On Fresh Air yesterday Terry Gross interviewed an entomologist who made his name studying the dung beetle, which turns out to be a more romantic subject than one might expect. Dung beetles inhabit a nearly medieval world of armored combat, knight-errantry and captured damsels. Each species (there are over two thousand) has its own particular weaponry: maces, hooks, and spines of sword-like vorpal efficiency. Male beetles stake out territory and challenge all passers, and fight for the sexual favors of females dispensed beneath pavilions of cow shit that serve for castle, boudoir, and supper.
It’s Malory in miniature, except for the pavilion-eating part.
My wife informs me that weevils have infested our stock of oatmeal, which will have to be thrown out. The weevil happens to be the subject of a friend’s doctoral studies. It must also have been a favorite of Jim Henson – to judge by the long-snouted spy Garindan from the original Star Wars movie and Gonzo from The Muppet Show. Despite the consonance of words, however, the weevil doesn’t look particularly evil. It’s actually cute. But of course insects are commonly associated with darkness, decay, evil. It’s probably undeserved, and I’m afraid the former administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” (confined spaces, bugs) only adds to the slander.
That proposition (bugs = evil) brings me to Scottish poet Edwin Muir. In his Autobiography Muir recounts his 19th century childhood on the little Orkney rock of Wyre where there was nothing much in the way of trees, ground-cover, or people, but an apparent abundance of quaintly nicknamed bugs (like “Jenny Hunderlegs”) to play on his boyish phobias. With the exception of arachnids, which he imagined “bearded and magistral” and generally well intentioned, these were for little Edwin objects of paralyzing horror:
…interesting but squalid, with thoughts that could never be penetrated, inconceivable aims, perverse activities… like little fragments of night darting about in the sun. Their presence troubled me as the mind is troubled in adolescence by the realization of physical lust. The gavelocks and forkytails were my first intimation of evil, and associations of evil still cling round them for me.
Leaving alone the weird association of insect-revulsion with lust (despite Muir’s own penchant for Freudian self-analysis, he doesn’t expand on this), it’s curious to note that Muir and his wife, Willa, were among the first to translate Kafka into English, and their rendering of Metamorphosis is still widely available. Exactly what kind of insect Gregor Samsa is transformed into is unclear in the original German (the Muirs kept it simple with “insect” and so avoided the dreadfully bland “vermin” I’ve seen elsewhere), but illustrators have frequently made him a cockroach – of all insects, perhaps the most viscerally associated with filth and evil. I’m not sure whether this is less fair to the cockroach or to Gregor Samsa.
Vladimir Nabokov deplored such jumping to conclusions on the part of Kafka’s reckless illuminators. Instead he suggests a proper reading of the text would make Gregor Samsa one of those more noble beetles with wings tucked under its carapace: which is to say that Samsa could fly if only he knew it. Such a suggestion, however, merely proves that Nabokov never spent a night in the miserable Key Largo motel where I once stayed, where hordes of giant, winged cockroaches buzzed overhead and knocked senselessly into walls and mirrors from dusk to dawn. Really, Nabokov should have had enough basic entomology to know about winged cockroaches. He was, after all, a part-time lepidopterist.
Which brings us to butterflies. Ah, butterflies…