Nabokov’s unpublishe d college lecture no tes ...
March 31, 2009, 4:36 pm
Two of Nabokov’s Many Cultures
By Steve Coates
Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of “scientific” knowledge joins the opposite slope of “artistic” imagination?
Peter Dizikes’s recent essay on C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures,” in which Snow, some 50 years ago, lamented the Western schism between literature and science, put me immediately in mind of Vladimir Nabokov’s lepidoptery. Yes, I know that Nabokov’s taxonomic natural science, ultimately based on the acute observance of detail, was probably not what Snow had in mind — so call me a hopeless littérateur. In the matter of that same observance of detail, carried over into Nabokov’s literature, I like the formulation of James Wood in “How Fiction Works,” writing that Nabokov (along with Updike) at times freezes “detail into a cult of itself”: “Nabokov wants to tell us how important it is to notice. Nabokov’s fiction is always becoming propaganda on behalf of good noticing, hence on behalf of itself.”
Nabokov himself, in his impish interview mode, teased those who would question him about the connections between his art and his science. But I love the following passage from some of Professor Nabokov’s unpublished college lecture notes, before he had achieved great fame, which touches on this question — sincere, direct, unguarded and fully in service of his students. (That lucky lot! Few would probably have known that he was a serious lepidopterist.) The passage isn’t as widely known as it should be, though it appears Brian Boyd’s two-part biography:
“Whichever subject you have chosen, you must realize that knowledge in it is limitless. Every subject brims with mysteries and thrills, and no two students of the same subject discover a like amount of delight, accumulate exactly the same amount of knowledge. … Suppose a schoolchild picks up the study of butterflies for a hobby. He will learn a few things about the general structure. He will be able to tell you that a butterfly has always six feet and never eight or 20. That there are innumerable patterns of butterfly wings and that according to those patterns they are divided into generic and specific groups. This is a fair amount of knowledge for a schoolchild. But of course he has not even come near the fascinating and incredible intricacies invented by nature in the fashioning of this group of insects alone. He will not even suspect the fascinating variety of inner organs, the varying shapes of which allow the scientist not only unerringly to classify them, often giving the lie to the seeming resemblance of wing patterns, but also to trace the origin and development of their ancestors, the varying influence of the environments on the developments of the species and forms, etc. etc. etc.; and he will not have even touched upon other mysterious fields, limitless in themselves, of for instance mimicry, or symbiosis. This example applies to every field of knowledge, and it is very apt in the case of literature.”
Finally, about that epigraph: It comes from a delightful essay on a book of Audubon’s drawings, written by Nabokov for The New York Times Book Review of Dec. 28, 1952. When Nabokov spoke of “science and art,” as here, he often meant “art” in its most familiar meaning. It’s well worth a click.
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