Poling in Arizona — A More Likely Source for Lolita’s Poling Prize

Submitted by Alain Champlain on Sat, 11/30/2019 - 02:20

While reading Nabokov’s Butterflies, I came across a likely source for the “Poling Prize” given to John Ray Jr. for his “modest” work “Do the Senses [M]ake Sense?” which prize helped him land the job as editor of Humbert’s manuscript.

The source is Nabokov’s paper, Some new or little known Nearctic Neonympha, which, far from modest, Nabokov referred to as “my big work.” Here are the references to Poling:

Neonympha dorothea edwardsi n. subsp.
Male, holotype, labelled: “Gila Co. Ariz. June 1902, O.C. Poling,” ex A.g. Weeks Coll., Museum of Comparative Zoology, Cambridge, Mass.;[…] Paratypes: 3 males “Gila Co. Ariz. June 1902, O.C. Poling,” ex A.G. Weeks Coll., Mus. Comp. Zool.;
(P 256)

Neonympha dorothea avicula n. subsp.
Fifteen smallish specimens, twelve males, three females (Carn. Mus.), from Paradise, Ariz. taken by Poling late in the season (August–October) represent a certain transition from edwardsi to avicula;
(PP 257-258)

This little subplot can be followed through a dozen or so letters — here are a select few:

From letter to Mark Aldanov, May 20, 1942
From Wellesley.
“I have finished my big work on ‘Some New or Little Known Nearctic Neonympha,’”
(P 265)

From letter to Edmund Wilson, August 9, 1942
From West Wardsboro, Vermont.
“It is amusing to think that I managed to get into Harvard with a butterfly as my sole backer.”
(P 267)

From letter to Edmund Wilson, December 13, 1942
From Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“I envy so bitterly your intimacy with English words, tumbling them as you do, that it seems rather silly to send you the poem [A Discovery] you will find on a separate page…. I wrote it on my way to Washington where I went for the only purpose of sorting out some butterflies I had described (not the one referred to here, which is in New York and which I visited too […] ).”
(P 275)

From letter to Donald Eff, May 1, 1953
From Portal, Arizona. Unpublished.
“I am on leave of absence from the university this spring and thought it a good idea to spend it collecting in the Chiricahua Mts — and writing a book [Lolita].
I am eager to get here (this is its type locality) my Neonympha maniola (which R. Chermock demoted to a subspecies of my dorothea — wrongly, I think). It should appear late in May. Another Neonympha, henshawi Edw., (the northern form of the Mexican pyracmon) coexists with maniola. The three are readily separated by the females: what Holland figures as “henshawi” male, is dorothea, female. The female of henshawi is figured by Edwards (it has a slightly tailed and banded appearance), and that of maniola (a rather ruddy thing) is figured by Wright (Butt. W. Coast).”
(P 497)

From letter to Harry Levin, May 2, 1953
From Portal, Arizona.
“We are in the south-east corner of Arizona, on the border of New and Old Mexico. The nearer mountains are maroon, spotted with the dark green of junipers and the lighter green of mesquites, and the far mountains are purple as in the Wellesley song. From eight A.M. to noon, or later, I collect butterflies (only Wells, Conan Doyle and Conrad have portrayed lepidopterists — all of them spies, or murderers, or neurotics) and from two P.M. to dinner time I write (a novel) [Lolita].”
(P 498)

I'll leave this without comment for the time being, but feel free to weigh in.

I agree, a butterfly can outweigh Linus Pauling (a chemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954), but not Polignac (a French politician who is mentioned by Poprishchin in Gogol’s "Notes of a Madman” and by Pushkin in his letters to Vyazemski and to his bride). Neither Humbert Humbert, nor John Ray, Jr. (the author of "Do the Senses Make Sense?") is a lepidopterist.


Polignac + mole = Molignac + pole = Poling + Cam + Leo


Molignac - in VN's novel Podvig ("Glory," 1932) the village in Provence where Martin Edelweiss spends a summer working at a farm


Let me draw your attention to the updated version of my latest post "Frau Stoboy & old King Cole in The Gift."

My argument is certainly not that the characters John Ray, Jr. or Humbert, in the world of the book, invented the Poling Prize as their own private nod to Poling (a man, not a butterfly, by the way).


I should also mention that these exploding anagrams are a red flag for me, and I won't be sorry to ignore them:


dole no apologies = Poling + Sea-Doo + Leo

In his first post Alain quotes VN's letter to Mark Aldanov:


From letter to Mark Aldanov, May 20, 1942
From Wellesley.
“I have finished my big work on ‘Some New or Little Known Nearctic Neonympha,’”
(P 265)


VN's friend and fellow writer, Aldanov published several research papers in chemistry. Humbert's landlord at Beardsley, Professor Chem teaches chemistry in Beardsley College.


In his essay General Pichergu (1928) Aldanov says that in Musée Carnavalet in Paris there is a dark watercolor (depicting a very tall and steep cliff in Biville, Normandy) painted from memory by Count Armand de Polignac (who participated in Pichergu's conspiracy against Napoleon): 


В музее Карнавале есть мрачная акварель. В серо-черных тонах в ночном освещении она изображает голую, очень высокую отвесную скалу. Внизу бьются волны. От скалы отплывает, качаясь, лодка. Где-то высоко на скале по канату ползут вверх вооруженные люди. Другие смотрят на них снизу, стоя в воде у подножия скалы, очевидно, ожидая своей очереди. Это Бивильский утес на побережье Ла-Манша между Дьеппом и Трепором. Какая-то нора, открытая или прорытая контрабандистами, дает возможность проникнуть с его вершины в глубь страны. Над утесом, вероятно, вследствие его неприступности (в нем около ста метров вышины), наблюдение было слабее, чем над всем остальным побережьем (впрочем, сторожевой пункт находился от утеса всего лишь в какой-либо версте).
Акварель, о которой я говорю (ном. 2187), написал по памяти граф Арман де Полиньяк. Он в ту пору вместе со своим братом принимал участие в заговоре Пишегрю. Зимней ночью английское судно доставило их к подножию Бивильского утёса. По условному сигналу соучастник сбросил им сверху канат. Поднявшись на вершину скалы, они дорогой контрабандистов прокрались к уединенной ферме, где их встретил Жорж Кадудаль, он тем же путем прибыл во Францию раньше. Оттуда, путешествуя по ночам, тщательно прячась днем, они прибыли в Париж, расселились по конспиративным квартирам, которых Жорж имел в столице довольно много, и принялись за свою таинственную работу. (chapter X)


In a footnote Aldanov says that, if he is not mistaken, this painting was a gift to the museum from Prince Lobanov-Rostovski who could receive it from the Polignacs (they had strong ties with Russia):


Если не ошибаюсь, её подарил музею кн. Лобанов-Ростовский, которому она могла достаться от Полиньяков: у них были прочные связи с Россией.


In his next footnote Aldanov points out that a quarter of century later one of the Polignac brothers was the first minister of Karl X and with his reactionary policy has brought the country to the new Revolution:


Один из этих Полиньяков четвертью века позднее был первым министром Карла X и своими реакционными мерами благополучно довёл страну до новой революции.


In his essay Aldanov describes Pichergu's suicide in prison (a few days before the trial). It seems that immediately after finishing his manuscript Humbert (who, according to John Ray, Jr., died of coronary thrombosis a few days before his process was scheduled to start) commits suicide.


John Ray, Jr. had been awarded the Poling Prize for a modest work (“Do the Senses make Sense?”) wherein certain morbid states and perversions had been discussed. The chemical senses are the senses of smell (olfaction) and taste (gustation). In Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu the taste of the madeleine acts as the memory-trigger. In his essay on general Pichergu Aldanov pairs Proust with Chernyshevski:


Спартанцем Пишегрю, конечно, не был, однако отнюдь не должно представлять себе его буйным кутилой, весельчаком или пьяницей. Это был человек сдержанный, холодный и замкнутый. Отличаясь природным умом, он выделялся среди своих сослуживцев и образованием. Он много читал, в особенности, конечно, древних классиков: это тогда было так же обязательно, как, например, теперь читать Пруста или у нас когда-то «Что делать?». (chapter I)


According to Aldanov, Pichergu read a lot, particularly ancient classics: in those times it was as obligatory as nowadays to read Proust or "What to Do?" in the old days in our country. Chernyshevski wrote "What to Do?" in the Peter-and-Paul Fortress. Humbert writes Lolita "under observation."

It's not easy. The Poling Prize seems to hint at several people. Btw., Aldanov was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature thirteen times. John Ray, Jr. also brings to mind comme un dernier rayon, the beginning of André Chénier's last poem quoted by VN in his Russian poem:


Как над стихами силы средней
эпиграф из Шенье,
как луч последний, как последний
зефир... comme un dernier

rayon, так над простором голым
моих нелучших лет
каким-то райским ореолом
горит нерусский свет!


As over not quite first-rate verses,

the epigraph from Chénier,

like the last ray, like the last

zephyr… comme un dernier


rayon, thus over the bare expanse

of my not best years

a non-Russian light burns

with some heavenly halo!


Kakim-to rayskim oreolom (with some heavenly halo), the poem's penultimate line, brings to mind Paradise, Ariz.


By the “not quite first-rate verses” VN means Pushkin’s elegy Andrey Shen’ye (“André Chénier,” 1825). Chénier is the author of an ode to Charlotte Corday (Marat's murderer). Describing his life in Paris with Valeria (his first wife), Humbert Humbert compares himself to Marat:


This state of affairs lasted from 1935 to 1939. Her only asset was a muted nature which did help to produce an odd sense of comfort in our small squalid flat: two rooms, a hazy view in one window, a brick wall in the other, a tiny kitchen, a shoe-shaped bath tub, within which I felt like Marat but with no white-necked maiden to stab me. (1.8)