Nabokov’s “genitalia cabinet”

Nabokov was, foremost, an aesthete. His writing is achingly beautiful, even when sinister:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

— The opening passage from Lolita

He was also, as you may know, a respected Lepidopterist, even before achieving literary fame. In particular, he taxonomized a family of “Blues” by the microscopic comparison of their genitalia. “Excuse me, I’ve got to go and play with my genitalia,” Nabokov would quip to his guests. The Harvard Museum of Natural History still possesses Nabokov’s “genitalia cabinet”, where Nabokov collected specimens. It is tempting to pathologize the state of mind of a man who scrutinized butterfly penises to the point of compromising his eyesight and wrote of pedophilia in ravishing prose…

Now, the New York Times reports that one of Nabokov’s entomological speculations have borne out:

Nabokov divided the blues into two large species — Lycaeides melissa, the Melissa blue, and Lycaeides idas, the northern blue, with overlapping ranges in the mountains of the West. He also theorized that the blues he found high in the Tetons and Colorado Rockies were hybrids, but he lacked the tools to prove it.

Now, a group of scientists from Texas State University, the University of California at Davis, the University of Nevada at Reno and the University of Tennessee have proposed that an “unnamed” population of Alpine Lycaeides in the Sierra Nevada is a hybrid species formed through an ancient mixing of Lycaeides melissa and Lycaeides idas.

These blues have colonized the treeless alpine region, at a higher altitude than the habitats of their parents, said Zachariah Gompert, a graduate student in biology at Texas State and principal author of the group’s paper, published in the Nov. 30 online edition of Science. Lycaeides melissa is found in the Great Basin on the east side of the Sierras; Lycaeides idas frequents wet meadows that reach halfway up the west slope.

Combined with other behavioral and physical changes, the habitat shift has isolated the Alpine blues reproductively from the parent species — a necessity if they are to be granted species status, Mr. Gompert said.

Strangely, Nabokov was skeptical of Darwinism and the very synthesis that aided the group’s explanation of the newfound hybrids.

Nabokov’s obsession is thoroughly recounted in Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. Also, see Three Quarks Daily for a wonderfully detailed essay on the subject.

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