I must have been eight when, in a storeroom of our country house, among all kinds of dusty objects, I discovered some wonderful books acquired in the days when my mother’s mother had been interested in natural science and had had a famous university professor of Zoology (Shimkevich) give private lessons to her daughter. Some of these books were mere curios, such as the four huge brown folios of Albertus Seba’s work (Locupletissimi Rerum Naturalium Thesauri Accurata Descrqnio…), printed in Amsterdam around 1750. On their coarse-grained pages I found woodcuts of serpents and butterflies and embryos. The fetus of an Ethiopian female child hanging by the neck in a glass jar used to give me a nasty shock every time I came across it; nor did I much care for the stuffed hydra on plate CII, with its seven lion-toothed turtleheads on seven serpentine necks and its strange, bloated body which bore buttonlike tubercules along the sides and ended in a knotted tail.

Other books I found in that attic, among herbariums full of alpine columbines, and blue palemoniums, and Jove’s campions, and orange-red lilies, and other Davos flowers, came closer to my subject. I took in my arms and carried downstairs glorious loads of fantastically attractive volumes: Maria Sibylla Merian’s (1647-1717) lovely plates of Surinam insects, and Esper’s noble Die Sehmetterlinge (Erlangen, 1777), and Boisduval’s Ieones Historiques de Lépidoptéres Nou-veaux ou Peu Connus (Paris, begun in 1832). Still more exciting were the products of the latter half of the century – Newman’s Natural History of British Buttefflies and Moths, Hofmann’s Die Gross Sehmezterlinge Europas, the Grand Duke Nikolay Mihailovich’s Mémoires on Asiatic lepidoptera (with incomparably beautiful figures painted by Kavrigin, Rybakov, Lang), Scudder’s stupendous work on the Butterflies of New England.

Retrospectively, the summer of 1905, though quite vivid in many ways, is not animated yet by a single bit of quick flutter or colored fluff around or across the walks with the village schoolmaster: the Swallowtail of June 1906 was still in the larval stage on a roadside umbellifer; but in the course of that month I became acquainted with a score or so of common things, and Mademoiselle was already referring to a certain forest road that culminated in a marshy meadow full of Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries (thus called in my first unforgettable and unfadingly magical little manual, Richard South’s The Butterflies of the British Isles, which had just come out at thattime) as le chemin des papillons bruns. The following year Ibecame aware that many of our butterflies and moths did notoccur in England or Central Europe, and more complete atlaseshelped me to determine them. A severe illness (pneumonia,with fever up to 41° centigrade), in the beginning of 1907,mysteriously abolished the rather monstrous gift of numbersthat had made of me a child prodigy during a few months(today I cannot multiply 13 by 17 without pencil and paper; Ican add them up, though, in a trice, the teeth of the three fitting in neatly); but the butterflies survived. My mother accumulated a library and a museum around my bed, and the longing to describe a new species completely replaced that of discovering a new prime number. A trip to Biarritz, in August 1907, added new wonders (though not as lucid and numerous as they were to be in 1909). By 1908, I had gained absolute control over the European lepidoptera as known to Hofmann. By 1910, I had dreamed my way through the first volumes of Seitz’s prodigious picture book Die Gross-Sehmetterlinge der Erde, had purchased a number of rarities recently described,and was voraciously reading entomological periodicals, especially English and Russian ones. Great upheavals were takingplace in the development of systematics. Since the middle of thecentury, Continental lepidopterology had been, on the whole, asimple and stable affair, smoothly run by the Germans. Its highpriest, Dr Staudinger, was also the head of the largest firm ofinsect dealers. Even now, half a century after his death, Germanlepidopterists have not quite managed to shake off the hypnoticspell occasioned by his authority. He was still alive when hisschool began to lose ground as a scientific force in the world.While he and his followers stuck to specific and generic namessanctioned by long usage and were content to classify butterfliesby characters visible to the naked eye, English-speaking authorswere introducing nomenclatorial changes as a result of a strictapplication of the law of priority and taxonomic changes basedon the microscopic study of organs. The Germans did theirbest to ignore the new trends and continued to cherish thephilately-like side of entomology. Their solicitude for the ‘average collector who should not be made to dissect’ is comparableto the way nervous publishers of popular novels pamper the‘average reader’ – who should not be made to think.

There was another more general change, which coincidedwith my ardent adolescent interest in butterflies and moths.The Victorian and Staudingerian kind of species, hermeticand homogeneous, with sundry (alpine, polar, insular, etc.)‘varieties’ affixed to it from the outside, as it were, like incidental appendages, was replaced by a new, multiform and fluidkind of species, organically consisting of geographical races orsubspecies. The evolutional aspects of the case were thusbrought out more clearly, by means of more flexible methodsof classification, and further links between butterflies and thecentral problems of nature were provided by biological investigations.The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me.Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually ‘associatedwith man-wrought things. Consider the imitation of oozingpoison by bubblelike macules on a wing (complete with pseudorefraction) or by glossy yellow knobs on a chrysalis (‘Don’t eatme – I have already been squashed, sampled and rejected’).Consider the tricks of an acrobatic caterpillar (of the LobsterMoth) which in infancy looks like bird’s dung, but after moltingdevelops scrabbly hymenopteroid appendages and baroquecharacteristics, allowing the extraordinary fellow to play twoparts at once (like the actor in Oriental shows who becomes apair of intertwisted wrestlers): that of a writhing larva and thatof a big ant seemingly harrowing it. When a certain mothresembles a certain wasp in shape and color, it also walks andmoves its antennae in a waspish, unmothlike manner. When abutterfly has to look like a leaf not only are all the details of aleaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-boredholes are generously thrown in. ‘Natural selection,’ in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence ofimitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appealto the theory of ‘the struggle for life’ when a protective devicewas carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, andluxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. Idiscovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I soughtin art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricateenchantment and deception.

This Exquisite Corspe started with the original piece of music ‘Don’t Pet the Slugs’ by Steven Mykietyn, Zuriel Waters and Takafumi Kosaka, Gabriel Hartley then made the painting ‘Slugs’ after hearing a section of it. A Moment of Eternal Noise picked the text by Vladimir Nabokov from the book Speak Memory‘ given to us by Benjy Keating from Palimstry.

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