Lafcadio Hearn, Insect Literature

Lafcadio Hearn, Insect Literature (Dublin: Swan River Press, 2023) xiv+272 pp. €40.00 Hb. €20.00 Pb. ISBN: 9781783800094

Insect Literature’s unique gathering of Lafcadio Hearn’s insect texts feels authentic and intensely personal: a labour of love for writer, editor, and publisher alike. It is a new edition of a posthumous collection of essays and stories by the Irish-Greek writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). Swan River Press is careful to preserve the heritage of Hokuseidō Press’s 1921 bilingual Insect Literature by printing Japanese titles above English counterparts and by reproducing the original foreword of Masanobu Ōtani, translator, annotator, and Hearn’s former research assistant. To the ten essays collected by Ōtani, Anne-Sylvie Homassel adds ten more, some taken from Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904).

The opening paragraph of Ōtani’s foreword is fulsome in its praise of the author:

Lafcadio Hearn was very fond of insects. Naturally he wrote much about them; there are, I believe, few writers either in the East or the West who wrote so much and so beautifully on insects as he. (xiii).

This comment from the past editor re-iterated by the present one (vii) is particularly apt for a book that is indeed beautiful in its contents and as a material object. Its dustjacket features Takato Yamamoto’s composite insect-human-hybrid ‘Bug’, and the inner flap shows a photograph of Hearn standing next to a young, seated Ōtani, an image which appeared as the frontispiece to the 1921 publication. Beneath the dustjacket are fin-de-siècle entomological illustrations arranged artistically as if for a cabinet display, and the spine gives the author as Koizumi Yakumo, Hearn’s Japanese name spelled out in characters.

Hearn uses literature, folklore, scientific research, religious teachings, keen personal observation, and anecdotal encounters with insects to study them, philosophise about them, and to write the various texts which comprise Insect Literature. He presents a perspective on insects as unknowable: ‘the insect world is altogether a world of goblins and fairies: creatures with organs of which we cannot discover the use, and senses of which we cannot imagine the nature’ (108-09), yet he constantly re-iterates how they are enmeshed with humans, not just spatially and culturally, but also spiritually. Homassel’s preface sets the intimate tone for readerly engagement by sketching Hearn’s biography and his Buddhist-influenced conception of insects as closely interconnected with humankind, perhaps being reincarnated people.

Hearn sits at the intersection of literature and science, and in ‘Ants’, he speaks whimsically of the ‘Fairy of Science’ touching him with her wand to enable him ‘to hear things inaudible, and to perceive things imperceptible’ (25), about which he then writes. He is respectful of the ‘scientific treatises […] of the greatest men who write about insect life’ (214) in which he locates evidence of sympathy, respect, and admiration for the creatures. He invokes Professor David Sharp and Herbert Spencer on the social evolution of ants, formic morphology, innate altruism (26-27, 35-38), and ‘moral rectitude’ (40). For readers seeking scientific enlightenment on animal phosphorescence, he refers them to Professor Shozaburo Watase’s lectures (45-47, 67), modestly aware that his own musings on firefly folklore, and the defining characteristics of a range of insect species tend to be – as Homassel puts it – ‘more poetical than entomological’ (x) and ‘more anthropomorphic than scientific’ (xi).

The Buddhist ‘doctrine of impermanency’ (80) manifested in insects’ short lifecycles and their drastic metamorphoses colours the entire collection. ‘Butterflies’ is the first essay, and it focuses on them as symbols of the souls of the living and the dead. It then counterposes this meaning against the imago’s fluttering frivolity emblematic of youth’s ephemeral attractiveness, which is entirely at odds with the uncharismatic larval state. Hearn is philosophical and lyrical, intermixing Greek legends with snippets of Chinese stories and Japanese literature including traditional seventeen-syllable haikus. The anecdotal and eclectic style of ‘Butterflies’ continues in ‘Mosquitoes’ and ‘Ants’, similarly extracted from Kwaidan’s‘Insect Studies’, and is maintained throughout Insect Literature. In the first essay, a white butterfly soul emerges from the Buddhist cemetery to usher her beloved to a peaceful death. In the second, what emerges from the cemetery’s stagnant and populous water vessels are millions of humming, lancinating tormentors, each of whom, Hearn observes, may be ‘some wicked human soul […] compressed into that speck of a body’ (20). ‘Story of a Fly’ likewise concerns the return of the deceased as an insect. In this tale the rebirth is prompted by unfinished religious business. ‘Fireflies’ are caught and commodified for entertainment purposes but may equally be returning ghosts. Hearn’s reflections on reincarnation are especially poignant since they predate his own death by only a few months.

Hearn speaks of Japan’s old imperial name as ‘The Island of the Dragon-fly’ (71), noting the diversity and beauty of the nation’s species and listing the physical appearance, bright colours, and cultural associations which give rise to their familiar nomenclature. He notes that the formal poetic classification of the voiceless dragonflies does not include them among mushi, ‘insects’, broadly understood to be singing insects, but instead places them in zo orfauna. As with ‘Butterflies and ‘Fireflies’, he includes a selection of brief verse pictures recreating emotions felt in the presence of insects and exposure to their ‘habits and peculiarities’ (90). Following voiceless dragon-flies come chirruping cicadas. Those night-crickets celebrated for thousands of years for their ‘insect-melody’ (106) are contrasted with the irritatingly noisy stridulations of the ‘Sémi’. Other ‘Insect Musicians’ either caught and caged or artificially-bred merit a separate chapter, as does the sad demise of Hearn’s domesticated insect singer, Kusa-Hibari. Further chapters are dedicated to English, Greek, and French poetry, and revisit themes of mutability, the soul, singing, love, and insect pets. Hearn attributes the paucity of insect poems in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western literature to Christian beliefs that ‘gave souls only to men, – not to animals or to insects’ (212). Hearn’s writings offer a multicultural view of insects as ‘millions of millions of tiny beings […] preaching the ancient wisdom of the East’ (127), a philosophy promoting the unity of all life and paving the way for thinkers such as Donna Haraway.

Insect Literature concludes with ‘The Dream of Akinosuke’, a short story from Kwaidan transposing pre-industrial Japanese culture to an ant colony, manipulating the size ratio of human and ant, and essentially describing an interspecies marriage. There is in this tale, as in the entire book, much anthropomorphism and entomological ventriloquising, but Insect Literature’s situatedness in a cosmology in which a person may be reborn as a bug, and in which it is impossible to predict what that may be like, utterly refuses anthropocentrism.

Janette Leaf, Birkbeck, University of London