Insects in Literature and the Arts

by Laurence Talairach-Vielmas (Volume editor) Marie Bouchet (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection 260 Pages


This bilingual collection of essays (in English and French) looks at entomology and representations of insects from a scientific, historical, philosophical, literary and artistic viewpoint.
The contributions illustrate the various responses to the insect world that have developed over centuries, concentrating upon the alien qualities of insects – a radical otherness that has provoked admiration and fear, or contributed to the debates over humans’ superiority over animals, especially during the evolutionary theory controversy, or in today’s ecological debates. Insects not only helped shape new discourses on nature and on the natural world, but their literary and artistic representations also reveal how humans relate to their environment.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • New Comparative Poetics
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Table of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction (Laurence Talairach-Vielmas & Marie Bouchet)
  • Des scarabées et des hommes. Histoire des coléoptères de l’Égypte ancienne à nos jours (Yves Cambefort)
  • Le Maître du codex Cocharelli. Enlumineur et pionnier dans l’observation des insectes (Colette Bitsch)
  • Nabokov’s Text under the Microscope. Textual Practices of Detail in his Lepidopterological and Fictional Writings (Marie Bouchet)
  • A Way of Seeing. From Eleanor Ormerod’s Injurious Insects to Virginia Woolf’s Butterflies (Catherine Lanone)
  • ‘The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly’. Aquatic Insects and Metamorphosis in the Works of Ted Hughes (Yvonne Reddick)
  • Love, Cannibalism, and the Sacred. Roger Caillois and the Myth of the Praying Mantis (Romi S. Mukherjee)
  • Fusion et confusion. L’homme-insecte dans The Fly de David Cronenberg (Patricia Paillot)
  • Detectives, Beetles and Scientists. ‘A Pin, a Cork, and a Card, and We Add Him to the Baker Street Collection’ (Hélène Machinal)
  • Ants on Hollywood Screens. Monstrous Mutations and Projected Fears (Them! and Phase IV) (Gilles Menegaldo)
  • Beeing and Time. A Kiss of Chemoreception, A Taste of Trophallaxis (and the Bug in Dasein’s Mouth) (Virgil W. Brower)
  • Insects and Texts. Worlds Apart? (Wendy Harding)
  • Entomology Cabinet. A Poet’s Collection (Anne Mccrary Sullivan)
  • Index
  • Contributors
  • Series index

← 8 | 9 → Table of Illustrations

Fig. 1: Bupreste de la grotte d’Arcy-sur-Cure (dessins originaux d’après Philippe Salmon, ‘Excursion aux grottes d’Arcy-sur-Cure et de Saint-Moré (Yonne)’, Revue mensuelle de l’École d’Anthropologie 7 (1897): 158-160).

Fig. 2: Scarabée de Tarkhan (dessins originaux d’après W.M. Flinders Petrie, G.A. Wainwright & A.H. Gardiner, Tarkhan I and Memphis V (London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt & Bernard Quaritch, 1913)).

Fig. 3: Larve et nymphe du scarabée dans leur ‘poire’ (dessins originaux d’après des matériaux appartenant à l’auteur).

Fig. 4: ‘Tableau final’ du Livre des Portes (d’après Joseph Bonomi & Samuel Sharpe, The Alabaster Sarcophagus of Oimenepthah I., King of Egypt (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1864); collection particulière, Paris).

Fig. 5: Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii (1592), pl. 3 (collection particulière, Paris).

Fig. 6: Additional 28841. Folio 5v. Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

Fig. 7: Egerton 3127. Folio 1. Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

Fig. 8: ‘Dressing for an Oxford Bal Masqué’, Punch 47 (10 December 1864): 239.

Fig. 9: ‘Vestiges of Creation’, Punch 37 (1859): 100.

Fig. 10: ‘The Geology of Society’, Punch 1 (1841): 157.

Fig. 11: ‘The British Association’, Punch 49 (23 September 1865): 113.

Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders of the illustrations used in this volume, and to obtain necessary permission for reproduction.← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 → Acknowledgments

Some of the papers in this collection were originally given at a conference entitled ‘Insects and Texts: Spinning Webs of Wonder’, organised by the editors of this volume and held at the Toulouse Natural History Museum on May 4-5, 2010, as part of a collaborative research programme (EXPLORA) between the Centre for English Studies CAS (EA 801) of the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail (UTM, France) and the Toulouse Natural History Museum. We wish to express our most sincere thanks to the staff of the Museum and the city of Toulouse for making this particular event possible and for their contribution to the development of the research programme through a series of conferences dealing with humans, nature and the environment and focusing on the interrelations between science, art and literature. The EXPLORA interdisciplinary conferences held at the Natural History Museum since 2009 have enabled scholars from the sciences and the humanities to come together under one roof, thus making the Toulouse Natural History Museum a place of reflection on science and culture, on audiences and on the diffusion of knowledge more generally. The adventure has proved most stimulating to all those involved in the project. In an increasingly complex world, it seems absolutely necessary to break down disciplinary boundaries, to understand the language of other disciplines and look at science and/or culture from new perspectives. We would like to thank all the contributors to this volume for their articles which demonstrate the importance of interdisciplinary research. We are also grateful to many colleagues and students of the Department of English (DEMA) who helped organise the conference. Finally, we are indebted to Dickinson College (Toulouse Centre) and the following departments and research centres of the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail (UTM) for showing interest in EXPLORA and funding the conference: the Centre for English Studies CAS (EA 801, UTM), the Department of English, the Department of Modern Languages and the Institute of Pluri-Disciplinary Research in Arts, Literatures and Languages (IRPALL).← 11 | 12 →

← 12 | 13 → Introduction


Sophie Anderson’s painting, Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things (1869), allegedly inspired by a poem by Charles Ede, presents a fairy holding a purse and gazing at the viewer with an innocent and child-like look. The most striking detail of the painting is probably the hyper-realistic crown of butterflies on the fairy’s head. Common European butterfly species are clearly distinguishable, such as Arctiida, mixed up with moths, such as the garden tiger moth (Arctia caja), Epicallia villica, and Peacock butterflies (Inachis io). Others have certainly inspired the painter. Some of the butterflies’ spotted wings may recall the Blackleg Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis polychloros) or the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae). Colours are reminiscent of more exotic species too, such as the Neotropical Helenor Morpho (Morpho helenor) and Anaxibia Morpho (Morpho anaxibia), while stripes on some of the wings may hint at the Old World Swallowtail or Common Yellow Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) or even the Scarne (or Sail or Pear-tree) Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius).

The mix between scientific accuracy and artistic stylized inspiration is telling. Anderson’s representation of butterflies is in keeping with the period’s ‘microscopic[-], even myopic[-]’1 look at nature typically found, for instance, in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and reminiscent of a long tradition of butterfly-winged fairies. The wealth of paintings figuring butterfly-winged fairies in the nineteenth century is a good illustration of the role that insects played throughout the ages, constantly hovering between the world of art and that of science, as if mediating the tensions between a world becoming more and more materialistic and creatures whose alien qualities could evoke the wonders of the natural world. Highly realistic, as if observed through the lens of a microscope,2 the ← 13 | 14 → butterfly-winged creatures of Victorian painters like Joseph Noel Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald, Richard Doyle, John Simmons or John George Naish, look both familiar and harmless and terribly mysterious and uncanny. They call to mind the magic world of metamorphoses, suggest nature’s wondrous potential and even give a sense of disorientation by playing on different scales, and we would like to envisage them as emblems of the multi-faceted meanings and representations of insects this book aims to emphasize.

Entomology, as a discipline, has long been poised between the world of science and that of art. As Lynn Merrill puts it, natural history, ‘[l]ike science, … notes, identifies, and delineates details; like art it arranges them in an overall composition, whether that be an illustration, a collection in a cabinet, an essay, or a book’.3 This interchange between science and art is the aim of this collection of essays which all look at entomology and representations of insects from a scientific and literary or artistic viewpoint. As shall be seen, the alien qualities of insects explain why they were often caught in, or central to, debates on representation. Surely insects were/are radically different from humans. Their bodies are disquietingly different, their size contributing even more to the feeling of otherness. Their size also accounts for the way in which insects are increasingly involved in ecological discourses. The issue of humans’ superiority over animals was particularly undermined by the development of new scientific theories in the nineteenth century, as evolutionary theory shattered the anthropocentric vision of mankind and the idea that humans were separate from animals. The contemporary heightened ecological sensitivities and environmental awareness, inherited from nineteenth-century’s debates over humans’ place in nature, gradually found their way not only through political discourse, but also in artistic representations, especially after World War II. As a matter of fact, as this collection highlights, insects became symbols of threatened nature. In the United States, the Karner Blue is today the epitome of endangered wildlife.4 Tellingly, its discoverer and first describer was Vladimir Nabokov, one of the major novelists of the twentieth century who was also an acknowledged lepidopterologist and whose significant contributions both to the field of entomology and literature will drive this collection. The disappearance of the Karner Blue from the wetlands of the North-East and the Great ← 14 | 15 → Lakes because of rampant industrialization encroaching on its natural habitat and destroying its foodplant is a vibrant instance of ecological consciousness reaching the general public. For insects, unlike humans, as Edward O. Wilson explains, are essential in the global food chain:

If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change. Gaia, the totality of life on Earth, would set about healing itself and return to the rich environmental states of 100,000 years ago. But if invertebrates were to disappear, it is unlikely that the human species could last more than a few months. Most of the fishes, amphibians, birds and mammals would crash to extinction about the same time. Next would go the bulk of the flowering plants and with them the physical structure of the majority of the forests and other terrestrial habitats of the world. The soil would rot. As dead vegetation piled up and dried out, narrowing and closing the channels of the nutrient cycles, other complex forms of vegetation would die off, and with them the last remnants of the invertebrates. The remaining fungi, after enjoying a population explosion of stupendous proportions, would also perish. Within a few decades the world would return to the state of a billion years ago, composed primarily of bacteria, algae and a few other very simple multicellular plants.5

Nabokov’s area of specialization in entomological research lay in a family of butterflies called the Blues or Polyommatus blues. He completely revised the organization of its genus, based on his own dissection and classification of their genitalia (only observable through a microscope). Nabokov had received no formal training in biology and was self-taught, yet he worked for about ten years in the research centers of natural history museums in the USA, especially at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology where he was a Research Fellow, conducting his research as he was teaching literature in universities, translating major Russian works into English, writing criticism, and of course composing novels and short stories. Nabokov impersonates the crossing of science and literature, all the more so because he excelled in both fields. Indeed, despite a few corrections added in the 1990s by a team of lepidopterists led by Dr. Kurt Johnson who completed Nabokov’s study of the Blues,6 his findings and research still hold true today. He was the first describer of many butterflies, genus and species, and then, as a tribute to his entomological work, many lepidopterists named their findings after him or after the characters in his fiction.7 In January 2011 another of Nabokov’s hypotheses was confirmed by Harvard researchers using DNA data, which Nabokov had no access ← 15 | 16 → to during his research years. In 1945, he had come up with a far-reaching hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves, over the Bering Strait. Very few specialists took Nabokov’s idea seriously during his lifetime, but in the January 2011 Proceedings of the Royal Society of London,8 researchers reported that Nabokov had been absolutely right. Dr. Pierce, a Harvard biology professor and curator of lepidoptera since 1990, was captivated by Nabokov’s bold idea of butterflies coming from Asia and decided to test it. With her colleagues, including Dr. Johnson, they found that the New World species shared a common ancestor that lived about 10 million years ago and concluded that five waves of butterflies came from Asia to the New World – just as Nabokov had conjectured.

In one of the letters that he wrote to his wife when he was away, butterfly-hunting, Nabokov likened his experience of knowing butterflies to the pleasures of reading: ‘I am writing this letter in an amazing thicket that I reached chasing butterflies. No, I’m not collecting them, but only rereading them, because I know them all in these localities’.9 For Nabokov, as for many of the artists and thinkers examined in this book, attempts at understanding insects could be compared to deciphering the wondrous designs of nature in order to be able to represent them in art. Nabokov was inspired to write about his reading of butterflies, just as other artists’s curiosity about insects spurred their creative impulses. As shall be seen in this collection of essays, insects not only helped shape new discourses on nature and the natural world, especially after 1859, illustrating ‘the alien strangeness of the processes of nature’,10 but the way they are approached through the prism of artistic representation also reveals how humans relate to the environment, and how humans’ representation of the natural world provides insights into human thought.

The first essays presented in this book show how, throughout the ages, human attention to insects reverberated through popular beliefs, religious symbols, artistic productions and scientific findings. Yves Cambefort’s essay focuses on the most species-rich animal group – beetles. As Cambefort argues, the ancient and sacred interest in beetles evolved from religion to science, increasingly presenting a disenchanted vision of the ← 16 | 17 → species. Cambefort traces the changes in conceptions and definitions of beetles from Ancient Egypt’s worship of so-called ‘sacred’ scarabs to contemporary scientific studies, yet paying particular attention to the way in which beetles served as a basis for emblematic works, which in turn influenced the fine arts. As he underlines, some artists of the ‘still life’ genre developed an interest in insect biology, paving the way for the first true entomological works of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, as the world became more and more secularised in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as Cambefort underlines, entomologists and artists recurrently combined scientific accuracy and literary or artistic approaches, such as the French Jean-Henri Fabre, in his Souvenirs entomologiques, or authors like Franz Kafka, Ernst Jünger or the Japanese Kobo Abe, and even some modern or post-modern artists, such as Jan Fabre and Mark Dion. In the following chapter, Colette Bitsch takes us to Italy in the Middle Ages and proposes an interpretation of a rare fourteenth-century manuscript figuring invertebrates that prefigure seventeenth-century representations of insects. The manuscript, written in Latin, was supposedly aimed at the children of a wealthy Italian family from Piacenza, the Cocharellis – hence its unique character. The highly naturalistic representations of insects is, as she contends, closer to Renaissance representations than to medieval depictions of nature. Indeed, in medieval bestiaries and encyclopaedias, zoological classification was in keeping with Genesis, mostly limited to vertebrates that could swim, fly, walk or crawl on earth. In the Cocharelli illuminated manuscript the artist moves away from such a classification, separating the vertebrates from the invertebrates, following rather, it seems, Aristotelian zoology at a time when Aristotle’s History of Animals was banned by religious authorities. In fact, as Bitsch surmises, this may be explained by looking at the impact of the King of Sicily (1198-1250), emperor Frederick II, who was excommunicated four times and was very much interested in science and the arts, and therefore chose the work of an artist who observed insects as closely as a professional entomologist would.

In the following essay, Vladimir Nabokov’s scientific and artistic production is examined. As Marie Bouchet contends, Nabokov’s obsession with detail, in both his fictional and entomological writings, echoes not only humans’ fascination for the intricate bodies of insects, but reveals a lot about Nabokov’s own relationship to the surrounding world, and his perspective on the capabilities of human knowledge. Because the first scientific description of an animal or a plant has a very unique status, providing the reference for future identification and research for the scientific community, scientific description, as Bouchet highlights, is based upon a close relationship between signifier and signified, between the word and the world, which raises questions regarding how nature may be represented.

← 17 | 18 → The next chapters offer a further insight into the way humans consider insects, as exemplified by artists who devoted important works to reflections on the insect world, which in turn fueled their own thoughts about their surroundings and the society they lived in. Catherine Lanone’s essay, on Virginia Woolf’s interest in entomology, goes beyond earlier studies of the butterflies and moths which flutter in Woolf’s novels. More than simply metaphorizing the passing of time, Lanone argues, these insects may be seen as a more personal theme, revealing the genuine attention Woolf’s texts pay to insects, an attention which is clearly expressed in two essays ‘The Death of the Moth’ and ‘Reading’. In addition, Lanone focuses on a lesser known and highly original piece of writing Woolf devoted to the Victorian entomologist Eleanor Ormerod, to examine how Woolf articulates social and gendered issues with scientific interest, in a characteristically hybrid text which casts light on her own practice as a writer. Focusing on Poet Laureate Ted Hughes’s famous nature writings, Yvonne Reddick next looks at his essay ‘The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly (Note for a Panegyric Ode on Leonard Baskin’s Collected Prints)’ to explain how the mythic progression from death to rebirth underlies all the (many) insect metamorphoses to be found in Hughes’s Collected Poems. Examining his treatment of dragonflies and damselflies, she argues that the dragonfly life-cycle is used at once as a metaphor of personal transformation and a platform for the poet to explore issues affecting aquatic ecosystems.

As Romi S. Mukherjee shows in the following chapter, the œuvre of Roger Caillois, dissident surrealist, historian of religion and French homme de lettres, is haunted by another type of insect, the praying mantis. For Caillois, the mantis remained a mysterious creature whose lyrical force had an unparalleled effect on the human psyche; the mantis was an ‘ideogram’ or living dispositif in which one discovered a vibrant nexus of myth, folklore, instinct, and, of course, nutrition, death and sexuality. Whether coded as a femme fatale, a symbol of camouflage and one’s dissolution into nature, or a sacred soothsayer, the mantis reveals how the human psyche corresponds to the insect world. In other words, the mantis’ capacity to act on the human imagination is not only dependent on the creature’s resemblance to the human, but to the fact that it functions as a symbolic index of our ritual, sexual, and biological life. For instance, mantises are sacred and medicinal insects, and archaic and modern religions erect a series of taboos around them. The cannibalism of the female mantis, moreover, reveals the close relationship between the death drive and sexual ecstasy, while also functioning as a paradigm for the castration complex. Finally, mantises represent the human fear of being devoured and simultaneously the desire to be devoured in mystical union. In his essay, Mukherjee argues that the mantis reveals ← 18 | 19 → how the study of nature and insect life can potentially reveal much about the human mind and open up new and vital interdisciplinary paradigms which fuse entomology with the history of religions, psychoanalysis, and philosophy.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (January)
entomology admiration fear evolutionary theory artistic viewpoint
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 260 pp., 11 ill.

Biographical notes

Laurence Talairach-Vielmas (Volume editor) Marie Bouchet (Volume editor)

Laurence Talairach-Vielmas is Professor of English at the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail and associate researcher at the Alexandre Koyré Centre for the History of Science and Technology in Paris. Marie Bouchet is Associate Professor of American Literature at the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail. She is a specialist of Vladimir Nabokov and a founding member of the Société Vladimir Nabokov, France.


Title: Insects in Literature and the Arts
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260 pages