On Insects and literature

Some human,  largely in West, found insects worthy of their curiosity. Some have filmed and photographed them, wrote about them, imagined and personified them, few lived among them to study their life. David Attenborough narrates their life : showing us faces of their life : beautiful, cruel and benign.  European, in particular, were very interested in insects. No one have popularised insects more than Walt Disney. One can accuse Disney of some bias for one gets the impression that Disney preferred ants, grasshopper, butterflies much more than any other insects (spider is not an insect, is it?). I am very fond of grasshoppers especially Wilbur and the singing and spitting one, ‘mehnat karne se kya fayda’ (The world owes us a living).


Insects have played significant part defining human culture. Early humans, while designing symbols for writing, turned to nature for patterns. Insect forms were converted into hieroglyphs and pictograms in ancient Egypt (scarab, bee, and grasshopper syllables in alphabet), Mayan, and Chinese writing. This is interesting to note that despite of such influence on development of these languages, insects do not figure much in Indian literature. What about other Asian countries? It is argued thatthe Japanese have highly developed tradition of aesthetic appreciation for insects reflected in their literature, art, and recreational pursuits. … Much of the same could be said of the Chinese, who hold crickets and other musical Orthoptera in particularly high esteem.

Insects appear frequently in Western literature where  they have played major roles, sometimes becoming the main protagonist itself. Greeks wrote about them symbolically and aesthetically. Modern poets have used them: ‘Some better known poems with insect titles are, “To a Louse,” by Robert Burns; “To-day, this Insect, and the World I Breath,” by Dylan Thomas; “The Beetle,” by James Whitcomb Riley; and “To a Butterfly, the Redbreast an Butterfly,” by William Wordsworth. Japanese poetry, particularly haiku, commonly incorporates insect allusions. One of the shortest poems ever written was about insects: “Ugh-Bugh!” (D. K. McE. Kevan).’

Hindi literature have been unimaginative about insects. Insects, like reality, was not an essential part of early Hindi literature. These days Hindi literature has compensated for lack of reality after ‘writing as one see it’ was introduced by Premchand but insects are still missing. Sometimes we see insects appearing in Hindi stories, symbolically in their titles, such as Amar Kant’s famous story Zindagi aur Jonk (Life and the Leech). (Is leech an insect?)

Insects have influenced day to day conversation: being a part of many figure of speech: ‘social as butterfly’, ‘don’t bug me’, ‘dimag ke kide mat kha‘, ‘tatayye ki tarah chant hai (stingy as wasp)’, ‘jonk ki tarah chipka hai (persistent as a leech)’. All manner of manufactured and commercial objects bear insect names and some sports teams and clubs also bear their names. I was educated by a show “Big Bang Theory” that there is a drink named after ‘The Grasshopper”. Curious, I asked on online forum reason behind such a unappetising name for a cocktail. It seems like no one is sure about such naming but there was a good joke told,

So a man goes to a bar and asks the bartender ‘What’s a good drink?’ The bartender says ‘A grasshopper,’ so the guy orders a grasshopper. Later, he’s walking home from the bar and he sees a grasshopper on the side of the road. He goes up to the grasshopper and says ‘You know there’s a drink named after you?’ The grasshopper says ‘You mean there’s a drink named Irving?'”

It is interesting to stop for a while and see the changing perception of insects in literature. Consider what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote,

“Clouds of insects danced and buzzed in the golden autumn light…. Long, glinting dragonflies shot across the path, or hung tremulous with gauzy wings and gleaming bodies.” 

 and contrast it with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows,

His voice cracked with the strain, and they stood looking at each other in the whiteness and the emptiness, and Harry felt they were as insignificant as insects beneath the wide sky.”

And as Geetha Iyer puts it, “you have the cultural evolution of human in nutshell.” Insignificant insects! Is it the evidence of human ignorance or the testimony of increasing distance between human and insects? Asks Geetha Iyer.

It is largely true that a human wants to read and think about himself and prefer other human company rather than wondering about the other’s life. Although he has invented fiction, by which he sometime gets to know a life from an unknown point of view. A human, despite of his claim of being inherently curious, largely, is an insular animal – just like other animals. As for calling insects insignificant, it is worthy to quote Archy the cockroach here, perhaps the wittiest insect ever imagined,

I do not see why men
should be so proud
insects have the more
ancient lineage
according to the scientists
insects were insects
when man was only
a burbling whatisit.

 —
Dilawar

 

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Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

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