Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.

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February 24, 2010

24-2-10 Insect God

No idea why this came to me today, a memory of Susan, my partner in the Berlin Years, asking out of the blue ‘Do you think insects have religion?’. Susan was good at the curveball question, not so much aimed at getting an answer as seeing how you answered it.

There’s a slim volume creepy-crawly story ‘The Insect God” in one of the Diogenes Press Edward Gorey box-sets I own, The Vinegar Works. Here’s a prime cut of Gorey’s signature Victorian Gothic :-

“They removed the child to the ballroom, whose hangings

And mirrors were covered with a luminous slime;

They leapt through the air with buzzings and twangings

To work themselves up to a ritual crime.

They stunned her, and stripped off her garments, and lastly

They stuffed her inside a kind of a pod;

And then it was that Millicent Frastley

Was sacrificed to The Insect God.”

Some time in the mid-70’s  I owned Michael Mantler’s splendidly ominous free-jazz tribute to Gorey, ‘The Hapless Child and other inscrutable stories’ that rendered The Insect God in appropriately keening buzzings and twangings, vocals by Robert Wyatt. The music is similar to Soft Machine (yes I was a Soft Machine fan) in which Wyatt’s voice was a humanising element in the intense noodling.

Bun-faced children are always coming to grief in the Gorey ouevre. The Gashleycrumb Tinies, also included in The Vinegar works, is simply an alphabetical list of infant mortalities ‘A is for Anna who tumbled downstairs, B is for Basil, molested by bears…’ etc. I can’t remember offhand which of the tots ‘died of ennui’ but that was the page where I LOL’d.

I remembered too a Sufi story of the revered master walking in the gardens of his mosque, instructing his students, when he tumbled and fell prostrate on the gravel path. His acolytes hastened to raise the revered cleric but he waved them away.

‘Wait… I find I can understand the language of these ants!’

He asked them, ‘What is the nature of God?’

They replied, ‘He is very like an ant… but he has two stings!’

A lot of the Sufi stories read like stand-up gags which on reflection expand like self-inflating life-rafts into something more substantial and useful. Zen-master tales often end with a whack on the head or a kick up the rear for the student who believes – or pretends to understand – bs just because the Master said it. The truth that can be spoken is not the Truth.

My Children’s Bibles – oh yes a few of them – showed flaxen-haired Max von Sydow meek and mild, patiently explaining His Father’s Word in the simple familiar imagery of the parables to spellbound Galilean crowds or well-behaved children. Good stories, but not a lot of laughs. It would be rude to laugh in church.

Sometimes my mind skims the surface of my memory like a pebble over water and the next ‘plip!’ was an image that came to me when I was trying to distinguish between what are often shothandedly-termed ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ religions.

I was brought up in a Scots Episcopalian tradition, not rigorous but very definite on matters of naughtiness in conduct and rudeness regarding body-parts and functions, and attended a C of E school and church. I was a proud star Sunday School student and Bible stories were as familiar as Anderson’s and The Grimms’ (we had an edition unsettlingly illustrated by Mervyn Peake; in my storytelling phase I did a version of The Grave Mound inspired by the picture of the peasant on watch turning to the reader  as a long shadow points across the rough grass in the foreground towards him).

I was also brought up with the Bible as Kings Regulations. There was always a chapter and verse reference to cover God’s Word on any given topic. The road to Heaven was like a route map – ‘Take thou the M42, then must thou the left hand path of the A435 exit take, and at the third exit thereafter shalt thy path lead thee nigh on Alvechurch…’ All you had to do was keep on the narrow path and follow instructions. It was a wonky sat nav with an intermittent signal, which is why you could find yourself – doh! – in Alvechurch itself if you didn’t tune in with appropriate fervour, calling on the celestial RAC for guidance to get back on the Alcester Rd.

It occurred to me that by contrast the tack taken by Buddah Gautama in particular was more like one of those bees’ wiggle-dances. The scout who’s located a nectar-load returns to the hive and by contact wiggles out instructions about the direction it’s just returned from; if the others follow their innate navigation system sort-of in that direction it’s pretty much in their nature to arrive at the goodies.

Alan Watts, who I read a lot in my student days, used an image of God knowing each of us as we know our own individual brain-cells. We all partake and participate as little transient glims of a vast consciousness but are foolish to claim to know the Mind Of God. He also introduced me to this short, ringing quote from Coventry Patmore:

‘Shall I, a gnat which dances in Thy ray/ Dare to be reverent?’

OK, I’ve had enough insects for today and/because already I can think of more specimens caught on my fly-paper memory (and good god I realise I’m old enough to remember the gruesome fascination of flies expiring on the butcher’s fly-paper strips) but obvious as it is, it would be a dereliction not to include the poster-boy of ontological insecurity, Chuang Tzu and his Greatest Hit:-

“Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly, I awoke, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming that I am now a man.”

See ya later, lepidoptera!

  1. Of course the insects have a god. A great and glowing god that they adore. But a dangerous deity that often demands the ultimate sacrifice, leaving the worshippers lying scorched and stunned by their contact with the divine.

    Comment by Sue Jones — February 25, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

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