Speaking Volumes: Book of Insects

May 5, 1995

Kenneth Dover on Fabre's Book of Insects .

I have sometimes been asked, "How old were you when you first became fascinated by Greek mythology?", and my answer, "I'm not sure I've reached that age yet", is not well received. It seems to be assumed (especially in America) that a classicist must have begun by getting hooked on stories of gods and heroes and thereafter gladly paid the price of hard linguistic grind as a means to ever more intimate acquaintance with them. Actually it was the language, emphatically not the myths, that hooked me when I was 12.

All the same, the pale blue Greek grammar (I forget who wrote it) to which I had constant recourse in my first year or two of Greek is by no means radiant in my memory. There was a dark blue book which I remember vividly and lovingly as the one which opened up the world to me, and it was not about the Greeks at all. It was Fabre's Book of Insects, extracts from that extraordinary man's Souvenirs entomologiques, "retold" - and with an exemplary clarity and simplicity which made me feel enlisted and embraced but never patronised - by a Mrs Rudolph Stawell. Years later I read the full Souvenirs themselves and wondered why I had not done so long before, as soon as I could read French. The magic is Fabre's own, not imported by Mrs Stawell.

Not everyone nowadays would respond to it. His way of talking about insects is wildly anthropomorphic, his notions of "instinctive" and "learned" behaviour could do with some refining, and some scientists (not all, thank goodness) might take against his exultant sense of drama, his guileless refusal to suppress his own personality, and the frequent intrusion of his children. He said once: "A vain wish has often come to me in my dreams: to be able to think, for a few minutes, with the brain of my dog, or to see the world with the eyes of gnat."

I had been ready for that ever since, at the age of three, I had become aware of the rather limited selection of insects - mostly ground-beetles, cabbage whites, and larvae of the magpie moth - available in our garden. These creatures were the essential Other; not goblins and witches, still less (in those days) extra-terrestrials or supermen with thunderbolts in their fists, but visible, tangible beings, available under my eyes all the time. Part of my world necessarily, but within that, a half-world running in parallel with the half to which I belonged.

For some years I was a collector, because that seemed a natural way of dealing with anything interesting, but I rather think that elementary experiments, certainly inspired by Fabre, came before collecting, and interest in insect behaviour endured long after I had decided that turning these creatures into museum specimens is not very good for our insect population. I am still thrilled by seeing a rarity, but content to record, or just remember, where and when I saw it. Now that my affections have expanded along the evolutionary scale from insects to their predators, I am no twitcher but rather, at a lowly sub-scientific level, an observer of bird behaviour.

And humans? Peoples remote in time or place? I suppose it could be said that in my collecting phase I collected them too, rejoicing in an exotic word which I could invest with the dashing brilliance of a tiger-beetle, or in an un-English syntactical construction reflecting a pattern of thinking which I needed to learn. If there really was a thread leading me on a tortuous path from Fabre on the hillsides of Provence to Callimachus in the Alexandrian Library, it went in at one side of an ants' nest and out at the other. The ancients thought highly of the industry and discipline of ants. I would not want to be an ant (even for Fabre's "few minutes"), any more than its ancient admirers would have done, but the very existence of social creatures, to which the wishes, rights and fate of the individual mean absolutely nothing, accustomed me from the beginning to think of human kind as a social species neither naturally good nor naturally bad, but beset by conflict because every single member of it has so extraordinary a range of possible responses to any given situation. An insect's range is unimaginably restricted; but the continuity in evolutionary expansion of range seems to me palpable, and I owe it to Fabre that I explain morality in biological rather than religious terms.

Kenneth Dover is former president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

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