Metamorphosis

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In Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak Memory, there is a chapter in which he takes a break from his sometimes tedious nostalgia about the comings and goings of his aristocratic family and describes the origins of his “mania” for butterflies. Of course, he was a serious collector and respected lepidopterist all of his life.

The image of men with butterfly nets has often been used in movies and TV for comic effect, but apparently his experience was that it was regarded as simply bizarre. Here he describes the impact of his boyish hunts on the startled Russian country people:

“I would see in my wake the villagers frozen in the various attitudes my passage had caught them in, as if I were Sodom and they Lot’s wife.”

Marvelous simile there, a movable city of sin, the burning metropolis of Sodom, plowing through the countryside leaving a trail of salt/stone figures, transfixed by its passing. And here he addresses the frightening aspects of transformation as he comes across a caterpillar on the path:

“…a strange creature…in a frantic search for a place to pupate (the awful pressure of metamorphosis, the aura of a disgraceful fit in a public place).”

I think it was Joyce Carrol Oates who identified the “gothic” element in Dante’s Inferno, as those passages in which characters experience in helpless terror the changing of their bodies into something else. (The “disgraceful fit” reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of his epileptic attacks, always ecstatic in the end). Transformations and horror, as with Actaeon, werewolves, American and otherwise, Jekyll-Hyde, vampires male and female, and even the Incredible Hulk.

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(The image at the top is by James Gillray, and shows a celebrated naturalist Joseph Banks.)

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