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13 july 2016

Shortly after I started reading Matthew Gandy's learned and engaging book Moth, a huge moth got trapped in our kitchen. I've expressed my ambivalence in this space before about beetles and cockroaches, and though I love butterflies (who doesn't?) I can admit I've never been too crazy about moths, either.

What I learned from Gandy's Moth is that there's no good taxonomic distinction between moths and butterflies, meaning that the insects I love and the insects I distrust are pretty much the same thing. The gentle giant that flapped around our house for a few days (till my partner cupped it in her hands and carried it out, yikes) may have been one species or another that I couldn't pinpoint, but it was basically of the same large lepidopterous group as the Pipevine Swallowtails and Gulf Fritillaries that patrol her garden by daylight.

Moth discusses butterflies from time to time, though not systematically – it includes them when butterflies and moths share characteristics, or when there's some charismatic note to be made about lepidoptera in general. Reaktion hasn't yet done Butterfly and I'm not sure if they plan to. For now, many of the insights in Moth will do for butterflies as well.

As with Adam Dodd's Beetle, much of the historical material in Gandy's Moth concerns illustrations. Like beetles, moths can be splendid and intricate, and the history of their depiction in the West is the history of entomological curiosity giving way to technical scientific illustration. Dodd and Gandy mention several of the same artists and naturalists who pioneered virtual collections made up of insect images.

The focal attribute of moths, in the human imagination, is that they can't resist bright lights. And in turn, people can't resist drawing lessons from this attraction. Marlene Dietrich sang

Men cluster to me
Like moths around a flame.
And if their wings burn
I know I'm not to blame.
Obsessions take many forms, and the moth is a ready emblem for any of them. Humans can even be drawn to moths themselves, as in the collecting mania that Gandy chronicles (and for which author Vladimir Nabokov is in turn a handy emblem).

Gandy is notably good on the literature of moths, though he tends to emphasize fiction and memoir over other genres. Virginia Woolf figures here, in the essay "Reading" and the novel The Waves as well as in her "Death of the Moth." Gandy quotes a memorable passage from Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, and another from W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz; Sebald in particular was a moth-fancier and worked the creatures into almost as many contexts as Nabokov did.

I can add a few moths to Gandy's collection. The most memorable moth in American poetry is probably the one from Adelaide Crapsey's cinquain "The Warning":

Just now,
Out of the strange
Still dusk … as strange, as still …
A white moth flew. Why am I grown
So cold?
When I was a kid, Crapsey was still considered a cutting-edge poet by some, and her "cinquains" as one of the pure American literary inventions. They are really just two syllables followed by an unrhymed iambic-pentameter couplet, but arranged 2-4-6-8-2 to give a kind of orientalist effect. "The Warning" is her anthology piece, and it is, as she suggests, creepy – though not perhaps as creepy as the moth encounter in Robert Frost's "Design":
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth.
"Design of darkness to appall," Frost concludes, though it's hard to say whether the moth or the spider is the more appalling element.

And the great American poetic moth is Elizabeth Bishop's "Man-Moth," a creature brought to existence by a newspaper that misprinted the word "mammoth." Bishop's half-man/half-moth climbs buildings at night to try to get at the moon, and is drawn to the brightness of subway cars. If you catch him, Bishop recommends, "hold up a flashlight to his eye."

Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee's sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you're not paying attention
he'll swallow it. However, if you watch, he'll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.
I thought Bishop's image of the moth drinking tears was "just" symbolic till I learned in Gandy's book that some moths are indeed "lachryphagous": they subsist in part on the tears of mammals. This sounds like nature imitating glurge, but the entomological universe is stranger than we think.

Gandy looks at moth adaptations and colorings, an almost limitless palette that involves puzzlingly specific, even what seem gratuitous forms of mimicry. Finally he turns his attention to silkworms, the most prominent creature besides honeybees that have been pressed into service to make stuff for us. Come to find that bees and silkworms have often been compared by moralists, rarely to the advantage of the worm. As Charles Butler wrote in 1609, "the fruite of the Silkeworme serveth only to cover the bodie; but the fruite of the Bee to nourish and cure it" (173). At first I thought Butler was chiding the caterpillars for covering themselves, but then realized he was talking about human appropriation of silk for clothing. Presumably he wouldn't want people to walk around naked. But there are more wholesome coverings for nakedness than silks; Butler would probably agree with his contemporary Shakespeare in King Lear that "nature needs not what thou gorgeous wearest / Which scarcely keeps thee warm."

And the huge moth in my kitchen? It turned out to be a Copper Underwing, Amphipyra pyramidoides, and it wasn't as huge as I thought. I saw it (or one of its cousins) later outdoors, and took a picture:

Unfortunately I snapped that photo a bit too late to catch the vivid tiger-striped underwings that give the species its common name. That moth looks drab as anything, but conceals beauties most butterflies would kill for. I suppose that's the definition of a moth.

Gandy, Matthew. Moth. London: Reaktion, 2016.