home     authors     titles     dates     links     about


10 march 2011

I'm not afraid of spiders. Well, that sounds like bravado. I don't like the idea of tarantulas crawling across my forehead in the night any more than the next guy. But I find a well-behaved spider in its web to be intriguing, even companionable. I tend not to disturb household spiders, enabling my domestic inertia by telling myself that they're entirely beneficial. When I see a fly struggling in a web, I root for the spider. I am not a big fan of flies, and I admit to a certain small-scale Schadenfreude in seeing a little spider about to chow down on a fat insect. I haven't gone so far as to give any of our resident spiders names, but as fauna go, I'm pretty comfortable with them.

Contrast former major-league baseball player Glenallen Hill. Hill once had to go on the disabled list because he'd severely injured himself while having a dream about spiders. In Spider, Katarzyna and Sergiusz Michalski report disturbing spider dreams from cultural history, including some truly Godawful Spinneträume reported by sculptor Alberto Giacometti. But even Giacometti never sprained his sculpting hand trying to get away from dream spiders.

Glenallen Hill makes no appearance in Spider; neither do less esoteric cultural manifestations of the spider, like poems by Whitman, Dickinson, or Frost, or the loathsome Shelob from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The majority of spider references in the Michalskis' book come from central and eastern European sources. "No comprehensive history of [the spider's] cultural symbolics has appeared in English," the Michalskis say as exigence for their study (16), and one might say that not much is here in English about the spider in English.

I'll say that, but to object to the book on those grounds would just be parochialism in another direction. I learned a lot about cultural and political uses of the spider in late-19th-century and early-20th-century Germany and Russia from the Michalskis. Spiders loomed large in psychoanalysis, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and in propaganda pro and con both fascism and communism. The Michalskis are also good on earlier moralizings of the spider, and its place in the Western art tradition. One principle emerges, though they don't comment much on it. Before the age of microscopes, spiders in art were pretty much just squiggles on webs. But over the last few centuries, the spider has gotten bigger and more elaborated in our imaginations. The Michalskis spend a chapter on outsized spider monsters in cheap Hollywood versions, and it's a rollicking chapter indeed.

The ultimate test of my arachnophilia might come if I ever see a giant sheet spider web of the sort that occurs right here in Texas (the one shown is from Lake Tawakoni State Park, in 2007). I like spider webs to cover a corner of a windowframe, not the better part of an acre. But one has to admire either achievement. As Dickinson said, "Neglected son of genius, I take thee by the hand."

Michalski, Katarzyna & Sergiusz. Spider. London: Reaktion, 2010.