Vladimir Nabokov and Blue Butterflies
January 27, 2011 – Harvard professor Naomi Pierce, a world expert on butterflies, described for CBC Radio listeners tonight novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s “astonishing” breakthroughs in blue butterfly research, in answer to questions by “As-It-Happens” host Carol Off.
The fascinating connection between blue butterflies and literature, from Nabokov to Thomas Mann, is naturally of strong interest here at Blue Butterfly Books.
Vladimir Nabokov, who could dazzle and provoke readers through exquisite imagery and the psychological realism of his characters, worked with equal talent as curator of lepidoptery in charge of Harvard University's butterfly collecting and classification program in the Museum of Comparative Zoology during the 1940s. So great were his contributions in this field that a species of butterflies was named to honor his exacting work: the Nabokovia. It is, most appropriately, a blue butterfly -- a species in the genus Polyommatinae, which is the 'blues' subfamily of gossamer-winged butterflies.
In 1944 Nabokov first identified the 'Karner blue' butterfly in Karner, New York, a subspecies of the more common Melissa blue butterfly. Once described as covering the fields of its habitat "in a sea of blue" along a narrow band ranging from Minnesota through southern Ontario to Maine, the Karner today exists only in isolated and unstable populations on the brink of localized extinction due to habitat destruction and changing climatic conditions in New Hampshire, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Minnesota. This blue butterfly is now a protected endangered species but recovery programs are operating from Ontario through the various states of its former range.
Paleontologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould says Nabokov never accepted that genetics or the counting of chromosomes could be a valid way to distinguish species of insects, and relied on the lepidopterists' traditional microscopic comparison of their genitalia. The Harvard Museum of Natural History still possesses Nabokov's "genitalia cabinet" where the author stored his collection of male blue butterfly genitalia. "Nabokov was a serious taxonomist," says museum staff writer Nancy Pick. "He actually did quite a good job at distinguishing species that you would not think were different-by looking at their genitalia under a microscope six hours a day, seven days a week, until his eyesight was permanently impaired."
Many Nabokov fans have tried to ascribe literary value to his scientific papers, Gould notes. Conversely, others have claimed that his scientific work enriched his literary output. Gould astutely advocates a third view. Rather than assuming that either side of Nabokov's work caused or stimulated the other, Gould proposes that both stemmed from Nabokov's love of detail, contemplation and symmetry. Gould's holistic understanding of human capacity would also explains Nabaokov's intense dedication to developing complex chess problems.
No symbol could be more appropriate for the literary experience than a blue butterfly. Like Vladimir Nabokov's own writing, this creature of beauty and freedom takes flight on a journey that carries us through the intersection of reality and human imagination.
For more on how recent research using latest scientific methods substantiates earlier theories proposed by Vladimir Nabokov to explain the presence in North America of five distinct varieties of blue butterflies previously considered closely related., see the story, “Nabokov Theory Butterfly Evolution is Vindicated” here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/science/01butterfly.html?src=ISMR_AP_LO_MST_FB
Karner Blue Facts
Scientific name: Lyceaides melissa samuelis
Wing Span: about an inch longDiet: adults, nectar; larvae, wild lupine leaves
Habitat: sandy pine prairies, barrens and lakeshore dunes