In this series we have looked at two tracks of euphemism in Lolita. I use a wider definition of euphemism, than a socio-linguistic phenomenon: something that both undermines and reinforces a social taboo.
Taboo is a topic not to be expressed – a gap – in social language (including every instance of social/public interaction). Euphemism therefore undermines a taboo by simply alluding to the topic completely. Yet taboos are not expressed directly, but indirectly, using neutral signifiers in special ways or contexts to convey tabooed meanings. By refusing to assign a proper signifier to the prohibited signified, language reinforces a taboo. Euphemism is used in social language to fill a gap, which, due to ideology, cannot be filled, it can only be replaced functionally. It’s like building a bridge above a canyon: we can cross it, but the canyon is still there.
Jacques Derrida’s That Dangerous Supplement claims something very similar about the supplement as fundamental apparatus of culture. He argues that the supplement inherently undermines the object it supplements, because supplementation is needed when the object alone is not available. The supplement is added to satisfy those demands, which require the presence of the absent object, thus the supplement tends to replace the object itself. However, the object always predates the supplement, which only comes into being, because of the existence of an unavailable object. Unavailability, for Derrida, is a lack: a lack of presence. Derrida’s object is reality, which is never sufficiently present to us, since our perception of it is always insufficient, therefore we produce a number of supplements for it. These are interwoven in a web called culture. Culture is the supplement to nature (reality) and only through it can we fully grasp nature’s presence. Yet, this is false presence: what we grasp is only the supplement, the reality of the supplement, because it always replaces nature. It bridges over the gap of absence – so we can cross it – yet the gap is still there, visible as ever. Therefore, the supplement, like euphemism, is used to fill a gap, which par excellence cannot be filled, only replaced. Replacement however always inevitably points at something’s lack/gap/absence.
Euphemism is a supplement within a supplement. Culture is a texture of supplements, and its texture has holes in it. Taboos are such holes, items forbidden to be mentioned, perceived, even imagined. Paedophilia is one such taboo. Nabokov’s novel is a texture of euphemisms just as culture is of supplements. Just as culture becomes a supplement replacing nature, Lolita becomes a euphemism replacing paedophilia in the social language of the literary institution (in the derridean sense). The mythological characters and the unreliability of the narrator are just two of the many euphemisms. One could also mention the use of French, the confession as form, the novel as genre, and many more. Ultimately it’s the same taboo, paedophilia, that’s euphemised in Kubrick’s film as well, by tools like the gaze, flashback, the pedicure-scene inserted at the beginning, even camera-movement. Both works are euphemisms for paedophilia in different registers or media of social language.
Finally, what is the true test of a euphemism? It’s its free flow within cultural communication. A functioning euphemism can be used freely in any discourse and users are not affected by the taboo it replaces, sometimes leading even to the loss of the correspondence between euphemism and taboo. There are many words in every language, which are no longer recognized as euphemism, because they outlived their taboos. To complete the analogy, I tested Lolita this way. Originally the novel was a cultural shock, no US publisher wanted to publish Nabokov’s English manuscript, it had to be published in Paris in 1955. Half a century later, Lana del Rey released her album, Born to die, in which the song Lolita was one of the greatest hits. Afterwards, the pop singer was often featured looking like the Lolita of Kubrick (the sunglasses, the hairstyle), as shown in the first two images. This look, through media mix, has become an image disseminated across several products, e.g. T-shirts. I bet most people wearing that T-shirt have no idea of the paedophilia implied in the cultural carrier, called Lolita.
Sources of pictures: http://maxhitman.deviantart.com/art/Lana-Del-Rey-Lolita-501190736