Fabre, Poet of Science

Author: Georges Victor Legros

Chapter 11. Harmonies and Discords.

Such indeed is the economy of nature that secret relations and astonishing concordances exist throughout the whole vast weft of things. There are no loose ends; everything is consequent and ordered. Hidden harmonies meet and mingle.

Among the terebinth lice, "when the population is mature, the gall is ripe also, so fully do the calendars of the shrub and the animal coincide"; and the mortal enemy of the Halictus, the sinister midge of the springtime, is hatched at the very moment when the bee begins to wander in search of a location for its burrows.

The fantastic history of the larvae of the Anthrax furnishes us with one of the most suggestive examples of these strange coincidences. (10/9.)

The Anthrax is a black fly, which sows its eggs on the surface of the nests of the Mason-bee, whose larvae are at the moment reposing in their silken cocoons.

"The grub of the Anthrax emerges and comes to life under the touch of the sunlight. Its cradle is the rugged surface of the cell; it is welcomed into the world by a literally stony harshness...Obstinately it probes the chinks and pores of the nest; glides over it, crawls forward, returns, and recommences. The radicle of the germinating seed is not more persevering, not more determined to descend into the cool damp earth. What inspiration impels it? What compass guides it? What does the root know of the fertility of the soil?...The nurseling, the seed of the Anthrax, is barely visible, almost escaping the gaze of the magnifying glass; a mere atom compared to the monstrous foster-mother which it will drain to the very skin. Its mouth is a sucker, with neither fangs nor jaws, incapable of producing the smallest wound; it sucks in place of eating, and its attack is a kiss." It practises, in short, a most astonishing art, "another variation of the marvellous art of feeding on the victim without killing it until the end of the meal, in order always to have a store of fresh meat. During the fourteen days through which the nourishment of the Anthrax continues, the aspect of the larva remains that of living flesh; until all its substance has been literally transferred, by a kind of transpiration, to the body of the nurseling, and the victim, slowly exhausted, drained to the last drop, while retaining to the end just enough life to prove refractory to decomposition, is reduced to the mere skin, which, being insufflated, puffs itself out and resumes the precise form of the larva, there being nowhere a point of escape for the compressed air."

Now the grub of the Anthrax "appears precisely at the exact moment when the larva of the Chalicodoma is attacked by that lethargy which precedes metamorphosis, and which renders it insensible, and during which the substance of the grub about to be transfigured into a bee commences to break down and resolve itself into a liquid pulp, for the processes of life always liquefy the grub before achieving the perfect insect." (11/2.)

Here again the time-tables coincide.

But it is perhaps in the celebrated Odyssey of the grub of the Sitaris that Fabre most urgently claims our admiration for the marvellous and incomprehensible wisdom of the Unconscious!

Let us recapitulate the unheard-of series of events, the inextricable complication of circumstances, which are required to condition the lowly life of a Sitaris.

In the first place, this microscopic creature must be provided with talons, or how could it adhere to the fleece of the Anthophora, on which it must live as parasite for a certain length of time?

Then again, it must transfer itself from the male to the female bee in the course of its travels abroad, or its destiny would be cut short.

Again, it must not miss the opportunity of embarking itself upon the egg just at the propitious moment.

Then the volume of this egg must be so calculated as to represent an allowance of food exactly proportioned to the duration of the first phase of its metamorphosis. Moreover, the quantity of honey accumulated by the bee must suffice for the whole of the remaining cycle of its larval existence.

Let a single link of the chain be broken, and the entire species of the Sitaris is no longer possible.

If every species has its law; if the Geotrupes remain faithful to filth, although experience shows that they can accommodate themselves equally well to the putrefaction of decayed leaves; if the predatory species—the Cerceris, the Sphex, the Ammophila—resort only to one species of quarry to nourish their larvae, although these same larvae accept all indifferently, it is on account of those superior economic laws and secret alliances the profound reasons for which as a rule escape us or are beyond the scope of our theories.

For all things are produced and interlocked by the eternal necessity; link engages in link, and life is only a plexus of solitary forces allied among themselves by their very nature, the condition of which is harmony. And the whole system of living creatures appears to us, through the work of the great naturalist, as an immense organism, a sort of vast physiological apparatus, of which all the parts are mutually interdependent, and as narrowly controlled as all the cells of the human body.

Fabre goes on to present us with other facts, which at a first glance appear highly immoral; I am referring to certain phases of sexual love among the lower animals, and his ghoulish revelations concerning the horrible bridals of the Arachnoids, the Millepoda, and the Locustidae.

The Decticus surrenders only to a single exploit of love; a victim of its "strange genesics"; utterly exhausted by the first embrace, empty, drained, extenuated, motionless in all its members, utterly worn out, it quickly succumbs, a mere broken simulacrum, like the miserable lover of a monstrous succubus who "loves him enough to devour him." (11/3.)

The female scorpion devours the male; "all is gone but the tail!"

The female Spider delights in the flesh of her lover.

The cricket also devours a small portion of her "debonair" admirer.

The Ephippigera "excavates the stomach of her companion and eats him."

But the horror of these nuptial tragedies is surpassed by the insatiable lust, the monstrous conjunction, the bestial delights of the Mantis, that "ferocious spectre, never wearied of embraces, munching the brains of its spouse at the very moment of surrendering her flanks to him." (11/4.)

Whence these strange discords, these frightful appetites?

Fabre refers us to the remotest ages, to the depths of the geological night, and does not hesitate to regard these cruelties as "remnants of atavism," the lingering furies of an ancient strain, and he ventures a profound and plausible explanation.

The Locusts, the Crickets, and the Scolopendrae are the last representatives of a very ancient world, of an extinct fauna, of an early creation, whose perverse and unbridled instincts were given free vent, when creation was as yet but dimly outlined, "still making the earliest essays of its organizing forces"; when the primitive Orthoptera, "the obscure forebears of those of to-day, were "sowing the wild oats of a frantic rut, "in the colossal forests of the secondary period; by the borders of the vast lakes, full of crocodiles, and antediluvian marshes, which in Provence were shaded by palms, and strange ferns, and giant Lycopodia, never as yet enlivened by the song of a bird.

These monstrosities, in which life was making its essays, were subject to singular physical necessities. The female reigned alone; the male did not as yet exist, or was tolerated only for the sake of his indispensable assistance. But he served also another and less obvious end; his substance, or at least some portion of his substance, was an almost necessary ingredient in the act of generation, something in the nature of a necessary excitant of the ovaries, "a horrible titbit," which completed and consummated the great task of fecundation. Such, in Fabre’s eyes, was the imperious physiological reason of these rude laws. This is why the love of the males is almost equivalent to their suicide; the Gardener-beetle, attacked by the female, attempts to flee, but does not defend himself; "it is as though an invincible repugnance prevents him from repulsing or from eating the eater." In the same way the male scorpion "allows himself to be devoured by his companion without ever attempting to employ his sting," and the lover of the Mantis "allows himself to be nibbled to pieces without any revolt on his part."

A strange morality, but not more strange than the organic peculiarities which are its foundation; a strange world, but perhaps some distant sun may light others like it.

These terrible creatures are a source of dismay to Fabre. If all things proceed from an underlying Reason, if the divine harmony of things testifies everywhere to a sovereign Logic, how shall the proofs of its excellence and its sovereign wisdom be found in such things as these?

Far from attributing to the order of the universe a supposed perfection, far from considering nature as the most immediate expression of the Good and the Beautiful, in the words of Tolstoy (11/5.), he sees in it only a rough sketch which a hidden God, hidden, but close at hand, and living eternally present in the heart of His creatures, is seeking to test and to shape.

Living always with his eyes upon some secret of the marvels of God, whom he sees in every bush, in every tree, "although He is veiled from our imperfect senses" (11/6.), the vilest insect reveals to him, in the least of its actions, a fragment of this universal Intelligence.

What marvels indeed when seen from above! But consider the Reverse—what antinomies, what flagrant contradictions! What poor and sordid means! And Fabre is astonished, in spite of all his candid faith, that the fatality of the belly should have entered into the Divine plan, and the necessity of all those atrocious acts in which the Unconscious delights. Could not God ensure the preservation of life by less violent means? Why these subterranean dramas, these slow assassinations? Why has Evil, THE POISON OF THE GOOD (11/7.), crept in everywhere, even to the origin of life, like an eternal Parasite?

Within this fatal circle, in which the devourer and the devoured, the exploiter and the exploited, lead an eternal dance, can we not perceive a ray of light?

For what is it that we see?

The victims are not merely the predestined victims of their persecutors. They seek neither to struggle nor to escape nor to evade the inevitable; one might say that by a kind of renunciation they offer themselves up whole as a sacrifice!

What irresistible destiny impels the bee to meet half-way the Philanthus, its terrible enemy! The Tarantula, which could so easily withstand the Pompilus, when the latter rashly carries war into its lair, does not disturb itself, and never dreams of using its poisoned fangs. Not less absolute is the submission of the grasshopper before the Mantis, which itself has its tyrant, the Tachytes.

Similarly those which have reason to fear for their offspring, if not for themselves, do nothing to evade the enemy which watches for them; the Megachile, although it could easily destroy it, is indifferent to the presence of a miserable midge, "the bandit who is always there, meditating its crime"; the Bembex, confronted with the Tachinarius, cannot control its terror, but nevertheless resigns itself, while squeaking with fright.

If each creature is what it is only because it is a necessary part of the plan of the supreme Artisan who has constructed the universe, why have some the right of life and death and others the terrible duty of immolation?

Do not both obey, not the gloomy law of carnage, but a kind of sovereign and exquisite sacrifice, some sort of unconscious idea of submission to a superior and collective interest?

This hypothesis, which was one day suggested to Fabre by a friend of great intellectual culture (11/8.), charmed and interested him keenly. I noticed that he was more than usually attentive, and he seemed to me to be suddenly reassured and appeased. For him it was as though a faint ray of light had suddenly fallen among these impenetrable and distressing problems.

It seemed to him that by setting before our eyes the spectacle of so many woes, universally distributed, and doubtless necessary, woes which do not spare even the humblest of creatures, the Sovereign Intelligence intends to exhort us to examine ourselves truly and to dispose us to greater love and pity and resignation.

All his work is highly and essentially religious; and while he has given us a taste for nature, he has not also endeavoured to give us, according to the expression of Bossuet "the taste for God," or at least a sense of the divine? In opposing the doctrine of evolution, which reduces the animal world to the mere virtualities of the cell; in revealing to us all these marvels which seem destined always to escape human comprehension; finally, by referring us more necessarily than ever to the unfathomable problem of our origins, Fabre has reopened the door of mystery, the door of the divine Unknown, in which the religion of men must always renew itself. We should belittle his thought, we should dwarf the man himself, were we to seek to confine to any particular thesis his spiritualistic conception of the universe.

Fabre recognizes and adores in nature only the great eternal Power, whose imprint is everywhere revealed by the phenomena of matter.

For this reason he has all his life remained free from all superstition and has been completely indifferent to dogmas and miracles, which to his mind imply not only a profound ignorance of science, but also a gross and complete miscomprehension of the divine Intelligence. He kneels upon the ground or among the grasses only the more closely to adore that force, the source of all order, the intuitive knowledge of which, innate in all creatures, even in the tiny immovable minds of animals, is merely a magnificent and gratuitous gift. The office in which he eagerly communicates is that glorious and formidable Mass in which the ragged sower, "noble in his tatters, a pontiff in shabby small-clothes, solemn as a God, blesses the soil, more majestic than the bishop in his glory at Easter-tide." (11/9.) It is there that he finds his "Ideal," in the incense of the perfumes "which are softly exhaled from the shapely flowers, from their censers of gold," in the heart of all creatures, "chaffinch and siskin, skylark and goldfinch, tiny choristers" piping and trilling, "elaborating their motets" to the glory of Him who gave them voice and wings on the fifth day of Genesis. He fraternizes with all, with his dogs and his cats, his tame tortoise, and even the "slimy and swollen frog"; the "Philosopher" of the Harmas, whose murky eyes he loves to interrogate as he paces his garden "by the light of the stars"; persuaded that all are accomplishing a useful work, and that all creatures, from the humblest insect which has only nibbled a leaf, or displaced a few grains of sand, to man himself, are anointed with the same chrism of immortality.

And as he has always set the pleasures of study before all others, he can imagine no greater recompense after death than to obtain from heaven permission still to continue in their midst, during eternity, his life of labour and effort.


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Chicago: Georges Victor Legros, "Chapter 11. Harmonies and Discords.," Fabre, Poet of Science, ed. Darwin, Francis, Sir, 1848-1925 and Seward, A. C. (Albert Charles), 1863-1941 and trans. Miall, Bernard in Fabre, Poet of Science Original Sources, accessed December 10, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4T7A7XJXU1CHGH3.

MLA: Legros, Georges Victor. "Chapter 11. Harmonies and Discords." Fabre, Poet of Science, edited by Darwin, Francis, Sir, 1848-1925 and Seward, A. C. (Albert Charles), 1863-1941, and translated by Miall, Bernard, in Fabre, Poet of Science, Original Sources. 10 Dec. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4T7A7XJXU1CHGH3.

Harvard: Legros, GV, 'Chapter 11. Harmonies and Discords.' in Fabre, Poet of Science, ed. and trans. . cited in , Fabre, Poet of Science. Original Sources, retrieved 10 December 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4T7A7XJXU1CHGH3.