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A cache of previously unpublished work -- fictional and scientific, playful and didactic -- by the novelist and distinguished lepidopterist: "the last important unpublished fiction by Nabokov."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

NO writer of Nabokov's stature, not even Goethe, has been a more passionate student of the natural world or a more accomplished scientist. No one has ever evoked with more enchantment how a child's first passion for nature can grow into lifelong love and devotion. In the years after Lolita thrust him into fame, Nabokov became the world's best-known lepidopterist. He had been highly respected by fellow specialists for the papers he wrote while in charge of Lepidoptera at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, in the 1940s, at a time when he was also earning a reputation in America for his stories and poems in The Atlantic Monthly, but those who saw his zeal for butterflies featured on the cover of Time or in the pages of Life in the 1960s often assumed that he was a mere hobbyist. The scale and significance of his butterfly work remained a mystery to many until scientists started to re-examine and expand on his work at the end of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s. One of the foremost of these scientists, Kurt Johnson, has recently, with Steve Coates, written eloquently of Nabokov's inspiration and legacy in (1999).


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Nabokov in The Atlantic
In 1941, The Atlantic Monthly became the first English-language magazine to publish Vladimir Nabokov's fiction and poetry. (See the editors' introduction to the April, 2000, issue.) This month, as a companion to the magazine's April cover story, Atlantic Unbound is pleased to offer the first two short stories by Nabokov to appear in The Atlantic, along with one of Nabokov's poems (published in the December, 1941, issue), introduced and read aloud by Nabokov's son and translator, Dmitri Nabokov.

"Cloud, Castle, Lake" (June, 1941)
A short story.

"The Aurelian" (November, 1941)
A short story.

"Softest of Tongues" (December, 1941)
A poem. Introduced and read aloud by Dmitri Nabokov, in a recording made exclusively for Atlantic Unbound.


Nabokov had long contemplated publishing his collected scientific papers, but this plan, like many of his most ambitious butterfly projects, remained unrealized. Now Beacon Press, of Boston, has undertaken a project almost as ambitious as any Nabokov himself conceived: to publish an anthology of his astonishingly diverse writing about butterflies, whether scientific or artistic, published or unpublished, carefully finished or roughly sketched, in poems, stories, novels, memoirs, scientific papers, lectures, notes, diaries, letters, interviews, dreams. As Nabokov's biographer, I co-edited -- the largest and most varied collection of his work in any single volume -- with the distinguished nature writer Robert Michael Pyle, the author of While Nabokov was alive, Pyle had agitated for the protection of the Karner Blue, a butterfly that Nabokov first named as at least a distinct subspecies in a paper in the 1940s and introduced playfully into Pnin in the 1950s. Partly because of the help that Nabokov gave to the initiative of Pyle and others in the 1970s, the little Karner Blue has become a major symbol of the conservation movement in the American Northeast.

introduced Nabokov to his first extended audience in the English-speaking world more than half a century ago. Now, a full century after his birth, it offers readers prize new specimens from Nabokov's Butterflies, natural hybrids of his twin passions for literature and Lepidoptera.


ATHER'S Butterflies," the longest piece of Nabokov fiction to have remained unpublished until now, is a kind of pendant, or postponed prologue, to what is often rated the finest Russian novel of the twentieth century.

Although he detested Hitler and had a Jewish wife and a half-Jewish child, Nabokov lived on amid the last remnants of Russian-émigré Berlin until his escape in 1937 to France, where most of his fellow emigrants had been settled for more than a decade. He had been concentrating so intensely since 1933 on The Gift, his last, his longest, and to most readers his greatest Russian novel, that he had found it too hard to move.In one sense The Gift (completed in 1938) was an homage to the Russian emigration and to what he and his fellow émigrés had lost in leaving their homeland. In another it was a very European work, deliberately challenging Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses and Proust's In Search of Lost Time on their own terms. The Gift is a portrait of its young artist-hero, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, who matures as a writer in émigré Berlin. In Ulysses, Joyce ironized a son's search for his father in The Odyssey, because Stephen and Bloom are neither physical nor spiritual kin, and when Bloom offers him a place in his home, Stephen answers by walking away into the night. But in The Gift, Fyodor seeks tirelessly for his father, Count Konstantin Godunov-Cherdyntsev, a famous lepidopterist and explorer of Central Asia, who has never returned from a last expedition, begun in 1917, that Fyodor had begged to join.


Illustration by Vladimir Nabokov Chapter Two of the five long chapters in The Gift records Fyodor's attempt to write his father's biography, and to evoke the magic of expeditions in search of unknown butterflies. As the chapter progresses, Fyodor seems first an impersonal eye observing the expedition, then the son who was allowed to accompany his father, and then gradually his father himself, in a haunting travelogue through an unforgettably strange paradise where he names new creatures, if not at every step, then every time his eye spots a butterfly new to science. In a sense this is Nabokov's own compensation for the butterfly expedition he had planned to make into Central Asia after his last year of school, in 1918, perhaps in the company of the great Russian naturalist Grigoriy Grum-Grzhimaylo, had no revolution taken place. Fyodor abandons the life of his father, however, dismissing it, despite all his hard research, as too much wish fulfillment. Some months later he begins a very different project. In a sense he had felt inspired by Pushkin while writing the now-abandoned life of his father, by the purity of Pushkin's prose and the clarity of his thought. Now he finds himself unexpectedly writing a savagely critical life of Nikolay Chernyshevsky, the nineteenth-century novelist who was Lenin's favorite author and whose work anticipated Socialist Realism -- which Stalin had had proclaimed the official aesthetic of the Soviet Union just at the time that Nabokov began The Gift. Fyodor mocks Chernyshevsky for his aesthetics, for his incomprehension of art and Pushkin, but admires him for the courage of his opposition to the czarist regime -- which reacted by exiling him to Siberia. Chernyshevsky's life in north-central Asia is as bleak and empty as Count Godunov had found his time there, just a little farther south, rapturous and rewarding. If the fulfillment Fyodor had tried to depict in his life of his father had been, in Hegelian terms, a thesis not quite yet earned, and the life of Chernyshevsky its antithesis, a life of frustration, Fyodor's story of his own life, The Gift itself, becomes a synthesis: it combines his initial chafing at his émigré existence with his retrospective realization that the apparent frustrations of the past now seem like the concealed but kindly design of a fate that has brought him his true love, Zina Mertz, and has developed his art to its full maturity. On the eve of the last day of the novel he has an eerily vivid and immediate dream of his father, which seems to him to offer both a sign of his father's approval for his work and a key to the generous gifts of his fate. Like Proust's Marcel, only much more amply, Fyodor finds, as he comes to the realization that compels him to retell his own story, that his time has been anything but lost.

took Nabokov as long to write as his six previous novels combined. A few months after completing it, he spent the early summer of 1938 with his wife and son in Moulinet, in France's Maritime Alps, high above Menton. At that time the Riviera was still inexpensive, especially in the steep hinterland, but that was not the only attraction: Moulinet had in the past been a successful hunting ground for lepidopterists. Nabokov had dreamed since the age of seven of catching a new species of butterfly, and here at last, on July 20 and 22, 1938, at a height of 4,000 feet, he caught two specimens of a butterfly that he was confident science had never named. It would not be until he reached New York, in 1940, and checked the records and collections of the American Museum of Natural History, that he could be quite sure, and could publish his original description ("O.D.") of what he designated Lysandra cormion, but it was presumably the impact of that long-awaited discovery that led him to return to the characters of The Gift and the theme of Fyodor's and his father's love of butterflies. It was in the spring of 1939, it seems, that he wrote his "Second Addendum to The Gift." Nabokov's plans for additions to The Gift were lost in the approach of war, the pressure of new projects, the flight to America, and his decision to abandon Russian as a language of composition so that he could develop as a writer in English. Since the label "Second Addendum to The Gift" was clearly nothing more than provisional, I suggested to Dmitri Nabokov that he call the story "Father's Butterflies," for it is Fyodor's tribute to his father's passion for butterflies and, in Dmitri's splendid translation, his longest tribute to his father's butterflies. [All other translations, unless otherwise indicated, are by Brian Boyd.] The full text of "Father's Butterflies" is available in the Beacon Press volume.


Illustration by Vladimir Nabokov"Father's Butterflies" is not so much a narrative as an intricate fictional meditation, as if Proust's Marcel were to write on behalf of Stephen Jay Gould -- or, rather, given the tone of the reflections, on behalf of the physicist Paul Davies. Or as if Ada's Part Four, "The Texture of Time," were written not by the novel's narrator, the philosopher Van Veen, but by his sister Ada, the lepidopterist. In the first half of "Father's Butterflies," Fyodor recalls the magical memories of his early love for butterflies and his zeal to learn more about them. He muses on the inadequacy of the Schmetterlingsbücher, the butterfly books, of his childhood, even in his father's astonishing lepidopterological library, until the first tomes of his father's The Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire appeared, in 1912. In Fyodor's detailed, rhapsodic description of this four-volume set, and his contrasting it with the deficiencies of existing works, Nabokov imagines his own ideal butterfly guide, anticipating a project he himself would work on in the 1960s, The Butterflies of Europe. Even his loyal publisher, who had mustered an international consortium of co-publishers, hesitated as Nabokov kept expanding plans for a butterfly catalogue that would surpass in detail and design anything yet seen -- until, in 1965, after two years' work, Nabokov abandoned the project rather than run the risk that no one would ever publish something so ambitious. But for Konstantin Godunov money is no object, and the manner and matter of his four resplendent volumes are more uncompromising, more scientifically and artistically luxuriant, than even Nabokov would have dared to dream that a publisher might agree to. The loving homage that Nabokov has Fyodor make to his father's work resembles Borges's haunting descriptions of imaginary worlds through the description of imaginary books, in stories like "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius," except that Nabokov's world is part of ours, but a part where nature, science, and art fuse as never before.

The second half of "Father's Butterflies" focuses on a very different work -- a compressed thirty-page summary of Konstantin Godunov's thinking on evolution and butterfly speciation that he writes in a trance of inspired concentration, on the eve of his departure for his fatal last expedition. In this compact treatise he preserves the fruit of a lifetime's hard thought, as if he already knows he will never have another chance. In The Gift, Fyodor had argued, against Chernyshevsky, that art is in some mysterious way prior to life, that there is some strange kind of artfulness behind life, "behind all this, behind the play, the sparkle, the thick, green greasepaint of the foliage." That conviction had developed in him partly through his father's influence, especially his father's fascination with the "magic masks of mimicry." (In the 1950s Nabokov himself would want to write a book on animal and plant mimicry so ambitious in scope that, like the later Butterflies of Europe, it scared off the publisher who had proposed it.) Konstantin Godunov speculates boldly about the origins of species and the origin of the species concept, accepting evolution but rejecting Darwinian natural selection.

Nabokov would later say of Van Veen's section "The Texture of Time" in Ada that he hadn't made up his mind whether he quite agreed with his character's ideas. Had he been asked a similar question of Konstantin Godunov's treatise in 1939, he might have said the same. But in 1940 he began lepidopterological research at the American Museum of Natural History, and in 1941 at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and he rapidly became the expert on the Blues. Working on these butterflies in the laboratory, he discovered that nature was even more complicated than he had had Konstantin Godunov imagine. He wrote his scientific papers in a manner that was far removed from the unconstrained speculations of his character's treatise and that proved to be seminal and prescient for researchers in the field even into the late 1990s. Had he already spent years in the laboratory before 1939, Nabokov would almost certainly have given Godunov's reflections a different turn. But as they stand, they offer the most fascinating example in all his works of Nabokov's passion for physical detail and metaphysical scope, for precise natural observation and shimmering supernatural implication.


Brian Boyd is a professor of English at the University of Auckland. His books include the two-volume biography (1990) and (1991). Dmitri Nabokov, a guest professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has been translating his father's work into English since the 1950s. The work by Nabokov in this issue is excerpted from edited and annotated by Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle, with new translations from the Russian by Dmitri Nabokov, to be published this month by Beacon Press.


The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Nabokov's Butterflies, Introduction - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 51-56.

I copy out the following full-blooded, flowing periods (from his preface to the genus Lycaena):

During the blaze of noon, between two sumptuous thunderstorms, the mud of Russian roads serves as a drinking establishment for the male Blues, but not every damp spot is suitable; the intensity of visitation is determined by a certain average saturation of the soil as well as the greater evenness of its surface. On an attractive spot like this, with a round, runny border and a relatively limited diameter (rarely exceeding two feet), a group of butterflies settles at close quarters; if one startles the gathering, it rises en masse and remains suspended in a "sorting" hover over the given spot on the road, descending to it anew with mathematical precision.... Only the air cooling toward evening, or the arrival of clouds, puts an end to the banquet. I have had occasion to observe the presence of one and the same specimen of Meleager's Blue sitting from eleven in the morning until a quarter to six in the evening, when the long shadow of a nearby oak had reached the very spot where, besides my friend and a few other engrossed Blues and a handful of golden adonis, there remained (from three in the afternoon) a small cluster of boyarishnitsa (Black-veined Whites), whose general appearance was reminiscent either of little paper cockerels or a regatta of sailboats heeling this way and that. In all those hours the composition and size of the gathering would vary and more than once I inadvertently shooed away my Meleager while fishing out some trifle I needed from the general heap. Now, with the onset of shade, it would soar with elastic grace and, having chosen a bough to perch on -- a choice not at all typical for Lycaena in a normal state, but quite characteristic as a temporizing maneuver for a butterfly that has left a "drinking place" -- would settle on a Rubus leaf, as if hoping that the dusk and the chill were but the passing influence of a cloud and that, in a moment, one could return. In a few minutes I noticed that it had dozed off; with that, the observation ended.
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The Creative Writer
"There is a species of butterfly on the hind wing of which a large eyespot imitates a drop of liquid with such uncanny perfection that a line which crosses the wing is slightly displaced at the exact stretch where it passes through -- or better say under -- the spot: this part of the line seems shifted by refraction, as it would if a real globular drop had been there and we were looking through it at the pattern of the wing."

I would like to cite many more such artistic and scientific sapphires, but I do not know what to pick out -- the account of the extraordinary difficulties (in Volume III) involved in the capture of the salt-marsh [owlet moth] Plusia rosanovi, which darted like lightning from place to place, vanishing each time among the pebbles, so that the only chance of catching it (light fails to lure it) was to take advantage of the split second when, before squirting out, it "came to a boil" at the feet of the stealthy hunter. How lovely it is, by the way, how one's eye is caressed by, the dark-cherry forewing, traversed by a mauve-pink stripe and adorned at its center by the golden emblem of its genus, in this instance a tapering, bowed half-moon -- and if it is hard to render the flowery velvet of the background, what is one to say of the "emblem," which, on the actual moth, resembles a dab of gilt redolent of turpentine, and must therefore be copied (and recopied!) in such a way that the painter's work transmits, besides all the rest, a resemblance to the work of a painter! Or else such trifles, unforgettable for me, as the line referring to a pair of a new species of Acidalia [a former name for the inchworm genus Scopula] "once brought to me by Dr. P. P. Paradizov, who had taken them off a wall in the Astrakhan railroad station on October 11, 1889"? Or the discovery in northern Finland of a stunning blue-black Arctia [a genus of Tiger Moths] covered with slender red figure eights?


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.


Illustration by Vladimir Nabokov When we affirm the conformity between the cycles of a species in time and in space, we are very far from the concept of evolution. In both time and space the development of variational distinctions is subordinate to the circle enclosing the species. One more step and we are out of the circle and have entered the domain, equally delineated and autonomous, of a different species. When a paleontologist aligns a row of progressively larger skeletons purporting to represent the evolution of the "horse," the deception is that, in reality, no hereditary connection exists; the concept of species is hopelessly confused here with those of genus and family; we are faced with such a number of different species of animals that at one time formed, with other species related to each of them, a specific spatial cycle of a particular genus, to which a particular cycle corresponds in time; all these spheres of species (and genera)have long ago disintegrated; and the various species of Equus that we currently encounter on earth in a far from typical period of the species' harmony, nonetheless represent more fully the "history of the horse" than a series of heterogeneous animals arranged on an evolutionary ladder. By this we certainly do not mean to say that the work of evolutionists has no scientific significance. The value of biological observations is in no sense diminished by the fact that deductions from them might have either been made a priori, or else have tempted thought into a vicious circle.... One is tempted to compare the evolutionist to a passenger who, observing through a railroad-car window a series of phenomena that implies a certain logic of structure (such as the appearance of cultivated fields, followed by factory buildings as a city approaches), would discern in these results and illustrations of movement the reality and laws of the very force governing the shift of his gaze.

Yet that a certain development of forms, from which the "bubbles of species" arose, somehow grew, for some reason burst, is beyond doubt. It is this path that we must now explore.


The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Father's Butterflies - 00.04 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 4; page 59-75.

REACHING again into the basket of generally accessible examples, let us recall the analogy noticeable between the development of individual and species. Here an examination of the human brain can be most fruitful. We emerge from darkness and infancy and regress into infancy and darkness, completing an entire circle of existence.

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More Aspects of Collecting
"I know you're no nature lover, but all the same I tell you it's an incomparable pleasure to clamber up a virtual cliff at 12000 feet and there observe, 'in the neighborhood' of Pushkin's 'God,' the life of some wild insect stuck on this summit since the ice ages."

In the course of life we learn, among other things, the concept of "species," unknown to the ancestors of our culture. Yet, not only is the history of mankind parodied by the developmental history of the writer of these and other lines, but the development of human ratiocination, in both the individual and historic senses, is extraordinarily linked to nature, the spirit of nature considered as the aggregate of all its manifestations, and all the modifications of them conditioned by time. How is it conceivable, in fact, that amid the huge jumble containing the embryos of countless organs (of which up to forty-three are currently represented), the magnificent chaos of nature never included thought? One can doubt the ability of a genius to animate marble, but one cannot doubt that one afflicted by idiocy will never create a Galatea. Human intelligence, with all its limitations and rights, inasmuch as it is a gift of nature, and a perpetually repeated one, cannot fail to exist in the warehouse of the bestower. It may, in that dark storehouse, differ from its species seen in sunlight as a marble god is distinct from the convolutions of the sculptor's brain -- but still it exists. Certain whims of nature can be, if not appreciated, at least merely noticed only by a brain that has developed in a related manner, and the sense of these whims can only be that -- like a code or a family joke -- they are accessible only to the illuminated, i.e., human, mind, and have no other mission than to give it pleasure -- we are speaking of the fantastic refinement of "protective mimicry," which, in a world lacking an appointed observer endowed with artistic sensitivity, imagination, and humor, would simply be useless (lost upon the world), like a small volume of Shakespeare lying open in the dust of a boundless desert. This fact, even taken alone, implies a silent, subtle, charmingly sly conspiracy between nature and the one who alone can understand, who alone has at last achieved this comprehension -- a spiritual alliance concluded above and beyond all the seething, the stirring, the darkness of roaming reveilles, behind the back of all the world's organic life.

Just as an increase in the brain's complexity is accompanied by a multiplication of concepts, so the history of nature demonstrates a gradual development in nature herself of the basic concept of species and genus as they take form. We are right in saying quite literally, in the human, cerebral sense, that nature grows wiser as time passes, that in a given period it has reached this or that specific stage. The only nit that can be picked is that we do not know what we imply when we say "nature" or "the spirit of nature." But, as we shall see, this monstrous "X" to which, taking advantage of its infinite spaciousness, we ascribe responsibility even for our ignorance about its true countenance, does not avoid us in some inviolable mist, but merely does not turn our way. This particularity, in turn, opens the way toward identification, and strikes the first blow toward concrete comprehension, promising us what we, who were raised on the idea of orbits, can naturally expect, upon the sighting of anything revolving away from us, that it will keep rotating until it turns back to face us.

Until that happens we must be content with the half-smile of averted lips, a conspiratorial sign, an elusive glance from narrowed eyes. In order to bring into focus the concrete subject that interests us -- the formation of the species concept in nature's mind -- this sign should suffice; but the path of thought pursuing the given objective is such a mirror-slippery slope -- follows, like any correct but barely passable path, such a narrow ledge above such a chasm of nonsense -- that its very novelty can already give a sense of falling.


Illustration by Vladimir NabokovWe must imagine a certain remote time on earth, when the concept of species (or genus) was as foreign to nature as it is foreign to the infancy of a human or of humanity. A three-year-old child thinks a cow is the wife of a stallion, and a dog the husband of a cat. Even the Stagirite, although he could distinguish between a "cabbage butterfly" and a moth that flew flamewards (that, apparently, was the extent of Aristotle's lepidopterological erudition), understood less about this distinction than a child or a layman today. Yet, long before the dawn of mankind, nature had already erected stage sets in expectation of future applause, the chrysalis of the Plum Thecla [Strymonida pruni, the Black Hairstreak] was already made up to look like bird droppings, the whole play, performed nowadays with such subtle perfection, had been readied for production, only awaited the sitting down of the foreseen and inevitable spectator, our intelligence of today (for tomorrow's, a new show was in preparation).

However, in that most remote of times that we must now imagine, none of this had yet been conceived. Nature was ignorant of genera and species; the specimen reigned supreme. As a crude illustration of the position it occupied one might say that a squirrel that mated with a goose would give birth to a giraffe, a sturgeon, and a garden spider. In reality, of course, such common creatures did not yet exist and, if so clamorous an example is given, it is only to jar the reader's imagination from its habitual stance....

* * *

AT this point we shall take the liberty of digressing somewhat, or, rather, of opening some parentheses, with a reminder that numerous accumulated observations had persuaded [my father], in the first place, of the absolute impossibility that given similarities were attained through evolution, through the gradual accumulation of resemblance, or through the fixation of magical mutations (the very thing that caused him to reexamine and reject the more "logical" theory of the origin of species); and, secondly, of the utter uselessness (which incidentally disproves the obtuse lex parsimoniae of the old-time naturalists) of such resplendent masks for the well-being of mimetic forms....

Let us also consider that, through a natural concomitance of circumstances (and it could not be otherwise), we arrived in time for the main act of the comedy of mimicry. In nature as it exists today one does not note forms of half- or quarter-resemblance that would indicate that we are present as well at certain intermediate stages of the phenomenon in question, together with some closer to accomplishment. Obviously one cannot number among such approximations the ability of a certain caterpillar to assume, impromptu, the color of a plant or a net with which the experimenter has surrounded it. Perfection of color tonality is attained immediately. At the same time, this does not represent a "new" manifestation of protective coloration occurring before our eyes, but rather a play of the same nature-inspired possibilities inherent in the object under investigation, and withholding its secret from forced demonstration. Thus, not only the "aimlessness" of the accomplishment (the "aimlessness" of pure art), but also the absence of transitional forms, the ultimate clarity of observed phenomena, arouses strong doubts about the evolutionary progressive character of their genesis. The impossibility of achieving false similarities via a gradual accumulation of corresponding traits, whether by chance or as a consequence of "natural selection," is proven by a simple lack of time. If the former process occurred, then, by the most generous calculation, by the removal of the mime's birth date into the most distant depths of centuries, the line beyond which lie fossil species whose organic harmony coincides with the existence of other, extinct representatives of the animal kingdom could in no way harmonize with the existence of any species (or genus)familiar to us -- that line confines its history to some kind of limits susceptible to some kind of calculable extremes. Yet a trillion light years would hardly be sufficient, even thanks to a series of happy coincidences, to disguise a multitude of disparate species by one and the same process (for instance, endowing a folded butterfly with the exact appearance of a certain variety of leaf with the artistic bonus of a realistic flaw: a small hole eaten through it by somebody's larva)....


The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Father's Butterflies - 00.04 (Part Three); Volume 285, No. 4; page 59-75.

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Moths, Butterflies, and Bad Writers
"Don't read Sartre -- fashionable nonsense, already forgotten, and Miller is talentless obscenity."

The duration of a species, its sitting as a model, its presence before nature's mirror, cannot be measured in increments of time that would presuppose radical changes incompatible with the preservation of its idea. To say that, over the centuries, one species evolves into another by a genealogical line is to disrupt, to the same degree, the basic idea of species, as would admitting that between two extant species intermediate forms were to be represented as well. Yet the appearance of species is unarguable; and neither the evolutionist "how" nor the metaphysical "whence" can be answered until we agree to admit it was not species that evolved in nature, but the very concept of species.

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To return to the question of the state of nature before the origin of this concept, and imagine the immeasurably distant times when "the specimen reigned supreme," we can, with the aid of parlor verse, if not of armchair science, indistinctly perceive this undulating, iridescent world, and nature's first attempts at stabilizing something. A crawling root, the extremity of a tropical creeper vivified by the wind, turned into a snake solely because nature, noticing movement, wished to reproduce it, as a child amused by the flight of a forest leaf picks it up and tosses it back up. But it is only in nature's fingers that the leaf could turn into a Kallima. It would be more accurate to say, though, that it was not the work of the wind, but some energizing, thought-engendering rotation -- not just the earth's rotation, but the even force that so festively animates the Dance of the Planets that is the universe. The idea of rotation acting upon the ferment of life, and provoked by that ferment itself, is what gave rise in nature to the lawlike regularity of repetition, of recognition, and of logical responsibility, to which the apparatus of human ratiocination, all the fruit of the same agitated woodlands, is subordinate. A reminder is in order: so far, all this is but an approximate image, in the same way as it would be purely allegorical for us to start affirming that the initial division of all earthly specimens into two groups were a separation of two halves under the influence of centrifugal force, and that the dual sexuality of today is a surviving signpost of that first separation, which, in itself, was not yet a differentiation of the sexes.

Here we traverse the most precarious part of the trail, where thought, with lowered gaze and aware of its direction, is therefore fearful of a superfluous nudge -- the effort of double-checking, a flawed appellation, a misstep and a slip, the way the surrounding vista from the precarious path is liable to provoke, instead of a flow of reason and memory, a fatal vertigo. But what one must establish clearly for oneself, something that will, incidentally, lead us out onto relatively safe ground, is that all of nature's subsequent work on the differentiation and definition of the notion of species (as well as of genus and family), through a special property of its agitation, was fated to follow the laws of spherical entities burgeoning, disintegrating, and newly developing, out of the disintegrated elements, into newly intricate clusters. As we study this method of nature via reflections that have reached us, we involuntarily come away with the impression that in its implementation, at once obediently carefree and subtly rational (as a painter alternately whistles and narrows his eyes), nature found immense delight, whose exact quality is familiar to us in the joy we derive from a witty problem, from harmony, from creativity. At times nature found it amusing, or artistically valid, to retain, near a selected species, an elegant corollary, generically quite unrelated, but simply picked up from the ground simultaneously back in the times when a dragonfly might simultaneously be a butterfly. Or else it pained nature to disjoin two of its initial creations, which, despite the abyss of differences separating them, nonetheless modulated between one another. From one angle, you see a lichen; from another, an inchworm moth. Whatever subsequent alterations this plant and this insect underwent, the ripply-grayish something that, in the depths of ages, corresponded to them was conserved by nature (which had not given up mythogenesis for the sake of scientific system, but had cunningly united them).

As soon as a creature capable of appreciating the unexpected resemblance, its poetry and magical antiquity, had matured on earth, this phenomenon was proffered to him by nature for admiration and amusement, as a precious symbol of the homogeneousness (oneness) in which she had once found the prime compound for the creation of the first denizens of her kindergarten. It is remarkable that, assuming the spatial classification proposed below, based on an annular principle and organized in a ringlike pattern forming new ringlike systems, mime and model perforce exchange glances from the nearest points of rings that pertain to totally disparate genera of butterflies.

* * *

A preliminary outline of ... a classification of Lepidoptera is presented by the author, concisely and without commentary, at the conclusion of the "Addendum" (where in many families even the parentheses of genera are not opened). It is only an illustration of principles, the assimilation of which will leave to the reader the pleasure of figuring out for himself the author's reasons for adopting this particular distribution. Here I shall get no help from Murchison [the author of a 300-page explanation of Count Godunov's thirty-page treatise], whose lepidopterological knowledge is very limited. My father's work interests him only for its biological-philosophical refraction.

But the lapidary concision of the present schema probably gratified two senses highly developed in its author: that of proportion and that of humor. In an essay where, judging by excerpts, every sentence is like an opaquely glazed door with a sign to halt intruders, and inside everything is replete with knowledge that calls for bridges where the reader, not withstanding the pesky prodding of the wayward Murchison, would otherwise sink into the murky ooze -- in such an essay, where the author's goal, essentially, was to provide a minimum of words and a maximum of thought, an elaborate exposition of its deductions would have been uneconomical. At the same time, anticipating the perplexity, and even the irritation, that a conservative scientist must experience when faced with a blueprint for classification at the conclusion of an incomprehensible essay, caused its author no little amusement. But of course the main thing is that he had intended, at his leisure, to dedicate a separate study to the question raised here, and at the same time believed that, if the precariousness of human life, and the fog settling on Russia, and the danger of a new hunt far afield projected in such an unpropitious year thwarted it, a maximally accurate exposition of the principles of such a study would still allow minds that at last understood them a chance to consummate the plan outlined by the author. I like to think he was not mistaken here, and that, in time, men will appear who are more alert than Murchison, more educated than I, more talented and lively than the terrible turtles who direct learned journals, and that the elaboration of my father's thoughts, jotted in the hasty hand of a testament in the night preceding a dubious departure, when holster, gloves, and compass intrude momentarily on the sedentary life of the desk, and pursued here in a haze of filial love, piety, inspiration, and mental helplessness, will create a worthy monument to him, visible from every corner of natural science.

The bitterness of interrupted life is nothing compared to the bitterness of interrupted work: the probability that the former may continue beyond the grave seems infinite when compared to the inexorable incompletion of the latter. There, perhaps, it will seem like nonsense, but here it still remains unfinished. Whatever may lie in store for the soul, however fully earthly mishaps may be resolved, there must remain a faint hum, vague as stardust, even if its source vanishes with the earth. That is why I cannot forgive the censorship of death, the prison officials of the other world, the veto imposed on the research envisioned by my father. It is not for me, alas, to complete it. Here I recall, with no connection to this eternal hurt or, at least, no rational connection, how, one warm summer night, a boy of fourteen, I sat on the veranda bench with some book -- whose title, too, I shall surely recall in a moment, when it all comes into focus -- and my mother, smiling as in a dream, was laying out on the illumined table cards that were particularly glossy against the thick, velvet heliotrope-soaked chasm into which the veranda glided. I had difficulty understanding what I read, for the book was difficult and strange, and the pages seemed out of order, and my father, with someone -- with a guest, or with his brother, I cannot make out clearly -- was walking across the lawn, slowly, judging by their softly moving voices. At a certain moment, as he passed beneath an open window, his voice drew nearer. Almost as if he were reciting a monologue, for, in the darkness of the fragrant black past, I have lost track of his chance interlocutor, my father declared emphatically and cheerfully, "Yes, of course it was in vain that I said 'by chance,' and by chance that I said 'in vain,' for here I agree with the clergy, especially since, for all the plants and animals I have had occasion to encounter, it is an unquestionable and authentic...." The awaited final stress did not come. Laughing, the voice receded into the darkness -- and now I have suddenly remembered the title of the book.





The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Father's Butterflies - 00.04 (Part Four); Volume 285, No. 4; page 59-75.

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