Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0005606, Fri, 1 Dec 2000 19:59:39 -0800

Re: VN, buterflies & Harvard Exhibit
> From: Jeremy R. Cookeby way of Marianne Cotugno<mxc52@psu.edu>
> Date: Friday, December 01, 2000 10:57 AM

From the Harvard Crimson
Antoinette C. Nwandu

The Exhibit: The Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), at 26 Oxford St.,
just a
short walk from the Science Center, has unveiled a new exhibit celebrating
work that Harvard scientists are doing in the field of lepidopterology the
study of butterflies and moths. The exhibit is part of the Museum of
History s continuing effort to study and save several endangered species of
butterflies. Most of them are found in small colonies along the coast of
California and are all but extinct. One species, the El Segundo Blue
(euphilotes battoides allyni), can only be found in the wild among the 747s
blinking runway lights of the Los Angeles International Airport.

Beauty on the Wing: the Double Lives of Butterflies features
charts of rare and exotic species of butterflies, the tools that
use to study them at the MCZ and a display of the mutually beneficial
relationship between certain species of ants and butterflies. Harvard
Naomi E. Pierce and her colleagues study the butterflies, known as the
Polyommatini. Commonly referred to as the Blues, Polommatini are small
shimmering creatures, some of whom have not been seen in the wild since

The Book: Just a few months ago, Zoland Books published a book that
The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. That book written
by Dr. Kurt Johnson, a lepidopterist with the Florida State Collection of
Arthropods, and Steve Coates, a book reviewer and editor for The New York
verifies the research of a lepidopterist that had remained untouched since
late 1940s. The scientific community turned a blind eye to the research
the man performing it was not academically trained in the science of
butterflies and moths. His 20 or so scientific papers hardly merited much
attention and the scientist continued to work in relative obscurity at the
for eight years.

The scientist s masterful study of butterfly genitalia (apparently the best
to tell them apart) lead him to classify many new species and genera, which
gave official Latin scientific names in his publications at Harvard. As it
turns out, this obscure scientist had hit on something big. Not only have
of his scientific classifications withstood the test of time and
but also lead to a greater understanding of cold climate floras and faunas
South America. The Blues live in the Andes and Patagonia, a part of South
America that had baffled scientist since there were scientists. Plants in
region aren t tropical like they are on the rest of the continent and
scientists had no idea why. They also didn t know where those plants or the
animals that called them home (namely, the Blues) had come from.

The Author: Known best for his depiction of the eerily charming pedophile
Humbert Humbert in the 1958 classic, Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov was an
and self-proclaimed genius of the rarest form. Having successfully escaped
the Bolsheviks and the Nazis, Nabokov found himself an expatriate living in
England. He taught and published academic studies while continually working
the books that would make him one of the 20th century s most noted authors.

Criticized for not being explicitly political in such a political time,
chose to rely on his extensive knowledge of literature of Russian, English,
French and German literature to pull the rug out from under members of the
literary world. His books don t protest the Nazi Regime or the turbulent
communism that plagued Russia. They recount the solipsistic longings of a
middle-aged man for a 12 year old girl, or the obsessive fascination of a
with an obscure poet. English Professor Robert J. Kiely 60, in his class
English 166: The Novel Since WWII, says that Nabokov forces us to relocate
ourselves as readers. His text is a moving target full of literary
and the hobbies that occupied his time. When you read a Nabokov book, those
hobbies are clearly visible: his love for chess, science, tennis and, of
course, butterflies.

And that s how the exhibit, the book and the beloved author all fit
Vladimir Nabokov, who often referred to himself only as VN, grew up in an
aristocratic Russian family at the turn of the century. Both of his parents
were deeply interested in natural science; Nabokov s father collected
butterflies. Following that tradition, Nabokov was tutored in
natural history and soon became fascinated with lepidopterology. Once he
to the United States, VN began studying butterflies as a volunteer at the
American Museum of Natural History. While lecturing at Wellesley College,
Nabokov paid a visit to Harvard and the MCZ. A few months later he was
as a full time, salaried lepidopterist and began making the discoveries
are now the basis for Pierce s research and the MCZ exhibit.

The complete title of the book by Johnson and Coates is Nabokov s Blues:
Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. In it, the collaborators refute
claim that Nabokov s work should be discarded since he was a writer not a
scientist. Although untrained formally, Nabokov developed the same
and talent equivalent to any professional of his day. Published in
journals, he was highly regarded by his peers, and exceed the general
level knowledge of butterflies of many professionals Johnson claims. In
it was not until the late 1980s when Johnson and a team of scientists
into Nabokov s work that anyone paid much attention to the only real expert
Blues in his day.

On display at the exhibit are the tools that Nabokov used to catalog and
his findings. His attention to detail and reliance on tangible evidence
studying Blues belies his characteristic disapproval of the metaphysical
Nabokov s early work, most of it in Russian, was in direct opposition to
metaphysics, a philosophy which deals with connections between the mind and
reality. Similarly Nabokov s apolitical stance during WWII can be undone if
just look a little deeper than the surface of his novels. Whatever the
messages in Nabokov s books seem to be, the influence of his greatest hobby

There are butterfly metaphors and butterfly related images in nearly all of
Nabokov s fiction. VN manages everything from the use of actual
as major characters to the sly inclusion of lepidopterology to supply his
with proper names. In Lolita, the names of Vanessa van Ness, Percy
Electra Gold and Avis Chapman all recall names of specific butterflies; the
name of the town Schmetterling is German for butterfly, and the town of
Lepingville hides a colloquial term for butterfly hunting leping.

There are fewer terms in Lolita than in other works because originally that
book was written anonymously and Nabokov was afraid that, since he was well
known for butterfly allusions in his fiction, he would be recognized. But a
good reader will notice that Lolita s nickname Doll or Dolly comes from the
Greek for chrysalis or cocoon. Lolita s change from an innocent nymphet to
adult is much like the metamorphosis of an butterfly from caterpillar to
adult. Even the word nymphet, which Nabokov himself coined, obviously stems
from the word mythological word nymph. In the scientific world, a nymph is
pupa or young insect undergoing incomplete metamorphosis. Lolita is Nabokov
literary nymphet and the butterfly he called Wood-Nymph is his scientific
Nabokov s Wood-Nymph (a part of the scientific family Nymphalidae)
undergoes a
transformation just like Lolita does.

In Pnin, Nabokov described more directly a flight of blue butterflies as
snowflakes and later, in his memoirs and letters noted that this blue was
Karner Blue, which is currently on display. Pale Fire, contains a famous
reference as well. The Red Admiral butterfly seems to appear as a
of death. You can really get a sense of the author s command of science,
literature and history when you find out that the Red Admiral was
common in Russia the year the Bolsheviks, or Reds, overthrew and killed the
Czar, who VN s father supported.

However, Johnson is quick to comment that Nabokov himself did not like the
concept of symbolism in literature and was very negative about people
interpreting butterflies in his fiction as symbols. He felt that was too
simplistic. And the self proclaimed genius who bashed his critics and
as one of Harvard s best lepidopterists would want nothing less than to be
considered simplistic.