a window, a representation with its own mysterious opacity, its own reality intact” (Andrews 56). And because art is not a direct representation, numerous critics have attempted to find a new way of reading that avoids the old-fashioned way of reading that results in one singular interpretation. Although many ethical theorists struggled to define their own opinion on what would be the best way to read and approach texts, in particular literature, it is undeniably true that they have succeeded in agreeing that approaching the text should be executed with careful and persistent “critiques” from all angles in order to achieve a more comprehensive interpretation and avoid misreading as well as a more ethical reading practice. Theorists such as Martha Nussbaum has argued in her book Love’s Knowledge that literature is a powerful and ethical tool because one can learn to empathize with others in the literature and bring that quality back to the real life to utilize it. Although Nussbaumian’s view may provide some hope for the literary critics, theorists such as Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak have been skeptical of such emotional reading and simplicity of the matter as there are issues such as self’s opacity and complex historical dimensions that the text may belong to. Butler particularly argues that self’s opacity opens up doors for one to narrate for an audience and engage with others to create one’s story. This is perhaps why theorists such as J. Hillis Miller argue that the reading process itself is in the dimension of ethics because we are part of witnessing the act of moral law by reading. Then, these dilemmas regarding ethics of reading are particularly troubled when we encounter deeply self-conscious novels such as Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita or Kim Sung Dong’s The Dream. Nabokov, as a masterful and skilled author, and Kim Sung Dong, an eloquent yet self-reflective writer, complicates the narrative boundaries for the readers and challenges the readers to think outside the boxes.
In this paper, I argue that the texts Lolita and The Dream, challenge readers to become a more, self-aware critics and demand readers to maintain n a certain critical distance which will allow readers to distinguish implied author from narrator’s voice, thus engage in a more ethical reading practice. I argue that by examining the narrators’ failure of perspective taking that resulted in their oppressive acts of reading and interpreting female characters Lolita and Ban-Ya, encourage readers to be wary of narratives’ personal, eloquent, and deeply introspective languages that simplify and singularize objects of desires whether it is for the pursuit of aesthetic bliss or religious enlightenment. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert’s overly eloquent and flowery language distracts readers from reading what is going on in the background to Lolita and instead, seduces them into deeper and subjective reading of the text rather than objective proximity. In The Dream, the introspective, personal and surreal language of Neung-Hyun, the narrator, potentially seduces and misguides readers to believe that bliss of enlightenment is an identifiable object that can be understood in a simple term.
However, authors, Vladmir Nabokov and Kim Seong Dong, both plant certain clues that call for readers’ attention in various parts of the narratives in order to demand readers’ self-awareness and critical distance when engaging with these texts. In Lolita, Nabokov uses dramatic settings, overly flowery language and theme of doubleness to signal textual play that perhaps demand for a close but linear reading that caters to details rather than depth that might allow readers to wrongfully deploy empathy for the wrong character. Furthermore, Nabokov is calling readers to the dangers of empathizing with the wrong kind of voice; a singularizing and an oppressive one. In The Dream, Kim use fragmented and deeply introspective and surrealistic narrative that blurs the line between reality and fantasy in order to remind readers of the unreliability of the narrator. Furthermore, Kim’s two endings in the novel engage readers to self-reflect and question the text as well as themselves in order to help readers to incorporate a more close and pluralistic reading practice which in turn, helps readers gain an ethical understanding of the text.
Bakhtin’s Heteroglossia and Boothian Multi-Layers in the Text
In both Lolita and The Dream, we encounter complex situations where we are receiving layers of narratives, and we are not sure of what the message entails. In these two texts, we encounter the monologic discourse of the narrators and their world glosses over the dialogic discourse of the real world and other characters. In order to excavate, or attempt to excavate, it is helpful to turn to Bakhtin and Booth’s arguments regarding textual complexity.
As Mikhail Bakhtin argues in his text The Dialogic Imagination, the novel is made up of many different voices and discourses. According to Bakhtin, what makes the novel so unique compared to poetry or another genre is precisely because of this unique heteroglossia. Bakhtin argues, “this stratification and heteroglossia, once realized, is not only a static invariant of linguistic life, but also what insures its dynamics: stratification and heteroglossia widen and deepen as long as language is alive and developing” (Bakhtin 272). Bakhtin’s argument that novel widely includes and represents all voices from social stratifications and generations, is particularly important to pay attention to when it comes to understanding the text in an ethical way. As heteroglossia is a multitude of voices and diversity of speech types, Bakhtin argues that novelistic form is a dialogic discourse contrary to poetic form is a monologic discourse.
In his work The Rhetoric of Fiction, Booth explains the multi-layers that exist in the text and how one should approach this structure. Firstly, according to Booth, there are multiple layers of speakers and characters all mixed in the text, forming an intricate web of narrative. This makes understanding text a very challenging task. Booth argues that there is no divorce between objectivity and subjectivity. The difficulty lies here because we as readers often swayed believe that authors’ presence is there in the text manifesting as a narrator. Booth reveals several layers of the narrative and how it is broken down. Booth’s idea of implied author invokes structural intentionality that generates the meaning but not the text. Booth argues that the implied author is the author’s second self and that “the implied author is always distinct from the ‘real man’—whatever we may take him to be—who creates a superior version of himself, a ‘second self,’ as he creates his work” (Booth 151). Implied author writes for the ideal reader. Within that circle, there is a narrator who speaks to a mock reader. Booth points out that the narrator “may be more or less distant from the characters in the story he tells. He may differ morally, intellectually, and temporally” (Booth 156). Within that structure, there are embedded narrators who speak to the embedded audiences than imagined characters or real characters speaking to one another. In Lolita and The Dream, we encounter all these complex structures at work. In Lolita, we follow the lonely professor and a pedophile Humbert Humbert’s story through two different speakers: one is through Dr. John Ray Jr., and the other is through Humbert Humbert’s own emotional voice in a legal court. By presenting Humbert’s case through layers of academic authorial voice first, then exposing the readers to Humbert’s poetic language, Nabokov calls into question the readers’ logical approach to reading by proving how easy it is to manipulate one’s reading through such layers. As Humbert’s seductive narrative continues justifying his own actions and experiences with his nymphet Lolita, we call into question of our own reading practices in which we unconsciously allow other characters’ voices to be diminished because of a seductive, dominant voice. In Dream, Kim’s approach is somewhat similar. In the novel, Kim introduces us to a spiritually frustrated monk named Neung-Hyun who desperately seeks enlightenment. Instead of enlightenment, he meets a young woman named Ban-Ya who subsequently introduces him to worldly desires. Through his experience with Ban-Ya, Neung-Hyun becomes seduced by the joy of love, and pain of having desire. As we readers experience the world through Neung-Hyun’s eyes, we learn to practice more ethical reading rather than empathetic reading.
Nabokov’s indictment of those who read empathetically with their emotion begins at the beginning of Lolita. It is important to note that the foreword is written by an individual named John Ray Jr., Ph.D. John Ray Jr. Ph.D., stands for one of the public and private discourse of the history as well as framework that serves to distract the authorial readers to bond with Humbert Humbert, the self-conscious and dramatized narrator and a character. His status as a Ph.D. holder already seems to work as a coercive tactic to get readers to believe that Humbert Humbert is some sort of clinically insane man who has paid his due and that he be made an example as a warning for all the “parents, social workers, educators” (Nabokov 6). John Ray Jr. speaks with a social authority. When he asserts his authority, it seems to possibly produce two kinds of scenarios. One is that readers begin to perceive Humbert as a perverse criminal who tries to justify his own actions, and therefore feel repulsion for his actions and his words. Two is that readers read with this framework in mind, and open their minds up to what Humbert has to say out of curiosity. However, with Bakhtin’s heteroglossia theory applied, it does not become so simple. One must remember that Dr. Ray is a fictional character created by Nabokov and he is put there for a reason. Dr. Ray is part of the social discourse. In the article “Pedophilia, Pornography, and Monstrosity in Lolita,” by Frederick Whiting, Whiting points out that “pedophile and the pornographer, tapped into a nexus of postwar social and political anxieties about normal, heterosexual, male subjectivity and its place within the organization of public and private life” (Whiting 834). Whiting informs us that Humbert’s perverse pedophilia is an ongoing intersection of the “Cold War political and sexual fears” (Whiting 835). He also points out that Cold War emphasized the “ideological other that preoccupied American society after the Second World War” and furthermore, he argues that the “sexual others threatened to infiltrate the home” (Whiting 836). On one level, Dr. Ray’s foreword expresses the public discourse of fear against “otherness.” In this sense, foreword section is part of the larger novelistic discourse, the double-voicedness as Bakhtin argues. On another level, there is also the private discourse concerning individual’s private sexuality. Whiting points out that back in the 1960’s, the penetration of pornography was endangering children to lose “innocence” and that the authorities argued that there was an “interrelation between sexual morality and criminality” (Whiting 849). As Dr. Ray confirms in his foreword, the society should not only be aware of its enemies from the outside, but also from the corruption inside such as, “the wayward child, the egotistical mother, the painting maniac…potent evils” (Nabokov 6). Dr. John Ray’s section already addresses few issues that we’ve discussed above concerning Bakhtin’s heteroglossia as well as Boothian narrative as layers. Within just the foreword, there are many discourses being addressed here in the context of 1950’s America. And in doing so, this points to the fact that there are many audiences within the context of this book. John Ray could be addressing his colleagues, the concerned parents of the 1950’s or 60’s, or the political conservatives, the mock readers. Furthermore, Humbert Humbert, as the narrator, has a different intention in addressing his audience. Who is his audience? And what does that have to do with Humbert’s audience? In the article, “Estranging Unreliability, Bonding Unreliability, and the Ethics of Lolita” by James Phelan, Phelan points out that there is “one text, two speakers (one explicit, one implicit), two audiences, and at least two purposes” (Phelan 224). Phelan goes onto argue that by introducing John Ray Jr. in his foreword, Nabokov is encouraging “our initial bonding with Humbert” (Phelan 234). As though he is already aware of John Ray’s audience, Humbert addresses his readers as “ladies and gentlemen of the jury” and “learned readers.” On the surface, Humbert seemingly resists John Ray’s audience by pleading his case, but as he deploys fancy word plays such as literary play on Lolita’s name, according to Phelan, on top of John Ray’s three pages of Foreword, Nabokov has made “the flesh and blood and authorial audience more susceptible to the rhetoric of Humbert Humbert” (Phelan 234). However, if readers read carefully, the authorial readers can slowly “untangle” the thorns.”
Humbert begins to show his unreliability when he shows his obsessive behaviors over how to record Lolita according to his memory. When narrating from his jail cell, Humbert says, “My calendar is getting confused. That must have been around August 15, 1947. Don’t think I can go on” (Nabokov 109). Then a few pages in, Humbert reminisces when he goes to pick Lolita up from her camp,
She was thinner and taller, and for a second it seemed to me her face was less pretty than the mental imprint I had cherished for more than a month: her cheeks looked hallowed and too much lentigo camouflaged her rosy rustic features…the angelic line of conduct was erased and I overtook my prey (time moves ahead of our fancies!), and she was my Lolita again—in fact, more of my Lolita than ever” (Nabokov 111).
This part is especially suspicious if one reads carefully. It is rather odd that Humbert relies explicitly on memory to narrate his story on Lolita and does not offer readers any objective view of what real flesh and blood Lolita might be like. This may be the moment where the readers can suspect the subjective nature of Humbert’s narration. Through Humbert’s confused memory, we can get a quick glimpse of the innocent Lolita, not the nymphet that tries to seduce Humbert. Furthermore, through Humbert’s paradoxical narration and the flawed logic in that narrative, we get a little more glimpse of Lolita as well as Humbert’s manipulative gesture. When Lolita kisses Humbert in the car on their way back from the camp, Humbert calls it, “an innocent game on her part” then, later turns it around and calls it, “childishly subtle for the senior partner to grasp” (Nabokov 113). This is particularly interesting because Humbert is putting some blame on himself but at the same time, on her part as well, attempting to sway the reader to believe that there is some fault on Lolita as well. At the same time, Humbert tries hard at bonding with the audience by reminding them that he will not exist if they do not “imagine” (Nabokov 129) him. This undoubtedly reveals the picture of extremely self-conscious narrator who is aware of his audience and whose job is to perhaps get audience to position themselves with him. In probing and examining Humbert, it seems undeniably true that Booth’s narrative layers and Bakhtin’s heteroglossia work together to prove the uncertainties and difficulties in excavating the truth from the text. This alarms readers that as critics, perhaps they should not read so deeply into the text and analyze the symbolisms as a means to understand the text.
Similarly, The Dream has a narrator who is just as unreliable as Humbert in Lolita and a text that is ridden with many layers of cultural and social voices. The overall narrative maintains 3rd person limited style, however, the narrator closely follows and has unlimited access to the protagonist Neung-Hyun’s inner world. The prologue begins with the dramatized narrator who follows Neung-Hyun’s deep psyche. When Neung-Hyun encounters Ban-Ya’s fantasy, the narrator narrates Neung-Hyun’s reaction from his view:
언제나 입에 달고 사는 보살의 명호를 다시 한번 마음속으로 불러보면서 능현은 고개를 젖힌다. 누가 손가락으로 콕 찌르기만 해도 금방 터져버릴 듯 팽팽하게 꽉차는 볼기짝과 웃는 듯한 분홍빛 달린옷으로 둥그렇게 감싸인 볼기짝 아래로 드러나는 왜무처럼 늘씬한 종아리로 저도 모르게 빨려들어가던 눈길이 점직스러워 오구구 몸뚱이가 오그라드는 것만 같은데, 컴컴하다.
Neung-Hyun throws his head back as he calls for the Bodhisattva’s name. His gaze drops to the ground in shame when he sees her flesh underneath her pink dress and her long, white silky legs. Then darkness (Kim 13).
The narrator seems to maintain a distance but also is not at the same time. The narrator becomes Neung-Hyun as the narrator also expresses the internal shame of looking at the girl, the object of his desire, as a monk. However, the narrator seems very aware of the fact that the reality still separates them. The reality is that the narrator is narrating Neung-Hyun’s fantasy. The sudden darkness signals the readers to return to the reality and it calls for the separation of the bond between the character and the reader. The social discourse here is so subtle but it becomes less subtle as the story progresses. In the story, there are many instances where Neung-Hyun is often referencing the Korean Buddhist scriptures he has studied in the past. When Neung-Hyun thinks of Buddhist scriptures, they come as embedded in narratives, in his thoughts, directly aimed at readers as well.
생사에서 벗어나려면 먼저 탐욕을 끊고 애욕의 불길을 꺼버려야 한다. 애욕은 윤회의 근본이 되고 정욕은 몸을 받는 근본이 되나니.
If one wishes to escape life and death, one must get rid of greed and put the lust out. Lust is the reason for reincarnation and lust is the reason for receiving a human body (Kim 15).
At the end of the quote, the narrator directs the attention back to Neung-Hyun and alerts the readers that he is thinking of the scripture. Here, the scripture quotes seem to work as a part of a social discourse in the novel. The scripture is addressing not only the dilemma Neung-Hyun finds himself in, but also the social expectation of the monkhood. His internal private suffering also becomes the concern of any other monks who may be struggling with their private lust for women or their lust for concrete knowledge of the Buddha. Furthermore, this discourse could stretch out to address the general Buddhist practitioners who are struggling and suffering as they fail to grasp how they should live in this materialistic world. As mentioned above, within the text, there are layers of discourse directed at individual characters in the novel, the narrators, and perhaps the flesh and blood authorial readers who may exist outside the novel.
As for the audience/readers, Neung-Hyun’s audiences are often other characters or the abstract projections of Buddha, further complicating the understanding of the text. Unlike Humbert, who addresses certain audience that may judge him, Neung-Hyun’s dialogue consists of talking to some unknown audience such as his teacher (whom we never find out about), or Buddha, or Ban-Ya, his primary object of desire aside from enlightenment. There are various instances in the text when Neung-Hyun is having an internal dialogue or external dialogue with other characters. Although his immediate readers/audience may not be authorial readers, these dialogues could have tremendous impact on authorial readers such as Ban-Ya, his companion. When curious Ban-Ya asks Neung-Hyun, “What is Buddha’s teaching?” he answers her, “It is about learning to become a human, a true human.” Then he goes onto address another audience, “Buddha’s teaching is so wide and deep that it constructs ocean and forest. You get rid of all this, there is only one word: human. What is human?” (Kim 41-42). This is an interesting instance where there is an overlap of the audience. We are faced with the decision, is the character addressing the other character, or is the implied author addressing his ideal audience? Is the narrator/character Neung-Hyun also the implied author? Or is this Kim’s presence we feel? It is never clear in The Dream, and in turn, invites readers to remain extremely aware of the situation.
Seduction Technique in Both Texts
In dealing with such text, our imagination begins to work. In activating our imagination, we also tend to assume and carry over our biases into the text. However, this may not be always the wise choice. As Gaut argues in his text Art, Emotion, and Ethics, the role of art is to activate imagination, thus enriching the ethical reading experience. Gaut argues that literature can teach us lessons by showing us the experience and letting us navigate through that experience. Literature’s role is never to teach directly but indirectly. However, he also warns the dangers of unrestrained, unguided experience because it could lead to an irresponsible positioning from the readers. Gaut points out, “merely imagining that I am tortured may allow me to maintain my fantasy of robustly withstanding the ministrations of my tormentors. But experientially imagining the look of the instruments, the heat of the fires on my skin, the smell of my burning flesh may undermine the imaginatively fantasy of courage” (Gaut 155). Here, Gaut points out what the most important difference between experience and imagination: reality versus fantasy. Gaut’s argument points to the fact that mere imagination can be dangerous for it could provide fictitious and projected state of our desires rather than the actual reality of torture.
In Lolita, this is certainly the case. As Humbert gives us his seductive language, we are led to believe that he is this man who is truly tortured from his past. We actively imagine our pain over his but in doing so, we loosen our grip on our hatred for Humbert and almost begin to believe that his love for Lolita is real. Nabokov deploys variety of techniques to seduce readers into sympathizing with Humbert. Aside from indirect seduction by Dr. John Ray Jr., the real direct manipulation begins with Humbert Humbert’s narration. In his narrative, Humbert uses narrative manipulation, self-justification, and finally, regret and grief to attempt to win the readers over.
For narrative manipulation, Humbert’s monologic discourse often glosses over Lolita’s, oppressing her true voice. As I have mentioned in the previous section, Lolita is not seen through any objective lens but through Humbert’s eyes. When Lolita and Humbert get into arguments, we are given the accounts of the fight through Humbert’s narration. Humbert would gloss over it by saying, “she said unprintable things” (Nabokov 207). When Humbert does report on what Lolita says, it is all through indirect means. He would report, “She said she loathed me. She made monstrous faces at me” (Nabokov 207). When this is reported, it is important to note how reader response changes from curiosity to comical. This is alarming because Humbert’s language has lessened the severity of the situation. In the article “The Art of Persuasion in Lolita” by Nomi Tamir-Ghez, Tamir-Ghez points out that, “not only is Lolita’s voice almost silenced, her point of view, the way she sees the situations and feels about it, is rarely mentioned and can be only surmised by the reader” (Tamir-Ghez 72). As Tamir-Ghez pointed out, the careful reader would pick up on the oppressive condition in which Lolita lives under, however, the precarious reader might look over the fact that Lolita is upset. That kind of reader might not question why Lolita is upset and what that means in terms of Humbert and Lolita’s situation. That kind of reader might perhaps truly believe in Humbert’s explanation that Lolita seduced him and truly wants to be lovers with him. Even the readers, who are appalled by the moral dilemma of this text, might not engage with the issue because they have already made up their mind about Humbert Humbert’s monstrosity and refuses to look into any further details. However, there are details and evidences scattered everywhere. It is up to the careful reader to pick up on these evidences. Tamir-Ghez argues that “telling his story in chronological order and limiting himself in the past perspective enable Humbert to take advantage of the characteristic of two distinct types of personal narration—the diary and the memoir.” She further goes onto explain that the less distance that narrator and the main character of the text has, the closer readers feel to the narrator. Tamir-Ghez points out that this “dramatizes the past to evoke in great detail past events and emotions, and thus to induce the reader to share his feelings” (Tamir-Ghez 73). This tactic worsens when the reader falls deeper into Humbert’s misery and his self-accusation. As the story progresses, Humbert tries to justify his actions but also to condemn himself, leaving the readers confused and strangely empathetic towards his misery. As Andrews points out, “The danger is being lulled into forgiving Humbert-the-character for murder” (Andrews 90). And Humbert continues his mission to manipulate our will to think for ourselves when he toys with his memories.
Humbert’s self-justification begins when he blames his crimes on childhood trauma of losing his mother and his Annabel, who was his unconsummated love. Humbert recalls his mother as, “photogenic” but she “died in a freak accident (picnic, lightening) when he was “three.” His mother is quickly replaced by his aunt Sybil, who craved his father’s love but never received. Then he expresses his most tragic trauma of his life: the loss of Annabel. Humbert goes into almost painful and heartbreaking description of his summer courtship with Annabel and how he was ready to “offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails” (Nabokov 15). This overdramatic gesture continues when Annabel dies, Humbert says that it has “haunted me ever since—until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another” (Nabokov 15). The readers, although keenly aware of his heinous crimes against Lolita, with the back story and his eloquent speech, may begin to feel sorry for his agony, and, at the same time, may begin to question if he may not be the conscious criminal but perhaps a madman. Tamir-Ghez points this out and warns that, “a sick man cannot be held responsible for his actions, and Humbert does his best to emphasize this argument” (Tamir-Ghez 76). By doing this, Humbert not only earns sympathy from the readers as a troubled ill man, but also establishes the basic understanding that he may be a madman, therefore, his actions are not “normal.”
Aside from self-justification, Humbert also uses his guilt as a leverage to win the readers over. Humber repeatedly speaks of feeling bad for what he has done to Lolita. Humbert, with his overwhelming guilt when encountering a pregnant Lolita at the end, says, “there she was (my Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen with that baby, dreaming already in her of becoming a big shot and retiring around 2020 A.D.—and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else” (Nabokov 277). Humbert then shows a moment of recognition that he has loved Lolita all along, the way she is, not the way he imagined her to be or wanted her to be. And at that moment, the readers begin to respond to his guilt.
After Humbert kills Quilty, his arch nemesis who steals Lolita away from him only to exploit her like Humbert, he exhibits similar kind of guilt. He directly addresses the readers and say, “Reader! What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices […] I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord” (Nabokov 308). At this moment, the readers see his attempt at redemption, not through his masterful words but through his conscience. Tamir-Ghez points out that “paradoxically, the fullest disclosure of Humbert’s guilt triggers the reader’s strongest feelings of sympathy for him (though not for his deeds!). It is his self-castigation, his readiness to face and admit his guilt, and his suffering at the realization of the truth, that makes us accept him” (Tamir-Ghez 82). However, this proves to be another manipulation tactic.
According to Berys Gaut, this is the trap Nabakov has for the readers who believe that they have understood the text, and transcended their judgment on Humbert Humbert. Gaut points out that Humbert’s murder of Quilty is that vital clue. Gaut first directs to the fact that Humbert’s claims to his true love for Lolita is false because Humbert “disregards” (Gaut 200) the interest of his love. For example, Humbert, upon meeting the pregnant, married Dolly, he says:
I had no intention of torturing my darling…there she was with her ruined looks and her adult…hands…(my Lolita!), a hopelessly worn…and I knew that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth…She was only the dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past, but thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshipped…I will shout my poor truth. I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted…still mine…No matter, even if her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn—even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita (Nabokov 253).
Even as Humbert proclaims his love for pregnant Dolly, he describes a young Lolita’s image that he has imposed upon her. His obsession is still about possessing a young Lolita. Furthermore, his refusal to call her by her real name Lolita reveals how much he has distorted who she really is. His love for Lolita has never been about her, therefore nothing more than a delusional obsession.
Humbert’s attempt to seduce the readers into believing his delusion continues. Gaut points out that Quilty’s death is a symbolic death and it is an unreal, comic one that Humbert tries to make out to be serious in order to absolve himself of sins he committed by punishing Quilty, a shadow of himself. As Quilty’s death scene is comical because it is too dramatized, Gaut argues that not only Quilty’s death absolves Humbert of his guilt symbolically, but also that “narration becomes overly unreliable here—it is clearly signaled that Humbert cannot be trusted as to what happened, and that he is trying for a distancing, comic effort, so as to seduce us, cast as the notional jury, into accepting the murder for which he is to stand trial” (Gaut 200). The death of Quilty is shocking because for most readers, although Humbert seems unreliable and manipulative, his prose is so prolific that the readers have accepted Quilty’s death as it is, instead of questioning it. However, when observing closely, we can see the comical death of Quilty. The absurdity of Clare Quilty is astounding. The first inconsistency is the date. While Humbert spends in prison awaiting trial, presumably for the murder of Clare Quilty, in the foreword by John Ray Jr. it states that Humbert dies of a heart attack in prison on November 16, 1952. At the end of the novel, Humbert states that he has been writing his account for fifty-six days. Humbert receives a letter from Lolita on September 22, 1952, fifty-six days before his own death. But over the next three days, Humbert visits Lolita, murders Quilty, and is arrested, leaving only fifty-three days until his death. Furthermore, the death of Clare Quilty is more comical than serious. When he arrives at the Pavor Manor, Quilty’s residence, Humbert refers to himself as “a murder with a sensational but incomplete and unorthodox memory” (Nabokov 217), and “guilty of killing Quilty” (Nabokov 32) causing confusion. Moreover, when he is about to kill Quilty, he becomes overly poetic. He describes the scene: “I pointed Chum at his slippered foot and crushed the trigger. It clicked. He looked at his foot, at the pistol, again at his foot. I made another awful effort, and, with a ridiculously feeble and juvenile sound, it went off. The bullet entered the thick pink rug, and I had the paralyzing impression that it had merely trickled in and might come out again” (Nabokov 297). In this scene, not only do we see a comical, unrealistic description of a murder, but we are also factually confused. As the authorial figure John Ray, Jr. never mentions the death of Quilty, has it occurred? Clare Quilty’s death becomes unresolvable, but what Gaut points out is that the readers are seduced by Humbert’s carefully crafted narrative in which he makes Quilty the villain, and he the flawed hero. By preventing Quilty’s true image from emerging even until the last minute, we are completely at the mercy of Humbert’s lens in which he views the world. Aside from the argument that fiction is fiction and it is not real, one could seriously argue here that what is being challenged is the persuasive power of the art and our willingness to fall prey to it. Our simplistic judgments and impulsive empathy seem to be the objects of critique in this case
Likewise, in The Dream, there are many seductive moments where we are led to believe that something is real when it is not. And there are instances where these seductive moments work as a self-deceptive illusion for the protagonist, Neung-Hyun and his quest for enlightenment. For example, when Neung-Hyun seduces us to believe that he is going through such painful times thinking about Ban-Ya, we almost come to believe that his love for her is real. There are many times when we are in his subjective view of Ban-Ya (in fact the only view of Ban-Ya) and he many times mentions her as a small “Buddha” (Kim 101). We see Ban-Ya transforming from a mysterious college girl from Seoul to an avid follower of Buddhism, and finally a representation of Buddha on earth. This is quite apparent when he gives her a new name instead of her worldly name. Neung-Hyun gives her a name “Ban-Ya (般若)” (Kim 99) which translates into wisdom. However, in this scene, there are certain peculiarities to be observed before one just accepts it as a scene of epiphany and love. In the scene, Ban-Ya asks Neung-Hyun, if he is afraid of this one bird named “Mok-Tak (木鐸)” which he explains in the early chapter that the Mok-Tak birds are the reincarnation of those monks who could not reach enlightenment during their lifetime. She asks him if he is afraid of those birds anymore and he answers no because, “이름을 정했거든요 (I have made up my mind about your name” (Kim 98). His answer signifies the fact that to him, she is the Bodhisattva, the Buddha apparent, and a savior. A page later, he describes her as,
저 미륵반가사유상의 그것이나 석굴암 대불의 그것과 칠보병에 담아 든 푸른 버들로 활활 타는 번뇌불꽃 없애주려는 관세음보살마하살의 그것 또는 갓난 자식에게 젖꼭지를 물려주는 어머니와 막둥이 어린 남동생의 가장 좋아하는 것을 어른들 몰래 갖다주는 손윗누님의 그것처럼 조금도 다른것이 섞여있지 않아 아주 깨끗한 미소였다.
It was like the smile of the Kuan-Yin Bodhisattva, or like that of a mother who is feeding her newborn child, or that of an older sister who grabs snacks for her younger brother without her parents knowing. Like those kinds, her smile harbored no bad intentions (Kim 100).
Although the description is aesthetically pleasing, through the wordplay, we do not see the real Ban-Ya. All we get are the snippets of his perception of her or their fragmented dialogues where we hear her story through his narration.
Even when we are informed of her back story, we hear it from him. The only real dialogue we hear from her is when she repeatedly says, “다시는 돌아가지 않겠어요, 다시는. I will never return. Ever” (Kim 150). And in this quote, she is referring to her oppressive parents in Seoul who pressures her to get married as soon as possible. We learn in this scene that she is a wealthy girl from Seoul and that her parents insist on her marriage as she has graduated from an art university. As a means of escape, she chooses to go to Paris to study art, and when she returns, more pressure awaits her. And as a means of escape, she has once again visited the temple where he is. This is the back story we get from him, and through his narration, we often cannot tell which one is truly Ban-Ya. Is she perhaps the incarnation of Buddha or Bodhisattva whose purpose is to help him reach enlightenment? Or is she perhaps a young artist who happened to stumble upon a quiet temple to escape from the parental pressure? Throughout the narrative, we are never quite sure what her true identity is because we are so invested in Neung-Hyun’s narrative.
Nevertheless, Kim plants us evidences here and there that this may be his fantasy borrowing this unknown voice that may belong to Buddha, or his teacher. When Ban-Ya suddenly disappears, after their decision to raise a family in the mountain, believing that joining the human world is the true path to a real enlightenment, Neung-Hyun is faced with the internal doubt that condemns his possessive nature, “어리석구나, 중생이여. 이름에 집착하면 형상을 놓치고, 그림자를 잘못 알면 형상에 미혹하거늘, 온 적도 없는 사람이 어디로 가겠는가. 본래 잃은 바 없음이니 어찌 다시 찾으리요. Foolishness of humans. You obsess over a name and you lose the form. You misunderstand the shadow and get seduced by the form. How do you intend to find the person who never arrived? You have never lost her, therefore, how can you find her?” (Kim 317). This is a moment when Neung-Hyun realizes that she may not be real. He begins to wonder and we as readers begin to wonder if we have been reading the right way. The condemnation is not just for Neung-Hyun, but it is also directed at our own unethical reading practice. The suspicion is confirmed when epilogue directs us back to where prologue has left off. Neung-Hyun is awakened and he finds himself taking a nap while meditating. However, the strange thing is that he is an old man now. As the readers struggle to gather their thoughts together, they are thrown into another abyss of confusion. The author introduces another epilogue chapter after the initial epilogue. The last chapter is titled “Snake Feet (蛇足)” and in this alternative ending, Neung-Hyun chases Ban-Ya as Humbert chases Lolita’s ghost across America. Neung-Hyun finally meets Ban-Ya in Seoul after agonizing attempts at finding her. After meeting her again, Neung-Hyun only realizes that she is no longer the Buddha or Bodhisattva as he had hoped. Completely disillusioned by her, he comes back to his cave; he begins to write about her in a novel form. In this chapter, the author portrays a more realistic view of Ban-Ya. The narrative itself takes on a more realistic tone as well. Neung-Hyun realizes she is not the girl he wished her to be, but she is her own person. He remembers she no longer wears the same clothes, “꼭두서니빛 달린 옷은 아니었다. 검정색 오버코트 자락이 사람들 사이로 잦아들고 있었다. It wasn’t her usual pinkish dress. Her black overcoat disappeared into the crowd of people” (Kim 334). When he finally returns to his cave, he “볼펜을 잡았다. ‘꿈’이라고 썼다. 그리고 꿈결처럼 만났다가 꿈결처럼 또 헤어지게 된 정아무개라는 전 여자대학생과의 꿈결같은 이야기를 소설로 쓰기 시작하는 것이었다. grabbed the pen. He wrote ‘The Dream.’ Then he began to transcribe the story of a young woman named Jeong who appeared like a dream and disappeared like a dream again into a novel” (Kim 335). At this point, it is clear that Neung-Hyun is well aware of the fact that she is a dream either way. Even if she did not exist, she was still a dream of that perfect aesthetic, religious bliss, and even if she did exist, she was still a dream because she no longer existed in his world or within his reach of understanding.
In these two versions of the endings, we begin to see the unveiling of some textual manipulation. We realize that Neung-Hyun has been deluding himself all along. He deluded himself into thinking that Ban-Ya was the Buddha he has been looking for ever since he left home. His enlightenment is important because his self-awareness invites the readers to be more aware of their experience with reality as well. Neung-Hyun’s tragic tale perhaps has been lifted straight from the folktale of the monk Cho-Shin (調信) in 11th century when he narrates about the monks who have had the similar experience in the past (Kim 300). The intertextual reference becomes more apparent when the first ending ends in Neung-Hyun waking up from a dream, as the Cho-Shin does the same in the original folktale “삼국유사三國遺事 (Memorabilia of Three Kingdoms).” The second ending is that of a modern one, where the narrator becomes the author, writing the story that he had just experienced, ironically leaving the readers at the end to wonder what his version of the story is going to be like, what is the truth? Or are we just reading another version of history? However, when comparing these two texts, one must not put Neung-Hyun on the same level as Humbert Humbert, as Humbert’s deeds are far worse than what Neung-Hyun had done to Ban-Ya. Nonetheless, the issues that concern these two texts are equally important to address because these texts both engage with the ethics of reading and how one ought to approach aestheticism without universalizing it or singularizing it. In Sevda Caliskan’s article “Ethical Aesthetics/Aesthetic Ethics: The Case of Bakhtin,” Caliskan argues that “the other’s life is lovingly co-experienced from within that life, but in order to create a meaningful whole, the self must eventually separate itself from the other and return to its position of out-sidedness.” Caliskan also points out that “sympathetic co-experiencing” respects “difference and plurality” and it does not “attempt to obliterate the other” (Caliskan 7). In this sense, although in both Lolita and The Dream, both narrators struggle with their own limits of self and narrative, they both teach us something valuable when engaging with the textual alterity. Humbert’s failure of perspective taking encourages us to seek a way to engage with the textual other in a more ethical way, and Neung-Hyun’s failure of perspective but redemptive gesture of writing the other to understand through various imaginations, teaches us that our openness and self-questioning ability can lead to textual plurality that celebrates a more fruitful and ethical reading practice.
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