His Sin, Her Soul: On Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (republished from The Second Pass)

His Sin, Her Soul: On Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (republished from The Second Pass)

Original publication date: MONDAY NOVEMBER 30TH, 2009. Republished with kind permission from John Williams.

His Sin, Her Soul
By Natalia Antonova

Reviewed:
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

The luster of scandal wore off Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita a while ago. Anyone reading the testimony of Roman Polanski’s teenage victim on The Smoking Gun must have little capacity to be shocked by Humbert Humbert’s fictional crimes. I’m willing to bet that for the modern reader, the only shocking thing about Lolita is how the writing transforms the subject matter into a thing of startling beauty, and how effortlessly Nabokov avoids prurience in order to create something more chilling.

But while the scandal of it may have faded, the book’s vocabulary continues to live a life of its own. When a young girl is called a Lolita, we imagine a knowingly hyper-sexualized child, one who wears too much of her older sister’s make-up and lets her underwear peek out as she wanders into the peripheral vision of some man. If “Lolita” isn’t always code for “she was asking for it,” it’s at least a suggestion of some impropriety or mitigating factor, an indication that an older man’s younger victim wasn’t exactly a gentle-faced virgin — or she certainly didn’t look like it, Your Honor.

In light of this cultural appropriation, I wasn’t surprised when a fairly good friend asked me why on earth I — a stridently vocal survivor of sexual abuse, someone who screams her head off every time someone shrugs that “boys will be boys” — would profess so much admiration for Nabokov’s most famous book. Don’t I realize that Lolita the book and Lolita the term feed off one another in the public sphere? And that even if it were possible to separate it from the hiss of cultural static that has amplified around it over the years, Lolita is still a book that takes an extremely ugly story and makes it extremely gorgeous? Implicit in these inquiries was the real question, of course, which emerged after my replies failed to satisfy: “How can you stand reading it, with everything you say you have been through?” Continue reading “His Sin, Her Soul: On Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (republished from The Second Pass)”

Zombie Survivor: A rant on The Walking Dead’s terrible season 6 finale

Zombie Survivor: A rant on The Walking Dead’s terrible season 6 finale

SPOILERS through season 6 of The Walking Dead. 

The purpose of this blog is not to shout in exasperation when a television show goes thoroughly off the rails, but I’m so frustrated with “The Walking Dead” right now that it’s either this, or beat a motherfucker with another motherfucker.

As I’ve said before, the show owes its enduring appeal in part to the fact that people love to complain about it. When it comes to horror that aims for mass appeal, you need to be able to distance yourself from it. There are exceptions, but a long-running television series based on a long-running comic book series would be exhausting if it weren’t occasionally also just annoying.

Still, there is, “Haha, let’s make a meme out of this dumb exchange between two characters,” and then there is, “This show is reaching greatness – and them abruptly plunging into absurdity.”

I already wrote down some thoughts on how the show’s sixth season rose to new heights before devolving into ridiculousness after the 15th episode aired. That episode was a neat summation of most bad things about TWD: dialogue that acts as filler, characters going batshit insane for the sake of advancing the plot, “emotional” moments that seem like cringe-worthy tryouts for “My So-Called Life,” etc.

I wasn’t ready to freak out until the season six finale aired. And then it aired.  Continue reading “Zombie Survivor: A rant on The Walking Dead’s terrible season 6 finale”

On the work of Kate Atkinson

On the work of Kate Atkinson

When I was fourteen, I bought a copy of “Human Croquet” after reading about it in a magazine for girls (unexpected choice by the editor, I’ve come to realize). I had the original receipt for a while and jotted down the exact time, down to the minute, and place where the book was purchased.

I came back to that inscription in my senior year at Duke, when I was writing my (let’s face it, terrible) honors thesis on “Human Croquet.”

“Acquired at 7:33 p.m., May 17, 1998, Barnes & Noble, Arboretum, Charlotte, NC.”

There wasn’t much I understood at twenty, but I did understand why I wrote down the contents of the receipt. I was recording a life-changing moment. I met Michael Cunningham once when he came to give a talk at Duke, and he jovially discussed having his life upended by Virginia Woolf, and I was grateful for that, because it meant I wasn’t weird. Kate Atkinson just happened to split my particular atom.

Her work has changed over the years, gone both wide and deep, but some familiar themes have circled back this year: the handsome RAF pilot, the complete disaster of men and women, the cruel and lovely ambivalence of nature, the question of death and stepping sideways out of time, the tedium of children and how there’s nothing more important, Englishness (and how observing it changes it), the strange way men separate passion and love (like unspooling threads), the importance of getting on with it even when you’d rather lie down and melt back into the landscape again, lying down and melting into the landscape at a later date (though perhaps having helped someone in a way, so as to not have your existence be entirely without point), the fact that we are all so fragile as to almost be fiction.  Continue reading “On the work of Kate Atkinson”

I just read gay Strelkov porn so you wouldn’t have to

Note: After I wrote this post, I made the decision to insert a bunch of gifs with hot men in them. It’s not for you – it’s for me. To preserve my soul.

When Heather McRobie alerted me to the fact that erotic gay fan fiction featuring Igor Strelkov (Girkin), former (?) separatist leader in eastern Ukraine (and he’s actually from Russia, btw), was for sale on Amazon, I knew I had to take one for the team. Kind of like Batman – if Batman sat at home in a bathrobe and wrote about porn.

bale is amused

So here are some essential facts about “Sucking Strelkov”:

– Great title!

– It’s all downhill from the moment you read that great title!

– And it’s almost as if this story, which is 5,7k words long, was written specifically for a journalist to discover it and start shrieking about it on the internet. Immediately, from the way it is written, you start to suspect that it was written by a journalist as well. Or, at the very least, someone who has done a lot of traveling in Ukraine in recent months. HMMMMMM.

daario winks

– The narrator is a lady. It makes me think the author is a lady.

– I’m not the main target audience for hot dude-on-dude action, but I can still recognize something hot when I see it (or read it). “Sucking Strelkov” is NOT hot. It’s not because the writing is bad, mind you. The author knows her subject matter. She knows, for example, that gay sex is a touchy (sorry) subject in Russia right now. She knows the Russian obsession with bureaucracy. She knows a whole lot, in fact.

jon snow knows

– Strelkov is tired, emotionless, and has a small dick. That, combined with the fact that Strelkov rapes a dude in this story, makes me think that a bunch of Novorossiya fans – who are generally all about manliness and glory, among other things – would get VERY pissed off if they read this. And maybe that’s the point?

– The Russian cult of heterosexual masculinity has been getting a lot of pushback in Europe in recent months. Everyone’s tired of Russians being all MANLIER THAN THOU all the time. This story appears to tap into that – whether consciously or unconsciously.

– This story is really all about rape, but the word “rape” is never mentioned. That also makes it realistic. Rape is often a tool of war – and in war zones, it frequently takes on an almost casual quality.

– The author doesn’t like Strelkov, but her brief descriptions of him make me believe that she has watched a fair bit of footage of him, at the very least. She taps into the ambivalence of his public persona really well.

– Did I mention that this is really, honestly, completely not hot?

– Paying nearly two dollars for this is a rip-off – but it also makes me think as though the whole “east Ukraine separatists” thing could be its own genre. If PTERODACTYL PORN exists, why not?

– I feel icky now.

loki is all like um

Oh my God, Becky – look at Pornhub’s statistics on Russia and anal sex videos

Someone who reads this blog has suggested that I write an overwrought essay about the latest Pornhub study, which has found that anal sex porn is “more popular in Russia than any other country.”

Naturally, I am very offended by the suggestion that my writing is overwrought, and I am stomping my foot as I let the eye-watering Moscow sunset bathe my form in amber-esque light, or whatever.

I also looked at the study and realized that there is quite a bit that needs to be said about anal sex and Russia, especially in light of recent events.

Some disclaimers:

By itself, the Pornhub study doesn’t provide concrete facts about Russia itself – no matter how many punchlines we can get out of citing it.

I really wish the Pornhub study came with dates attached. Are they tracking user data for the whole history of the site?

Finally, the plural of anecdote is not data, and so this isn’t going to be one of those posts where I use a porn site’s statistics to talk about Russian men and what they’re like in bed.

Moving on:

References to anal sex occupy an interesting niche in Russian culture. Because plenty of noise has already been made about Russia’s seeming anal sex obsession in light of its controversial law against homosexual propaganda to minors/general issues of homophobia, it’s worth pointing out some context.

For example, as political expert Pavel Svyatenkov brilliantly argued last year, a lot of Russia’s issues surrounding gay rights actually stem from the fact that anal sex is associated with humiliation in Gulag culture.

As Svyatenkov wrote:

“The philosophy of Soviet-developed homosexuality penetrated [translator note: pun not mine] even those social classes which, by definition, should not have harbored it. What does a manager mean when he says that his ‘bosses fucked [him] in the ass?’ He obviously means that he received a ‘severe reprimand from management.’ To put it in other words, the relationship between the powerful and the subordinate is interpreted via a homosexual sex act.”

Svyatenkov is specifically talking about attitudes surrounding homosexuality, of course. And his comments make even more sense in light of the Pornhub study. A taboo wouldn’t be a taboo if it didn’t have cultural roots/causes.

The Pornhub study, meanwhile, suggests that more people in general search for straight anal sex – though not by that much.

Prominent Russian sexologist Yevgeny Kulgavchyuk recently gave an interview to The Village, where he talked about how, in his view, very few women actually enjoy anal sex.

Quote:

 “I’m tired already of saving poor women from [anal sex]. Men who have watched too much porn are trying to conquer all of their women via the backyard. If the gentleman’s size is small, a woman’s erogenous zones are positioned a certain way, then some couples do get pleasure out of it. But for the majority of women, anal sex only creates painful sensations and anal fissures. And we’ve already talked about how sexual relations shouldn’t harm our health.”

Now, if you’re reading this in the West and you’re pretty liberal, there is a good chance that you are kind of surprised right now.

Obviously, our medical establishment does talk about the risks of anal – but then again, our prominent sexologists often focus on the fact that it doesn’t HAVE to be all that risky (or, for that matter, painful).

In general, I’ve found that Western sex columnists/therapists/whatever take the following view:

People should do what they want to do as long as they are being responsible and respectful of each other.

And that’s different from Russian sexologist Kulgavchyuk’s approach: He doesn’t trust his clients to figure out, and uses his position of authority to “save” a woman from unwanted anal sex.

And it’s not as if Kulgavchyuk is ZOMG in the wrong. He’s operating within a different matrix, where a) doctors are vested with more authority than their Western counterparts (look at the history of Soviet medicine to understand why) and b) women in heterosexual relationships are traditionally understood to be more vulnerable parties.

(For example, when I was pregnant, my doctor went out of her way to offer to sit down for a “chat” with my husband and explain to him that he shouldn’t be too demanding as far as sex goes. I hadn’t at all indicated to her that his attention was unwanted. But within the context of relationships in Russia, where people are much more frank about power differentials and abuse is sometimes understood as practically a given, it made perfect sense for my doctor to offer to “save” me.)

**So does all of that have to do with that Pornhub study?**

Well, we can infer that in this environment, one where mutual exploration/communication isn’t necessarily understood as the default, anal sex is considered way more of a taboo. If both men and women are being denied a middle ground where anal sex is something they can work on and even enjoy – even as they live in a culture that is relatively permissive and where porn is readily accessible – it becomes that much more of a forbidden fruit.

I also want to bring your attention back to Gulag culture. It would be a mistake to assume that it hasn’t found its way into heterosexual relationships as well. If anal sex is understood as the ultimate expression of dominance over a passive “victim,” as Gulag culture dictates, it’s going to be a phenomenon that will continue to generate both anxiety and fascination (it is my contention that Gulag culture hasn’t been done away with – it’s been sublimated). And why shouldn’t people search for that which fascinates them online?

Kulgavchyuk thinks that his patients want to screw their wives “in the backdoor” because they’ve watched too much porn. He might be right, but it’s a chicken-or-the-egg type question, actually.

Russia still lacks comprehensive sex education. In this environment, porn isn’t used merely for pleasure and entertainment – it’s also a way to satisfy curiosity and try to make up your own mind about certain kinds of practies.

you will get pregnant and die

You’re waiting for me to mention politics, and I will. Well, kind of.

Back in the spring, Mark Galeotti criticized Washington’s “aggressively cerebral” approach to the Kremlin.

I’m not nearly as thoughtful as Mark, so in the unlikely event that Obama asked me for my opinion, I would say something like:

“LOOK. RUSSIANS KNOW THAT POWER IS POWER. THEY HAVE FIGURED OUT A TERRITORY WITHIN WHICH THEY CAN BEND YOU GUYS OVER. THEY ARE BENDING YOU GUYS OVER. JUST PLEASE UNDERSTAND THIS CRUCIAL FACT. THIS IS HOW THEY THINK. THIS IS HOW THEY THINK!”

Once again, I refer to Pavel Svyatenkov’s assertion that power and subordination in Russia are often illustrated via the metaphor of anal sex.

Also, it is useful to remember that power occupies a different place in Russia than it does, say, in the States. In the U.S. we have a set-up that roughly translates to:

State –> Social/Political Institutions –> Individual

In Russia, it’s more like:

State –> Individual

There is no buffer.

And that lack of a buffer is expressed in Russia’s street culture (or kitchen culture, or, generally speaking, the private sphere), as the state bending you over and giving it to you.

I’ve said this is before and I’ll say it again: the best pop culture metaphor for Russian domestic policy is probably “Blurred Lines.”

“Well, that’s gloomy,” you’re probably saying. It can be. Russians are also quite funny about it.

And in that context, the Russian fascination with anal sex, as exposed by Pornhub, is also pretty damn funny.

Finally, and it really sucks that I have to point this out, but I will: desire is also just desire.

Maybe nothing that I’ve said here has ANY real, statistical bearing on Pornhub’s Russian fans.

It’s all just conjecture.

I haven’t heard of a single comprehensive study on the subject in Russia (Levada Center, I’m looking at you).

All I did was take some statistics and try to paint a picture that will fit them.

I am working backwards here.

😉