NABOKV-L post 0005574, Fri, 27 Oct 2000 21:40:55 -0700

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Fw: Harvard Mus. of Nat. Hist. Salutes Nabokov
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RE: for Nabokov ForumEDITOR's NOTE. Kurt Johnson is the co-author, with Steve Coates, of the recent book NABOKOV's BLUES, which provides an assessment of VN's accomplishments as a lepidopterist.

----- Original Message -----
From: Kurt Johnson



Several people have asked me to make a short report on the Nabokov event held at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (the new entity incorporating the MCZ, Botanical and Mineralogical museums). I'll do my best to sum it up briefly.

The Harvard Museum is hosting a special exhibition "Beauty on the Wing: The Double Lives of Butterflies" prepared by their staff and curated by Dr. Naomi Pierce an expert on blues' relationships with ants. Dr. Pierce is, among other things, a MacArthur "genius" Fellow. The "Double Lives" subtitle refers to the emphasis of the exhibit that the wonder of butterflies goes far beyond their lives as colorful adults. As Nabokov also knew, they are fascinating in all their life stages. The exhibit has numerous emphases on Nabokov. There is a corner dedicated to Nabokov-- with his notes, the cabinet that contained his vials and dissections, examples of his specimen trays, and other memorabilia. There are examples of his publications and display notes about him and his biography. Along the wall, someone with a great sense of humor has mounted his "Playboy Bunny Butterfly" (sent by Nabokov to Hugh Heffner) within the logo of the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The display will run through the winter and into the spring of 2001.

A special Nabokov event "Nabokov and The Blues" was hosted on the night of October 24th at the MCZ auditorium with a reception following in the exhibition area. About 200 people attended. The program was opened with an introduction by Dr. Naomi Pierce, introducing Dr. Charles Remington and recounting Dr. Remington's relationship with Nabokov. Dr. Remington, accompanied to the event by his wife, then took the podium and recounted memories about his graduate school days with Nabokov, various graduate students of his own who have gone on to prominence (including Dr. Pierce and Dr. Robert Michael Pyle, both speakers that night as well!), and various issues on the "butterfly radar screen" today, esp. the threatened extinction of the Monarch butterfly in Mexico and the plight of Nabokov's Karner Blue. Dr. Remington emphasized the importance of the completion of Nabokov's pioneer work on blues by other scientists in the 1990's, noting that this allowed for the first full assessment of Nabokov's contribution to science. He said this reassessment had answered many of his own questions about Nabokov's work. He then introduced Dr. Robert Michael Pyle, Dr. Kurt Johnson, and Steve Coates of The New York Times.

Bob Pyle set the stage by an introduction to Nabokov, reading from some of his fiction involving butterflies, and outlining his career and impact in both science and literature. Steve Coates then offered a half hour slide fest of Nabokov's biography-- with commentary and anecdotes. Some of his quips got a laugh or two, esp. the suggestion by the New York Times recently that Nabokov's lepidoptery was a symptom of Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. Coates recommended that all persons interested in Lepidoptera should see a psychiatrist immediately. There was also some laughter at the "hammy" Halsman photo as explained by Steve.

There was then a break to stretch. Kurt Johnson then shared a half hour of slides summarizing Nabokov's achievement in science, starting with North American butterflies and habitats and moving on to South American butterflies and habitats. He emphasized many of the points in the book Nabokov's Blues concerning the breadth of Nabokov's legacy in science-- particularly the "big science" questions that Nabokov's blues answer. He noted, as did Dr. Pierce at the beginning of the program, that the she and her staff at the Harvard zoology department are now, with the help of Kurt Johnson, Zsolt Balint and Dubi Benyamini, undertaking a DNA analysis of Nabokov's Latin American blues. This is quite an undertaking and will write another chapter in the legacy of Nabokov's science.

Bob Pyle then took the podium to wrap up the story of Nabokov with readings from Nabokov's Butterflies and from Nabokov's fiction, including the now famous meeting between John Downey and Nabokov in the canyon in Utah.

A reception followed and then the major participants at the event went to supper at a local restaurant.

The next morning, at 11 a.m. Kurt Johnson was joined by telephone by Brian Boyd from New Zealand for an hour discussion with Christopher Lydon on NPR's "The Connection"-- about Nabokov and his butterflies. As noted previously, the audio of this discussion is available on line at www.theconnection.org. It was the middle of the night for Brian Boyd but he did fine and managed to never lose his train of thought. This program was also "blurbed" and linked at yahoo.com's Literary News on Oct. 27th. Perhaps it has also been noted in other venues unknown to me at present. The discussion centered mostly on Nabokov's butterfly imagery and metaphor, his achievement in science, and his views of evolution, especially mimicry. I must say that my own "caving in" regarding the comments of Dr. Remington has since been somewhat diluted by people reminding me that its just as likely that Nabokov might have understood and embraced population genetics and still continued his magical view of the world unabated. Face it, if we're sane at all, we ALL have magical views the world!

I hope this post has been of interest. It is significant as a "full circle" for Nabokov at Harvard's MCZ. To prove this one needs only note that Dr. Pierce said that, back in the fall, Richard Conniff who was reviewing Nabokov's Blues at The New York Times called her for an opinion. She said she hadn't read the book and didn't know much about Nabokov, or Nabokov and Harvard. A few months later, here she is is curating an exhibition and hosting an event in Nabokov's honor! She's also inquiring about reviewing Nabokov's Blues at NATURE, the premier scientific magazine where Nabokov's Butterflies was also recently reviewed. She also noted that prominent review of both books in SCIENCE is rare, re the space and attention devoted to books there.

So, the Harvard event did have historical significance for Nabokov's legacy.

Kurt Johnson