Sunday, November 11, 2012

Art, Science, Insect Hunting, and Nabokov

John Wilson's butterfly photos remind me of one of the great neglected stories of 20th century intellectual life; that Vladimir Nabokov was not just a writer and teacher but a great taxonomist, this despite being denigrated as a dilettante in his time.

Joseph Conrad is legitimately revered for becoming a great English novelist in his second language but the prickly and egotistical Nabokov is not always grated the same status. Yet he wrote as well in English as he did in Russian (and French) and will be remembered for everything from Lolita (one of the three great fifties "Road" books-- search earlier posts) to, at a minimum, the poignantly funny Pnin, the pioneeringly PoMo but accessible Pale Fire, The Gift (first written in Russian, with butterflies, unlike the others) and the autobiographical Speak, Memory. His sometimes perverse but minutely analytical lectures on writers Russian and not are IMAO priceless for other writers and students of literature. Not bad for a repeatedly exiled refugee...

He also collected and studied butterflies all his life. His studies of the widespread little "Blues", which he carried on at Harvard, were often dismissed during his lifetime. Using traditional taxonomic methods of close observation and measurement (he was particularly fascinated by the "lock and key" variations in butterfly genitalia*), he developed a theory suggesting that the Blues came over the Bering Straits to Alaska from Asia and spread south to the Andes, branching and diversifying as they went.

He was right, as recent DNA studies have shown. And here is a more "literary" treatment.

Two good books cover the whole background, though both came out before his vindication: Nabokov's Blues, which tells of his years of study, and the omnibus Nabokov's Butterflies.

And here are a couple of local blues from John Wilson, who started the ball rolling... the western pygmy blue, Brephidium exile, and the Acmon blue, Plebejus acmon

*This is not as unusual as one might think. A few summers ago I had a contract to collect hundreds of micro bees at the Sevilleta refuge and mount each one with extracted but attached genitalia displayed. I think it is safe to add this was BEFORE Parkinson's! Got many geek points for discussing such at parties with my boss, the lovely Karen (Wetherill) Wright, below in two guises after sample bee box and me as bee wrangler....


Niki said...

Oddly enough, a friend of mine has started blogging at Skeptoid and his first post on 11/14 was about, among other thing, Nabokov and butterflies:
What are the odds?!?

Steve Bodio said...

Great essay-- will link to him and maybe write him too!