Tuesday, May 16, 2006

No truth, no dare

My brain's been working over this piece that the Derb wrote for NRO yesterday.

I must admit, up front, that I've not read Lolita, and that I know little of it save Sting's lyric:

It's no use, he sees her
He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov

Luckily for me, John Darbyshire isn't really lasered in on the 'theme' of the story so much as our reactions to it: "It is of course a dreadful story, of awful crimes narrated by the criminal. Like all criminals, Humbert is a solipsist, a person who does not really believe in the existence of anything outside of himself... The more you get to know him, in fact, the more unpleasant things you uncover." His point is that Nabokov aims for something that makes us uncomfortable - for something that led many to reject publishing the novel at all back in 1955 - that we recognize Humbert's humanity, distorted and self-defaced as it is. And that's where Derb gets into the meat of his own critique - not of the novel, which he loves ("dreadful" refers to the character, not Nabokov's writing), but of our society:

Ah, the realities of life! Was there ever a civilization more uncomfortable with them than ours is today? Humbert Humbert is a monster and a sociopath. He was a human monster, though, and a human sociopath. His monstrousnesses are hypertrophied growths of our own flaws... It is all too much for our prim, sissified, feminized, swooning, emoting, mealy-mouthed, litigation-whipped, 'diversity'-terrorized, race-and-'gender'-panicked society. We shudder and turn away, or write an angry e-mail. The America of 1958, with all its shortcomings, was saltier, wiser, closer to the flesh and the bone and the wet earth, less fearful of itself.

I'd love Darbyshire's writing regardless, for the lovely last sentence of that quote, but in this case (like so many others) his aim is true. We are timid when it comes to seeing and recognizing real evil (such as that which confronts us in Nabokov) because we've been detached from the truths of our nature, both the gross and the fine. In fact, one reason I love Derb's writing is that he is the perfect Chestertonian Pessimist - the man who, for the sake of preserving the good, stands to remind us of the ways that good can go wrong, and the likelihood that it shall.

In this case, it's good already gone to seed. One of the things our society recoils from is the thought that evil is free choice. "He must be crazy," we say of the sociopath. "They must be poor," we say of the thieves. "They're oppressed and marginalized," we say of gangs or terrorists. And we act accordingly - understanding the criminal and analyzing the crimes, seeking ever to soothe, mollify, and include. We no longer recognize what is painfully obvious - it is not we that reject such people, but they who reject us. Crime is a veto cast against decency and civilization.

To even say that now is considered harsh, much less actually taking such behavior at its word and punishing it. Criminals are unkind and we shouldn't be like them. Terrorists kill and we shouldn't be like them. Humbert is a monster and we shouldn't be like him. All fine and good - but how are criminals, terrorists, and monsters to understand their cruelty if there is no consequence to it? We don't even have the half-understanding of the criminal, who realizes that crime demands a stern response and laughs at the indulgence of the "tolerant" that permits him to remain a wolf among the sheep, not even bothering to disguise himself. At the very least, we could see the obvious - that doing more than merely punishing criminals by definition cannot omit the punishment.

Humbert could correct us, if we let him. He is human, all in all - and as such stands as testament to what we could become if we are not careful about good and evil. This helps explain our squeamishness. We are unwilling to think of evil as a choice that a person may make, because it would open up the terrible possibility that we may go wrong by our choices, and become brigands and lawbreakers ourselves. We call it illness instead of selfishness so that our own indulgences don't trouble us as much: "Oh, I could never rob a bank." Or, "Well, if I was starving I could rob a bank" - which is the same thing from the other end, that if our plight was bad enough we wouldn't be to blame, any more than those who've already been tried and convicted. In both cases, the choice is shunted aside and all we are left with are circumstances and tendencies, conveniently outside of our control. "Must not be like him" becomes a self-fulfilling pipe dream.

The conclusion is not a stumper. Drop away circumstances and there is no difference between good and evil acts. Removing vice from the picture removes virtue from our own reach. Derb could tell you what's next:
Our women dress like sluts; our kids are taught about buggery in elementary school; "wardrobe malfunctions" expose to prime-time TV viewers body parts customarily covered in public...; songs about pimps rise to the top of the pop music charts; yet so far as anything to do with the actual reality of actual human nature is concerned, we are as prim and shockable as a bunch of Quaker schoolmarms. After 40 years of lying to ourselves, we are now terrified of the truth.

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