Vladimir Nabokov is best known as the author of Lolita and other works of fiction. But he had a dual identity as a lepidopterist. He frequently described his life pleasures as “the two most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.”
The article is about what Stephen Jay Gould called “the paradox of intellectual promiscuity.” Nabokov had proven himself as a writer, and he couldn’t have gone wrong by sticking with that. So did his interest in butterflies have a positive, negative, or neutral effect on him?
- He wasted all this time on butterflies instead of writing another Lolita.
- Don’t worry, he didn’t waste too much time on butterflies.
- Lolita was great only because he studied butterflies.
- His work on butterflies was more important than his fiction. Lolita was the time waster.
To Nabokov, these two fields weren’t even all that different. They were just two puzzles he solved in the same way, using his deep passion for detail and precision.
His crazy hypothesis about the migration of a particular group of butterflies didn’t earn him much credit as a scientist in his lifetime, but modern technology recently proved him right. So in this case, we can score a win for lepidoptery and intellectual promiscuity, though more than 30 years after Nabokov’s death.
I think the right answer can only be decided on a case by case basis. I don’t know if there’s any hard and fast rule as to whether we should be chasing our butterflies.