- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2001

When Vladimir Nabokov finally found an American publisher for his novel, "Lolita," in 1955, the reaction was almost immediate. Nabokov made a fortune, and in doing so he breathed new life into a debate that is as old as art. And the question "Lolita" raised is as relevant today as it was then: How do you deal with art that is at once supremely unsettling and too important to ignore?
Protest, reads the typical answer. But "Lolita" is not a typical book any more than it is topical. Reading the novel as one might approach a Harlequin romance is impossible. It is not plot driven, nor is it a considered analysis or ringing endorsement of the pedophilia and perversity within its pages, as some would have it. To what Nabokov lovelessly termed the "old-fashioned reader," however, these distinctions are lost. Dutifully reciting their school teacher's instructions, these readers leave no stone unturned as they pollute aesthetic integrity in search of political relevance, social commentary or, still worse, moral instruction.
It is precisely this class of well-intentioned surface feeders that cries itself tired and hoarse at the specter of immorality endorsed in art. Generation after generation, they flex and strain mightily to remove the wedge between art and lesson. And ours is no exception.
Since the release of his debut album in 1999, rap artist Eminem has been the subject of an escalating controversy that revisits the language of the "Lolita" frenzy. In various spasms of criticism, Eminem has been called a misogynist, a homophobe, a racist and an anti-Semite and Nabokov was a child molester. The error is the same.
Of greater concern than the idiotic equation of art with artist has been the lingering attribution of immorality to Eminem's music. Here again we wrangle with the old-fashioned folks who have now shed their reading glasses in favor of headphones, and turned their blank-eyed accusations against Eminem for the subversive message they elect to see in his music.
Nabokov said of his "Lolita" that "for me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss." Restated bluntly, the role of art is not to teach. We too often forget this, particularly when the perception of moral decline overcomes critics and advocacy groups and leads them into willing embrace of the fallacy that art and education share a common responsibility.
Creative expression, by its very nature, flirts with the dangerous, the immoral and the unpleasant. As free-thinking moral agents, we owe it to ourselves not to overemphasize the importance of art in shaping our lives. Undeniably, the task of separating aesthetics from instruction is not easy. It is a burden to be borne by our parents, our schools and, if one is so inclined, our churches. The failure of these institutions to assume their rightfully accorded didactic responsibilities sadly leaves the daunting task of ethical arbitration to art.
Eminem, like Nabokov, is an entertainer. "Lolita" and the triple platinum Marshall Mathers LP beg to be judged on their artistic merits, yet they are both acutely aware of the inevitable confusion of content with message. And each, in its own mocking way, reminds us that what the only wrong way to interpret their creations is to learn from them.
In "Lolita's" forward, Nabokov offers us John Ray Jr., the tireless and utterly fictional academic hack charged with interpreting the manuscript that is the body of the novel. John Ray conclusion, that "still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader," is the central point from which Nabokov implores us to depart. "Lolita's" postscript is unequivocal on this point, as Nabokov peers through the densely layered jokes and literary gamesmanship of his novel to remind us that, in fact, " 'Lolita' has no moral in tow." Nabokov withheld that explanatory note for several years after "Lolita's" original publication, undoubtedly laughing as critics tied themselves in knots as they tried to piece together a message from what was essentially a literary cryptogram.
In the same vain as "Lolita's" forward, Eminem pens a song like "Role Model," sarcastically echoing John Ray's deliberately misguided reading instructions: "Follow me and do exactly what the song says smoke weed, take pills, drop out of school, kill people and drink, jump behind the wheel like it was still legal." Eminem is not in the business of art as advocacy any more than Nabokov was. Sarcasm and subterfuge elude the literal-minded critic of the lyricist and the novelist alike, resulting in the same ludicrous conflation of aesthetics with instruction that would send the hungry Swiftian into a Catholic orphanage with knife and fork in hand.
Accusing art of immorality makes no more sense than accusing a peach of not tasting like a plum. By axiom, the function of art is aesthetic. Ascribing to it greater meaning or responsibility asks too much: Eminem is no teacher. But, in the absence of the real article, he is a convenient substitute.
E-mail: [email protected]

Kenneth Corbin is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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