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Good Letters

This post was made possible through the support of a grant from The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution and Christian Faith program. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BioLogos.

I go on binges. For days, weeks, months—well, usually not months—but days and weeks anyhow, I get taken by something and it will be all that interests me for a while. I’ll plunge into Faulkner for a time, then breach, crest, and fall into Graham Greene.

Things don’t stay all that highbrow, either; I’m as apt to watch Duck Dynasty marathons as I am to read books. Then again, I might forswear all such pursuits and go into serious training to beat the last five folks who’ve registered their bragging rights on the gym treadmill.

I was well into an Anthony Burgess tear not long back before I got pulled off on another line. This time it was Nabokov. It started around Christmas and picked up when the holidays were over.

After Lolita (and the movie version), Pale Fire, The Defense (that movie version too—called The Luzhin Defence) and Pnin—which you have to re-read and ask yourself why you didn’t see X before, or notice Y—I stumbled upon an essay in the March 2014 edition of First Things by David Bentley Hart, entitled Nabokov’s Supernatural Secret.

I’d known about the author’s interest in the world of chess, for which he enjoyed constructing elaborate problems. I knew about his fascinating malady (if you can call it that), synesthesia¸ which makes a person see numbers, and sometimes letters, as colors. I also knew about Nabokov’s deep, lifelong pursuit of insects, particularly moths and butterflies. But what I learned from the essay was an inkling of perhaps what most attracted the writer to these things.

He was captivated with mimicry, says Hart, especially when nature went far beyond what “evolutionary imperatives” demanded—for example, when a butterfly’s shape and color mimicked more than just a beautiful leaf, but threw in amazing recreations of “grub-bored holes”—an extravagance that defied the level of defense that natural selection would require. Surely the praying mantis isn’t so visually adept that the shadings of the grub holes must come within a million degrees of similarity.

For Nabokov, this amounted to “a constant victory of the beautiful over the needful in nature.” In the “specular harmonies and morphological allusions that passed between species…he believed he had found signs of something like a conjuror’s pleasure in complex illusions. ‘I discovered in nature,’” he wrote, “‘the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.’”

What seemed just outside the borders of nature, and just outside the frame of Nabokov’s art, was the realm of the spirits. That is the context, suggests Hart, lying behind the artist’s world, the one that surrounds it with a spectral luminescence—as quiet as sunlight falling, but just as bright and warm.

The man never spoke of such things, and seemed to find any overt commentary or expression to be distasteful. But it goes some ways towards accounting for the strangeness of his tales. The land of the souls, and their influence on the living, is never far from his imaginative universe. Sometimes his characters burst through the paper world in which they live and enter that land, like a Platonic prisoner finally free of his mortal chains, one who turns from the shadow-playing wall, faces the form-dancing fire. See Bend Sinister, for example.

I think Hart’s line that strikes me as the most resonant is this one: “the victory of the beautiful over the needful.” That is perhaps the best articulation of something that lurks behind the suspicions of even the most die-hard empiricists and materialists.

Why the beautiful? At least, why this much beauty? Why the luxury of it all? Why the splendor? There is a need in life, yes—to be protected, to be satisfied—nature serves us there. But to be awed? What need we of that?

To quote another great artist, Shakespeare has Lear answer his utilitarian-minded daughters’ insistence that he “needs not” the number of retainers that he enjoys, not when their own men could serve him just as well. Considering their household staffs, he needs not one hundred men, not fifty, not ten, not even one—or so they say.

Reason not the need,” he replies.
Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.

Aye, there’s the rub. Superfluity. The thing that captivated Shakespeare, Hopkins, a host of others—and Nabokov among them. But then, how could it not captivate a man for whom 5 looked red, and for whom the chrysalis was pregnant with the noumenon?

There is something about the inefficiency of beauty that speaks against the strategies of the purely empirical. I was never convinced by Dawkins’ Selfish Gene claim that all our poetry, our sacrifices and mercies, are merely a sinister plot to get our chromosomes a few more years on the materialist clock.

If you behold the icy majesty of Everest, the blustery effusion of Bridal Veil Falls—for that matter, if you ponder the vastness of an eternal space, one that expands to a point where blackness cracks its own sinews, or one that contracts to a point that blood swallows its own cells—this flood of plenitude resounds all the more. For beauty does not seek its adequate, proportionate level. It is not like water that will find a place to lie flat, or a temperature at which to freeze or boil. It always exceeds the mark; indeed, if it did not, would we even call it beauty?

So for me, a Nabokovian apostle, it just seems too simple, too reductionist, too stubborn, all in all, to defy the glories of the butterfly. It seems unwise to attribute its mimicry to nothing more than device—to blind oneself to the shimmering profligacy, to the reckless lavishness, to the spendthrift excess of a world far, far, more beautiful than it really need be.


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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: A.G. Harmon

A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

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