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Lepidoptery, Literature, and Liberal Arts

By Tessa K.J. Haining, Contributing Opinion Writer
Tessa K.J. Haining ’23 lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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’ve been thinking a lot about the scientific-literary axis of Nabokov’s work ever since I declared Chemistry and Comparative Literature as a joint concentration — a decision that has been attracting raised eyebrows for weeks on end. Sure, it’s unusual; yes, there are a lot of requirements to get done; but mostly, I think people were surprised that I wanted to follow two seemingly alien disciplines to high academic levels.

Personally, I’ve never found it a weird combination. Arts and sciences always went together for me like Nabokov’s books and butterflies — I’d puzzle through biochemical interactions just as I teased apart dense knots of 20th-century French literature. But my classmates were surprised, prompting me to defend myself with examples from the greats. So I turned to Nabokov.

Nabokov wasn’t the only writer-scientist (or scientist-writer?), of course. I’d point to Aristotle as an early example of the genre, though he was less of a creative writer and more of a true scholar. Aristotle’s writings teach us about science in its purest sense — as not only the accounting of observations but, more importantly, the making connections between them. To use a mathematical metaphor, as Leo Tolstoy would, Aristotle’s science is the derivative of one’s observations, the novel analyses that propel our understanding.

But Aristotle didn’t limit his science to the domains of biology and chemistry, what we would consider today conventional “science.” Aristotle dissected disciplines from physics to poetry, holding their foundations up to the light with a pair of ancient tweezers, scrutinizing how they fit together. In applying the same careful scholarship to both the quantitative and the qualitative, he demonstrated a fundamental similarity between the two, a shared basis of inquiry and wonder.

The list of thinkers melding science and art stretches on and on — I can think of more recent moments of science in literature from authors like Tolstoy; T.S. Eliot, Class of 1910; Anton Chekhov; and Milan Kundera; not to mention the outstanding professors at Harvard today who strive to breach the quantitative-qualitative divide. Like my immunology professor, who began his lecture on organ transplantation with a fresco by Fra Angelico depicting medieval surgery. Or my Government professor, who had us study the early women’s suffrage movement by looking at both the wording of a women-led petition and a statistical analysis of the overwhelming percentage of women signing petitions at the time. Why, then, do we students find problem sets and papers so immiscible?

We hear it in the pre-med groans over the full-year English requirement, the glee in a humanities concentrator’s voice as they proclaim they’ll never take a math class again, the way we all defensively start our opinions with “I’m a STEM person,” or “I’m a humanities person.” Our parlance presents it as a binary: STEM vs. humanities, p-sets vs. papers, Cabot vs. Widener. How can we stop ourselves from forgetting that the same foundation of observing and making connections underlies both so-called sides?

I’m not asking everyone to run and sign up to do a joint concentration or grab a Human Evolutionary Biology secondary or anything — the diversity of our passions and the dedication with which we pursue them is what makes our world an interesting place. But I am suggesting that, when distaste rises at the thought of a writing assignment or a quantitative distribution requirement threatens to puncture a paper-lined bubble, we approach it instead with the same curiosity we do our own concentrations.

The p-set aficionado might treat the essay as a logical puzzle of words, phrases, and ideas; and conversely, the essayist could see their p-set as a window into the languages of mathematical or biological thinking. Think of it as exercising our Aristotelian skills of connection in a perhaps unfamiliar environment — making us better thinkers, students, scholars.

Because that’s the point of this liberal-arts education we’ve all undertaken. All these General Education and distribution requirements aren’t about parroting off high-level buzzwords to look good at fancy dinners, but instead using what we don’t know to reexamine what we do. It’s about making connections between biology and poetry, between economics and philosophy, between lepidoptery and literature.

Would Nabokov’s writing have been as categorically novel without his entomological work? Aristotle’s physics as beautiful without his tussle with creative art? Who’s to say? But let’s do the experiment — peering into both worlds for just long enough to see them blur together — and find out for ourselves.

Tessa K.J. Haining ’23 lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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