Marginalia, no.11

Reality is a very subjective affair.  I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization.  If we take a lily for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person.  But it is still more real to a botanist.  And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable.  You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless.  So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly figures.

~ Vladimir Nabokov, from a 1962 BBC interview

Yes, but what are our best means of approach?  In addition to being (in William Deresiewicz’s words) “God’s own novelist,” Nabokov was an expert lepidopterist, with several papers in peer-reviewed journals.  By his logic, then, butterflies were far more real to him than they are to, say, my two-year-old daughter.  And yet her delight, her mere wonder, captures something about butterflies too simple and elusive for science’s most precise observations.

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