The Sonorous and The Spine
How Lana Del Rey and The Caretaker Read Old European White Guys
This month, director Grant Gee’s new documentary Patience (After Sebald) has its limited US release. The film is a hypnotic meditation on the writer W.G. Sebald and his book The Rings of Saturn. As many Tiny Mix Tape gourmands already know, English experimental musician The Caretaker was responsible for the film’s soundtrack, which shares the film’s title and was independently released at the beginning of the year. Beyond providing a hypnotic 82-minute plunge, the film and its score are noteworthy for precipitating general consideration of how today’s music interacts with fine literature. The Caretaker and W. G. Sebald complement each other beautifully, and in the final fourth of this article, they offer a glowing example of how a musician can commune with a text.
However, before reaching our final destination of The Caretaker and W.G. Sebald, there is another pair of much more notorious artists whose recent, complicated entangling begs extended attention.
In a 1962 interview with a journalist whose name remains unknown, the self-mythologizing novelist Vladimir Nabokov provided a concise, though illuminating, list of those things he most disliked. “My loathings,” he said, “Are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.”
In the digital age of fashionable hi-fi headphones, noise pollution awareness, and all-night dance halls with decibel output exceeding that of a jumbo jet, it makes sense to champion Nabokov’s hatred of meek music. Turn it up! we’d like him to say, because in our era, we are wont to agree. But, in fact, Nabokov, the aesthete, held an indifference — if not disdain — toward music in general; other interviews and confessions reveal any kind of music filled him with distaste, and notes played too softly were the prime trespasser and recipient of his spleen. Nabokov expressing hate for soft music is analogous to an arachnophobe exclaiming, “I most hate spiders with furry hides.” While there’s a certain wooly insect that comes to mind, we know this phobe finds even the ones without bristles to be unbearable. Similarly, for Nabokov, it wasn’t just the volume of music that he disapproved of — though, to be fair, the man never seemed able to stomach timidity.
Of all the pretty poetic ponies Lana Del Rey could have tried to saddle, she picked one that, in addition to being fiercely independent and inimitable, held a grudge with her very medium.
For these facts alone, it’s noteworthy and precarious that Lana Del Rey — the music world’s alternating bane and beloved, varying with whatever URL upon which you alight — should have based so much of her debut album on Nabokov’s classic Lolita. It would surely be simple for Lana’s most ardent detractors to deem her Lolita references clumsy, superficial, and baseless. But it’s also likely that those same self-appointed critics would clumsily overlook a few of them. If you’ve come with Pitchforks and torches to watch the girl get eviscerated, that’s not what this is about; yes, it is unequivocally true that Del Rey’s most obvious Lolita references are awful: the song actually titled “Lolita” is far and away one of the album’s most rebarbative. However, no matter your love or loathing for Born to Die and its birthmother, a closer scrutiny reveals Del Rey does, at the very least, manage to exhibit an “interesting” reading of Nabokov’s masterwork, integrating it into her music in ways more intriguing than an occasional shout-out or two. Whether Del Rey’s interpretation of the book is, in fact, accurate or insightful requires more nuanced consideration; at the very least, she has managed to make a notable entry into the discussion of how contemporary music reads — or possibly misreads — literature.
Nabokov’s rejection of music has an unnervingly simple and convincing basis. In another interview (this one with Playboy in 1964), he offered one of his most brilliant quotes, explaining how he believed literature (and, we can extrapolate, all art) should be experienced: “You read an artist’s book not with your heart (the heart is a remarkably stupid reader), and not with your brain alone, but with your brain and spine.” Now pair this assertion with yet another: in a lecture he delivered to his students at Cornell and later published, Nabokov describes a moment from Kafka’s Metamorophis. Samsa, already transformed and abject, abandoned by his loved ones, hears music and is overwhelmed, weakened by it. Seemingly, to most readers, it is the music’s loveliness that inundates. Nabokov’s interpretation of this scene, however, is so tainted by his personal opinion of music that it seems almost comical, tantamount to an intentional misreading. In fact, says the professor, railing as usual against the common and expected, the music overwhelmed because that’s what music does: it manipulates emotion without any sound reason or logical foundation. In other words, it’s a senses-reliant art we experience through our dumb and wanton “heart” rather than with the glorious logic of our “brain” or the unmistakable shiver of our “spine.” Music enslaves our emotion and gives us over to feelings without justifying why. Consider this. It is, I can admit, often true. A sad song, by its simple sound, can suffuse you with melancholy. Something optimistic, by virtue of its primal, driving beat, can indeed be uplifting. For a mind craving truth, this reeks of manipulation.
Surely there are many counterarguments — the greatest composers have created systems of symbolism through notes themselves; lyrics in pop music have risen on a few rare occasions to the levels of full-blown literature; and the cultural phenomenon of rock ‘n’ roll’s web of genres is one that has at least some academic merit, even if it generally ignores the music itself. But all this is besides the point. What should be considered is the fate of a musician who tries to corral a writer such as Nabokov into her stable of cultural stallions. Of all the pretty poetic ponies Lana Del Rey could have tried to saddle, she picked one that, in addition to being fiercely independent and inimitable, held a grudge with her very medium.
She was a sex object only because she was perceived that way by her surrogate father. Del Rey does these things precisely in order to be perceived as a sex symbol.
As far as I’ve seen, Del Rey’s extensive debt to Lolita has gone much under-analyzed. But, first of all, what are the grounds for this comparison? To start, Del Rey drew the connection herself. First, there is the aforementioned track, which plainly burgles (not alludes; let’s not award a song so crass that privilege) Nabokov’s book’s title as its own. Then, surely with much blasé, Del Rey once called herself in a Guardian interview “Lolita [who] got lost in the hood.” In a “Why We Fight” article for Pitchfork, Nitsuh Abebe makes the accurate if unfulfilled observation that the epithet, and Del Rey’s aesthetic, made him believe she truly was referring to the book Lolita rather than some cultural bastardization of the name. Abebe is correct that, overall, Del Rey does pull much from Lolita, the paper-and-spine entity, but this particular quote is not one such case. Let us remember that the plight of Lolita, Nabokov’s Lolita, had nothing to do with wandering off — we can safely say that if she had wound up in the hood, she wouldn’t have willingly stayed long enough to land a record deal. By the time she does end up in the boonies, hitched, she’s a homemaker and jaded and harbors no fantasies that champion suburban squalor. If her kind spouse would have had videogames to play, Nabokov’s Lolita, at this point in her spurious, tortured life, would already have been too resigned to mope about it, much less pen a ballad. Surely, Lolita never actively “got lost”: the child was abducted, raped. Her consummate scene with Humbert Humbert features only-semi-veiled images of fragmentation and stinging blood. Your wince, reader, is not unsuited.
It’s true: Lana Del Rey adopts the Lolita identifiers of enthusiastically chewing gum, citing starlets, and inhabiting tragic swaths of suburbia. The difference is that Lolita did these things because she was a little girl. She was a sex object only because she was perceived that way by her surrogate father. Del Rey does these things precisely in order to be perceived as a sex symbol. Her equating of the identity and the perception is a fundamental misunderstanding of the character, of the story. Lolita depends entirely on Humbert Humbert… and yet nobody tries to win the hearts of consumers by putting on his guise. I wonder why! All of the details Del Rey borrows are accurately observed but failed in execution. The problem with her conception of the Lolita character is that the character is in fact a victim; anybody intentionally trying to identify with her has, by definition, failed far in advance.
But these are all concerns of image, which is transient and subject to trends. What of the text itself, or the music? What lies beneath the glossy sheen? Nabokov himself meditates on the subjects of duplicity and multi-layers, presenting these ideas to the reader prior even to Lolita’s first page. In the book’s Foreword, fictitiously penned by the fictitious John Rey Jr., we are introduced to Humbert Humbert by name. The “author’s bizarre cognomen is his own invention,” says Rey Jr., “and, of course, this mask — through which two hypnotic eyes seem to glow — had to remain unlifted in accordance with its wearer’s wish.” The entirety of Lolita, as astute readers have learned, dances around this question of disguise and deception.
Curiously, it’s also in considering beginnings and names that we get a glimpse beneath the mask of Lana Del Rey. Consider her album’s name, for example: Born to Die. At first glance, it evokes little more than the hint of a Lady Gaga and Springsteen romance. But held up against the backlight of Lolita, Lana’s title acquires a certain diaphanous incandescence. For example, in addition to hinting at H.H.’s haunting malice, the Foreword also secretly prefigures the fates of the major character in the book: they all die. In turn, the phrase Born to Die could be a recognition of this fact, an allusion (here the word is earned) to the idea that our heroes are DOA the moment we crack the book’s cover. Most importantly, though, these opening pages slyly reveal the fate of Lolita herself. Here, we note, she is craftily called by her husband’s name, Mrs. Richard Schiller. It’s by that name that we learn she is to die in childbirth. Born to Die is therefore a phrase quite literal and, we might begin to admit, in this context, quite well-conceived.