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(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, part three, or part four.)

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.

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 ... "

BUTTERFLIES and Moths of the Russian Empire, 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.

"I kept changing countries like counterfeit money / hurrying on and afraid to look back ..."

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.

Some Aspects of Collecting
"It is amusing to think that I managed to get into Harvard with a butterfly as my sole backer."

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.

The Americans
"I hope that at the next lecture stop there will be as many butterflies but less cordiality and less scotch on the rocks."

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 online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, part three, or part four.)

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Father's Butterflies - 00.04 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 4; page 59-75.