Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Spider and the Butterfly

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than is dreamt of in your philosophy.
- William Shakespeare

Did you ever do something that you thought was Good, but it left you with none of the pulp and juice as the fruity reward you expected for your moral victory? Did you ever bite into a juicy orange, for the first time, maybe the first after a succession of first times, only to find that it was not the same as fizzy fanta foaming over the rim, or sugary orange juice, sweet, light and refreshing, or even like plain old freshly squeezed orange juice?

You’d bite into that segment of orange, and its white exterior veins would tell you something primal about the world which you might mistake to be some sort of fuzzy thing about nature, how we’re all one, how we should all go dancing in the field, and how God is alive within us so we should rejoice. Or you might divine from the oranges exterior entrails that God the oppressor is dead so we should rejoice in our freedom. Or something boring like that.

That day, that day I was in the sitting room of my family’s home. It was an ordinary enough day and unbeknownst to myself I was feeling particularly heroic, or I would be a few moments later when I noticed, in the corner of the room underneath a desk, a cobweb.

On its edges stood a spider, silent, obedient and watching, waiting for something to die. In the centre was quite possibly the biggest meal the spider could ever hope to have - a butterfly. Beauty had met the beast in my eye. The beast was winning.

My brother has always been scared of butterflies for some reason. When one would get trapped in the house, flying around gallantly, bumping off turned-on light bulbs as if it were on a Kamikaze mission to the sun, making all the ruckus of a large animal in a zoo, my brother would insist that they be gotten rid of. From his bedroom, at the very least. And this job usually came to me. 

I have always had an odd sense of morality when it came to animals that reminds me, thinking back on my meetings with our ancestral kinsfolk, of tales of Buddhist monks afraid to hurt a fly out of respect for the great wheel of life. However, my morality was not a religious one, nor was it so sturdy a structure as to send me on a guilt trip when I did end up, accidentally or otherwise, killing a small insect or what not. I was never even particularly squeamish around dead things. I had seen my father white like marble in a coffin when I was six. I had seen worse than a dead creeping thing. Much worse. 

So the job usually came to me. I was the natural choice to clear the mousetraps in the morning. I would go down in the morning before my mother got up (she insisted) and check the traps and dispose of the evidence before anyone saw.

One time I went down and the scene was particularly gruesome. A small mouse had mousetrap''''s metal bar spring down on him, catching him not on the neck but on the head. It was probably a quicker, less painful death than if it had come down on his neck as the mousetrap was designed to do. Still, it made me wince all the same, with its little mouth open and a pile of gloomy crimson in front of it, sprayed out across the floor.

Messy business, that.

In general then, despite a history of traumatic experiences with the dead, I wasn’t one to kill a living thing really unless it was of a clear and distinct threat in some some way, shape or form. I can’t really recall when that was ever the case really. 

I do remember a time when I may have, but probably didn't, kill the biggest spider I have ever seen. It had a leg span that could reach the edges of my fist. I know this because it fell on it as I opened the door to my shed that my brother and I once dubbed as “spider haven”. It was a neglected place, a creeping cobwebbed place.

I opened the door and it fell on my hand. In the split second that it stayed there, I looked down at it, and saw its gigantic bulbous body and its long long legs. I screamed and flung my arm to one side sending the spider flying across the garden. 

I doubt I killed him, but I may have.I didn't feel guilty. Still, there was a pang of something there, the ghost of a memory haunting me.

I think it came from my mother. I was never particularly fond of spiders, but I remember something primal that lies in the fog of early memory. She said something to me that has lost its context but has some sort of tongue-in-cheek truth to it. These are things that you remember where the when and the what, or even why, are all in question. Well, "in question' is the wrong phrase. Instead, they don't even matter. 

She said to me that you should never kill a spider and that it couldn’t kill you if you wanted it to and it didn’t hurt us in any way to have one of the creeping things lying dormant on a cobweb in some darkened corner of the house.

Our objection to spiders is in most cases an aesthetic one; they are scary things, as if they were something from some forgotten past, deadly; black, silent, dedicated, remorseless. It was all of those things, rolled into a package that was most alien to us, like a bad piece of modernist art, or a primordial stain of some trace trauma lost in the deep deep past. Nasty little things, as my friend would say. He who would not sleep in the same room as one of those little buggers in their webs.

My mother’s direction, I suppose now, was guided by some sort of vision towards tolerance and acceptance of that which sends your guts shaking at first. It was a challenge, then, of the will over the unconscious, the mind over instinct, the decision over the action, the vision over the reality, the abstraction over the concrete, the natural over the unnatural.

The key to this little teaching was hidden, perhaps, behind the binary logic which encourages us to do a moral act, to show mercy and tolerance. The key, hidden and unknown by teacher, only revealed in a residue after the lesson had been thought, was to acknowledge our minds as an opposite-machine, a moral filter, and then to err on the side of good. 

Yet we think like this simply because we do. It is a weird mix of biology, social conditioning and instinct or even something approaching divine providence (if you’re really that confident) that gives us our role as moral arbiter standing over the entire Cosmos. This is a sort of heady cocktail which in the real politick of the universe is transformed  into some sort of whole, if we can even say that much.

So there I was, at my most human, watching a little spider spinning web around that gargantuan butterfly, and feeling that I had a duty to save it somehow. I found a compass and I tore him away from his would-be sticky white tomb. I wonder, now, did he have any memory from before he went into the chrysalis and transformed from a little green crawling thing into that eagle of the insect world? Come to think of it, he would have gone out very much the way he had come in if the spider had its way. 

The chrysalis, the sticky white spider cocoon, its birth, its death. 

If it did remember the time before, when it was a completely different creature, then perhaps it held out a hope that it would be reborn after its death as some sort of simpler life form. Perhaps it was a Buddhist or a hindu in its own way. Or maybe the cocoon had become for it a warm place reminding it of its initial becoming.

I remember looking at the spider when I cut its web and tried to free my beautiful butterfly. I imagined that it would for me feel like a victory, like I had defeated the evil ogre and won the heart of the princess. I was very idealistic in my day, you see. But the spider simply retreated, waiting at the edge of its shattered web, possibly looking on in disbelief. I remember thinking something very strange right then, something that put this whole Good project in doubt. 

I had no doubt, right up until that moment, that I was following some natural order. A natural order, naturally connected to nature as a whole thing, a divine law or a moral order that comes from the silent GOD of our modern age. Right up until that moment. I was doing the work of Good, GOD's work.

I used the compass to pry away the web as best I could from the butterfly. It knew nothing of what I did for it. The spider waited silently on his web. And that butterfly staggered away, and died a few days later. I had done the right thing. But it was a hollow victory.

It is as if we can’t know anything, but not really. We can know things, lots of things, we can see deep into the mechanics of the world and of life. But some things lie beyond us. In a mystical sense, yes, even though here I was going to assure you that it is not a mystical sense. But only the mystical can give credit to where its due in this case.

There is a certain level, a point beyond which we can’t understand. It is the place where the Question meets its final end; but also the place from which it commences. It is constituent in our existence as finite beings, as human beings, but it terrifies us. But it exists. You cannot say that it lies beyond the senses. It can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, quantified, analised, fucked, made love to, injected, snorted, smoked, toked, experienced or mulled over. But it is part of all of those things. You cannot wish to see it, for it will slip away. But you will know when you do. I seen it in the spider and the butterfly.

Truly, there is a world beyond what we can know and see. It lies everywhere.

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