Overweening Generalist

Monday, April 8, 2013

Insect Imagery In Kafka, Pound and Burroughs

A Jungian psychoanalytic riff that, to me, feels intuitively right (<----A-HAAA!) is that, if we see insects as mindless robotic beings, generating at a cartoonishly fast rate relative to our own generations, we probably subconsciously see the Six-Legged Majority as a force or threat to our reason. We seem to have some predilection for Mind, what we think Minds ought to be.

On good days - most days - I'm mesmerized by the variety and intricacies of insect life, morphology, and their modes of making their ways. I enjoy entertaining the thought that that insect there, the one over your shoulder and near the drapes? He's of some sort of Alien Mind. I mean, just look at Him.

[At this point I'd like to interrupt for a commercial and tell you good folks about James K. Wangberg's book Six-Legged Sex: The Erotic Life of Bugs, copiously and deviously illustrated by Marjorie C. Leggitt. It'll easily make it into your Top Ten books of the year 2013 to feature actual science with chapters like "Bug Bondage and Insect S&M" (chapter 18) or "Insect Sex Hangouts" (chapter 8), all featuring the coincidentally-named Leggitt's illustrations. Top 10, easy. Sure to start conversation as a coffee table book, the cover alone worth the price of admission. And I do not receive a kickback from Amazon, where most of our favorite bugs live. I'm plugging this book simply for Art's Sake. Back to our show.]

I think it was JBS Haldane the great English intellectual and geneticist who, when asked about God and nature and creation, said that if there is a God, He seems to have an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles. There are an enormous number of beetles in the world, indeed. (Aldous Huxley knew Haldane; Haldane's ideas about eugenics influenced Brave New World, and in Aldous's early 1920s novel of ideas, Antic Hay, a character modeled on Haldane is too wrapped up in his biology studies to notice his friends are fucking his wife, but there's my digression...)

Regarding the idea of insects overtaking ourselves and the works of Kafka, I will simply submit your own reading(s) of The Metamorphosis. While I nominate Joyce as the greatest novelist of the 20th century, arguably Kafka captured the tenor of the century better: modernist society, the machinery and bureaucracy of everyday life, the Authoritarian State, the sociobiological anthill of overpopulated cities and your number tagged to your name. It speaks to the absurdity of everyday life in the 20th century up to, oh, at least April of 2013. Inadequacy, guilt, glaring inequality, alienation, isolation, anxiety. Knowledge of genocide and the atomizing threat of human extinction due to squabbles over territory, material, and ideology. (All of this - Kafka - informs the deep structure of film noir too, but I can't get into it here, now...)

From the cognitive science/psycholinguistics and the-primary-mode-of-communication-is-as-metaphor POV: in the bureaucratic State, I feel as if I'm a bug that can be squashed, at any minute, unannounced, for any "reason."

Why does Kafka have Gregor Samsa wake up as a giant bug? Could it be he intuited the threat to his own sense of rationality versus what a monolithic State seemed to have in mind? Well, yes, but Franz's father was fairly brutal, and Kafka wasn't sure if his identity was as a Jew, a German, or a Czech. But he does seems to see fascism coming...in 1915? (This riff on insects and great writers seems to lend another level of meaning to Ezra Pound's "artist" being "the antenna of the race.")

Speaking of Pound, in Cantos XIV and XV, his Dantean "Hell" Cantos, we see imagery of politicians:

      Addressing crowds through their arse-holes, 
Addressing the multitudes in the ooze,
                newts, water-slugs, water-maggots

[I'd like to add as a gratuity, war profiteers and bankers "drinking blood sweetened with shit/And behind them [...] the financiers lashing them with steel wires."]

More insect imagery, and need I exhort you to NB the context?:

The petrified turd that was Verres
              bigots, Calvin and St. Clement of Alexandria!
black-beetles, burrowing into the shit, 
The soil a decrepitude, the ooze full of morsels

Ain't life grand? But wait! There's more:

Ez is really letting London have it ("The great arse-hole/broken with piles/hanging stalactites/greasy as sky over Westminster"), after WWI, in Canto 14, and in the midst of a blast of righteous vituperation:

malevolent stupidities, and stupidities, 
the soil living pus, full of vermin, 
dead maggots begetting live maggots, 
usurers squeezing crab-lice, pandars to authority

WHO is Pound putting in these delightful hellholes? Bankers, war-profiteers, politicians, journalists who repeat State propaganda, and anyone who obstructs the free flow of vital knowledge. There's more, and I'll quote this snippet because it shows how Burroughs really was influenced by Pound, something that's not often noted, though WSB said in more than a couple places that Ez influenced him:

          And Invidia,
the corruptio, foetor, fungus,
liquid animals, melted ossifications,
slow rot, foetid combustion,
        chewed cigar butts, without dignity, without tragedy,
. . . . .m Episcopus, waving a condom full of black-beetles, 
monopolists, obstructors of knowledge, 
               obstructors of distribution.

And that's just Canto XIV. I think the condom full of black beetles proto-Burroughs. It shows up again - as if a "cut-up" reinserted? - in Canto XV. I have not checked to see if some hot heavy metal band has taken to calling themselves "Liquid Animals," but if not, it's not too late! And "Invidia" in Latin means envy or jealousy, but here it appears as a malevolent, demonic force or Spawn of the Demiurge.

In Canto XV Ez really lets loose. We get the usual flies and maggots, but now the ruling class and their lackeys are deep in the shit, face-down, money-grubbing in the farting ooze, but they themselves appear insectoid, "all with their twitching backs/with daggers and bottle ends/waiting an unguarded moment."

For the possibly uninitiated: Pound had declared he intended to cause a revolution in art, poetry and aesthetics. And some of his best revolutionary-artist friends died in the War of 1914-1918. He has a right to be pissed to this level, eh?

To contrast Kafka with Pound seems too easy, but Pound's insectoid imagery accompanies natural habitats for insects: hovering on, in or around human- caused Decay brought on by, among other things, Greed. With neither Pound nor Kafka do we get a sense they consciously loathe insects. Let us say each uses insectoid imagery as a concomitant to the projection of their feelings of fear and loathing over the state of things after the period often referred to as "World War I," but which I think of as The Period of World War from 1914 to 1918; there's been nothing but wars ever since, and I wish Steven Pinker would pay more attention to his teacher Chomsky's political writings and less on his linguistics...

Two Popular Scientific Sources of Early 20th C. Insect Imagery: Haeckel and Fabre
Ernst Haeckel died in 1919. He knew Darwin. He was a very Germanic professor (there is a unity to all living things), a physician, an embryologist ("ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"), and just a jaw-droppingly great artist. I marvel at his drawings of tiny living things. Check out his Art Forms In Nature; it's one of my favorite Art books: psychedelic and accurate, beautiful and intellectually provoking. I love looking at it when I'm stoned. No doubt many 20th century writers saw Haeckel's work and were inspired. It's easy to imagine the French filmmakers Nuridsany and Perennou (see 1996's Microcosmos!)(trailer HERE) were steeped in their Haeckel. But also: Jean-Henri Fabre. He died in 1915, and Darwin admired his work, although Fabre was an early French thinker against theory, and check out his "A Dig At the Evolutionists," chapter viii from his book More Hunting Wasps. (The translation by Alexander Teixeira De Mattos, F.Z.S. seems utterly fantabulous to me: fans of Joyce and Nabokov and Stevens? check out that short Chapter 8, "A Dig At The Evolutionists.") Also see the list of scanned materials in that Wiki article. Fabre etait un virtuose merveilleux!

Insect imagery runs through much of WSB's massive oeuvre, but if you've only seen Cronenberg's celluloid interpretation of Naked Lunch you might get the feeling Burroughs was obsessed with insects. He wasn't. But like Kafka and Pound in their own ways, insects seem aligned or contributive to: Control, Authority and State Power. Oddly: State Power and Control are theorized by Frankfurt School types as fatally in thrall to overweening instrumental rationality - techne without telos - simply "more and better" for its own sake, without "human" values as much of a consideration; for Burroughs, Pound and Kafka, insects - as non-humanly non-rational as any of the creatures on the planet? - represent a rationality that has completely transcended the values of the individual as subject within the Modern State apparatus. Human warmth, love, patience, nurture - the Divine Feminine - seem an antithesis to Instrumental Rationality...although with Burroughs's well-known misogyny, he obviously represents a slightly different case.

In Naked Lunch an agent wonders who another agent is working for: it could be for similar people as himself, or "It is rumored that he represents a trust of giant insects from another galaxy." Here insects literally function as ETs. But a more common Burroughsian insect trope is insects as instrumental rationalists with no regard for any human values. And let's hone in further: WSB had some major suspicions about the wielding of Power by the AMA and the modern Western medical establishment in general. Here's an appropriately phantasmagorical passage from Naked Lunch before I hightail it outta here for some of majoun's popular accomplices:

Doctor "Fingers" Schafer, the Lobotomy Kid, rises and turns on the Conferents his cold blue blast of this gaze:

"Gentlemen, the human nervous system can be reduced to a compact and abbreviated spinal column. The brain, front, middle and rear must follow the adenoid, the wisdom tooth, the appendix...I give you my Master Work: The Complete All-American Deanxietized Man...

Blast of trumpets: The Man is carried in naked by two Negro Bearers who drop him on the platform with bestial, sneering brutality...The Man wriggles...His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach. -p.87

I feel compelled to add that Allen Ginsberg's testimony about Burroughs - that he was a satirist on par with Swift - is something I agree with on one major level. So here I'd like The Reader to also consider the comedic aspect of such a passage as rhetoric about the elements of Control that WSB did indeed seem menaced by, but at other times he simply seems to be the proto-punk artist-intellectual and heir to part of a fortune, sneering derisively. Burroughs at one time trained towards the M.D, but his homosexuality was officially a "sick" existential mental state to the State. And yes, he was a heroin addict, and his family was well-off. We're interested (just a little bit?) in insect imagery in three of the great figures of Modernism.

Were Kafka, Pound and Burroughs paranoid weirdos? Of course. But so am I. Why else am I sitting here, seeming to argue their cases?

Here's a bit from a 1970s "documentary" that wants to argue that insects will inherit the Earth. Anyone remember The Hellstrom Chronicle? It's campy and sorta shrill and won the Oscar. (Watch Microcosmos first?)


BrentQ said...

Very interesting and creepy post.

As a former government ministry employee I'm quite familiar with insectoid like managers of control systems and the hive-mind attitude expected among the rank and file.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

When I read this post, I wondered if you happened to have read a science fiction novel called "The Flies of Memory" by a British writer, Ian Watson. I haven't read the novel, but I did read the original novella about aliens that look like giant flies and found it vivid and interesting.

michael said...

@BrentQ: I'll take both interesting and creepy.

Yea: I remember when I was 22 or so and a friend got cut really bad. I drove him to the ER. He's bleeding at what I thought was an alarming rate, and others could easily see it, but what I got was a faceless bureaucrat acknowledging I had an injured friend, but please fill out all this paperwork and wait until his name is called...NEXT IN LINE?

I guess it started with the German bureaucratic state of instrumental "efficiency."

What really gets me these days is the rush to build as elaborate a Panopticon as possible, to talk about "sunshine" and good government that is "transparent" but it so obviously the opposite. It's really fucking creeping me out, man. Big-ass-time.

The Anthill Hive-Mind was, as I read him, the main thing that made Leary want to get off this planet.

RAW's SNAFU Principle seems to describe part of what you call "insectoid like managers of control systems," but I've yet to see a really robust theory of this. If you have any leads, let's hear 'em?

michael said...

@Tom: I have not read Ian Watson's book, but I thought of you tonight while re-reading RAW's intro to Carter's Sex and Rockets, the bio of John/Jack Marvel Whiteside Parsons the anarchist/rocket scientist/magickian. RAW links Parsons and his ideas to the birth and rapid growth of science fiction:

"In his teens he discovered a despised and disreputable genre of pulp literature confusingly known (at the time) as either science-fiction or science-fantasy. See from the present, the sci-fi crowd of that age look like closet surrealists who had re-invented the Novel of Ideas and tailored it for magazines with names like _Thrilling Wonder Tales_." p.x

RAW says "some will say" that Parsons's libertarian/anarchist ideas heavily influenced Stranger In A Strange Land.

I'd look out for "The Flies of Memory," but your recent mention of Crytonomicon made me realize I had to get around to reading that for a second go-round, so that will be my next SF tome.

Anonymous said...

Isabella Rosellini did an interesting series that portrays a few instectal mating processes. It's strange, but informative:


Rossellini narrates and stars; she plays all the male roles. The episodes are only 5 minutes long and I think they are available on Youtube.

michael said...

Rossellini wanted us to know about insects and sea creatures' "incredible variety of mating" which is "scandalous." Aye. I saw many snippets of those repeated on late night TV, presented as comically surreal stuff. And it is...esp with the still-gorgeous odd beauty of Ms. Rossellini.

Her semantic sense of "scandalous" seems to mean something like, "you need to check this out because it appeals to your childlike sense of mystery and wonder."
That's how I read it.

How about silverfish? The males deposit their sperm in the environment, probably hoping a female will run into it and jam it into her appropriate bodily opening. But some male silverfish go one more aggressive step further: they escort females to a site where they had left a sperm packet. The male makes his own silk, which is very sturdy. He ties the female down with his own silk, "keeping her in bondage until she picks up the treasured package and inserts it in the appropriate body opening." - Six Legged Sex, p.100

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