Thursday, August 16, 2007

Chomu - The Entomology of the Word

I am surprised that I cannot think of more examples in literature – or anywhere – of words and language being described as insects. I would imagine that such a metaphor would be favoured by the likes of Franz Kafka or William Burroughs, though I cannot recall any specific instance of either of them using such a metaphor. I suppose Burroughs comes close when he talks about the “word virus”, the logical programming of language-based thought that locks the human mind into the destructive patterns we know so well.

Perhaps I can also write here – and so, hopefully, make it an example in literature – that I once had a rather Kafkaesque or Burroughsian hallucination, in which all the words in my room were wriggling free from their book spines, postcards and so on – and there are a great many words in my room – and swarming over the walls and floor like some unidentifiable hybrid of ant and beetle. I stood in the centre of my room, unable to move, frozen in dread, while somewhere in the distance could be heard the sound of a police siren. I think I stood like that for an hour or so. Most of the words seemed to be swarming from my complete works of Nagai Kafū, in twenty-nine volumes. Come to think of it, I have written at least two stories in which words come off the page and take on a life of their own. Clearly there is something in this for me to ponder.

Anyway, to get back to what I was saying, at present I can only think of two examples of the insect metaphor used to describe language. The first of these comes from 80’s synth-meister Thomas Dolby, who in his song about politically persecuted writers, Dissidents, has a chorus with the lines, “My writing, like tiny insects/In the palm of history”.

The effect here is to emphasise how fragile an author’s writing is, how easily lost, destroyed, ignored, censored or forgotten.

The second example comes from the long essay Sun and Steel, by Mishima Yukio. Very near the beginning of the essay, Mishima tell us, “In the average person, I imagine, the body precedes language. In my case, words came first of all…”

He then proceeds to liken the body to a wooden post and words to the “white ants” (could the translator means termites?) that eat it away. For Mishima, then, words are ants, and their action is corrosive, acidic. This might seem an obscure metaphor. I feel I can interpret it best for myself by thinking of the Daoist notion of the ‘uncarved block’ that is the ideal, or the whole state of being. Words are the ants that, with their corrosive acid, create something particular from this generality. It might be said that ants are ‘culture-carriers’, as Hitler, I believe, once disparagingly described the Japanese (culture-carriers rather than culture-producers).

In any case, whatever meaning was intended by Mishima, it seems fairly clear he is not describing words in a positive manner; I sense an affinity with Burroughs’ “word virus”.

At the back of his book Kwaidan, a collection of Japanese folklore compiled in 1904, Lafcadio Hearn (or possibly the publisher in after years) appends three essays under the general heading ‘Insect-Studies’. The essays are, ‘Butterflies’, ‘Mosquitoes’ and ‘Ants’. Since we have just been contemplating ants, let us refer to the essays in reverse order.

Lafcadio Hearn’s essay ‘Ants’ is possibly the most curious piece in the whole book, and is also the longest. He begins with a haiku about an ant nest destroyed by rain, moves on to a Chinese folktale about a man who understands the language of ants, and then starts in on what he really wants to write – a kind of eulogy to ants as a species, which he seems to regard as having “a civilization ethically superior to our own”. He also predicts that “certain persons will not be pleased by what I am going to say about ants”. I have to admit that this was at least partially true in my own case; the essay made me very uneasy with its Brave New World enthusiasm for a perfect society, revealed to Hearn by “the Fairy of Science”. He quotes from Herbert Spencer, who tells us that ant society is concerned with “activities that postpone individual well-being so completely to the well-being of the community that individual life appears to be attended to only just so far as is necessary to make possible due attention to social life”. Hearn himself goes on to say that “[a] greedy ant, a sensual ant, an ant capable of any one of the seven deadly sins, or even a small venial sin, is unimaginable. Equally unimaginable, of course, a romantic ant, an ideological ant, or an ant inclined to metaphysical speculations.”

The tone of admiration here is incomprehensible to me. Perhaps the uneasiness I feel arises from the sense that either ant society is evil, or I am, which seems to be the natural corollary of the essay. Hearn’s enthusiasm becomes positively alarming to me when he says, “in nearly all the higher ant-societies sex-life appears to exist only to the extent absolutely needed for the continuance of the species” and expands with relish upon the “practical suppression, or regulation, of sex-faculty”. This state of affairs is almost exactly the opposite of my own sexual values; for me the ideal world would entail more individual pleasure and less procreation. I have already mentioned Brave New World, but it is also interesting how this essay anticipates Nineteen Eighty-Four, to which it is perhaps closer, after all. Sex is also suppressed in the society depicted by Orwell.

All in all, Hearn’s essay reminds me that I find something sinister in the idea of a perfect society, and tend to suspect those who drool over such notions of having something missing. What is missing? To a lesser or greater degree, exactly what they would like to see missing in their perfect society, I suppose – the irrational, emotion. On the strength of Hearn’s essay, I would not be surprised if he were to champion the rational aliens in the film Invasion of the Bodysnatchers – if by some twist of time he were able to watch it – in turning the human world into a ‘perfect society’, without emotion and therefore without conflict.

It’s interesting that Hearn invokes “the Fairy of Science” at the beginning of his essay, too, perhaps believing that science, with its underpinning rational philosophy, and with its technological invention, is the key to creating Utopia; a Utopia embodied by ants. Are these the same as Mishima’s white ants? They seem a little different, and yet perhaps there is some relation. Mishima’s white ants are at least imaginative, but perhaps their imagination is not really their own, but a borrowed resource. Yes, after all, I think this might be right. The word virus and the white ants are the same, and are one with Lafcadio Hearn’s ants; they are the unbending logic of language. Hearn seems to deny this when he says that the ants are not ideological, and perhaps there is some hint of a terrifying truth here, that ants are a living language that has shed even ideology to become a pure logic devoid of the superfluous formalities of meaning. But now I am reminded again of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The reason the rule of Big Brother and the Party was predicted to last forever was that it had achieved perfection, and it had achieved perfection because it had ditched ideology. Power was no longer a means to an end, but an end in itself, and that is ant society. The “Fairy of Science” is involved here because scientists have long claimed that logic is not ideological, that science has no given, irrational agenda, and it is precisely this denial of the irrational that makes science as dangerous as a swarm of soldier ants.

As a writer, conscious that my words are insects, I hope, after all, that they are not ants. I do not wish to unleash an inexorable, implacable marching column of logical ants upon the world. Let me not waver here. Let me be clear and say no. I am not on the side of the ants. I will not wave an ant flag.

Let us pass then to the other insects in Hearn’s tiny invertebrate menagerie. Next we have mosquitoes. I remember a friend of mine saying, “Mosquitoes, I will kill”, indicating that he made an exception in this case. I sympathise. If ants are an entirely self-serving, implacable and meaningless logic, the egoism of the individual sublimated to the egoism of the group, thereby evading the issue of the irrational given in their existence, then mosquitoes are some kind of embodiment of bad karma. They are not scientists, or engineers, or soldiers, like ants. They are tax inspectors. Perhaps that seems arbitrary, but I can think of no other way to typify them.

In his essay on mosquitoes, Hearn begins by telling us that, “I am persecuted by mosquitoes”. Mosquitoes, of course, breed in water, and Hearn relates that the biggest breeding ground near his house comes from the neighbouring Buddhist cemetery: “Before nearly every tomb in that old cemetery there is a water-receptacle, or cistern, called mizutamé.” He then goes on to speculate about what would happen if the Tokyo authorities decided to get rid of this pest once and for all: “To free the city from mosquitoes it would be necessary to demolish the ancient graveyards; - and that would signify the ruin of the Buddhist temples attached to them… So the extermination of the Culex fasciatus would involve the destruction of the poetry of the ancestral cult, - surely too great a price to pay!...”

A salutary conclusion, steeped in a fatalism becoming to the Buddhism of the cemeteries in question. These insectile tax inspectors of human karma are indeed despicable, but they are a necessary evil. At the very least, to tolerate them is necessary. Such tolerance may help ensure the survival of poetry, but should mosquitoes themselves embody poetry? I am on the verge of saying, “Never!” However, poetry ventures into some strange places, as Hearn’s essay seems to prove. And it’s true that the Chinese ideogram for mosquito is composed of the elements ‘insect’ and ‘writing/literature’. Perhaps this is an esoteric association. Nagai Kafū seems to understand it, however, when, in A Strange Tale from East of the River, the mosquitoes breeding in the ditch remind him of summers past, and bring back memories to him even as he slaps them from his face and wipes the blood from his hand.

This brings us to the last of the three insects, and, perhaps predictably, my favourite; now we come to butterflies. Let me reveal right away that the title of this magazine was suggested by Hearn’s essay ‘Butterflies’:

Most of the Japanese literature about butterflies… appears to be of Chinese origin… Chinese precedent doubtless explains why Japanese poets and painters chose so often for their geimyô, or professional appellations, such names as Chômu (“Butterfly-Dream),” Ichô (“Solitary Butterfly),” etc.

The Chinese precedent for the name Chômu in this case is the famous story of Chuang Tse, who fell asleep and dreamt he was a butterfly, flitting blissfully from flower to flower, only to awake and wonder whether he was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming he was a man. (Incidentally, in Mandarin pronunciation, Chômu would be rendered as 'Diemeng'. The Chinese characters themselves can be found here, in the top right corner, being the second and third characters from the extreme right.)

Hearn displays a mixture of fascination with the butterfly in Chinese and Japanese culture, and reserve towards a perceived lack of weight or depth in what it represents. He laments that, though he would like spirit-maidens to visit him and tell him tales of butterflies, as they did for the Chinese scholar Rôsan, “of course, no spirit-maidens will ever deign to visit so skeptical a person as myself”. Exactly who is rejecting whom here?

He is also deprecating about the selection of butterfly haiku he reproduces and translates: “Probably [the reader] will not care much for the verses in themselves.” But, as Hearn manages grudgingly to admit, this is a matter of cultural bias: “The taste for Japanese poetry of the epigrammatic sort is a taste that must be slowly acquired.”

Perhaps so, but some of us acquire the taste quicker than others. I for one favour the culture of the butterfly, contrary to Hearn, over that of the ant. I am tired of the Western emphasis on the quantitative in literature – on the volume and weight of the work. I am tired of the endless, earth-bound marching of ant-lines. Let our words, as writers, be butterflies. Let us eschew straight lines. Let us flit madly and drunkenly from flower to flower. Let us replace the chains of logic with the transformation that brings wings. Let us dream that we are humans dreaming that we are butterflies dreaming that we are humans. Let us dream and awake from endless dreams, so that one butterfly may be many people, and one person many butterflies. Let each flight be flown in lepidopterous finery.

Such is the manifesto of the dreaming butterfly.

Then again, looking up the word ‘Chômuon the Internet recently, I find it also has the following meaning:

An intellectually challenged individual, a person unable to make logical and commonsense decisions; "A person who lives for the singular purpose of trying to ruin the best parts of life for others by sub-intellectual activities".

Perhaps this is the kind of insect indicated by the entomology of the word.


Michael Peterson said...

"And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords..."

I find the absence of Nabokov in this essay startling! Or perhaps I glossed over it, which of course would suit the hour - Happy Gregorian Calendar Roll-Over Day, by the way.

Oddly, I think there was a television commercial about a writer who was blocked - and the words began scurrying from the page like insects. I want to say it was for a terrible Starbucks pre-packaged beverage, though in this I may also be incorrect. Regardless, I felt the visual had been ripped right from my own nightmares.

Quentin S. Crisp said...

By Nabokov I've only read the obligatory Lolita, I'm afraid. One of many great gaps in my reading.

Happy New Year etc.

Gray said...

Mr. Crisp,

Might I suggest Despair, Invitation to a Beheading, Pnin, or not-so-well-known short stories. If you love butterflies you will love Nabokov.

Chris Marrou said...

I would be concerned about wishing to be a butterfly, since butterflies go through a circuitous maturation process. One could dream of being a butterfly and then find oneself a pupa which itself can only dream of being a butterfly - or a caterpillar to be stepped on or hated by gardeners.

Ants are much more straightforward, and besides, our view of ants as a rigidly authoritarian society is based on observations of the majority of ants. A view of humanity would show much the same missing the occasional dreamer who wanders off from the anthill looking for adventure or enlightenment.