Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

Sometimes, A Butterfly is Just a Butterfly

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Bosch’s Garden of Eartly Delights

Excerpt from The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities by Gould, Stephen Jay (Book – 2003) page 1666-67.

Because Nabokov ranks among the aesthetic gods of our time, critics and scholars have sifted every word of his writing for clues about sources and influences, and a veritable “industry” of Nabokovian interpretation has constructed elaborate and implausible literary “theories” about the meaning of his work. In reading through his material for an essay on Nabokov’s lepidoptery in literature (published in I Have Landed, Harmony Books, 2002), I became both amused and a bit disturbed by the inability of most literary scholars to think outside their own “box” and proceed beyond their conventional modes of interpretation. All critics recognize, of course, that Nabokov’s writing includes copious references to butterflies and moths, and all scholars know the sources of Nabokov’s expertise in this biological arena.

 Faced with a consequent need to examine the relationship between Nabokov’s science and his writing, scholars in the humanities have, almost invariably, take refuge in the conventional claim of their craft, despite Nabokov’s own clear rejection of this hypothesis. They argue that as, a literary man, Nabokov used his knowledge of butterflies primarily as a source for metaphors and symbols. Joann Karges, for example (in Nabokov’s Lepidoptera: Genres and Genera, Addis Press, 1985) writes: “Many of Nabokov’s butterflies, particularly pale and white ones, carry the traditional ageless symbol of the anima, psyche or soul… and suggest the evanescence of a sprit departed or departing from the body.”

 But Nabokov himself vehemently insisted that he not only maintained no interest in butterflies as literary symbols, but also that he would regard such usage as a perversion and desecration of his true concerns. (Artists, and all of us, of course, have been known to dissemble, but I see no reason to suspect Nabokov’s explicit comments on this subject.) For example, he stated in an interview: “That in some cases the butterfly symbolizes something (e.g., Psyche) lies utterly outside my area of interest.”

Over and over again, Nabokov debunks symbolic readings in the name of respect for factual accuracy. For example, he criticizes Poe’s metaphorical invocation of the death’s head moth because Poe didn’t describe the animal and, even worse, because he placed the species outside its true geographic range: “Not only did he [Poe] not visualize the death’s-head moth, but he was also under the complete erroneous impression that it occurs in America.” Most tellingly, in a typical Nabokovian passage in Ada, he playfully excoriates Hieronymus Bosch for including a butterfly as a symbol in his Garden of Earthly Delights, but then depicting the wings in reverse by painting the gaudy top surface on an insect whose folded wings should be displaying the underside!

 A tortoiseshell in the middle panel, placed there as if settled on a flower–mark the “as if,” for here we have an example of exact knowledge of the two admirable girls, because they say that actually the wrong side of the bug is shown, it should have been the underside, if seen, as it is, in profile, but Bosch evidently found a wing or two in the corner cobweb of his casement and showed the prettier upper surface in depicting his incorrectly folded insect. I mean I don’t give a hoot for the esoteric meaning, for the myth behind the moth, for the masterpiece-baiter who makes Bosch express some bosh of his time, I’m allergic to allegory.

 Finally, when Nabokov does cite a butterfly in the midst of a metaphor, he attributes no symbolic meaning to the insect, but only describes an accurate fact to carry his more general image. For example, he writes in an early story, titled “Mary”: “Their letters managed to pass across the terrible Russian of that time–like a cabbage white butterfly flying over the trenches.”

I think that we should accept Nabokov at his own word, and honor his different interpretation of how his scientific sensibilities played out within his literature–or rather, a and more accurately, how a crucial aspect of his temperament, and a central component of his convictions, served him so well, and in the same manner, in both his fiction and his science. Nabokov, as one of literature’s consummate craftsmen, upheld the sacredness of accurate factuality– an obvious requirement in science, but also a boon to certain genres of literature. Interestingly, and befitting his deserved greater reputation as a writer than as a biologist (for Nabokov ranks as one of the great novelists of all time, and as an accomplished technician, but not as a brilliant theorist, in science), Nabokov frequently asserted–thus placing his story within this section on the fusions of unum–that literature and science meet in mutual respect for detailed factuality, with the highest virtue of accuracy residing in the evident beauty of such material truth.

Thus no one grasped the extent of underlying unity between science and literature better than Vladimir Nabokov, who worked with different excellences as a full professional in both domains. Nabokov often insisted that his literary and entomological pursuits shared a common mental and psychological ground In Ada, while invoking a common anagram for “insect,” one of Nabokov’s characters states: “‘If I could write’ mused Demon, ‘I would describe, in too many words no doubt, how passionately, how incandescently, how incestuously–c’est le mot– art and science meet in an insect.”’

Returning to his central theme of aesthetic beauty in both the external existence and our internal knowledge of scientific detail, Nabokov wrote in 1959: “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.” When Nabokov spoke of the precision of poetry in taxonomic description”– no doubt with conscious intent to dissipate a paradox that leads most people to regard art and science as inexorably distinct and opposed– he used his literary skills in the service of unity. Thus in a 1966 interview Nabokov broke the boundaries of art and science by stating that the highest ideal of each domain must also characterize true excellence in the other.

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.

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Author: KC

I am Katarina Countiss, a multimedia designer. I like blogs, games, art and technology. I am curious about how things are made.

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