Arts and Sciences
Vladimir Nabokov was a lepidopterist — a scientist of butterflies.
His American literary career started close to Boston in 1941, at the helm of Wellesley College’s Russian department. At the same time, he was the curator of the butterfly collection at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. You can see Nabokov’s fastidious devotion to the Museum’s vast and varied collection in his anatomical drawings, his published entomology papers on different elements of taxonomy, and of course his books. Take “Pale Fire,” his 1962 poem-as-novel bursting with butterfly as theme: “I can do what only a true artist can do — pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation … see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web.”
“I note the obvious differences / in the human family,” begins Maya Angelou in her poem, “Human Family.” “Some of us are serious, / some thrive on comedy.” She goes on: “I’ve sailed upon the seven seas / and stopped in every land, / I’ve seen the wonders of the world / not yet one common man.” Yet she finishes: “I note the obvious differences / between each sort and type, / but we are more alike, my friends / than we are unalike.”
“We are more alike, my friends, / than we are unalike.”
Today, when we think about expressing how we feel about someone, we think about hearts – a red or pink or purple emoji sent over text, a predictive-text abbreviation for “love,” even a Facebook like. Online, a heart-shaped response can span the gulf between vague interest and genuine commitment, between acknowledging comments on Instagram posts and celebrating something you think might be love. It’s really easy, too, to send a heart when you don’t actually know what to say; when you want to show someone you care, but you just don’t know how best to label your relationship on the spectrum of human connection. They’re ubiquitous symbols, for better or for worse.
But those aren’t the only symbols. Take a poignant scene from Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Gloomy playwright Treplev shoots the titular bird and presents it solemnly at the feet of ingenue Nina, the object of his unrequited love. “What do you mean by this?” asks Nina in response, confused at both the dead bird and the ceremony with which Treplev has laid it at her feet. “Is this a symbol or something?” she seems really to be asking. She’s not just exposing the futility of Treplev’s love for her, she’s also calling attention to the outsized role that symbols play in how we connect with and show our love to each other.
“We always find something,” posits one of Samuel Beckett’s quixotic protagonists in “Waiting for Godot,” “to give us the impression we exist, [don’t we]?” “Yes, yes, we’re magicians,” snaps the other in response, before reaching down to wedge a pair of boots on his compatriot’s feet.
To give us the impression we exist.