Lurie on Lafcadio Hearn and insects

Pardonne-moi, readers, for again I find myself too exhausted to blog. I’ll take the easy way out by merely pointing you to a totally rad paper I found some days ago: Orientomology: The Insect Literature of Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904). Kudos to David B. Lurie for not only writing it, but also making it freely available outside paywalls—he has some more stuff on his site, so I hope he won’t mind if I make this non-rotated version available here, for the benefit of those without a rotating browser plugin.

Last week I talked about Japanese words for clouds—this is one of the great thrills of Japanese literature for me; the attention paid to the scenario, the active effort to acknowledge and understand all the moving parts of our environment. Case in point: there’s an entire history of entomopoetics in there, and I’m envious of the fact that there’s nothing of the sort here. Nenpuku Sato, who was privileged in this matter for being all of a Japanese immigrant to Brazil, a haiku poet and a farmer, once bragged about having noticed that in this country the south wind is cold and the north hot; I don’t think many locals pay attention to this kind of stuff (gaúcho southerners with their minuano excluded). Here’s a famous Nempuku haiku that shows this Japanese process of poeticizing natural phenomena by naming them:


kaminari ya / yomo no jukai no ko-kaminari

all about in the sea of trees, thunderlets

“All about” is the Four Directions, i.e. from all sides; and jukai is a Japanese expression quite apropos for the Brazilian jungle . But the novelty here are the “little thunders” or “thunder-kids”, the echoing rumbles that seem to surround you in the sea of trees. It’s just spot-on; and I find it so enjoyable that a foreigner came here and was so sensitive to something we mostly don’t care about.

(Etymology trivia: Japanese kami-nari, “thunder”, comes from “cry of gods”; likewise, Brazilian natives believed thunder (tupã) to be the voice of gods. Then again, this notion must be pretty widespread worldwide.)

Hearn, the quintessential Japanophile, was also a foreigner with acute sensibility for local things. Lurie noticed that, on twelve books, Hearn included no less than eleven pieces about various insects in Japanese culture. He also noticed, insightfully, that such literary insects are perfect metonymies for Hearn’s complex feelings of attraction, ostranenie, and repulsion for “Japan”—for the Other, the elusive Other that he searched all his life. Read the essay to find how, after his death, Hearn actually achieved the dream and was reborn as a Japanese writer, in a very literal way—and what all that has to do with bugs.

5 thoughts on “Lurie on Lafcadio Hearn and insects

  1. First clouds, now bugs and thunder babies. I just might forgive you for not blogging more often. Thanks (from a reader who’s always identified with 虫愛づる姫君) for a post that’s chock-a-block with interesting stuff.

  2. Rurou: I set my own bar too high with the more technical posts I somehow managed to produce during vacations; but I suppose I’m being unrealistic—they each took a week-plus of reading and a day of typing, there’s no way I can write like that when classes are on. Thanks for taking the time to comment, it’s appreciated.

    Princess Buglover is such an interesting character, isn’t it? An early feminist scientist and social critic. Someone should write a full-lenght novel on her.

  3. Great! Its quite a discovery and free access too, even better.

    Speaking of Orientomology, the protagonist of Kobo Abe’s novel 砂の女 could be a likely candidate for an honourable mention on the list of modern (Japanese) insect literature (at least in terms of several of its tropes).

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