Monday, February 18, 2013

The Major Arcana #6: THE LOVERS - Vladimir Nabokov & Baz Luhrmann

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.

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THE LOVERS: Vladimir Nabokov, Baz Luhrmann

There are two personalities who fit the role of The Lovers in this list of archetypes. The simple fact is, I just couldn't decide between them, so I decided to indulge myself and use both of them, focusing on their divergent aspects.

Nabokov is best known for his novel Lolita, and this is certainly a lover's tome, though an unconventional one. Humbert Humbert's obsession with an underage girl, and his illicit relationship with her following the death of her mother, is one of the more depraved love stories among the various romances of the literary world. If this is your only encounter with the Russian's works, you could be forgiven for thinking he's a crime writer, or an ironist of predatory neuroses.

But ultimately, as you wander outward into his oeuvre, it's love that binds all of Nabokov's greatest books together. Nabokov knows every stroke, but love is the water he swims in, exploring all its joyous and corrupting power in the lives of its victims. Laughter in the Dark is a crushingly frustrating novel of a manipulative female seizing ultimate power over a hapless male admirer; Pale Fire, Nabokov's most daring formal experiment, is a narrative framework wrapped around an unrequited, sublimated preoccupation of one man with another. Ada, or Ardor, Nabokov's last novel, is his most ambitious ode to misguided attachment, the pastoral romance of a brother and sister in defiance of their families, their cultures, their professions, and their social positions.

Nabokov's a uniter of opposites, like any love-starved Romantic must be. In particular, he unites a biting cynicism with a wily sentimentalism, straddling a line in his novels between irony and absolute commitment. In applying this wildly uneven craft, he reliably returns to a few themes, all of which the Lover must keep in mind: temptation, obsession, the futile chase of an idealized object; transgression, self-sabotage, the power of desire in the face of the monstrous banality of convention and the social contract.

Luhrmann addresses many of the same themes as Nabokov, but he regards them from an opposing vantage point. Where Nabokov is always cut with cynicism and skepticism, Luhrmann reaches unapologetically for the stars, placing complete faith in his Lovers to redeem any situation, morally and spiritually if not pragmatically. Without the truth of Romeo and Juliet's love, what would their story be but a chronicle of a bitter, meaningless feud? And without the true love between Christian and Satine, what would their story be except for the manipulation and self-destruction of a consumptive cabaret performer?

If Nabokov's writing is shot through with tension between Nabokov the cynic and Nabokov the Romantic, then Luhrmann's films are spectacles of pure sentiment, singular performances of the gasping exhilaration of a first sexual or romantic encounter. Hypnotic, manic, drenched in luxurious colors and textures, they exemplify the rush that lingers in all our memories, the visceral remnants of our wildest love affairs.

And yet, Baz Luhrmann's films so often end in tragedy; for someone so deeply involved in the joyous romances of his characters, he is certainly committed to showing the crushing, melancholy side of the currency of love and loss. If nothing else, this allows the love in his films to behave like a flame, or even a flare: they ignite suddenly and give shape and color to the whole narrative, but they're always doomed to burn out at the bottom of the wick.

What unites these two storytellers is their insistence that love struggles against all obstacles, whether it's destined to win or to lose... that in the face of the insurmountable and the undeniable, lovers will find a way to defy and deconstruct whatever boundaries and impossibilities threaten, naively, to hold them apart.