musings

‘The Entomologist’s Dream’

In The Entomologist’s Dream (1909) by Edmund Dulac an entomologist – in a state of near collapse – bears witness to an ominous kaleidoscope of butterflies that envelop his bedroom in a mantle of blue chaos. The insect-collector’s beloved specimens have escaped: struggling from their skewers and shattering their glass-fronted prisons. (It is left up to viewer to determine whether they seek freedom or vengeance.)

The work is an illustration for Le Papillon Rouge (the red butterfly)  by Gerard d’Houville, a tragic love story published in L ‘Illustration, Numero de Noel 1909 the French news and art magazine. (In the tale an entomologist plunders his collection, in a state of moonlit delirium, incensed with his failure to capture a blood red butterfly for his lady love.)

A sense of anxiety pervades the practice of entomology – the use of chloroform, killing jars and other lethal devices leaving many naturalists with a sense of guilt.

The killing jar was an ordinary glass preserving can, with a small lump of cyanide of potassium, covered by a thin layer of plaster. An entomologist was instructed to arrange the insect, once dead, in ‘a natural position’. Killing jars habitually resulted in a slow death for the imprisoned insect – it was difficult to settle upon a formula that would result in death swiftly without damaging the insect’s fragile carcass. In the midst of searching for such a ‘sweet spot’ an entomologist was often faced with specimens that  were prone to spontaneous resurrection.

Much of the literature in the late 1840s ruminated upon the question of entomological suffering. Naturalists made use of insects to contemplate hierarchies of pain: paying special attention to cases of insect decapitation. One naturalist, for example, was shocked to see that a dragonfly he had just pinned through the thorax still clutched a struggling fly in its forelegs – and proceeded to eat it.

Similarly, George Henry Lewes affirmed that ‘an insect pinned to the table will continue to eat and a headless fly or worm will writhe and twist if touched.’

Imagining the horror of a man eating under such circumstances, many entomologists of the age  (gladly) concluded that an insect was not capable of experiencing emotional trauma as we do. (Though they might ‘learn’ to avoid stimulus associated with sustained tissue damage.)

killing jar

If we classify pain as an emotional response (a conscious experience) -does the question of insect pain hinge upon the concept of insect emotion? How on earth could we determine if an insect’s experience is intertwined with ‘anthropomorphic’ factors like  mood, personality, disposition, or motivation?

(Hit me up with any other examples you have of ‘entomological anxiety’.)


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Published by Rosalind White

I am a first-year PhD student at Royal Holloway looking at gender & emotions in the science & literature of the nineteenth-century. My research looks at how natural history in many ways dwelt within the feminine sphere of Victorian culture. And charts a more intimate, personal exploration of natural history that examines the lives of its practitioners beyond the impact of conventional watersheds.

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