The Berlin-based author Yoko Tawada recently remarked that one of the difficulties she faced when translating Kafka’s short story “Metamorphosis” into Japanese was that the associations Japanese people had with insects — even presumably giant beetles — were different to those of Europeans. Tawada was alluding to the idea that Japanese appreciation of insects is one marker of Japanese cultural uniqueness.

Insect Literature, by Lafcadio Hearn
272 pages
Swan River Press, Nonfiction.

A major proponent of this Japanese “insect appreciation” argument was Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), the Irish author celebrated as the Westerner who has perhaps come closest to grasping the unique “soul” of Japan. In numerous essays, in collections such as “Kottō” (1902) and his masterpiece “Kwaidan” (1904), Hearn wrote of the Japanese tradition of being affected by the beauty of fireflies or the sound of summer cicadas. Hearn, who was himself born in Greece, argued that the Japanese shared with ancient Greeks a poetic sensibility that allowed them to appreciate the beauty and wonder of insects.

Hearn wrote beguilingly of such matters as the legendary battle between Heike fireflies and the larger Genji fireflies that takes place annually on the banks of the Uji River. He also traced the evolution of the colossal trade in “musical insects,” such as crickets and grasshoppers, sold at night fairs in temples in the 19th century and kept at home in tiny cages for their sonorous qualities. He also compiled and translated lists of celebrated haiku devoted to butterflies, dragonflies, fireflies and other insects.

But, why were the Japanese more appreciative of the insect kingdom than Westerners? According to Hearn, the answer partly lay in religious traditions. In Japan, Buddhism teaches that a person might be reincarnated as any kind of animal or insect, creating a strong sense of continuity between the human and insect realms. That butterfly flapping above your head may contain the soul of a deceased lover.

“Insect Literature” is a reprint of a selection of 10 essays by Hearn about insects, first published in Japan in 1921, long after Hearn’s death. To these have then been added a further 10 insect-related pieces including some of Hearn’s early journalism from his days as a reporter in New Orleans in the 1880s and some of his lectures at the University of Tokyo, where he taught English literature from 1896 to 1903.

Ironically, Hearn is at his weakest when discussing Japanese literature. Hearn’s translations of haiku, which stud this volume and which nearly all conclude with an exclamation mark, are uniformly excruciating. The book, however, makes a very significant contribution in helping to grasp exactly what kind of writer Hearn was and why it is a travesty to think of him as a mere Japanologist.

His superb lecture, “Some Poems about Insects,” which includes astute dissections of poems by Robert Browning, Arthur Quiller-Couch and Tennyson, makes it clear why Hearn was so prized by his cohort of ultra-elite students at the University of Tokyo.

Hearn constantly sought out cultures — from the Caribbean to Japan — that offered an alternative to Western imperial certainties and discerned that a sense of childlike wonder, an intense realization of the mysteriousness of the world around us, had been lost in modern times. But Hearn had already appraised that there was another mysterious world in our immediate vicinity: the kingdom of insects. For Hearn, the lifelong quest for “other-worldliness” that ultimately led him to Japan was exactly the same impulse that drew him to the world of insects.

Humans (in the West at least) had, he argued, become numb to the magic and horror implicit in the daily lives of insects. Hearn writes incisively of how time as perceived by insects must be entirely different to that perceived by humans.

Insects have, he observes, powers of sight, hearing and flight unimaginable to humans and he is peerless at describing the unmatchable gothic horror of those tarantula whose destiny it is to be impregnated with the larvae of wasps and see out a life of living hell, in which the larvae literally eat it alive. Or else he writes about the musical cricket kept by him in a cage that the maid neglects to feed, and ends up eating its own legs.

Hearn’s ideas were given particular synergy by his discovery of Buddhist thought that not only linked humans and insects in a cycle of reincarnation but connected them also to the realm of ghosts and hell. Hearn’s Irish gothic imagination begins to consider whether he himself might be reborn as an insect and, notwithstanding all the potential horrors, finds himself attracted to the idea — in true Hearnian style — of embarking on a perception of existence unlike anything he has ever known before.

The other great star of this sumptuous book, apart from Hearn himself, has to be its publisher, Swan River Press, which with meticulous care has created a beautiful edition replete with original illustrations and superb cover design. Hearn’s disparate musings on insects undergo a unifying, inspirational metamorphosis into a magical butterfly.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.