The Silence of the Moths (2010.4.1[Thu.])


   I recently went to see Herman Hesse exhibition at the Osaka Museum of Natural History, I only heard of it from my wife the week before it closed, so I nearly missed out on this experience. In the event, I did make it and wasn' in the least disappointed with the event.

    I was attracted to this exhibition both out of a sense of affinity for the author's evident love for the insect world and from scientific curiosity over what moth would be used to represent his story, Das Nachtpfauenauge (1931). In a previous column, I gave my reasons for suspecting that the moth he described was the European giant Saturnia pyri, while the Japanese translator of the work came to the reasoned conclusion that it was a different species, Eudia spini. My previous encounter with this moth was with a specimen in bad condition, but seeing it again revealed to me its true beauty. Although it is smallish and by no means magnificent, it has an unimposing and tidy sort of beauty entirely distinct from Saturnia's grandeur.

    Hesse himself had a damaged specimen of E. spini, which he kept in his collection case by his desk. It seems likely that this served as the spark, which the bellows of his creative spirit transformed into the frightening creature in his tale. But even allowing for that possibility, it must be admitted that the wing patterns of this modest little moth cannot rival S. pyri in evoking an ability to startle with a sudden flutter of its eye-spotted wings. The mystery deepens...

    You might ask why I care so much about the exact species described by authors in their works? I suppose it is a way for me to gain insight into the writer's psychology, and a deeper understanding of their texts. I have the same sort of fascination for Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (Warner Bros., 1991), the film that ensured Jodie Foster's stardom for her portrayal of Clarice Starling, is a novice FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer. The film, although it follows many standard conventions of the crime procedural genre, broke new ground in its depictions of the pathological nature of the criminals, and the cruel helplessness of the victims and the studied beauty of its staging and cinematography, creating a haunting atmosphere unlike that of any motion picture that had come before. The depth of the madness of the crimes, and the intensity of the psychological profiling contributed to the popularity of movie in the psycho-horror genre that persists even today. But in watching this film, with its various naturalistic plot devices and ambience, I couldn’t help but focus on the fact that the serial killer himself is a kind of collector, with a penchant for moths. In this sense, he is simultaneously both one of the godfathers of the contemporary psychothriller, and heir to the British film, The Collector, starring Terence Stamp. In Demme's film, the collector is driven even further by his obsession, to assemble his "masterpiece" in the basement beneath his home.

    Thinking about it, it is not just the villain who is a collector. Clarice is occupied with compiling information and evidence, while the captive psychopath Hannibal Lecter, who serves as a kind of morbid mentor in the case is a connoisseur of his own victims' body parts and terror. The whole film seems like nothing more than an embodiment of the theory that the collecting instinct is rooted in the fetishization of dead things. In one scene, in which Clarice must enter a dark and musty garage, she finds herself in an eerie showroom of sorts, and indeed the whole tapestry woven by the characters has the feel of an ominous grotto. Against the backdrop of this darkly Mannerist mise en scene, a key plot development occurs when a hawkmoth pupa is found lodged in the throat of one of the victims. This clue provides insight into the killer's uses for his prey and his urges to transformation, as well as an important piece of physical evidence that leads to the solving of the case. And significantly, this is not just any sphingids, but the fabled Death's-head Hawkmoth, Acherontia styx.

    We have spent some time with A. styx in a previous column, whose skull-like markings made it the subject of an old wive's tale in medieval Europe, warning that anyone who looked upon it was sure to die. This species is also unusual among the hawkmonths in that, rather than flitting from flower to flower like a hummingbird and sipping at the nectar by unfurling a slender proboscis, A. styx invades beehives like a thief to rob (or should I say burgle?) them of their honey. This moth's proboscis is thick and short, not long and delicate like its peers, allowing it to drink deeply of the sweet nectar, making it morphologically distinct. This moth, so unusual both in its habits and appearance, fits in perfectly with the Grand Guignol atmospherics of the film; as the scholar Takayama Hiroshi has noted the notion of the "grotesque" is in fact derived from "grotto." And the Death's-head Hawkmoth seems perfectly selected by the author to complement his dark tale.

    In one scene, an insect forensics expert at a local natural history museum speculates that the killer might be someone who breeds and collects Asian moths. But ironically, this plot development was also evidently responsible for some difficulties in the production. Genus Acherontia has three members, two of which, including A. styx, can be found in Japan, but the moth featured on the movie poster is the third, A. atropos, which is native to Africa and Europe. Similarly, during the filming, the producers were unable to obtain the hawkmoths they required, and substituted smaller sphingids more readily available in North America (which appear something like the Japanese Agrius, or perhaps Manduca, the tobacco moth used as a model organism) and painted them to give the appearance of death's-head markings. Despite these efforts, and their phylogenetic proximity, the moths look nothing like each other (even the chrysalis found in the corpse's mouth is not Acherontia). Some might think me overly critical to say that this lessens the quality of the film, but I have to say that is how I feel. If the intention was to achieve a truly Mannerist sense of outrEwonder, the moth is a critically important element in achieving that both as an image and as a symbol of the killer's obsessive love, and there is real value in getting the details right. Without Acherontia, the grotesquerie of the grotto feels incomplete, and though all the other details may be perfect, the entire work suffers from having settled for a poor substitute. For the moth must serve as more than just a physical clue, and more than just a prop in the criminal's lair, but also as a fearsome avatar of the criminal's psyche, a voiceless threat and warning. Neither Agrius nor Manduca has the visual or symbolic power to frighten Agent Starling. For a film of this caliber, it's important for the casting of the insects to be held to the same standards we expect for the human actors. Modern computer graphics should make it possible to edit Acherontia into its rightful place in the production - I can't help but hope one day for an entomologically complete edition to be released.