The Most Famous Lepidopterist in the World
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Nabokov was always intensely close to his family, but in all other relationships he was temperamentally a loner. Brian Boyd has noted that lepidoptery was but one of the odd-man-out guises of Nabokov's life, one of the solitary wayside nooks he chose to occupy. Another was the composing of chess problems, an art that calls for a different disposition than playing the game itself, and which the author himself associated with "glacial solitude." On the soccer field, another of his youthful passions, Nabokov practiced the eccentric art of the goalie, the man set apart from all other members of the team, a discipline "surrounded with a halo of singular glamour."
The marginalization of butterfly hunting carried over into some of Nabokov's interviews and personal and professional relations, too. In 1971, when he and the Australian writer and critic Andrew Field were discussing the possibility of a biography, Nabokov, according to Field, protested: "I told everything about myself in Speak, Memory, and it was not a very pleasant portrait. I appear as a precious person in that book. All that chess and those butterflies. Not very interesting."
But here and elsewhere, Nabokov showed himself to be a master misleader. He once told an interviewer about butterflies in his fiction: "...whenever I allude to butterflies in my novels, no matter how diligently I rework the stuff, it remains pale and false and does not really express what I want it to express what, indeed, it can only express in the very special scientific terms of my entomological papers. The butterfly that lives forever on its type-labeled pin and in its O.D. (original description‚) in a scientific journal dies a messy death in the fumes of the arty gush." That is a far better description of the work of journalists and others who have tried in vain to capture the sense of mystical ecstasy that Nabokov -- and only Nabokov -- conveyed when writing about lepidoptery.
Nabokov's ironic deprecation of his butterflies might have encouraged Field in his own predilictions. Field's book, Vladimir Nabokov: His Life in Part, appeared in 1977, the year Nabokov died. This work, the first attempt at a full biography, reflected scant appreciation for lepidoptery, Nabokov's or anyone else's. Field's treatment of this aspect of Nabokov's life was cursory and noncommittal, almost an afterthought to what was in any case an extremely impressionistic biography. In assessing Nabokov's professional achievement, Field was content to briefly quote two unnamed lepidopterists. Both of those sources are quite perceptive, each in his own way, but in the end Field failed not only to evaluate Nabokov's entomological achievement with any thoroughness, but even to suggest what a significant and time-consuming role it played throughout the writer's career.
It was also Field who, in a later book, grossly trivialized Nabokov's lepidoptery as "an elaborate literary pose," though to be fair, Nabokov suggested this idea, too -- even if only to dismiss it -- in a self-reference in his 1957 novel Pnin. In the novel, two characters disturb a flock of Karner Blues, a remarkable butterfly, now sadly endangered, that Nabokov himself scientifically named and described. "Pity Vladimir Vladimirovich is not here,' remarked Chateau. 'He would have told us all about these enchanting insects.' 'I have always had the impression that his entomology was merely a pose.' 'Oh no,' said Chateau."
This is not to say that Nabokov never dealt seriously with questions about lepidoptery, far from it. In the many interviews that he granted in the years after Lolita and for the rest of his life, there were routinely one or two de rigueur questions about lepidoptery, though they were seldom followed up with any perception. Nabokov hated live interviews, so he was in the habit of demanding all questions be submitted in advance, to be answered in writing. The collective results are a basic source for understanding Nabokov's mature attitude toward lepidoptery, but they remained scattered here and there until 1973, when many were collected in Strong Opinions, a book of Nabokov's interviews, reviews and letters-to-the-editor. And even here, a careful reader must not take everything he says strictly at face value. In an interview in 1962, despite abundant and overwhelming proof of the contrary in Speak, Memory, in his fiction and elsewhere, Nabokov could insist with a straight face that this interest in butterflies was "exclusively scientific."
In the atmosphere of incomprehension that surrounded Nabokov's lepidoptery, another misapprehension about his work came to distort the public's perception: the idea that there was some innate, perhaps psychological, connection between Nabokov's study of butterfly genitalia -- a thoroughly routine technique crucial to the identification of many of the species that Nabokov worked with -- and the sexual content of his novels. This idea reared its head in a widely read article in the July-August 1986 issue of Harvard Magazine, "Nabokov's Blue Period," by Philip Zaleski. In the article, Zaleski employs the suggestive notions of "dismemberment" (more commonly known as dissection) and "impalement" (that is, the mounting of specimens) and refers to the butterfly genitalia Nabokov worked with at the Museum of Comparative Zoology as the "ravished limbs of love."
In addition, according to a caption in the article, "the anagrammatical dance of "incest" and "insect" suggests how intensely, for Nabokov, art and science intertwine at their roots." The novel this refers to, Ada, does indeed involve both insects and incest, but in context, this anagram passes fleetingly and can bear none of the weight Zaleski, or his caption writer, assigns it. Many writers, not just Zaleski, seem unable to resist such neo-Freudian connections. As absurd as this sort of thing is, it is widespread and can easily prevent the discussion of Nabokov's lepidoptery from advancing very far among a public that by and large even now chooses to treat Lolita as a tale of lurid prurience and thinks of Nabokov -- a devoted family man -- as a sort of repressed Humbert Humbert, the monster of the novel.
In the end, Nabokov's admirers might expect no more from popularizing accounts of Nabokov's lepidoptery. But non-scientists, who tend to think of all science as a cut-and-dried craft, might be surprised to learn that over the years, Nabokov's colleagues have shown a comparable ambivalence about his achievement; confused readers seeking easy explanations from that quarter have been to some extent disappointed. Here again, Nabokov's own puckish humor is partly at fault. Clearly, he was considered a rather odd figure by those of his colleagues who did not know him well, and among the anecdotes about him circulated by lepidopterists, it is the jokes that have become immortal. For instance, the story is told about how, sometime after the initial success of Lolita, Nabokov arrived late for a lunch with some old colleagues from the Entomology department of the Natural History museum in New York. Upon arriving, he quipped, "I hope you don't think I had stopped to dally with some young girls."
Despite his accomplishments, his published work, his tenure at the Museum of Comparative Zoology and his descriptions not only of new species, but new genuses as well (related species are grouped together in genuses), there have always been professional entomologists willing to dismiss him as a gifted amateur. On the one hand, his lack of formal training is often held against him. And to be fair, Nabokov's output was not prolific by most standards. There is also the peculiar freight that the word "amateur" can and does bear in scientific circles. For just this reason, Nabokov's admirers sometimes justify his claim to professionalism by pointing to his salary at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. But such efforts in themselves suggest the extent to which the meaning of "professionalism" has been reduced to mere semantics, minimizing the complexity of Nabokov's position in the scientific community and skirting the question of the quality of his work. This is particularly so for the 1940's, an era in which the border between amateur and professional was much more fluid than it is in this day of extreme specialization. And as will become evident throughout this book, the history of lepidoptery, to this very day, is full of researchers who have made significant contributions to the field without being full-time professionals.
An observation in a 1988 Boston Globe article about Nabokov's tenure at the Museum of Comparative Zoology - that Nabokov's contribution to science never rose above the descriptive to the synthetic - raises a related consideration. Nabokov was not, and never tried to be, a theoretical biologist. In the terms of systematic biology, he was a taxonomist, a scientist who classifies living things into related groups on the basis of their physical structure, which in turn reveals secrets of their relationships and evolution; he was not a systemist -- that is, a scientist who deals with questions of theory and methodology. In this era of molecular biology and advanced genetics, taxonomists occupy a generally low status in the world of academic science, though this hasn't always been the case. Some negative judgments of Nabokov's abilities simply reflect this prejudice against the mundane business of classification; rather than judge his work, some scientists judge Nabokov's line of work. Ironically, beyond slighting Nabokov, this attitude has now come to haunt modern biology. At a time when the world seems to be poised on the edge of a massive extinction of species, a threat becoming widely known as the biodiversity crisis, there are so few taxonomists that hundreds of thousands of varieties of organisms seem destined to disappear before they are even described by science.
The note of condescension in certain professional assessments might also reflect some naturally mixed feelings among his fellow entomologists about the attention Nabokov's work was getting, particularly when they compared it to his official place in their proud discipline. No doubt some lepidopterists were simply envious of Nabokov's literary success and of the attention the world began to pay his lepidoptery as a result. But it is fair to say that most had far more complex reactions to the ill-informed fans who suddenly discovered a superficial and passing fascination with their field; it was galling that the literati might see lepidoptery as interesting, profound, even mystical, but only when practiced by an enormously famous writer of fiction. And sometimes the attention due to celebrity impinged on the world of science itself: no doubt the exhibit on Nabokov at the Museum of Comparative Zoology owed more to Lolita than to anything he might have written about butterflies.
All four were works of entomological weight. The first three treated the species of a single genus, Lycaeides, a group of Blues with members in North America and Eurasia. One of these three, "The Nearctic Members of the Genus Lycaeides," a definitive monograph on the genus's North American species, is the single work on which much of Nabokov's scientific reputation has rested for most of the last 50 years; these are the "two or three species of the so-called Blues" in which Frank Carpenter conceded Nabokov's expertise. The task he set himself here, through the minute examination of some 2,000 specimens, was to sort out the tangle of species and subspecies -- many of which had been given multiple names by different authorities -- that make up this relatively small but complex group. The results were elaborate, thorough, painstaking and authoritative, the hallmarks of all of Nabokov's entomological work.
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