Let the Bedbugs Bite!

The existential dilemma of bedbugs.

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The day K. came in and said, “I don’t care anymore,” was a revelation. By then, the communal living space/art collective housing 17 artists and hangers-on that was my home had been battling bedbugs for three months. Only four of the 17 rooms (mine not included) were actually infested, but communal living as it is, we all had to share in the initial bedbug cleansing procedures familiar to anyone who has had or read about bedbugs — the thorough packing all personal items in plastic, the taping of holes and cracks in walls and furniture, the wrapping of each bed in a plastic sack not unlike those used to wrap corpses at homicide scenes. We tried not to let hysteria get the best of us as we emptied our rooms of every doodad, every picture, and watched the mountain of 17 people’s-worth of belongings mushroom in the gallery space. We pooled $1,500 and vacated for four days while the 5,000 square feet were sprayed with chemical warfare. We then returned, unpacked our belongings, and waited for the bugs to die.

 

But they did not die. And because only four rooms were actually infested, and the time and expense to spray the entire floor was so demanding, we decided as a group to focus our efforts and money on just those four rooms. Though we were spraying only four rooms (a second time, and then a third…) we all had to pay for it, and it wasn’t long before there was discontent among the masses. People secretly blamed and resented the bedbug-havers for failing to rid their rooms of the scourge. They were seen as unclean. It’s not that anyone meant to ostracize them; we simply could not help ourselves. Of course, no one wanted the bugs gone more than the people who had them, who were still living out of plastic bags, suffering the itchy bites, unable to sleep with their beds against the wall. Our weekly house meetings — where we usually talked about dirty dishes and upcoming art shows — were dominated by talk of the bedbugs: when was the exterminator coming again, what were the bedbug-havers doing wrong and how could they improve their efforts. It was at one of these meetings that A. started to show signs of madness.

A couple days before, in a wild effort to prepare her room yet again for chemical spray, A. had fallen off her loft bed and split her scalp. The sticky stitches in her hair were visible as she told us her story and eventually broke down, sobbing terribly and apologizing for not doing better. The room was silent. Finally, a visiting Frenchman with no discernable ambitions, whose name I no longer recall, spoke. Why, he asked, are you crying? This is not a real problem, he said to the teary and desperate A., these are only bugs. I think, he offered, you should stop crying and recognize that this is nothing to cry about.

Two days later, K., whose room was also infested, came into the kitchen and announced to us all, I don’t care anymore. I don’t care about the bedbugs. And that was that. Her acceptance released the house from the anxiety that had gripped it for months. If she didn’t mind the bedbugs, how could we?

Like you, I have found them infesting my daymares. The itching from a bite that isn’t there, the tickle crawling up your arm under the sheets. The brush of a hair on your forehead feels like doom.

There is the city and there is nature and never the twain should meet. Our city is our fortress against the natural world. Houseplants and domestic pets, these are OK. Insects, mold, decay, rodents — no. We created these urban palaces to protect us from the ceaseless scourge of fungus and poisonous beetles. Bedbugs remind us that our walls are not yet high enough. Bedbugs could live anywhere but they have chosen to live with us. Bedbugs are parasites, after all. We call them vampires because they desire our warm blood and prefer to come out at night. Yet even vampires have to be invited before they can enter our homes.

Bedbugs lurk in dark corners and crevasses, refusing to make themselves known in daylight. They are in our beds. At night. Bedbugs also live in our books and furniture but we do not call them furniture bugs; we call them bedbugs. Our beds are sacred. In our beds, in the dark, we are vulnerable. We succumb to an experience that is more terrifying than death — a living breathing state in which we have no control. We subconsciously tell ourselves a story every night to make the act of sleeping possible: that we will be safe and awaken safely at daybreak. Bedbugs fuck with this narrative. At night, we really belong to the bedbugs, these stupid disgusting creatures we cannot reason with, cannot easily destroy, who are not interested in our food, who will not go willingly into our traps. “Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite” is just another name for nightmares. Close your eyes, it says, and do not dream of evil.

We find meaning in bugs of any kind based on a) what we get from them or, b) how we have successfully anthropomorphized them. The ants build cities, the bees build honey factories. What do the bedbugs build but a republic of fear? We see bedbugs as lazy, without work ethic. They are also extremely unattractive. They are brown. They are flat. They are shiny. They don’t have wings, which might help their case; wings remind us of heaven and angels and airplanes.

Do you know how bedbugs mate? By something called “traumatic insemination.” Female bedbugs have no genital opening, so to plant his seed the male bedbug will mount the female, pierce her abdomen with his “hypodermic genitalia,” and ejaculate.

How could we feel anything towards bedbugs other than revulsion, fear, hate?

Some contrarians tell us to have sympathy for the bedbug, remind us that they are tenacious little creatures who, for years, were thought to have been completed eradicated. In America, resilience is celebrated. And bedbugs have a lineage dating back millions of years. Would it help us to think of them as dinosaurs in miniature? Wouldn’t it be thrilling to hear that our homes were infested with tiny dinosaurs? How are things, you ask? Oh, pretty much the same, except yesterday I discovered my apartment was filled with DINOSAURS!!

Still, this does not comfort us. One apartment filled with dinosaurs is the talk of the town. But a city filled with them is a disaster.

You may remember Camus’ The Plague. In the story, the eponymous plague appears suddenly, raging through the town of Oran and felling its citizens without mercy. Within days, the infected are forced into quarantine and the town becomes divided between the prisoners and the free. The plague is a horrible thing — pus-filled boils, fiery fever that causes delirium, certain death — but more horrible is the isolation of the infected and, likewise, the overwhelming paranoia that grips the uninfected. For Camus, the plague is supposed to remind us of the ways in which life is beyond our control. The universe is indifferent and inscrutable. When we go looking for meaning in this strange, irrational universe, everything starts to feel meaningless. This is when we realize the absurdity of our condition, i.e. the absurdity of human life.

The character Tarrou has an additional take on “plague”. He explains it to Dr. Rieux thus. The plague is also that little monster inside each of us, who wants to inflict harm. The good man fights against this destructive impulse so that he doesn’t infect others with it. “…Health, integrity, purity (if you like) — is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.” Tarrou goes on until there is a moment of silence between the two men. Then, “the doctor raised himself a little in his chair and asked if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘The path of sympathy.’”

For Camus, focusing on our individual suffering only increases our sense of meaninglessness. It makes us eager to isolate ourselves from other people because we see them as threats. Only the individuals of Oran who decide to fight the plague by getting in the mix rather than run away, who make a personal decision to put their personal fears aside and act for the common good, find some kind of meaning, some kind of peace in the chaos of the plague.

So, bedbugs have posed an existential dilemma to us. We look for meaning in bedbugs and can find none. We try to control them, and lose control of ourselves in the process. We try to protect ourselves from them and end up isolated from each other. Better, then, not to focus on bedbugs themselves but rather, on how the bedbugs make us act. If we asked Camus, he would likely tell us that accepting the absurdity of the bedbugs, accepting our lack of control over them, is the only way to be free. Or, to feel free anyway. He called it “acceptance without resignation.” Meaning, we should fight the bedbugs in solidarity, and with the acceptance that the visit they will make to all our homes is inevitable.

I’ve started to think that I would be a better person if I could somehow learn to live with flies, to feel their ticklish weight upon me as if they were a swarm of winged kittens. How wonderful it would be when they chose to land on me! Unlike the bedbugs, flies are much more a part of our daily experience. Flies are everywhere. They are everywhere.

We think bees are romantic because they linger on flowers and drink nectar and produce honey in their magical honeycomb labyrinths. Flies linger on excrement and garbage. If you are not afraid, and if you hold still, a bee buzzing around your head makes you feel like a big delicious blossom. Nothing is delicious about a fly buzzing around your head. It makes you feel like a piece of shit. Anyone who becomes a fly’s landing pad is disgusted, annoyed. But what is a fly but a bee without defenses?

For the celebrated naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre, when we make these value judgments about insects it’s because we haven’t taken the trouble to really know them. Of course, we can happily live our lives without doing so, but how we would broaden our ideas if we did? Reading Jean-Henri Fabre on flies is like reading Melville on the sea, or M.F.K. Fisher on vegetables, or Carl Sagan on the stars, or de Quincey on smack. Fabre’s entomological writings are pure enthusiasm. He is legend among naturalists of all stripes because he championed an idea that the rest of us find nearly impossible to fathom: The more we pay attention to the insects, the more we learn about the best and worst in ourselves. Read Fabre and you will never look at a bug in the same way.

You only have to read the titles of his books to get his approach: not On Flies, On Caterpillars, On Instinct, but rather The Life of the Fly, The Life of the Caterpillar, The Wonders of Instinct. Fabre did not write treatises on insects, but biographies. “The instinct, the habits, the manner of living, the work, the struggles, the propagation of that little world, with which agriculture and philosophy have most seriously to reckon”— for Fabre, this was the task of entomology. In Chapter 14 of The Life of the Fly, Fabre observes bluebottle flies laying maggots in pieces of putrid butcher’s meat and writes about them with a mixture of disgust, awe and respect:

Behold them entering upon their promised land, their reeking paradise. Eager to arrive, do they drop from the top of the wall? Not they! …. The newborn worms, thanks to a slight viscidity, cling for a moment to the wire gauze; they swarm, wriggle, release themselves and leap into the chasm. It is a nine inch drop at least…. This confidence in the unknown factor of the precipice, with no indication but that of smell, deserves fuller, investigation. From what height will the flesh fly dare to let her children drop?

An adventure tale in twelve square inches.

At the end of the chapter on bluebottle maggots, after the vivid descriptions of slithering worms on rotting flesh, Fabre gets at what is, perhaps, at the heart of our battle with the bugs. The bugs remind us of our own limitations and our own mortality. In the course of life, we can just barely control our proximity to the bugs. But when we die, the instant we die, the bugs will finally get what they want most: to be close to us. As you can imagine, Fabre finds a certain justice in this, and from justice, comfort:

At the surface of the soil, exposed to the air, the hideous invasion is possible; ay, it is the invariable rule. For the melting down and remolding of matter, man is no better, corpse for corpse, than the lowest of the brutes. Then the fly exercises her rights and deals with us as she does with any ordinary animal refuse. Nature treats us with magnificent indifference in her great regenerating factory: placed in her crucibles, animals and men, beggars and kings are one and all alike. There you have true equality, the only equality in this world of ours: equality in the presence of the maggot.

Insects are so often featured characters in children’s stories because they, like children, appear to adults as simultaneously fragile and invincible. Though most of us prefer the children to the insects, we recognize in both a tendency toward chaos. We want to control that chaos, but are often overcome by it in the process. We sometimes say about the insects that if they would only let us be, their existence would not vex us. That is, if they didn’t insist on reminding us of their existence, we wouldn’t insist on destroying them. This is the logic of xenophobia.

In the classic essay “Men versus Insects,” Bertrand Russell wrote that if humans beings, in their rage against each other, invoke the aid of the insects and microorganisms, it is likely the insects will be the “sole ultimate victors”. He was writing in 1933 about the somewhat new idea of using bugs as weapons of mass destruction. Yet we don’t really need a war zone to see how humans use bugs against each other to satisfy their daily fears. Just go to any public place in New York City today and yell, “Bedbug.” Indeed, the ones who will be damaged the least, the sole ultimate victors, are the bedbugs themselves. “Perhaps,” writes Russell, “from a cosmic point of view, this is not to be regretted, but as a human being, I cannot help heaving a sigh for my own species.” • 21 December 2010

 

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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