Monday Musing: Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist

[Abbas Raza is filling in for J.M. Tyree, who is on vacation this week.]

Lolitacover_1As in the case of many sciency types, my mostly informal education in the humanities has been somewhat arbitrary and certainly very spotty. I can reliably amuse and horrify more erudite friends by reciting lists of authors and books I’ve never read. Fortunately, Nabokov is not on those lists. I say fortunately, and I mean it literally: in 1986 I was in Buffalo, New York, spending a few nights in the hospital with my mother who was having a back operation, and I needed something to read. Wandering into a nearby bookstore, I was looking for something by Naipaul in the alphabetically arranged fiction section when, purely by luck, I came upon Lolita. The name triggered only a vague memory of something salaciously exciting, and I picked it up. Thus began an obsession with Nabokov that reached its acme when (at the invitation of my dear friend and mentor Laura Claridge) I taught Lolita to the midshipmen (and women) at the United States Naval Academy a couple of years later. (This picture shows the paperback copy of the book I had bought that day, and not wanting to sully my lapel with adhesive, had affixed the hospital visitors’ sticker to its cover instead.)

Nabokovvladimir_1Nabokov’s (the name is stressed on the second syllable, so that it rhymes with “to talk of”) reputation in the world of letters is so gargantuan that it is easy to forget that he was an accomplished scientist. Nabokov was a serious entomologist; more specifically, a lepidopterist specializing in the identification and classification of a major group of butterflies, the Latin American Polyommatinae, of the family Lycaenidae, more popularly known as the “blues”. For six years in the 1940s, Nabokov held an appointment at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, as a Research Fellow. During this time he was responsible for organizing and supervising additions to their extensive butterfly collection. His enthusiasm for the difficultly precise minutiae of taxonomy can be gauged by the exuberant tone of the following passage in a letter to his sister Elena Sikorski in 1945:

My museum — famous throughout America (and throughout what used to be Europe) — is the Museum of Comparative Zoology, a part of Harvard University, which is my employer. My laboratory occupies half of the fourth floor. Most of it is taken up by rows of cabinets, containing sliding cases of butterflies. I am custodian of these absolutely fabulous collections. We have butterflies from all over the world; many are type specimens (i.e. the very same specimens used for the original descriptions, from the 1840’s until today). Along the windows extend tables holding my microscopes, test tubes, acids, papers, pins, etc. I have an assistant, whose main task is spreading specimens sent by collectors. I work on my personal research, and for more than two years now have been publishing piecemeal a study of the classification of American “blues” based on the structure of their genitalia (minuscule sculpturesque hooks, teeth, spurs, etc., visible only under a microscope), which I sketch in with the aid of various marvelous devices, variants of the magic lantern….

To know that no one before you has seen an organ you are examining, to trace relationships that have occurred to no one before, to immerse yourself in the wondrous crystalline world of the microscope, where silence reigns, circumscribed by its own horizon, a blindingly white arena–all this is so enticing that I cannot describe it.

(I cannot resist an aside on Nabokov’s false modesty: this I-cannot-describe-it Nabokov–after having just described looking through a microscope like no one else could–is the same one who is able effortlessly to evoke entire worlds of sensation out of the simplest possible raw material. Just look at this:

Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip, relief–the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes…

Nabokov wrote this to describe the birth of his first poem, which he wrote at age 14. I cannot describe it, indeed. And while we are still on the subject of Nabokov’s coy modesty, let me also quickly adduce this, from the afterword to Lolita–which, unlike Nabokov’s early work, was written in English:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses — the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions — which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

So much for Nabokov’s descriptive incapacity and his second-rate English.)

NabokovBack to Nabokov’s lepidoptery: even among many of those who know of Nabokov’s butterfly work, there is a lingering suspicion that he was essentially a dilettante in the field. This relegation of amateur status is not fair. At the time, the distinction between amateur and professional lepidopterist was not made as starkly as it might be today. Much serious work in the classification of animal and plant species was done by gentlemen-scholars, and in any case, as I have mentioned, Nabokov held a coveted academic appointment and was paid as an entomologist for six years by Harvard. As Brian Boyd shows in the second volume of his biography, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, though Nabokov had no formal education in entomology, his early fascination with and dedication to the study of butterflies eventually made him a world-class lepidopterist. Throughout his life whenever he had a chance, Nabokov visited museums of natural history to examine their butterfly collections. While he collected many and varied species, his scientific work was limited to the Polyommatinae on which he published more than a dozen technical papers, including “The Nearctic Forms of Lycaeides Hübner “; “Notes on the Morphology of the Genus Lycaeides“; “The Nearctic Members of the Genus Lycaeides Hübner,” and “Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae .” Nabokov’s contemporary scientific colleagues consistently acknowledged his expertise, and his classifications and other technical work have stood the test of time.

As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in an essay on Nabokov’s lepidoptery (not available online, but printed in his I Have Landed), another common objection to Nabokov’s lepidopterological work is that although it may have been competent, it does not compare with his prodigious literary achievements. This is true to the extent that Nabokov was not a theorist in science, and he is not responsible for significant scientific innovations. Having said that, one should not belittle the careful, precise, and painstaking work, requiring extensive training and practice, that it takes to accumulate scientific knowledge one small bit at a time. What data would theorists have to work with if not for the Nabokov’s of the world?

Butt49Nabokov discovered and named more than twenty genera, species, and subspecies of butterflies. These include Carterocéphalus canopunctátus NABOKOV 1941, and Cyllópsis pertepída avícula NABOKOV 1942 (pictured here on the right). In addition, many butterflies have been name for Nabokov by others, such as Cyllópsis pyrácmon nabokóvi MILLER 1974, and Nabokóvia HEMMING 1960, while yet others have been given Nabokov-related names like Madeleinea lolita BÁLINT 1993: “a polyommatine butterfly known from just one locality in Peru’s Amazonas department (Huambo). Only its males have been examined. They are blackish brown with iridescent metallic blue basal and medial diffusion.”

Nabokov himself, even after attaining monumental literary success with the American publication of Lolita in 1958, regularly expressed his lifelong ardor for lepidoptery. He says in Strong Opinions:

Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime — but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.

He once said, “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.” His literature and his scientific work share the same qualities of obsessive attention to minute detail, an unabashed respect for facts, and an almost painfully sharp appreciation of the aesthetic pleasures of small things, which would produce in him what he famously once described as “intolerable bliss.” I will give VN the last word:

“A Discovery”

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss
Poems that take a thousand years to die
But ape the immortality of this
Red label on a little butterfly.

Have a good week!

My other recent Monday Musings:
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President