Friday, December 01, 2006
Nabokov: Butterflies, Darwin, Mimesis
From Nabokov’s Speak, Memory:
“The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me. Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things. Consider the imitation of oozing poison by bubblelike macules on a wing (complete with pseudo-refraction) or by glossy yellow knobs on a chrysalis ("Don’t eat me--I have already been squashed, sampled and rejected"). Consider the tricks of an acrobatic caterpillar (of the Lobster Moth) which in infancy looks like bird’s dung, but after molting develops scrabbly hymenopteroid appendages and baroque characteristics, allowing the extraordinary fellow to play two parts at once (like the actor in Oriental shows who becomes a pair of intertwisted wrestlers): that of a writhing larva and that of a big ant seemingly harrowing it. When a certain moth resembles a certain wasp in shape and color, it also walks and moves its antennae in a waspish, unmothlike manner. When a butterfly has to look like a leaf, not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes are generously thrown in. “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 device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.”
My students, I was happy to see, were a little shocked that someone with Nabokov’s way of seeing things would say something that might even remotely be construed as Intelligent Design-ish. And indeed, Darwinian natural selection, as I understand it, does have a fine explanation for the “miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior”: any mutant variety that doesn’t exhibit perfect imitation is going to get eaten.
I tried to deflect the conversation onto Nabokov’s real point here, which begins with the principle that art requires a kind of heroic, almost obsessive attention to mimesis. You put way more effort into representing the world in your art than your predator (or reader) is likely to ever notice. Secondly, the quality that makes your labor “art” comes from the excess, which is, like the butterfly that looks like a leaf with “grub-bored holes,” also always in some sense deceptive ("an intricate enchantment and deception"). If art is both mimetic and deceptive, perhaps Nabokov is trying to say that mimesis itself is always primarily deceptive, not duplicative. You make a butterfly that looks amazingly like a leaf, but you don’t attempt to clone the genetic structure of the leaf itself. Indeed, in some sense you don’t care about the leaf per se (i.e., the fabric of reality) at all.
One association with this: you can have distance created just by duplication, at which point mimesis becomes something else. I’ve been working on this with my students, because we’re reading a story called “At The Tolstoy Museum” by Donald Barthelme. In the story, Barthelme “mimes” visitors attending a museum and bursting into tears at Tolstoy’s authority. However, it is impossible to read about them doing this without laughing, simply because we’re seeing them from the outside. Mimesis creates a mirroring that is deceptive because, in the act of duplication, we end up outside of both instantiations (just as Speak, Memory is outside of both Nabokov’s art and his natural science collections).
"My students ... were a little shocked that someone with Nabokov’s way of seeing things would say something that might even remotely be construed as Intelligent Design-ish.“
I’m a little surprised they’re surprised. Nabokov was always a God-ist, after all. (I don’t hold it against him. Several great writers were.) The self-penned epigraph at the beginning of Invitation to a Beheading goes: “Comme un fou se croit Dieu, nous nous croyons mortels”
This is so strange. I myself am writing about Nabokov and mimicry and butterflies at this very moment, and ... well, this is just incredibly convenient. Thanks for the paper link, nnyhav. That promises to be just bloody helpful is all I can say.
The Tolstoy Museum is great, too. All those pictures of Tolstoy, ma.
"And indeed, Darwinian natural selection, as I understand it, does have a fine explanation for the “miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior”: any mutant variety that doesn’t exhibit perfect imitation is going to get eaten.”
It’s weird to see this offered as a refutation of Nabokov’s comments: the very excerpt you’re quoting addresses this objection with “...far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation.” If it can be shown that the predators meant to be fooled by mimicry aren’t capable of distinguishing differences already on much cruder levels than those offered by those butterflies, than indeed it’s difficult to see how natural selection alone could have produced such perfect mimicry. I don’t know whether Nabokov is right in claiming this to be the case. Probably he isn’t. But his is a subtler and more nuanced argument than you take it to be, by offering an elementary and obvious objection which is taken care of in Nabokov’s argument.
If art is both mimetic and deceptive, perhaps Nabokov is trying to say that mimesis itself is always primarily deceptive, not duplicative. You make a butterfly that looks amazingly like a leaf, but you don’t attempt to clone the genetic structure of the leaf itself.
Have you read Gombrich? Art and Illusion is the full-scale exposition, but he advanced the idea in the title essay of the collection Meditations on a Hobbyhorse (1963): “...substitution may precede portrayal, and creation communication” (p. 5). Gombrich goes on to suggest that this might give us a way to think about the origins of language rather than mimesis or “emotive interjection.”
We might term it the ‘niam-niam’ theory postulating the primitive hunter lying awake through hungry winter nights anbd making the sound of eating, not for communication but as a substitute for eating—being joined, perhaps, by a ritualistic chorus trying to conjure up the phantasm of food.
Nabakov’s attitude is much like Nietzsche’s idea of a surplus or excess, opposed to the various naturalistic ideas that humans are just surviving, responding to forces, or attaining equilibrium.
"My students, I was happy to see, were a little shocked...“
To realize that a man who spent his life as an inventor of seductive fictions was capable of being seduced? That’s like being surprised that a man who likes to drink sometimes enjoys being drunk.
“I tried to deflect the conversation onto Nabokov’s real point here...“
The author’s intention is not the only point of interest. You’re reading back into what you imagine to be the man. Better to read the words on the page; then infer back to what the author may have wanted to be, as well as what he may apparently have been. You choose to discuss intention in others I think because that choice reflects on your preference for not questioning your own.
Art mimetic as a goal? Then every snapshot would be art. Mimetic art uses subject matter as a form. I would hazard that “subtlety, exuberance, and luxury” were of more importance to Nabokov than mimesis itself. He was a figurative artist not a mechanical device -though his tastes ran towards a jeweler’s decadence (he was the end of a line after all.)
“I’m a little surprised they’re surprised. Nabokov was always a God-ist, after all. (I don’t hold it against him. Several great writers were.)” [sic!]
Bill, I’m glad Gombrich’s “niam-niam” jargon didn’t catch on, but I like the gait of his hobbyhorse.
Amardeep, I’ve read that passage without thinking Intelligent Designer thoughts. Nabokov’s explicit point isn’t that a superior conscious being with peculiar priorities must have deliberately crafted these insects, but that pure live-or-die utilitarianism isn’t enough to explain the apparent “exuberance” of their design. (This isn’t to say that Nabokov didn’t believe in a peculiarly prioritized Hand o’ God, but it does duck the question of what precisely Nabokov believed, which I think is in line with Nabokov’s preferences.)
Secondly, the quality that makes your labor “art” comes from the excess, which is, like the butterfly that looks like a leaf with “grub-bored holes,” also always in some sense deceptive
I’m interested in the fact that deception comes so insistently to the fore as the other of mimicry. Equally persuasive to me would be a gloss of this passage foregrounding mimicry in a utilizable/excessive continuum. Nabokov seems as interested in an economy of reading/writing as in its capacity for verisimilitude, and seems to say mimesis is always deceptive, and always unrecoverable as reality, or un-utilizable.
Versimilitude, properly speaking, is irrelevant in nature since what has a behavioral effect is not the “reality” but the sign. It benefits the butterly to be realerthan real. I recall an experiment involving a species of fish whose males are aroused by the sight of a hump on the back of the female. It turned out that actual females could not compete with wooden decoys with impossibly big humps.
When somebody told Ed Bundy that the breasts on the nudie bar girls were artificial, he replied, “So what?” Same idea. There’s a Niezsche quote to the same effect, but I can’t remember it off the top of my head.
Perhaps, Jim, you’re thinking of Tinbergen’s classic work on the three-spined stickleback.