The Return of the Cicadas | The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Return of the Cicadas
Matthew Omolesky
by
sunit paenphat/Shutterstock.com

Las civilizaciones son bullicio estival de insectos entre dos inviernos.

Civilizations are the summer noise of insects between two winters.

– Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Nuevos Escolios a un Texto Implícito, Vol. I, No. 1,697

Plato’s Phaedrus opens magnificently, with Socrates and his interlocutor, after whom the dialogue is named, sitting together upon a grassy bank near the Ilissus River, shielded from the brilliance of the Attic sun by the delightful shade of a towering plane tree — “a fair resting-place, full of summer sounds and scents.” Socrates must have seemed altogether out of place in this rural idyll situated well beyond the Themistoclean Wall, for Phaedrus soon remarked, “When you are in the country, as you say, you really are like some stranger who is led about by a guide. Do you ever cross the border? I rather think that you never venture even outside the gates.” The philosopher readily admitted as much: “I am a lover of knowledge, and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees or the country.” Socrates insisted that he was no “hungry cow before whom a bough or a bunch of fruit is waved,” though with a book or the prospect of witty conversation with a renowned rhetorician, “you may lead me all round Attica, and over the wide world.”

Such is the eternal close-mindedness of the urbanite, but in time even Socrates succumbed to the charms of Nature in that “spot sacred to Achelous and the Nymphs,” where the cool grass was “like a pillow gently sloping to the head,” where a soothing breeze tempered the sultry midday air, and where the valley echoed with the insistent “chorus of the cicadae.” It was these omnipresent insects that inspired a soaring flight of the philosopher’s fancy. “What would they say,” Socrates wondered aloud, if the cicadas “saw that we, like the many, are not conversing, but slumbering at mid-day, lulled by their voices, too indolent to think? Would they not have a right to laugh at us? They might imagine that we were slaves, who, coming to rest at a place of resort of theirs, like sheep lie asleep at noon around the well.”

No doubt the cicadas were indeed paying close attention to the two visitors. After all, you must remember that cicadas were once men like Socrates and Phaedrus, men who lived long ago, before the arrival of the Muses. When those nine goddesses entered the scene and song appeared, those men were, it was said, “ravished with delight; and singing always, never thought of eating and drinking, until at last in their forgetfulness they died.” But the Muses took pity on their most devoted acolytes and brought them back to Earth as members of the taxonomic superfamily Cicadoidea,

and this is the return which the Muses make to them — they neither hunger, nor thirst, but from the hour of their birth are always singing, and never eating or drinking; and when they die they go and inform the Muses in heaven who honors them on earth. They win the love of Terpsichore for the dancers by their report of them; of Erato for the lovers, and of the other Muses for those who do them honor, according to the several ways of honoring them of Calliope the eldest Muse and of Urania who is next to her, for the philosophers, of whose music the cicadas make report to them; for these are the Muses who are chiefly concerned with heaven and thought, divine as well as human, and they have the sweetest utterance.

For those reasons, Socrates concluded, “we ought always to talk and not to sleep at mid-day,” ever mindful of the unfaltering chorus of the cicadae and their vibrating tymbals.

Sacred to the Muses, sacred to Apollo, Dionysus, and Pan, favorites of Homer and Hesiod, cicadas were likewise dear to the Athenian people. William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1842) informs us that “so attached, indeed were the Athenians to these insects, that they were accustomed to fasten golden images of them in their hair, implying, at the same time, a boast, that they themselves, as well as the Cicadae, were ‘terrae filii,’ or children of the earth.” It was only natural that the Greeks would think of cicadas fondly, reared as they were on the works of Homer, who spoke of the “lily-like” voices of cicadas, “perched up on a forest branch, chirping soft, delicate sounds.” Meleager of Gadara, in a similar vein, requested “thou that art with shrill wings the self-formed imitation of the lyre, chirrup me something pleasant while beating your vocal wings with your feet.” And looking through the Anacreontic poems contained in the Paris Codex (Cod. Paris Suppl. Gr. 384, housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France), we find No. 34, the “Ode to the Cicada,” a beloved song translated by Goethe in 1781, and then appearing in Thoreau’s Excursions, where it was rendered thusly:

We pronounce thee happy, Cicada,
For on the tops of the trees,
Drinking a little dew,
Like any king thou singest,
For thine are they all,
Whatever thou seest in the fields,
And whatever the woods bear.
Thou art the friend of the husbandmen,
In no respect injuring any one;
And thou art honored among men,
Sweet prophet of summer.
The Muses love thee,
And Phoebus himself loves thee,
And has given thee a shrill song;
Age does not wrack thee,
Thou skillful, earthborn, song-loving,
Unsuffering, bloodless one;
Almost thou art like the gods.

High praise, though this esteem did not prevent the Greeks from devouring the “sweet prophets of summer” with gusto; Aristotle thought the grubs and nymphs particularly delectable, while doctors prescribed boiled cicada as a remedy for ailments of the bladder. (To this day Chan Tui, or cicada moults, remain a mainstay of Chinese traditional medicine, lauded for their diaphoretic, antipyretic, and antiallergenic properties.)

The Greeks’ understanding of the cicada’s life cycle was, however, inversely proportional to their laudable respect for the insect. It was assumed that, as Anacreon put it, “age does not wrack” the cicada and that the creatures were reborn each time they molted and left their exuviae behind. This was fortunate for the mythical Tithonus, lover of Eos, who foolishly wished for eternal life without stipulating eternal youth, and therefore grew ever more decrepit over the years, until he was mercifully transformed into a cicada so that his youth might return each year. In Edo-period Japanese poetry we encounter a rather more realistic conception of the natural history of the cicadae, emphasizing the ephemeral existence of the adult members of the species, nourished temporarily by dew, but fated to perish at summer’s end. As the great Matsuo Bashō wrote in his 1689 “None is Traveling,”

Yagate shinu
Keshiki wa miezu
Semi no koe

That it will die soon
There is no sign
In the cicada’s cry

Hattori Ransetsu, Bashō’s student, followed suit, lamenting the fate of so many of these insects at the hands of predators:

Ana kanashi!
Tobi ni tararu
Semi no koe

Ah! How mournful
When seized by the kite
The cicada’s cry

Ransetsu’s subject recalls the renowned Yuan-era Chinese painting The World of Vitality (1321), now in the British Museum, the central scene of which features a ferocious battle between a mantis and a cicada, accompanied by the inscription “Nowhere can it dodge the mantis’ menace.” Eugene Wang, in his fascinating 2009 contribution to the journal Ars Orientalis, “The Elegiac Cicada: Problems of Historical Interpretation of Yuan Painting,” demonstrated that in works like The World of Vitality and the thematically similar Eight Insect Themes (1330), “certain subjects of paintings, such as the cicada, served as a rhetoric trigger to solicit emotional responses  — such as pathos — structured through set literary conventions,” allowing for the “gradual internalization, sublimation, or working through the trauma experienced by the Chinese in the early Yuan” after the brutal Mongol conquest.

The wealth of historical and cultural significations surrounding the humble cicada is positively astounding, so I am not surprised that in our own hideous age we tend to view these marvelous creatures as sources of disgust. Writing in the Japan Times, Hiroaki Sato expressed astonishment at an (unfortunately quite typical) description of cicadas in Ashley Halsey’s 2013 Washington Post piece “Those beady-eyed bugs are back: Cicadas spotted in Northern Virginia,” in which Halsey warned of the arrival of those “ugly bugs” with “beady, blood-red eyes glaring up from the sidewalk, a threat of shrieking hell to come,” an image that could not have differed more from Sato’s own conception of the song of the cicada — the “transient rasping that captivates the poets.” These days, with the Brood X cicadas ready to emerge after 17 years patiently feeding underground, we are inundated with articles concerning “the billions of creepy-looking insects” that will “start annoying us” sometime in mid-May all throughout the eastern and central United States, while others propose various “cicada-free vacation spots” for those who wish to “avoid Brood X.”

What is it that bothers so many of us about these cicadas, so much so as to risk the disfavor of the Muses? Perhaps the cicadae, those true terrae filii who spend their extended adolescence gently sucking on xylem sap, in their dogged rootedness make uncomfortable those dwelling in deracinated modern urban conditions. Heidegger accurately diagnosed our collective boredom and “longing for home [Zug zur Heimat],” which has only worsened over the years, a boredom that manifests itself “in the form of addiction to distractions” and represents the “hidden, unacknowledged, pushed aside and yet inescapable longing for home: hidden homesickness.” He blamed the “planet-wide movement of modern technicity [die Technik],” which “dislodges man and uproots him from the earth.”

Cicadas, with their unique ability to combine the earthly and the ethereal, the chthonic and the atmospheric, the eternal and the ephemeral, the serene and the effervescent, the vita contemplativa and the vita activa, certainly put us to shame in this regard. Those who languish in the domain of presentism are, as the philosopher Byung-Chul Han cautioned in The Scent of Time, “pushed into a time-free, ahistorical place.… Growing discontinuity, the atomization of time, destroys the experience of continuity. The world becomes non-timely.” Cicadas, on the other hand, are representative of the continuity of nature, their life cycles linked not to the frenetic pace of modern life but to the gradual passing of the seasons. Perhaps we are simply jealous.

Or perhaps we prefer to think of nature in terms of quietude; as J. A. Baker wrote in The Peregrine, “I have always longed to be part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence as the fox sloughs his smell into the cold unworldliness of water.” The cicada has no time for silence. It bursts forth from the Earth by the billions, aerating the soil and filling the atmosphere with music, “ravished with delight; and singing always,” and forcing us to pay attention to the sheer bounty of nature instead of the obnoxious din, the “shrieking hell” of gas-powered lawn equipment that humans seem to prefer. Cicada song permeates everything. Lafcadio Hearn, in his brilliant folkloric collection Shadowings (1900), cites another Japanese poem that made just this point:

Matsu no ki ni
Shimikomu gotoshi
Semi no koe

Into the wood of the pine-tree
Seems to soak
The voice of the cicada

Yet we, the denizens of the empire of the evening sun, seem hell-bent on ignoring the many lessons of these “sweet prophets of summer,” which is why I encourage all and sundry to pay heed to the “sweetest utterances” of the billions of cicadas that will be our companions this summer, to download the Cicada Safari app if that is of interest, or to curl up with David Rothenberg’s charming book Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise, which deals in large part with the 17-year cicada broods and the songs they sing. And if it is true that, as Nicolás Gómez Dávila suggested, “Civilizations are the summer noise of insects between two winters,” perhaps we should not seek “to avoid the swarming bugs” and thereby achieve “cicada-free bliss,” but should instead ponder the meaning of the chorus of the cicadae as it starts, swells, and dies away. Does it presage only death, or a glorious rebirth in the fullness of time?

In Japan, there is cicada species, Tanna japonensis, known locally as higurashi, or “day-darkening,” for its cry is said to hasten the onset of night. As the Sengoku-period poet Rikei exclaimed,

Higurashi ya!
Kyo no ketai wo
Omou-toki

Already, O Higurashi!
Your call announces the evening
Alas, for the passing day, with its duties left undone

Hearn, in Shadowings, described the higurashi’s songs — some of which “ring like silver,” while others “vibrate like bronze” — and “the effect of the sound upon the conscience of the idler,” with the “first clear evening cry quite as startling as the sudden ringing of a bell.” May this year’s chorus of the cicadae similarly serve as a clarion call for a society besieged by technicity, dislodged, uprooted, and longing for home.

Matthew Omolesky
Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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