Brain Pickings

The Paradox of Intellectual Promiscuity: Stephen Jay Gould on What Nabokov’s Butterfly Studies Reveal About the Unity of Creativity

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“There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts.”

The history of human culture is rife with creators hailed as geniuses in one domain who also had a notable but lesser-known talent in another — take, for instance, Richard Feynman’s sketches, J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustrations, Sylvia Plath’s drawings, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age illustrations, Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, David Lynch’s conceptual art, and Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors. Only rarely, however, do we encounter a person who has contributed to culture in a significant way in both art and science.

No one, argues Stephen Jay Gould — perhaps the greatest science-storyteller humanity has ever had, a man of uncommon genius in the art of dot-connecting — better merits recognition for such duality of genius than Vladimir Nabokov, a titan of literary storytelling and a formidable lepidopterist who studied, classified, and drew a major group of butterflies, and even served as unofficial curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

In a spectacular essay titled “The Paradox of Intellectual Promiscuity,” found in his altogether indispensable final essay collection I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History (public library), Gould uses Nabokov’s case to make a beautiful and urgently necessary broader case against our culture’s chronic tendency to pit art and science against one another — “We have been befogged by a set of stereotypes about conflict and difference between these two great domains of human understanding,” he laments — and to assume that if a person has talent and passion for both areas, he or she can achieve greatness in only one and is necessarily a mere hobbyist in the other.

Gould writes:

We tend toward benign toleration when great thinkers and artists pursue disparate activities as a harmless hobby, robbing little time from their fundamental achievements… We grieve when we sense that a subsidiary interest stole precious items from a primary enterprise of great value… When we recognize that a secondary passion took substantial time from a primary source of fame, we try to assuage our grief over lost novels, symphonies, or discoveries by convincing ourselves that a hero’s subsidiary love must have informed or enriched his primary activity — in other words, that the loss in quantity might be recompensed by a gain in quality.

Nabokov's drawing of 'Eugenia onegini,' named for Aleksandr Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, which Nabokov translated. The illustration appeared on the endpaper of 'Conclusive Evidence,' Nabokov's autobiography.

But Gould argues that neither lamentation of such “intellectual promiscuity” detracting from the primary endeavor nor the manufactured comfort of believing that one domain enriched the other is an appropriate response to Nabokov’s two great loves, literature and butterflies. Gould unambiguously annihilates a common misconception about the great author:

Nabokov was no amateur (in the pejorative sense of the term), but a fully qualified, clearly talented, duly employed professional taxonomist, with recognized “world class” expertise in the biology and classification of a major group, the Latin American Polyommatini, popularly known to butterfly aficionados as “blues.”

No passion burned longer, or more deeply, in Nabokov’s life than his love for the natural history and taxonomy of butterflies. He began in early childhood, encouraged by a traditional interest in natural history among the upper-class intelligentsia of Russia (not to mention the attendant economic advantages of time, resources, and opportunity).

[…]

The reasons often given for attributing to Nabokov either an amateur, or even only a dilettante’s, status arise from simple ignorance of accepted definitions for professionalism in this field.

[…]

Nabokov loved his butterflies as much as his literature. He worked for years as a fully professional taxonomist, publishing more than a dozen papers that have stood the test of substantial time.

That he received an annual salary of merely a thousand dollars during his six years at Harvard’s zoology museum and worked under the vague title Research Fellow shouldn’t be used as evidence of Nabokov’s amateurishness — in making a larger point about the rich history of people working on what they love for little or no pay, Gould points out that several esteemed curators at the museum during his own tenure worked as volunteers for the symbolic annual salary of one dollar. In one of his many spectacular, almost outraged asides — Gould’s signature intelligent zingers — he drives home the point that there is little correlation between merit and prestige:

Every field includes some clunkers and nitwits, even in high positions!

Returning to the two camps of explaining Nabokov’s dual giftedness — and parallel talents in general — Gould writes:

In seeking some explanation for legitimate grief, we may find solace in claiming that Nabokov’s transcendent genius permitted him to make as uniquely innovative and distinctive a contribution to lepidoptery as to literature. However much we may wish that he had chosen a different distribution for his time, we can at least, with appropriate generosity, grant his equal impact and benefit upon natural history… However, no natural historian has ever viewed Nabokov as an innovator, or as an inhabitant of what humanists call the “vanguard” (not to mention the avant-garde) and scientists the “cutting edge.” Nabokov may have been a major general of literature, but he can only be ranked as a trustworthy, highly trained career infantryman in natural history.

Even Nabokov’s butterfly drawings, Gould points out, were great but far from masterworks of natural history illustration, especially in comparison to the work of such visionaries as butterfly-drawing grand dame Maria Merian.

One of Maria Merian's pioneering butterfly drawings. Click image for more.

Here, we are reminded of another perilous pathology of our culture — in the cult of genius, as in any cult, we leave no room for nuance; mere greatness is not good enough — one must lay a claim on grandeur. This is perhaps the most extreme testament to how perfectionism thwarts creativity.

But despite his mere greatness at lepidoptery, Nabokov regarded his time at the zoology museum as the most “delightful and thrilling” in his adult life — so creatively electrified was the author there that his years at Harvard even produced history’s most epic and entertaining account of food poisoning. But his love of butterflies began much earlier. In fact, one of the very first things Nabokov wrote in English, at the age of twelve, was a paper on Lepidoptera. The only reason it wasn’t published was that it turned out the butterfly in question had already been described by someone else.

This remark, which Gould makes rather in passing, made me wonder whether the incident instilled in young Vladimir an early reverence for attribution of discovery. As Gould later notes in another passing mention, Nabokov frequently voiced annoyance with scientists and science-writers not attributing discovery — not acknowledging the person who discovered and named a butterfly species. Therein lies a broader, and rather timely, lament about our culture’s failure to honor discovery as a creative act and a subset of scholarship — such a scientist, after all, doesn’t invent a species, for it already exists in nature, but discovers it, names it, and contextualizes it in the canon of natural history. It is no coincidence that Nabokov’s own role at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology was that of curator, for this is the task of the curator — to describe, arrange, and contextualize what already exists in such a way as to shed new light on its meaning, to discover and un-cover its significance and place in the canon of ideas.

Embedded in this act is also a lineage of discovery, similar to the “links in a chain” metaphor Pete Seeger used for creativity: I learned of Nabokov’s pet peeve about discovery thanks to Stephen Jay Gould — perhaps the greatest curator of scientific ideas the world has ever known, the greatest contextualizer of such ideas in the popular imagination — and you learned of it via me, and the person you tell about this will learn of it via you. All of us are links in the evolutionary chain of ideas, much like each butterfly species discovered is a link in the evolutionary chain of natural history. This is why Richard Dawkins, in coining the word meme, used a metaphor from evolutionary biology to describe how ideas spread: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.”

But back to Nabokov: His dedication to the integrity of discovery prompted him to write a short poem titled “A Discovery” in 1943:

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss
Poems that take a thousand years to die
But ape the immortality of this
Red label on a little butterfly.

It might also be why he was so passionate about the integrity of detail. In a motto that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable assertion that “a writer is a professional observer,” Nabokov instructed his literature students:

Caress the details, the divine details. In high art and pure science, detail is everything.

Butterfly drawing by Nabokov, August 1958 (Courtesy of Nabokov Museum)

In this, Gould finds the reconciliatory unity between Nabokov’s two great loves and how they communed with one another:

Although time spent on lepidoptery almost surely decreased his literary output, the specific knowledge and the philosophical view of life that Nabokov gained from his scientific career directly forged (or at least strongly contributed to) his unique literary style and excellence… Perhaps the major linkage of science and literature lies in some distinctive, underlying approach that Nabokov applied equally to both domains — a procedure that conferred the same special features upon all his efforts.

[…]

Among great twentieth-century thinkers, I know no better case than Nabokov’s for testing the hypothesis that an underlying unity of mental style (at a level clearly meriting the accolade of genius) can explain one man’s success in extensive and fully professional work in two disciplines conventionally viewed as maximally different, if not truly opposed. If we can validate this model for attributing interdisciplinary success to a coordinating and underlying mental uniqueness, rather than invoking the conventional argument about overt influence of one field upon another, then Nabokov’s story may teach us something important about the unity of creativity, and the falsity (or at least the contingency) of our traditional separation, usually in mutual recrimination, of art from science.

Therein, Gould argues, lies the only true solace in the accusation of “intellectual promiscuity.” Debunking the two false explanations of the Nabokov paradox — that “lepidoptery represented a harmless private passion, robbing no substantial time from his literary output” and that “his general genius at least made his lepidoptery as distinctive and as worthy as his literature” — Gould writes:

Nabokov’s two apparently disparate careers therefore find their common ground on the most distinctive feature of his unusual intellect and uncanny skill — the almost obsessive attention to meticulous and accurate detail that served both his literary productions and his taxonomic descriptions so well, and that defined his uncompromising commitment to factuality as both a principle of morality and a guarantor and primary guide to aesthetic quality.

Science and literature therefore gain their union on the most palpable territory of concrete things, and on the value we attribute to accuracy, even in smallest details, as a guide and an anchor for our lives, our loves, and our senses of worth… Of all scientific subfields, none raises the importance of intricate detail to such a plateau of importance as Nabokov’s chosen profession of taxonomic description for small and complex organisms. To function as a competent professional in the systematics of Lepidoptera, Nabokov really had no choice but to embrace such attention to detail, and to develop such respect for nature’s endless variety.

[…]

The universal and defining excellence of a professional taxonomist built a substrate for the uncommon, and (in Nabokov’s case) transcendent, excellence of a writer.

Young Vladimir and Véra Nabokov by Thomas Doyle from 'The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History.' Click image for more.

But Gould’s most important point of all has little to do with Nabokov and everything to do with the toxic mythologies of creativity to which we, as a culture and as individuals, subscribe:

An ancient, and basically anti-intellectual, current in the creative arts has now begun to flow more strongly than ever before in recent memory-the tempting Siren song of a claim that the spirit of human creativity stands in direct opposition to the rigor in education and observation that breeds both our love for factual detail and our gain of sufficient knowledge and understanding to utilize this record of human achievement and natural wonder.

No more harmful nonsense exists than this common supposition that deepest insight into great questions about the meaning of life or the structure of reality emerges most readily when a free, undisciplined, and uncluttered (read, rather, ignorant and uneducated) mind soars above mere earthly knowledge and concern. The primary reason for emphasizing the supreme aesthetic and moral value of detailed factual accuracy, as Nabokov understood so well, lies in our need to combat this alluring brand of philistinism if we wish to maintain artistic excellence as both a craft and an inspiration.

[…]

If we assign too much of our total allotment to the mastery of detail, we will have nothing left for general theory and integrative wonder. But such a silly model of mental functioning can only arise from a false metaphorical comparison of human creativity with irrelevant systems based on fixed and filled containers — pennies in a piggy bank or cookies in a jar.

Gould ends by exhorting us:

Let us celebrate Nabokov’s excellence in natural history, and let us also rejoice that he could use the same mental skills and inclinations to follow another form of bliss.

[…]

Human creativity seems to work much as a coordinated and complex piece, whatever the different emphases demanded by disparate subjects-and we will miss the underlying commonality if we only stress the distinctions of external subjects and ignore the unities of internal procedure. If we do not recognize the common concerns and characteristics of all creative human activity, we will fail to grasp several important aspects of intellectual excellence-including the necessary interplay of imagination and observation (theory and empirics) as an intellectual theme, and the confluence of beauty and factuality as a psychological theme-because one field or the other traditionally downplays one side of a requisite duality.

[…]

I cannot imagine a better test case for extracting the universals of human creativity than the study of deep similarities in intellectual procedure between the arts and sciences.

No one grasped the extent of this underlying unity better than Vladimir Nabokov, who worked with different excellences as a complete professional in both domains.

[…]

Nabokov broke the boundaries of art and science by stating that the most precious desideratum of each domain must also characterize any excellence in the other — for, after all, truth is beauty, and beauty truth.

Gould seals this beautiful truth with a line — an exquisite, ennobling, oft-cited line — from one of Nabokov’s interviews:

There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts.

I Have Landed remains one of the finest tapestries of thought ever woven in the history of science storytelling. Complement this particular thread with Nabokov on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great writer, what makes a great reader, and his sublime love letters to his wife.

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How Jane Goodall Turned Her Childhood Dream into Reality: A Sweet Illustrated Story of Purpose and Deep Determination

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A heartening testament to the power of undivided intention.

“One should want only one thing and want it constantly,” young André Gide half-observed, half-resolved in his journal. “Then one is sure of getting it.” More than a century later, Werner Herzog wrote passionately of the “uninvited duty” that a sense of purpose plants in the heart, leaving one with “no choice but to push on.” That combination of desiring something with inextinguishable intensity — which begins with letting your life speak and daring to listen — and pursuing it with steadfast doggedness is perhaps the single common thread in the lives of those we most admire as luminaries of enduring genius. It is also at the heart of what it means to find your purpose and live it.

As a lover of illustrated biographies of cultural icons — such as those of Pablo Neruda, Julia Child, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian — I was thrilled to stumble upon a wonderful take on the early life of one of my greatest heroes, Jane Goodall, and how she came to live the dream that bewitched her at a young age. In Me…Jane (public library), celebrated cartoonist, author, and animal rights advocate Patrick McDonnell tells the story of how the seed planted by a childhood dream blossomed, under the generous beams of deep dedication, into the reality of a purposeful life.

McDonnell’s protagonist is not Jane Goodall the widely influential and wildly revered elder of science and peace — one of a handful of people in history to have both the titles Dame and Doctor, and the subject of a very different illustrated biography — but little Jane, the ten-year-old girl who decided that she was going to work with animals in Africa when she grew up and, despite her family’s poverty, despite living in an era when girls were not encouraged to live the life of science or adventure, despite nearly everyone telling her that it was impossible, turned her dream into reality.

With simple, enormously expressive illustrations and an eloquent economy of words, McDonnell — creator of the beloved MUTTS comic strip — begins at the very beginning: that fateful day when little Jane was given a stuffed monkey named Jubilee.

Jane and Jubilee became inseparable, and she shared with him everything she loved — especially the outdoors. Together, they watched the birds and the spiders and the squirrels fill the backyard with aliveness.

At night, Jane and Jubilee read books to better understand what they saw.

One day, tickled to find out where eggs came from, they snuck into grandma’s chicken coop and observed the miracle of life.

It was a magical world full of joy and wonder, and Jane felt very much a part of it.

Jane liked to climb her beloved beech tree with Jubilee on her back, then sit perched on its branches reading and rereading Tarzan, imagining herself in place of that other Jane, wild and filled with wonder amid the jungles of Africa.

That dream soon became an all-consuming desire not just to go to Africa but to live there, trying to understand the animals and help them.

Every night Jane tucked Jubilee into bed and fell asleep with that dream, until one day — and such is the genius of McDonnell’s elegantly simple message of the dreamer’s doggedness — she awakes in a tent in the Gombe, the seedbed of what would become a remarkable career and an extraordinary life of purpose.

Goodall herself — who founded the heartening youth-led learning and community action initiative Roots & Shoots — writes in the afterword:

We cannot live through a single day without making an impact on the world around us — and we have a choice as to what sort of difference we make… Children are motivated when they can see the positive results their hard work can have.

Me…Jane, which received the prestigious Caldecott Honor and is a spectacular addition to these great children’s books celebrating science and scientists, is an emboldening treasure from cover to cover. Complement it with Goodall on science and spirituality, her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, and her own little-known children’s book, then treat yourself to “Dream Jane Dream” — a magnificent homage to Goodall by jazz singer-songwriter Lori Henriques:

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The Wisdom of No Escape: Pema Chödrön on Gentleness, the Art of Letting Go, and How to Befriend Your Inner Life

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“Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom.”

Pema Chödrön (b. July 14, 1936) — a generous senior teacher in the Buddhist contemplative tradition of Shambhala, ordained Buddhist nun, and prolific author — is one of our era’s most tireless champions of a mindful wholeheartedness as the essential life-force of the human experience. For the generations since Alan Watts — who began introducing Eastern philosophy in the West in the 1950s and sparked a counterculture to consumerism seeking to transcend the illusions of the separate self — Chödrön has become the most widely beloved translator of Eastern ideas into Western life.

In the spring of 1989, she led a monthlong dathun meditation session at Gampo Abbey — the renowned Buddhist monastery of which Chödrön is founding director, founded in 1983 by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, her root guru. She began each day by giving a short talk aimed at emboldening participants “to remain wholeheartedly awake to everything that occurred and to use the abundant material of daily life as their primary teacher and guide.” On the monastery grounds, meditators kept five vows: “not to lie, not to steal, not to engage in sexual activity, not to take life, and not to use alcohol or drugs.” The rather singular combination of solitude, nature, meditation, and the vows made for what Chödrön calls “an alternatingly painful and delightful ‘no exit’ situation.” Thus, the collection of her morning talks from the dathun is aptly titled The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness (public library) — short, beautifully simple yet powerful reflections on various aspects of how “to be with oneself without embarrassment or harshness.”

In the fourth talk, Chödrön explores the related graces of precision, gentleness, and letting go:

If we see our so-called limitations with clarity, precision, gentleness, goodheartedness, and kindness and, having seen them fully, then let go, open further, we begin to find that our world is more vast and more refreshing and fascinating than we had realized before. In other words, the key to feeling more whole and less shut off and shut down is to be able to see clearly who we are and what we’re doing.

Pointing to the “innocent, naive misunderstanding that we all share, which keeps us unhappy” — the same well-intentioned but misguided impulse with which we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing — Chödrön writes:

The innocent mistake that keeps us caught in our own particular style of ignorance, unkindness, and shut-downness is that we are never encouraged to see clearly what is, with gentleness. Instead, there’s a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to get away from painful things, and that if we could just learn how to get away from the painful things, then we would be happy.

Pema Chödrön (Courtesy of Pema Chödrön Foundation)

That gentleness of presence, Chödrön argues, is at the heart of meditation:

Meditation is about seeing clearly the body that we have, the mind that we have, the domestic situation that we have, the job that we have, and the people who are in our lives. It’s about seeing how we react to all these things. It’s seeing our emotions and thoughts just as they are right now, in this very moment, in this very room, on this very seat. It’s about not trying to make them go away, not trying to become better than we are, but just seeing clearly with precision and gentleness.

[…]

The problem is that the desire to change is fundamentally a form of aggression toward yourself. The other problem is that our hangups, unfortunately or fortunately, contain our wealth. Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom.

Chödrön, however, is careful to point out that holding one’s imperfection with gentleness is not the same as resignation or condoning harmful behavior — rather, it’s a matter of befriending imperfection rather than banishing it, in order to then gently let it go rather than forcefully expel it. Whatever your folly — anger or fear or jealousy or melancholy — Chödrön teaches that freedom from it lies in “getting to know it completely, with some kind of softness, and learning how, once you’ve experienced it fully, to let go.”

And yet, in a sentiment that calls to mind the Chinese concept of wu-wei, “trying not to try,” she gently admonishes against seeing this practice itself as a source of compulsive striving:

Precision, gentleness, and the ability to let go … are not something that we have to gain, but something that we could bring out, cultivate, rediscover in ourselves.

She points to the simple exercise of following your unforced breath as a way of contacting the art of letting go:

Being fully present isn’t something that happens once and then you have achieved it; it’s being awake to the ebb and flow and movement and creation of life, being alive to the process of life itself. That also has its softness. If there were a goal that you were supposed to achieve, such as “no thoughts,” that wouldn’t be very soft. You’d have to struggle a lot to get rid of all those thoughts, and you probably couldn’t do it anyway. The fact that there is no goal also adds to the softness.

This practice, Chödrön points out, cultivates a nonjudgmental attitude and helps us learn how to, instead of succumbing to harsh self-criticism, begin “seeing what is with precision and gentleness” and develop “a sense of warmth toward oneself.” She writes:

The honesty of precision and the goodheartedness of gentleness are qualities of making friends with yourself… As you work with being really faithful to the technique and being as precise as you can and simultaneously as kind as you can, the ability to let go seems to happen to you. The discovery of your ability to let go spontaneously arises; you don’t force it. You shouldn’t be forcing accuracy or gentleness either, but while you could make a project out of accuracy, you could make a project out of gentleness, it’s hard to make a project out of letting go.

In the next talk, titled “The Wisdom of No Escape,” Chödrön explores well-being and suffering as two sides of the same coin which, when put together, define the human condition. She points to the practice of meditation — arguably our greatest gateway to self-transcendence — as the way to illuminate both sides of this duality:

We see how beautiful and wonderful and amazing things are, and we see how caught up we are. It isn’t that one is the bad part and one is the good part, but that it’s a kind of interesting, smelly, rich, fertile mess of stuff. When it’s all mixed up together, it’s us: humanness.

This is what we are here to see for ourselves. Both the brilliance and the suffering are here all the time; they interpenetrate each other. For a fully enlightened being, the difference between what is neurosis and what is wisdom is very hard to perceive, because somehow the energy underlying both of them is the same. The basic creative energy of life … bubbles up and courses through all of existence. It can be experienced as open, free, unburdened, full of possibility, energizing. Or this very same energy can be experienced as petty, narrow, stuck, caught… The basic point of it all is just to learn to be extremely honest and also wholehearted about what exists in your mind — thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, the whole thing that adds up to what we call “me” or “I.” Nobody else can really begin to sort out for you what to accept and what to reject in terms of what wakes you up and what makes you fall asleep. No one else can really sort out for you what to accept — what opens up your world — and what to reject — what seems to keep you going round and round in some kind of repetitive misery.

[…]

This is the process of making friends with ourselves and with our world. It involves not just the parts we like, but the whole picture, because it all has a lot to teach us.

In the remainder of The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness — which shares with Alan Watts’s indispensable The Wisdom of Insecurity not only a similarity of title but also a kinship of spirit — Chödrön goes on to explore such related secular wisdom from the Buddhist tradition as joy, satisfaction, inconvenience, and the art of living with balance in a culture of extremes. Complement it with Sam Harris on the paradox of meditation.

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