Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026103, Sun, 5 Apr 2015 12:59:22 -0300

Science and Art in Nabokov - Maria Popova on Stephen Jay Gould
Excerpts from:
es/> The Paradox of Intellectual Promiscuity: Stephen Jay Gould on What
Nabokov's Butterfly Studies Reveal About the Unity of Creativity by
<http://www.brainpickings.org/author/mpopova/> Maria Popova

"There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts."

<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0674061624/braipick-20> The history
of human culture is rife with creators hailed as geniuses in one domain who
also had a notable but lesser-known talent in another - take, for instance,
ches-drawings/> Richard Feynman's sketches,
r/> J.R.R. Tolkien's illustrations,
Sylvia Plath's drawings,
-mississippian/> William Faulkner's Jazz Age illustrations,
/> Flannery O'Connor's cartoons,
ch/> David Lynch's conceptual art, and
<http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/04/15/zelda-fitzgerald-art/> Zelda
Fitzgerald's watercolors. Only rarely, however, do we encounter a person who
has contributed to culture in a significant way in both art and science.

No one, argues Stephen Jay Gould - perhaps the greatest science-storyteller
humanity has ever had, a man of
onnections-creativity/> uncommon genius in the art of dot-connecting -
better merits recognition for such duality of genius than Vladimir Nabokov,
titan of literary storytelling and a
<http://www.brainpickings.org/2011/07/01/nabokov-butterflies/> formidable
lepidopterist who studied, classified, and drew a major group of
butterflies, and even served as unofficial curator of lepidoptery at
Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

In a spectacular essay titled "The Paradox of Intellectual
Promiscuity,"found in his altogether indispensable final essay collection
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0674061624/braipick-20> I Have
Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History (
al-history/oclc/49421722&referer=brief_results> public library), Gould uses
Nabokov's case to make a beautiful and urgently necessary broader case
against our culture's chronic tendency to pit art and science against one
another - "We have been befogged by a set of stereotypes about conflict and
difference between these two great domains of human understanding," he
laments - and to assume that if a person has talent and passion for both
areas, he or she can achieve greatness in only one and is necessarily a mere
hobbyist in the other.

Gould writes:

We tend toward benign toleration when great thinkers and artists pursue
disparate activities as a harmless hobby, robbing little time from their
fundamental achievements. We grieve when we sense that a subsidiary interest
stole precious items from a primary enterprise of great value. When we
recognize that a secondary passion took substantial time from a primary
source of fame, we try to assuage our grief over lost novels, symphonies, or
discoveries by convincing ourselves that a hero's subsidiary love must have
informed or enriched his primary activity - in other words, that the loss in
quantity might be recompensed by a gain in quality..

But Gould argues that neither lamentation of such "intellectual promiscuity"
detracting from the primary endeavor nor the manufactured comfort of
believing that one domain enriched the other is an appropriate response to
Nabokov's two great loves, literature and butterflies. Gould unambiguously
annihilates a common misconception about the great author:

Nabokov was no amateur (in the pejorative sense of the term), but a fully
qualified, clearly talented, duly employed professional taxonomist, with
recognized "world class" expertise in the biology and classification of a
major group, the Latin American Polyommatini, popularly known to butterfly
aficionados as "blues."[ . ] Nabokov loved his butterflies as much as his
literature. He worked for years as a fully professional taxonomist,
publishing more than a dozen papers that have stood the test of substantial

That he received an annual salary of merely a thousand dollars during his
six years at Harvard's zoology museum and worked under the vague title
Research Fellow shouldn't be used as evidence of Nabokov's amateurishness -
in making a larger point about the rich history of people working on what
they love for little or no pay, Gould points out that several esteemed
curators at the museum during his own tenure worked as volunteers for the
symbolic annual salary of one dollar.[ ]

- Gould writes:

In seeking some explanation for legitimate grief, we may find solace in
claiming that Nabokov's transcendent genius permitted him to make as
uniquely innovative and distinctive a contribution to lepidoptery as to
literature. However much we may wish that he had chosen a different
distribution for his time, we can at least, with appropriate generosity,
grant his equal impact and benefit upon natural history. However, no natural
historian has ever viewed Nabokov as an innovator, or as an inhabitant of
what humanists call the "vanguard" (not to mention the avant-garde) and
scientists the "cutting edge." Nabokov may have been a major general of
literature, but he can only be ranked as a trustworthy, highly trained
career infantryman in natural history.y drawings. Click image for more.

Here, we are reminded of another perilous pathology of our culture - in the
cult of genius, as in any cult, we leave no room for nuance; mere greatness
is not good enough - one must lay a claim on grandeur. This is perhaps the
most extreme testament to
<http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/11/22/bird-by-bird-anne-lamott/> how
perfectionism thwarts creativity.

But despite his mere greatness at lepidoptery, Nabokov regarded his time at
the zoology museum as the most "delightful and thrilling" in his adult life
- so creatively electrified was the author there that his years at Harvard
even produced
od-poisoning/> history's most epic and entertaining account of food
poisoning. But his love of butterflies began much earlier. In fact, one of
the very first things Nabokov wrote in English, at the age of twelve, was a
paper on Lepidoptera. The only reason it wasn't published was that it turned
out the butterfly in question had already been described by someone else.[

But back to Nabokov: His dedication to the integrity of discovery prompted
him to write a short poem titled "A Discovery" in 1943:

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.Butterfly drawing by Nabokov, August 1958
(Courtesy of Nabokov Museum)

In this, Gould finds the reconciliatory unity between Nabokov's two great
loves and how they communed with one another:

Although time spent on lepidoptery almost surely decreased his literary
output, the specific knowledge and the philosophical view of life that
Nabokov gained from his scientific career directly forged (or at least
strongly contributed to) his unique literary style and excellence. Perhaps
the major linkage of science and literature lies in some distinctive,
underlying approach that Nabokov applied equally to both domains - a
procedure that conferred the same special features upon all his efforts.


Among great twentieth-century thinkers, I know no better case than Nabokov's
for testing the hypothesis that an underlying unity of mental style (at a
level clearly meriting the accolade of genius) can explain one man's success
in extensive and fully professional work in two disciplines conventionally
viewed as maximally different, if not truly opposed. If we can validate this
model for attributing interdisciplinary success to a coordinating and
underlying mental uniqueness, rather than invoking the conventional argument
about overt influence of one field upon another, then Nabokov's story may
teach us something important about the unity of creativity, and the falsity
(or at least the contingency) of our traditional separation, usually in
mutual recrimination, of art from science.

Therein, Gould argues, lies the only true solace in the accusation of
"intellectual promiscuity." Debunking the two false explanations of the
Nabokov paradox - that "lepidoptery represented a harmless private passion,
robbing no substantial time from his literary output" and that "his general
genius at least made his lepidoptery as distinctive and as worthy as his
literature" - Gould writes:

Nabokov's two apparently disparate careers therefore find their common
ground on the most distinctive feature of his unusual intellect and uncanny
skill - the almost obsessive attention to meticulous and accurate detail
that served both his literary productions and his taxonomic descriptions so
well, and that defined his uncompromising commitment to factuality as both a
principle of morality and a guarantor and primary guide to aesthetic

Science and literature therefore gain their union on the most palpable
territory of concrete things, and on the value we attribute to accuracy,
even in smallest details, as a guide and an anchor for our lives, our loves,
and our senses of worth. Of all scientific subfields, none raises the
importance of intricate detail to such a plateau of importance as Nabokov's
chosen profession of taxonomic description for small and complex organisms.
To function as a competent professional in the systematics of Lepidoptera,
Nabokov really had no choice but to embrace such attention to detail, and to
develop such respect for nature's endless variety.


The universal and defining excellence of a professional taxonomist built a
substrate for the uncommon, and (in Nabokov's case) transcendent, excellence
of a writer.

But Gould's most important point of all has little to do with Nabokov and
everything to do with the toxic mythologies of creativity to which we, as a
culture and as individuals, subscribe:

An ancient, and basically anti-intellectual, current in the creative arts
has now begun to flow more strongly than ever before in recent memory-the
tempting Siren song of a claim that the spirit of human creativity stands in
direct opposition to the rigor in education and observation that breeds both
our love for factual detail and our gain of sufficient knowledge and
understanding to utilize this record of human achievement and natural

No more harmful nonsense exists than this common supposition that deepest
insight into great questions about the meaning of life or the structure of
reality emerges most readily when a free, undisciplined, and uncluttered
(read, rather, ignorant and uneducated) mind soars above mere earthly
knowledge and concern. The primary reason for emphasizing the supreme
aesthetic and moral value of detailed factual accuracy, as Nabokov
understood so well, lies in our need to combat this alluring brand of
philistinism if we wish to maintain artistic excellence as both a craft and
an inspiration.


If we assign too much of our total allotment to the mastery of detail, we
will have nothing left for general theory and integrative wonder. But such a
silly model of mental functioning can only arise from a false metaphorical
comparison of human creativity with irrelevant systems based on fixed and
filled containers - pennies in a piggy bank or cookies in a jar.

Gould ends by exhorting us:

Let us celebrate Nabokov's excellence in natural history, and let us also
rejoice that he could use the same mental skills and inclinations to follow
another form of bliss.


Human creativity seems to work much as a coordinated and complex piece,
whatever the different emphases demanded by disparate subjects-and we will
miss the underlying commonality if we only stress the distinctions of
external subjects and ignore the unities of internal procedure. If we do not
recognize the common concerns and characteristics of all creative human
activity, we will fail to grasp several important aspects of intellectual
excellence-including the necessary interplay of imagination and observation
(theory and empirics) as an intellectual theme, and the confluence of beauty
and factuality as a psychological theme-because one field or the other
traditionally downplays one side of a requisite duality.


I cannot imagine a better test case for extracting the universals of human
creativity than the study of deep similarities in intellectual procedure
between the arts and sciences.

No one grasped the extent of this underlying unity better than Vladimir
Nabokov, who worked with different excellences as a complete professional in
both domains.


Nabokov broke the boundaries of art and science by stating that the most
precious desideratum of each domain must also characterize any excellence in
the other - for, after all, truth is beauty, and beauty truth.

Gould seals this beautiful truth with a line - an exquisite, ennobling,
oft-citedline - from one of Nabokov's interviews:

There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts.

<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0674061624/braipick-20> I Have
Landed remains one of the finest tapestries of thought ever woven in the
history of science storytelling. Complement this particular thread with
Nabokov on
censorship and solidarity,
what makes a great writer,
/> what makes a great reader, and his
sublime love letters to his wife.

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