The Life of the Spider/Preface
THE INSECT'S HOMER
ORANGE and Sérignan, the latter a little Provençal village that should be as widely celebrated as Maillane, have of late years rendered honour to a man whose brow deserves to be girt with a double and radiant crown. But fame—at least that which is not the true nor the great fame, but her illegitimate sister, and which creates more noise than durable work in the morning and evening papers—fame is often forgetful, negligent, behindhand or unjust; and the crowd is almost ignorant of the name of J. H. Fabre, who is one of the most profound and inventive scholars and also one of the purest writers and, I was going to add, one of the finest poets of the century that is just past.
J. H. Fabre, as some few people know, is the author of half a score of well-filled volumes in which, under the title of Souvenirs Entomologiques, he has set down the results of fifty years of observation, study and experiment on the insects that seem to us the best-known and the most familiar: different species of wasps and wild bees, a few gnats, flies, beetles and caterpillars; in a word, all those vague, unconscious, rudimentary and almost nameless little lives which surround us on every side and which we contemplate with eyes that are amused, but already thinking of other things, when we open our window to welcome the first hours of spring, or when we go into the gardens or the fields to bask in the blue summer days.
We take up at random one of these bulky volumes and naturally expect to find first of all the very learned and rather dry lists of names, the very fastidious and exceedingly quaint specifications of those huge, dusty graveyards of which all the entomological treatises that we have read so far seem almost wholly to consist. We therefore open the book without zest and without unreasonable expectations; and forthwith, from between the open leaves, there rises and unfolds itself, without hesitation, without interruption and almost without remission to the end of the four thousand pages, the most extraordinary of tragic fairy plays that it is possible for the human imagination, not to create or to conceive, but to admit and to acclimatize within itself.
Indeed, there is no question here of the human imagination. The insect does not belong to our world. The other animals, the plants even, notwithstanding their dumb life and the great secrets which they cherish, do not seem wholly foreign to us. In spite of all, we feel a certain earthly brotherhood in them. They often surprise and amaze our intelligence, but do not utterly upset it. There is something, on the other hand, about the insect that does not seem to belong to the habits, the ethics, the psychology of our globe. One would be inclined to say that the insect comes from another planet, more monstrous, more energetic, more insane, more atrocious, more infernal than our own. One would think that it was born of some comet that had lost its course and died demented in space. In vain does it seize upon life with an authority, a fecundity unequalled here below; we cannot accustom ourselves to the idea that it is a thought of that nature of whom we fondly believe ourselves to be the privileged children and probably the ideal to which all the earth's efforts tend. Only the infinitely small disconcerts us still more greatly; but what, in reality, is the infinitely small other than an insect which our eyes do not see? There is, no doubt, in this astonishment and lack of understanding a certain instinctive and profound uneasiness inspired by those existences incomparably better-armed, better-equipped than our own, by those creatures made up of a sort of compressed energy and activity in whom we suspect our most mysterious adversaries, our ultimate rivals and, perhaps, our successors.
But it is time, under the conduct of an admirable guide, to penetrate behind the scenes of our fairy play and to study at close quarters the actors and supernumeraries, loathsome or magnificent, as the case may be, grotesque or sinister, heroic or appalling, genial or stupid and almost always improbable and unintelligible.
And here, to begin with, taking the first that comes, is one of those individuals, frequent in the South, where we can see it prowling around the abundant manna which the mule scatters heedlessly along the white roads and the stony paths: I mean the Sacred Scarab of the Egyptians, or, more simply, the Dung-beetle, the brother of our northern Geotrupes, a big Coleopteron all clad in black, whose mission in this world is to shape the more savoury parts of the prize into an enormous ball which he must next roll to the subterranean dining-room where the incredible digestive adventure is to take its course. But destiny, jealous of all undiluted bliss, before admitting him to that spot of sheer delight, imposes upon the grave and probably sententious beetle tribulations without number, which are nearly always complicated by the arrival of an untoward parasite.
Hardly has he begun, by dint of great efforts of his frontal shield and bandy legs, to roll the toothsome sphere backwards, when an indelicate colleague, who has been awaiting the completion of the work, appears and hypocritically offers his services. The other well knows that, in this case, help and services, besides being quite unnecessary, will soon mean partition and dispossession; and he accepts the enforced collaboration without enthusiasm. But, so that their respective rights may be clearly marked, the legal owner invariably retains his original place, that is to say, he pushes the ball with his forehead, whereas the compulsory guest, on the other side, pulls it towards him. And thus it jogs along between the two gossips, amid interminable vicissitudes, flurried falls, grotesque tumbles, till it reaches the place chosen to receive the treasure and to become the banqueting-hall. On arriving, the owner sets about digging out the refectory, while the sponger pretends to go innocently to sleep on the top of the bolus. The excavation becomes visibly wider and deeper; and soon the first dung-beetle dives bodily into it. This is the moment for which the cunning auxiliary was waiting. He nimbly scrambles down from the blissful eminence and, pushing it with all the energy that a bad conscience gives, strives to gain the offing. But the other, who is rather distrustful, interrupts his laborious excavations, looks overboard, sees the sacrilegious rape and leaps out of the hole. Caught in the act, the shameless and dishonest partner makes untold efforts to play upon the other's credulity, turns round and round the inestimable orb and, embracing it and propping himself against it, with fraudulent heroic exertions pretends to be frantically supporting it on a non-existent slope. The two expostulate with each other in silence, gesticulate wildly with their mandibles and tarsi and then, with one accord, bring back the ball to the burrow.
It is pronounced sufficiently spacious and comfortable. They introduce the treasure, they close the entrance to the corridor; and now, in the propitious darkness and the warm damp, where the magnificent stercoral globe alone holds sway, the two reconciled messmates sit down face to face. Then, far from the light and the cares of day and in the great silence of the hypogeous shade, solemnly commences the most fabulous banquet whereof abdominal imagination ever evoked the absolute beatitudes.
For two whole months, they remain cloistered; and, with their paunches proportionately hollowing out the inexhaustible sphere, definite archetypes and sovereign symbols of the pleasures of the table and the gaiety of the belly, they eat without stopping, without interrupting themselves for a second, day or night. And, while they gorge, steadily, with a movement perceptible and constant as that of a clock, at the rate of three millimetres a minute, an endless, unbroken ribbon unwinds and stretches itself behind them, fixing the memory and recording the hours, days and weeks of the prodigious feast.
After the Dung-beetle, that dolt of the company, let us greet, also in the order of the Coleoptera, the model household of the Minotaurus typhæus, which is pretty well-known and extremely gentle, in spite of its dreadful name. The female digs a huge burrow which is often more than a yard and a half deep and which consists of spiral staircases, landings, passages and numerous chambers.
The male loads the earth on the three-pronged fork that surmounts his head and carries it to the entrance of the conjugal dwelling. Next, he goes into the fields in search of the harmless droppings left by the sheep, takes them down to the first storey of the crypt and reduces them to flour with his trident, while the mother, right at the bottom, collects the flour and kneads it into huge cylindrical loaves, which will presently be food for the little ones. For three months, until the provisions are deemed sufficient, the unfortunate husband, without taking nourishment of any kind, exhausts himself in this gigantic work. At last, his task accomplished, feeling his end at hand, so as not to encumber the house with his wretched remains, he spends his last strength in leaving the burrow, drags himself laboriously along and, lonely and resigned, knowing that he is henceforth good for nothing, goes and dies far away among the stones.
Here, on another side, are some rather strange caterpillars, the Processionaries, which are not rare; and, as it happens, a single string of them, five or six yards long, has just climbed down from my umbrella-pines and is at this moment unfolding itself in the walks of my garden, carpeting the ground traversed with transparent silk, according to the custom of the race. To say nothing of the meteorological apparatus of unparalleled delicacy which they carry on their backs, these caterpillars, as everybody knows, have this remarkable quality, that they travel only in a troop, one after the other, like Breughel's blind men or those of the parable, each of them obstinately, indissolubly following its leader; so much so that, our author having one morning disposed the file on the edge of a large stone vase, thus closing the circuit, for seven whole days, during an atrocious week, amidst cold, hunger and unspeakable weariness, the unhappy troop on its tragic round, without rest, respite or mercy, pursued the pitiless circle until death overtook it.
But I see that our heroes are infinitely too numerous and that we must not linger over our descriptions. We may at most, in enumerating the more important and familiar, bestow on each of them a hurried epithet, in the manner of old Homer. Shall I mention, for instance, the Leucospis, a parasite of the Mason-bee, who, to slay his brothers and sisters in their cradle, arms himself with a horn helmet and a barbed breastplate, which he doffs immediately after the extermination, the safeguard of a hideous right of primogeniture? Shall I tell of the marvellous anatomical knowledge of the Tachytes, of the Cerceris, of the Ammophila, of the Languedocian Sphex, who, according as they wish to paralyze or to kill their prey or their adversary, know exactly, without ever blundering, which nerve-centre to strike with their sting or their mandibles? Shall I speak of the art of the Eumenes, who transforms her stronghold into a complete museum adorned with shells and grains of translucent quartz; of the magnificent metamorphosis of the Pachytilus cinarescens; of the musical instrument owned by the Cricket, whose bow numbers one hundred and fifty triangular prisms that set in motion simultaneously the four dulcimers of the elytron? Shall I sing the fairy-like birth of the nymphs of the Anthophagus, a transparent monster, with a bull's snout, that seems carved out of a block of crystal? Would you behold the Flesh-fly, the common Blue-bottle, daughter of the maggot, as she issues from the earth? Listen to our author:
'She disjoints her head into two movable halves, which, each distended with its great red eye, by turns separate and reunite. In the intervening space a large glassy hernia rises and disappears, disappears and rises. When the two halves move asunder, with one eye forced back to the right and the other to the left, it is as though the insect were splitting its brain-pan in order to expel the contents. Then the hernia rises, blunt at the end and swollen into a great knob. Next, the forehead closes and the hernia retreats, leaving visible only a kind of shapeless muzzle. In short, a frontal pouch, with deep pulsations momentarily renewed, becomes the instrument of deliverance, the pestle wherewith the newly-hatched Dipteron bruises the sand and causes it to crumble. Gradually, the legs push the rubbish back and the insect advances so much towards the surface.'
And monster after monster passes, such as the imagination of Bosch or Callot never conceived! The larva of the Rose-chafer, which, though it have legs under its belly, always travels on its back; the Blue-winged Locust, unluckier still than the Flesh-fly and possessing nothing wherewith to perforate the soil, to escape from the tomb and reach the light but a cervical bladder, a viscous blister; and the Empusa, who, with her curved abdomen, her great projecting eyes, her legs with knee-pieces armed with cleavers, her halberd, her abnormally tall mitre would certainly be the most devilish goblin that ever walked the earth, if, beside her, the Praying Mantis were not so frightful that her mere aspect deprives her victims of their power of movement when she assumes, in front of them, what the entomologists have termed 'the spectral attitude.'
One cannot mention, even casually, the numberless industries—nearly all of absorbing interest—exercised among the rocks, under the ground, in the walls, on the branches, the grass, the flowers, the fruits and down to the very bodies of the subjects studied; for we sometimes find a treble superposition of parasites, as in the Oil-beetles; and we see the maggot itself, the sinister guest at the last feast of all, feed some thirty brigands with its substance.
Among the Hymenoptera, which represent the most intellectual class in the world which we are studying, the building-talents of our wonderful Domestic Bee are certainly equal, in other orders of architecture, by those of more than one wild and solitary bee and notably by the Megachile, or Leaf-cutter, a little insect which is not all outside show and which, to house its eggs, manufactures honeypots formed of a multitude of disks and ellipses cut with mathematical precision from the leaves of certain trees. For lack of space, I am unable, to my great regret, to quote the beautiful and pellucid pages which J. H. Fabre, with his usual conscientiousness, devotes to the exhaustive study of this admirable work; nevertheless, since the occasion offers, let us listen to his own words, though it be but for a moment and in regard to a single detail:
'With the oval pieces, the question changes. What model has the Megachile when cutting into fine ellipses the delicate material of the robinia? What ideal pattern guides her scissors? What measure dictates the dimensions? One would like to think of the insect as a living compass, capable of tracing an elliptic curve by a certain natural inflexion of the body, even as our arm traces a circle by swinging from the shoulder. A blind mechanism, the mere outcome of her organization, would in that case be responsible for her geometry. This explanation would tempt me, if the oval pieces of large dimensions were not accompanied by much smaller, but likewise oval pieces, to fill the empty spaces. A compass which changes its radius of itself and alters the degree of curvature according to the exigencies of a plan appears to me an instrument somewhat difficult to believe in. There must be something better than that. The circular pieces of the lid suggest it to us.
'If, by the mere flexion inherent in her structure, the leaf-cutter succeeds in cutting out ovals, how does she manage to cut out rounds? Can we admit the presence of other wheels in the machinery for the new pattern, so different in shape and size? However, the real point of the difficulty does not lie there. Those rounds, for the most part, fit the mouth of the bottle with almost exact precision. When the cell is finished, the bee flies hundreds of yards further to make the lid. She arrives at the leaf from which the disk is to be cut. What picture, what recollection has she of the pot to be covered? Why, none at all: she has never seen it; she works underground, in profound darkness! At the utmost, she can have the indications of touch: not actual indications, of course, for the pot is not there, but past indications, ineffective in a work of precision. And yet the disk must be of a fixed diameter: if it were too large, it would not fit in; if too small, it would close badly, it would smother the egg by sliding down on the honey. How shall it be given its correct dimensions without a pattern? The Bee does not hesitate for a moment. She cuts out her disk with the same rapidity which she would display in detaching any shapeless lobe just useful for closing; and that disk, without further measurement, is of the right size to fit the pot. Let whoso will explain this geometry, which in my opinion is inexplicable, even when we allow for memory begotten of touch and sight.'
Let us add that the author has calculated that, to form the cells of a kindred Megachile, the Silky Megachile, exactly 1,064 of these ellipses and disks would be required; and they must all be collected and shaped in the course of an existence that lasts a few weeks.
Who would imagine that the Pentatomida, on the other hand, the poor and evil-smelling bug of the woods, has invented a really extraordinary apparatus wherewith to leave the egg? And first let us state that this egg is a marvellous little box of snowy whiteness, which our author thus describes:
'The microscope discovers a surface engraved with dents similar to those of a thimble and arranged with exquisite symmetry. At the top and bottom of the cylinder is a wide belt of a dead black; on the sides, a large white zone with four big, black spots evenly distributed. The lid, surrounded by snowy cilia and encircled with white at the edge, swells into a black cap with a white knot in the centre. Altogether, a dismal burial urn, with the sudden contrast between the dead black and the fleecy white. The funeral pottery of the ancient Etruscans would have found a magnificent model here.'
The little bug, whose forehead is too soft, covers her head, to raise the lid of the box, with a mitre formed of three triangular rods, which is always at the bottom of the egg at the moment of delivery. Her limbs being sheathed like those of a mummy, she has nothing wherewith to put her tringles in motion except the pulsations produced by the rhythmic flow of blood in her skull and acting after the manner of a piston. The rivets of the lid gradually give way; and, as soon as the insect is free, she lays aside her mechanical helmet.
Another species of bug, the Reduvius personatus, which lives mostly in lumber-rooms, where it lies hidden in the dust, has invented a still more astonishing system of hatching. Here, the lid of the egg is not riveted, as in the case of the Pentatomidæ, but simply glued. At the moment of liberation, the lid rises and we see:
'... a spherical vesicle emerge from the shell and gradually expand, like a soap-bubble blown through a straw. Driven further and further back by the extension of this bladder, the lid falls.
'Then the bomb bursts; in other words, the blister, swollen beyond its capacity of resistance, rips at the top. This envelope, which is an extremely tenuous membrane, generally remains clinging to the edge of the orifice, where it forms a high, white rim. At other times, the explosion loosens it and flings it outside the shell. In those conditions, it is a dainty cup, half spherical, with torn edges, lengthened out below into a delicate, winding stalk.'
Now, how is this miraculous explosion produced? J. H. Fabre assumes that:
'Very slowly, as the little animal takes shape and grows, this bladder-shaped reservoir receives the products of the work of respiration performed under the cover of the outer membrane. Instead of being expelled through the egg-shell, the carbonic acid, the incessant result of the vital oxidization, is accumulated in this sort of gasometer, inflates and distends it and presses upon the lid. When the insect is ripe for hatching, a superadded activity in the respiration completes the inflation, which perhaps has been preparing since the first evolution of the germ. At last, yielding to the increasing pressure of the gaseous bladder, the lid becomes unsealed. The Chick in its shell has its air-chamber; the young Reduvius has its bomb of carbonic acid: it frees itself in the act of breathing.'
One would never weary of dipping eagerly into these inexhaustible treasures. We imagine, for instance, that, from seeing cobwebs so frequently displayed in all manner of places, we possess adequate notions of the genius and methods of our familiar spiders. Far from it: the realities of scientific observation call for an entire volume crammed with revelations of which we had no conception. I will simply name, at random, the symmetrical arches of the Clotho Spider's nest, the astonishing funicular flight of the young of our Garden Spider, the diving-bell of the Water Spider, the live telephone-wire which connects the web with the leg of the Cross Spider hidden in her parlour and informs her whether the vibration of her toils is due to the capture of a prey or a caprice of the wind.
It is impossible, therefore, short of having unlimited space at one's disposal, to do more than touch, as it were with the tip of the phrases, upon the miracles of maternal instinct, which, moreover, are confounded with those of the higher manufactures and form the bright centre of the insect's psychology. One would, in the same way, require several chapters to convey a summary idea of the nuptial rites which constitute the quaintest and most fabulous episodes of these new Arabian Nights.
The male of the Spanish-fly, for instance, begins by frenziedly beating his spouse with his abdomen and his feet, after which, with his arms crossed and quivering, he remains long in ecstasy. The newly-wedded Osmiæ clap their mandibles terribly, as though it were a matter rather of devouring each other; on the other hand, the largest of our moths, the Great Peacock, who is the size of a bat, when drunk with love finds his mouth so completely atrophied that it becomes no more than a vague shadow. But nothing equals the marriage of the Green Grasshopper, of which I cannot speak here, for it is doubtful whether even the Latin language possesses the words needed to describe it as it should be described.
All said, the marriage customs are dreadful and, contrary to that which happens in every other world, here it is the female of the pair that stands for strength and intelligence and also for cruelty and tyranny, which appear to be their inevitable consequence. Almost every wedding ends in the violent and immediate death of the husband. Often, the bride begins by eating a certain number of suitors. The archetype of these fantastic unions could be supplied by the Languedocian Scorpions, who, as we know, carry lobster-claws and a long tail supplied with a sting, the prick of which is extremely dangerous. They have a prelude to the festival in the shape of a sentimental stroll, claw in claw; then, motionless, with fingers still gripped, they contemplate each other blissfully, interminably: day and night pass over their ecstasy while they remain face to face, petrified with admiration. Next, the foreheads come together and touch; the mouths—if we can give the name of mouth to the monstrous orifice that opens between the claws—are joined in a sort of kiss; after which the union is accomplished, the male is transfixed with a mortal sting and the terrible spouse crunches and gobbles him up with gusto.
But the Mantis, the ecstatic insect with the arms always raised in an attitude of supreme invocation, the horrible Mantis religiosa or Praying Mantis, does better still: she eats her husbands (for the insatiable creature sometimes consumes seven or eight in succession), while they strain her passionately to their heart. Her inconceivable kisses devour, not metaphorically, but in an appallingly real fashion, the ill-fated choice of her soul or her stomach. She begins with the head, goes down to the thorax, nor stops till she comes to the hind-legs, which she deems too tough. She then pushes away the unfortunate remains, while a new lover, who was quietly awaiting the end of the monstrous banquet, heroically steps forward to undergo the same fate.
J. H. Fabre is indeed the revealer of this new world, for, strange as the admission may seem at a time when we think that we know all that surrounds us, most of those insects minutely described in the vocabularies, learnedly classified and barbarously christened had hardly ever been observed in real life or thoroughly investigated, in all the phases of their brief and evasive appearances. He has devoted to surprising their little secrets, which are the reverse of our greatest mysteries, fifty years of a solitary existence, misunderstood, poor, often very near to penury, but lit up every day by the joy which a truth brings, which is the greatest of all human joys. Petty truths, I shall be told, those presented by the habits of a spider or a grasshopper. There are no petty truths to-day; there is but one truth, whose looking-glass, to our uncertain eyes, seems broken, though its every fragment, whether reflecting the evolution of a planet or the flight of a bee, contains the supreme law.
And these truths thus discovered had the good fortune to be grasped by a mind which knew how to understand what they themselves can but ambiguously express, to interpret what they are obliged to conceal and, at the same time, to appreciate the shimmering beauty, almost invisible to the majority of mankind, that shines for a moment around all that exists, especially around that which still remains very close to nature and has hardly left its primeval obscurity.
To make of these long annals the generous and delightful masterpiece that they are and not the monotonous and arid register of little descriptions and insignificant acts that they might have been, various and so to speak conflicting gifts were needed. To the patience, the precision, the scientific minuteness, the protean and practical ingenuity, the energy of a Darwin in the face of the unknown, to the faculty of expressing what has to be expressed with order, clearness and certainty, the venerable anchorite of Sérignan adds many of those qualities which are not to be acquired, certain of those innate good poetic virtues which cause his sure and supple prose, devoid of artificial ornament and yet adorned with simple and as it were unintentional charm, to take its place among the excellent and lasting prose of the day, prose of the kind that has its own atmosphere, in which we breathe gratefully and tranquilly and which we find only around masterpieces.
Lastly, there was needed—and this was not the least requirement of the work—a mind ever ready to cope with the riddles which, among those little objects, rise up at every step, as enormous as those which fill the skies and perhaps more numerous, more imperious and more strange, as though nature had here given a freer scope to her last wishes and an easier outlet to her secret thoughts. He shrinks from none of those boundless problems which are persistently put to us by all the inhabitants of that tiny world where mysteries are heaped up in a denser and more bewildering fashion than in any other. He thus meets and faces, turn by turn, the redoubtable questions of instinct and intelligence, of the origin of species, of the harmony or the accidents of the universe, of the life lavished upon the abysses of death, without counting the no less vast, but so to speak more human problems which, among infinite others, are inscribed within the range, if not within the grasp, of our intelligence: parthenogenesis; the prodigious geometry of the wasps and bees; the logarithmic spiral of the Snail; the antennary sense; the miraculous force which, in absolute isolation, without the possible introduction of anything from the outside, increases the volume of the Minotaurus' egg ten-fold, where it lies, and, during seven to nine months, nourishes with an invisible and spiritual food, not the lethargy, but the active life of the Scorpion and of the young of the Lycosa and the Clotho Spider. He does not attempt to explain them by one of those generally-acceptable theories such as that of evolution, which merely shifts the ground of the difficulty and which, I may mention in passing, emerges from these volumes in a somewhat sorry plight, after being sharply confronted with incontestable facts.
Waiting for chance or a god to enlighten us, he is able, in the presence of the unknown, to preserve that great religious and attentive silence which is dominant in the best minds of the day. There are those who say:
'Now that you have reaped a plentiful harvest of details, you should follow up analysis with synthesis and generalize the origin of instinct in an all-embracing view.'
To these he replies, with the humble and magnificent loyalty that illumines all his work:
'Because I have stirred a few grains of sand on the shore, am I in a position to know the depths of the ocean?
'Life has unfathomable secrets. Human knowledge will be erased from the archives of the world before we possess the last word that the Gnat has to say to us....
'Success is for the loud talkers, the self-convinced dogmatists; everything is admitted on condition that it be noisily proclaimed. Let us throw off this sham and recognize that, in reality, we know nothing about anything, if things were probed to the bottom. Scientifically, Nature is a riddle without a definite solution to satisfy man's curiosity. Hypothesis follows on hypothesis; the theoretical rubbish-heap accumulates; and truth ever eludes us. To know how not to know might well be the last word of wisdom.'
Evidently, this is hoping too little. In the frightful pit, in the bottomless funnel wherein whirl all those contradictory facts which are resolved in obscurity, we know just as much as our cave-dwelling ancestors; but at least we know that we do not know. We survey the dark faces of all the riddles, we try to estimate their number, to classify their varying degrees of dimness, to obtain an idea of their places and extent. That already is something, pending the day of the first gleams of light. In any case, it means doing, in the presence of the mysteries, all that the most upright intelligence can do to-day; and that is what the author of this incomparable Iliad does, with more confidence than he professes. He gazes at them attentively. He wears out his life in surprising their most minute secrets. He prepares for them, in his thoughts and in ours, the field necessary for their evolutions. He increases the consciousness of his ignorance in proportion to their importance and learns to understand more and more that they are incomprehensible.
- Maillane is the birthplace of Mistral, the Provençal poet.—Translator's Note.