This will be loose and serendipitous. I’ve thought much about butterflies lately, why their appearance seldom fails to make me happy. It’s their colors, I suppose, and their flickering motions. You would never mistake a butterfly for a bird, nor do birds reliably make me happy the way butterflies do. But there’s something else: Butterflies are evanescent, a virtual symbol of transience. Their fragility in time increases their beauty.
Western Washington has been overcast and mostly dry of late, meaning few butterflies. To compensate I’ve been skimming Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (2000), edited and annotated by Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle. Among its 782 pages is a brief exchange from an interview Nabokov granted Israel Shenker of the New York Times in June 1971, and published in the New York Times Book Review on Jan. 9, 1972:
Shenker: “What struggles these days for pride of place in your mind?”
Nabokov: “Meadows. A meadow with Scarce Heath butterflies in North Russia, another with Grinnell’s Blue in South California. That sort of thing.”
That’s a lovely response from a 72-year-old novelist/lepidopterist, and the linking of summer meadows and butterflies is seductive. But it was the interviewer who caught my attention. In 1982 I read Shenker’s In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell: A Modern Day Journey Through Scotland, an account of the great pair's tour of Boswell’s homeland in 1773. I remember the book fondly but knew little else about Shenker. An online search uncovered the Times’ obituary of Shenker who died June 7, 2007, at the age of 82, almost precisely 30 years after Nabokov. Remembering Shenker by way of Nabokov, Boswell and Johnson reminded me, of course, of Boswell’s account of Johnson’s cat Hodge in his Life of Johnson:
“I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson's breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, `Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, `but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’
“This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. `Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.’ And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, `But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.’”
Hodge’s renown grew after Nabokov used the second of Boswell’s paragraphs as his epigraph to Pale Fire. The passage distinguishes the characters of Boswell and Johnson. Boswell admits having an “antipathy” to cats, while Johnson, like any good-hearted person, feels only “indulgence” for Hodge, and experiences “a sort of kindly reverie” when thinking of him. The English have commemorated a bronze statue of Hodge in front of the house he shared with Johnson.
A simple thought about butterflies inspired a digressive journey, with entertaining visits along the way for Nabokov, Shenker, Boswell and Johnson, which brings me back to butterflies. In The Idler #64, published July 7, 1759, Johnson writes:
“…in time I grew weary of being hated for that which produced no advantage, gave my shells to children that wanted play-things, and suppressed the art of drying butterflies, because I would not tempt idleness and cruelty to kill them.”