NABOKV-L post 0006891, Tue, 27 Aug 2002 13:10:58 -0700

VNA's and BB's emails
MessageEDITOR's NOTE. Lepidopterist Kurt Johnson is the co-author (with Steve Coates) of "NABOKOV's BLUES: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius" currently available is paperback.

----- Original Message -----
From: Johnson, Kurt
To: 'Vladimir Nabokov Forum'
Sent: Tuesday, August 27, 2002 12:52 PM
Subject: RE: VNA's and BB's emails

I've been sitting on the sidelines for awhile watching the exchange between Victoria and Brian. I thought of writing something earlier this morning but then expected there would be more coming, so I waited.

My overall reaction, as a evolutionary biologist and a "somewhat" Nabokovian (I am far from well-versed on the literature) is that it ' s important to frame the context of these exchanges so as not to inadvertently damage what has been a very fruitful relationship between Nabokov's literary scholars and those scholars of biological science, like myself, who also have, by circumstance, dabbled in Nabokov. If taken seriously, exchanges between these two "universes of discourse" require precise language. Also required is that, when exchanges are in more informal venue, like Nabokov Forum, there is some recognized "wiggle room" typical of an informal discussion. This is because it is always possible in these venues (even likely) for each side to think it is using precise language when the venue is not really allowing for that kind of a truly disciplined exchange. For years I've seen conversations like this, on scientific list-serves, deteriorate into bad feeling simply because the forum did not necessarily require precise language but different sides were various demanding it, etc. It's unfortunate if "impressions" are taken away from what are really incomplete discussions. Ultimately, it's good to have "good sport" ground rules for informal venues, or just the reminder of the predicament itself. I guess the grounds rules ought to be that while serious debate is "needs be" also serious about language, more informal debate that allows some less disciplined "leaping about" etc. is also a good kind of exchange. The problem comes when the "sides" are not clear about "which one" is going on; this can frustrate everyone. So, my view is that the literary scholars and scientific scholars (plus various "hybrids") among us really need to be patient with each other. Our exchanges in the past have been very rich but it is obvious that the topic itself is so rich that "we've only just begun".

As can be seen, for instance, by a recent review I did of a book "Ecohumanism" (posted at the Ethical Culture Review of Books, keyed under that latter title at the banner page of a problem with cross-discipline discussions (that one being "humanism" and "evolutionary biology/ecology") concerning evolution is this tendency to throw around words (esp. "Darwin" and "Darwinism") that have so many distinct meanings in distinct venues that often more problems are caused than not by their random use. Reading both Brian's and Victoria's posts, and giving both of them the benefit of the doubt, I did see a possible minefield of "what's this word really mean" problems etc. Patient, serious, discourse often sorts these things out but it's harder in an informal (e.g. quick) venue.

The different paradigms, and ideas even about what these paradigms are (or aren't) in modern evolutionary biology, form quite a complex maze and one even difficult for biologists to "language" their way through these days. I'd like to say I'm completely conversant on them, but I'm not. However, I do know that many useful paradigms being offered up in evolutionary biology today have quite different sets of assumptions built into them. Among these are some "systems paradigms" which Victoria has suggested to me that do seem promising but also would definitely have to be "scoped out" as to their larger "demographics" (e.g. "how they operate", "what they are saying", etc.). Regarding such models, evolutionary biologists have often not even been able to agree on their underlying view of thermodymanics! (which is a matter of underlying physics, not even the related biological paradigms, etc.). A decent example is the debate awhile back on "non-equilibrium thermodynamics and evolution". Suffice it to say there was a huge debate, and dissention, concerning the underlying physics used by this or that group of biologists. The topic got "hot" side entitling a paper "Victims of Ambition: ..." etc.

Discussion of Nabokov's "science" is a rich and useful task but one that is going to require a lot of effort by all of us together. Relevant to this are my own recent wide-ranging readings in some eastern religions, under the supervision of representatives of these traditions, wherein I've (1) had to deal with many problems of confusing language and (2) realized that the entire subject of Nabokov and Bergson, not to mention Nabokov, Bergson, and others (the "others" being both in science and in "mysticism") is going to require some serious reading (not just leisure reading) by a number of people to really ferret out the dimensions of what is relevant to discussing Nabokov. This is why I value more than ever the productive kind of relationship that has gone on between the various Nabokovians whose fields of training are either literature or science, or some hybrid of both. Everyone knows that it's in the hybridizing that sometimes the really serious scholarship can break down. I remember suggesting, after the Harvard ALA meetings, that the day might come where people would gather even more to do some concerted work and discussion on Nabokov's science. Since then, the incredibly interwoven nature of his own "dabblings" with science, metaphysics, mysticism etc., and how these then "work" in his literature, has become even more apparent.

I think the message hidden in these interchanges, and brought up also by a (very interesting) recent paper by Stephen Blackwell I was asked to "take a look at", is that we are only beginning to uncover the "good stuff" with Nabokov's literature, science and metaphysics. So, for all the good minds out there in Nabokovia (and there are many) our patience is required in navigating through the resulting thickets. So, take heart; the good stuff is always demanding.