March 29, 2013: Silkworm Musings

March 29, 2013

Silkworm LayoutAs I have mentioned before, my quest for a Westerner who was able to explain Japanese culture has led me to Lafcadio Hearn, who is almost revered in his adopted Japan, yet is largely unheard of here in his native America. Reading Hearn’s “In Ghostly Japan” (1899.) I once more enjoyed his honest, humble, yet vastly descriptive style, seeing Japan from his “stranger in a strange land” viewpoint.

Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn

The short story “Silkworms” is a classic example of Hearns style: he goes from a personal account of his visit to a silkworm farm, inspired simply by his curiosity about a phrase concerning silkworms. Hearn gives a brief history and habits of silkworms, then branches off into his own “musing” into the odd theory of living life backward (a la “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’) then compares the world’s faiths to the life-cycle of lepidoptera, momentarily touches on human color vision, exacts the harsh rule of evolution, and then rounds out with a Buddhist story that addresses the original curious phrase.

As Hearn observes in his story, silkworms are one of those creatures that have been completely warped by mankind. Domesticated just after the Neolithic period for their silk, the silkworm is now completely dependent on man for survival. Man feeds them (silkworms eat only the leaves of the mulberry tree) protects them from predators and disease, shields them from the elements, and has bred them to the point that they cannot do any of these things for themselves. The rare adults allowed to survive for breeding are moths that have beautiful wings, yet cannot fly. They have mouths, yet cannot eat. Silkworms have every want supplied…every danger removed. The only cost to them is their very existence if man is ever taken out of the equation.

Silk Production_Full

Silk Production

Listening to his friend sketch the life of the silkworm, Hearn breaks off to write,”But I fear that I did not act like a person who felt interested in the subject; for, even while I tried to listen, I began to muse.” This honesty is what I love so much about Hearn: he is not afraid to say, “I know I should be paying attention here, but I was off wool-gathering in my own thoughts.”

His “musing” concerns how our concept of god/human relationship is exactly like the human/silkworm one. He also points out the rule of evolution, “All life that feels and thinks has been, and can continue to be, only as the product of struggle and pain…” I will let you read the story to get his viewpoints and draw your own conclusions, but as I was reading, (and knowing Hearn would fully understand) I too, “began to muse.”

First of all, I don’t think Hearn’s using the word “pain” in his idea that pain causes evolution, is correct. Ask anyone who is experiencing true pain, and they will tell you that pain is very debilitating…the opposite of growth. I prefer the word “challenge” to “pain.” A system challenged, be it the human body, an ecological environment, or political structure, is one that is caused to grow and evolve. For ourselves, it is widely known that consistent, moderately stressful exercise leads to a stronger, longer, and more healthy life. Similarly, mental exercises, regularly done, keep our minds sharper and may even stave off mental diseases like Alzheimer’s. Our emotional travails, as hard to deal with as they may be, at the very least should allow us the ability to have empathy for others going through their own miseries and at best, can actually allow some people to turn those challenges into creative endeavors.

H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells

The more I thought about the idea of our periodic challenges being good for growth, the more examples I could come up with it as a concern in literature and popular culture. The first example to come to mind is H.G. Wells “The Time Machine” where the Time Traveler finds mankind, in the far off future, divided: the “upper class” have become the beautiful, yet bubble-headed and defenseless “Eloi.” The labor class have been driven underground, turning into the scarily-clever, albino, spider monkey-like “Morlocks.” The desire for comfort has rendered the “haves” into a kind of fatted calf, and sitting ducks for the “have-nots.” Class division has turned on the “haves” to find it returning to literally biting them on the keister (Eloi keisters ranking high in Morlock cookboooks…if you get my drift.)

Describing the Eloi, the Time Traveler says, “Very pleasant was their day, as pleasant as any cattle in the field. Like the cattle, they knew of no enemies and provided against any needs. And their end was just the same….It is the law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble.”

We want a world where there is comfort, peace, and ease. Our very idea of heaven…the final reward, is the lack of all care and trouble, with us being taken care of perpetually by a higher power who sees to our every wish.

Mmmm…I do agree with Hearn on this one. It does all sound a bit like a silkworm farm to me now.

As long as they are not overwhelming, it just could be, that the most important part of our lives are the challenges we face. So…run that race, get that degree, have that dreaded Sunday brunch with the in-laws. Growth is good and growth comes from the struggle….and folks…sad but true…that struggle just keeps going on.

And if offered a life free from all care…with every need catered to, remember the silkworm…and the Eloi. It’s probably too good to be true, anyways. There’s no such thing as a free lunch unless you actually ARE lunch!Silkworms-crop


One comment

  1. You are a wonderful writer.

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