Gratifyingly, my post on Nabokov and Gould has generated interesting feedback, including this post by Jonah Lehrer, who expands on Nabokov’s own opinion of how his science informed his art. (Let’s just say he and Gould didn’t see eye-to-eye.) The post includes some wonderful Nabokov quotes about science, art, and butterflies, and Lehrer’s writing is, as always, lovely:
For Nabokov, the entire universe was just an elaborate puzzle waiting to be figured out. It didn’t matter if one was talking about a novel or the evolution of an insect or a chess problem: Nabokov knew that the way to solve the puzzle was to focus on the little things, to begin at the beginning and inductively work your way upwards.
I particularly liked this line by Lehrer: “Nabokov believed that his background in lepidoptera helped develop his deep passion for detail and precision.” That’s very carefully and accurately phrased: it’s clear that Nabokov’s scientific work honed his powers of observation, which were brought to bear effectively in his fiction. But I wouldn’t necessarily go a step farther and say that Nabokov’s scientific acumen endowed him with the love of detail demonstrated in his novels, and I especially wouldn’t say his science was valuable because it did that. The “dual-identity” model Lehrer describes in his post doesn’t require one identity to be subservient to the other. And that’s why I think Gould was at least partly right in emphasizing that Nabokov-as-scientist and Nabokov-as-novelist were both expressions of, and modes of developing, one unique underlying genius.