the insect god: bugs as cultural icons

This essay first appeared in LiP Magazine. I resurrect it here as a nod to the recent piece in The Guardian about the scope of the anthropogenic Sixth Extinction now underway. Insects, worms, and other bugs seem to be among the species most resistant to what humans are now doing to the biosphere. So maybe it’s worth looking at what they’ve had to say to us, and about us, over the last few thousand years.

If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos. – E.O. Wilson

Any attempt to understand human beings requires understanding our symbols, the things humans—for reasons we don’t understand but that seem integral to our nature—invest with meaning far beyond the immediately apparent. Bugs, true to their physical nature, perform an amount of symbolic work entirely disproportional to their tiny size in modern society, even if much of it happens in some pretty subterranean parts of our culture. It’s true you don’t see a lot of insects or other bug phyla* as corporate logos, or on flags or presidential seals. They don’t get to be team mascots very often (although University of Santa Cruz’s Banana Slugs are one consciously ironic exception), or the names of cars, or to float in parades or greet visitors to Disneyland. But if you take your net and your magnifying glass and travel up some of the more esoteric—though still widely used—tributaries of modern Western Culture, Inc., you will start to see a lot of bugs. What they represent lies at the very heart of our civilization. And particularly, its contemporary discontents.

* for the purposes of this article, and no doubt to the horror of entomologists everywhere, “bugs” will refer to true insects like ants and flies and also some other classifications like arthropods (spiders and centipedes), annelids (worms), and mollusks (snails and slugs), and even some forms of bacteria at the discretion of the tyro author.

Since our symbolizing practices are tens of thousands of years old, it makes sense to start with a quick look at the symbolic role bugs have played over the course of our cultural history, and some of the cultures which pre-existed ours. The oldest known culture on earth, the African Bushmen or !San people, have a mantis creation god, Kaggen. Scarab beetles were worshipped in ancient Egypt as a symbol of regeneration, and early North American and Mesoamerican societies had a variety of bug gods or spirits. In Hopi creation myth, Spider Grandmother is one of those whose actions are responsible for generating the world. Mexican Apaches postulated that controlled fire was a gift from fireflies. In Hinduism, ants are the privileged first-born creatures of this world, and the anthill symbolizes the world itself.

An emphasis on their helpful and culture-generative aspects is characteristic of early representations of insects. Crickets are one of the most beneficent and propitious creatures in Japanese folklore. Legend held that wasps taught the Chinese how to make paper, and of course the silkworm became a foundational aspect of their economic life. The word “medicine” in fact derives from the same root as “mead” or honey; an alcoholic brew made with honeycomb was often used as a healing elixir in early European cultures. Cochineal, beeswax, honey, and shellac were other insect products essential to an increasing technical sophistication in global culture. Tropical cultures particularly depended upon an understanding of the qualities of the thousands of insect species in their environments, and used their venomous, healing, nutritive and hallucinogenic properties in sophisticated ways for thousands of years. These indigenous cultures characteristically (and in contradistinction to more technologically “advanced” societies) paid symbolic tribute to the species that helped ensure their own survival through a culture of respect and relative humility with regard to these co-inhabitants. Symbolic representation in ritual, myth and folklore ensured the transmission of their values through the generations.

The capacity that many bugs have to transform their physical nature has also generated a lot of cultural material for our highly adaptable and metaphysically minded primate species. Flies produce not baby flies but maggots; the cicada ritually sheds its husk (a Chinese symbol of reincarnation); many species pass through the larva-pupa-insect stages. Most resonant of all is the caterpillar-into-butterfly phenomenon. Butterflies and moths are common emblems on Japanese family crests, and have at least 74 distinct symbolic meanings in Western art, according to Charles Hogue, late editor of the online Cultural Entomology Digest (from which much of the historical information presented here is drawn).

However, with the advent of Judeo-Christian culture, the bug’s image—the lucky butterfly being perhaps the sole exception—suddenly becomes radically more negative. Lilith, Adam’s apocryphal first wife, was a “begetter of flies and demons.” Insects, particularly locusts, are seen in Judeo-Christian lore as representing God’s wrath, diabolic forces, or as harbingers of apocalypse. Three of the ten biblical plagues of Egypt are insect plagues, and as many as three more may be “insect related,” according to Hogue. The bad rapping of bugs continues through the Middle Ages, where part-insect creatures feature among the hybrid monsters that populate the pagan world, or as tormentors in hell. Beelzebub, of course, is the “lord of the flies.”

In the unhygienic societies of Europe, insects are reduced to vermin, and come to represent primarily that which is unholy, profane and unclean. Christian eschatology demands that believers spend time envisioning worms in the act of consuming their corpses as part of their rejection of world, flesh and devil. While ants and bees are admired for their industriousness and social harmony in some literary works, even the Enlightenment and the rise of science do little for the bug as a cultural symbol. In the late 19th century, with the discovery of germs, the human body, far from being a god-like replica of the Almighty himself, is revealed to be literally crawling with bugs.

This brings us to the 20th century, in which Western culture, the Judeo-Christian culture of Europe and North America, reaches its historical apogee. It’s becoming disturbingly apparent in retrospect that the final ascendancy of the West über alles has essentially taken the form of a tumultuous and sanguineous confrontation with its own collective Shadow, its own most destructive impulses. If our species ultimately survives the titanic consequences of Western cultural expansion, later historians may regard Western civilization’s single unequivocal accomplishment in the 20th century to be its creation of the first real possibility of entirely human-generated extinction, a species-wide suicide together with a much broader ecocide. This modern period of intense historical chiaroscuro is when bugs, the shadow-creatures of the Western psyche, begin to emerge into the open spaces of culture again.

The Surrealists, inspired by Freud’s deconstruction of “rational” man as a swampy mess of unconscious impulses, launch the first bug-bomb into the lines of our so-called civilization. Swarms of creepy-crawly things representing uncontrollable sexual instincts and other irrepressible hungers appear prominently in Surrealist works from Dalí’s paintings to Buñuel’s experimental films. André Breton collects butterflies, Max Ernst creates insect-men for his collage-novels. The cannibalistic mating rituals of some arthropods, like the spider and the mantis, are perfect expressions of (primarily) male sexual anxiety in the rigid patriarchies of 19th and early 20th century Europe. The unending spiral of fear / repression / greater fear / greater repression that characterizes the West is unearthed by Freud, and its energies released into art by the Surrealists.

Like all aesthetic movements, however, Surrealism does not reproduce in society as a whole the liberation it triumphantly announces. Instead, the remarkable artistic revolutions of early 20th century Europe are accompanied by militarism, imperialism, class warfare and the disastrous rise of fascism, which generate the conditions that will lock Western civilization firmly, and it would seem, inextricably, into the embrace of its apocalyptic Shadow.

It is during this same period that the modern West’s most iconic insect is produced by the mind of one of its most seminal writers. W.H. Auden said of Franz Kafka that “he comes nearest to bearing the same kind of relation to our age as Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe bore to theirs.” One of the few stories that Kafka didn’t ask to be destroyed upon his death, “The Metamorphosis” tells of Gregor Samsa’s transformation into “a gigantic insect” (a “monstrous vermin” according to some translations). Gregor’s causeless condition, which produces his agonizing decline and fall—abetted, at least passively, by his own hapless family—is about as far as it is possible to get from Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe’s view of man as “the measure of all things,” “in action […] like an angel, in apprehension […] like a god.” Rather, this is art’s prophetic identification of a fatal flaw (the bug in the system, if you will) in modern man and his supposedly ineluctable progress towards perfection.

Gregor’s condition is not really portrayed as a horrific regression to bestiality in the same way that, for example, H.P. Lovecraft’s fevered transmutations are. Instead, it is increasingly revealed to be more like a wasting, mortal illness. He is a burden on his family not because he is a terrifying monster who can no longer go out in the world of humans, but because he is essentially an invalid, incapable of producing a living, and utterly dependent on them for his care. The tubercular Kafka was arguably projecting his personal fears into this parable; Gregor’s borderline petit-bourgeois family are more embarrassed, inconvenienced and distressed by him than terrified, and his death after long suffering, his and theirs, comes as a relief. But despite the personal allegory, this tale, like the mythic tales of inter-species metamorphosis from the Classical past, and indeed like all the most powerful art, does not simply serve to comprehend and symbolically recreate its creator, its own time or the times which preceded it; it also in some way understands the future. Gregor’s symbolic sickness unto death will continue to haunt 20th century Western culture long after Kafka dies, as one plague after another ripples through, imagined and real, corporeal and ideological; as psyche, family and society self-destruct and attempt to re-form under the anxieties of the decades to come.

Between the World Wars, ideas and movements fought for dominance in Europe. Insects were used to satirize characteristics of contemporary human society in Czech playwrights Karel and Josef Čapek’s From the Life of the Insects: butterflies were silly oversexed romantics, dung beetles were petty capitalists carefully guarding their prize balls of shit, ants were militaristic proto-fascists subordinating every desire to the will of the state. Radical Soviet poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky took aim at the already hidebound bureaucratism of Soviet society in The Bedbug. These dark satires, which seem positively optimistic in retrospect, were unheeded warning shots against the totalitarianism that was poised to consume Europe, but they were still free of the overwhelming sense of fear that bugs would chiefly come to symbolize in the second half of the century.

The explosion of pulp fiction and pulp cinema in the postwar U.S. created another iconic niche for the bug. Like Surrealism, but with much less self-consciousness, pulp culture presents the unadulterated products of the Id. Pulp culture is truly the culture of paranoia par excellence, and the ultra-paranoid Cold War U.S. is the omphalos of pulp culture. Where Europe relentlessly repressed its fear of the Other and channeled it into imperial conquest and expansion until those activities exploded in the internecine violence and total war that nearly brought about the end of European civilization, the U.S., inheritor of Europe’s disintegrating hegemony, let it all hang out in the 1950s, giving raving paranoiacs like the hallucinatory dipsomaniac Joseph McCarthy center stage on an enormous platform, while pulp movies and pulp novels, culture’s cash crop, played openly to the fears of millions.

Here the subterranean fear that the bug embodies is the Cold War fear of the Big One, nuclear holocaust, the nihilistic fear that it is science, or reason itself, and not the sleep of reason, which produces monsters. It doesn’t really matter whether the explicit cause of the insect-monster’s presence in The Deadly Mantis, or Mothra, or Them, is nuclear radiation or not; that, after all, is a question for the conscious mind. As the possibility of nuclear annihilation rippled through mass consciousness at the mid-century, the idea that of all the species we knew, the insect species would be those most likely to survive a nuclear war was part of the conversation, implicit and explicit. But really what was happening in these raw B-movies, comic books and pulp novels, which had always reduced human motivations and societal conditions to their most basic elements, was simple. It was revenge for our sins against nature, and the re-establishment of a weird sort of psychic balance: The smallest, most unobtrusive creatures in our daily life would assume the mantle of planetary rulership, or more truly godhood, whether they were real bugs made gigantic by mad science or the increasingly bug-like space aliens that continually beset us during this period. Human triumph at the end of these stories was only the necessary (and temporary) triumph over our own fears, which continued to well up endlessly, requiring perpetual reassurance from the culture machine.

Meanwhile in some alternate but strangely proximate universe, William S. Burroughs was writing Naked Lunch, the book that would announce the counterculture to a generation that was more than ready for it. NL like all iconic works, is, I suspect, a book more talked about than actually read. It is also (serendipitously) filled with bugs. In this anti-novel, which is partly a pastiche of every pulp genre extant—gumshoe, horror, sci-fi, gay porno, what have you—it’s as if Burroughs gives the grimy carpet of society a violent shake and all sorts of creepy-crawlies come tumbling out on the cracked cement floor. The insect references are numerous, and mostly describe people in various states of sub- or proto-humanity: “insect eyes,” “insect laughter.” There are also exotic annelid or arthropod-based substances that are consumed for the ultimate high: like the Kidney Worm, a parasite that feeds itself on the aforementioned organ, or the Black Meat, gotten from the bodies of six foot-long “aquatic centipedes.” There is the yellow cockroach powder the Exterminator sells, which turns out to be highly addictive as well. Sickness, particularly “junk-sickness,” and the horrific transformations of the flesh caused by various forms of disease are abundantly and almost ebulliently described. An ironic and droll catalogue of degradation and transgression of every stripe, dotted with hairpin turns of phrase, skewed quotations and casually hilarious parodies of various literary styles, Naked Lunch takes both Kafka-esque parable and Surrealism’s explorations of the sub-basements of consciousness on a ride into the American night. Burroughs is as prescient as Kafka about the symptoms of sick societies, though he deals in a less agonized way with the victimized. (That’s likely the noir toughness Burroughs always assumed in his own public persona talking. The long-lived addict was a survivor; the short-lived depressive consumptive was not.)

What counterculture works like this one did was to bring subterranean experiences that were literally alien to most people into the light—and in so doing attempt to expand the definition of what it was to be human. And since bugs are the most alien visible creatures with whom we share the planet, it’s no wonder Burroughs’ imagery is so buggy. Like Surrealism before it, fifties and sixties counterculture sought to free us from our fears by bringing them into the open, but its liberationist agenda was similarly ultimately shot down by the big guns of a fear-driven society.

In fact, the gradual surge of virulent anti-evolutionism in late 20th century America is perhaps traceable in some way to the gauntlet thrown down by the counterculture and the political protest culture of the period: that human society must evolve or the human species would die by its own hand. And in the U.S., that challenge was roundly refused in favor of a return to an alternately complacent and hyper-anxious status quo. It really seems to have been fear of evolution, not fear of change per se, that drove the counterculture back into the basement of U.S. society. The next step for Western culture, and thus for global society as a whole, might have been to accept and comprehend the insect-Other it had repressed and rejected, not to try to keep screaming for the psychic Exterminator. And to a limited extent, a new multiculturalist norm did provide an outlet for this tension. But on the largest scale, American paranoia continued to direct American social reality.

And as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they really aren’t out to get you. An exercise in self-fulfilling prophecy, dystopian scenarios from the paranoid imaginations of pulp writers became the 20th century news of the day: nuclear meltdown, chronic terrorism and war, serial killing, unstoppable viral plagues, toxic spills, genocide. And how about those killer bees? In the ‘80s, the age of AIDS, of “we begin bombing in five minutes,” of Reagan’s senile and avuncular mendacity, fear came back with a vengeance, and bugs were there. Nuclear war was now only one of several apocalypses that we might face; our most intimate and pleasure-loving activities had turned on us viciously and we were at war with our own bodies.

David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of the 1957 horror film The Fly is extraordinary for many reasons, not the least of which being that it bucks the usual trend of the declining quality of remakes. Cronenberg is well aware of the power of pulp genres to make fairly profound ideas visceral, and to frame them in a way that is acceptable to a broad spectrum of potential audiences. The Fly is the now-classic story of a scientist whose attempt to develop instantaneous transportation goes horribly wrong, accidentally producing a monstrous hybrid creature (or two, in the original version: a man with a big fly’s head, and more interestingly perhaps, a fly with a tiny man’s head). Cronenberg’s Fly is less about mad science and more about the terror of illness (not specifically AIDS, but given the time period, the connection is inevitable and valid) and mortality, and even about addiction as illness, since the scientist’s transformation, which isn’t initially visible, gives him an amped-up sense of strength and potency that declines into physical wasting as his fly-nature takes over. For the distaff side (who don’t usually get their peculiar fears—with the possible exception of rape—addressed in most pulp culture) Cronenberg gives the scientist a lover who must deal with pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, the possibility of a giving birth to a monstrous child—i.e., some of the deepest corporeal fears. Beauty and the Beast, Bride of Frankenstein and Faust are all present in moments of this thought-provoking genre collage, adding mythic power without being overly clunky about it. Curiously however, Cronenberg, while he cites existentialism in general, does not mention Kafka at all in his commentary on the film, and yet the parallel is clearly there as well.

While satisfying horror’s lust to incarnate (and I use the term in a calculated way, as Cronenberg’s grossest effects often seem to involve the use of large quantities of raw meat, or something that looks a lot like it) the utterly repulsive, The Fly ends up being above all a sad love song to the vulnerability of the flesh, and, a la Kafka, a tale of how mortal illness both transforms and reveals our deepest nature. “I was an insect who dreamed he was a man,” says the almost unrecognizably degenerated scientist, “but now the insect is awake.” Cronenburg, incidentally, will take on Naked Lunch as a film project five years later, turning it into a kind of hallucinated biography of Burroughs, and giving its literary entomology visual form with a striking array of insect and insectoid puppets.

And then we hit the final decade of the century, a century in which mass culture, our modern mythology, has moved rapidly from novels and stories through film to television as its major (at least in terms of the number of hours of human life consumed by it) form of expression. So the medium where bugs as insects, bugs as viruses, bugs as aliens and bugs as surveillance finally all hold hands in the same room is, unsurprisingly, television, in the ultimate (thus far) fictional expression of mainstream paranoia, the ineffable X-Files. Entomophobia and delusions of parasitosis (infestation by parasites), which are both documented clinical mental conditions relating to insects, are prominent in X-Files plots. If bugs have been the symbolic carriers of some of Western culture’s deepest fears, then all those fears were paraded weekly through the ‘90s as Mulder and Scully uncovered them at the micro-level of bodily fluids and the macro-level of a huge and implacable government conspiracy which has spies everywhere and monitors their every move. These agents are so paranoid that they can’t even trust the government institution that pays them a salary—how extreme (and, post-Valerie Plame, how commonplace) is that?

It’s necessary to mention at this point that strangely enough, where our culture’s children are concerned, an entirely different bug paradigm has existed during this whole period, and continues to hold sway. Bugs are not presented as fearful, or the horrific carriers of disease, but as largely benign, endlessly interesting, and the embodiment of important values. The number of bug books for kids is enormous; the White House Resident’s declared favorite The Very Hungry Caterpillar is only one of thousands of these tomes. The wise and altruistic spider of Charlotte’s Web has become as iconic, literarily at least, as Winnie-the-Pooh (without the Disney machine’s full-spectrum-dominance marketing behind her, either). Two fairly recent animated movies, Antz and A Bug’s Life were distinguished by their use of insect life to represent some of the more noble human qualities and our positive potential, without completely misrepresenting the actual characteristics of the insect world. Friendly bugs are waiting in every medium to guide children into a healthy, just, productive and fulfilling life. The disconnect between this and the figure bugs cut in the adult world is incomprehensibly huge. It makes me wonder: are we even listening to what we tell our kids? And if not, why not? Can’t grown-ups learn something positive from bugs too? Perhaps we have consigned to children the respect and sympathy for these creatures felt by earlier societies, the way their regenerative myths have devolved into our fairy tales, and our fairy tales into candy-colored cartoons. That other species can teach profound lessons to humans is something our society as a whole no longer believes, so we pass it on as a cheerful lie to entertain our children.

Outside the rainbow-colored walls of the children’s library, modern Western culture as epitomized in the 21st century US is the culture of fear triumphant, whose optimistic sense of eternal progress has eroded past recognition in less than a half-century, whose iconic and hyperbolized contemporary enemy, as many have already pointed out, is no state, no defined ideology, but an emotion: Terror, against which we are told we must wage an endless war. We may no longer be able to use bugs, however strange and indomitable they appear, to bear the symbolic weight of that emotion. For the entire 20th century, bugs carried our fears of disease, invasion, degradation and death on their tiny backs. But when the ultimate fear is finally and publicly revealed to be nothing less (and in a real sense, nothing more) than Fear Itself, and your power structure bases its claim to ever-increasing power solely on manipulating your fear of Terror, then your culture has entered what may be an irreversible decline of its ability to manage a complex reality with complex ideas. This can manifest itself at a variety of levels as an exhaustion of symbolizing capacity, and is like terminal illness for a culture.

But wait, it gets worse… As the perpetual motion machines of commercial media distract us with the grotesque slight-of-hand maneuvers of suicide bombers, the bigger, longer-term, less titillating picture, the one which even our most prescient cultural avatars have as yet been unable to symbolize, is the new Day of the Locust, with our consumer society as its own plague, devouring everything in sight, until all the insufficiently renewable stuff it needs to sustain itself is gone. This means it will take something more than a change of administration to alter our seemingly limitless capacity for dread—if the enemy we have so far refused to meet is really us, and not an Islamic fanatic with access to explosives, then how to fight? Where to run? As Cronenberg says about the horror film, the ability to portray something that is actually worse than your worst nightmares gives a strange sense of comfort and hope. But when you can no longer imagine anything worse than what you read in the newspaper (even when it’s buried on page 20) you have lost a key tool in the armature of psychic survival.

In the cascading species extinctions that we have already triggered, bugs are dying too, but the best money has it that they, who already represent the overwhelming majority of animal species on earth, and individually outnumber us billions to one, will remain with us as we ride the evolutionary roller coaster, and that they, who can produce hundreds of adaptive generations to every one of ours, may be better able to deal with its sharper twists and breathtaking plunges than we humans.

As long as we are in it together, we can look to bugs to represent what is most alien and yet most inextricably intimate about our reality. It would be tragic to discover, at least given Western culture’s dismal record at this critical juncture, that what may be most alien to the human species in the future is its ability to survive. Then bugs, our guides through ten millennia or more, would no longer have anything to teach us.

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