This week, Jason Hartley explores what it means that Vladimir Nabokov, expert novelist and supposed amateur butterfly enthusiast, turns out to also have been a butterfly expert
“A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.”
- Vladimir Nabokov
As you may already know, the Russian author Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita; Pale Fire; Speak, Memory) was several thousand times smarter than you or me. Not only did he write books that few truly understand but almost everyone admires, many of his works are in English yet display a command of the language that most native-born speakers lack. In fact, I’m sure he would excoriate me for the preceding sentence.
In the literary world, only the courageous few dared question his authority when it came to language, likely fearing he would rip them to shreds like he did his friend Edmund Wilson, who thought that his knowledge of Russian was superior to Nabokov’s.
However, those in the world of lepidopterology (the study of butterflies), Nabokov was just another self-taught expert—albeit the self-taught curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University—whose theories were easy to dismiss. In his lifetime, he made an undeniable contribution lepidopterology but ultimately he was considered “undistinguished.”
However, since his death in 1977, scientists have gone back to his work and found a new appreciation for it. And this week, a team of scientists announced that Nabokov’s hypothesis that Polyommatus blues came to North America from Asia was correct. He published his idea about Polyommatus blues in 1945, which means that for more than 60 years, he was considered wrong, when considered at all.
Since I’m the co-creator of the Advanced Genius Theory, which seeks to explains why the later works of geniuses are deplored or ignored, this story was particularly interesting to me. One of the central arguments of the theory is that appreciation of art is subjective, but if there is such a thing as “good art,” it is likely that an accomplished artist like Orson Welles or Bruce Springsteen would know what good art is than just about anyone. But in the case of Nabokov’s butterfly hypothesis, we have someone who is respected in one field dabbling in another in which he has no formal training. He is less Bruce Springsteen and more Return of Bruno-era Bruce Willis. So what, if anything can be learned?
At first, I thought the lesson was that you shouldn’t trust experts. All the experts in the field assumed Nabokov’s hypothesis was wrong without even testing it because he was self-taught. But the Advanced Genius Theory says that you absolutely should trust experts because experts know better than nonexperts.
Then I thought the lesson was simply that you should judge someone’s work by the quality of that work rather than letting preconceptions interfere with our judgment. Only that can’t be because the reason the work of Advanced Geniuses should always be embraced is that they have been so good for so long that whatever they do is almost certainly good as well. Plus, the more Advanced their work, the less likely normal people are to see its greatness, at least until many years later. In other words, we probably shouldn’t trust our own judgment when someone else’s is clearly superior.
Briefly I believed that the lesson was that I needed to give Return of Bruno an honest try. I’ve heard a little bit of that record, but I certainly haven’t subjected it to the repeated listens necessary to understand it. For all I know, it could be fantastic: According to Amazon.com, 34 people gave the record a five-star rating. Of course, 56 people gave it one star, but great art is often polarizing, so those one-star ratings could be evidence in support of the album’s unique greatness. Still, I don’t think that is the lesson.
But now my deadline has come, and the lesson has yet to emerge from my cocoon of confusion. This was to be expected because everything having to do with Vladimir Nabokov turns out to be some kind of riddle that is beyond my capacity to solve, even as I get immense pleasure trying. If I were living in one of his novels, the lesson would probably be embedded in some kind of chess problem conceived beyond the grave.
Unfortunately, I don’t play chess, so I guess I have a date with Mr. Willis.
For more on Advancement, check out Jason’s book The Advanced Genius Theory.