The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles (2010)
One summer many years ago, I found work in a restaurant kitchen outside London. Arriving early one morning during my first week, I was led by the manager to a white door on the far side of a small, open courtyard. He removed the padlock, and we stood there as our eyes slowly adjusted to the gloomy interior. A small storeroom gradually came into view, with piles of supplies: cases of oils and canned vegetables, sacks filled with flour.
The floor was a mottled white, and it was only after a few moments that I realized, with some horror, why we were standing on the threshold as if at the seashore, silent under a lowering sky. No one else will do it, the manager told me. You’ll need a broom and those bottles of bleach.
* * *
As with many repulsive tasks, once the shock of entering the field of action has passed, disgust generates an energy of its own. Partly, it’s the desire to finish rapidly. Partly, the activity itself blocks out reflection and produces a kind of drunkenness, a giddiness that sees off doubt.
I waded in. Thousands, tens of thousands of maggots, “slippery finger-length maggots,”1 white maggots, writhing on the floor, shiny and wet. In an hour it was over: the room clean, the floor sluiced, the job still mine.
With careless hands a child kills an ant, many ants. Flies are far trickier, though once caught, they have little chance. And if darting birds don’t grab them first, butterflies die a natural death; few people—collectors excepted—willfully still such tremulous beauty.
* * *
It has the marks of permanent war. Beetles, good at hiding, keep close to the ground. Wisława Szymborska finds one dead on a dirt road, “three pairs of legs … neatly folded across its belly.” She stops and stares. “The horror of the site is moderate,” she writes. “Sorrow is not contagious.” But still doubt remains:
For our peace of mind, animals do not pass away,
but die a seemingly shallower death
losing—we’d like to believe—fewer feelings and less world,
exiting—or so it seems—a less tragic stage.2
An uncommon sensibility. Almost like a child meeting death for the first time, grasping analogy, tentatively building a bridge. Tentatively. The poet is tentative. Her knowledge of the small (and sometimes large) acts of bad faith through which we live our lives is what makes the poem.
Three years ago, Sharon and I walked through the entrance doors of the Montreal Insectarium, down the curved staircase to the open-plan exhibition hall, and within minutes, were absorbed in the displays. All those insects in one place got us thinking about the megacategory the museum had taken on, about the unreachable diversity contained within that word insects, and about how unfortunate it is that the negative connotations of the word sweep up so much. Such are the perils of taxonomy in the public sphere. And what a huge task it leaves a place like this.
* * *
But pretty soon, realizing that everyone else—people of all ages—was just as absorbed, we began thinking how well the curators, designers, educators, and other staff had succeeded in their mission to “encourage … visitors to think more positively about insects.” We were struck by the combination of exhibits on topics that are more familiar (insect biology) and less familiar (cultural connections between humans and insects). The exhibits were thoughtful and fun; the text was smart and didn’t talk down. The examples were diverse and intriguing.
And then, like a thought unthought, like that peculiar biblical image of scales falling from Saul’s eyes, like waking from a dream, like that moment when the drugs wear off (or, alternatively, when they kick in), we both realized, at what seemed like the exact same instant, that we were in a mausoleum and that the walls were lined with death, that those gorgeous pinned specimens, precisely arranged according to aesthetic criteria—color, size, shape, geometry—were not just dazzling objects; they were also tiny corpses.
* * *
How strange that we look at insects as beautiful objects, that in death they are beautiful objects whereas in life, scuttling across the wooden floor, lurking in corners and under benches, flying into our hair and under our collars, crawling up our sleeves … Imagine the chaos if they came back to life. The impulse, even in this place, would be to lash out and crush them.
But if you watch people going from case to case around the room, you see right away that many of these objects (not necessarily the largest, not necessarily the ones with the longest legs or spindliest antennae) possess intense psychic power. It’s clear in the way that everyone—myself included—navigates the displays, in the way that we move along the rows a little tentatively and then pull up short and sometimes back off sharply. And it’s a little odd that we act like this, because the animal is not only locked behind Perspex in a display case but is, besides, not at all physically dangerous, if, in fact, it ever was. It is as though, along with their beauty, these animals find their way to some deep part of us and, in response, something taboo-like draws us in. Despite death, they enter our bodies and make us shiver with apprehension. What other animal has this power over us?
* * *
So much about insects is obscure to us, yet our capacity to condition their existence is so vast. Look closely at these walls. Even the most beautiful butterfly, observed Primo Levi, has a “diabolical, mask-like face.”3 Unease has a stubborn source, unfamiliar and unsettling. We simply cannot find ourselves in these creatures. The more we look, the less we know. They are not like us. They do not respond to acts of love or mercy or remorse. It is worse than indifference. It is a deep, dead space without reciprocity, recognition, or redemption.
Flies, Saint Augustine wrote, were invented by God to punish man for his arrogance. Was that what the people of Hamburg were supposed to feel in 1943 as they stumbled through the smoldering ruins of their city during the pauses between Allied bombing raids? Flies—“huge and iridescent green, flies such as had never been seen before”—were so thick around the corpses in the air-raid shelters that, across the floors writhing with maggots, the work teams detailed to collect the dead could reach the bodies only by clearing the way with flamethrowers.4
And then, here and elsewhere, on the heels of imposed vulnerability come the images of famine and disease, flies sipping from the corners of dull eyes, sucking at the edges of crusted mouths, crusted noses. Child and adult too weak, too pacified, to keep brushing them away. Animals, too, dogs, cows, goats, horses. Flies taking over, moving in, preparing the generations, the eggs, the larvae, the feast. Heralding the transition, only slightly premature.