Swat with Scruple


Arts & Culture


Balthasar van der Ast, Flowers and Fruit, c. 1620

From “Why We Hate Insects,” an essay by Robert Lynd, collected in his 1921 book, The Pleasures of Ignorance.

It has been said that the characteristic sound of summer is the hum of insects, as the characteristic sound of spring is the singing of birds. It is all the more curious that the word “insect” conveys to us an implication of ugliness. We think of spiders, of which many people are more afraid than of Germans. We think of bugs and fleas, which seem so indecent in their lives that they are made a jest by the vulgar and the nice people do their best to avoid mentioning them. We think of blackbeetles scurrying into safety as the kitchen light is suddenly turned on—blackbeetles which (so we are told) in the first place are not beetles, and in the second place are not black …

There are also certain crawling creatures which are so notoriously the children of filth and so threatening in their touch that we naturally shrink from them. Burns may make merry over a louse crawling in a lady’s hair, but few of us can regard its kind with equanimity even on the backs of swine. Men of science deny that the louse is actually engendered by dirt, but it undoubtedly thrives on it. Our anger against the flea also arises from the fact that we associate it with dirt. Donne once wrote a poem to a lady who had been bitten by the same flea as himself, arguing that this was a good reason why she should allow him to make love to her. It is, and was bound to be, a dirty poem. Love, even of the wandering and polygynous kind, does not express itself in such images. Only while under the dominion of the youthful heresy of ugliness could a poet pretend that it did. The flea, according to the authorities, is “remarkable for its powers of leaping, and nearly cosmopolitan.” Even so, it has found no place in the heart or fancy of man. There have been men who were indifferent to fleas, but there have been none who loved them, though if my memory does not betray me there was a famous French prisoner some years ago who beguiled the tedium of his cell by making a pet and a performer of a flea. For the world at large, the flea represents merely hateful irritation. Mr W. B. Yeats has introduced it into poetry in this sense in an epigram addressed “to a poet who would have me praise certain bad poets, imitators of his and of mine”:

You say as I have often given tongue
In praise of what another’s said or sung,
’Twere politic to do the like by these,
But where’s the wild dog that has praised his fleas?

[…] There are insects that make us feel that we are in presence of the uncanny. Many of us have this feeling about moths. Moths are the ghosts of the insect world. It may be the manner in which they flutter in unheralded out of the night that terrifies us. They seem to tap against our lighted windows as though the outer darkness had a message for us. And their persistence helps to terrify. They are more troublesome than a subject nation. They are more importunate than the importunate widow. But they are most terrifying of all if one suddenly sees their eyes blazing crimson as they catch the light. One thinks of nocturnal rites in an African forest temple and of terrible jewels blazing in the head of an evil goddess—jewels to be stolen, we realize, by a foolish white man, thereafter to be the object of a vendetta in a sensational novel … It is for us the thing that flies by night and eats holes in our clothes. We are not even afraid of it in all circumstances. Our terror is an indoors terror. We are on good terms with it in poetry, and play with the thought of the desire of the moth for the star.

We remember that it is for the moths that the pallid jasmine smells so sweetly by night. There is no shudder in our minds when we read:

And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream,
And caught a little silver trout.

No man has ever sung of spiders or earwigs or any other of our pet antipathies among the insects like that. The moth is the only one of the insects that fascinates us with both its beauty and its terror … There are scarcely more diseases in the human body than there are kinds of insects in a single fruit tree. The apple that is rotten before it is ripe is an insect’s victim, and, if the plums fall green and untimely in scores upon the ground, once more it is an insect that has been at work among them. Talk about German spies! Had German spies gone to the insect world for a lesson, they might not have been the inefficient bunglers they showed themselves to be. At the same time, most of us hate spies and insects for the same reason. We regard them as noxious creatures intruding where they have no right to be, preying upon us and giving us nothing but evil in return. Hence our ruthlessness. We say: “Vermin,” and destroy them. To regard a human being as an insect is always the first step in treating him without remorse. It is a perilous attitude and in general is more likely to beget crime than justice. There has never, I believe, been an empire built in which, at some stage or other, a massacre of children among a revolting population has not been excused on the ground that “nits make lice.” “Swat that Bolshevik,” no doubt, seems to many reactionaries as sanitary a counsel as “Swat that fly.” Even in regard to flies, however, most of us can only swat with scruple. Hate flies as we may, and wish them in perdition as we may, we could not slowly pull them to pieces, wing after wing and leg after leg, as thoughtless children are said to do. Many of us cannot endure to see them slowly done to death on those long strips of sticky paper on which the flies drag their legs and their lives out—as it seems to me, a vile cruelty.

A distinguished novelist has said that to watch flies trying to tug their legs off the paper one after another till they are twice their natural length is one of his favorite amusements. I have never found any difficulty in believing it of him. It is an odd fact that considerateness, if not actually kindness, to flies has been made one of the tests of gentleness in popular speech. How often has one heard it said in praise of a dead man: “He wouldn’t have hurt a fly!” As for those who do hurt flies, we pillory them in history. We have never forgotten the cruelty of Domitian. “At the beginning of his reign,” Suetonius tells us “he used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly sharpened stylus. Consequently, when someone once asked whether anyone was in there with Cæsar, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply: ‘Not even a fly.’” … One of the most agonising of the minor dilemmas in which a too sensitive humanitarian ever finds himself is whether he should destroy a spider’s web, and so, perhaps, starve the spider to death, or whether he should leave the web, and so connive at the death of a multitude of flies. I have long been content to leave Nature to her own ways in such matters … The ladybird, the butterfly, and the bee—who would put chains upon such creatures? These are insects that must have been in Eden before the snake. Beelzebub, the god of the other insects, had not yet any engendering power on the earth in those days, when all the flowers were as strange as insects and all the insects were as beautiful as flowers.

Robert Lynd (1879—1949) was an Irish writer and essayist.