"To know that no one before you has seen an organ you are examining, to trace relationships that have occurred to no one before, to immerse yourself in the wondrous crystalline world of the microscope, where silence reigns, circumscribed by its own horizon, a blindingly white arena — all this is so enticing that I cannot describe it."
- Vladimir Nabokov, born on this day, April 22, 1899
Such a beautiful description of the pleasure of investigation, capturing the intensely personal joy that accompanies a moment of discovery.
Nabokov was a man of few passions, but to writing and butterflies, his two most beloved arenas, he devoted himself completely. Both of these, though, seem to pale in comparison to his love for Vera, Nabokov’s wife, translator and muse.
Nabokov was no mere hobbyist when it came to the study of Lepidoptera. He dedicated much of his life to observing, collecting and drawing butterflies. So serious was his study that a major theory of butterfly evolution was proven correct by molecular biologists decades after he proposed it.
Thanks to Open Culture, I learned that Nabokov would often draw butterflies for Vera, sketched in the first few pages of books he would give her (above). Many, if not all of them, were imagined species, based on specimens from his study, but created and named solely for her. Vanessa verae, for one, is a midnight and blue variant of the Vanessa genus. These belonged to her alone, an unmatchable gift of pure fantasy. Who among you ladies wouldn’t swoon if you were given your own butterfly? Looks like I’ve got some work to do for Christmas or Valentine’s Day.
Vanessa appears again in Nabokov’s work, in both human and insect form, as the “crimson-barred” and “Admirable butterfly” wife of John Shade in Pale Fire. Brian Boyd wrote that no other author “…has been a more passionate student of the natural world or a more accomplished scientist.”
Although perhaps not as deeply as Nabokov, many (most?) artists have taken notes from science and nature, and their work has been made all the richer for it. I wonder what we would discover if we did the same for science, accepting that our act of observation, interpretation and creation is not that different from drawing butterflies, an act we undertake simply for the love of seeing something new, and giving it to another?
If you enjoyed this intersection of lepidoptery with love, don’t miss Nabokov’s hand-written margin notes on the entomology of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.