by Jini Stolk
Have you read the wonderful book Nabokov’s Butterflies? It’s definitely different: an array of stories, poems, screenplays, selections from his novels, autobiography, lectures, letters and more about Vladimir Nabokov’s lesser known passion, lepidoptery. Butterflies.
Because most of the writings are by Nabokov the book is brilliant and strangely fascinating. But what struck me most was the amount of joy he finds in both his chosen types of work. On butterflies: “The highest enjoyment of timelessness…is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else…like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love”; “Enchanted hours! Rapture of recollection! My soul seethes…Latin names turn around in my head – and the night is warm and hazy…”; “Oh I had an enchanting, utterly sweet adventure. …I found on a linden tree near Charlottenburg station a wonderfully rare moth”; among hundreds of similar outpourings.
Artists, and it seems lepidopterists, have the privilege of doing work that engages all their deepest values, thought-processes and creativity – and makes possible a state of mind that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”. In his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he defines flow as a state of complete absorption with the action that a person is occupied with. “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”.
I was privileged to attend a conference some years ago organized by Mavis Staines of the National Ballet School on the topic of flow in dance, featuring Mr. Csikszentmihalyi. Being at the National Ballet School recently for an event brought it all back. Sadly (or luckily considering my career) my own moments of flow tend to happen when I’m writing grant applications, dreaming up new projects, creating strategic action plans, or even writing blog posts…
David Brooks wrote a column in the New York Times recently about a pivotal meeting between Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova which he describes as an example of “communication between people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is not found in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional and existential wisdom.” Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversation, he says, because they had done the reading and had the common language of literature, written by geniuses who understand us better than we understand ourselves.
I find that deeply moving, if largely unobtainable.
Nabokov’s Butterflies at 782 pages is a big book, and my library at home features a floor filled with stacks that I can’t fit onto the shelves. If anyone would like to have my copy of Nabokov’s Butterflies, just send me a note at [email protected]; it’s on my desk at 720 Bathurst just waiting for you.