NABOKV-L post 0003068, Sat, 25 Apr 1998 08:59:59 -0700

Re: sphinxes and hummers (fwd)
EDITOR's NOTE. Earl Sampsom, a Nabokov scholar in Colorado, has kindly
passed on to me an exhange on VN, sphinxes and hummingbirds, that he
particpated in on alt.books.nabokov. Below I relay parts of the exchange
with my comment. Also included are Sampson's comments on the discussion
group whichmay be of interest to NABOKV-L subscribers. My thanks to Earl.

>From - Wed Apr 22 15:58:44 1998
From: earl sampson <>
Newsgroups: alt.books.nabokov
Xref: alt.books.nabokov:71 wrote:


> I hope you won't regret your kind answer when you find that this first
> installment (but only this one) criticizes Nabokov's knowledge of the natural
> world.
> At one point in _Lolita_ (and I promise better references in my other
> notes), Humbert mentions gray hummingbirds flying around in the twilight, or
> something like that. Then in _The Annotated Lolita_, Alfred Appel quotes
> Nabokov as saying this observation reveals Humbert's ignorance of natural
> history, especially lepidopterology; what he thought were hummingbirds were
> actually sphinx moths.
> But a reader would have to be clairvoyant to figure this out. First,
> Nabokov seems to have thought that hummingbirds are inactive at dusk, but
> black-chinned hummingbirds (_Archilochus alexandri_) visit my feeder after
> sundown. Second, they look rather grayish at that time, as do most things,
> especially small fast-moving things. My interpretation was that Humbert was
> being careless about his perception of color in dim light, not that he was
> mistaking moths for birds.
> (In fact, I'm amazed that anyone who's seen a hummingbird can mistake a
> sphinx moth for one. But apparently people do--I was just looking at
> hummingbird pages on the Web, and "What kind of hummingbird has yellow bands
> around its tail?" seems to be a FAQ.)


Jerry may well have a point, that is, that Nabokov, in suggesting
Humbert's ignorance, was going on the incorrect assumption that
hummingbirds are not active at dusk. But for the sake of argument (that's
what newsgroups are for, right?), I would like to propose a different
interpretation. Nabokov generally constructs his fictions, and their
elements, such that they can be read on any one or more of several levels,
sometimes depending on the reader's knowledge (he once said something to
the effect that there are infinitely receding levels of "reality", depending
on the extent of the observer's knowledge, e.g. a flower is more "real" to a
gardener who knows what it is, than it is to someone who just perceives it
as "flower"; it is still more real to the botanist who knows its structure,
life-cycle, relatives, etc.; still more real to the specialist in the species,
etc....). In this case, I think we can assume that VN knew that different
readers would read the passage differently. The "unobservant" reader will
take the passage at face value, and without thinking about it assume that HH
really did see gray hummingbirds. A reader who knows about sphinx moths
will catch VN's hint that they were not hummingbirds (which going by his
statement to Appel was his intent); a reader who has some knowledge about
both moths and hummingbirds can, like Jerry, see still another
possibility. In either of the latter two interpretations, VN has achieved his
aim, to suggest that HH is a poor observer of the physical world, where it
does not connect to his obsession. In the first case, he has sprung one of his
famous traps, in this case just a small one, for the "unwary" reader. I
may be guilty of hero-worship, but I find it hard to believe that VN,
observant and interested as he was in natural history, was unaware of
dusk-active hummingbirds. The person to turn to for an informed opinion
on the topic would be Professor Donald Barton Johnson, moderator of the
Nabokov mailing-list (NABOKV-L; subscribe at
<>), who is both a preeminent Nabokov scholar
and an experienced birder.
Re the possibility of mistaking a sphinx moth for a hummingbird, I
have personally observed it happen. One evening years ago I was sitting on
the front stoop watching one of the sphinx moths (also called hawkmoths)
that would visit our yard then, when a well-meaning woman passing by
with her child pointed to the moth and exclaimed, "Ooh, Mikey, look at the
hummingbird!" VN was well aware that this is typical of the
botanical/zoological sophistication of the average person. He has told of an
experiment he carried out in one of his literature classes at Cornell: he
pointed to the very ordinary endemic trees (oaks, elms) visible out the
classroom window and asked what they were. Not one student in the large
class, if I remember the story right, could identify any of them.

Finally, I enthusiastically second md's posting of yesterday to Jerry.
Earl Sampson

EDITORIAL COMMENT. Actually the confusion of hawk moths and hummers is
wide spread. In the Mid-West (and doubtless elsewhere) hawk moths were at
one time called Lady Birds and thought to be hummers by the uninformed.
Hummers may still be active at twilight but probably not much later. They
become torpid as temperatures drop. Also they tend to be drawn to red which is
one of the first colors to become indistinquishable as darkness sets in.

INFO on subscribing to alt.books.nabokov.
Subscribing to
alt.books.nabokov was my first experience with Usenet,
and it took me a while to find out how to get it. Most likely the reason
you're not getting it is that your server doesn't carry it. There are
several thousand newsgroups, and no server carries them all. What you have
to do is contact the news administrator for your server, and request that
they add it. An alternative is to go to DejaNews ( and do
a search on "alt.books.nabokov"; you'll get all the messages that have been
posted on the group recently (I'm not certain how long they keep messages
before deleting). Of course that only works for reading messages; if you
want to post to the group you have to access it directly.

Best, Earl

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 23 Apr 1998 19:53:57 -0700
From: Earl Sampson <>
To: Donald Barton Johnson <>
Subject: Re: sphinxes and hummers

Dear Don,

Actually, neither
the quantity or quality of traffic on the group has been very high so far.
Mark and Jerry are about the only people who have posted anything worth
reading (besides, of course, your modest servant). There was a short thread
recently about LOLITA, prompted by press discussion of the movie, and some
poor fellow gave his opinion on what Nab_a_kov intended us to make of
"Herbert". I suspect he saw the Kubrick movie and never read the novel. One
thing that might be of interest: one subscriber from time to time posts
copies of Nabokov-related articles and reviews that she has culled from the
press (maybe by some kind of customized web search program). When I have a
chance I'll send a message referencing her most recent posts. Those
interested can retrieve them by DejaNews, if they don't want to subscribe
to the newsgroup.

Best, Earl