Friday, December 01, 2006

Nabokov: Butterflies, Darwin, Mimesis

From Nabokov's Speak, Memory:

"The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me. Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things. Consider the imitation of oozing poison by bubblelike macules on a wing (complete with pseudo-refraction) or by glossy yellow knobs on a chrysalis ("Don't eat me--I have already been squashed, sampled and rejected"). Consider the tricks of an acrobatic caterpillar (of the Lobster Moth) which in infancy looks like bird's dung, but after molting develops scrabbly hymenopteroid appendages and baroque characteristics, allowing the extraordinary fellow to play two parts at once (like the actor in Oriental shows who becomes a pair of intertwisted wrestlers): that of a writhing larva and that of a big ant seemingly harrowing it. When a certain moth resembles a certain wasp in shape and color, it also walks and moves its antennae in a waspish, unmothlike manner. When a butterfly has to look like a leaf, not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes are generously thrown in. "Natural Selection," in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of "the struggle for life" when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator's power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception."

My students, I was happy to see, were a little shocked that someone with Nabokov's way of seeing things would say something that might even remotely be construed as Intelligent Design-ish. And indeed, Darwinian natural selection, as I understand it, does have a fine explanation for the "miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior": any mutant variety that doesn't exhibit a perfect imitation is going to get eaten. And if you have enough random-pattern butterflies getting eaten over time, eventually a strain that has a slightly better design is going to come around and not get eaten.

I tried to deflect the conversation onto his real substantive point here, which is that for Nabokov art requires a kind of heroic, almost obsessive attention to mimesis. You put way more effort into representing the world in your art than your predator (or reader) is likely to ever notice. The art comes from the excess, which is, like the butterfly that looks like a leaf with "grub-bored holes," also always in some sense deceptive ("an intricate enchantment and deception"). If art is both mimetic and deceptive, perhaps Nabokov is trying to say that mimesis itself is always deceptive. You make a butterfly that looks amazingly like a leaf, but you don't attempt to clone the genetic structure of the leaf itself. Indeed, in some sense you don't care about the leaf per se (i.e., reality) at all.


vkrishna said...

Hi Deep,
Very nice passage. I had never explicitly thought of art as conscious mimicry and deception. It makes some sense to say that Mimesis is deceptive. Isn't it true that even if one did care about reality, representing it invariably involves picking out some parts of it over others, and emphasizing them, which is a sort of deception?

7:55 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

A pretty stunning observation by Nabokov and a very astute interpretation by the professor!

Going from the sublime mimesis of the purely creative to the more lazy mimicry of plagiarism. Did you read about the latest flap about Ian McEwan and Atonement? I was wondering if we have become too hung up on this issue. After all, unlike the field of science, where entirely new phenomena are discovered and wholly new methodologies develop, can we in all honesty, expect that kind of originality in art? Particularly literature? All new human experience is necessarily in the context of progress in science and technology, would you agree? So the set up and back drops do change for the human narrative. But we still feel a finite number of emotions to these experiences. How much originality CAN there be in story telling? Why are we so hard with charges of plagiarism on otherwise talented authors? Especially when one is attempting to describe an historical event, there are just so many ways to report it and still be true to the fact and spirit of the times. Which is what I think McEwan did.

8:20 PM  
musical said...

Wonderful post, Amardeep. Mimesis has many faces.....the good, bad and the ugly as Ruchira points out.

Talking about the creative mimicry-the tender moments when a child learns to say "Mama", "Papa".....and when he/she lovingly mimics the parents-pretend play in its full glory :).

BTW, Amaprdeep-thanks for adding me to your blogroll-i enjoy your blog (especially your literary and movie posts) a LOT.

2:27 AM  
Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

Wait, I don't understand. Doesn't his whole point sort of fall flat on his face? Precisely because he misunderstands a fairly fundamental scientific point. Its precisely the utilitarian origin of this "excess" is what makes it wonderful. Otherwise it would just be some random event not interesting beyond some minor wow value. Chuck Close's work is interesting precisely because of his strictly utilitarian approach -- exactly copy what a head would look like when viewed in a certain way. This approach is what produces amazing insights that would be missed when studying the actual head. This is of course exactly why mimesis in nature is interesting. Because it evolves to a point where it has copied exactly enough of the original to work and absolutely no more. So the by comparing the two you can distill exactly what are the features that make the original tick. Its beautiful and totally utilitarian.

12:04 PM  

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