Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Asleep Without Supper

Annie Dillard recounts a night in the woods, contemplating Rimbaud and the writing imperative, and the phenomenon of moths and candles, in her brilliant fugue Holy the Firm. She describes one moth's fate as follows:

One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burned dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch winspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth's wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappering utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antenna crisped and burned away, and her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, as far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her ggs. Had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax -- a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle's round pool.

And then this moth essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth's body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like an immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical height, side by side. The moth's head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.

She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning -- only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burned out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.

Perhaps growing older means, at best, circumscribing one's acquiescence, fostering the illusion of wisdom. Consonant with whispers of mortality are intimations of subtle control once unimaginable, and its antithesis, an anticipation of one's powerlessness at the juncture of sweet coincidence. For every time my heart races in the face of immediate jeopardy -- on a rock, on a bike, in a car -- there is another instance, seemingly as worthy of that primitive response, when it does not, when time slows, reflexes reveal themselves to be volitional, elective, and utterly powerless to resist the inevitable. And I ease into what I cannot avoid with an openness defying explanation.

Dillard later elaborates on the moth, qua moth and qua metaphor for the larger subject animating Holy the Firm, but in her use of an image too evocative to warrant the term cliche, notwithstanding its surface banality, she neglects the questions that interests me most just now: What does the moth think as she dips her wings toward the flame, her abdomen into the wax? What is it about her inexorable captivation with the flicker of flame in darkness that overrides her base impulse to avoid mortal heat?

I have known the answer, but every now and again, seldom really, I forget just long enough to seek the flame again.

Nature preaches survival above all, an undistinguished persistence over the precariously precious, and so often we choose the efficacious over the indulgent. But how luxurious and how ineffable, like the dusky remnants of a dream, the serenity of surrender to the episodic dominion of the possible over the is.

In the breech, the flame's menace doesn't hold a candle to it.


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