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On Butterflies and Being
From the archives
[As promised, here is the column from 2009 recounting my earlier uncanny encounter with a Vanessa atalanta sent my way—I’m sure of it—by the Shade of Vladimir Nabokov.]
We are living this year in a cottage in the forest, halfway up the slope and under the slightly furrowed brow of a green mountain whose ridge forms our western horizon, and over which the brief twilight rises in the evening as a pale gold thinly fringed with dark amethyst. The days are filled with the incessant clamor of stridulating and timbalating insects, to which at night—undiminished—is added the mighty song of the Upland Chorus Frog (Pseudacris feriarum, for those with a taste for taxonomic Latin) and the sweet belling of the Cope’s Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis). Earlier in the summer, the woods were full of fireflies, but they are gone now. The only regularly invited visitors to our rustic retreat are Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds—who come for the red nectar in the two feeders hanging on either side of the house—and a large assortment of butterflies—whom we entice to our porch with sprays of purple hyssop. The deer come unbidden, usually in the dawn.
The most numerous of the butterflies—or, at any rate, the most conspicuous—are the common Swallowtails or Papilioninae, of which I have seen two varieties here. There is the splendid Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), whose sable wings are adorned with markings of yellow and iridescent blue; the female is especially lovely, with her lavish train of shimmering sapphire; and on each of the hindwings of either sex there is a single russet ocellation with a black “pupil”. Then there is the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), of which the male is always a bright jonquil yellow striped and bordered with black, but of which the female is either yellow or (more alluringly) black with glittering azure hindwings. There are few sights more purely enchanting up here than that of a yellow male and a black female sailing and fluttering about one another in the erratic choreography of their courtship pas de deux, before finally achieving the fragile stillness of consummation on some leaf or blossom or bending frond. All of us less graceful beasts, it is hard not to think, should be envious of the sheer ethereal delicacy of that lepidopterogamy.
All right, well, I suspect that with that last word I’ve gone a bit too far; so perhaps I should leave off painting the scene and simply get to the story I want to tell—which does indeed involve a butterfly, but not a Swallowtail, of any hue. The lepidopteron in question was, rather, a Red Admiral or—a few last flourishes of Linnaean jargon—a Vanessa atalanta, a butterfly that does not really belong to the Admiral sub-family (Limenitidinae) of the Brushfoots (Nymphalidae) at all, but belongs instead to the True Brushfoot sub-family (the Nymphalinae). It is a gorgeous creature: black with lashings of white on the upper forewings, faintly tinged with ashen blue at its outer and inner tips, and strikingly marked with broad bands of ember red across the centers of its forewings and along the skirts of its hindwings. I have seen it only once since arriving here. What made that lone sighting remarkable to me, though, was neither the butterfly’s beauty nor its comparative rarity in these woods, but the eerily perfect timing of its appearance.
I was sitting on my porch with two volumes I had recently acquired, both by Vladimir Nabokov: a first edition of Pale Fire in good condition, which is not very hard to find, and that Holy Grail of Nabokoviana, a first printing of the 1970 volume Poems and Problems in absolutely immaculate condition, bearing not so much as a single scuff mark on its jacket. And I had just flipped to that haunting passage in the former where John Shade is about to cross the road to his death and a “Red Admirable” (Nabokov preferred the older form of its common name) emerges suddenly from the junipers and shrubs and whirls around the poet “like a colored flame” flashing and vanishing amid the sunbeams, then briefly settles on his sleeve, and then hastily disappears into the shadows of the trees, when a Red Admiral came coasting towards me, performed three elegantly gliding circumvolutions of my head, briefly came to rest on the arm of my chair, and then flew off again and quickly disappeared in the shadows of a Chinese Tulip tree.
The coincidence alone would have been enough to astonish me, but the event was rendered considerably more uncanny by the particular significance of that butterfly in the text. Red Admirals constitute a recurring motif throughout Pale Fire, and many attentive readers have concluded (rightly, I believe) that the one who appears at that point in the novel is a kind of revenant of John Shade’s dead daughter Hazel, either attempting to warn him of the danger across the way or to welcome him over the threshold of the next life. Nabokov, as is well known, was a fairly firm believer in the immortality of the soul, as well as a believer in fate, and he tended to think that the patterns of our lives are in large part shaped and guided by the spiritual community of those who have gone before us. In the strange, often tragic, but also often beautiful symmetries of his own life he thought he could discern the clear workings of these benign presences, close about us at all times, hiding and yet revealing themselves in the exquisite intricacies of nature and art. He certainly would have been pleased by the potently exact synchrony of my experience on my porch and would surely have refused to ascribe it to chance; and I have to admit that, for a brief tremulous moment, I wondered if his spirit had not been teasing me, in a way simultaneously obvious and impenetrable.
There are any number of fascinating aspects to the curious interaction and equally curious demarcation that existed between Nabokov the lepidopterist and Nabokov the artist. As a scientist, he affected to be completely indifferent to the aesthetic splendor of the creatures he studied; and, as a novelist, he affected to despise facile symbolisms. But it is clear from his writings that his love of Lepidoptera was in part fired by the mysterious grandeur of a holometabolous species whose life cycle seems to encompass a magical passage from death to greater life—from the earthbound groping of the larva (in Latin, after all, a word for “ghost” or “funerary mask”), through the golden entombment of the chrysalis, to the winged liberty and polychromatic glory of the fully formed imago (the true “image”). An Atlas Moth breaking from its cocoon at the end of his early story “Christmas”, for instance, clearly figures as an intimation of life beyond death.
A more interesting feature of Nabokov’s interest in butterflies for me, however, and of his entire career as a naturalist, was his intuition—at once metaphysical and aesthetic—that between nature and art there is no ultimate formal difference. Though not in any conventional sense a religious man—his only answer in an interview to the question of whether there is a God was to hint that he knew far more than he could say—he was certain that the natural world exhibited innumerable signs of conscious and even somewhat whimsical artistry: morphological games, almost, patterns of mimicry and delightful complexity that exceeded any purely evolutionary warrant, and that spoke of a sort of creativity whose rationale was ultimately aesthetic. Nature, no less than art, and no less (for that matter) than the mysteriously guided lives of individual men and women, seemed to him a work of supreme intelligence, conjuring enchantments purely for the sake of enchantment.
One has to be careful to make the proper distinctions here. There was nothing in Nabokov’s vision of reality that would have brought his thinking into the vicinity of the current “Intelligent Design” movement, with its logically and epistemologically unverifiable arguments regarding “irreducible complexity” and its crude mechanistic deism and its all-too-immanent god of the gaps. For Nabokov, nature’s “design” was something he thought he perceived in the sheer surfeit of the beautiful over the needful, and in the specular play of formal likenesses and variations among species. It was an aesthetic judgment on the whole of the natural order, not an empirical claim about certain portions of its machinery.
It is hard to know what to make of the more “spiritualist” elements of Nabokov’s beliefs. Perhaps they might be dismissed as the quaint residue of a certain Silver Age Russian hermeticism, or perhaps as just too idiosyncratic to provide a philosophy for any but the very particular sensibility that harbored them. Whatever the case, his beliefs certainly endowed him with a limitless capacity for happiness, one that never failed him even the darkest period of his life, when his family’s vast estates had been seized by the Bolsheviks and he was forced to live the life of an impoverished émigré for decades on end. According to him, he was always able to find life to be a delightful “surprise” and for this reason he was always able to see something more shining through the veils of the ordinary.
And it is this quality of “surprise” that lends depth and poignancy (and delight) to all of Nabokov’s art. Whatever else one makes of his peculiar metaphysics, it is clearly an expression of that most original of human intuitions regarding existence, known to every reflective child, and forgotten only by adults who have coarsened their intellects through moral indifference or “realist” dogmatism: the awareness that the very familiarity of the world of beings is saturated by the infinite strangeness of the fact of being as such. His was nothing other than the ancient Platonic and Aristotelian sense of thaumazein—of original rational wonder at existence—transcribed into a new key. As Wittgenstein said (a pronouncement the implications of which even some of his most avid admirers seem not to notice), it is not how things are, but that they are, that constitutes “the mystical”. Where the Intelligent Design theorist wants us to ponder the (actually incalculable and therefore imponderable) probabilities in how the world is ordered, a simpler and yet immeasurably richer perspective enjoins us to feel awe before the sheer there-ness—the sheer inexplicable that-it-is—of intelligibility and complexity and grandeur.
This is a consciousness of things more aesthetic than empirical and more spiritual than aesthetic, but at every level it is an experience of beauty—which is to say, an experience of the utter non-necessity, the absolute fortuity, of being. Heidegger, in an infuriatingly terse paragraph in the “epilogue” of his “The Origin of the Work of Art”, correctly rejects as inadequate those static understandings of beauty that say it resides simply in form and order and a certain splendor (quod visum placet), and insists on the ontological dimension of the beautiful. No object, however striking, is beautiful as a sheer sensuous effect (that is nothing but a neurological agitation), nor even as an object of intellectual comprehension; it is beautiful because, in addition to these things, there is the mysterious surprisingness of its existence, by which it discloses to us being in its advent, or being as event. The experience of the delightful needlessness of the beautiful awakens us to the needlessness of the existence of things, to their ontological contingency, to the failure of their “essences” (conceived statically) to account for their existence. In this moment, we are aware—not always reflectively or speculatively, admittedly—of the difference between being and beings; and so long as we dwell in that apprehension, we cannot fall prey to that excruciating confusion that makes someone like, say, Richard Dawkins incapable of grasping the difference between the mystery of existence and the question of origins. The philistine hath said in his heart…
At any rate, this is what I take to be the profoundest truth in Nabokov’s belief in nature’s secret artistry: that sheer sense of surprise at the beautiful that—when we seek it, but more often when we do not—reminds us of a deeper surprise that inhabits our consciousness at all times, but of which we are usually oblivious, distracted as we are from being by beings. The surfeit of the beautiful over the necessary is a revelation of the surfeit of being over beings. It is an enigma written as plainly upon the surface of a twig or a brick as upon the wing of a butterfly; but only the greatest artist or saint has the ability to see it with equal ease in all circumstances. Even if my encounter with that Vanessa atalanta was nothing more than a wildly amusing coincidence, or even if it was one of those exquisitely unanticipated patterns that Nabokov’s kindly ghosts weave into the fabric of quotidian existence, the most significant lesson to be learned from it is that—as we all know—every butterfly is a Papilio mysteriosus, an emblem and an emissary of being in its infinite familiarity and infinite strangeness, and all things properly contemplated remind us that, of themselves, they cannot be. And yet they are.