The Circulation of Sado-Masochistic Desire in the Lolita Texts

by Krin Gabbard

August 18, 1997


After working with Robert De Niro on several films, director Martin Scorsese saw De Niro in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter and subsequently remarked, "It was like watching someone who was extremely close to me having an affair with someone else." The Scorsese/De Niro collaboration is one of many in film history that invites a psychoanalytic account of an underlying sexual tension. Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1961) provides a revealing example of how several participants in the making of a film engaged in a series of sado-masochistic relationships. The interactions of Kubrick with novelist/screenwriter Vladimir Nabokov and with actor Peter Sellers have many similarities with situations in Nabokov's novel. Kubrick struggled with both Sellers and Nabokov for mastery over the film text just as Humbert and Quilty struggle for possession of Lolita. Gaylyn Studlar's model of a masochistic aesthetic provides a starting point for interpreting the Lolita texts, but the linkage of masochism and sadism as theorized in conventional psychoanalysis helps explain the dynamics of sadistic mastery that Kubrick asserted over Nabokov as well as the masochistically submissive posture the director adopted with Peter Sellers.


In Vladimir Nabokov's novel of 1955, the character named Lolita is the prize in a deadly struggle between two men. When Lolita was made into a film in 1961, a text that bore the name of a woman became a feminized commodity over which flesh-and-blood men struggled to gain possession. As in any such conflict when men compete for the same female object, there is an erotic tension tinged with sado-masochism. This tension pervades all of the Lolita texts, including Nabokov's novel, Stanley Kubrick's film, and the screenplay by Nabokov that Kubrick largely ignored when he made the film. A similar tension pervaded the dramas played out during the making the film and persisted at least until 1974 when Nabokov revised and published his original screenplay. In some ways, however, Nabokov's belated attempt to regain control of his text was a masochistic return to a scene in which his vision of the film would again remain unrealized.

Vladimir Nabokov would of course have vehemently rejected all such attempts to psychoanalyze him, his work, and his collaborations with filmmakers (there were others--read on). He certainly would have rejected Harold Bloom's suggestion that he was in an oedipal conflict with authors such as Joyce and Poe when he wrote Lolita, especially Bloom's judgment that the Nabokov of Lolita "compares weakly to Proust" (Bloom 2). But as many critics have pointed out--most prominently Jeffrey Berman and Geoffrey Green--Nabokov must have been obsessed with psychoanalysis if only because he bothered to attack it so frequently, seldom missing an opportunity to denounce the "Viennese witch doctor." In spite of Nabokov's protestations, Freudian theory provides a valuable method for unveiling the circuit of sado-masochistic desire that operates throughout the novel, the film, and what Harvey R. Greenberg might call the "contested homage" that dominates Stanley Kubrick's translation of the novel into cinema.

The sado-masochistic relationships in the Lolita texts are epitomized in a moment near the end of Kubrick's film when Humbert Humbert (James Mason) sees Lolita (Sue Lyon) three years after she has left him for Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). Pregnant, bespectacled, and renamed Lo Schiller, Lolita now lives in a sleazy section of a large industrial town. When Humbert is ushered into her ramshackle home, she is in the company of two disabled men: one has just cut his thumb (in the novel he has only one arm and is thus even more castrated); the other, Lolita's husband, is hard of hearing (in the novel he is effectively deaf). This scene ends with the film's emotional climax: drenched in the pathos of Nelson Riddle's pseudo-Rachmaninoff piano concerto, Humbert tearfully begs the former nymphet to come back to him. Although she definitively refuses him, even telling him that Clare Quilty was the only man she had ever loved, Humbert leaves her with a large sum of money before leaving to pursue Quilty. Humbert submits to humiliation at the beginning of the scene when Lolita's husband Dick ejaculates beer on Humbert's coat while Lolita looks on with faint amusement. She then establishes a kind of intimacy with Humbert by whispering to him about Dick's deafness. But within moments Lolita is staring purposefully at Humbert as she reclines into her husband's arms. Without relinquishing Humbert's gaze, she coldly cancels Dick's invitation by declaring that her step-father cannot stay the night. Relishing her centrality in the sexual obsessions of so many men, Lolita is still toying with Humbert, sending out the same kind of conflicting signals she has throughout the film. Although Humbert soon sets off in a murderous rage to find Clare Quilty, the character has assiduously sought out this final encounter with Lolita in which he must surely have known that he would be rejected once again.

This scene is a fairly faithful rendering of a moment in the novel that is equally climactic and equally saturated with pathos. I suspect that this is the kind of material that led Brandon French to observe in 1978 that the film ought to have been directed by Josef von Sternberg. Ten years after French's remark, Gaylyn Studlar interpreted Sternberg's work with methods that are especially useful in identifying the aesthetics of the Lolita texts. On one level, Studlar's In the Realm of Pleasure is a textual reading of the six films directed by von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, produced at Paramount studios during the 1930s. In each of these films--Morocco, Blonde Venus,Dishonored, Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman--Dietrich plays a character who offers her lover(s) an opportunity for some kind of masochistic submission. Although Kubrick's Humbert directs a considerable amount of sadistic fury towards Lolita--especially in the middle sections of the film--he essentially plays a role similar to the male characters in Sternberg's films who find some degree of pleasure in submitting to the willful women played by Dietrich. In Sternberg's work as in the Lolita texts, the audience is encouraged to partake of sadistic as well as masochistic pleasures.

Studlar's book is also an extensive reply to the feminist/ Lacanian theory of cinema spectatorship articulated first by Laura Mulvey in her extraordinarily influential essay of 1975, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Like other theorists, most notably Tania Modleski and Linda Williams, Studlar has pointed out that Mulvey's paradigm privileges the active, sadistic aspect of the male gaze at the expense of other ways of looking at movies. Studlar extends this critique to develop an alternative paradigm, one she calls a "masochistic aesthetic," based in the similarities between cinema spectatorship and the archaic, pre-oedipal experience of both sexes as loving but helpless gazers at the mother's face and breast. Studlar appropriates Giles Deleuze's writings on the novels of Sacher-Masoch to develop an aesthetics of masochism as separate from a sadistic aesthetic.

In masochism, the excesses of Sadian debauchery and insatiability are replaced by the heightened emotionality of suspended vignettes of suffering. Violence is muted, sexuality diffused, suffering aestheticized into spectacles of disappointment. (20)

This is an excellent description of the final encounter between Humbert and Lolita. Studlar's account of masochistic sexuality also accommodates the strictly circumscribed limits of Hollywood sexuality in the early 60s that ultimately drove Kubrick to make his film in England and may also have driven him to take up residence in London as an expatriate.

In contrast to the Sadian text, the masochistic text is erotic but not pornographic. . . . The masochistic text relies on suggestive description and narrative suspense enacted through games of disguise and tantalizing pursuit implying gratification forever postponed to the future. (21)

Even more overtly than the novel, Kubrick's Lolita invokes a masochistic aesthetic with its constant themes of masking, game-playing and pursuit. When Lolita was released in 1962, the most common complaint was that Kubrick had been too timid to represent the novel's notorious sexuality. (As Jim Potter has pointed out, the situation was exactly reversed ten years later when critics complained that Kubrick had gone too far in his 1972 film A Clockwork Orange.) Given the lingering strength of the Production Code in the early 1960s, it would have been impossible to distribute a film that dealt directly with sexual relations between a man of 37 and a girl of 12. For this reason, Kubrick made his film in England, forgoing any real possibility of portraying the vulgar landscapes of American culture that Nabokov so devastatingly evoked in his novel. Nevertheless, in Kubrick's Lolita, institutionalized prohibitions against sexual representation serve the essentially masochistic nature of Nabokov's narrative. Rather than explicit (and proscribed) encounters between Humbert and Lolita, the film veers more towards vaguely repressed eroticism, what Studlar has called "the movement between concealment and revelation, disappearance and appearance, seduction and rejection" essential to the masochistic aesthetic (21).

Studlar's description of the interactions among the characters in the text of a film may also be relevant to the project of adapting a novel to the screen. Just as Dietrich sadistically accommodates the masochism of her suitors in von Sternberg's films, a variety of characters engage in sado-masochistic activities in and around the Lolita texts. Studlar avoids psychobiographical speculation in her work, but it would not be difficult to identify a masochistic dimension in Sternberg's interactions with Dietrich if only because he so frequently cast her as the masochist's dream girl. Robin Wood, for example, finds in von Sternberg's films "a growing insistence on the impotence of the male and the ruthlessness of the woman" (113). Regardless, I would argue that Stanley Kubrick adopted a submissive, masochistic posture while directing Peter Sellers in Lolita at the same time that he played a much more sadistic role in his collaborations with Nabokov.

Kubrick has never discussed in detail the nature of his relationship with Peter Sellers, who so thoroughly dominates much of Lolita as well as Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), the film that followed it. He repeatedly declined an interview with Seller's biographer Peter Evans. Significantly, when Kubrick eventually did write a rather generic tribute to Sellers for Evans's book, he chose to say that he would "cautiously torture out" a statement. Kubrick's note to Evans began with the words, "I love Peter. I think he's a great actor, but I am never any good on this sort of thing. I'm terribly inhibited about discussing an artist like Peter. . . . I'm peculiar about this, but it's a very personal relationship you have with an actor. . . ." (109) Here is the "official" portion of Kubrick's statement:

When you are inspired and professionally accomplished as Peter, the only limit to the importance of your work is your willingness to take chances. I believe Peter will take the most incredible chances with a characterization, and he is receptive to comic ideas most of his contemporaries would think unfunny and meaningless. This has, in my view, made his best work absolutely unique and important. (109)

Kubrick's reluctance to talk about his work with Sellers is especially intriguing in light of his decision effectively to banish acting with a capital "A" from the film he made immediately after ending his association with the actor. A commonplace of the criticism around 2001: A Space Odyssey is that the most moving performance in the film is Douglas Rain's impersonation of HAL the computer, especially when the machine affectlessly begs not to be disconnected and then sings "Daisy" as it regresses to its cybernetic childhood. Not until he had made three more films did Kubrick cast a major star, Jack Nicholson, in The Shining (1980) and unleash that actor's histrionic proclivities.

The artistic freedom that Peter Sellers appears to have enjoyed in both Lolita and Strangelove is remarkable within the career of a director who has won the reputation of being something of a "control freak." Kubrick was essentially portrayed as such in a film a clef called Strangers Kiss (1984), based on the making of Kubrick's Killer's Kiss (1955).

In Strangers Kiss, Peter Coyote played a Kubrickian director who unscrupulously manipulates the members of his cast in order to bring an otherwise unobtainable intensity to their performances. The various studies of Kubrick's work are full of references to his passion for detail and his obsessive pursuit of cinematographic perfection. Nevertheless, Kubrick appears to have renounced control whenever Peter Sellers is on screen in Lolita. Sellers completely dominates all five of the scenes in which he appears. Whether he is a faux naif policeman with more than idle curiosity, a stereotypically goateed psychologist with a Mittel Europa accent, or the leering author of allegorical plays for children, Sellers plays Quilty as loquacious and unforgettable, in stark contrast to Quilty's semi-invisibility in all but the final pages of the novel. The film's producer James B. Harris has told Michel Ciment that much of the dialogue in the scenes between Sellers and James Mason was invented by the actors: "Of course, when shooting got under way, Stanley gave each scene a new dimension, as for example, in the few improvised exchanges between Sellers and Mason" (201). James Mason, however, has portrayed himself as an innocent bystander throughout most of the ad-libbed scenes with Sellers. He wrote that Kubrick "was so besotted with the genius of Peter Sellers that he seemed never to have enough of him" (430).

It may have been uncharacteristic of Kubrick to cede control over his film to Sellers at crucial moments, but this kind of collaborative give-and-take is absolutely conventional and typical for Hollywood films. I would add, however, that surrendering control, an essential part of masochistic pleasure, is also integral to the craft of filmmaking or any collaborative art, even when the collaborator is an obsessive perfectionist like Kubrick. In fact, Wayne Koestenbaum has thoroughly explored what he calls "the erotics of male literary collaboration," a phrase that is also the subtitle of his book, Double Talk.

Influenced by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's account of "male homosocial desire" and by commentators on patriarchy from Levi-Strauss to Luce Irigaray and Gayle Rubin, Koestenbaum has chosen a number of texts from the 19th and early 20th centuries that were co-authored by men, including Freud and Breuer, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Eliot and Pound, and Ford Maddox Ford and Joseph Conrad. All were collaborators who both "express homoeroticism and strive to conceal it" (3) through the use of women and feminized texts as objects of exchange. Although by no means homosexual in the conventional sense of the term, the men in Koestenbaum's study all reveal themselves to be much more polymorphous than the norms of their societies allowed, even when the authors strongly subscribed to those norms.

Koestenbaum begins with the work of Freud and Breuer, whose Studies in Hysteria was actually initiated by the exchange of a woman when the older doctor abandoned his treatment of Bertha Pappenheim (Anna O.) and turned her over to Freud. For Koestenbaum, Freudian psychoanalysis and its methods were created at a moment long before Freud had begun to understand his own homoerotic longings. Like so many male collaborators before and after, Freud and Breuer "collaborated in order to separate homoeroticism from the sanctioned male bonding that upholds patriarchy" (3). Their longing for one another was displaced into the feminine, both the hysterical patient and the text they shared. Like so many other collaborators in Koestenbaum's study, they were on some levels profoundly misogynist, even casting themselves as the real progenitors who give birth to the text. In the case of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who in effect wrote The Waste Land together, Koestenbaum finds a collaboration filled with the hysterical desire to usurp female generative power: Eliot gave birth to the poem with Pound serving as midwife, all of it in a work that from its first words expresses terror at "waste's unnatural ability to breed" (129). Even in its finished form, the poem bears many of the marks of hysteria--it is rambling, disjointed, full of aporias and speaking in tongues. Koestenbaum argues that Eliot wrote TheWaste Land in order to secure the energies of Pound, much in the same way that he made Pound a go-between in his marriage to the deeply troubled Vivien Haigh-Wood.

The poem's ailing body stands in for Eliot's body, and for the body of his "mad" wife, Vivien: the poem is a hysteric with whom the two men form a triangle. Containing hysteria within the bounds of verse may have repaired Eliot's wounded masculinity, and yet he wrote a maimed poem in the first place as a way of obtaining Pound's powerful services. The Waste Land asked for Pound's curative arrival; Eliot's act of giving his "chaotic" poem as a gift to another man exists as a gesture intrinsic to the poem, and prior to the two men's sexually resonant moment of exchange. (114) Eliot's masochistic submission to Pound provides a model of how Kubrick might have approached Sellers during the making of Lolita. The young director brings Nabokov's "chaotic" screenplay to Sellers as a gift, hoping that the powerfully talented actor will seize control of the text, just as Sellers' Quilty seizes control of Lolita in the film.

Koestenbaum is most interested in gay readings of literary collaboration, but his larger argument on the erotics of co-authorship can be extended well beyond the handful of cases he treats in Double Talk. In speculating about how other types of collaboration might be understood in terms of his paradigm, Koestenbaum suggests that Marx and Engels co-authoring The Communist Manifesto might bear certain resemblances to Freud and Breuer writing Studies in Hysteria. He thus anticipates a 1991 essay by Andrew Parker that argues for reading Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire in terms of the homosexual panic that struck Marx during the years he collaborated with Engels. At another point Koestenbaum suggests that his thesis might also be valid for collaborations in the film industry. He cites Leonard J. Leff's book on the "rich and strange collaboration" of Hitchcock and Selznick and the "suggestively incestuous" creations of the Brothers Quay (10). I would add the revealing comments of Martin Scorsese on his reaction to watching frequent collaborator Robert De Niro perform in The Deer Hunter: "I felt a bit nervous watching. It was like somebody who was extremely close to me having an affair with someone else" (Scorsese 66).

Kubrick and Sellers were not the only two male artists involved in the filming of Lolita whose collaborations echoed the masochistic erotics of the film's narrative. Kubrick also worked closely with Vladimir Nabokov, who might have been the ideal author to co-write a screenplay. According to Brian Boyd, the author harbored great affection for popular culture in general and the cinema in particular: late in life he could recall in detail scenes from Laurel and Hardy films that he had not seen for thirty or forty years (579). As a young man in Russia, Nabokov had appeared as an extra in a handful of films and had even co-written several screenplays with Ivan Lukash--none of them ever produced, however (Field 122).

Nevertheless, Nabokov gave a striking counter-argument to the polymorphous pleasures of cinematic collaboration as he began work on the Lolita screenplay. Had he been a director of films, Nabokov "would have advocated and applied a system of total tyranny, directing the play or the picture myself, choosing settings and costumes, terrorizing the actors, mingling with them in the bit part of guest, or ghost, prompting them, and, in a word, pervading the entire show with the will and art of one individual--for there is nothing in the world that I loathe more than group activity, that communal bath where the hairy and the slippery mix in a multiplication of mediocrity." (Boyd 409)

As with his hyperbolic attacks upon psychoanalysis, Nabokov's protestations against collaboration call for a suspicious reading. There may be a touch of homosexual panic in Nabokov's prose, especially his disgust at naked contact with a hairy individual, presumably male. Indeed, Nabokov took a bath with an especially hairy and slippery companion when he worked with Stanley Kubrick. But we can also wonder about Nabokov's claim that he would have exercised total control as a director, especially in the light of his complete absence from the actual shooting of Lolita. By his non-presence, Nabokov gave Kubrick even greater freedom with the text than Kubrick would eventually grant to Sellers.

Kubrick worked with the novelist on the Lolita screenplay for the better part of 1960 and offered him at least the appearance of a voice in casting. According to Boyd, Kubrick showed Nabokov photographs of possible Lolitas from which Nabokov chose Sue Lyon, not knowing that she had already been given the part (415). The author then traveled to Nice and eventually to Montreux where he devoted himself almost entirely to the writing of Pale Fire while Kubrick was filming Lolita in London. When he returned to America for the film's premiere in June, 1962, Nabokov discovered that "only ragged odds and ends" of his script had been used (Boyd 466). Eventually he would characterize the film's relationship to the novel as "a scenic drive as perceived by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance" (466).

The decision to encourage the improvisations of Sellers is only one of several levels on which Kubrick turned away from the original screenplay. But in a more complex reaction to Nabokov's work, Kubrick has superimposed his own game on one of the author's more curious games of masking, concealment, and tantalizing pursuit: Nabokov's decision to inscribe himself into his novel as a woman named "Vivian Darkbloom." As Koestenbaum has argued, male collaborative writing often becomes "an intercourse carried on through the exchange of women or texts that take on 'feminine' properties" (3). Kubrick has been true to Koestenbaum's paradigm by seizing on "Vivian" as well as the various incarnations of "Lolita" as central figures in his collaborative adventures during the making of the film.

There are four glancing references in Lolita (the novel) to Vivian Darkbloom, who appears to be Clare Quilty's mistress. She is first identified by Dr. John Ray, Jr., as the author of Quilty's biography entitled, somewhat poignantly, My Cue (6) (All page citations from Lolita refer to Alfred Appel's annotated edition of the novel.) We later learn--and here the circuit of collaborative erotics comes full circle--that she co-authored a play with Quilty (33). At one point in the novel, a distracted Humbert spots Vivian Darkbloom and Quilty taking a curtain call after Humbert and Lolita have sat through a performance of their play. Although Lolita stares at the two in a "rosy daze," Humbert is too obsessed with the behavior of the girl to pay much attention to the two playwrights. On this single occasion when Darkbloom is actually seen by another character in the novel, Humbert describes her in passing as "a hawk-like, black-haired, strikingly tall woman" with bare shoulders (223).

As Alfred Appel, Jr., has pointed out in the extensive and invaluable notes to his The Annotated Lolita, "Vivian Darkbloom" is an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov, one of several such names that the author has dropped into his works, including "Vivian Bloodmark" in Speak Memory, "Mr. Vivian Badlook" in King, Queen, Knave, and "Vivian Calmbrood," a pseudonym under which Nabokov wrote an unpublished play in Russian (325).

"Vivian Darkbloom" is also credited with writing a set of evasive, semi-informative notes to Nabokov's 1969 novel Ada that are reminiscent of Charles Kinbote's annotations to John Shade's poem in Nabokov's Pale Fire. As far as I know, there is no speculation in the critical literature about why Nabokov has identified himself with the grownup female lover of a man who prefers little girls. Vivian's role in the relationship might seem rather unsatisfying, not unlike, perhaps, that of a man in a conventional bourgeois marriage who never acts on his passion for barely pubescent girls. (According to Nabokov's biographers, the author did, however, indulge his passion for adult women outside of marriage.) Simply because he has created so detailed an observation of Humbert the pedophile--not to mention a foray into similar territory in his early story, "The Enchanter"--Nabokov must have at least on occasion entertained sexual thoughts about female children. As Brandon Centerwall has persuasively argued, Nabokov could legitimately be labeled a "closet pedophile." If we interrogate Vivian Darkbloom's relationship with Clare Quilty in the novel, we might project some type of voyeuristic activity, separate from conventional genital pleasure. In other words, Darkbloom might be partaking of the same genres of pleasure enjoyed by a mature adult male who gazes at young girls without hope of sexual consummation.

In his published screenplay, Nabokov doubles his cameo appearances and presents himself more blatantly. He first appears as "Vladimir Nabokov, The Butterfly Hunter" (128), briefly encountered by Humbert and Lolita as he is in the act of killing a rare specimen of fritillary, "a butterfly of the Nymph family" (Centerwall 479). Later on in Nabokov's screenplay, Vivian Darkbloom actually appears, speaks dialogue and is for all practical purposes unmasked. Quilty introduces her to Humbert as "my collaborator, my evening shadow. Her name looks like an anagram. But she's a real woman--or anyway a real person." Vivian then says, "My niece Mona goes to Beardsley School with your daughter" (146). In Nabokov's novel and revised screenplay, Mona is the confidante of Lolita and a co-conspirator during her secret affair with Quilty. Nabokov's screenplay implies that Vivian Darkbloom may have also have been complicit in procuring Lolita for her companion.

quilty dancing with haze

Kubrick's Lolita not only retains Vivian Darkbloom; it repeatedly places her in scenes from which she is absent in the novel and the published screenplay. In each of these scenes, Darkbloom (played by Marianne Stone) is silent and often partially concealed. For example, after Quilty dances at the prom with Lolita's mother, Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), Darkbloom remains in the frame with her back to the camera while Charlotte reminds the bemused Quilty that he had once been her lover. Later, when Quilty and Darkbloom watch Humbert and Lolita at the registration desk of the resort hotel, Darkbloom is obscured by a rack of postcards. Kubrick has teased out of the novel--and perhaps Nabokov's first screenplay--the perverse relationship that we might project between Darkbloom and Quilty.

As in the novel, the Darkbloom of the film is a voyeuse and some kind of participant in Quilty's sexual games. But in a scene that is not in the novel and was perhaps improvised by Sellers, Quilty tells Mr. Swine, the hotel night manager, that Vivian is something other than a passive observer. During a conversation that is typical of the film's veiled allusions to sexual transgression, Quilty learns that Swine is a weight-lifter and part-time actor and implies that he might be able to "use" Swine in his sexual activities with Darkbloom. In this vein, Quilty tells Swine that he engages in judo matches with his female companion.

Swine: You do judo with the lady?
Quilty: Yes, she's a yellow belt; I'm a green belt. That's the way nature made it. What happens is she throws me all over the place.
Swine: She throws you all over the place?
Quilty: What she does, she gets me in a sort of thing called a "sweeping ankle throw." She sweeps my ankles away from under me, and I go down with one hell of a bang.

Sellers delivers these lines to suggest that Quilty takes real pleasure in being toppled by Darkbloom. Indeed, as Ilsa J. Bick has pointed out, the film's Vivian has distinctive phallic qualities with her cigarettes, her snake bracelets, and her long fingernails draped unromantically over Quilty's shoulder. She even seems to exert a degree of quiet control over Quilty whenever she looks at him knowingly. Regardless of whether or not Quilty actually submits to Darkbloom in their judo matches--he is probably manufacturing the story to entice Swine the weightlifter--we do know that she is not at his beck and call. When Quilty needs a roll of Type A Kodachrome, he entrusts the errand to his man Brewster rather than to Darkbloom.

Admittedly, the banter with Swine can be understood simply as part of Kubrick's games with the censors, hinting at polymorphously perverse behavior and squeezing each phrase for optimum salaciousness (even the phrase "Type A Kodachrome" becomes highly suggestive in the mouth of Sellers/Quilty). But Quilty remains on many levels Humbert's double: both find sexual satisfaction in suffering and humiliation inflicted by a woman.

In his account of judo matches with Vivian, Quilty may be most typical of the clinical scenario of the male masochist, who takes sexual pleasure in fantasies of being beaten (Schafer 88). If Kubrick has placed Nabokov in his film as Vivian Darkbloom, it is tempting to suppose that the director has reversed the role he plays with Peter Sellers. In a much more typically Kubrickian act of control and dominance, he has put Nabokov in a doubly humiliating situation as a rejected screenwriter and as a marginalized and mute if inscrutable woman.

Kubrick would humble Nabokov as Nabokov would humble Humbert. What complicates this elegant formulation is the possibility that Kubrick has on some level cast himself in the film as Quilty, the photographer and director of art films. Remember that Kubrick began his career as a still photographer and that in both novel and film Quilty expels Lolita when she refuses to appear in his "art movie." Furthermore, Clare Quilty is a name with sexual ambiguity as befits his ambiguous relationship with the phallic Vivian Darkbloom. Quilty might be compared to "The Greek," the androgynous character whom Wanda marries after she leaves Severin in Sacher-Masoch's novel Venus in Furs, the source for the word "masochism" as well as for much of the theoretical writings of Deleuze and Studlar. If Kubrick has masochistically ceded control to Sellers in the making of the film, he also appears to have identified himself with the character that Sellers portrays, extending the circuit of sado-masochistic pairings in and around the film to Sellers/Kubrick, Kubrick/Nabokov and Quilty/Humbert.

Regardless of whether or not he was aware of the anagrammatic significance of "Vivian Darkbloom," Kubrick has perversely added a fourth pair to this circuit, Darkbloom/Quilty. Nabokov's reaction to the film bears a few masochistic traces that transcend his initial agreement not to criticize Kubrick's work. After a long struggle to wrest his screenplay's copyright from the film's producers, Nabokov published a greatly revised version in 1974. We might see this as an assertive, aggressive act, but we can also see it as a masochistic recapitulation of a scenario in which his screenplay is doomed to remain unfilmed, especially in a version in which Nabokov himself appears as "Vladimir Nabokov, The Butterfly Hunter." Not until after Nabokov's death did Adrian Lyne, the director of Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal, begin work on a remake of Lolita. It is extremely doubtful that Lyne has made use of Nabokov's screenplay, especially in the current climate of hysteria surrounding the sexualization of children. Surely Nabokov knew that he was publishing an unproducible screenplay in 1974 even if he had not foreseen the fate of his first screenplay in 1960.

In his article on Steven Spielberg's 1989 film Always, Harvey R. Greenberg gives a convincing psychoanalytic account of the dynamics of adaptation. Greenberg identifies a number of strategies with which directors undertake the oedipally charged prospect of remaking a revered film. In the case of Always, a remake of Victor Fleming's A Guy Named Joe (1943), Spielberg has adapted a narrative about men like his father who flew in B-52 bombers during War World II. Just as young Stephen once replaced his father as the family's official maker of home movies, the director has seized control of A Guy Named Joe and made it over on his own terms. But in what Greenberg has called an act of "contested homage," Spielberg has not so much remade the film as he has engulfed, overwhelmed and in many ways trivialized it. Kubrick has made a similar move upon his original source, opting for control of a cathected text, but more in terms of a sado-masochistic dynamic than in the largely Oedipal process that Greenberg sees in Spielberg's project. In the case of Lolita, Kubrick established an especially complex relationship with his source material, one that was probably inseparable from an equally complex relationship with his star.

After Dr. Strangelove, virtually all of Kubrick's films have been based on literary works, and with the exception of Barry Lyndon, all of them by living authors. Kubrick took control of each of these novels as he transformed them into films, but in no case has he ceded power to an actor as he once did with Peter Sellers, and in no case has the sado-masochistic drama of adaptation been as compatible with the internal drama of the novel as it was with Lolita.

Works Cited

Berman, Jeffrey. The Talking Cure: Literary Representations of Psychoanalysis. New York: New York University Press, 1985.

Bick, Ilsa J. "'That Hurts!': Humor and Sadomasochism in Lolita." Journal of Film and Video 46.2 (1994): 3-18.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Centerwall, Brandon S. "Hiding in Plain Sight: Nabokov and Pedophilia." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 32 (1990): 468-84.

Ciment, Michel. Kubrick. Trans. Gilbert Adair. New York: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1983.

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Krin Gabbard "The Circulation of Sado-Masochistic Desire in the Lolita Texts". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: April 6, 1997, Published: August 18, 1997. Copyright © 1997 Krin Gabbard