As Entomate as Intimate Could Pinchably Be

As Entomate as Intimate Could Pinchably Be

Steven Connor

This paper was first given at the ‘Modernist Transactions’ conference at the University of Birmingham June 30th 2000.

This piece of writing was first given as a talk with the title ‘Modernism’s Insect Life’. It was easy to imagine how a talk of that kind might unroll, on the model of ‘Dogs in Dickens’, or ‘Mountains in Romanticism’. As you will see if you persist, things weren’t in the end quite like that, and not just because there are many more dogs in Dickens than there are insects in modernism. Modernism, like modern life, is actually remarkably free of pests and parasites, compared with the life and writing of earlier periods. Modernism’s body may be problematic, it may be ecstatic, its boundaries may waver, its borders may be easily breached, there may be horror and exhilaration and anxiety (for nowadays there must always be, for our bottomless consolation, others’ anxiety), but it only intermittently exhibits the intimacy with congregated littleness, with buzzing and scurrying things, with the creepy-crawlies of previous eras.

Almost the first essay I ever got published was called ‘Beckett’s Animals’ and ended up largely as an ‘animals in Beckett’ kind of expedition. I was pleased and proud of my discovery that this unpromising body of work was in fact bulging with biodiversity, dogs and donkeys and lobsters and cockatoos. I yielded with only the coyest flicker of resistance, to Barbara Hardy’s suggestion that I might actually send the essay to Beckett, who was at that time still alive in Paris, though in his seventies, spending much of his time batting away invitations and unsolicited gifts of the kind I proposed to visit on him. I was genuinely amazed to receive a card from him in reply. I had an English teacher who had once received a postcard from E.M. Forster, which he would allow to be passed from hand to trembling hand by his first formers, and now I had a holy relic of my own. It reads as follows:

Dear Mr. Connor. Thank you for “my” animals, read with interest. The unswottable fly in “La Mouche” as well as the fly in the waiting room of Watt might have been made to mean something.

There is indeed a poem called ‘La Mouche’ about which I had neglected to have anything to say, as well as a number of other insects that had not registered at all in the menagerie I had assembled. For me, as for most of us, animals just didn’t include insects. Though I have learned to feel the grace and relief that there can be when the loutishness of learning actually manages to omit or overlook something, I also felt then and feel still that I had something, a small thing, to expiate, a pettiness. In one sense what I am going now is in part a reparation for not having spotted, if not swotted that fly. If there are so few insects in modernism, they ought after all to be easy to track down and do for. But insects are always more than one and their lives are always mingled, multiple. Perhaps it will be that there are so few insects in modernism because modernism tries so hard to separate itself from what it sees as, what I will precipitately name as, insect life.

Let me first assemble one or two of the things I think I know about insects.

Insects are intermingled with our lives. Like rats, they are everywhere that human beings are. They accompany us, living alongside and often on and in us. But we have no instrumental relation with insects. We do not put insects to work, as we do dogs and horses and birds, except in rare and exceptional cases, like the silkworm or the cochineal beetle, or the fabled flea-circus. Despite the traditional moralising about the industry and sagacity of bees and ants and spiders, in La Fontaine, Mandeville and Goldsmith, it seems that humans cannot easily see ourselves in insects (are there insect totems? Apart from the Egyptians’ scarab-beetle, not many.) And, most significantly of all, we cannot in the West bring ourselves to eat them, despite their undoubted nutritional possibilities. I think the reason for this may be that, in fantasy, insects come from inside us, they are our detritus. The doctrine of spontaneous generation was laid to rest only in the nineteenth century, despite striking advances in microscopy from the seventeenth century onwards which made the reproductive cycles of insects clearly visible. Insects and their near relatives like mites and spiders appear to have been bred from the body, or, to be more specific, from its decomposing outer surfaces, its skin and emissions. Eating insects would be like eating your own vomit or excrement, of which you can never be sure that it is properly dead, because it is your dead, you dead.

Insects have relatively unspecialised vital functions. They were believed, as late as Linnaeus, not to respire. In fact, all insects do, but many have a system of generalised rather than localised intake and expiration, through their body surfaces. Similarly, insects are less reliant on individual vital organs than other animals; many insects can function quite well for long periods without heads. Insects seem to have no interiority. They seem to be all outside. Instead of innerness, they have distribution; the routines of exchanging stomach contents among the members of an ants’ nest ensures that they all in effect share a single stomach, which means that the small number of ants engaged in foraging for food are all in possession of good information about the nutritional needs of the nest.

The reason that we have no relation with insects is that they are so close to us. In fact, they signify a nauseous, teeming closeness itself. The arachnophobe cannot be in the same room where they know a spider is, because spiders have the power to rearrange space, unsettling speeds and distances, folding nearness and farness together. One of the more important distinctions between arachnids and insects is that most arachnids are solitary rather than social creatures. But insects and arachnids always appear to us as one of a crowd, or a crowd in itself. (Trust me on this: I am myself a recovering arachnophobe, and for arachnaphobia, like alcoholism, there is no cure, only indefinite remission.) Insects do not live in space, they are space itself, because they are too big for space, too packed and pullulating. An insect colony always pulverises and overflows space and sets it at naught, spreading, pouring, invading.

Despite the fact that we have no relation with insects, and perhaps because of it, they accompany us. They mirror us in the horror we have for them. My mother used dutifully to remind me that spiders were much more frightened of me than I of them: which seemed to make them scarier than ever. What froze me in horror was the spectacle of their(-my) desperate, contemptible, scurrying panic, as they(-I) tried to run off in every direction at once.

We have no way of reaching imaginatively into the kinds of teeming space occupied by insects. Insect life is life lived in the swarm; it is life lived close-up, in a swarming, phobic proximity. They represent a problem of perspective, which is why we hesitate to visualise an insect.

It is not at all clear what insects are. Many of the things that we might think of as insects are not insects at all, but arachnids or worms or crustaceans. The definition of an insect, as a creature with a body segmented into three parts, with three pairs of legs, is more arbitrary than almost any other division in natural history. Actually, divisibility is the very means of distinguishing insects. ‘Insect’ means etymologically, that which is cut up or segmented, from Latin in and secare, to cut. An insect is a segmented creature. The Latin translates the Greek entomos exactly: en and temo, to cut.

Insects are all small, and so have come to mean insignificance itself. William Kirby wrote in his Introduction to Entomology in 1800 that

In the minds of most men, the learned as well as the vulgar, the idea of the trifling nature of this pursuit is so strongly associated with the diminutive size of its object, that an entomologist is synonymous with everything that is futile and childish.

But perhaps it is not smallness as such that insects represent, but disturbance of scale. Insects are possessed of unimaginable strength. To squash an unfed human louse requires 1.5 kg of pressure – which is to say, around a million times its own weight.

Insects embody inhuman life. D.H. Lawrence imagined a humanity that was insect-like in its very alienness.

Only man can fall from God

Only man.

No animal, no beast nor creeping thing

no cobra nor hyaena nor scorpion nor hideous white ant

can slip entirely through the fingers of the hands of god.

…self-awareness, now apart from God, falling

fathomless, fathomless, self-consciousness wriggling

writhing deeper and deeper in all the minutiae of self-knowledge

The ‘hideous white ant’ is part of the redeemable animal kingdom in the first stanza, but then crosses over from it to signify, without being named, the disgustingly ‘wriggling’ condition of the human, exiled from nature and God alike.

What kind of life does modernism have? It is, I believe, a parasitic rather than an autonomous life. Its life is a life snatched from the life it sees around it. (The question of what kind of thing life could still mean for modernism is a question worth exploring.) Modernism sets itself the task of saving its own life, saving life itself, from the creeping mechanism or impersonality of the mass. But this gives it a life lived in and through recoil, repulsion, a life that then takes the print of the repulsion that propels it. The body of modernism strives to grow itself a skin from its sense of revulsion, from its revulsion from its own revulsion, a hardened, insensate, entomomorphic skin. If this skin protects from the nips and itches and scurries of insect visitations, it also turns its wearer into a part-insect. This fantasy of a skin to protect one from the insect life of the multiple, which surrenders one up to that life, will take much more substantial form in the kinds of writing and artistic production we call postmodern, which has given the insect a near-totemic status, but modernism feels the premonitory shudder of that awareness. (Shuddering is often premonitory, even annunicatory.)

Much has been written about the defensive or carapace life of the skin in modernism and modernity. Assaulted by shock, overload, complexity, and the threat of so-called female deliquescence, modernism appeared to borrow the idea of a defensive armour from insects and the entomomorphic forms of modern weaponry. This is Klaus Theweleit’s hypothesis of assailed and assailing masculinity, which is almost unanswerable, impenetrable, as long as one will not put off its armour. The magnified insect forms which seem to throng the work of Wyndham Lewis, and certain futurists and surrealists seem to embody a dream of the insect as ideal machine, as set out in Jessica Burstein’s discussion (1997) of the ‘cold modernism’ of Wyndham Lewis. But this dream abstracts and individualises the insect, mediaevalising it in its dream of impermeability, and preparing the way for later popular representations of the armoured life, or what Hal Foster has called ‘armour propre’. Armour, the hardened carapace, retrieves what the thought of insects disperses, namely the possibility of putting something in its place. The other side of insect life, multiplicity, prohibits this armoured representability. The insect as armour in fact is a defence against unrepresentability, against the feeling that there may not be imaginable objects in the case; but it is also therefore an exposure to, and a harbouring of it. As Wyndham Lewis put it, ‘We all today (possibly with a coldness reminiscent of the insect world) are in each others’ vitals’ (BLAST, 1, 141).

I know a female version of this male self-armouring. Insects are marginally implicated in the later work of Virginia Woolf, a writer whom we do not associate much with abjection and disgust. Unlike Woolf’s other work, and in the teeth of its own aspiration to generate from within an inclusive shape of some kind, The Years never generates an absolute or definitive image for itself. Forming this self-image was like forming a body for the novel. In October 1935, Woolf wrote in her diary of the need to form a kind of corporeal volume out of the different layers and surfaces of her novel.

I have discovered that there must be contrast: one strata, [sic] or layer cant be developed intensively, as I did I expect in The Waves, without harm to the others. Thus a kind of form is, I hope, imposing itself, corresponding to the dimensions of the human being: one should be able to feel a wall made out of all the influences; & this should in the last chapter close round them at the party so that you feel that while they go on individually it has completed itself’ (Diary IV, 347)

Nine months later, in the summer of 1936, she was still struggling to find some way to ‘envelop the whole in a medium’ (Diary, V, 25). She transfers some of this need for a containing shape to the character of Eleanor, who, in the Present Day portion of the novel, wonders if we do not aim to ‘give pain, give pleasure an outer body, and by increasing the surface diminish them’. The emphasis on the need for the novel to grow a kind of outside or skin is palpable in it. In fact, as was usual with Woolf, its writing produced some rather alarming bodily symptoms and stimulated reflections on the relations between the brain and the body. In January 1933, these reflections led Woolf to think directly of a skin condition being suffered by her husband Leonard.

Meanwhile L.’s hired stock has given him some form of itch. He picks what he thinks black insects off his neck – I can imagine nothing more terrible than to have insects under ones skin – I should see them parading in squads.

Two days later, back in London, they took medical advice from the dermatologist Henry MacCormack

we began London briskly with Leonard’s lice – his incurable and disgusting skin disease. We went to a Wimpole Street specialist…finally the dr. said L. had never been bitten at all. And so, as the day wore on, the incurable disease was cured. (Diary, IV, 143-4)

Woolf did not find it easy to sympathise with disease and bodily suffering – she couldn’t help finding Duncan Grant’s piles comic and ignominious (Diary, IV, 228-9). Her horror at Leonard’s condition is a recoil from something she calls ‘incurable and disgusting’, and seems to associate with maleness, animality and militarism. And yet, her very horror mimics the condition. It is her skin that crawls, at the thought of Leonard’s crawling skin, or even the thought of his belief in his crawling skin. This will only seem ungenerous or neurotic if we forget that partners in a marriage must acquaint themselves with and learn to tolerate repulsion as well as with desire for the bodies of their intimate familiars. Here, Woolf’s repulsion seems to bring about an intensified incorporation of the disease: where Leonard picks off what he thinks are black insects, Virginia imagines them ‘parading’ under her skin. Horror, the condition in which the skin bristles, arms and armours itself against a threat, is here an aggressive rejection of aggressiveness. Her novel’s refusal to settle into or grow a satisfactory tegument shares this structure, in which recoil and disgust at the body is paradoxically indistinguishable from a sharing of bodies and body space. This entomological fix returns in some of the ways in which Woolf writes about the difficulty of preserving a space in which to write her novel in the face of continuing social irritations: ‘I am using my faculties again. & all the flies and fleas are forgotten’, she wrote in November 1934 (Diary, IV, 261).

This is a novel in which horror is insufficiently recoiled-from; in which the ugly world of men and militarism is insufficiently drained-off. The novel allows itself to speak of the horror of contact, contact with the verminous body of the Jew, in the figure of ‘the Jew in the bath’ which Woolf allows herself to let stand for the ugliness of male modernity. In the insufficiency of its recoil, its inability to control its shudder, or to grow a satisfactory skin to hold its horror in, it finds itself living amid the crawly horrors occasionally embraced in modernism.

Woolf finds her form in the flight away from the apprehension of insect life. In the canonical insect text of modernism, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, it is the formlessness and unrepresentability of the insect that is most to the fore. Despite the fact that the text so calmly and famously names the transformation of man into insect in its opening words – ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect’ (Kafka 1971, 9), insect life is in fact strangely diffused in the text. It is never clear that he is an insect; all we know is that he has innumerable legs, not that he has precisely six. And Gregor appears himself to be subject to entomological visitation, in the itch that he cannot bear to scratch once it emerges what is causing it:

He felt a slight itching up on his belly; slowly pushed himself on his back nearer to the top of the bed so that he could lift his head more easily; identified the itching place which was surrounded by many small spots the nature of which he could not understand, and made to touch it with a leg, but drew the leg back immediately, for the contact made a cold shiver run through him. (Kafka 1971, 10)

What are these spots? Pustules? An infestation of an even smaller, even more diffuse and innumerable mode of life? Eggs? The reconfiguration of space effected by insect consciousness here connects with the eighteenth-century doctrine of encapsulated preformation, the idea that all creatures have packed within them, in a rolled-up or incipient fashion, all of their descendants. Metamorphosis is often treated as an allegory of mass-bureaucratic life; but where the usual metaphor turned office-workers into insects, here, it is Gregor’s individualist assertion of himself which takes an insect form. Not that insect life is confined to Gregor’s transformation. It initiates and is an instance of a general transformation in the story. Gregor’s transformed speech, his squeaky, stridulent insect voice, spreads across into the dehumanised utterance of his family – his father’s appalled ‘oh’ which sounds like a gust of wind, and the hissing noise he makes as he drives Gregor back into his room, a noise which soon ‘no longer sounded like the voice of one father’ (Kafka 1971, 25).

The insect-principle that governs the story is that of multiplying exteriorities: the story moves from the thought of connections and causations to patterns of contact: slammings, scrapings, slidings, abrasions, concussions. A deep, four dimensional world of depth and duration shrinks to a two dimensional world of surfaces meeting one another and themselves. In the end, Gregor’s body is emptied out, ‘completely flat and dry’ (Kafka 1971, 60).

Insects signify not only generalised life, the life in the mass – Baudelaire’s ‘Fourmillante cité’ – from which many literary modernists recoiled, but also the molecular, the life of the element, the particle. The pathology of insects connects with the horror and rapture of multiplicity.

Much of our thinking about instincts is done at the level of the skin, in terms of entomological apprehensions rather than concepts. Insects are itchy, and all itch is entomogenic. Itching and the dispersal of the skin-schema that it signifies is at the greatest distance from the usual functions of the skin. Other transformations of the skin can be thought of a variations on its basic structures, or selective intensifications of certain of its qualities – its protectiveness in armour; its capacity to change appearance and to individuate in cosmetics and body painting; its power to heal itself in lesions. But itching seems to signify the possibility of the skin’s absolute dissolution, the absolute identity of flesh and dust, in an identification with the skin’s opposites. Itching evokes granularity; bits, flakes, dust, powder, sand, grit. Itching is not only the response to the irritation of such substances – like pepper and itching powder – it is also the temptation to become one with granularity’s impossible life, the swarming insect-life of multiplicity, of ants and bees, and the fleas held for so long to be engendered by the mixture of sweat and dust. It is an association with the miniature, as alluded to, but unattended to by Gaston Bachelard, when he claims that ‘[O]ur animalized oneirism, which is so powerful as regards large animals, has not recorded the doings and gestures of tiny animals. In fact, in the domain of tininess, animalized oneirism is less developed than vegetal oneirism.’ (1994, 164) He then acknowledges in a footnote that ‘It should be noted, however, that certain neurotics insist that they can see the microbes that are consuming their organs.’ Itch is the (usually) nonpsychotic form of this cultural dreamwork of the miniature.

No contemporary authors have done more to broach the question of the life of multiplicity than Deleuze and Guattari. In the chapter entitled ‘1914: One Or Several Wolves’ of their Thousand Plateaux. There, they focus on a passage from Freud’s essay ‘The Unconscious’, in which he tells the story of a neurotic patient who was obsessed with squeezing out the blackheads from his skin, which Freud sees as a clear substitute for masturbation. The cavity left by this operation appears as the female genital, the fulfilment of the threat of castration. At this point, an odd rift or cavity opens up in Freud’s own account:

This substitutive formation has, in spite of its hypochondriacal character, considerable resemblance to a hysterical conversion; and yet we have a feeling that something different must be going on here, that a substitutive formation such as this cannot be attributed to hysteria, even before we can say in what the difference consists. A tiny little cavity such as a pore of the skin would hardly be used by a hysteric as a symbol for the vagina, which he is otherwise ready to compare with every imaginable object that encloses a hollow space. Besides, we should expect the multiplicity of these little cavities to prevent him from using them as a substitute for the female genital.

Why does Freud suddenly get such a sinking feeling about the inadequacy of his metaphor, of his patient’s hysterical metaphor? The feeling of the difference between the hysteric and the obsessive comes first, before the difference; indeed, the difference never gets articulated. It has something to do with the tininess and the multiplicity of these holes, which seem to make the metaphorical association impossible or de trop, even though we are told that ‘every imaginable object’ will serve the hysteric for comparison. A shudder, as it were, passes across Freud’s writing, a shudder that never quite gets into it.

Deleuze and Guattari seize on this moment as the involuntary discovery of a difference between neurosis and psychosis, namely that neurosis centres around fixed and one-to-one identifications, and imaginable objects. Psychosis focuses around multiplicities, which make substitution and identification difficult, indeed makes focussing itself difficult. In psychosis, identification and figuration become becoming:

Salvador Dali, in attempting to reproduce his delusions, may go on at length about THE rhinoceros horn; he has not for all that left neurotic discourse behind. But when he starts comparing goosebumps to a field of tiny rhinoceros horns, we get the feeling that the atmosphere has changed and that we are now in the presence of madness. Is it still a question of a comparison at all? It is, rather, a pure multiplicity that changes elements orbecomes. (TP, 27)

The impulse to neurotic excoriation, the desire to cleanse oneself of sebacious material and other visible deposits in the skin which is indulged in a mild way by the makers of skin preparations mutates in certain obsessives and psychotics into a horrified, but lingeringly libidinous identification with the worms that occupy the pores of the skin – up to the seventeenth century, the long, thin sebacious excrescences from the skin were often thought to be dead worms issuing from the corrupted flesh, for worms and insects were not distinguished with any rigour until the middle of the eighteenth century. Piero Camporesi has charted the horror associated with actual and imaginary infestation with worms – with flesh alive with its death. There is no reason to assume that worms are themselves merely substitute penises. I want to think that insects are always seen feelingly; in terms of a swarming touch, that does not so much assault the skin as seduce, draw it out, into the vermiform, a dream of worms, a dreamwormwork.

The dream of worms does not destroy or deny the skin so much as reconstitute it, as a thing of holes, passages. If the skin were not a surface containing holes, but an imaginary tissue made up of holes with nothing to connect them to each other but the gaps between them, except perhaps the thought of their connection – a skin made of air, made of nothing but thought, a dream skin – then skin would have become a swarm of malignant dust, which is made as much of gaps as particles. For Deleuze and Guattari, who have little to say about dust and powder, but plenty to say about sieves, pores and pockmarks, this bored littleness is the becoming of multiplicity itself, a multiplicity which is the form of the unconscious. Writing of Freud’s Wolf Man, they declare that ‘a wolf is a hole, they are both particles of the unconscious, nothing but particles, productions of particles, particulate paths, as elements of molecular multiplicities. It is not even enough to say that intense and moving particles pass through holes; a hole is just as much a particle as what passes through it’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1988, 32). According to their own account, their joined-up writing, the conjugations of their joined-up writings, are themselves crowded, entomological.

We are writing this book as a rhizome. It is composed of plateaus. We have given it a circular form, but only for laughs. Each morning we would wake up, and each of us would ask himself what plateau he was going to tackle, writing five lines here, ten there. We had hallucinatory experiences, we watched lines leave one plateau and proceed to another like columns of tiny ants. (Deleuze and Guattari 1988, 32)

Our fear is written over our skin, insofar as the skin is our first line of defence. When our skin bristles with horror, when we horripilate, becoming like a hedgehog, we are defending ourselves against some threat, some horror, that is itself horrent, whose skin can stand up, piercing rather than sustaining, like the inverted breast of the Iron Maiden. If we think of that threat in terms of a threat to the skin, the possibility of being torn or pierced, we mime becoming the kind of creature whose skin can become an armed host, can itself come to be made up of blades or needles or spears or knobs. King Ludwig’s emblematic fantasy of having a skin of glass allowed the skin itself to identify with that which threatened it: once shattered, the skin itself would become edged, or pointed, dangerous. When we shiver with horror, we defend ourselves against penetration not only by hardening, but by shattering or multiplication. The ants which pour out of the slit eyeball in Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or exchange the monocular singularity of our own gaze and of the screen which holds the scene in view with a scurrying that can no longer be seen, but is nevertheless the model for another way of seeing, the seeing feelingly of the swarming ant-mind, or of Bachelard’s psychotic. When what horrifies us is the very existence of swarming, the possibility of being burrowed into and sieved, and turned into nothing more than a swarming, then the skin can take refuge in the very pullulation that it dreads, borrow a life from the kind of life it fears will carry it away piecemeal.

And this swarming, this prickling, this congregation or convocation of ants, or bees, or millipedes, this numberless fluttering as of moths or birds, is the source of some of our deepest pleasures too. Sometimes, it is magnified into a visible shudder, or shiver, or quivering, to enact the awed sense of imminence, of being in the vicinity of the god. Why should it be that a phrase of music, a cadence, or a figure, should be registered so immediately in this lifting, this shifting, this sizzling of the skin, as though they had not needed to be taken in and made intelligible by the ear at all? Is it that, at times like this, we are listening with our skins, which have become a sort of itching tympanum, an eerie, sifting, shifting, whispering, particulate formication, which can hear the passage of ants?

Why do we say that things give us the creeps, or that they make our skin crawl, unless it is that we sense a commingling, a commensality, a mimetic charming or fascination of the skin by the movement that it finds so aversive? Guessing at the crawling taking place over it, the skin itself begins to crawl: it squirms into the shape of an insect or a worm – or rather, the multiple form of the insect or worm – in order to escape the touch of insect or worm. In hisLiber medicinalis at the beginning of the third century, Quintus Serenus Scammonicus recommended the application of what one would have thought the ultimate itching powder, the dust deposited by ants on the floors of their galleries, mixed with oil, for relief from scabies (quoted Doby 1992, 313). (One should not smile too much: perhaps a mild suspension of formic acid was indeed deleterious to the sarcoptis, without risking the secondary dermatitis produced by so many more radical treatments. It is surely this losing of the skin’s singularity or wholeness, this evasion of the economy of tegument and tear (the lesion in the skin always recruiting and being recruited to the story of the skin’s lost and restored entirety) that constitutes the exhilaration of horror.

The horror of not being able to see the insect is itself given a sort of tactile or tactual imaging in Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye. As Roland Barthes wrote in his 1963 essay on it, the narrative is simply a flow of matter, eggs, eyes, tears, sperm, urine. The climax comes in the final chapter, ‘The Legs of the Fly’, which sees the sexual murder of a priest, Don Aminado, by garrotting. The act is performed by the narrator and his sexually voracious companions, Simone and Sir Edmund (no perversity can be taken seriously unless an English aristocrat is on the scene). The serenely mechanical frenzies of forcible transmission and emission suddenly come to a halt in an image, an image of the unimaginable, the unimagable:

[Simone] straddled the naked cadaver again, scrutinizing the purplish face with the keenest interest, she even sponged the sweat off the forehead and obstinately waved away a fly buzzing in a sunbeam and endlessly flitting back to alight on the face. All at once, Simone uttered a soft cry. Something bizarre and quite baffling had happened: this time, the insect had perched on the corpse’s eye and was agitating its long nightmarish legs on the strange orb. The girl took her head in her hands and shook it, trembling, then she seemed to plunge into an abyss of reflections. (Bataille 1986, 65)

This is a story that seems to want to close the gap between seeing or imagining and feeling, making the seeing eye merely an object of and accessory to tactile sensation (the eye is about to be scooped out and popped into Simone’s vagina). In a text which feeds its inertia on disgust, finding in disgust the guarantee of the vital tension to be found in transgression, this moment represents a considerable perturbation. It initiates the final horror of the enucleation of the eye, the replacement of sight by touch, the voluptuous touch of the eye on the skin and the swallowing of the eye by the orifices of the body. Into what is in fact a perverse but wholly closed permutation of substitutions and transformations, the fly seems to come from nowhere, a spontaneous generation, and, for a moment, to keep the text from going anywhere else. The traumatic pause it institutes in the text will give it the energy it needs to proceed to its next stage, but it is, for the moment that it lasts, an encounter with an enigma that is unassimilable, a perplexity rather than a perversity.

The friendliest form of insect life in modernism is to be found in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. If the other appearances of the insect of which I have spoken bring with them trauma, enigma and the powers of horror, Finnegans Wakeseems to allow an assimilation of the insect and the human. The central character of that work (if we are permitted to speak of character at all in such a work, blah blah), the publican of the Eve and Adam’s pub in Chapelizod, who spends the book flat out dreaming of human history, may well be named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Earwicker, because he’s a bit of an earwig, and also because he harbours insectuous, I do beg your pardon, incestuous desires, for his daughter, the lispy hussy Issy. The insect-incest coupling recurs insistently throughout the Wake. It suggests the horror of the intimate, of the proximal, that which comes too close – ‘as entomate as intimate could pinchably be’, as we hear, which is represented by insects and insects alone, the most social and the least familial of creatures. If the insect is segmentation, indivisible division, then incest is its power of dividing into itself, its power of multiplying itself from the inside out, conjugating from its self-divisions.

Insects swarm and scurry everywhere in Finnegans Wake, most notably in the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, mutated into the Ondt and the Gracehoper. The story, a kind of Butterfly Ball, is one of the many intertwining twinnings of fraternal couples in the book. Here the couple is Shem, the lonely, exiled artist (‘Artalone the Weeps with his parisites peeling off him’), associated with time and the ephemeral (ephemerides, the day-fly), and Shaun, his materialist brother, associated stolidly with space. Insects are, of course, metamorphic, and are therefore implicated in the many instances of implied and actual metamorphosis undergone in the Wake. Undergoing interrogation, Shem, blended with his father, is asked whether he has ever felt the sensation of self-transformation. He is part-analysand, part victim of legal interrogation and part spiritualist medium. He replies to an enquiry that he might not feel haunted by ‘a complementary character’:

– I’m thinking to, thogged be thenked! I was just trying to think when I thought I felt a flea. I might have. I cannot say for it is of no significance at all…. I swear my gots how that I’m not meself at all, no jolly fear, when I realise bimiselves how becomingly I to be going to become. (486-7)

It is not so much the appearance of particular entomological characters that counts in Finnegans Wake, as the sheer Schwärmerei of the text itself that registers its entomological apprehension. Earwigs connect insects with the passage across the inside and the outside of bodies, especially that effected by sound and hearing, for sound gets under your skin in a way that written signs do not. As has often been said, first by Joyce himself, here is no story of the eye, but an ear-piece, or even an ear-pierce, a perce-oreille.


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