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by Vladimir Nabokov
DURING my adolescence, the butterfly enthusiast ("le curieux," as the honnкtes gens used to put it in judicious France, "the aurelian," as the poets said in grove-rich England, the "fly doctor," as they wisecracked in advanced Russian circles) who wished to acquire from books a general notion of the fauna of Europe, including Russia, was compelled to scrabble for his crumbs of information in entomological journals in six languages and in multivolume, hard-to-find editions such as the Oberthьr books or those of Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich. The absence or utter inadequacy of "references" in the atlases ad usum Delphini, the tedious perusal of the index of names enclosed with an annual volume of a monthly journal, the sheer number of these journals and volumes (in my father's library there were more than a thousand of the latter alone, representing a good hundred journals) -- all this had to be overcome in order to hunt down the necessary reference, if it existed at all. Nonetheless, even in my exceptionally propitious situation things were not easy: Russia, particularly in the north, dwelt in a mist, while the local lists, scattered through the journals, totally haphazard, scanty, and cruelly inaccurate in nomenclature, only maddened me when at last I ferreted them out. My father was the preeminent entomologist of his time, and very well off to boot, but the ordinary amateur, unable to dispatch his scouts throughout Russia, and denied the opportunity -- or not knowing how -- to gain access to specialized collections and libraries (and an accidental boon, the hasty inspection of collections at a lepidopterological society or in the cellar of some museum, does not satisfy the true enthusiast, who needs to have the boon always at hand), had no choice but to hope for a miracle. And that miracle dawned in 1912 with the appearance of my father's four-volume work The Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire.
Although in a hall adjoining the library dark-red cabinets contained my father's supremely rich collections, consisting of specimens complete with thoroughly accurate names, dates, and places of capture, I personally belonged to the category of curieux who, in order to acquaint themselves properly with a butterfly and to visualize it, require three things; its artistic depiction, a compendium of all that has been written about it, and its insertion within the general system of classification. With no words and no art, without a penetrating and synthesizing process of thought, for me a butterfly would remain incomplete. Only one thing could wholly replace these three demands: if I had caught it myself, if the expression of the given specimen's wings corresponded to the individual particulars of a familiar habitat (with its smells, hues, and sounds) where I would have lived through all that impassioned, insane joy of the hunt, when as I climb the rock, my face contorted, gasping, shouting voluptuously senseless words, I do not notice thorn or precipice, and see neither the viper under my feet nor the shepherd, yonder, observing with the irritation of ignorance the spasms of the madman with his green net as he approaches his heretofore undescribed prey. In other words, it was impossible to reconcile the creative contact between me and the countless rarities collected by others and not defined in the journals, or hopelessly buried in them. And, even though, through the glass top and bottom of the ultra-sleek sliding cases of my father's collection (lowering my gaze for hours down endless rows of thickset, small Hesperidae, in various hues of black with specks from hydrochloric acid and checkered fringes, and turning the case upside down to examine pearlescent cabalistic markings -- little kegs, hourglasses, trapezes, on the rowan-tinged or sulphury-grayish undersides of the hind wings), aided by the inscriptions on the labels, I could make a meticulous study of the local mutability of forms, it was only when I found those species and races assembled, researched, and especially, illustrated in the just-published Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire that a fascinating, lifelike portrait would reveal to me the mystery of the prepared lepidopteron: henceforth it was mine.
I knew what labors, what tender care, and what diligence had been required of the miniaturist painters working under the supervision of my father (who himself also participated in this task: for instance, both the Triphysa zemphyra Godun. and the phryne Pall., on plate 34 of Volume I are the work of his own hand), for what I saw as an initiation into the mystery. I knew that, first, a photographic transparency was made of the butterfly; that this perfect outline awaited the press and caress of color from supremely refined brushes; that the butterfly itself, in greatly enlarged form, was projected like a sunrise before the artist, who, separated by a magic lens from his own enormous pink fingers, would color the pattern, photographed in actual size, but enlarged by the lens to the size of the projected model. I no longer remember the details of the method (I have always been ridiculously devoid of a technical bent).... It may turn out that I have missed the very essence that would have transformed the prismatically radiant muddle of light, lens, and color into a meaningful image.... Be that as it may, through the conjunction of three factors -- tracing under the magnifying glass, the special solution of the pigments found thanks to experiments on the chromatism of the scales, and finally, the diabolical spark of the individual artist (at various times my father had working for him such masters as Mastakov, Frenkel, Innokentiy Petrov, Rukavishnikov, and others) -- truly bewitching beauty was achieved. Today, after an interval of many years, as I examine anew those magnificent, velvety plates, I not only relish with greater maturity of perception their perfection, unattained by anyone else from Hьbner to Culot, the silky, flower-dusty, vividly hazy delicacy of those colors (that last epithet contains no contradiction for one who has feasted on the pinkishness of a freshly emerged sphingid, or an auroral cloudlet, or the rainbow at the opening of the second chapter), but, in addition, I relive in my temples, oppressive and intense to the point of making them buzz, that swarthy winter morning with the lamp's reflection on the lacquered wood of the screen adorned with Chinese birds, when I was in bed recovering from one of the childhood illnesses across whose deserts I kept pursuing my father's caravan, and my mother brought me, with a special play of her features -- as if to say, oh, I'm holding something not especially interesting -- as she slyly, lovingly replied to the moans of my yearning, to the frenzied groping of my outstretched hands, sharing beforehand all the quiver, all the goose-pimpled nakedness of my soul, the joy that would have bounced me out of my bed had she waited another second, a magnificently solid, boxed, freshly printed, first volume of Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire. ...
* * *
HOW I luxuriated in it in the blissfully languorous days of my convalescence, with a crumb of toast tormenting my buttock, weakness in my shoulders, a constantly filling bladder, and a cottony haze in my nape.... I liked the solidity of my father's method, for I liked sturdy toys. For every genus there was a supplementary list of Palearctic species that did not occur within the confines under examination, complete with precise "references" to textual location. Each Russian butterfly was allocated from one to five pages of small print, depending on its obscurity or variability, i.e., the more mysterious or changeable, the more attention it received. In places a small map helped to assimilate the detailed description of a species' or its subspecies' distribution, just as an oval photograph in the text added something to the careful exposition of observations of the habits observed in a given butterfly. The "leak" of a species westward as far as Andalusia was followed just as attentively as its adventures in the mountains of Central Asia. Corrections of old errors were enlivened by polemic thrusts, and I can picture the author's laughing eyes, as I read today, "When I dropped in on this genus [Syrichtus, an old name for the Grizzled Skippers] I found it in an awful state after a half-century of classifiers' struggles," or, when I come upon the good-humored demolition of some "discovery" by that German muddler who recklessly let loose with names (all mythological to boot, even Walpurgian), creating along the way, countless local, often imaginary races, even disrupting his own priority, such as it was, with secondary descriptions of the same subspecies from a different location -- but his entomological fervor and his splendidly assembled collections allowed him to be forgiven everything.
Today, as I reread these four plump volumes (of a different color, alas, than the blue gifts brought for my childhood), not only do I find in them my fondest recollections, and revel in information that, at the time, was not as comprehensible, but the very body, flow, and structure of the whole work touches me in the professional sense of a craft handed down. I suddenly recognize in my father's words the wellsprings of my own prose: squeamishness toward fudging and smudging, the reciprocal dovetailing of thought and word, the inchworm progress of a sentence -- and even some embryos of my own parentheses. To these traits must be added my father's predilection for the semicolon (often preceding a conjunction -- something one does find in the language of his university tutors: "that scholarly pause," an echo of unhurried English logic -- but at the same time related to Montaigne whom he regarded so highly); and I doubt that the development of these traits under my frequently willful pen was a conscious act.
I copy out the following full-blooded, flowing periods (from his preface to the genus Lycaena):
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?
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 schцn in Mouli-net, Hans -- schцner als auf Sumatra?" -- " ... Moi, qui a chassй 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 espиce mйditerranйenne, а l'abdomen fin et poudrй, 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.
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
REACHING again into the basket of generally accessible examples, let us recall the analogy noticeable between the development of individual and species. Here an examination of the human brain can be most fruitful. We emerge from darkness and infancy and regress into infancy and darkness, completing an entire circle of existence. In the course of life we learn, among other things, the concept of "species," unknown to the ancestors of our culture. Yet, not only is the history of mankind parodied by the developmental history of the writer of these and other lines, but the development of human ratiocination, in both the individual and historic senses, is extraordinarily linked to nature, the spirit of nature considered as the aggregate of all its manifestations, and all the modifications of them conditioned by time. How is it conceivable, in fact, that amid the huge jumble containing the embryos of countless organs (of which up to forty-three are currently represented), the magnificent chaos of nature never included thought? One can doubt the ability of a genius to animate marble, but one cannot doubt that one afflicted by idiocy will never create a Galatea. Human intelligence, with all its limitations and rights, inasmuch as it is a gift of nature, and a perpetually repeated one, cannot fail to exist in the warehouse of the bestower. It may, in that dark storehouse, differ from its species seen in sunlight as a marble god is distinct from the convolutions of the sculptor's brain -- but still it exists. Certain whims of nature can be, if not appreciated, at least merely noticed only by a brain that has developed in a related manner, and the sense of these whims can only be that -- like a code or a family joke -- they are accessible only to the illuminated, i.e., human, mind, and have no other mission than to give it pleasure -- we are speaking of the fantastic refinement of "protective mimicry," which, in a world lacking an appointed observer endowed with artistic sensitivity, imagination, and humor, would simply be useless (lost upon the world), like a small volume of Shakespeare lying open in the dust of a boundless desert. This fact, even taken alone, implies a silent, subtle, charmingly sly conspiracy between nature and the one who alone can understand, who alone has at last achieved this comprehension -- a spiritual alliance concluded above and beyond all the seething, the stirring, the darkness of roaming reveilles, behind the back of all the world's organic life.
Just as an increase in the brain's complexity is accompanied by a multiplication of concepts, so the history of nature demonstrates a gradual development in nature herself of the basic concept of species and genus as they take form. We are right in saying quite literally, in the human, cerebral sense, that nature grows wiser as time passes, that in a given period it has reached this or that specific stage. The only nit that can be picked is that we do not know what we imply when we say "nature" or "the spirit of nature." But, as we shall see, this monstrous "X" to which, taking advantage of its infinite spaciousness, we ascribe responsibility even for our ignorance about its true countenance, does not avoid us in some inviolable mist, but merely does not turn our way. This particularity, in turn, opens the way toward identification, and strikes the first blow toward concrete comprehension, promising us what we, who were raised on the idea of orbits, can naturally expect, upon the sighting of anything revolving away from us, that it will keep rotating until it turns back to face us.
Until that happens we must be content with the half-smile of averted lips, a conspiratorial sign, an elusive glance from narrowed eyes. In order to bring into focus the concrete subject that interests us -- the formation of the species concept in nature's mind -- this sign should suffice; but the path of thought pursuing the given objective is such a mirror-slippery slope -- follows, like any correct but barely passable path, such a narrow ledge above such a chasm of nonsense -- that its very novelty can already give a sense of falling.
We must imagine a certain remote time on earth, when the concept of species (or genus) was as foreign to nature as it is foreign to the infancy of a human or of humanity. A three-year-old child thinks a cow is the wife of a stallion, and a dog the husband of a cat. Even the Stagirite, although he could distinguish between a "cabbage butterfly" and a moth that flew flamewards (that, apparently, was the extent of Aristotle's lepidopterological erudition), understood less about this distinction than a child or a layman today. Yet, long before the dawn of mankind, nature had already erected stage sets in expectation of future applause, the chrysalis of the Plum Thecla [Strymonida pruni, the Black Hairstreak] was already made up to look like bird droppings, the whole play, performed nowadays with such subtle perfection, had been readied for production, only awaited the sitting down of the foreseen and inevitable spectator, our intelligence of today (for tomorrow's, a new show was in preparation).
However, in that most remote of times that we must now imagine, none of this had yet been conceived. Nature was ignorant of genera and species; the specimen reigned supreme. As a crude illustration of the position it occupied one might say that a squirrel that mated with a goose would give birth to a giraffe, a sturgeon, and a garden spider. In reality, of course, such common creatures did not yet exist and, if so clamorous an example is given, it is only to jar the reader's imagination from its habitual stance....
AT this point we shall take the liberty of digressing somewhat, or, rather, of opening some parentheses, with a reminder that numerous accumulated observations had persuaded [my father], in the first place, of the absolute impossibility that given similarities were attained through evolution, through the gradual accumulation of resemblance, or through the fixation of magical mutations (the very thing that caused him to reexamine and reject the more "logical" theory of the origin of species); and, secondly, of the utter uselessness (which incidentally disproves the obtuse lex parsimoniae of the old-time naturalists) of such resplendent masks for the well-being of mimetic forms....
Let us also consider that, through a natural concomitance of circumstances (and it could not be otherwise), we arrived in time for the main act of the comedy of mimicry. In nature as it exists today one does not note forms of half- or quarter-resemblance that would indicate that we are present as well at certain intermediate stages of the phenomenon in question, together with some closer to accomplishment. Obviously one cannot number among such approximations the ability of a certain caterpillar to assume, impromptu, the color of a plant or a net with which the experimenter has surrounded it. Perfection of color tonality is attained immediately. At the same time, this does not represent a "new" manifestation of protective coloration occurring before our eyes, but rather a play of the same nature-inspired possibilities inherent in the object under investigation, and withholding its secret from forced demonstration. Thus, not only the "aimlessness" of the accomplishment (the "aimlessness" of pure art), but also the absence of transitional forms, the ultimate clarity of observed phenomena, arouses strong doubts about the evolutionary progressive character of their genesis. The impossibility of achieving false similarities via a gradual accumulation of corresponding traits, whether by chance or as a consequence of "natural selection," is proven by a simple lack of time. If the former process occurred, then, by the most generous calculation, by the removal of the mime's birth date into the most distant depths of centuries, the line beyond which lie fossil species whose organic harmony coincides with the existence of other, extinct representatives of the animal kingdom could in no way harmonize with the existence of any species (or genus)familiar to us -- that line confines its history to some kind of limits susceptible to some kind of calculable extremes. Yet a trillion light years would hardly be sufficient, even thanks to a series of happy coincidences, to disguise a multitude of disparate species by one and the same process (for instance, endowing a folded butterfly with the exact appearance of a certain variety of leaf with the artistic bonus of a realistic flaw: a small hole eaten through it by somebody's larva)....
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.
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