The Paradox of Intellectual Promiscuity: Stephen Jay Gould on What Nabokov’s Butterfly Studies Reveal About the Unity of Creativity
By Maria Popova
The history of human culture is rife with creators hailed as geniuses in one domain who also had a notable but lesser-known talent in another — take, for instance, Richard Feynman’s sketches, J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustrations, Sylvia Plath’s drawings, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age illustrations, Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, David Lynch’s conceptual art, and Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors. Only rarely, however, do we encounter a person who has contributed to culture in a significant way in both art and science.
No one, argues Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941–May 20, 2002) — perhaps the greatest science-storyteller humanity has ever had, a man of uncommon genius in the art of dot-connecting — better merits recognition for such duality of genius than Vladimir Nabokov, a titan of literary storytelling and a formidable lepidopterist who studied, classified, and drew a major group of butterflies, and even served as unofficial curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.
In a spectacular essay titled “The Paradox of Intellectual Promiscuity,” found in his altogether indispensable final essay collection I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History (public library), Gould uses Nabokov’s case to make a beautiful and urgently necessary broader case against our culture’s chronic tendency to pit art and science against one another — “We have been befogged by a set of stereotypes about conflict and difference between these two great domains of human understanding,” he laments — and to assume that if a person has talent and passion for both areas, he or she can achieve greatness in only one and is necessarily a mere hobbyist in the other.
We tend toward benign toleration when great thinkers and artists pursue disparate activities as a harmless hobby, robbing little time from their fundamental achievements… We grieve when we sense that a subsidiary interest stole precious items from a primary enterprise of great value… When we recognize that a secondary passion took substantial time from a primary source of fame, we try to assuage our grief over lost novels, symphonies, or discoveries by convincing ourselves that a hero’s subsidiary love must have informed or enriched his primary activity — in other words, that the loss in quantity might be recompensed by a gain in quality.
But Gould argues that neither lamentation of such “intellectual promiscuity” detracting from the primary endeavor nor the manufactured comfort of believing that one domain enriched the other is an appropriate response to Nabokov’s two great loves, literature and butterflies. Gould unambiguously annihilates a common misconception about the great author:
Nabokov was no amateur (in the pejorative sense of the term), but a fully qualified, clearly talented, duly employed professional taxonomist, with recognized “world class” expertise in the biology and classification of a major group, the Latin American Polyommatini, popularly known to butterfly aficionados as “blues.”
No passion burned longer, or more deeply, in Nabokov’s life than his love for the natural history and taxonomy of butterflies. He began in early childhood, encouraged by a traditional interest in natural history among the upper-class intelligentsia of Russia (not to mention the attendant economic advantages of time, resources, and opportunity).
The reasons often given for attributing to Nabokov either an amateur, or even only a dilettante’s, status arise from simple ignorance of accepted definitions for professionalism in this field.
Nabokov loved his butterflies as much as his literature. He worked for years as a fully professional taxonomist, publishing more than a dozen papers that have stood the test of substantial time.
That he received an annual salary of merely a thousand dollars during his six years at Harvard’s zoology museum and worked under the vague title Research Fellow shouldn’t be used as evidence of Nabokov’s amateurishness — in making a larger point about the rich history of people working on what they love for little or no pay, Gould points out that several esteemed curators at the museum during his own tenure worked as volunteers for the symbolic annual salary of one dollar. In one of his many spectacular, almost outraged asides — Gould’s signature intelligent zingers — he drives home the point that there is little correlation between merit and prestige:
Every field includes some clunkers and nitwits, even in high positions!
Returning to the two camps of explaining Nabokov’s dual giftedness — and parallel talents in general — Gould writes:
In seeking some explanation for legitimate grief, we may find solace in claiming that Nabokov’s transcendent genius permitted him to make as uniquely innovative and distinctive a contribution to lepidoptery as to literature. However much we may wish that he had chosen a different distribution for his time, we can at least, with appropriate generosity, grant his equal impact and benefit upon natural history… However, no natural historian has ever viewed Nabokov as an innovator, or as an inhabitant of what humanists call the “vanguard” (not to mention the avant-garde) and scientists the “cutting edge.” Nabokov may have been a major general of literature, but he can only be ranked as a trustworthy, highly trained career infantryman in natural history.
Even Nabokov’s butterfly drawings, Gould points out, were great but far from masterworks of natural history illustration, especially in comparison to the work of such visionaries as butterfly-drawing grand dame Maria Merian.
Here, we are reminded of another perilous pathology of our culture — in the cult of genius, as in any cult, we leave no room for nuance; mere greatness is not good enough — one must lay a claim on grandeur. This is perhaps the most extreme testament to how perfectionism thwarts creativity.
But despite his mere greatness at lepidoptery, Nabokov regarded his time at the zoology museum as the most “delightful and thrilling” in his adult life — so creatively electrified was the author there that his years at Harvard even produced history’s most epic and entertaining account of food poisoning. But his love of butterflies began much earlier. In fact, one of the very first things Nabokov wrote in English, at the age of twelve, was a paper on Lepidoptera. The only reason it wasn’t published was that it turned out the butterfly in question had already been described by someone else.
This remark, which Gould makes rather in passing, made me wonder whether the incident instilled in young Vladimir an early reverence for attribution of discovery. As Gould later notes in another passing mention, Nabokov frequently voiced annoyance with scientists and science-writers not attributing discovery — not acknowledging the person who discovered and named a butterfly species. Therein lies a broader, and rather timely, lament about our culture’s failure to honor discovery as a creative act and a subset of scholarship — such a scientist, after all, doesn’t invent a species, for it already exists in nature, but discovers it, names it, and contextualizes it in the canon of natural history. It is no coincidence that Nabokov’s own role at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology was that of curator, for this is the task of the curator — to describe, arrange, and contextualize what already exists in such a way as to shed new light on its meaning, to discover and un-cover its significance and place in the canon of ideas.
Embedded in this act is also a lineage of discovery, similar to the “links in a chain” metaphor Pete Seeger used for creativity: I learned of Nabokov’s pet peeve about discovery thanks to Stephen Jay Gould — perhaps the greatest curator of scientific ideas the world has ever known, the greatest contextualizer of such ideas in the popular imagination — and you learned of it via me, and the person you tell about this will learn of it via you. All of us are links in the evolutionary chain of ideas, much like each butterfly species discovered is a link in the evolutionary chain of natural history. This is why Richard Dawkins, in coining the word meme, used a metaphor from evolutionary biology to describe how ideas spread: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.”
But back to Nabokov: His dedication to the integrity of discovery prompted him to write a short poem titled “A Discovery” in 1943:
Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss
Poems that take a thousand years to die
But ape the immortality of this
Red label on a little butterfly.
It might also be why he was so passionate about the integrity of detail. In a motto that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable assertion that “a writer is a professional observer,” Nabokov instructed his literature students:
Caress the details, the divine details. In high art and pure science, detail is everything.
In this, Gould finds the reconciliatory unity between Nabokov’s two great loves and how they communed with one another:
Although time spent on lepidoptery almost surely decreased his literary output, the specific knowledge and the philosophical view of life that Nabokov gained from his scientific career directly forged (or at least strongly contributed to) his unique literary style and excellence… Perhaps the major linkage of science and literature lies in some distinctive, underlying approach that Nabokov applied equally to both domains — a procedure that conferred the same special features upon all his efforts.
Among great twentieth-century thinkers, I know no better case than Nabokov’s for testing the hypothesis that an underlying unity of mental style (at a level clearly meriting the accolade of genius) can explain one man’s success in extensive and fully professional work in two disciplines conventionally viewed as maximally different, if not truly opposed. If we can validate this model for attributing interdisciplinary success to a coordinating and underlying mental uniqueness, rather than invoking the conventional argument about overt influence of one field upon another, then Nabokov’s story may teach us something important about the unity of creativity, and the falsity (or at least the contingency) of our traditional separation, usually in mutual recrimination, of art from science.
Therein, Gould argues, lies the only true solace in the accusation of “intellectual promiscuity.” Debunking the two false explanations of the Nabokov paradox — that “lepidoptery represented a harmless private passion, robbing no substantial time from his literary output” and that “his general genius at least made his lepidoptery as distinctive and as worthy as his literature” — Gould writes:
Nabokov’s two apparently disparate careers therefore find their common ground on the most distinctive feature of his unusual intellect and uncanny skill — the almost obsessive attention to meticulous and accurate detail that served both his literary productions and his taxonomic descriptions so well, and that defined his uncompromising commitment to factuality as both a principle of morality and a guarantor and primary guide to aesthetic quality.
Science and literature therefore gain their union on the most palpable territory of concrete things, and on the value we attribute to accuracy, even in smallest details, as a guide and an anchor for our lives, our loves, and our senses of worth… Of all scientific subfields, none raises the importance of intricate detail to such a plateau of importance as Nabokov’s chosen profession of taxonomic description for small and complex organisms. To function as a competent professional in the systematics of Lepidoptera, Nabokov really had no choice but to embrace such attention to detail, and to develop such respect for nature’s endless variety.
The universal and defining excellence of a professional taxonomist built a substrate for the uncommon, and (in Nabokov’s case) transcendent, excellence of a writer.
But Gould’s most important point of all has little to do with Nabokov and everything to do with the toxic mythologies of creativity to which we, as a culture and as individuals, subscribe:
An ancient, and basically anti-intellectual, current in the creative arts has now begun to flow more strongly than ever before in recent memory-the tempting Siren song of a claim that the spirit of human creativity stands in direct opposition to the rigor in education and observation that breeds both our love for factual detail and our gain of sufficient knowledge and understanding to utilize this record of human achievement and natural wonder.
No more harmful nonsense exists than this common supposition that deepest insight into great questions about the meaning of life or the structure of reality emerges most readily when a free, undisciplined, and uncluttered (read, rather, ignorant and uneducated) mind soars above mere earthly knowledge and concern. The primary reason for emphasizing the supreme aesthetic and moral value of detailed factual accuracy, as Nabokov understood so well, lies in our need to combat this alluring brand of philistinism if we wish to maintain artistic excellence as both a craft and an inspiration.
If we assign too much of our total allotment to the mastery of detail, we will have nothing left for general theory and integrative wonder. But such a silly model of mental functioning can only arise from a false metaphorical comparison of human creativity with irrelevant systems based on fixed and filled containers — pennies in a piggy bank or cookies in a jar.
Gould ends by exhorting us:
Let us celebrate Nabokov’s excellence in natural history, and let us also rejoice that he could use the same mental skills and inclinations to follow another form of bliss.
Human creativity seems to work much as a coordinated and complex piece, whatever the different emphases demanded by disparate subjects-and we will miss the underlying commonality if we only stress the distinctions of external subjects and ignore the unities of internal procedure. If we do not recognize the common concerns and characteristics of all creative human activity, we will fail to grasp several important aspects of intellectual excellence-including the necessary interplay of imagination and observation (theory and empirics) as an intellectual theme, and the confluence of beauty and factuality as a psychological theme-because one field or the other traditionally downplays one side of a requisite duality.
I cannot imagine a better test case for extracting the universals of human creativity than the study of deep similarities in intellectual procedure between the arts and sciences.
No one grasped the extent of this underlying unity better than Vladimir Nabokov, who worked with different excellences as a complete professional in both domains.
Nabokov broke the boundaries of art and science by stating that the most precious desideratum of each domain must also characterize any excellence in the other — for, after all, truth is beauty, and beauty truth.
Gould seals this beautiful truth with a line — an exquisite, ennobling, oft-cited line — from one of Nabokov’s interviews:
There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts.
I Have Landed remains one of the finest tapestries of thought ever woven in the history of science storytelling. Complement this particular thread with Nabokov on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great writer, what makes a great reader, and his sublime love letters to his wife.
Published January 19, 2015