January 28th, 2011

Nabokov and poetic justice: the artist as scientist

The news that Vladimir Nabokov, illustrious author and respected lepidopterist, came up with a theory of butterfly evolution that was poo-pooed in his time but which has now been vindicated by DNA research has made me unaccountably happy.

Nabokov speculated that the butterfly that was his specialty, known as the Polyommatus blue, had come over from Asia over many millions of years ago in five distinct waves. It was a theory few credited at the time. My guess is they chalked it up to his artistic nature, a flight of fancy for which he could be forgiven, just this once. But now a team has applied the newest technology involving DNA to his notion, and:

On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.

“It’s really quite a marvel,” said Naomi Pierce of Harvard, a co-author of the paper.


Nabokov was a bona fide literary genius. Although I confess I’m not fond of the bulk of his work, what I like of it I like very much indeed: his memoir Speak, Memory, and some short stories.

The memoir is an atypical one, not really an autobiography but instead a series of vignettes, linked by the author’s elegant virtuosity and characteristic coolness, but with a warm and beating heart animating the work at its core. Nabokov’s tribute to his father, who was killed by an assassin in Berlin in 1922 under dramatic and heroic circumstances, is an exceptionally touching chapter.

Nabokov senior helped nurture his son’s passion for butterflies, which he shared. This interest of the younger Nabokov ultimately led him to the position of curator of lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the publication of quite a bit of scientific writing as well.

An entire chapter of Speak, Memory is devoted to his fervor for collecting butterflies, which he developed as a young boy around the family estate. The following passage from the book describes one of those early efforts, and gives you an idea of the passion behind the brilliance of his later scientific pursuits:

Unmindful of the mosquitoes that furred my forearms, I stooped with a grunt of delight to snuff out the life of some silver-studded lepidopteron throbbing in the folds of my net. Through the smells of the bog, I caught the subtle perfume of butterfly wings on my fingers, a perfume which varies with the species—vanilla, lemon, or musk, or a musty, sweetish odor difficult to define. Still unsated, I pressed forward. At last I saw I had come to the end of the marsh. The rising ground beyond was a paradise of lupines, columbines, and pentstemons. Mariposa lilies bloomed under Ponderosa pines. In the distance, fleeting cloud shadows dappled the dull green of slopes above timber line, and the gray and white of Longs Peak.

I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness—in a landscape selected at random—is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern—to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.

Let us leave him there for now. We can visit whenever we want, by reading the prose he left behind.

12 Responses to “Nabokov and poetic justice: the artist as scientist”

  1. Artfldgr Says:

    Comparatively we are disconnected from reality now…

  2. Retardo Says:

    I’ve read that, as a lepidopterist, Nabokov was seen as a guy who got absorbed in details and lost sight of the bigger picture. Having read his Lectures on Literature, that comes as no surprise. But I’m pleased to see he had more on the ball than he got credit for.

  3. Artfldgr Says:

    Take a look in other places that are NOT in the news.


    while we look to a state which is changing so that it can act when its prior rules stopped that..

    we are ignoring a center right state that is being changed to a socialist one.

    And it may turn out that the russian subway bombing was contrived…

    and so much more…
    [like ignoring a man who missed a governor in an assassination attempt and instead stabbed a dean and slashed is throat. of course he shows the arguments on guns is dumb, he is black while Tuscon was white, and he was a left greenish revolutionary… ]

  4. KBK Says:

    Thanks for the lead, Neo.

  5. mutecypher Says:

    “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

    author, lepidopterist, synesthete. just a brilliant man.

  6. Occam's Beard Says:

    But…but…the “experts” all agreed he was wrong. So he had to be wrong, yes? The science was settled!

    Nabokov only had one constituency that agreed with him: the data.

  7. Rupert Says:

    Nabokov has always been a mystery to me. There has to be something of genius in a man that can have the reader feeling pity for such despicable characters. We should also remember that the theory of continental drift came from an obscure weatherman, and was greatly ridiculed at the time.

  8. nolanimrod Says:

    Or, as he was known to the butterfly community, Vlad the Affixer.

  9. Sergey Says:

    Nabokov was blessed by at least two rare traits especially helpful to a field zoologist: wonderfully sharp vision exciding usual by a factor of 100, and an eidetic memory, that is, ability to remember the whole sensory input as it was, not just some general impression of it, like absolute majority of people. (The latter is often associated with synesthesia, but is not as rare as 100-times sharper vision.) Human geneticists estimated that such vision is associated with a rare genetic mutation which frequency of occurence 1 per million. The two other known persons in history with such mutation were Aristotel and Leonardo. Aristotel described some tiny details of flies wings and antenae which were confirmed by modern zoologists using binocular microscopes with 30 times magnification, but completely obscure for persons with normal vision.
    As for smells of butterflies, these were probably illusions of a synesthesist. Both retinae and visual cortex contain thousand times more neurones and sensory cells in persons with this specific mutation. Is there some neurologic correlate to synesthesia, is still unknown.

  10. kolnai Says:

    Wasn’t there an old show someone dug up last year, featuring a conversation between Lionel Trilling and Nabokov? I’m sure it’s on Youtube somewhere.

    Seeing Trilling try to get at Nabokov’s deep thoughts, and Nabokov coming back with his typical, “What? Sex? Nah, Lolita was just about some dude and some girl” was hilarious. (I absolutely love Trilling, so no disrespect to him – it’s just always awkward when the intellectualizing critic meets the intuitive, introverted artist).

  11. Poetic Justice | neo-neocon » Blog Archive » Nabokov and poetic justice: the artist | Hardywise Says:

    […] disconnected from reality now… Retardo Says: January 28th, 2011 at 2:31 pm. I’ve read that, http://neoneocon.com/2011/01/28/nabokov-and-poetic-justice-the-artist-as-lepidopterist/ January 30th, 2011 | Category: […]

  12. Ymarsakar Says:

    In this case, it seems a hobbyist was able to overcome the status quo scientific “consensus” of his time.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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