Of Lolita and Lepidoptera

The two faces of Vladimir Nabokov

Poster of the 1962 movie.

You may have recognised the name “Lolita“. It was a complex and serious novel of the mid-fifties,  in which a taboo area of human sexuality was explored for the first time – child sexual abuse. In the fifties, at the height of the age of middle-class morality, the powerful and ambiguous novel drew criticism, opprobrium and later acclaim. The author was Vladimir Nabokov who has since been recognised  as one of the great novelists of the Twentieth Century.

But there is another side of Nabokov – little known to most casual readers, and even to some of us who love and study butterflies – that he was from childhood to the end of his days an aurelian.

He loved butterflies! Since early childhood in Russia, Nabokov collected and studied them.

Carl Zimmer writes :

Nabokov inherited his passion for butterflies from his parents. When his father was imprisoned by the Russian authorities for his political activities, the 8-year-old Vladimir brought a butterfly to his cell as a gift. As a teenager, Nabokov went on butterfly-hunting expeditions and carefully described the specimens he caught, imitating the scientific journals he read in his spare time. Had it not been for the Russian Revolution which forced his family into exile in 1919, Nabokov said that he might have become a full-time lepidopterist.

During the period of exile in France, before he moved to USA, forced to move by the menace of Hitler‘s Panzer divisions roaring across France, Nabokov and his wife went butterflying across the Pyrenees, financed by his proceeds from his second book – “King, Queen, Knave“. Nabokov was a competent taxonomist and became the  curator of lepidoptery at Harvard University‘s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Later on, the proceeds of “Lolita” would allow Nabokov and his wife on an extensive trip butterflying across the Rockies.

A butterfly’s view of Vladimir Nabokov.

But how should I introduce Nabokov’s love for these small, delicate, weak-flying shimmering butterflies in hues of blue, Prussian, sapphire, purple,violet?

The Karner Blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis), a butterfly described by Nabokov in 1944, now granted species status as “Lycaeides samuelis”. (Image:J&K Hollingsworth)

Perhaps through a poem he wrote :

On Discovering a Butterfly

I found it and I named it, being versed in taxonomic Latin; thus became godfather to an insect and its first describer — and I want no other fame. Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep), and safe from creeping relatives and rust, in the secluded stronghold where we keep type specimens it will transcend its dust. Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss, poems that take a thousand years to die but ape the immortality of this red label on a little butterfly.

Vladimir Nabokov

This is a poem written, not by a butterfly-lover, but by a butterfly-loving taxonomist. The red label on a butterfly specimen is only attached to a specimen kept specifically as an example of the newly named and described species. Such a label enters the describer, and the specimen into the Entomology Hall of Fame, so to say. A butterfly specimen with red label attached is forever part of entomological history.

A holotype with red type label. (Image:Robert Nash)

The Wandering Minstrel recalls Stephen Jay Gould‘s brilliant essay in “I have landed” (2002) about Nabokov…

Museum curators traditionally affix red labels only to “holotype” specimens — that is, to individuals chosen as official recipients of the name given to a new species. The necessity for such a rule arises from a common situation in taxonomic research. A later scientist may discover that the original namer of a species defined the group too broadly by including specimens from more than one genuine species…. By official rules, the species of the designated holotype specimen keeps the original name, and members of the newly recognized species must receive a new name. Thus, Nabokov tells us that no product of human cultural construction can match the immortality of the permanent name-bearer for a genuine species in nature. The species may become extinct, of course, but the name continues forever to designate a genuine natural population that once inhabited the earth.

The Wandering Minstrel goes on to say…

A commenter in the post (my words) goes on to note that the  poem reflected the “vanity of human wishes”, but it speaks, too, of something more specific – the bid for immortality that motivates even the “purest” of scientists. Scientific biographers speak, often with palpable surprise, of the “pettiness” that scientists can display in their quest for the all-important Precedence, but that is merely due to an idealised notion of a scientist who is supposed to transcend all human emotions in his quest for Truth. In reality, Scientists are as alive to the seduction of fame as anyone else – and the brand of fame they seek makes “the glories of our blood and state” look positively ephemeral. Of course poets have long espoused the conceit that words are the surest form of immortality – “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme” quoth the Bard – but Nabokov trumps even that with his “thus became […] its first describer — and I want no other fame.” And although he says “it will transcend its dust”, the temptation is irresistible to read, superposed on the “it”, a triumphant “I”.

Being a taxonomist, Nabokov, loved not just the external magnificence of the patterns and colours of butterfly wings but also  the hidden intrinsic elegance with which Nature provides form and function in its creatures. Like the protagonist in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenace, he sought classic beauty in the form and function and not the romantic beauty of the appearance in his passionate study of the anatomy of these delicate insects. It takes a singular passion to motivate a person to spend countless painstaking hours studying thousands of specimens, peering through microscopes and making detailed diagrams of their body parts. Nabokov did all this. A taxonomist’s abiding faith rests in the belief that the shape and structure of the insect bodies hide truths of nature which he resolves to discover. That, imho, is the Holy Grail for taxonomists. And Nabokov found it, but never knew that he had done so.

Vladimir Nabokov at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1945. (Image:NYPL, Berg Collection)

For years Nabokov studied the Polyommatus genus of butterflies, dissecting and drawing the intricate shapes of the male sexual organs of the little insects. The shape of the male organ of butterflies is distinct to a species and has specifically evolved uniquely for each species. In groups such as the Polymmatinae, which resemble each other and are difficult to distinguish, the examination of the male organ alone helps identify the species reliably. Nabokov sat patiently, peering through microscopes to the detriments of his eyes, making neat diagrams, describing the finer details in the formal language characteristic of science, shorn of adornment and replete with terms rarely understood by common folk. Nabokov went on to describe hundreds of new species.

Click here to see a slideshow on Nabokov’s Butterflies in the New York Times

As he described, he mused over how they must have evolved, and how the complex pattern of resemblances and differences would have accumulated and formed his own theories. Zimmer writes

He argued that what were thought to be closely related species were actually only distantly related. At the end of a 1945 paper on the group, he mused on how they had evolved. He speculated that they originated in Asia, moved over the Bering Strait and headed south all the way to Chile. Allowing himself a few literary flourishes, Nabokov invited his readers to imagine “a modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine.” Going back millions of years, he would end up at a time when only Asian forms of the butterflies existed. Then, moving forward again, the taxonomist would see five waves of butterflies arriving in the New World.

Now, there could be very many models of how the butterflies evolved. One example cited often is that they could have evolved in the tropical forest of the Amazon where biodiversity and speciation is very high. In that case the butterflies arrived there from Asia once and a large number of species arose later, each of which would be closely related. Though Nabokov was a distinguished expert of his day, this vision of his was too much to chew for his contemporaries. I surmise that neither zoogeography or the geological science of that time had accepted the idea of repeated waves of migration across the Bering Strait.  Since there was no way to prove the hypotheses at that point of time, it languished after his retirement in the sixties and his death in 1979 and was soon forgotten. Subsequent generations of lepidopterists grew up considering Nabokov as a competent and diligent Lepidopterist but not as one who had come up with path-breaking ideas.

Drawings of the genitalia of various blue butterflies in Nabokov’s famous 1945 paper in Psyche.

The scene moves on to the early nineties. The advent of new tools for DNA sampling and  genomic studies began to unravels many hidden facets of nature. A re-examination of the blues by Dr Kurt Johnson of the American Museum of Natural History led to the study of Nabokov’s classification. Johnson collected and examined many specimens. As he later described in the 2000 book “Nabokov’s Blues,” written with Steve Coates, Dr. Johnson set about reviving Nabokov’s classification and found it to be substantially correct. In another case, Nabokov had described the Karner Blue as a seperate species while other authorities later classified it as a subspecies of the  Mellisa Blue. DNA analysis proved Nabokov’s view to be correct.

Nabokov’s hand-drawn illustration of wing-pattern of “Echinargus” species novium described in the 1945 Psyche paper.

In 1990, a Dr Naomi Pierce became a Harvard biology professor and curator of Lepidoptera. Nabokov’s birth centenary was coming up in 1999 and Naomi started acquainting herself in detail about his work. When she came across Nabokov’s hypothesis of evolution of the Polyommatus blues in a book titled “Nabokov’s Blues” by Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates, she realised that the hypothesis was testable with today’s scientific techniques. She organized four separate trips to the Andes to collect the blues, and then she and her colleagues at Harvard sequenced the genes of the butterflies, as well as comparing the number of mutations each species had acquired. The mutation rate data indicated the approximate duration passed since the creatures diverged in evolution. Their research proved Nabokov’s “bold hypothesis” to be true. Zimmer writes..

Instead, they found that the New World species shared a common ancestor that lived about 10 million years ago. But many New World species were more closely related to Old World butterflies than to their neighbors. Dr. Pierce and her colleagues concluded that five waves of butterflies came from Asia to the New World — just as Nabokov had speculated. “By God, he got every one right,” Dr. Pierce said. “I couldn’t get over it — I was blown away.” Dr. Pierce and her colleagues also investigated Nabokov’s idea that the butterflies had come over the Bering Strait. The land surrounding the strait was relatively warm 10 million years ago, and has been chilling steadily ever since. Dr. Pierce and her colleagues found that the first lineage of Polyommatus blues that made the journey could survive a temperature range that matched the Bering climate of 10 million years ago. The lineages that came later are more cold-hardy, each with a temperature range matching the falling temperatures.

A very nicely written post from the blog “Why Evolution is True”, with more science in it than this post, can be found here.

Click to reach a very nice slideshow on Nabokov’s Lepidoptery from the New York Public Library.

Another of Nabokov’s talents was his skill in illustrating butterflies. He often painted butterflies and presented them to friends.

Butterflies drawn by Vladimir Nabokov for his wife. (Image: Alex Bakharev)

Nabokov’s love for butterflies shows in his literature also. Perhaps the earliest was one of his Russian short stories – The Aurelian. “Aurelian” is an archaic word for a butterfly-lover. In this short story, Nabokov develops the concept of metamorphosis as transcendence into life on a higher plane. The proatogonist in “The Aurelian” is Paul Pilgram, an entomologist and butterfly dealer who never left his native Berlin. Pilgram lives a futile, dreary life with a unsuccessful business and an unsatisfactory marriage, However he dreams of leaving this all behind and going on a butterfly-hunting expedition to exotic places such as France, Dalmatia, Russia and Tibet which his fate and circumstances do not permit. At last, Pilgram manages to cheat a customer and get the money and prepares to go on a journeying dumping his wife and his business behind. As he departs, Pilgram dies of a heart attack. To give you a taste of Nabokov’s style of writing, I include the last three paragraphs of his short story :

NIGHT came; a slippery polished moon sped, without the least friction, in between chinchilla clouds, and Eleanor returning from the wedding supper, and still all atingle from the wine and the juicy jokes, recalled her own wedding day as she leisurely walked home. Somehow all the thoughts now passing through her brain kept turning so as to show their moon-bright, attractive side; she felt almost light-hearted as she entered the gateway and proceeded to open the door, and she caught herself thinking that it was surely a great thing to have an apartment of one’s own, stuffy and dark though it might be. Smiling, she turned on the light in her bedroom, and saw at once that all the drawers had been pulled open; she hardly had time to imagine burglars, for there were those keys on the night table and a bit of paper propped against the alarm clock. The note was brief: ‘Off to Spain. Don’t touch anything till I write. Borrow from Sch. or W. Feed the lizards.’ The faucet was dripping in the kitchen. Unconsciously she picked up her silver bag where she had dropped it, and then kept on sitting on the edge of the bed, quite straight and still, with her hands in her lap as if she were having her photograph taken. After a time someone got up, walked across the room, inspected the bolted window, came back again, while she watched with indifference, not realizing that it was she who was moving. The drops of water plopped in slow succession, and suddenly she felt terrified at being alone in the house. The man whom she had loved for his mute omniscience, stolid coarseness, grim perseverance in work, had stolen away…. She felt like howling, running to the police, showing her marriage certificate, insisting, pleading; but still she kept on sitting, her hair slightly ruffled, her hands in white gloves. Yes, Pilgram had gone far, very far. Most probably he visited Granada and Murcia and Albarracin, and then traveled farther still, to Surinam or Taprobane; and one can hardly doubt that he saw all the glorious bugs he had longed to see—velvety black butterflies soaring over the jungle, and a tiny moth in Tasmania, and that Chinese ‘Skipper’ said to smell of crushed roses when alive, and the short-clubbed beauty that a Mr. Baron had just discovered in Mexico. So, in a certain sense, it is quite irrelevant that some time later, upon wandering into the shop, Eleanor saw the checkered suitcase, and then her husband, sprawling on the floor with his back to the counter, among scattered coins, his livid face knocked out of shape by death.

Read the complete English translation of “The Aurelian” here. Still like to learn more about Nabokov, his  literature and lepidoptery? Erin Overby’s post  in the New Yorker tells us more about Nabokov’s depiction of butterflies in other works. And here is a short and interesting free online course on Nabokov from the now defunct Fathom online learning initiative of Columbia University. Here’s a post and yet another from one of my favourite Science Bloggers Bioephemera. Maria Popova’s commentary on Gould’s essay can be found here. And here is more, and even more. Nabokov may now rest in peace, his reputation as a practitioner in his first great love, the butterfly world, having been vindicated.

the grave of Vladimir Nabokov (Russian-American writer) and his wife Vera Nabokova in Cimetière de Clarens (Switzerland). (Image:Gorodilova)

Image Credits

  • Click on the images to reach the sources.
  • Some are from Wikimedia Commons published under their respective free licenses.
  • All others under Fair Use from the source indicated.
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Explore posts in the same categories: art, beauty, butterflies, culture, DNA analysis and genomic studies, heritage, Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Lycaenidae, nature, phyllogeny, taxonomy, Vladimir Nabokov

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8 Comments on “Of Lolita and Lepidoptera”

  1. Luisa Says:

    Wonderful post. Thanks so much for this!

  2. Radha Nair Says:

    In one word exquisite.
    Radha

  3. Iniyaal Says:

    Interesting.. very interesting.

    it is inspiring to read about people with a mainstay profession devoting much of their time to their interests. It is nice to read about a brilliant author using the proceeds from his literary earnings to fund his research. Equally interesting is to see how his literary works are influenced by his interest on butterflies.

  4. tys Says:

    i have always wondered about aurelians…they show what true love for something is…the need to pin it down 🙂

    but seriously…never knew this about him…Lolita is a personal favorite.


  5. […] Of Lolita and Lepidoptera « The Butterfly Diaries – You may have recognised the name “Lolita“. It was a complex and serious novel of the mid-fifties, in which a taboo area of human sexuality was explored for the first time – child sexual abuse. In the fifties, at the height of the … […]


  6. […] Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a nubile adolescent whose charms are described repeatedly in a lepidopterist’s vocabulary — an exercise that, among other things, enriched the English language with the word […]


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