Nabokov’s Blue Butte rflies ...
January 27, 2011
Nabokov’s Blue Butterflies
Posted by Erin Overbey
Vladimir Nabokov once said, “A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” The famed author exhibited both equally in his writing and in his non-literary pursuits, which included lepidopterology, the study of butterflies and moths. Although he is of course best known for his intricate novels and essays, the past decade has seen a rediscovery of Nabokov’s entomological ventures. On Tuesday, the Times revealed that a team a scientists had vindicated a nearly seventy-year-old theory of his about the development of the Polyommatus blue butterflies:
[I]n a speculative moment in 1945, [Nabokov] came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves. Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.
Dr. Naomi Pierce, a co-author of the report, organized four separate trips to the Andes to collect the blues, and then she and her colleagues at Harvard sequenced the genes of the butterflies, as well as comparing the number of mutations each species had acquired. Their research resulted in the revelation that five waves of butterflies came from Asia to America, as Nabokov had originally hypothized.
Butterfly hunting was a popular sport among Russian intellectuals in the early- to mid-twentieth century, and enthusiasts were often referred to as “fly doctors.” Nabokov became fascinated with butterfly collecting and study as a child, and, when he emigrated to America in 1941, he brought his love of lepidoptology with him, taking a job as a curator at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. In an interview he gave to the Paris Review in 1967, Nabokov noted that
The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.
The novelist also went on extensive butterfly-hunting expeditions across America while he was working on his masterpiece, “Lolita.” In “Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius,” Kurt Johnson and Steven L. Coates observe,
The sublime joy associated with this [entomological] work was due to the butterfly-hunting trips to the West that Nabokov took every summer. Nabokov, who never learned to drive a car, estimated that in the glory years between 1949 and 59, Véra drove him more than 150,000 miles all over North America, mostly on butterfly trips. Those expeditions have taken on the aura of legend among lepidopterists as well as Nabokov’s literary admirers, and it was a habit he maintained, with only the geographical scenes shifting, for the rest of his life.
Blue butterflies can have some of the shortest life spans of any species, and Nabokov seemed particularly fascinated by this quality of ephemeral metamorphosis. In “Speak, Memory,” part of which ran as an essay titled “Butterflies” in the June 12, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, he contemplated the connection between art and the changing subtlety of these fragile insects:
The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me. Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things. Such was the imitation of oozing poison by bubble-like macules on a wing (complete with pseudo-refraction) or by glossy yellow knobs on a chrysalis (“Don’t eat me—I have already been squashed, sampled, and rejected”). When a certain moth resembled a certain wasp in shape and color, it also walked and moved its antennae in a waspish, unmothlike manner. When a butterfly had to look like a leaf, not only were all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes were generously thrown in. “Natural selection,” in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of “the struggle for life” when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.
Nabokov’s love of and appreciation for entomology would continue until his last days. Shortly before he passed, in 1977, his son Dimitri recorded the following anecdote in his diary:
A few days before he died there was a moment I remember with special clarity. During the penultimate farewell, after I had kissed his still-warm forehead—as I had for years when saying goodbye—tears suddenly welled in Father’s eyes. I asked him why. He replied that certain butterfly was already on the wing; and his eyes told me he no longer hoped that he would live to pursue it again.
Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/01/nabokovs-blue-butterflies.html#ixzz1CN3Rkm8a
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