Cultural Insects

In literature and films, we find certain insects privileged over others.  We find a lot of butterflies but very few dung beetles and this is something that could be considered problematic with the word insect.  Any word which covers such a vast range of different creatures is going to be hard to generalise, for example it’s hard to gauge whether people like insects because whilst most people like ladybirds, very few like mosquitoes.  This means that unlike other themes I’ve looked at, its hard to draw many generalisations so instead I’m looking to examples.

Literature

Children’s books are a good place to find insects.  We have the cricket in Pinocchio, the iconic hungry caterpillar, the insects in James and the Giant Peach and the spider in Charlotte’s web (not an insect but for my purposes we’re lumping them together).  There are also illustrated versions of the old woman who swallowed a fly, but perhaps the author with the most number of anthropomorphised insects is Lewis Carroll with Alice in Wonderland and Alice in the Looking Glass.

““What kind of insect?” Alice inquired a little anxiously.  What she really wanted to know was, whether it could sting or not, but she thought this wouldn’t be quite a civil question to ask.”

Throughout her adventures, Alice finds herself on a train with a beetle, having difficult conversations with a caterpillar and in conversation with a chicken sized gnat, she learns that insects in her world and in the looking glass world are very different.  Horseflies have become rocking horseflies, dragonflies are now snapdragon flies and butterflies, most remarkably, are now bread-and-butter-flies who die if they can’t find the weak tea and cream they live on.  Bread-and-butter-flies have thin slices of bread and butter for wings, a crust for its body and a lump of sugar for it’s head.  The conversation with the gnat leads on to an interesting philosophical discussion about names:

“What sort of insects do you rejoice in, where you come from?” the Gnat inquired.
“I don’t rejoice in insects at all,” Alice explained, “because I’m rather afraid of them—at least the large kinds. But I can tell you the names of some of them.”
“Of course they answer to their names?” the Gnat remarked carelessly.
“I never knew them to do it.”
“What’s the use of their having names,” the Gnat said, “if they won’t answer to them?”
“No use to them,” said Alice; “but it’s useful to the people who name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?”

In a chapter that Carroll would chose to omit, Alice encounters a wasp wearing a yellow wig.

We also find insects in Charles Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, in Aesop’s fables, in Shakespeare’s work and obviously, in Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka which features a character waking up to discover he’s become a cockroach.  Barbara Kingsolver, author of Flight Behaviour, has included insects in her novels, including monarch butterfly migrations:

“The flames now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it is poked. The sparks spiralled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against grey sky.”

Poetry

Writing in the 700s, Chinese poet Du Fu wrote a poem that in the translation by J. P. Seaton begins “House cricket … Trifling thing. And yet how his mournful song moves us. Out in the grass his cry was a tremble, But now, he trills beneath our bed, to share his sorrow.”

In the 18th century, insects were used to write about human desires and sexuality, such as the flea in the poem of the same name by John Donne.  Here we have a flea which mingles blood from two bodies and thus provides a tidy metaphor for sex.  Robert Burns uses an insect in “To a Louse” in order to commentate on vanity and humility.

In The Fly by William Blake, we have a comparison of the insignificance of the fly to man and the insignificance of man to God.

Fireflies in the Garden, by Robert Frost

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,

And here on earth come emulating flies,

That though they never equal stars in size,

(And they were never really stars at heart)

Achieve at times a very star-like start.

Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.

Apparently Robert Frost wrote 17 insect poems, I didn’t count them myself, ranging from butterflies to wasps.  Similarly, Emily Dickinson was no stranger to insects such as in “I heard a fly buzz”.

More contemporary poets also use insects in their writing.  Lafcadio Hearn observed, in 1901, that Japanese poets had created dragonfly haiku “almost as numerous as are the dragonflies themselves in the early autumn.” Other insects also feature heavily in haiku, possibly as they provide information about the time of the year and perhaps also because of the almost international language of symbolism they bring with them.

Insects in films

When aliens appear in films, they are often in the guise of insect like creatures.  Conversely, when insects appear in films, they are portrayed as alien-esque and bringing with them the threats we tend to associate with aliens – the risk of invasion for example.  Insects feature in science fiction where they are often human sized and this in turn makes their unfamiliar features all the more scary to us.

‘Something in the insect seems to be alien to the habits, morals, and psychology of this world, as if it had come from some other planet, more monstrous, more energetic, more insensate, more atrocious, more infernal than our own.’
—Maurice Maeterlinck

On the other hand, we have the humanised insects like Antz, A Bug’s Life and The Bee Movie which “hold up a mirror to our society by having as their central characters human-like [insects] who feel out of place in a community of conformists, where individuality is undervalued” (Robert Roggeveen).

Insects are also prevalent in superhero films such as spiderman and antman where characters take on behaviours of the insects in order to save the day.

Because of the sheer variety of insects, there is a vast mix of ways that insects are used and portrayed in cultures around the world.  Some are portrayed favourably and others as menaces but because insects inhabit almost every part of the globe, it is inevitable that they will sneak their way into art and literature for decades to come.

Further reading

 

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