Nabokov carried tradition of gentleman naturalist into mid-century
Although writer Vladimir Nabokov often used a hand lens for his taxonomic study of butterflies, historian Daniel Alexandrov may be the first to treat Nabokov himself as a "lens," specifically to provide a view of fundamental changes in Western culture during the first half of the 1900s.
"A Russian aristocrat, writer and scientist, Nabokov represents the features of a cultural world of 'aristocratic' natural history which blended aesthetics and science," said Alexandrov, a Center Research Fellow and historian of science from the European University of St. Petersburg. "Through the lens of Nabokov and entomology, I'm studying major changes in thought-style and lifestyle in the 20th century."
The changes signaled the end of "genteel" cultural practices rooted in 19th century culture, a shift that Alexandrov said can be attributed to a number of factors, including World War I, industrialism, and a move away from classical education. An important aspect of the shift was the replacement of traditional taxonomy by modern science, a transformation that Nabokov resisted. That he refused to change his thinking in response to contemporary Darwinian views makes him a useful focal point for Alexandrov's analysis of changing cultural practices in Russia and the West.
Nabokov's science, like his writing, is inseparably rooted in a privileged upbringing in a St. Petersburg house and country estate rich with paintings and insects, art and nature. Butterflies and beetles were for him, as for other aristocratic entomologists of the time, aesthetic objects akin to paintings and engravings. Nature was equated with art, and the conservation of nature with the preservation of art.
When the Bolsehvik revolution forced the family to emigrate to Europe, the trappings of an aristocratic lifestyle were left behind although Nabokov's aristocratic point of view remained intact even when he moved to the United States in 1940. He taught at Wellesley and worked for six years as a curator of butterflies in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Already a published novelist in Russian, Nabokov's first publication in English was the article, "A Few Notes on Crimean Lepidoptera."
His vision of nature and belief in the immanent laws of form put Nabokov at the center of a debate in taxonomy and evolutionary biology fueled by Darwinian ideas, including Ernst Mayr's population concept of species, that is as an interbreeding population rather than a set of individuals sharing observable "type" characteristics. A sharp critic of Mayr, Nabokov wrote, "Taxonomists would be far better in describing with precision all the morphological details of certain forms than in studying so-called populations - what a dreadfully misused and hideous word, anyway."
In his autobiographical Speak, Memory, Nabokov marvels at the elaborate mimicry in larvae and butterflies aimed at fooling predators, and dismisses Darwin's evolutionary explanation: "'Natural selection,' in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of 'the struggle for life' when a protective devise was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator's power of appreciation. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception."
The new taxonomic approach attempted to eliminate aesthetics from science, said Alexandrov, by its recognition of the boundaries between the scientific and non-scientific, between science and art. Some characterize the discarding of aesthetic principles for purposes of biological classification as a "professionalization" of science but this is too narrow a view - Nabokov and others like him were certainly "professional" in their meticulousness. What changed was the notion of expertise. When the aristocracy dominated public and professional life, fields such as entomology, law and medicine were assumed to require a "gift" for the work. Entomology, like painting, required a "special eye." In the new industrial society, the keys to becoming an expert were training and education.
Science, in particular, was assumed to be accessible to anyone who could learn the skills, and this, in turn, was linked to the education system. As part of the move toward efficiency in schools after the war, high-brow genteel education was replaced by modernist education, with a strong attack on gentlemanly, "useless" Latin and Greek. Although Nabokov was sent to a school in St. Petersburg that down-played Greek and Latin, his upbringing formed him into a representative of high culture that, unlike many peers, he never relinquished.
"Many who had been raised with aristocratic lifestyles 'surrendered' in the 1930's, that is, they changed their minds, not just because of arguments against the past but because their daily lives changed - thought-style changes with lifestyle. But Nabokov lived in his past and his prose. There was no need for him to change his life and mode of thought."
Had he remained in Russia, it's possible, perhaps likely, that Nabokov would have become an entomologist who wrote rather than a writer who did entomology. Recognizing that both pursuits were of consuming seriousness - and prodded by his wife, Vera - Nabokov focused on writing, and was not employed as an entomologist again after the Harvard stint although he collected and studied butterflies until his death in 1977.
Although Alexandrov will include several other expatriot Russian entomologists in his study, Nabokov is the key figure. His loyalty to aesthetic essentialism into the middle of the 20thcentury, said Alexandrov, "allows us to view both the cultural richness of a form of life to which he belonged and the ending of its existence brought about by general changes in the modernization and professionalization of science."