Nabokov's Butterflies, Introduction

A cache of previously unpublished work -- fictional and scientific, playful and didactic -- by the novelist and distinguished lepidopterist: "the last important unpublished fiction by Nabokov." The translation from the Russian is by Nabokov's son, Dmitri. Brian Boyd, Nabokov's biographer, provides an introduction

Illustration by Vladimir Nabokov Or, finally, the epic of how the author found, on a cliff in the Altai, a Tephroclystia [an inchworm genus, Eupthecia] that, until then, had only been identified in the Maritime Alps and on California summits -- the "Madonna's window" as it is fondly called by old hunters in aurelian clubs when they secretly gather, and fragments of recollections float in the undulating smoke: "Once in Uganda where I was collecting for Rothschild, I saw and missed ... " -- " ... Und war es schön in Mouli-net, Hans -- schöner als auf Sumatra?" -- " ... Moi, qui a chassé le Callimuchus dobrugensis avec le roi de Bulgarie" -- " ... Come, come, von Nolte, I'd give a good deal to have seen your face on that particular summer morning auf dem Campolungo Pass ... " -- " ... Car je soutiens qu'il existe entre celle de la rave et celle de Mann [the Small white and Mann's white] une espèce méditerranéenne, à l'abdomen fin et poudré, non encore reconnue ... " " ... Here, Walsingham, how's this for a pursuer of moths -- a species that's been found on the island of Chuma, an unattractive but touching creature ... " " ... Now, Professor, tell us about your dog, how, a hundred years ago, it went into a point under some Castilian pines before the first isabella (sitting on a stump, green with russet eyespots)...."

" ... Oh, to be dying again in the rich reek of that hot steaming swamp among the snakes and the orchids, and with those dear flies flapping about me ... "

B published fifteen years ago [Fyodor was writing in 1927], was at the same time translated, under the author's supervision, into English, as was done with the most important sections of Lep. Asiat., but the author died, publication of the translation was delayed, and I have no idea where the manuscript is now.

The independence and proud stubbornness that had made my father write his work in his mother tongue, devoid even of the Latin synopses that, for the benefit of foreigners, were included in Russian scientific journals, did much to slow the book's westward penetration -- which was a pity, for, in passing, it resolves a good number of problems regarding western fauna. Nonetheless, even if very slowly, and thanks more to illustrations than text, my father's views of relationships among species within various "difficult" genera have to a degree already made their mark on the literature in the West. Things would speed up considerably if the English translation appeared at last.

When, on one occasion, Count B., the governor of one of our central provinces, a boyhood friend and distant relative of my father's, addressed to him an official, friendly request for a radical means of dealing with some highly energetic caterpillar that had suddenly gone on a rampage against the province's forests, my father replied, "I sympathize with you, but do not find it possible to meddle in the private life of an insect when science does not require it." He detested applied entomology -- and I cannot imagine how he could work in present-day Russia, where his beloved science is wholly reduced to anti-locust campaigns or class struggles against agricultural saboteurs. This horrid debasement of "sublime curiosity" and its hybridization with unnatural factors (social ones, for instance) explain (apart from the general numbing of Russia)the artificial oblivion that has befallen his work in his homeland. No wonder that even the crowning achievement among his biological reflections, that wonderful theory of "natural classification," to which we must now turn, has so far found no followers in Russia, and has penetrated abroad rather haphazardly and in incomplete, muddled form.

Illustration by Vladimir NabokovThis theory, which even today strikes the dominant factions in the scientific world as lawless fantasy, a knight's move off the board into space (a consequence of the utter failure to assimilate the author's premises), came to my father in his last year of scientific activity. Densely set forth on only thirty pages, as a supplement to his last published volume, Lep. Asiat., it retroactively reduced generally accepted classification to trivial absurdity....

* * *

ALAS, as for what follows, namely the exposition itself of the "principles of natural classification," I do not know whether I correctly convey the author's reasoning, and dissect correctly the mysterious sentences (retranslated by me!). My main difficulty is that I am insufficiently versed in such matters as, for instance, paleontology or genetics, so that, as I step into the pitch-blackness, the labyrinth of ice, I lack even a lantern. And, if I nevertheless decide upon this adventure, it is only because of the abstruse kinship, that poetic bond that, independent of the scientific essence of the subject, connects me to the author.

Let us begin, as he did, by defining the concept of species. By "species" he intends the original of a being, nonexistent in our reality but unique and definite in concept, that recurs ad infinitum in the mirror of nature, creating countless reflections; each one of them perceived by our intelligence, reflected in that selfsame glass and acquiring its reality solely within it, as a living individual of the given species. Aberrations, chance deviations, are but the consequence of less "faithful" areas of the mirror, while the recurrent falling of a reflection on one and the same flaw may yield a stable local race, the idea of which tends toward the periphery of the circle, the center of which, in turn, is the idea of the species. These races remain on the circumference of the species insofar as the spatial link (i.e., one with a locus on earth at a given point in time) between the type (i.e., the most precise sample at a given moment) and a local variant is supported by intermediate variations (that can manifest themselves as local races or chance deviations), in other words, so far as the species circle remains unbroken. Potential interbreeding with the type, and the permanence of a certain basic scheme (in butterflies the veinage, scale shape, leg structure, and so forth) delineates boundaries within which the variety conforms to the species. In exactly the same way, the repetition of individual reflections in time (limited by the span during which a given species conserves its basic identity)may, if the process lasts long enough, generate certain modifications that, however, are just as unanchored as spatial variations, with which they may even coincide if we have come upon the species in its ideal period, i.e., at the moment of full harmony among its radial components. Here we must designate as the current type of a species not the first described individual (resolutely rejecting this sophism of nomenclature, which taints science with possessiveness, happenstance, and childish competition), but that form which represents either the obvious center of a species' variational boundaries, or (in the case of a severe distortion of the given species circle) can only be defined by analogy with the behavior of other species points on the circumference of the genus that controls each of them. Roughly speaking, if one imagines a sphere, then its equator will denote the spatial cycle of a species in its ideal period, and an average meridian the cycle of possible changes of the type in time. And at the center resides the heart of the species, its idea, its original.

Presented by

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."


Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."


An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground


The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."


The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In