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  • I'm a Bug!
  • Joe Darlington
The Modernist Exoskeleton: Insects, War, Literary Form by Rachel Murray. Edinburgh University Press, 2020. £80. ISBN 9 7814 7445 8191

Insects are curious creatures. Their limited but very specialised functions, their segmented limbs and exoskeletons, and their strange, ticking movements all remind us of machinery. They live in an uncanny twilit world, half-living and half-dead, where creature and machine are barely separable. It should be no surprise, then, that the insect is a recurring symbol in the work of modernist writers. The early twentieth century, torn by the clashing forces of industrialisation and militarisation, drove many of its writers into these states: larval, chitinous, metamorphosing, and otherwise.

Rachel Murray's new book, The Modernist Exoskeleton, focuses on four key writers: Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, H.D., and Samuel Beckett. Each one takes a sustained interest in insects, and by reading their work in relation to this symbolism Murray offers us valuable new approaches to their poetics. Lewis hardens himself like a beetle. Lawrence itches like a parasite. H.D. transforms, like a moth in a cocoon. Beckett, meanwhile, squirms, demanding, like Estragon, 'tell me about the worms!'

Alongside these major writers, whose works are studied at length, Murray also makes mention of other key figures who, in a study on bugs in modernism, would be impossible to miss out. Joyce, for example, appears all over. Finnegans Wake, with its insect/incest puns and earwig-punning protagonist Earwicker, is preceded by his fable of 'The Ondt and the Grace-Hoper' (a story with a sly dig at Wyndham Lewis at its heart). Kafka's Metamorphosis is of course referenced too, as is Virginia Woolf's famous description of a buglike visual oddity she saw at the cinema: a giant, wriggling tadpole in the corner of the screen.

Entomology, we are told, was a pastime undergoing a powerful resurgence at this time. The old Victorian method of catching, killing, and pinning bugs to assess typology was being replaced by a behavioural approach that analysed insect behaviour. Jean-Henri Fabre was first among the popularisers. Ezra Pound described Fabre's work as 'essential to contemporary [End Page 76] clear thinking' (p. 8). Fabre influenced Darwin, whose theories were widely read at this time, as well as Freud and the then ubiquitous philosopher Henri Bergson.

Popular culture too was thoroughly infested. Early film was fascinated by insects, with documentaries like The Balancing Bluebottle (1908) inspiring trick films like The Acrobatic Fly (1910). Murray includes a series of stills from this latter film, showing close-ups of houseflies riding on exercise bikes and lifting weights. This led on to the feature-length The Cameraman's Revenge (1912), a Russian film animated using real insects as puppets. These films are a continuation of the 'flea circus', a mechanical entertainment where tiny objects (swing-sets, bicycles, merry-go-rounds) move around on their own, supposedly powered by fleas too small for the naked eye to register. The difference with the movies of the 1910s and 1920s is the incorporation of real insects. This reflected a new interest in the creatures themselves, not just the amazing feats they were shown to perform. National Geographic brought out its first collection of insect photography in 1914, and would produce more in the following year, responding to high demand.

Not all insect imagery was positive, however. War propaganda was filled with malicious spiders, killer wasps, and soldiers choking like flies in chemical gases. The visual art of the era, surrealism in particular, features all manner of insidious creepy-crawlies. In slang, one driven mad, whether by love or terror, might cry out: 'I'm a bug!' (this survives in the phrase 'bugging out').

Wyndham Lewis was himself one of these insidious bugs, or at least that's how he often painted himself. Hardened by the war, pummelled by modernity, he again and again returns to the image of an outer coating, a hard shell or exoskeleton. His Futurist portraiture is tough and fractal, with faces broken up into hard surfaces, straight lines, and chrome colour schemes. His literary characters are the same, with both Tarr and Snooty Baronet featuring protagonists bent out...


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