The responsibility of art to the ethical in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann and In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar Wai
Loh, Amanda Phieh Hsin
Date of Issue2015
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Lolita, Death in Venice and In the Mood for Love enact a seduction and eroticization of the text, narrative form and language that enrapture readers and audiences. This eroticization of the narrative and cinematography acts to insidiously lure readers and enamor them, blurring the lines between right and wrong. Acts of rape, murder, homoerotic and pedophilic desires and extramarital affairs are conveyed in stylish literary allusions, puns and other linguistic devices and beautiful cinematography that enrapture the reader in complicity with the characters. Hence, the readers and audiences are charmed by the aesthetics, style and form of the film and novels and all three works occupy a liminal space between right and wrong. However, the characters’ repressed desires and pursuit of the unattainable lead to obsessive behavior and the protagonists enmesh themselves in this perpetual cycle of yearning and longing which they cannot transcend. There is a tension between beauty and ugliness in all three works as the protagonists- Humbert, Aschenbach, Chow and Li-Zhen grapple and struggle with their idealized notions of love, art and their own physical desires. The death of the protagonists of Humbert and Aschenbach can be seen as a sacrifice as they succumb to the physical passions and desires within them. While the novels and film do deal with morally questionable and taboo content, their treatment of it is different. Even though the content and subject matter is immoral, the form of the novels, Lolita and Death in Venice and the film, In the Mood for Love exposes this immorality and redeems itself. The novels and film are not merely about pedophilia, homoeroticism or extra-marital affairs, but rather, they also evoke questions concerning the nature of love itself, truth and reality, aestheticism and commercialization and the transience of life and memory. The three works are self-reflexive in their responsibility of art to the ethical. Even though the novels and film deal with morally questionable subject matter and taboo issues that are beautifully rendered, they ultimately point to its constructedness and artificiality through the medium of the novel and film. Even though acts of rape, homosexual and repressed desires are portrayed and rendered beautifully, the protagonists, the characters and even the countries of the novels and film are presented as make-believe. Therein lies the power of the narrative and film medium in its capacity to expose the structures that perpetuate truth and how our reality is constructed. The novel, Lolita is ironically not about Lolita as a tangible person in the flesh but rather, the elusive memory of her from the perspective of Humbert Humbert (qtd in Cox). Death in Venice is also not solely about the death of a distinguished German artist in a physical sense but rather it also encapsulates a metaphorical and spiritual death. Also, as the title of the film, In the Mood for Love suggests, it is indeed about the conjuring of the right atmosphere and mood for love, dating and romance. The form of the film takes precedence over the content as the atmosphere, mood, cinematography and sound takes center stage. While the title of the film suggests that the act of making love is imminent, the film does not show any sexual scenes just as Lolita never explicitly and crudely describes the pedophilic sexual act. Hence, right at the start, when the reader and audience look at the titles of the novels and film, we are already tricked and being misled. While the subject matter of the novels and film defies social norms, the form and medium of the text and film not only exposes these immoral issues but also explores larger philosophical issues such as the nature of love itself, authenticity and artificiality, aestheticism and commercialism, memories and remembrance as fetishization. Therein lies the power of the medium of the novel and film as it not only exposes the immorality of the subject matter but also explores other pertinent issues concerning life, love, beauty and truth.
Final Year Project (FYP)
Nanyang Technological University