Saturnid Vagaries  (2006.12.5[Tue])


In this Library Column, I'd like to continue on with the insect thread from last issue. It seems to me that is a deep linkage between literature and natural history. You don't have to look as far as the Saijiki to get a sense of how literature has developed as one means of capturing in its forms and fluxes - indeed, there is a literary undercurrent that draws together the scientific details in many works rightlycategorized as natural history. This essentially literary sensibility is evident in the works of Friedrich Schnack and Jules Michelet, and Fabre's Souvenirs are, of course, inescapably so. But I would say that there is a complementary phenomenon to this literary natural history what you might term aturalistic literature, a genre that (for me, at least) always calls to mind Herman Hesse, and in particular invites comparison of how he and Fabre treated the same insect subject in such very different ways.

 That subject happens to be silk moths, which I confess hold a special place in my heart. These lovely saturnids are close relatives of both Bombycidae (silkworm moths) and the sphyngids (hawk moths). One German name for these insects is Augenspinner (eye spinner), for many are adorned with eyespots on both their fore and rear wings, and all weave silken cocoons. This family includes the Atlas moth ( Attacus atlas), the world's largest, as well as Actias artemis, which abound right here in Kobe. The saturnid mentioned in the  Souvenirs entomologiques is Emperor Moth Saturnia pyri (figure), which were found in profusion in the village in the south of France where Fabre lived at the time he was keeping his journal. He describes how the scent (what we now know as pheromones) emitted by a single female that emerged from a chrysalis he had collected drew as many as 60 would-be suitors - a lively night, no doubt, in the Fabre household! The author of the Souvenirs outdoes himself in narrating the scene. I have specimens of this same moth in my own collection, but I have to admit (and I think I speak for many other Japanese readers as well) that when I first read this passage, the first image that sprang into mind was a swarm of the considerably larger Japanese species Antherea yamamai or Samia synthia, which magnified the scene in my imagination even beyond that of Fabre's account. Whatever the case, there seems to be something behind the shock value of large moths; in his Konchu Hodan (Insect Tales) the Japanese writer Ryu Osanai recounts an amusing story of a family set a-flurry by a large Kususan (Caligula japonica ) emerging from its cocoon.

 Interestingly, the same species of moth, S. pyri, appears in very different literary contexts in Souvenirs entomologiques and Herman Hesse's Das Nachtpfauenauge. The latter story is often included in junior high school textbooks in Japan, and so may be familiar to some readers. The young protagonist is beguiled by the beauty of a moth in another student's collection, and succumbing to temptation, steals it, only to destroy it later when he seeks to conceal his crime by hurriedly attempting to hide it in his coat pocket. He confesses the theft to his mother, who forces him to go and apologize to the boy he stole it from. Overwhelmed with guilt and penitent, he returns home to a forgiving embrace from his mother, but traumatized by the experience, he forswears insect collecting altogether. Apparently, the moth in the story is none other than Saturnia pyri - and I qualify that statement with good reason. The problem here is that a 12-centimeter emperor moth would never fit in a young boy's pocket, which opens up the possibility that the intended species was smaller, perhaps Eudia spini or E. pavonia. This idea was first advanced by Asao Okada, the translator of the Volker Michels  Schmetterlinge (1984, Asahi Shuppan), who also points out that Hesse's claim in the story that When threatened by a predator, this moth spreads its wings to reveal its eyespots, allowing it to make its escape, has no basis in reality. In the natural history approach to literature, even short stories are held to the standards of ethological realism. I think it is safe to say that no one other than Okada, a specialist in German literature with a deep interest in entomology, could have made this translation. Of course, the author of the original made no claims to perfect zoological accuracy. Nonetheless, Okada pursued every possibility as to the true nature of the moth that gave the work its title, speculating even that it may in fact have been either a noctuid or sphyngid instead of a saturnid. I know of no other work of annotated translation that so fully conveys the beauty of the original while providing such a wealth of information - a true masterpiece of the genre.

 Returning to the mystery, I have to say that I think the confusion lies entirely with Hesse. And there is no doubt in my mind that in writing the story, the moth he had in mind was indeed S. pyri. What other moth could arouse such longing, covetousness and remorse in the protagonist's heart? What other species could it be? Unfortunately, in developing the story, Hesse sacrificed naturalist accuracy in favor of his narrative craft. I prefer to think that Hesse's embellishments, however, reveal a deeper truth, one rooted his admiration for the creature's great beauty. Unlike the other works in the collection, this story is a complete fiction - an unforgettable lesson in the desire and grief that beauty can inspire, and the power of kindness as salvation. It seems to me clear that in its writing, Hesse identified with his young protagonist to such an extent that he truly envisioned fitting this gorgeous moth in his pocket. The realism in this story is in its depiction of the workings of the human heart, achieved at the expense of strict entomological accuracy. This is what I mean by naturalistic literature.

  The difficulty of the statement about the moth's flashing of eyespots to startle away predators remains, although to be fair, C. japonica, a relative of the Emperor moth native to Japan, does just that. But as Okada indicates, the behavior is much more typical of noctuids. In any case, the depictions of this saturnid in Hesse and Fabre's accounts are so unlike as to seem to be of two entirely different species. But for me, it is Hesse's version that more closely captures the allure of the silk moth.

Reference: "Souvenirs entomologiques Vol.1-10"