Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0004513, Wed, 20 Oct 1999 11:52:31 -0700

VN and science
EDITOR's NOTE. Please see the earlier posting at bottom that Kurt Johnson
is commenting on. Kurt Johnson, professional lepidopterist, is, along with
Steve Coates, author of a fascinating new book, NABOKOV's BLUES, that
examines Nabokov the scientist. NABOKV-L will run an extended interview
with Johnson and Coates in a day or do.

FROM: Kurt Johnson <belina@dellnet.com>

Because it stands out so strongly, I feel compelled to add a short comment
this piece elicits concerning "Nabokov's science". It is a point emphasized
by Steve Coates and I in the recently released Nabokov's Blues and one which
also comes up in a forthcoming interview on NABOKV-L that Steve and I have
with Don Johnson. What caught my interest here is the phrase "and
asserted that nature itself is a great painting composed of images that
obliquely reveal an unseen master". It is precisely this kind of language
"characterizing" Nabokov that has always spawned a major question about how
seriously he can be taken as a scientist. Historically, when scientists
(who themselve know little about Nabokov's science OR literature) saw this
kind of characterization (that Nabokov used "design" in nature to point to a
Creator), and took it at face value, they then simply dismissed his
seriousness as a scientist out of hand. With this outright dismissal there
was, consequently, never a serious "scientific story" to Nabokov's biography
(other than the story of his "nuts and bolts" work in nomenclatorial
taxonomy). We point out in some detail in our chapter of Nabokov's Blues
called "Darwin's Finches-- Nabokov's Blues" that when Nabokov's scientific
papers are examined in detail (not to mention previously unpublished
material which will appear in 2000), another Nabokov, a true scientist in
philosophical ideal, emerges. In our view, this personae as true scientist
has historically obscured by a fatal "context" problem-- interpreting
statements in Nabokov's literature as if they were also his scientific
statements. A major point we make in Nabokov's Blues is that Nabokov's
AUDIENCE must always be considered in construing "generalizations" about his
worldview. It seems amazing that 50 years after his significant scientific
work, a characterization as "vitalist" (thus, non-scientist) still rises
from his literary work to obscure his science. The point is so obvious when
his scientific writing is known in detail that the problem at root must lie
in how little attention has been paid to his scientific writing. It is
almost as if one area of his genius worked in a fiendish way to obscure his
genius in another. Regarding "vitalism" [metaphysics] or "mechanism"
[science] perhaps Nabokov has left behind an overall written record from
which it will be impossible ever to be sure precisely where he stood.

----- Original Message -----
To: <NABOKV-L@UCSBVM.ucsb.edu>
Sent: Monday, October 18, 1999 8:53 PM
Subject: Edmund Morris & Edwin Mullhouse: recommended reading (fwd)

> >The eerie similarity of the names Edmund Morris & Edwin Mullhouse brings
> >mind what is probably Millhauser's most perfect work, "Catalogue of
> >the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash," in which a rather
> >hair-raising story is told in the form of a museum catalogue -- not only
> >a terrific narrative idea but a great parody of the form. It's available
> >in the collection _Little Kingdoms_, recently reissued in paperback by
> >Vintage
> Having just started "Catalogue of the Exhibition," I've already been
> bombarded with pretty overt references to the Nabokovian:
> "He spent the last fourteen years of his life writing religious tracts in
> which he inveighed against the idolatry of art and asserted that Nature
> itself is a great painting composed of images that obliquely reveal an
> unseen Master."
> (Vintage edition, p.182) This refers to "one of the more eccentric artists
of > the 1830s," apparently aware of the Nabokovian world he inhabits;
> "...forest scenes in which satyrs with very hairy haunches sodomize pale
> prebubescent girls..." (invoking the Enchanted Hunters on p. 189)
> -John Glick
> Chicago, IL