On Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, The Menzingers’ On the Impossible Past, and W.S. Merwin’s Migration
I begin most of these reflections with a summary, no matter how brief. But Lolita is ubiquitous, and Migration spans fifty years of a career. Plot lies beside the point. What I want to talk about instead is the blasted territory to which both works lay claim. Because Lolita is less a novel about temptation than a template of regret, and Migration is a collection of five-hundred-odd poems that speak (in a shout, in a whisper) of love for a world that no longer is. It strikes me, looking back, how little of either work, but especially of Lolita, depends upon the maintenance of suspense. Owing to the framing of the novel’s forward, we know Humbert Humbert’s fate: not only caught, but dead, having succumbed to a heart attack (what else?) while in jail. We accept the ugliness of Humbert’s acts, acknowledge their abject unpardonability. And yet we read on, tracking the pair on their multiple cross-country journeys, loitering alongside them in Beardsley as they themselves linger. Part of this, probably a lot of it, can be attributed to Nabokov’s prose, which scintillates even more than his typical lyricism. The reason Lolita is a classic, though, lies in the difficult fact that we have been where Humbert Humbert, at the time of his writing, once was. He is a laughable, untrustworthy narrator, one who is aware of both his contemptible comedy and his transparent guile. He is, at best, a vain, solipsistic wretch. And yet he is also a man in mourning. And few gifts exist that are more secretly, shamefully wanted than that of the memory of another person’s grief. We are all out to resurrect the past. In Lolita, Nabokov just does a better job of this than just about anyone else, whether before him or since.
The line that, to me, best embodies the sort of life-recapturing so much art is after—and not just literary fiction, but poetry, film, an entire genre of music of which I will shortly speak—arrives in the immediate aftermath of Lolita’s anticlimax. “I was weeping again,” Humbert confesses, moments after confronting Lolita and her new lover and failing to draw the firearm he’s brought, “drunk on the impossible past.” It’s not just that he’s spent the previous three hundred pages retelling the story of his kidnapping and rape of Dolores Haze: his telling has failed to bring those years back. Those moments are forever gone, and time has alchemized whatever sweetness they left behind into a sense-annulling brew. That this was his intention is beyond all doubt; that he failed—Humbert, not Nabokov—is likewise undeniable. At the end of the novel, reflecting on the story he’s just finished telling, he admits to wanting Lolita to “live in the minds of later generations.” It’s this urge to preserve that underpins passages like the following, in which he waxes poetic about their cross-country travels:
The Menninger Foundation, a psychiatric clinic, just for the heck of it. A patch of beautifully eroded clay; and yucca blossoms, so pure, so waxy, but lousy with creeping white flies. Independence, Missouri, the starting point of the Old Oregon Trail; and Abilene, Kansas, the home of the Wild Bill Something Rodeo. Distant mountains. Near mountains. More mountains; bluish beauties never attainable, or ever turning into inhabited hill after hill; south-eastern ranges, altitudinal failures as alps go; heart and sky-piercing snow-veined gray colossi of stone…
What is most telling about Humbert’s telling, here, is not the obvious beauty of the prose, but how he interrupts it. He laughs at himself: “just for the heck of it”; “Wild Bill Something Rodeo”; “altitudinal failures as alps go.” Striking a different note, he alludes, if only subconsciously, to the doom still lying in wait: “so pure, so waxy, but lousy with creeping white flies”; “bluish beauties never attainable”; “snow-veined gray colossi of stone.” His failure to preserve is preordained, and he knows it. At the root of the name “Dolores,” after all, is the Latin “dolor,” meaning grief, ache, pain…
Before I talk about Merwin’s Migration, I want to briefly touch on The Menzingers’ 2012 album On the Impossible Past. Now, I can’t know this for certain—a quick Googling yielded squat—but I think it quite likely that the origin of the album’s title lies in Lolita. The latter’s lasciviousness aside, the parallels between the two works are abundant. Songs like “Nice Things” and “Obituaries” (in which lead singer Greg Barnett repeatedly belts “I will fuck this up, / I fucking know it”) toll the same doomsaying bell to which Nabokov keeps time. Songs like “Ava House” and “Sun Hotel” demonstrate the same concern for particularity, the same desire to reconstruct the past by putting to its places the proper names. And songs like “Gates,” in whose chorus Barnett again and again “throws his lonely soul away,” find their center in the same devotion to another.
Like Lolita, though, the past of On the Impossible Past remains, well, impossible. Love, whether lamented or celebrated, stands out as the predominant theme across most of contemporary music. Within the genre-spanning landscape of emo, though, the sung-of love feels more unique—and thus the lack of it more keen. The (oft-memed) waitress of The Menzingers’ albums is not any waitress, but one waitress in particular. The “you” of Car Seat Headrest’s early albums is not any “you,” but a stand-in for the individual at the receiving end of Will Toledo’s doomed love; Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me is about Elverum’s recently deceased wife and no one and nothing else. That these albums attain an aspect of universality lies not in our having lived through an identical experience, but having lived through one similar enough to empathize. We have not lived in the same places, loved the same people—but we know how it felt. As Barnett puts it in “Gates”: “You’ll carve your name into the Paupack cliffs / just to read them when you get old enough to know / that happiness is just a moment.” The poignancy of the album is all the greater, then, for the fact that, despite all the particularity poured into the it, all the nouns at its heart, its past remains lost.
Merwin’s Migration, the other text I finished this week, deals with similar themes. At the root of that poet’s naturalism lies a bottomless grief that both The Menzingers and Nabokov know all too well. Even as a young man, Merwin (who would have been 94 today) obsessed over his world’s ephemerality, writing of the world in overwhelming, eternity-invoking detail only to admit at the poem’s end that the things he speaks of are either going or gone. Such is the case with the early “My Friends,” which ends with a day that “will rise / Like a monument to my / Friends the forgotten.” Merwin elaborates upon this sentiment throughout his life, his later poems exchanging the economy of their predecessors for a clear-eyed, incantatory mysticism. The poem “Passing” stands out as one of this period’s best, as Merwin turns his observation of two shepherd boys into a lament for the lost history of the land through which those of the poem pass. “I stood there as they edged on and I wanted to call / to them as they were going I stood still wanting / to call out something at least before they disappeared.” In moments like this one, the lyric “I” of his earlier work all but vanishes. The speaker’s self, so attuned to the fleeting reality in which it finds itself, is itself subsumed. In this way, all of Merwin’s career can be considered a sort of vanishing act, a poetic sleight-of-hand it took the writer a lifetime to perfect. To evoke is the work of an artist; to invoke—and, in doing so, disappear into the summoned scene—is the task of a master.
Despite Merwin’s undeniable ability, though, I find I prefer art more similar to Nabokov’s Lolita and The Menzingers’ On the Impossible Past. And the reason, I think, as simple as it sounds, is that I locate myself more easily in the specificity of those works than in Merwin’s self-transcending naturalism. I know what it is to carve my name into a cliff; I know less of sinking into the cliff itself, my self becoming one with the stone. Because it is through their particularity that the former become universal. All griefs are unique, but the shape of each is the same. One’s nouns are one’s own. To greater or lesser extent, each of us exists alone. It is together, though, if only in a sublimated capacity, if only by creating and consuming and commenting upon art, that we mourn.