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17 september 2011

I heard a fly buzz when I was reading Steven Connor's excellent Fly – to make matters doubly fortuitous, I heard the fly buzz just as I started reading Connor's intriguing discussion of Emily Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz." I had been waiting for Dickinson to appear. Her poem is one of the most famous evocations of flies in Western literature; till I read Fly, I would have said one of the only evocations of flies in Western literature. But Connor adduces many more, from Shakespeare and the Romantics through worldwide myth and legend, in addition to the many examples of flies in the plastic arts, typical of the Reaktion Books Animal series noteworthy focus on art history.

The two greatest mad English poets were fond of flies. Christopher Smart said beautifully but inscrutably of flies that their "health was the honey of the air" (54). John Clare saw flies as part of a peaceable kingdom:

They look like things of mind or fairries [sic] . . . They are allowed every liberty to creep, fly, or do as they like, and seldom or ever do wrong, in fact they are the small or dwarfish portion of our own family, and so many fairy familiars that we know and treat as one of ourselves. (11)
As Connor points out, most people don't have such a warm feeling for flies. They are one of the few animals intended for death by a common household utensil. They're frequently annoying, and worse than that, have been blamed for spreading diseases. Connor analyzes some of these infection fears (which he illustrates with images of hysterical public-health posters). Sure, flies taste their food by walking on it. They tend to eat things that harbor pathogens and then walk on your food. But Connor notes that fear of flies is less a rational fear of disease vectors per se than a horror of the promiscuity and ubiquity of the fly. Flies can get in anywhere, and they are no respecters of social class. You can isolate yourself from "them," but you can't isolate yourself from flies who have been around "them." Hence the 20th-century mania for flypaper.

Flies are everywhere we are, co-evolving with us just like dogs, rats, and horses. Yet unlike the aggressive rat, the faithful dog, and the noble horse, flies just get in our space and act indifferent to us. We wave them away but are largely indifferent to them. "What we see in the fly is ourselves unseen by it," says Connor. "We are needled and made uneasy by our insignificance to this most definitionally insignificant creature" (182).

Humans love to draw lessons from insects, but flies, among the most common domestic insects, feature in fewer of them than one might suppose. Bees are industrious, ants are socialistic, butterflies are showy, ladybugs are whimsically domestic, grasshoppers are idle, praying mantises can kick your ass. Flies just sit there on the wall and overhear things they never make use of.

Connor, Steven. Fly. London: Reaktion, 2006.