Comparative Literature Studies 41.2 (2004) 185-213
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Parasitism and Pale Fire's Camouflage:
The King-Bot, the Crown Jewels and the Man in the Brown Macintosh
In a prefatory essay to the 1970 publication of The Annotated Lolita, Alfred Appel, Jr., associates the frequent appearance of butterflies in Nabokov's work with the mysterious processes that give rise to art, suggesting a parallel between "the evolution of the artist's self through artistic creation—and the cycle of insect metamorphosis."1 Nabokov's apparent affirmation of this parallel, implied by having allowed its publication with his book, seems to have given some critics the impression that Nabokov saw his artistic exertions to be like those of a caterpillar that hatches, ingests a certain amount of plant material, cocoons himself, and pupates into a splendid Red Admirable for good lepidoptereaders to admirably admire.2 Yet this picture, however pretty, offers nothing but cheap symbolism of the most exhausted sort, precisely the kind of symbolism Nabokov relentlessly pilloried in his lectures, interviews and published works.
Appel's preface also seems to have fomented other variants of butterfly worship among Nabokov's critics, in particular one that interprets butterflies as symbols of the spirits of dead characters. Brian Boyd proposed in 1999 that the ghost of Hazel Shade is an active agent in Pale Fire, a prime mover of the novel's action. Though Boyd's book is an indispensable compendium of critical insights into Pale Fire, he bases his main "solution" to the novel largely on Hazel's reincarnation as a Vanessa atalanta butterfly: "Nabokov manages to give the butterfly a powerful charge of resonant implication that we can make full sense of once we join it with the myth of [End Page 185] Psyche.[. . . ] In allowing us to detect Hazel's spirit somehow transformed into the exuberant atalanta, Nabokov himself 'mixes and joyfully levels' art, science and religion."3 Even if, as Véra Nabakov said in 1979, "the beyond" was the main theme of Nabokov's work,4 Boyd's reading flies in the face of Nabokov's stalwart antagonism to trite, leveling symbols like Psyche the Butterfly.
In the Lectures on Literature, Nabokov famously rants against the bogus interpretation of symbols in literature, particularly the interrelated Freudian and mythological varieties. Sometimes, however, he pauses to admire highly original symbols, such as the presence of unused wings beneath Gregor Samsa's beetle (not cockroach) carapace:
flimsy little wings that can be expanded and then may carry the beetle for miles and miles in a blundering flight. Curiously enough, Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back. (This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.)5
Appel and others have ignored Nabokov's assertion that, unlike those tastefully subtle wings, he regarded symbolic use of the butterfly as a boring mythological trope. In a 1970 interview, Nabokov told Appel, "That in some cases the butterfly symbolizes something (e.g., Psyche) lies utterly outside my area of interest."6 So we have a mystery: why would Nabokov allow Appel to preface a scholarly edition of Lolita with a meretricious reference to the similarities between an artist's personal evolution and butterfly biology? Are we supposed to see in every Nabokovian butterfly the symbol of the author pupating away in his writerly cocoon? Or does Appel merely play the part of a pawn in the master's larger game?
Following Appel's lead, the butterfly critics frequently seize on Nabokov's Russian-language short story "Christmas" as evidence that the author, age 25, was capable of stooping to signify metempsychosis with an image of pupation.7 The story, about a father's sorrow for his dead son, ends by suggesting that the child has been reincarnated as a beautiful moth. However, closer...