Part 3 out of 5
But "when the hymenopteron breaks its cocoon, where are its masters! Its
predecessors have long ago disappeared. How then can it receive education
You who "shape the world to your whim," you will reply: "Doubtless there
are no longer masters to-day; but go back to the first ages of the globe,
when the world in its newness, as Lucretius has so superbly said, as yet
knew neither bitter cold nor excessive heat (9/8.); an eternal springtide
bathed the earth, and the insects, not dying, as to-day, at the first touch
of frost, two successive generations lived side by side, and the younger
generation could profit at leisure by the lessons of example." (9/9.)
Let us return to Fabre's laboratory, to the covers of wire-gauze, and note
what becomes, at the approach of winter, of the survivors of the vespine
In the mild and comfortable retreat where the wasps are kept under
observation they die no less, despite their well-being and all the care
expended on them, when once "the inexorable hour" has struck, and once the
exact capital of life which seems to have been imparted to them ages ago is
exhausted. With no apparent cause, we see death busy among them. "Suddenly
the wasps begin to fall as though struck by lightning; for a few moments
the abdomen quivers and the legs gesticulate, then finally remain inert,
like a clockwork machine whose spring has run down to the last coil."
(9/10.) This law is general; "the insect is born orphaned both of mother
and father, excepting the social insect, and again excepting the dung-
beetle, which dies full of days." (9/11.)
Moreover, Fabre is never weary of demonstrating that the insect, perfectly
unconscious of the motive which makes it act, this thereby incapable of
profiting by the lessons of experience and of innovation in its habits,
beyond a very narrow circle. "No apprentices, no masters." In this world
each obeys "the inner voice" on its own account; each sets itself to
accomplish its task, not only without troubling as to what its neighbour is
doing, but without thinking any further as to what it is doing itself;
instance the Epeïra, turning its back on its work, yet "the latter proceeds
of itself, so well is the mechanism devised"; and if by ill chance the
spider acted otherwise it would probably fail.
Darwin knew barely the tenth part of the colossal work of Fabre. He had
read firstly in the "Annals of Natural Science" of the habits of the
Cerceris and the fabulous history of the Meloidae. Finally he saw the first
volume of the "Souvenirs" appear, and was interested in the highest degree
by the beautiful study on the sense of location and direction in the Mason-
This was already more than enough to excite his curiosity and to make him
wonder whether all his philosophy would not stumble over this obstacle.
After having succeeded in explaining so luminously--and with what a lofty
purview--the origin of species and the whole concatenation of animal forms,
would it not be as though he halted midway in his task were the sanctuary
of the origin of instinct to remain for ever inscrutable?
Fabre had not yet left Orange when Darwin engaged in a curious
correspondence which lasted until the former had been nearly two years at
Sérignan, and which showed how passionately interested the great theorist
of evolution was in all the Frenchman's surprising observations.
It seems that on his side Fabre took a singular interest in the discussion
on account of the absolute sincerity, the obvious desire to arrive at the
truth, and also the ardent interest in his own studies, of which Darwin's
letters were full. He conceived a veritable affection for Darwin, and
commenced to learn English, the better to understand him and to reply more
precisely; and a discussion on such a subject between these two great
minds, who were, apparently, adversaries, but who had conceived an infinite
respect for one another, promised to be prodigiously interesting.
Unhappily death was soon to put an end to it, and when the solitary of Down
expired in 1882 the hermit of Sérignan saluted his great shade with real
emotion. How many times have I heard him render homage to this illustrious
But the furrow was traced; thenceforth Fabre never ceased to multiply his
pin-pricks in "the vast and luminous balloon of transformism (evolution),
in order to empty it and expose it in all its inanity." (9/12.) By no means
the least original feature of his work is this passionate and incisive
argument, in which, with a remarkable power of dialectic, and at times in a
tone of lively banter, he endeavoured to remove "this comfortable pillow
from those who have not the courage to inquire into its fundamental
nature." He attacked these "adventurous syntheses, these superb and
supposedly philosophic deductions," all the more eagerly because he himself
had an unshakable faith in the absolute certainty of his own discoveries,
and because he asserted the reality of things only after he had observed
and re-observed them to satiety.
This is why he cared so little to engage in argument relating to his own
works; he did not care for discussion; he was indifferent to the daily
press; he avoided criticism and controversy, and never replied to the
attacks which were made upon him; he rather took pains to surround himself
with silence until the day when he felt that his researches were ripe and
ready for publicity.
He wrote to his dear friend Devillario, shortly after Darwin's death:
"I have made a rule of never replying to the remarks, whether favourable or
the reverse, which my writings may evoke. I go my own gait, indifferent
whether the gallery applauds or hisses. To seek the truth is my only
preoccupation. If some are dissatisfied with the result of my observations-
-if their pet theories are damaged thereby--let them do the work
themselves, to see whether the facts tell another story. My problem cannot
be solved by polemics; patient study alone can throw a little light on the
"I am profoundly indifferent to what the newspapers may say about me," he
wrote to his brother seventeen years later; "it is enough for me if I am
pretty well satisfied with my own work." (9/14.)
He read all the letters he received only in a superficial manner,
neglecting to thank those who praised or congratulated him, and above all
shrinking from all that idle correspondence in which life is wasted without
aim or profit.
"I fume and swear when I have to cut into my morning in order to reply to
so-and-so who sends me, in print or manuscript, his meed of praise; if I
were not careful I should have no time left for far more important work."
His beloved Frédéric, "the best of his friends," was himself often treated
no better, and to excuse his silence and the infrequency of his letters,
Henri, even in the years spent at Carpentras and Ajaccio, could plead only
the same reasons; his stupendous labours, his exhausting task, "which
overwhelmed him, and was often too great, not for his courage, but for his
time and his strength." (9/15.)
Nevertheless, while evading the question of origins, his far-sighted
intellect was bound to "read from the facts" concerning the genesis of new
species in process of evolution; and his observations throw a singular
light on the quite recent theory of sudden mutations.
The nymph of the Onthophagus presents "a strange paraphernalia of horns and
spurs which the organism has produced in a moment of ardour--a luxurious
panoply which vanishes in the adult."
The nymph of the Oniticella also decks itself in "a temporary horn, which
departs when it emerges."
And "as the dung-beetle is recent in the general chronology of creatures,
as it takes rank among the last comers, as the geological strata are mute
concerning it, it is possible that these horn-like processes, which always
degenerate before they reach completion, may be not a reminiscence but a
promise, a gradual elaboration of new organs, timid attempts which the
centuries will harden to a complete armour, AND IF THIS WERE SO THE PRESENT
WOULD TEACH US WHAT THE FUTURE IS TO BE." (9/16.)
Here is a specific transformation, a veritable creation; fortuitous, blind,
and silent; one of those innumerable attempts which nature is always
making, for the moment a mere matter of hazard, until some propitious
circumstance fixes it in future incarnations.
Thus millions of indeterminate creatures are incessantly roughed out in the
substance of that microcosm which is the initial cell; and it is here that
Fabre sees the real secret of the law of evolution.
He refutes the great principle of Leibnitz, which was so brilliantly
adopted by Darwin, that changes occur by degrees, by "fine shades," by slow
variations, as the result of successive adaptations, and that there is no
jumping-off place in nature. On the contrary, life often passes suddenly
from one form to another, by abrupt and capricious leaps, by irregular and
disorderly steps, and it is in the egg that Fabre sees the first lineaments
of these mysterious and spontaneous variations.
Species are therefore born as a whole, each at the same time, AT THE SAME
MOMENT, "bringing into being its new organism, with its individual
properties and peculiarities, its indelible and innate faculties and
tendencies, like "so many medals, each struck with a different die, which
the gnawing tooth of time attacks only sooner or later to annihilate it."
However, Fabre affirms the continuity of progress; he believes in a better
and more merciful future, a more complete humanity, ruled by more
harmonious or less brutal laws.
With what profound intelligence and what generous enthusiasm he seeks to
conjecture what this future might be, in his beautiful observations on the
young of the Lycosa (9/17.), which can live for weeks and months in
absolute abstinence, although we can perceive no reserve of nutriment!
We know no other sources of animal activity save the energy derived from
food. Vegetables draw the materials of their nourishment from the soil and
the air, and the sunlight is only an intermediary which enables the plant
to fix its carbon. The animal species in turn borrow the elements
indispensable to their existence from the vegetable world, or restore their
flesh and blood with the flesh and blood of other animals.
Now the young Lycosae "are not inert on their mother's back; if they fall
from the maternal chine they quickly pick themselves up and climb up one of
her legs, and once back in place they have to preserve the equilibrium of
the mass. In reality they know no such thing as complete repose. What then
is the energetic aliment which enables the little Lycosae to struggle?
Whence is the heat expended in action derived?"
Fabre sees no other source than "the sun."
"Every day, if the sky is clear, the Lycosa, loaded with her little ones,
crawls to the edge of her well, and for long hours lies in the sun. There,
on the maternal back, the young ones stretch themselves out, saturate
themselves in the sunshine, charging themselves with motor reserves,
steeping themselves in energy, directly converting into movement the
calorific radiations coming from the sun, the centre of all life."
The Scorpion also is able to live for months without nourishment, restoring
directly, in the form of movement, "the effluvia emanating from the sun or
from other ambient energies--heat, electricity, light--which are the soul
of the world."
Perhaps, among the innumerable worlds of space, there is somewhere,
gravitating round a fixed star, a planet invisible to us where "the
sunlight sates the hunger of the blind."
The gentle philosophy of the ingenious dreamer soothes itself with the
vision, entertained by great and noble minds, of a humanity "whose teeth
will no longer attack sensible life, nor even the pulp of fruits"; "when
creatures will devour one another no longer, will no longer feed upon the
dead; when they will be nourished by the sunlight, without conflict,
without war, without labour; freed from all care, and assured against all
Thus, in the humblest creatures, he sees the most marvellous perspectives;
the body of the lowest insect becomes suddenly a transcendent secret,
lighting up the abyss of the human soul, or giving it a glimpse of the
And although his work is in contradiction to the theories of the
evolutionists, it ends with the same moral conclusion, namely, that all
creation moves slowly and without intermission on its gradual ascent
CHAPTER 10. THE ANIMAL MIND.
The cunning anatomist has now successively laid bare all the springs of the
animal intellect; he has shown how the various movements are mutually
combined and engaged. But so far we have seen only one of the faces of the
little mind of the animal; let us now consider the other aspect, the moral
side, the region of feeling, the problem of which is confounded with the
problem of instinct, and is doubtless fundamentally only another aspect of
the same elemental power.
After the conflict the insect manifests its delight; it seems sometimes to
exult in its triumph; "beside the caterpillar which it has just stabbed
with its sting, and which lies writhing on the ground," the Ammophila
"stamps, gesticulates, beats her wings," capers about, sounding victory in
an intoxication of delight.
The sense of property exists in a high degree among the Mason-bees; with
them right comes before might, and "the intruder is always finally
But can we find in the insect anything analogous to what we term devotion,
attachment, affectionate feeling? There are facts which lead us to believe
Let us go once more into Fabre's garden and admire the Thomisus: absorbed
in her maternal function, the little spider lying flat on her nest can
strive no longer and is wasting away, but persists in living, mere ruin
that she is, in order to open the door to her family with one last bite.
Feeling under the silken roof her offspring stamping with impatience, but
knowing that they have not strength to liberate themselves, she perforates
the capsule, making a sort of practicable skylight. This duty accomplished,
she quietly surrenders to death, still grappled to her nest.
The Psyche, dominated by a kind of unconscious necessity, protects her
nursery by means of her body, anchors herself upon the threshold, and
perishes there, devoted to her family even in death.
However, Fabre will show us with infallible logic that all these instances
of foresight and maternal tenderness have, as a rule, no other motive than
pleasure and the blind impulse which urges the insect to follow only the
fatal path of its instincts.
In many species the material fact of maternity is reduced to its simplest
The Pieris limits herself to depositing her eggs on the leaves of the
cabbage, "on which the young must themselves find food and shelter."
"From the height of the topmost clusters of the centaury the Clythris
negligently lets her eggs fall to the ground, one by one, here or there at
hazard; without the least care as to their installation.
"The eggs of the Locustidae are implanted in the earth like seeds and
germinate like grain."
But stop before the Lycosa, that magnificent type of maternal love which
Fabre has already depicted. "She broods over her eggs with anxious
affection. With the hinder claws resting on the margin of the well she
holds herself supported above the opening of the white sac, which is
swollen with eggs. For several long weeks she exposes it to the sun during
half the day. Gently she turns it about in order to present every side to
the vivifying light. The bird, in order to hatch her eggs, covers them with
the down of her breast, and presses them against that living calorifer, her
heart. The Lycosa turns hers about beneath the fires of heaven; she gives
them the sun for incubator." (10.2.) Could abnegation be more perfect? What
greater proof could there be of renunciation and self-oblivion?
But appearances are vain. Substitute for the beloved sac some other object,
and the spider "will turn about, with the same love, as though it were her
sac of eggs, a piece of cork, a pincushion, or a ball of paper," just as
the hen, another victim of this sublime deception, will give all her heart
to hatching the china nest-eggs which have been placed beneath her, and for
weeks will forget to feed.
The young brood hatches, and the spider goes a-hunting, carrying her little
ones on her back; she protects them in case of danger, but is incapable of
recognizing them or of distinguishing them from the young of others. The
Copris and the Scorpion are no less blind, "and their maternal tenderness
barely exceeds that of the plant, which, a stranger to any sense of
affection or morality, none the less exercises the most exquisite care in
respect of its seeds."
Moreover, the impulse to work is only a kind of unconscious pleasure. When
the Pelopaeus "has stored her lair with game," when the Cerceris has sealed
the crypt to which she has confided the future of her race, neither one nor
the other can foresee "the future offspring which their faceted eyes will
never behold, and the very object of their labours is to them occult."
With them, as with all, life can only be a perpetual illusion.
Yet the marvellous edifice of the "Souvenirs entomologiques" is consummated
by the astonishing history of the Minotaur, whose habits surpass in ideal
beauty all that could be imagined.
At the bottom of a burrow, in a deeply sunken vault, two dung-beetles are
at work, the Minotaurs, who, once united, recognize one another, and can
find one another again if separated, but do not voluntarily separate,
realizing "the moral beauty of the double life" and "the touching concept
of the family, the sacred group par excellence." The male buries himself
with his companion, remains faithful to her, comes to her assistance, and
"stores up treasure for the future. Never discouraged by the heavy labour
of climbing, leaving to the mother only the more moderate labour, keeping
the severest for himself, the heavy task of transport in a narrow tunnel,
very deep and almost vertical, he goes foraging, forgetful of himself,
heedless of the intoxicating delights of spring, though it would be so good
to see something of the country, to feast with his brothers, and to pester
the neighbours; but no! he collects the food which is to nourish his
children, and then, when all is ready for the new-comers, when their living
is assured, having spent himself without counting the cost, exhausted by
his efforts, and feeling himself failing, he leaves his home and goes away
to die, that he may not pollute the dwelling with a corpse."
The mother, on her side, allows nothing to divert her from her household,
and only returns to the surface when accompanied by her young, who disperse
at will. Then, having nothing more to do, the devoted creature perishes in
Compared with the Scarabaeus, which contents itself with idle wandering, or
even with the meritorious Sisyphus, does it not seem that the Minotaur
moves on an infinitely higher plane?
What nobler could be found among ourselves? What father ever better
comprehended his duties and obligations toward his family? What morality
could be more irreproachable; what fairer example could be meditated?
"Is not life everywhere the same, in the body of the dung-beetle as in that
of man? If we examine it in the insect, do we not examine it in ourselves?"
Whence does the Minotaur derive these particular graces? How has it risen
to so high a level on the wings of pure instinct? How could we explain the
rarity of so sublime an example, did we not know, to satiety, that "nature
everywhere is but an enigmatic poem, as who should say a veiled and misty
picture, shining with an infinite variety of deceptive lights in order to
evoke our conjectures"? (10/4.)
Nevertheless, it is a fact that the majority have no other rule of conduct
than to follow the trend of their instincts, and to obey "their unbridled
desires." No one better than Fabre has expounded the blind operation of
these little natural forces, the brutality of their manners, their
cannibalism, and what we might call their amorality, were it possible to
employ our human formulae outside our own human world.
With the gardener-beetles, if one is crippled, none of the same race halts
or lingers; none attempts to come to his aid. Sometimes the passers-by
hasten to the invalid to devour him."
In the republic of the wasps "the grubs recognized as incurable are
pitilessly torn from their place and dragged out of the nest. Woe to the
sick! they are helpless and at once expelled."
When the winter comes all the larvae are massacred, and the whole vespine
city ends in a horrible tragedy.
But life is a whole, and all conduct is good whose actions realize an
object and are adapted to an end. If there is a "spirit" of the hive, the
insect also has its morality and the wasp's nest its "law," and the conduct
of its inmates, horrible though it may seem to Fabre, is doubtless only a
submission to certain exigencies of that universal law which makes nature a
"savage foster-mother who knows nothing of pity."
These cruelties particularly show us that one of the functions of the
insect in nature is to preside over the disappearance and also the ultimate
metamorphoses of the least "remnants of life."
Each has its providential hygienic function.
The Necrophori, "the first of the tiny scavengers of the fields," bury
corpses in order to establish their progeny in them; in the space of a few
hours an enormous body, a mole, a water-rat, or an adder, will completely
disappear, buried under the earth.
The Onthophagi purify the soil, "dividing all filth into tiny crumbs,
ridding the earth of its defilements."
A very small beetle, the Trox, has the imprescriptible mission of purging
the earth of the rabbits' fur rejected by the fox. (10/5.)
Here structure explains the function.
The intestine of the grub of the rose-beetle "is a veritable triturating
mill, which transforms vegetable matter into mould; in a month it will
digest a volume of matter equal to several thousand times the initial
volume of the grub."
The intestine of the Scarabaei is prolonged to a prodigious length in order
to "drain the excrement to the last atom in its manifold circuits. The
sheep has finely divided the vegetable matter; the grub, that incomparable
triturator, reduces it to the finest possible consistency; not a morsel is
left in which the magnifying glass can reveal a fibre."
To fulfil its hygienic mission the insect arrives in due season, and
multiplies its legions; "there are twenty thousand eggs in the flanks of
the house fly; immediately they are hatched these twenty thousand maggots
set to work, so that Linnaeus has said that three flies would suffice to
devour the body of a horse or a lion."
Feeding only upon wheat, a single weevil, the Calendar beetle, produces ten
thousand eggs, whence issue as many larvae, each of them devouring its
In all species the number of births is at first exaggerated, for all, the
obscure, the nameless, the most destructive, our pests as well as our most
precious helpers, have their utility and their part to play in the general
scheme of life, a raison d'être in the eternal renewal of things, which is
without reference to the vexatious or beneficent quality of their behaviour
Each has its rank assigned, each has its task, to one the flower, to
another the roots, to a third the leaves; the vine has its caterpillars,
its beetles, its butterflies; the clover, its moths and mites. (10/6.)
Man sees himself forced to submit to them, and spends himself in vain
efforts to carry on an often useless campaign. Nothing seems to affect
them, neither drought, nor rain, nor even the severest cold; and the eggs
and larvae, organizations apparently delicate in the extreme, are often
more tenacious of life than the adults. Fabre has proved this: let the
temperature suddenly fall twenty degrees: the eggs of Geotrupes and the
larvae of the cockchafer or the rose-beetle endure such vicissitudes of
temperature with impunity; contracted and stiffened into little masses of
ice, but not destroyed, they revive in spring no less than the eel fry, the
rotifers, or the tardigrades. One can scarcely believe that life still
persists in a state of suspense only in these little frozen creatures,
whose organization is already so complicated.
Then, of a sudden, the ravagers disappear; more often than not none knows
how or why; deliverance is at hand. What indeed would become of the world
were nothing to moderate such fecundity?
Again, each species has its trials which appear in time to moderate its
surplusage, and Fabre expounds for us, with a stern philosophy, the
terrible devices by which this repression is effected.
Each has its appointed enemy, which lives upon it or its offspring, and
which in turn becomes the prey of some smaller creature. The gentle itself,
"the king of the dead," has its parasites. While it swims in the
deliquescence of putrefying flesh a minute Chalcidian perforates its skin
with an imperceptible wound, and introduces its terrible eggs, whence in
the future will issue larvae which to-morrow will devour the devourers of
None exists save to the detriment of others. Everywhere, even in the
smallest, we find "an atrocious activity, a cunning brigandage," a savage
extermination, which dominates a vast unconscious world of which the final
result is the restoration of equilibrium. (10/7.) It is only on these
antagonisms, on the enemies of our enemies, that we can found any hope of
seeing this or that pest disappear. A small Hymenopteron, almost invisible,
the Microgaster glomeratus, is entrusted with the destruction of the
cabbage caterpillar; the cochineal wages war to the death upon the green-
fly; the Ammophila is the predestined murderer of the harvest Noctuela,
whose misdeeds in a beetroot country often amount to a disaster. The
Odynerus has for its instinctive mission to arrest the excessive
multiplication of a lucerne weevil, no less than twenty-four of whose grubs
are necessary to rear the offspring of the brigand, and nearly sixty
gadflies are sacrificed to the growth of a single Bembex.
Everywhere craft is organized to triumph over force. Around each nest the
parasites lie in wait, "atrocious assassins of the child in the cradle,
watching at the doors for the favourable occasion to establish their family
at the expense of others. The enemy penetrates the most inaccessible
fortress; each has its tactics of war, devised with a terrible art. Of the
nest and the cocoon of the victim the intruder makes its own nest, its own
cocoon, and in the following year, instead of the master of the house, he
will emerge from underground as the usurping bandit, the devourer of the
While the cicada is absorbed in laying her eggs an insignificant fly
labours to destroy them. How express the calm audacity of this pigmy,
following closely after the colossus, step by step; several at once almost
under the talons of the giant, which could crush them merely by treading on
them? But the cicada respects them, or they would long ago have
Fabre thus agrees with Pasteur, who in the world of the infinitely little
shows us the same antagonisms, the same vital competition, the same eternal
movement of flux and reflux, the same whirlpool of life, which is
extinguished only to reappear: tending always towards an equilibrium which
is incessantly destroyed. And it is thanks to this balancing that the
integral of life remains everywhere and always almost identical with
CHAPTER 11. HARMONIES AND DISCORDS.
Such indeed is the economy of nature that secret relations and astonishing
concordances exist throughout the whole vast weft of things. There are no
loose ends; everything is consequent and ordered. Hidden harmonies meet and
Among the terebinth lice, "when the population is mature, the gall is ripe
also, so fully do the calendars of the shrub and the animal coincide"; and
the mortal enemy of the Halictus, the sinister midge of the springtime, is
hatched at the very moment when the bee begins to wander in search of a
location for its burrows.
The fantastic history of the larvae of the Anthrax furnishes us with one of
the most suggestive examples of these strange coincidences. (10/9.)
The Anthrax is a black fly, which sows its eggs on the surface of the nests
of the Mason-bee, whose larvae are at the moment reposing in their silken
"The grub of the Anthrax emerges and comes to life under the touch of the
sunlight. Its cradle is the rugged surface of the cell; it is welcomed into
the world by a literally stony harshness...Obstinately it probes the chinks
and pores of the nest; glides over it, crawls forward, returns, and
recommences. The radicle of the germinating seed is not more persevering,
not more determined to descend into the cool damp earth. What inspiration
impels it? What compass guides it? What does the root know of the fertility
of the soil?...The nurseling, the seed of the Anthrax, is barely visible,
almost escaping the gaze of the magnifying glass; a mere atom compared to
the monstrous foster-mother which it will drain to the very skin. Its mouth
is a sucker, with neither fangs nor jaws, incapable of producing the
smallest wound; it sucks in place of eating, and its attack is a kiss." It
practises, in short, a most astonishing art, "another variation of the
marvellous art of feeding on the victim without killing it until the end of
the meal, in order always to have a store of fresh meat. During the
fourteen days through which the nourishment of the Anthrax continues, the
aspect of the larva remains that of living flesh; until all its substance
has been literally transferred, by a kind of transpiration, to the body of
the nurseling, and the victim, slowly exhausted, drained to the last drop,
while retaining to the end just enough life to prove refractory to
decomposition, is reduced to the mere skin, which, being insufflated, puffs
itself out and resumes the precise form of the larva, there being nowhere a
point of escape for the compressed air."
Now the grub of the Anthrax "appears precisely at the exact moment when the
larva of the Chalicodoma is attacked by that lethargy which precedes
metamorphosis, and which renders it insensible, and during which the
substance of the grub about to be transfigured into a bee commences to
break down and resolve itself into a liquid pulp, for the processes of life
always liquefy the grub before achieving the perfect insect." (11/2.)
Here again the time-tables coincide.
But it is perhaps in the celebrated Odyssey of the grub of the Sitaris that
Fabre most urgently claims our admiration for the marvellous and
incomprehensible wisdom of the Unconscious!
Let us recapitulate the unheard-of series of events, the inextricable
complication of circumstances, which are required to condition the lowly
life of a Sitaris.
In the first place, this microscopic creature must be provided with talons,
or how could it adhere to the fleece of the Anthophora, on which it must
live as parasite for a certain length of time?
Then again, it must transfer itself from the male to the female bee in the
course of its travels abroad, or its destiny would be cut short.
Again, it must not miss the opportunity of embarking itself upon the egg
just at the propitious moment.
Then the volume of this egg must be so calculated as to represent an
allowance of food exactly proportioned to the duration of the first phase
of its metamorphosis. Moreover, the quantity of honey accumulated by the
bee must suffice for the whole of the remaining cycle of its larval
Let a single link of the chain be broken, and the entire species of the
Sitaris is no longer possible.
If every species has its law; if the Geotrupes remain faithful to filth,
although experience shows that they can accommodate themselves equally well
to the putrefaction of decayed leaves; if the predatory species--the
Cerceris, the Sphex, the Ammophila--resort only to one species of quarry to
nourish their larvae, although these same larvae accept all indifferently,
it is on account of those superior economic laws and secret alliances the
profound reasons for which as a rule escape us or are beyond the scope of
For all things are produced and interlocked by the eternal necessity; link
engages in link, and life is only a plexus of solitary forces allied among
themselves by their very nature, the condition of which is harmony. And the
whole system of living creatures appears to us, through the work of the
great naturalist, as an immense organism, a sort of vast physiological
apparatus, of which all the parts are mutually interdependent, and as
narrowly controlled as all the cells of the human body.
Fabre goes on to present us with other facts, which at a first glance
appear highly immoral; I am referring to certain phases of sexual love
among the lower animals, and his ghoulish revelations concerning the
horrible bridals of the Arachnoids, the Millepoda, and the Locustidae.
The Decticus surrenders only to a single exploit of love; a victim of its
"strange genesics"; utterly exhausted by the first embrace, empty, drained,
extenuated, motionless in all its members, utterly worn out, it quickly
succumbs, a mere broken simulacrum, like the miserable lover of a monstrous
succubus who "loves him enough to devour him." (11/3.)
The female scorpion devours the male; "all is gone but the tail!"
The female Spider delights in the flesh of her lover.
The cricket also devours a small portion of her "debonair" admirer.
The Ephippigera "excavates the stomach of her companion and eats him."
But the horror of these nuptial tragedies is surpassed by the insatiable
lust, the monstrous conjunction, the bestial delights of the Mantis, that
"ferocious spectre, never wearied of embraces, munching the brains of its
spouse at the very moment of surrendering her flanks to him." (11/4.)
Whence these strange discords, these frightful appetites?
Fabre refers us to the remotest ages, to the depths of the geological
night, and does not hesitate to regard these cruelties as "remnants of
atavism," the lingering furies of an ancient strain, and he ventures a
profound and plausible explanation.
The Locusts, the Crickets, and the Scolopendrae are the last
representatives of a very ancient world, of an extinct fauna, of an early
creation, whose perverse and unbridled instincts were given free vent, when
creation was as yet but dimly outlined, "still making the earliest essays
of its organizing forces"; when the primitive Orthoptera, "the obscure
forebears of those of to-day, were "sowing the wild oats of a frantic rut,
"in the colossal forests of the secondary period; by the borders of the
vast lakes, full of crocodiles, and antediluvian marshes, which in Provence
were shaded by palms, and strange ferns, and giant Lycopodia, never as yet
enlivened by the song of a bird.
These monstrosities, in which life was making its essays, were subject to
singular physical necessities. The female reigned alone; the male did not
as yet exist, or was tolerated only for the sake of his indispensable
assistance. But he served also another and less obvious end; his substance,
or at least some portion of his substance, was an almost necessary
ingredient in the act of generation, something in the nature of a necessary
excitant of the ovaries, "a horrible titbit," which completed and
consummated the great task of fecundation. Such, in Fabre's eyes, was the
imperious physiological reason of these rude laws. This is why the love of
the males is almost equivalent to their suicide; the Gardener-beetle,
attacked by the female, attempts to flee, but does not defend himself; "it
is as though an invincible repugnance prevents him from repulsing or from
eating the eater." In the same way the male scorpion "allows himself to be
devoured by his companion without ever attempting to employ his sting," and
the lover of the Mantis "allows himself to be nibbled to pieces without any
revolt on his part."
A strange morality, but not more strange than the organic peculiarities
which are its foundation; a strange world, but perhaps some distant sun may
light others like it.
These terrible creatures are a source of dismay to Fabre. If all things
proceed from an underlying Reason, if the divine harmony of things
testifies everywhere to a sovereign Logic, how shall the proofs of its
excellence and its sovereign wisdom be found in such things as these?
Far from attributing to the order of the universe a supposed perfection,
far from considering nature as the most immediate expression of the Good
and the Beautiful, in the words of Tolstoy (11/5.), he sees in it only a
rough sketch which a hidden God, hidden, but close at hand, and living
eternally present in the heart of His creatures, is seeking to test and to
Living always with his eyes upon some secret of the marvels of God, whom he
sees in every bush, in every tree, "although He is veiled from our
imperfect senses" (11/6.), the vilest insect reveals to him, in the least
of its actions, a fragment of this universal Intelligence.
What marvels indeed when seen from above! But consider the Reverse--what
antinomies, what flagrant contradictions! What poor and sordid means! And
Fabre is astonished, in spite of all his candid faith, that the fatality of
the belly should have entered into the Divine plan, and the necessity of
all those atrocious acts in which the Unconscious delights. Could not God
ensure the preservation of life by less violent means? Why these
subterranean dramas, these slow assassinations? Why has Evil, THE POISON OF
THE GOOD (11/7.), crept in everywhere, even to the origin of life, like an
Within this fatal circle, in which the devourer and the devoured, the
exploiter and the exploited, lead an eternal dance, can we not perceive a
ray of light?
For what is it that we see?
The victims are not merely the predestined victims of their persecutors.
They seek neither to struggle nor to escape nor to evade the inevitable;
one might say that by a kind of renunciation they offer themselves up whole
as a sacrifice!
What irresistible destiny impels the bee to meet half-way the Philanthus,
its terrible enemy! The Tarantula, which could so easily withstand the
Pompilus, when the latter rashly carries war into its lair, does not
disturb itself, and never dreams of using its poisoned fangs. Not less
absolute is the submission of the grasshopper before the Mantis, which
itself has its tyrant, the Tachytes.
Similarly those which have reason to fear for their offspring, if not for
themselves, do nothing to evade the enemy which watches for them; the
Megachile, although it could easily destroy it, is indifferent to the
presence of a miserable midge, "the bandit who is always there, meditating
its crime"; the Bembex, confronted with the Tachinarius, cannot control its
terror, but nevertheless resigns itself, while squeaking with fright.
If each creature is what it is only because it is a necessary part of the
plan of the supreme Artisan who has constructed the universe, why have some
the right of life and death and others the terrible duty of immolation?
Do not both obey, not the gloomy law of carnage, but a kind of sovereign
and exquisite sacrifice, some sort of unconscious idea of submission to a
superior and collective interest?
This hypothesis, which was one day suggested to Fabre by a friend of great
intellectual culture (11/8.), charmed and interested him keenly. I noticed
that he was more than usually attentive, and he seemed to me to be suddenly
reassured and appeased. For him it was as though a faint ray of light had
suddenly fallen among these impenetrable and distressing problems.
It seemed to him that by setting before our eyes the spectacle of so many
woes, universally distributed, and doubtless necessary, woes which do not
spare even the humblest of creatures, the Sovereign Intelligence intends to
exhort us to examine ourselves truly and to dispose us to greater love and
pity and resignation.
All his work is highly and essentially religious; and while he has given us
a taste for nature, he has not also endeavoured to give us, according to
the expression of Bossuet "the taste for God," or at least a sense of the
divine? In opposing the doctrine of evolution, which reduces the animal
world to the mere virtualities of the cell; in revealing to us all these
marvels which seem destined always to escape human comprehension; finally,
by referring us more necessarily than ever to the unfathomable problem of
our origins, Fabre has reopened the door of mystery, the door of the divine
Unknown, in which the religion of men must always renew itself. We should
belittle his thought, we should dwarf the man himself, were we to seek to
confine to any particular thesis his spiritualistic conception of the
Fabre recognizes and adores in nature only the great eternal Power, whose
imprint is everywhere revealed by the phenomena of matter.
For this reason he has all his life remained free from all superstition and
has been completely indifferent to dogmas and miracles, which to his mind
imply not only a profound ignorance of science, but also a gross and
complete miscomprehension of the divine Intelligence. He kneels upon the
ground or among the grasses only the more closely to adore that force, the
source of all order, the intuitive knowledge of which, innate in all
creatures, even in the tiny immovable minds of animals, is merely a
magnificent and gratuitous gift. The office in which he eagerly
communicates is that glorious and formidable Mass in which the ragged
sower, "noble in his tatters, a pontiff in shabby small-clothes, solemn as
a God, blesses the soil, more majestic than the bishop in his glory at
Easter-tide." (11/9.) It is there that he finds his "Ideal," in the incense
of the perfumes "which are softly exhaled from the shapely flowers, from
their censers of gold," in the heart of all creatures, "chaffinch and
siskin, skylark and goldfinch, tiny choristers" piping and trilling,
"elaborating their motets" to the glory of Him who gave them voice and
wings on the fifth day of Genesis. He fraternizes with all, with his dogs
and his cats, his tame tortoise, and even the "slimy and swollen frog"; the
"Philosopher" of the Harmas, whose murky eyes he loves to interrogate as he
paces his garden "by the light of the stars"; persuaded that all are
accomplishing a useful work, and that all creatures, from the humblest
insect which has only nibbled a leaf, or displaced a few grains of sand, to
man himself, are anointed with the same chrism of immortality.
And as he has always set the pleasures of study before all others, he can
imagine no greater recompense after death than to obtain from heaven
permission still to continue in their midst, during eternity, his life of
labour and effort.
CHAPTER 12. THE INTERPRETATION OF NATURE.
We have noted the essential features of his precise and unfailing vision
and the value of the documents which record the work of Fabre, but the
writer merits no less attention than the observer and the philosopher.
In the domain of things positive, it is not always sufficient to gather the
facts, to record them, and to codify in bare formulae the results of
inquiry. Doubtless every essential discovery is able to stand by itself; in
what would an inventor profit, for example, by raising himself to the level
of the artist? "For the theorem lucidity suffices; truth issues naked from
the bottom of a well."
But the manner of speaking, describing, and depicting is none the less an
integral part of the truth when it is a matter of expounding and
transmitting the latter. To express it feebly is often to compromise it, to
diminish it; and even to betray it. There are terms which say better than
others what has to be said. "Words have their physiognomy; if there are
lifeless words, there are also picturesque and richly-coloured words,
comparable to the brush strokes which scatter flecks of light on the grey
background of the picture." There are particular terms of expression,
felicities which present things in a better light, and the writer must
search in his memory, his imagination, and his heart, for the fitting
accent; for the flexibility of language and the wealth of words which are
needful if he would fully succeed in the portrayal of living creatures; if
he would tender the living truth, reproduce in all its light and shade the
spectacle of the world, arouse the imagination, and faithfully interpret
the mysterious spirit which impregnates matter and is reflected in thought.
The artist then comes forward to co-ordinate all these scattered fragments,
to assemble them, to breathe vitality into them, to restore these inert
truths to life.
But what a strange manner of working was Fabre's; what a curious method of
composition! However full of ideas his mind might be, he was incapable of
expressing them if he remained in one place and assumed the ordinary
preliminary attitude of a man preparing to write. Seated and motionless,
his limbs at rest, pen in hand, with a blank page before him, it seemed to
him that all his faculties became of a sudden paralysed. He must first move
about; activity helped him to pursue his ideas; it was in action that he
recovered his ardour and uncovered the sources of inspiration. Just as he
never observed without enthusiasm, so he found it impossible to write
without exaltation, and it was precisely because he so ardently loved the
truth that he felt himself compelled to show it in all its beauty.
Moving like a circus-horse about the great table of his laboratory, he
would begin to tramp indefatigably round and round, so that his steps have
worn in the tiles of the floor an ineffaceable record of the concentric
track in which they moved incessantly for thirty years.
His mind would grow clear and active as he walked, smoking his pipe and
"using his marrow-bones." (12/1.) He was already at work; he was
"hammering" his future chapters in his brain; for the idea would be all the
more precise as the form was more finished and more irreproachable, more
closely identified with the thought; he would wait until the word quivered,
palpitated, and lived; until the transcription was no longer an illusion, a
phantom, a vision devoid of reality, but a faithful echo, a sincere
translation, a finished interpretation, reflecting entire the fundamental
essence of the thing; in a word, a work of art, a parallel to nature.
Then only would he sit before the little walnut-wood table "spotted with
ink and scarred with knife-cuts, just big enough to hold the inkstand, a
halfpenny bottle, and his open notebook": that same little table at which,
in other days, by force of meditation, he achieved his first degrees.
Then he would begin to write, "his pen dipped not in ink only" but in his
heart's blood (12/2.); first of all in ordinary ruled notebooks bound in
black cloth, in which he noted, day by day, hour by hour, the observations
of every moment, the results of his experiments, together with his thoughts
and reflections. Little by little those documents would come together which
elucidated and completed one another, and at last the book was written.
These notebooks, these copious records, are remarkable for the regularity
of the writing and the often impeccable finish of the first draught.
Although here and there the same data are transcribed several times in
succession, and each time struck through with a vigorous stroke of the pen,
there are whole pages, and many pages together, without a single erasure.
The handwriting, excessively small--one might think it had been traced by
the feet of a fly--becomes in later years so minute that one almost needs a
magnifying glass to decipher it.
These notebooks are not the final manuscript. The entomologist would write
a new and more perfect copy on loose sheets of paper, making one draught
after another, patiently fashioning his style and polishing his work,
although many passages were included without revision as they were written
in the first instance.
The greatest magician of modern letters, versed in all the artifices of the
French language, speaking one day of Fabre and his writings, made in my
hearing the assertion that he was not, properly speaking, an artist. He
might well be a great naturalist, a veteran of science, an observer of
genius, but he was by no means and would never be a writer according to the
canons of the craft.
But how many others, like him, in their time regarded as "pitiable in
respect of their language," charm us to-day, simply because they were
gifted with imagination and the power of giving life to their work! (12/3.)
To tell the truth, Fabre is absolutely careless of all literary procedure,
and solely preoccupied with bringing his style into harmony with his
thoughts; he is not in the least a manufacturer of literary phrases. There
is no trace of artistic writing in his books, and it is only his manner of
feeling and of expressing himself that makes him so dear to us.
What touches us in him is the accent, the simplicity, the measure, the good
sense, and the perfect equilibrium of each of these pages: simple, often
commonplace, even incorrect or trivial, but so alive, so human, that the
blood seems to flow in them. It is the lover in Fabre that draws us to him;
nothing quite like his work has been seen since the days of Jean de La
He has liberated science; he laughs at the specialists who take refuge
behind their "barbarian terminologies," at the "jargon" of those "who see
the world only through the wrong end of the glass"; at the exaggerated
importance which they attribute to insignificant details, the narrowness of
classifications, and the chaos of systems; all that incoherent, remote, and
inaccessible science, which he, on the contrary, strives to render pleasant
This is why the great scientist has endeavoured to speak like other people,
preferring, to the harsh consonants of technical phrases which sound "like
insults" or have the air of "a magical invocation, which make certain
scientific works read like so much gibberish," the "naive and picturesque
appellation, the familiar, trivial name, the popular, living term which
directly interprets the exact signification of the habits of an insect, or
informs us fully of its dominant characteristic, or which, at least, leaves
nothing to conjecture."
He considers it useless and even inconvenient to abandon many charming
expressions, appropriate and significant as they are, which may be borrowed
from the good old French tongue; and in this he resembles the immortal de
Jussieu, who in his botanical classifications was careful not to discard
the old popular denominations which Theophrastus, Virgil, and Linnaeus had
thought fit to bestow upon plant and tree.
It is for the same reasons that he loves the Provençal tongue; that
beautiful idiom, that superb language, rich in music, in sonorous words, so
suggestive and so full of colour, many of whose terms, saying precisely
what they intend to say, have no equivalent in French. He has learned the
language, and reads it: in particular Roumanille, whose easy, familiar
style pleases him better than the grandiloquence of Mistral, although he
delights also in Calendal, whose lyrical powers fill him with enthusiasm.
>From this ancient tongue, which was early as familiar to him as the French,
he borrowed certain mannerisms, certain tricks of style, certain
neologisms, and also, to some extent, his simplicity of manner and the
cadence of his prose.
It was not without difficulty that he attained this mastery. Measure the
gulf between his first volumes and his last; in the first the style is
slightly nerveless and indefinite: it was only as he gradually advanced in
his career that he acquired what may be called his final manner, or
achieved, in his narratives, a perfect literary style. The most
substantially constructed, the most happily expressed of his pages were
written principally in his extreme old age. Not only is there no sign of
failing in these, but in his latest "Souvenirs" the perfection of form is
perhaps even more remarkable than the wealth of matter.
How vitally his scrupulous records impress the mind's eye; how firmly they
establish themselves in the memory!
Even if one has never seen the Pelopaeus, one readily conceives an
impression of "her wasp-like costume, and curving abdomen, suspended at the
end of a long thread." What exactitude in this snapshot, taken at the
moment when the insect is occupied in scooping out of the mire the lump of
mud intended for the construction of her nest: "like a skilled housekeeper,
with her clothing carefully tucked up that it may not be soiled, the wings
vibrating, the limbs rigidly straightened, the black abdomen well raised on
the end of its yellow stalk, she rakes the mud with the points of her
mandibles, skimming the shining surface." (12/4.)
He draws, in passing, this charming sketch of the gadfly, the pest of
horses, which nourishes itself with their blood:
"Gadflies of several species used to take refuge under the silken dome of
my umbrella, and there they would quietly rest, one here, one there, on the
tightly stretched fabric; I rarely lacked their company when the heat was
overpowering. To while away the hours of waiting, I used to love to watch
their great golden eyes, which would shine like carbuncles on the vaulted
ceiling of my shelter; I used to love to watch them slowly change their
stations, when the excessive heat of some point of the ceiling would force
them to move a little." (12/5.)
We follow all the manoeuvres of the Balaninus, the acorn-weevil, "burying
her drill" which "operates by means of little bites." The narrator calls
our attention to the slightest episodes, even to those accidents which
sometimes surprise the worker in the course of her labours; when, with the
rostrum buried deep in the acorn, her feet suddenly lose their hold. Then
the unhappy creature, unable to free herself, finds herself suspended in
the air, at right angles to her proboscis, far from any foothold or point
of vantage, at the extremity of her disproportionately long pike, that
"fatal stake." (12/6.)
As for the poplar-weevil, we can almost see it moving "in the subtlest
equilibrium, clinging with its hooked talons to the slippery surface of the
leaf"; we watch all the details of its methods and the progress of its
labours. We see the flexed leaf assume the vertical under the awl-stroke
which the insect applies to the pedicle, "when, partially deprived of sap,
the leaf becomes more flexible, more malleable; it is in a sense partly
paralysed, only half alive." Then we follow the rolling process; "the
imperturbable deliberation of the worker as it rolls its cigar, which
finally hangs perpendicularly at the end of the bent and wounded stem."
Fabre, like a true artist, finds all sorts of expressions to describe the
tiny, fragile eggs of his insects; little shining pearls, delicious coffers
of nickel or amber, miniature pots of translucid alabaster, "which we might
think were stolen from the cupboard of a fairy."
He opens the enchanted alcoves wherein the puny grubs lie slumbering, "fat,
rounded puppets"; the tender larvae which "gape and swing their heads to
and fro" when the mother returns to the nest with her toothsome mouthful or
her crop swollen with honey.
What compassion, what tenderness, what sensitiveness in the affecting
picture of the mother Halictus, abandoned, deprived of her offspring,
bewildered and lost, when the terrible spring fly has destroyed her house:
bald, emaciated, shabby, careworn, already dogged by the small grey lizard!
The tragedy of the wasps' nest at the approach of the first chills of
winter is the final fragment of an epic. At first there is a sort of
uneasiness, "a species of indifference and anxiety which broods over the
city"; already it has a presentiment of coming misfortune, of an
approaching catastrophe. Presently a wild excitement ensues; the foster-
mothers, "frightened, fierce, and restless," as though suddenly attacked by
an incomprehensible insanity, conceive an aversion for the young; "the
neuters extirpate the larvae and drag them out of the nest," and the drama
of destruction draws to a close with "the final catastrophe; the infirm and
the dying are dismembered, eviscerated, dissected in a heap in the
catacombs by maggots, woodlice, and centipedes." Finally the moth comes
upon the scene, its larvae "attacking the dwelling itself; gnawing and
destroying the joists and rafters, until all is reduced to a few pinches of
dust and shreds of grey paper." (12/9.)
What picturesque expressions he employs to depict, by means of some
significant feature, the striking peculiarities of the insect physiognomy!
"The gipsy who night and day for seven months goes to and fro with her
brats upon her back" is the Lycosa, the Tarantula with the black stomach,
the great spider of the wastes.
The larva of the great Capricornis, which gnaws the interior of old oak-
trees, "leaving behind it, in the form of dry-rot, the refuse of its
digestive processes," is "a scrap of intestine which eats its way as it
In "that hideous lout" the Scorpion he shows us a rough epitome of the
shapeless head, the truncated face of the spider.
The Tachinae, those "brazen diptera" which swarm on the sunny sand on the
watch for Bembex or Philanthus, in order to establish their offspring at
its expense, "are bandits clad in fustian, the head wrapped in a red
handkerchief, awaiting the hour of attack!"
The Languedocian Sphex, sprawling flat upon the vine leaves, grows dizzy
with the heat and frisks for very pleasure; "with its feet it taps rapidly
on its resting-place, and thus produces a drumming like that of a shower of
rain falling thickly on the leaves." Fabre takes a keen delight in the
production of these pictures, at once so exact and lifelike; but we must
not therefore suppose that his mind is incapable of the detailed
descriptions necessitated by the laborious processes of minute anatomy.
Like all sciences, entomology has its uninteresting aspects when we seek to
study it deeply. Yet with what interest and lucidity has Fabre succeeded in
expounding the complex morphoses of the obscure and miserable larva of the
Sitaris, the curious intestine of the Scarabaeus, the secret of the
spawning of the weevil, and the ingenious mechanisms of the musical
instruments of the Decticus and the Cicada. With what subtle art he
explains the song of the cricket, how the five hundred prisms of the
serrated bow set the four tympana in vibration; and how the song is
sometimes muffled by a process of muting. (12/10.)
Some of the images suggested to him by the forms of animals are so
beautiful that certain of his descriptions might well serve to inspire an
artist, or suggest new motives of decoration in the arts of enamelling,
gem-engraving, jewellery, etc.
Instead of eternally copying ancient things, or seeking inspiration in
lifeless texts, why not turn our attention to the numerous and interesting
motives which are scattered all around us, whose originality consists
precisely in the fact that they have never yet been employed? Why torture
the mind to produce more painful elaborations of awkward, frozen, poverty-
stricken combinations, when Nature herself is at hand, offering the
inexhaustible casket of her living marvels, full of the profoundest logic
and as yet unexamined?
If the bee by means of the hexagonal prism has anticipated all the
geometers in the problem of the economy of space and matter; if the Epeïra
and the mollusc have invented the logarithmic spiral and its transcendent
properties; if all creatures "inspired by an aesthetic which nothing
escapes, achieve the beautiful" (12/11.), surely human art, which can but
imitate and remember, has only to employ to its profit and transfigure into
ideal images the natural beauties so profusely furnished by the
Modern art, influenced more especially by the subtle Japanese, is already
treading this path.
What artist could ever engrave on rare metals or model in precious
substances a more beautiful subject than the wonderful picture of the
Tarantula offering, at the length of her extended limbs, her white sac of
eggs to the sun; or the transparent nymph of the Onthophagus taurus, "as
though carved from a block of crystal, with its wide snout and its enormous
horns like those of the Aurochs"? (12/12.) What an undiscovered subject he
might find in the nymph of the Ergatus (12/13.), with its almost
incorporeal grace, as though made of "translucent ivory, like a communicant
in her white veils, the arms crossed upon the breast; a living symbol of
mystic resignation before the accomplishment of destiny"; or in the still
more mysterious nymph of the Scarabaeus sacer, first of all "a mummy of
translucent amber, maintained by its linen cerements in a hieratic pose;
but soon upon this background of topaz, the head, the legs, and the thorax
change to a sombre red, while the rest of the body remains white, and the
nymph is slowly transfigured, assuming that majestic costume which combines
the red of the cardinal's mantle with the whiteness of the sacerdotal alb."
On the other hand, what Sims or Bateman ever imagined weirder caricature
than the grotesque larva of the Oniticella, with its extravagant dorsal
hump; or the fantastic and alarming silhouette of the Empusa, with its
scaly belly raised crozierwise and mounted on four long stilts, its pointed
face, turned-up moustaches, great prominent eyes, and a "stupendous mitre":
the most grotesque, the most fantastic freaks that creation can ever have
CHAPTER 13. THE EPIC OF ANIMAL LIFE.
Although in his portraits and descriptions Fabre is simple and exact, and
so full of natural geniality; although he can so handle his words as to
render them "adequate" to reproduce the moving pictures of the tiny
creatures he observes, his style touches a higher level, flashes with
colour, and grows rich with imagery when he seeks to interpret the feelings
which animate them: their loves, their battles, their cunning schemes, and
the pursuit of their prey; all that vast drama which everywhere accompanies
the travail of creation.
It is here in particular that Fabre shows us what horizons, as yet almost
unexplored, what profound and inexhaustible resources science is able to
The breaking of egg or chrysalid is in itself a moving event; for to attain
to the light is for all these creatures "a prodigious travail."
The hour of spring has sounded. At the call of the field-cricket, the
herald of the spring, the germs that slumber in nymph or chrysalis have
broken through their spell.
What haste and ingenuity are required to emerge from the natal darkness, to
unwrap the swaddling-bands, to break the subterranean shells, to demolish
the waxen bulkheads, to perforate the soil or to escape from prisons of
The woodland bug, whose egg is a masterpiece, invents I know not what
magical centre-bit, what curious piece of locksmith's work, in order to
unlock its natal casket and achieve its liberty.
For days the grasshopper "butts its head against the roughness of the soil,
and wars upon the pebbles; by dint of frantic wriggling it escapes from the
womb of the earth, bursts its old coat, and is transfigured, opening its
eyes to the light, and leaping for the first time."
The Bombyx of the pine-tree "decks its brow with points of diamond, spreads
its wings, and erects its plumes, and shakes out its fleece to fly only in
the darkness, to wed the same night, and to die on the morrow."
What marvellous inventions, what machinery, what incredible contrivances,
"in order that a tiny fly can emerge from under ground"!
The Anthrax assumes a panoply of trepans, an assortment of gimlets and
knives, harpoons and grapnels, in order to perforate its ceiling of cement;
then the lugubrious black fly appears, all moist as yet with the humours of
the laboratory of life, steadies itself upon its trembling legs, dries its
wings, quits its suit of armour, and takes flight."
The blue-fly, buried in the depth of the sand, "cracks its barrel-shaped
coffin," and splits its mask, in order to disinter itself; the head divides
into two halves, between which we see emerging and disappearing by turns a
monstrous tumour, which comes and goes, swells and shrivels, palpitates,
labours, lunges, and retires, thus compressing and gradually undermining
the sand, until at last the newborn fly emerges from the depth of the
Certain young spiders, in order to emancipate themselves, to conquer space,
and disperse themselves about the world, resort to an ingenious system of
aviation. They gain the highest point of the thicket, and release a thread,
which, seized by the wind, carries them away suspended. Each shines like a
point of light against the foliage of the cypresses. There is a continuous
stream of tiny passengers, leaping and descending in scattered sheaves
under the caresses of the sun, like atomic projectiles, like the fountain
of fire at a pyrotechnic display. What a glorious departure, what an entry
into the world! Gripping its aeronautic thread, the insect ascends in
But if all are called all are not chosen. "How many can move only at the
greatest peril under the rugged earth, proceeding from shock to shock, in
the harsh womb of universal life, and, arrested by a grain of sand, succumb
There are others whom slower metamorphoses condemn to vegetate still longer
in the subterranean night, before they are permitted to assume their
festival attire, and share in their turn in the gladness of creation.
Thus the Cicada is forced to labour for long gloomy years in the darkness
before it can emerge from the soil. At the moment when it issues from the
earth the larva, soiled with mire, "resembles a sewer-man; its eyes are
whitish, nebulous, squinting, blind." Then "it clings to some twig, it
splits down the back, rejects its discarded skin, drier than horny
parchment, and becomes the Cigale, which is at first of a pale grass-green
"Half drunken with her joy, she feasts
In a hail of fire";
And all day long drinks of the sugared sap of tender bark, and is silent
only at night, sated with light and heat. The song, which forms part of the
majestic symphony of the harvest-tide, announces merely its delight in
existence. Having passed years underground, the cigale has only a month to
reign, to be happy in a world of light, under the caressing sun. Judge
whether the wild little cymbals can ever be loud enough "to celebrate such
felicity, so well earned and so ephemeral"! (13/3.)
All sing for happiness, each after its kind, through the calm of the summer
days. Their minds are intoxicated; it is their fashion of praying, of
adoring, of expressing "the joys of life: a full crop and the sun on the
back." Even the humble grasshopper rubs its flanks to express its joy,
raises and lowers its shanks till its wing-cases squeak, and is enchanted
with its own music, which it commences or terminates suddenly "according to
the alternations of sun and shade." Each insect has its rhythm, strident or
barely perceptible; the music of the thickets and fallows caressed by the
sun, rising and falling in waves of joyful life.
The insects make merry; they hold uproarious festival; and they mate
insatiably; even before forming a mutual acquaintance; in a furious rush of
living, for "love is the sole joy of the animal," and "to love is to die."
Hardly unwrapped, still dusty from the strenuous labour of deliverance,
"the female of the Scolia is seized by the male, who does not even give her
time to wash her eyes." Having slept over a year underground, the Sitares,
barely rid of their mummy-cases, taste, in the sunlight, a few minutes of
love, on the very site of their re-birth; then they die. Life surges,
burns, flares, sparkles, rushes "in a perpetual tide," a brief radiance
between two nights.
A world of a myriad fairies fills the rustling forest: day and night it
unfolds a thousand marvellous pictures; about the root of a bramble, in the
shadow of an old wall, on a slope of loose soil, or in the dense thickets.
"The insect is transfigured for the nuptial ceremony; and each hopes, in
its ritual, to declare its passion." Fabre had some thought of writing the
Golden Book of their bridals and their wedding festivals (13/4.); the
Kamasutra of their feasts and rules of love; and with what art, at once
frank and reserved, has he here and there handled this wonderful theme! In
the radiant garden of delight, where no detail of truth is omitted, but
where nothing shocks us, Fabre reveals himself as he is in his
conversation; evading the subject where it takes a licentious turn;
fundamentally chaste and extremely reserved.
At the foot of the rocks the Psyche "appears in the balcony of her boudoir,
in the rays of the caressing sun; lying on the cloudy softness of an
incomparable eider-down." She awaits the visit of the spouse, "the gentle
Bombyx," who, for the ceremony, "has donned his feathery plumes and his
mantle of black velvet." "If he is late in coming, the female grows
impatient; then she herself makes the advances, and sets forth in search of
Drawn by the same voluptuous and overwhelming force, the cricket ventures
to leave his burrow. Adorned "in his fairest attire, black jacket, more
beauteous than satin, with a stripe of carmine on the thigh," he wanders
through the wild herbage, "by the discreet glimmer of twilight," until he
reaches the distant lodging of the beloved. There at last he arrives "upon
the sanded walk, the court of honour that precedes the entry." But already
the place is occupied by another aspirant. Then the two rivals fall upon
one another, biting one another's heads, "until it ends by the retreat of
the weaker, whom the victor insults by a bravura cry." The happy champion
bridles, assuming a proud air, as of one who knows himself a handsome
fellow, before the fair one, who feigns to hide herself behind her tuft of
aphyllantus, all covered with azure flowers. "With a gesture of a fore-limb
he passes one of his antennae through his mandibles as though to curl it;
with his long-spurred, red-striped legs he shuffles with impatience; he
kicks the empty air; but emotion renders him mute." (13/5.)
In the foliage of the ash-tree the lover of the female Cantharis thrashes
his companion, who makes herself as small as she can, hiding her head in
her bosom; he bangs her with his fists, buffets her with his abdomen,
"subjects her to an erotic storm, a rain of blows"; then, with his arms
crossed, he remains a moment motionless and trembling; finally, seizing
both antennae of the desired one, he forces her to raise her head "like a
cavalier proudly seated on horse and holding the reins in his hands."
The Osmiae "reply by a click of the jaws to the advances of their lovers,
who recoil, and then, doubtless to make themselves more valiant, they also
execute a ferocious mandibular grimace. With this byplay of the jaws and
their menacing gestures of the head in the empty air the lovers have the
air of intending to eat one another." Thus they preface their bridals by
displays of gallantry, recalling the ancient betrothal customs of which
Rabelais speaks; the pretenders were cuffed and derided and threatened with
a hearty pummelling. (13/6.)
On the arid hillsides, where the doubtful rays of the moon pierce the
storm-clouds and illumine the sultry atmosphere, the pale scorpions, with
short-sighted eyes, hideous monsters with misshapen heads, "display their
strange faces, and two by two, hand in hand, stalk in measured paces amid
the tufts of lavender. How tell their joys, their ecstasies, that no human
language can express...!" (13/7.)
However, the glow-worm, to guide the lover, lights its beacon "like a spark
fallen from the full moon"; but "presently the light grows feebler, and
fades to a discreet nightlight, while all around the host of nocturnal
creatures, delayed in their affairs, murmur the general epithalamium."
But their happy time is soon over; tragedy is about to follow idyll.
One must live, and "the intestine rules the world."
All creatures that fill the world are incessantly conflicting, and one
lives only at the cost of another.
On the other hand, in order that the coming generations may see the light,
the present generations must think of the preservation of the young.
"Perish all the rest provided the brood flourish!" And in the depth of
burrows the future larvae who live only for their stomachs, "little ogres,
greedy of living flesh," must have their prey.
To hunger and maternity let us also add love, which "rules the world by
Such are the components of the "struggle for existence," such as Fabre has
described it, but with no other motive than to describe what he has
observed and seen. Such are the ordinary themes of the grandiose battles
which he has scattered through his narratives, and never did circus or
arena offer more thrilling spectacles; no jungle ever hid more moving
combats in its thickets."
"Each has its ruses of war, its methods of attack, its methods of killing."
What tactics--"studied, scientific, worthy of the athletes of the ancient
palaestra"--are those which the Sphex employs to paralyse the Cricket and
the Cerceris to capture the Cleona, to secure them in a suitable place, so
as to operate on them more surely and at leisure!
Beside these master paralysers, so expert in the art of dealing slow death,
there are those which, with a precision no less scholarly, kill and wither
their victims at a single stroke, and without leaving a trace: "true
practitioners in crime."
On the rock-rose bushes, with their great pink flowers, "the pretty
Thomisus, the little crab-spider, clad in satin," watches for the domestic
bee, and suddenly kills it, seizing the back of the head, while the
Philanthus, also seizing it by the head, plunges its sting under the chin,
neither too high nor too low, but "exactly in the narrow joint of the
neck," for both insects know that in this limited spot, in which is
concentrated a small nervous mass, something like a brain, is "the weak
point, most vulnerable of all," the fault in the cuirass, the vital centre.
Others, like the Araneidae, intoxicate their prey, and their subtle bite,
"which resembles a kiss," in whatever part of the body it is applied,
"produces almost immediately a gradual swoon."
Thus the great hairy Bourdon, in the course of its peregrinations across
the wastes of thyme, sometimes foolishly strays into the lair of the
Tarantula, whose eyes glimmer like jewels at the back of his den. Hardly
has the insect disappeared underground than a sort of shrill rattling is
heard, a "true death-song," immediately followed by the completest silence.
"Only a moment, and the unfortunate creature is absolutely dead, proboscis
outstretched and limbs relaxed. The bite of the rattlesnake would not
produce a more sudden paralysis."
The terrible spider "crouching on the battlements of his castle, his heavy
belly in the sun, attentive to the slightest rustling, leaps upon whatever
passes, fly or Libellula, and with a single stroke strangles his victim,
and drains its body, drinking the warm blood."
"To dislodge him from his keep needs all the cunning strategy of the
Pompilus; a terrible duel, a hand-to-hand combat, stupendous, truly epic,
in which the subtle address and the ingenious audacity of the winged insect
eventually triumph over the dreadful spider and his poisoned fangs."
On the pink heather "the timid spider of the thickets suspends by ethereal
cables the branching whorl of his snare, which the tears of the night have
turned into chaplets of jewels...The magical jewellery sparkles in the sun,
attracting mosquitoes and butterflies; but whosoever approaches too closely
perishes, a victim of curiosity." Above the funnel is the trap, "a chaos of
springs, a forest of cordage; like the rigging of a ship dismembered by the
tempest. The desperate creature struggles in the shrouds of the rigging,
then falls into the gloomy slaughter-house where the spider lurks ready to
bleed his prey."
Death is everywhere.
Each crevice of bark, each shadow of a leaf, conceals a hunter armed with a
deadly weapon, all his senses on the alert. Everywhere are teeth, fangs,
talons, stings, pincers, and scythes.
Leaping in the long grasses, the Decticus with the ivory face "crunches the
heads of grasshoppers in his mandibles."
A ferocious creature, the grub of the Hemerobius, disembowels plant-lice,
making of their skins a battle-dress, covering its back with the
eviscerated victims, "as the Red Indian ties about his loins the tresses of
his scalped enemies."
Caterpillars are surrounded by the implacable voracity of the Carabidae:
"The furry skins are gaping with wounds; their contents escape in knots of
entrails, bright green with their aliment, the needles of the pine-tree;
the caterpillars writhe, struggling with loop-like movements, gripping the
sand with their feet, dribbling and gnashing their mandibles. Those as yet
unwounded are digging desperately in the attempt to escape underground. Not
one succeeds. They are scarcely half buried before some beetle runs to them
and destroys them by an eviscerating wound."
At the centre of its net, which seems "woven of moonbeams," in the midst of
its snare, a glutinous trap of infernal ingenuity, or hidden at a distance
in its cabin of green leaves, the Epeïra fasciata waits and watches for its
prey. Let the terrible hornet, or the Libellula auripennis, flying from
stem to stem, fall into the limed snare; the insect struggles, endeavours
to unwind itself; the net trembles violently as though it would be torn
from its cables. Immediately the spider darts forward, running boldly to
the intruder. With rapid gestures the two hinder limbs weave a winding-
sheet of silk as they rotate the victim in order to enshroud it...The
ancient Retiarius, condemned to meet a powerful beast of prey, appeared in
the arena with a net of cordage lying upon his left shoulder; the animal
sprang upon him; the man, with a sudden throw, caught it in the meshes; a
stroke of the trident despatched it. Similarly the Epeïra throws its web,
and when there is no longer any movement under the white shroud the spider
draws closer; its venomous fangs perform the office of the trident.
The Praying Mantis, that demoniac creature which alone among the insects
turns its head to gaze, "whose pious airs conceal the most atrocious
habits," remains on the watch, motionless, for hours at a time. Let a great
grasshopper chance to come by: the Mantis follows it with its glance,
glides between the leaves, and suddenly rises up before it; "and then
assumes its spectral pose, which terrifies and fascinates the prey; the
wing-covers open, the wings spring to their full width, forming a vast
pyramid which dominates the back; a sort of swishing sound is heard, like
the hiss of a startled adder; the murderous fore-limbs open to their full
extent, forming a cross with the body, and exhibiting the axillae
ornamented with eyes vaguely resembling those of the peacock's tail, part
of the panoply of war, concealed upon ordinary occasions. These are only
exhibited when the creature makes itself terrible and superb for battle.
Then the two grappling-hooks are thrown; the fangs strike, the double
scythes close together and hold the victim as in a vice." (13/11.)
There is no peace; night falls and the horrible conflict continues in the
darkness. Atrocious struggles, merciless duels, fill the summer nights. On
the stems of the long grasses, beside the furrows, the glow-worm
"anaethetizes the snail," instilling into it its venom, which stupefies and
produces sleep, in order to immobilize its prey before devouring it.
Having chorused their joy all the day long in the sunshine, in the evening
the Cicadae fall asleep among the olives and the lofty plane-trees. But
suddenly there is a sound as of a cry of anguish, short and strident; it is
the despairing lamentation of the cicada, surprised in repose by the green
grasshopper, that ardent hunter of the night, which leaps upon the cicada,
seizes it by the flank, and devours the contents of the stomach. After the
orgy of music comes night and assassination.
Such is the gloomy epic which goes forward among the flowers, amidst the
foliage, under the shadowy boughs, and on the dusty fallows. Such are the
sights that nature offers amid the profound peace of the fields, behind the
flowering of the sudden spring-tide and the splendours of the summer. These
murders, these assassinations are committed in a mute and silent world, but
"the ear of the mind" seems to hear
"A tiger's rage and cries as of a lion
Roaring remotely through this pigmy world."
Was it to these thrilling revelations that Victor Hugo intended to apply
these so wonderfully appropriate lines? Was it he who bestowed upon Fabre,
according to a poetic tradition, the name of "the Homer of the insects,"
which fits him so marvellously well?
It is possible, although Fabre himself can cite no evidence to support
these suggestions; but let us respect the legend, simply because it is
charming, and because it adds an exact and picturesque touch to the
portrait of Fabre.
In this drama of a myriad scenes, in which the little actors in their
rustic stage play each in his turn their parts at the mercy of occasion and
the hazard of encounter, the humblest creatures are personages of
Like the human comedy, this also has its characters privileged by birth,
clothed in purple, dazzling with embroidery, "adorned with lofty plumes,"
who strut pretentiously; "its idle rich," covered with robes of gold of
rustling splendour, who display their diamonds, their topazes and their
sapphires; who gleam with fire and shine like mirrors, magnificent of mien;
but their brains are "dense, heavy, inept, without imagination, without
ingenuity, deprived of all common sense, knowing no other anxiety than to
drink in the sunlight at the heart of a rose or to sleep off their draughts
in the shadow of a leaf.
Those who labour, on the contrary, do not attract the eye, and the most
obscure are often the most interesting. Necessitous poverty has educated
and formed them, has excited in them "feats of invention," unsuspected
talents, original industries; a thousand curious and unexpected callings,
and no subject of poetry equals in interest the detailed history of one of
these tiny creatures, by which we pass without observing them, amid the
stones, the brambles, and the dead leaves. It is these above all that add
an original and epic note to the vast symphony of the world.
But death also has its poetry. Its shadowy domains hold lessons no less
magnificent, and the most putrid carrion is to Fabre a "tabernacle" in
which a divine comedy is enacted.
The ant, that "ardent filibuster, comes first, and commences to dissect it
The Necrophori "exhaling the odour of musk, and bearing red pompons at the
end of their antennae," are "transcendent alchemists."
The Sarcophagi, or grey flesh flies, "with red bloodshot eyes, and the
stony gaze of a knacker"; the Saprinidae, "with bodies of polished ebony
like pearls of jet"; the Silpha aplata, with large and sombre wing-cases in
mourning; the shiny slow-trotting Horn-beetle; the Dermestes, "powdered
with snow beneath the stomach"; the slender Staphylinus; the whole fauna of
the corpse, the whole horde of artisans of death, "intoxicating themselves
with purulence, probing, excavating, mangling, dissecting, transmuting, and
stamping out infection."
Fabre gives a curious exposition of "that strange art" by which the grub of
the grey bot-fly, the vulgar maggot, by means of a subtle pepsine,
disintegrates and liquefies solid matter; and it is because this singular
solvent has no effect upon the epidermis that the fly, in its wisdom,
chooses by preference the mucous membranes, the corner of the eye, the
entrance of the nostrils, the borders of the lips, the live flesh of
wounds, there to deposit its eggs.
With what penetration this original mind has analysed "the operation of the
crucible in which all things are fused that they may recommence" and has
expounded the marvellous lesson which is revealed by decomposition and
CHAPTER 14. PARALLEL LIVES.
We have now seen what entomology becomes in the hands of the admirable
Fabre. The vast poem of creation has never had a more familiar and luminous
interpreter, and you will nowhere find other work like his.
How far he outstrips Buffon and his descriptions of animals--so general, so
vague, so impersonal--his records unreliable and his entire erudition of a
It is with Réaumur that we are first of all tempted to compare him; and
some have chosen to see in him only one who has continued Réaumur's work.
In reality he has eagerly read Réaumur, although at heart he does not
really enjoy his writings; he has drunk from this fruitful source, but he
owes him no part of his own rich harvest.
But there are many affinities between them; they have many traits in
common, despite the points of difference between them.
The illustrious son of Rochelle was born, like Fabre, with a love of all
natural things, and before attacking the myriad problems of physics and
natural history, wherein he was to shine by so many curious discoveries, he
also had prepared himself by a profound study of mathematics.
Luckier than Fabre, however, Réaumur enjoyed not only the advantages of
birth, but all the material conditions necessary to his ardent intellectual
activity. Fortune overwhelmed her favourite with gifts, and played no small
part in his glory by enabling him, from an early age, to profit by his
leisure and to give a free rein to his ruling passions. He was no less
modest than the sage of Sérignan; self-effacing before others, says one of
his biographers, so that they were never made to feel his superiority.
In the midst of the beautiful and spacious gardens at the end of the
Faubourg Saint-Antoine, where he finally made his home, he also contrived
to create for himself a Harmas after his own heart.
It was there that in the as yet virgin domain of entomology he unravelled
the riddle of the marvellous republic of the bees, and was able to expound
and interpret a large number of those tiny lives which every one had
hitherto despised, and which indeed they continued to despise until the
days of Fabre, or at least regarded as absolutely unimportant. He was the
first to venture to suspect their connection with much "that most nearly
concerns us," or to point out "all the singular conclusions" which may be
drawn therefrom. (14/2.)
How many details he has enshrined in his interesting "Memoirs," and how
many facts we may glean from this great master! He, like Fabre, had the
gift of charming a great number of his contemporaries. Tremblay, Bonnet,
and de Geer owed their vocations to Réaumur, not to speak of Huber, whose
genius he inspired.
A physicist before all, and accustomed to delicate and meticulous though
comparatively simple tasks, he had admirably foreseen the extraordinary
complication of these inquiries; so much so that, with the modesty of the
true scientist that he was, he regarded his own studies, even the most
substantial, as mere indications, intended to point the way to those that
As methodical, in short, as the author of the "Souvenirs," the scrupulous
Réaumur wrote nothing that he himself had not proved or verified with the
greatest care; and we may be sure that all that he records of his personal
and immediate observations he has really seen with his own eyes.
In the wilderness of error he had, like Fabre, an infallible compass in his
extraordinary common sense; and, equally skilled in extracting from the
false the little particle of truth which it often contains, he was no less
fond of listening at the gate of legends, of tracing the source of
traditions; rightly considering that before deriding them as old-wives'
tales we should first probe in all directions into their origin and
He was also tempted to experiment, and he well knew that in such problems
as those he attacked observation alone is often powerless to reveal
anything. It is enough to recall here one of the most promising and
unexpected of the discoveries which resulted from his experiments. Réaumur
was the first to conceive the ingenious idea of retarding the hatching of
insects' eggs by exposing them to cold, thus anticipating the application
of cold to animal life and the discoveries of Charles Tellier, whose more
illustrious forerunner he was; at the same time he discovered the secret of
prolonging, in a similar fashion, the larval existence of chrysalids during
a space of time infinitely superior to that of their normal cycle; and what
is more, he succeeded in making them live a lethargic life for years and
even for a long term of years, thus repeating at will the miracle of the
Seven Sleepers. (14/4.)
Too much occupied, however, with the smaller aspect of things, he had not
the art of forcing Nature to speak, and in the province of psychical
aptitudes he was barely able to rise above the facts.
As he was powerless to enter into real communion with the tiny creatures
which he observed, although his observations were conducted with religious
admiration; as he saw always only the outside of things, like a physicist
rather than a poet or psychologist, he contented himself with noting the
functioning of their organs, their methods of work, their properties, and
the changes which they undergo; he did not interpret their actions. The
mystery of the life which quivers within and around them eludes him. This
is why his books are such dry reading. He is like a bright garden full of
rare plants; but it is a monotonous garden, without life or art, without
distant vistas or wide perspectives. His works are somewhat diffuse and
full of repetitions; entire monographs, almost whole volumes, are devoted
to describing the emerging of a butterfly; but they form part of the
library of the curious lover of nature; they are consulted with interest,
and will always be referred to, but it cannot be said that they are read.
After Réaumur, according to the dictum of the great Latreille, entomology
was confined to a wearisome and interminable nomenclature, and if we except
the Hubers, two unparalleled observers, although limited and circumscribed,
the only writer who filled the interregnum between Réaumur and Fabre was
In the quiet little town whither he went to succeed his father, this
military surgeon, turned country doctor, lived a busy and useful life.
While occupied with his humble patients, whom he preferred to regard merely
as an interesting clinic, and while keeping the daily record of his medical
observations, he felt irresistibly drawn "to ferret in all the holes and
corners of the soil, to turn over every stone, large or small; to shrink
from no fatigue, no difficulty; to scale the highest peaks, the steepest
cliffs, to brave a thousand dangers, in order to discover an insect or a
A disciple of Latreille, he shone above all as an impassioned descriptive
No one was more skilled in determining a species, in dissecting the head of
a fly or the entrails of a grub, and no spectacle in the world was for him
so fascinating as the triple life of the insect; those magical
metamorphoses, which he justly considered as one of the most astonishing
phenomena in creation. (14/6.)
He saw further than Réaumur, and burned with the same fire as Fabre, for he
also had the makings of a great poet. His curiosity had assembled enormous
collections, but he considered, as Fabre considered, that collecting is
"only the barren contemplation of a vast ossuary which speaks only to the
eyes, and not to the mind or imagination," and that the true history of
insects should be that of their habits, their industries, their battles,
their loves, and their private and social life; that one must "search
everywhere, on the ground, under the soil, in the waters, in the air, under
the bark of trees, in the depth of the woods, in the sands of the desert,
and even on and in the bodies of animals."
Was not this in reality the ambitious programme which Fabre was later to
propose to himself when he entered into his Harmas and founded his living
laboratory of entomology; he also having set himself as his exclusive
object the study of "the insects, the habits of life, the labours, the
struggles and the propagation of this little world, which agriculture and
philosophy should closely consider"? (14/7.)
Dufour also had admirably grasped the place of the insect in the general
harmony of the universe, and he clearly perceived that parasitism, that
imbrication of mutually usurping lives, is "a law of equilibration, whose
object is to set a limit to the excessive multiplication of individuals of
the same type," that the parasites are predestined to an imprescriptible
mission, and that this mysterious law "defies all explanation."
On the other hand, he did not become very intimate with these tiny peoples;
his attention was dispersed over too many points; perhaps he was
fundamentally incapable of concentrating himself for a long period upon a
circumscribed object; perhaps he lacked that first condition of genius,
patience, so essential to such researches: although he enriched science by
an infinite multitude of precious facts and has recorded a quantity of
details concerning the habits of insects, he did not succeed in
representing any one of these innumerable little minds. He had an intense
feeling for nature, but he was not able to interpret it, and his immense
volume of work, scattered through nearly three hundred monographs, remains
Let us compare with his work the vast epic of the "Souvenirs." We become
familiar with the whole life of the least insect, and all its unending
related circumstances; we obtain sudden glimpses of insight into our own
organization, with its abysses and its lacunae, and also into those rich
provinces or faculties which we are only beginning to suspect in the depths
of our unconscious activity.
In the evening twilight, after the vast andante of the cicadae is hushed,
at the hour when the shining glow-worms "light their blue fires," and the
"pale Italian cricket, delirious with its nocturnal madness, chirrups among
the rosemary thickets," while in the distance sounds the melodious tinkle
of the bell-ringer frogs, replying from one hiding-place to another, the
old master shows us that profound and mysterious magic with which matter is
endowed by the faintest glimmer of life.
He shows us the intimate connection of things, the universal harmony which
so intimately allies all creatures; and he shows us also that everywhere
and all around us, in the smallest object, poetry exists like a hidden
flame, if only we know how to seek it.
And in revealing so many marvellous energies in even the lowest creatures,
he helps us to divine the infinity of phenomena still unguessed-at, which
the subtlety of the unknowable force which thrills through the whole
universe hides from us under the most trivial appearances.
For he has not told everything; this incommensurable region, which had
hitherto remained unworked, is far from being exhausted.
How many unknown and hidden things are still left to be gleaned! There will
be a harvest for all. Remember that "even the humblest species either has
no history, or the little that has been written concerning it calls for
serious revision" (14/8.); that a single bush, such as the bramble,
suffices to rear more than fifty species of insects, and that each species,
according to the just observation of Réaumur, "has its habits, its tricks
of cunning, its customs, its industries, its art, its architecture, its
different instincts, and its individual genius."
What a stupendous alphabet to decipher, of which we have as yet only
commenced to read the first few letters! When we are able to read it almost
entirely, when observers are more numerous and have concerted their
efforts, mutually illuminating, completing and correcting one another,
then, and then only, we shall succeed, if not in resolving some of those
high problems which have never ceased to interest mankind, at least in
seizing some reflected knowledge of ourselves, and in seeing a little
farther into the kingdom of the mind.
CHAPTER 15. THE EVENINGS AT SÉRIGNAN.
But it will doubtless be long before a new Fabre will resume, with the same
heroic ardour, the life of solitary labour, varied only by a few austere
Rising at six o'clock, he would first of all pace the tiles of his kitchen,
breakfast in hand; so imperious in him was the need of action, if his mind
was to work successfully, that even at this moment of morning meditation
his body must already be in movement. Then, after many turns among the
bushes of the enclosure, all irised with drops of dew which were already
evaporating, he went straight to his cell: that is, to the silence of his
There, in unsociable silence, invisible to all, he worked hard and steadily
until noon; pursuing an observation or carrying out some experiment, or
recording what he saw or what he had seen the day before, or re-drafting
his records in their final form.
How many who have come hither to knock upon the door in these morning
hours, or to ring at the little gate, silent as the tomb, which gives upon
the private path frequented only by foot-passengers on their way to the
fields, have undertaken a fruitless journey! But without such discipline
would it have been possible to accomplish such a task as his?
At last he would leave his workroom; jaded, exhausted by the excessive
intensity of his work, "face pale and features drawn." (15/1.)
Now he is "at leisure: the half-day is over" (15/2.); and he can satisfy
his immense need not of repose, but of relaxation and distraction in less
severe occupations; for he is never at any time nor anywhere inactive;
incessantly making notes, with little stumps of pencil which he carries
about in his pockets, and on the first scrap of paper that comes to hand,
of all that passes through his mind. Those eternal afternoons, which
usually, in the depth of the French provinces, prove so dull and wearisome,
seem short enough to him. Now he will halt before his plants, now stoop to
the ground, the better to observe a passing insect; always in search of
some fresh subject of study; or now bending over his microscope. (15/3.)
Then he undertakes, for his later-born children at Sérignan, the duties
which he formerly performed for the elder family at Orange: he teaches them
himself; he has much to do with them, for their sake and for his own as
well, for he is jealous of possessing them, and he regrets parting with
them. They too have their tasks arranged in advance.
They are his assistants, his appointed collaborators, who keep and relieve
guard, undertaking, in his absence, some observation already in hand, so
that no detail may be lost, no incident of the story that unrolls itself
sometimes with exasperating slowness beneath the bell-covers of the
laboratory or on some bush in the garden. He inspires the whole household
with the fire of his own genius, and all those about him are almost as
interested as he.
At home, in the house, always wearing his eternal felt hat, and absorbed in
meditation, he speaks little, holding that every word should have its
object, and only employing a term when he has tested its weight and
meaning. Silence at mealtimes again is a rule that no one of his household
would infringe. But he unbends his brow when he receives a friend at his
hospitable table, where but lately his smiling wife would sit, full of
little attentions for him. (15/4.)
Frugal in all respects, he barely touches the dishes before him; avoiding
all meats, and saving himself wholly for the fruits; for is not man
naturally frugivorous, by his teeth, his stomach, and his bowels? Certain
dishes repel him, for reasons of sentiment rather than through any real
disgust; such as paté de foie gras, which reminds him too forcibly of the
so cruelly tortured goose; such cruelty is too high a price to pay for a
mere greasy mouthful. (15/5.) On the other hand, he drinks wine with
pleasure, the harsh, rough "wine of the country" of the plains of Sérignan.
He is also well able to appreciate good things and appetizing cookery; no
one ever had a finer palate; but he is happiest in seeing others appreciate
the pleasures of the table. Witness that breakfast worthy of Gargantua,
which he himself organized in honour of his guests, whom he had invited to
an excursion over the Ventoux Alp; where he seems expressly to have
commanded "that all should come in shoals." What a tinkling of bottles,
what piles of bread! There are green olives "flowing with brine," black
olives "seasoned with oil," sausages of Arles "with rosy flesh, marbled
with cubes of fat and whole peppercorns," legs of mutton stuffed with
garlic "to dull the keen edge of hunger"; chickens "to amuse the molars";
melons of Cavaillon too, with white pulp, not forgetting those with orange
pulp, and to crown the feast those little cheeses, so delightfully
flavoured, peculiar to Mont Ventoux, "spiced with mountain herbs," which
melt in the mouth. (15/6.)
But his greatest pleasure is his pipe; a briar, which in absence of mind he
is always allowing to go out, and always relighting.
Respectful of all traditions, he has kept up the observance of old customs;
no Christmas Eve has ever been passed under the roof of his Harmas without
the consecrated meats upon the table; the heart of celery, the nougat of
almonds, the dish of snails, and the savoury-smelling turkey. Then, stuck
into the Christmas bread (15/7.), the sprigs of holly, the verbouisset, the
sacred bush whose little starry flowers and coral berries, growing amid
evergreen leaves, affirm the eternal rebirth of indestructible nature.
At Sérignan Fabre is little known and little appreciated. To tell the
truth, folk regard him as eccentric; they have often surprised him in the
country lying on his stomach in the middle of a field, or kneeling on the
ground, a magnifying glass in hand, observing a fly or some one of those
insignificant creatures in which no sane person would deign to be
How should they know him, since he never goes into the village? When he did
once venture thither to visit his friend Charrasse, the schoolmaster, his
appearance was an event of which every one had something to say, so greatly
did it astonish the inhabitants. (15/8.)
Yet he never hesitates to place his knowledge at the service of all, and
welcomes with courtesy the rare pilgrims in whom a genuine regard is
visible, although he is always careful never to make them feel his own
superiority; but he very quickly dismisses, sometimes a trifle hastily,
those who are merely indiscreet or importunate; pedantic and ignorant
persons he judges instantaneously with his piercing eyes; with such people
he cannot emerge from his slightly gloomy reserve; he shuts himself up like
the snail, which, annoyed by some displeasing object, retires into its
shell, and remains silent in their presence.
Professors come to consult him: asking his advice as to their programmes of
instruction, or begging him to resolve some difficult problem or decide
some especially vexed question; and his explanations are so simple, so
clear, so logical that they are astonished at their own lack of
comprehension and their embarrassment. (15/9.)
But there are few who venture within the walls of that enclosure, which
seems to shut out all the temptations of the outer world; the only intimate
visitors to the Harmas are the village schoolmaster--first Laurent, then
Louis Charrasse (15/10.), and later Jullian--and a blind man, Marius.
This latter lost his sight at the age of twenty. Then, to earn a living, he
began to make and repair chairs, and in his misfortune, although blind and
extremely poor, he kept a calm and contented mind.
Fabre had discovered the sage and the blind man on his arrival at Sérignan,
and also Favier (15/11.), "that other native, whose jovial spirit was so
prompt to respond, and who helped to dig up the Harmas; to set up the
planks and tiles of the little kitchen-garden; a rude task, since this
scrap of uncultivated ground was then but a terrible desert of pebbles." To
Favier fell the care of the flowers, for the new owner was a great lover of
flowers. Potted plants, sometimes of rare species, were already, as to-day,
crowded in rows upon the terrace before the house, where all the summer
they formed a sort of vestibule in the open air, on either side of the
entrance; and these Fabre never ceased to watch over with constant and
meticulous care. Both spoke the same language, and the words they exchanged
were born of a like philosophy; for Favier also loved nature in his own
way, and at heart was an artist; and when, after the day's work, sitting
"on the high stone of the kitchen hearth, where round logs of green oak
were blazing," he would evoke, in his picturesque and figurative language,
the memories of an old campaigner, he charmed all the household and the
evening seemed to pass with strange rapidity.
When this precious servant and boon companion had disappeared, after two
years of digging, sowing, weeding, and hoeing, all was ready; the frame was
completed and the work could be commenced. It was then that Marius became
the master's appointed collaborator, and it is he who now constructs his
apparatus, his experimental cages; stuffs his birds, helps to ransack the
soil, and shades him with an umbrella while he watches under the burning
sun. Marius cannot see, but so intimate is his communion with his master,
so keen his enthusiasm for all that Fabre does, that he follows in his
mind's eye, and as though he could actually see them, all the doings at
which he assists, and whose inward reflection lights up his wondering
Marius was not only rich in feeling and the gift of inner vision; he had
also a marvellously correct ear. He was a member of the "Fanfare" of
Sérignan, in which he played the big drum, and there was no one like him
for keeping perfect time and for bringing out the clash of the cymbals.
Charrasse was no less fervent a disciple; he worshipped science and all
beautiful things; and he could even conceive a noble passion for his
exhausting trade of school-teaching.
Like Marius, he ate "a bitter bread"; and Fabre would get on with them all
the better in that they, like himself, had lived a difficult life. "Man is
like the medlar," he liked to tell them; "he is worth nothing until he has
ripened a long time in the attic, on the straw."
"L'homme est comme la nèfle, il n'est rien qui vaille
S'il n'a mûri longtemps, au grenier, sur la paille."
These humble companions afforded him the simple conversation which he likes
so well; so natural, and so full of sympathy and common sense. They
customarily spent Thursday and Sunday afternoons at the Harmas; but these
beloved disciples might call at any hour; the master always welcomed them,
even in the morning, even when he was entirely absorbed in his work and
could not bear any one about him. They were his circle, his academy; he
would read them the last chapter written in the morning; he shared his
latest discoveries with them; he did not fear to ask advice of their
"fertile ignorance." (15/12.)
Charrasse was a "Félibre," versed in all the secrets of the Provençal
idiom, of which he knew all the popular terms, the typical expressions and
turns of speech; and Fabre loved to consult him, to read some charming
verses which he had just discovered, or to recite some delightful rustic
poem with which he had just been inspired; for in such occupations he found
one of his favourite relaxations, giving free vent to his fancy, a loose
rein to the poet that dwells within him. These poems the piety of his
brother has preserved in the collection entitled "Oubreto." It is at such a
moment that one should see his black eyes, full of fire; his power of
mimicry and expression, his impassioned features, lit up by inspiration,
truly idealized, almost transfigured, are at such times a thing to be
Sometimes, again, in the shadow of the planes, on summer afternoons, when
the cigales were falling silent; or in the winter, before the blazing
fireplace, in that dining-room on the ground floor in which he welcomed his
visitors; when out of doors the mistral was roaring and raging, or the rain
clattering on the panes, the little circle was enlarged by certain new-
comers, his nephews, nieces, a few intimates, of whom, a little later, I
myself was often one. At such times his humour and imagination were given
full play, and it was truly a rare pleasure to sit there, sipping a glass
of mulled wine, during those delightful and earnest hours; to taste the
charm of his smiling philosophy, his picturesque conversation, full of
exact ideas, all the more profound in that they were founded on experience
and pointed or adorned by proverbs, adages, and anecdotes. Thanks to the
daily reading of the "Temps," which one of his friends regularly sends him,
Fabre is in touch with all the ideas of the day, and expresses his judgment
of them; for example, he does not conceal his scepticism with regard to
certain modern inventions, such as the aeroplane, whose novelty rather
disturbs his mind, and whose practical bearing seems to him to be on the
whole somewhat limited.
Thus even the most recent incidents find their way into the solitude of the
Harmas and help to sustain the conversation.
"The first time we resume our Sérignan evenings," he wrote to his nephew on
the morrow of one of these intimate gatherings, "we will have a little chat
about your Justinian, whom the recent drama of "Théodora" has just made the
fashion. Do you know the history of that terrible hussy and her stupid
husband? Perhaps not entirely; it is a treat I am keeping for you."
The only subject which is hardly ever mentioned during these evenings at
Sérignan is politics, although Fabre, strange as it may seem, was one year
appointed to sit on the municipal council.
The son of peasants, who has emerged from the people yet has always
remained a peasant, has too keen a sense of injustice not to be a democrat;
and how many young men has he not taught to emancipate themselves by
knowledge? But above all he is proud of being a Frenchman; his mind, so
lucid, so logical, which has never gone abroad in search of its own
inspirations, and has never been influenced by any but those old French
masters, François Dufour and Réaumur, and the old French classics, has
always felt an instinctive repugnance, which it has never been able to
overcome, for all those ideas which some are surreptitiously seeking to put
forward in our midst in favour of some foreign trade-mark.
Although his visit to the court of Napoleon III left him with a rather
sympathetic idea of the Emperor, whose gentle, dreamy appearance he still
likes to recall, he detested the Empire and the "brigand's trick" which
On the day of the proclamation of the Republic he was seen in the streets
of Avignon in company with some of his pupils. He was agreeably surprised
at the turn events had taken, and delighted by the unforeseen result of the
A spirit as proud and independent as his was naturally the enemy of any
species of servitude. State socialism of the equalitarian and communistic
kind was to him no less horrifying. Was not Nature at hand, always to
remind him of her eternal lessons?
"Equality, a magnificent political label, but scarcely more! Where is it,
this equality? In our societies shall we find even two persons exactly
equal in vigour, health, intelligence, capacity for work, foresight, and so
many other gifts which are the great factors of prosperity?...A single note