Jainism, an Indian religion prescribing a path of nonviolence towards all living beings, professes a doctrine of Ahimsa (non-injury, absence of desire to harm), one expression of which is sweeping the ground with very small brushes before stepping on it so that no life forms get trodden on. In the West, our approach to insects is quite the opposite: we despise them, associate with dirt and diseases, we are repulsed by them. In that, we are very far in our approach from ancient Egyptians, who revered the humble dung beetle as the symbol of the rising sun, renewal, transformation and resurrection.
In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the monstrous vermin the main character transforms into is the ultimate symbol of utter repulsion and rejection. But there is a deeper meaning to Kafka’s story. Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis into an insect is his psyche’s reaction against sadistic one-sidedness of patriarchy. Because our dominant Western religion has been removed from the earth and has lost connection to its chthonic roots, we can see nothing sacred in the humble insect. In the original German of Metamorphosis the insect is called “ungeheures Ungeziefer,” which means “an animal unfit to sacrifice,” dirty, unholy.
Drawing from popular culture, a psychological affinity between human and insect is quite significant in the symbolism of a TV series “Breaking Bad.” Hank Schrader, a macho DEA agent relentless in combating drug crime, compares the offenders he tracks to cockroaches who crawl from under the fridge and need to be stepped on and squashed out. In a related scene, Jesse Pinkman, a meth manufacturer with a heart of gold, spots a black beetle on the ground. He crouches to take a closer look at the little creature, cradling it tenderly on his finger, then releasing it gently. In another scene, a young boy catches a tarantula into a jar while biking through a desert. A few hours later he becomes and unwitting witness to a crime and gets shot in cold blood – squished like an insect. As time goes by and the main protagonist’s (Walter white, chemistry teacher turning into a drug lord) soul gets more and more calloused, he begins to view murder as a mere act of swatting a fly. In fact, he seems to walk the opposite path than that of Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, who murders a greedy pawnbroker for cash to prove to the world and to himself that some people can commit murder for higher purpose (to rid the world of vermin). He says: “I killed a loathsome, harmful louse, a filthy old moneylender woman who brought no good to anyone, to murder whom would pardon forty sins, who sucked the lifeblood of the poor, and you call that a crime?” Dostoevsky’s novel tells the story of Raskolnikov gradually reclaiming his humanity, while Walter White gradually loses it. Simultaneously, the New Mexico desert in all its glory, the sky above it, the whole natural world, life itself, the cosmos, preside over all events, eternally beautiful and constant in their cycles. Insects seem to be visitors from the non-human cosmos, which we, the moderns, have lost touch with.
In his essay “Going Bugs” included in the tome Animal Presences, James Hillman offers a comprehensive look into the significance of insects for our psychology:
“We have yet to understand why the bugs raise such anxiety that eradication becomes the automatic response. This automatic step from fear to eradication leads to a further one into the world – pesticides. … This overkill may have its source in four frightening fantasies attributed to insects as their qualities.”
The qualities he attributes to insects are multiplicity, monstrosity, autonomy and mystery. The sheer number of insects, swarming in our imaginations, poses a threat to our uniqueness and individuality. This point to “fragmentation and the lowering of individualized consciousness to an undifferentiated, merely numerical or statistical level.” Symbolically, it threatens with the loss of centralized ego control. An ant colony, a locust cloud, a swarm of bees also demonstrate “wholeness, not as an abstract ideal but as a busy, buzzing body of life going every which way at once.” Because they are autonomous, impossible to control, we want them to be “crushed, burnt, and poisoned because they do not submit.” “The pesticidal ego” is terrified that it will be stripped of power and control, as it knows it is surrounded by flesh eating, relentless forces of nature. Bugs thrive on our “vegetative roots” – we are sharing our bodies, our food and our property with them.
In depth psychology terms, insects demonstrate a terrifying vision of “being eaten up by one’s complexes.” We fear “disintegration into myriad parts, infestation with discarded filth (the return of the repressed), affected by monstrosities.” In science fiction movies, insects are responsible for alteration of personality – the ego’s ultimate threat. The ego’s view of the personality is narrow and limiting while insects symbolize “the hungry unlived life that also needs food at your table.” Further, insects show us that in fact we humans are parasitic as well:
“If, as Jung said, the unconscious turns the face to you that you turn to it, then a parasitical invasion brings home to the host specifically how it depends in tiny hidden ways upon other psychic organisms, how it is influenced by complexes, how we use their blood to sustain our ambitions. The complexes, upon which we depend for our daily personality and from which we draw our energetic compulsion, show up in the dream as parasites, showing us up to be one among them, feeding off life’s banquet by taking care of number one, whether in workplace, family, friendship – or feeding off the dreams themselves, interpretation as a parasitical blood-sucking act, taking all, giving nothing back.”
Most naturally, insects feed our fear of death. They appear to come out from beyond, from the soil, from the underground, from hidden corners of “day-world structures.” They startke, appearing seemingly out of nowhere and suddenly, frequently announcing their arrival with otherworldly buzzing and ominous sounds. As Hillman says: “We re-enact the conquest of Christ over Pluto with our aerosol can of bug spray, swinging that censer in secular ritual, ridding each our own Garden of underworld demons.” No matter how many of them we exterminate, often harming ourselves with pesticides in the process, insects will remain primordial messengers of the unconscious life of the psyche and a symbol of all that we reject and are repulsed by in ourselves.
Source of quotes:
James Hillman, Animal Presences, “Going Bugs” (Kindle edition)