I was going to write a post on the night of the Winter Solstice with this title, but that night I was still grading papers, and I did not have the – focus, I think. I’m still not sure I have it now.
What I want to write about is two thoughts I’ve had lately, one about darkness, one about writing.
Here is the first thought.
I think that when the caterpillar is spinning its cocoon, it thinks it’s dying. It’s going into the darkness, into a claustrophobic darkness in which it will transform, but how do we know that it, the caterpillar itself, knows that? I think it doesn’t, that it goes into the darkness not knowing. And it’s scared. Because it’s always scary to go into the darkness, particularly the way the caterpillar goes into it: alone.
So it thinks, I’m dying. This is what dying feels like. Nevertheless, it spins its cocoon because every cell of that caterpillar is programmed to spin that cocoon, and it knows in the depths of its being, in whatever constitutes the depths of being for a caterpillar, that to spin that cocoon is its destiny, and it can’t be avoided. So it spins.
Yes, this is a metaphor. Of course it’s a metaphor. Aren’t caterpillars and butterflies always metaphors, except when we pick the caterpillar off our roses or try to attract the butterfly with bottles of nectar? Which, if you think about it, doesn’t make much sense. We want the butterfly without the caterpillar.
But the caterpillar is the longest life stage for most butterflies. They spend most of their lives as caterpillars. (If you want butterflies, you have to accept caterpillars on the roses. That’s a fairly simple metaphor.) The caterpillar lives an ordinary life, the life most of us live most of the time. It eats, it grows, sometimes it becomes food for birds. (If you don’t think we’re all going to become food for birds, you’re kidding yourself. That’s another metaphor, still fairly simple.) The butterfly lives an extraordinary life. It flies, sometimes for thousands of miles, it reproduces. That really is the purpose of a butterfly: it is the reproductive form of the caterpillar.
This is another metaphor, the third and last, and I think the most complicated. There’s a reason the butterfly has often been used as a symbol for the soul. It is that in us which reproduces, but I don’t mean physically. I mean mentally, spiritually. The butterfly is a metaphor for that in us which produces art. It is the artist. (I know, you could see that one coming.) I identify production with reproduction because what the artist produces is always drawn out of the self. It is an image of the self that is nevertheless different from the self, as the egg is different from the butterfly.
So the caterpillar going into the darkness, drawing filaments out of itself, wrapping them around itself, does not know what it’s doing. It does what its instincts tell it to do. And when it goes into the darkness, it thinks, this is what dying feels like. And it does die, because transformation is a kind of death. The caterpillar that was is no longer going to exist. What comes out is the butterfly, which we think is so beautiful, which we watch through our binoculars as it flies thousands of miles to Mexico or Brazil, telling each other how lovely, look at them!
And we do not think about the darkness that butterfly came out of. How it, on its journey, thinks: I died. I am born again. And with the sun on its wings, it almost, but not quite, forgets the pain and terror of death.
Here is the second thought.
There are two types of writers. (This statement is as simplistic as any statement that attempts to systematize the world. Bear with me.)
The first type, I will call the School of Eliot. These are writers who write about what happens in the world, about the human beings in it, what they do, how they think. Middlemarch is the epitomic (yes, I made up that word) School of Eliot novel. I walked though a bookstore today, and most of the books I saw were of that school. They were about human beings living their lives, loving, failing to love, becoming sick or well. Struggling to understand parents or children. Traveling to India for enlightenment. That sort of thing.
The second type, I will call the School of Kafka. These are writers who write about something different, not what happens in the world but that world itself as it is constituted, its structure. Not about a human being attempting to become a better mother, daughter, proprietor of a cupcake shop. About what it means to be a human being in the first place, how we define the human, how we define being. It’s as though, rather than writing about the physical world, they are writing metaphysics.
I think you can see this distinction even in genre fiction. For example, Edgar Rice Burroughs belongs to the School of Eliot. He is concerned entirely with the physical world. Tertius Lydgate struggling to establish a medical practice that allows him to do research, John Carter struggling to defeat the Tharks so he can rescue Dejah Thoris. It’s all about how to live in the world as it is, as a given. On the other hand, H.P. Lovecraft belongs to the School of Kafka. Gregor Samsa lives in a Lovecraftian universe that operates by rules he does not understand. The novel asks us to consider, what are the rules of the world anyway?
As I said, this is of course an oversimplification, but it is what I was thinking today, walking through the bookstore. And I was thinking that there were many more writers of the School of Eliot than of the School of Kafka. One would think the School of Eliot would be more comforting. After all, it tells us that the world we live in is real, a given, something that should not be questioned. We don’t need to worry about turning into an insect or being destroyed by an Elder God. (Unless, that is, the novel explicitly tells us those things are possible, but then there are usually ways to avoid or counteract such fates.)
But when I’ve done into the darkness, and I’ve thought, maybe this is what death feels like, I’ve always chosen the School of Kafka to comfort me. Today I came home with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Difficult Loves, and Mr. Palomar. That is not a metaphor, and therefore I have no idea what it means.