Fine Lines

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Title: Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art

Edited by: Stephen H. Blackwell & Kurt Johnson

Publisher: Yale University Press, 2016

 

Review by Bob Lane

    A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

    I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.  – C. P. Snow 1959

It is over fifty years since Snow’s warning about two cultures. The term two cultures has entered the general lexicon as shorthand for differences between two attitudes. These are

  1. the increasingly constructivist world view from the humanities, in which the scientific method is seen as embedded within language and culture; and hence relativistic
  2. the scientific viewpoint, in which the observer can still claim to objectively make unbiased and non-culturally embedded observations about nature.

Nabokov, interestingly, did not agree with Snow and his professional work bears out that disagreement. Nabokov joined the staff of Wellesley College in 1941 as resident lecturer in comparative literature. The position, created specifically for him, provided an income and free time to write creatively and pursue his lepidoptery. Nabokov is remembered as the founder of Wellesley’s Russian Department. He served through the 1947–48 term as Wellesley’s one-man Russian Department, offering courses in Russian language and literature. His classes were popular, due as much to his unique teaching style as to the wartime interest in all things Russian. At the same time he was the de facto curator of lepidoptery at Harvard University‘s Museum of Comparative Zoology.After being encouraged by Morris Bishop, Nabokov left Wellesley in 1948 to teach Russian and European literature at Cornell University, where he taught until 1959. Science and art were part of the same spectrum of human activities for him, and his work exhibits that continuum throughout.

Most everyone has read Nabokov’s literature (at the very least, Lolita), but often his scientific interests are overlooked. Fine Lines highlights the two interconnected interests of Nabokov: art and science. “This landmark book is the first full appraisal of Vladimir Nabokov’s long-neglected contributions as a scientist. Although his literary achievements are renowned, until recently his scientific discoveries were ignored or dismissed by many. Nabokov created well over 1,000 technical illustrations of the anatomical structures of butterflies, seeking to understand the evolutionary diversity of small butterflies called Blues. But only lately have scientists confirmed his meticulous research and vindicated his surprising hypotheses.

This volume reproduces 154 of Nabokov’s drawings, few of which have ever been seen in public, and presents essays by ten leading scientists and Nabokov specialists. The contributors underscore the significance of Nabokov’s drawings as scientific documents, evaluate his visionary contributions to evolutionary biology and systematics, and offer insights into his unique artistic perception and creativity.”

The volume is comprised of a preface explaining the project, black and white drawings by Nabokov, a large number of color plates, ten essays concerning his scientific drawings written by leading Nabokov specialists and by scientists studying the same groups of butterflies that he studied, connecting his work to the history of science, an essay on fictional realism by Dorion Sagan, and Nabokov’s notes and labels from the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Also a chronology of Nabokov’s life, a bibliography and illustration credits. In short, this is a comprehensive study of the “butterfly” part of this famous writer’s life.

The book is a fascinating read and has received a great deal of well-deserved advance praise:

“This detailed and gorgeous volume of Nabokov’s scientific achievements inspires both artistic and aesthetic appreciation for readers, historians, and scientists alike.”—Publishers Weekly

 

“This collection explains to the layman just why Nabokov’s scientific work was so successful and important. The drawings are absolutely stunning—even to someone without a scientific background they are arresting. Lepidopterists will surely want to own it, but more importantly, this will be a treasure for Nabokov fans.”—Eric Naiman, author of Nabokov, Perversely

 

“This is a very valuable contribution to understanding one of the great novelists of the Twentieth Century. It is a superb example of how a creative mind can combine art and science in ways that make them both greater than they would have otherwise been. A landmark book.”—Thomas E. Lovejoy, George Mason University

 

“What makes this volume special is not so much its attempt to merge Nabokov’s philosophy and science, but its ability to include all the relevant authors on the subject of Nabokov’s dual nature.”—Nina Khrushcheva, author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics

 

“After a period of separation during the 20th century, the convergent territories of science and art are once again providing a fertile ground for understanding the complexities of the world we live in. Fine Lines presents a welcome and rare insight into Nabokov’s obsessive attention to detail so prominent in his writing. The rich collection of his illustrations, reveal an unintended artistry born out of meticulous observation. Drawings of wing cells appear like working diagrams for Art Deco rugs and the ambiguous surreal forms of the reproductive organs of butterflies reveal a synchronous synergy with the drawings of Miro and David Smith.”—Rob Kesseler, co-author of Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers

 

“The wonderful drawings and remarkable essays in this book allow us to trace Nabokov’s steps in many ways and on many pages. The result is a long close-up of an ideal form of curiosity.”—Michael Wood, Princeton University

 

In an interview quoted in James Mallet’s essay “Nabokov’s Evolution” the interviewer asks, “Is there any connection [of lepidoptery] with your writing? Nabokov answers, There is in a general way because I think that in a work of art there is a kind of merging between two things, between the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure science. In that essay we learn that “late in life he snobbishly argued that C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures represented only a slight divide between lowbrow literary culture  . . . and trivial utlilitarian science.”

Nabokov certainly has one foot in each of the two cultures and this book brilliantly exhibits that stance.

 

Bob Lane is an emeritus professor of philosophy and religious studies at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.

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