m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Go to this issue's Table of Contents.

A P R I L  2 0 0 0 

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

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.

Four Interviews
"I enjoy hunting in the buff but I doubt anything interesting can be obtained today."

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.

An Example of Technical Writing
"Here is a brief description of L. sublivens female: Upperside of a rather peculiar, smooth, weak brown, with an olivaceous cast in the living insect ..."

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).

Long and Hazy the Evening
"A quick throb -- and I see it. / At an angel I hit, / and a demon's entangled / in the haze of my net."

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.

How I Loved the Poems of Gumilyov!
"And I will die not in a summerhouse / from gluttony and heat ..."

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.

One Last Thought
A brief letter to Hugh Hefner.

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 sketches and drawings in "Nabokov's Butterflies" come from Nabokov's letters and also from inscriptions to his wife, Véra, on dedication copies of his books.

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

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