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Nabokov on Butterflies

On his period as a professional lepidopterist

"My actual work on Lepidoptera is comprised within the span of only seven or eight years in the nineteen forties, mainly at Harvard, where I was Research Fellow in Entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. This entailed some amount of curatorship but most of my work was devoted to the classification of certain small blue butterflies on the basis of their male genitalic structure. These studies required the constant use of a microscope, and since I devoted up to six hours daily to this kind of research my eyesight was impaired forever; but on the other hand, the years at the Harvard Museum remain the most delightful and thrilling in all my adult life" (Tv interview with Kurt Hoffman, Bayerischer Rundfunk, October 1971. In Strong Opinions, p. 190).

On the beauty of butterflies

Explaining that he never refrains from killing a butterfly on account of its beauty: "All butterflies are beautiful and ugly at the same time, like humans. I let it fly when it is old and torn or when I don't need it for my research"  (Interview with Helga Chudacoff, Die Welt (Hamburg), September 26, 1974).

On his laboratory work

"My museum – famous throughout America (and throughout what used to be Europe) – is the Museum of Comparative Zoology, a part of Harvard University, which is my employer. My laboratory occupies half of the fourth floor. Most of it is taken up by rows of cabinets, containing sliding cases of butterflies. I am custodian of these absolutely fabulous collections. We have butterflies from all over the world; many are type specimens (i.e., the very same specimens used for the original descriptions, from the 1840s until today). Along the windows extend tables holding my microscopes, test tubes, acids, papers, pins, etc. I have an assistant, whose main task is spreading specimens sent by collectors. I work on my personal research, and for more than two years now have been publishing piecemeal a study of the classification of American 'blues' based on the structure of their genitalia (minuscule sculpturesque hooks, teeth, spurs, etc., visible only under a microscope), which I sketch in with the aid of various marvelous devices, variants of the magic lantern… My work enraptures but utterly exhausts me… To know that no one before you has seen an organ you are examining, to trace relationships that have occurred to no one before, to immerse yourself in the wondrous crystalline world of the microscope, where silence reigns, circumscribed by its own horizon, a blindingly white arena – all this is so enticing that I cannot describe it (in a certain sense, in The Gift, I 'foretold' my destiny – this retreat into entomology" (Letter to his sister, Elena Sikorski, November 25, 1945. In Selected Letters, p. 58–59).

On his way of killing a butterfly

"The way I kill is the European, or Continental way. I press the thorax at a certain point. If you press the abdomen, it just oozes out" (Int1 126 [NabBut 531]).

About the pursuit of butterflies

"J'adore la montagne, en Suisse, en Italie, dans le sud de la France. J'aime séjourner à mille mètres et monter chaque jour jusqu'à aux moins deux mille mètres pour y chasser les papillons alpins. Je connais peu de chose plus délicieuses que de sortir de grand matin avec mon filet de chasse et de monter par télésiège vers un ciel sans nuage, tout en suivant du regard, sous moi, à côté, l'ombre de la chaise aérienne avec ma silhouette assise, l'ombre de mon filet au poing, glissant le long de talus, ondulant sous les aulnes, montant toujours, svelte, souple, rajeunie et stylisée par l'effet de la projection, rampant gracieusement en une ascension presque mythologique. Le retour n'est pas si joli, parce que le soleil a changé de place, et on voit l'ombre rabougrie, on voit deux gros genoux …" (Interview with Pierre Dommergues, les langues modernes (Paris), 62 (1), 1968, p. 96).

"… on my butterfly hunts I always preferred hiking to any other form of locomotion except, naturally, a flying seat gliding leisurely over the plant mats and rocks of an unexplored mountain, or hovering just above the flowery roof of a rain forest); for when you walk, especially in a region you have studied well, there is an exquisite pleasure in departing from one's itinerary to visit, here and there by the wayside, this glade, that glen, this or that combination of soil and flora – to drop in, as it were, on a familiar butterfly in his particular habitat, in order to see if he has emerged, and if so, how he is doing" (Interview with Simona Morini, Vogue (New York), February 3, 1972. In Strong Opinions, p. 201).

On how to catch moths

"It is one of the most perfect pleasures I know of – to open the window wide on a muggy night and watch them come. Each has its own lamp-side manner: one will settle quietly on the wall to be boxed in comfort, another will dash and bang against the lampshade before falling with quivering wings and burning eyes upon the table, a third will wander all over the ceiling. The system is to have several tumblers with a piece of 'carbona' soaked cottonwool stuck to the bottom, and you overturn the tumbler upon the bug… Tonight I shall sugar for them: you mix: a bottle of stale beer, two pounds of brown sugar (or treacle) and a little rum (added just before applying); then just before dusk you smear (with a clean paint brush) a score of tree trunks (preferably old lichened ones) with the concoction and wait. They will come from nowhere, settling on the glistening bark and showing their crimson underwings (especially brilliant in the flashlight) and you cover them with a tumbler beginning with the lower ones. Try, Bunny, it is the noblest sport in the world" (Letter to Edmund Wilson, August 9, 1942).

On the pleasures of butterfly hunting and writing

"They belong essentially to quite different types of enjoyment… In the case of butterfly hunting I think I can distinguish four main elements. First, the hope of capturing – or the actual capturing – of the first specimen of a species unknown to science… Secondly, there is the capture of a very rare or very local butterfly… Thirdly, there is the naturalist's interest in disentangling the life histories of little-known insects, in learning about their habits and structure, and in determining their position in the scheme of classification… And fourthly, one should not ignore the element of sport, of luck, of brisk motion and robust achievement…" (Interview with Alvin Toffler, Playboy [Chicago], March 1963. In Strong Opinions, p. 39–40).

About art and facts

"My passion for lepidopterological research, in the field, in the laboratory, in the library, is even more pleasurable than the study and practice of literature, which is saying a good deal. Lepidopterists are obscure scientists. Not one is mentioned in Webster. But never mind… The tactile delights of precise delineation, the silent paradise of the camera lucida, and the precision of poetry in taxonomic description represent the artistic side of the thrill which accumulation of new knowledge, absolutely useless to the layman, gives its first begetter… There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts" (Interview with Alfred Appel, Jr., September 1966. In Strong Opinions, p. 78–79).

On butterflies in fiction

"In itself, an aurelian's passion is not a particularly unusual sickness; but it stands outside the limits of a novelist's world, and I can prove this by the fact that whenever I allude to butterflies in my novels, no matter how diligently I rework the stuff, it remains pale and false and does not really express what I want it to express – what, indeed, it can only express in the special scientific terms of my entomological papers. The butterfly that lives forever on its type-labeled pin and in its O.D. ('original description') in a scientific journal dies a messy death in the fumes of the arty gush" (Interview with Philip Oakes, June, 1969. In Strong Opinions, p. 136).

On the fate of his collections

"Most of my [boyhood] cabinets have shared the fate of our Vyra house. Those in our town house and the small addendum I left in the Yalta museum have been destroyed, no doubt, by carpet beetles and other pests. A collection of South European stuff that I started in exile vanished in Paris during World War Two"  (Speak, Memory, p. 125).

"All my American collections are in museums, in New York, Boston, and Ithaca. The butterflies I have been collecting during the last decade, mainly in Switzerland and Italy, are not yet spread. They are still papered, that is kept in little glazed envelopes which are stored in tin boxes. Eventually they will be relaxed in damp towels, then pinned, then spread, and dried again on setting boards, and finally, labeled and placed in the glassed drawers of a cabinet to be preserved, I hope, in the splendid entomological museum in Lausanne" (Tv interview with Kurt Hoffman, Bayerischer Rundfunk, October 1971. In Strong Opinions, p. 190).

On expertise

"I'm interested in the classification, variation, evolution, structure, distribution, habits, of Lepidoptera: this sounds very grand, but actually I'm expert in only a very small group of butterflies. I have contributed several works on butterflies to various scientific journals – but I want to repeat that my interest in butterflies is exclusively scientific" (Tv interview with Peter Duval Smith, BBC "Bookstand", filmed July, 1962. In Strong Opinions, p. 10).

About mimicry

"The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me. Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things" (Speak, Memory, p. 125).

On science and art

"Query: Can anyone draw something he knows nothing about? Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of 'scientific' knowledge joins the opposite slope of 'artistic' imagination?" (1952, in Strong Opinions, p. 330).

"You can get as close as possible to these living creatures and see reflected in them a higher law. Mimicry and evolution are for me more and more fascinating… I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is" (1959, Int1 E6 [NabBut 529]).

About the protection of butterflies

"Il me semble que la protection de certains animaux rares est une excellente chose, mais elle devient absurde lorsque l'ignorance ou le pédantisme s'y mèlent. Je pense à quelque chose dont on parle dans les journaux. C'est très bien quand on dresse un procès verbal aux marchands de curiosité qui collectionnent, pour les vendre à des amateurs, la race française le l'espèce espagnole dont des colonies éparses risquent de s'éteindre dans la vallée de la Durance dont les marchands vont récolter les chenilles du bel animal sur des conifères communs. Mais c'est absurde quand un garde-chasse défend à un naturaliste de circuler avec son vieux filet troué dans une localité restreinte où ce papillon diurne dont la seule plante nourricière est le baguenaudier – ce que le garde chasse ignore – croît souvent aux environs des vignes; et là où il y a l'arbuste, il y a le papillon. Et, c'est l'arbuste qu'il faut protéger! Un million de chasseurs ne pourraient détruire cet insecte – qui est grand comme ça, bleu ciel – et seulement les vignerons peuvent le détruire en détruisant, pour quelque raison mystérieuse, les baguenaudiers de leur vigne tout le long du Rhône. C'est lamentable! C'est lamentable! En tout cas, la rareté de l'espèce varie selon les saisons – auquel dépend une suite de migrations plus ou moins soutenue et qui soutient l'espèce. Les cultivateurs, avec leurs pesticides infernaux, la construction des routes, les crétins qui brûlent des pneus et des matelas sur les terrains vagues… la senteur! Voilà les vrais coupables – et pas le savant sans lequel le gendarme ne pourrait distinguer un papillon d'un ange ou d'une chauve-souris"  (Tv interview with Bernard Pivot, Antenne 2, May 30, 1975. The butterfly Nabokov is speaking of is Iolana iolas Ochsenheimer [Lycaenidae]; the plant it feeds on is bladder-senna, Colutea arborescens).

About the rapture

"… the highest enjoyment of timelessness – in a landscape selected at random – is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern – to the contrapuntial genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal" (Speak, Memory, p. 139).

On the wing

"A few days before he died there was a moment I remember with special clarity. During our penultimate farewell… tears suddenly welled in Father's eyes. I asked him why. He replied that a certain butterfly was already on the wing; and his eyes told me he no longer hoped that he would live to pursue it again" (Dmitri Nabokov: "On Revisiting Father's Room", in Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute, edited by Peter Quenell, p. 136).



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