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do insects go to heaven?
july 28, 2001
When I was a child, after I had been put to bed, I used to pull the wool blanket up over my head, turn on the flashlight I filched from my father's toolbox in the basement, clicking on the interior of this private tent, thick walls diffuse blue in the flashlight beam, yellow circle aimed at, giving a drive-in movie screen attention to, the black text on the opened white pages of a book. Ever after, reading, anywhere, land, sea, sky, is there faintly evoked that whiff of wool, that sense that reading is something to be done in secret.
I was a bookworm.
Yet initially I had a difficult time grasping the concept of reading. I remember being in school with a bunch of other little kids with big heads, the teacher patiently showing us how these symbols on a page corresponded to sounds, which corresponded to the world. At first, I just couldn't get it. I still remember this one boy in our class, Walter, squat, black-haired, black-framed glasses, showing up late one Monday morning, proudly announcing from the doorway, "Yesterday? I read the Sunday funnies." Beaming behind his glasses at the seated rest of us, who shot him envying glances. (A grade or so later, Walter abruptly stopped going to school. That was unheard of, then. Some kids dropped out of high school, but dropping out of grade school? In his absence, he became something of a legend around St. Mary's Grammar School. Years later, in sixth grade, all us boys were playing basketball on the hard black tar of the recess area behind St. Mary's, when we heard above our shouts someone rattling the chain link fence at the edge of the hard top. We all walked over, basketball dribbling itself to a distant corner. There was Walter, opening the chain link gate, still just as squat, still with his black rimmed glasses, approaching us on crutches, his left leg in a long, white cast that extended up to his hip. We gathered around him, shocked and happy to see him, that after all these years, he had returned to check up on how we were doing. Although he couldn't have been more than eleven, he was smoking a big cigar. He was working on the family farm now, and couldn't be happier. He took his cigar out from between his lips. "You guys? You guys are all suckers.")
Once I did learn to read, I did it all the time. Never did I venture out on the sidewalks leading to and from town without a book up to my face, as if worn as a mask, the rectangular imprint of a paperback in the back pocket of my jeans as defined as the circular embossment of a foil-wrapped rubber in a man's wallet.
In my early teens, I decided to stop going to church.
I still dressed up each Sunday morning, dark jacket, tie, combed-back hair, but going out the front door, I substituted for the missal a paperback science fiction novel. I actually walked all the way from home to the church, halfway down Greenwich Avenue, a good half-mile stroll, but once I reached the gray edifice I kept my shoes moving forward on the sidewalk, past each crack that would break my mother's back, and what a delicious freedom it was, crossing the empty early Sunday morning avenue, taking to the less reputable sidestreets, passing the mystery of tall apartment buildings, pulling it out, opening it, holding it up to my face, my mind accelerating through space and time into the twenty-fifth century, a distant planet, body still walking over beige sidewalk squares, grass plumped up out of each joining.
I cracked open a new book today.
A big book.
It has the unexpected heft in the hand of an old-fashioned German pastry, the kind white-haired women living without a care in the world used to place in a small, pink box for you, white string tied in a bow atop.
The book is John Ruskin: The Later Years, by Tim Hilton, the second and final volume of Hilton's authoritative biography of the nineteenth-century art and social critic.
Ruskin was probably the most prolific writer in the English language.
During his lifetime, he published two hundred and fifty titles, not including more than thirty volumes of diaries, forty volumes of correspondence, plus all sorts of marginalia, published posthumously, and thirty thousand or more still unpublished letters.
Today, few people have ever heard of him.
He lived from 1819 to 1900.
He was a fascinating man.
His father, John James Ruskin, a Scotsman prominent in the wine industry, had amassed sufficient wealth that the three, father, mother and son, were able to travel to the continent each year. John Ruskin fell in love with the mountains of Europe, and would return to them throughout most of his life. They seemed to bring him great solace, to the point where he'd later try to build homes in absurdly inappropriate spots among them, atop inaccessible crags.
He became involved in the contemporary art world early in life, producing a series of books, Modern Painters, which established his reputation. He knew all the great men of the day, taking supper with them. Turner, Dickens, Browning, Carlye, Gladstone, Morris, Rossetti, Scott. He was there when the Pre-Raphaelite movement started, and had an influence on it. His lectures, considered to be among the best and most dramatic of the time, were widely attended. His name appeared often in the London newspapers. He was one of the most honored and powerful and respected men of his time.
He was odd, sexually. His first marriage, to Euphemia Gray ("Effie"), not only failed, but was the subject of gossip. On his honeymoon, when his wife disrobed, he was stunned. He had no idea that was what the female body looked like. The marriage stayed "unconsummated", as is said. Years later, when Effie left Ruskin, she wrote her father that Ruskin, "...had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was....the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening."
Ruskin was a pedophile. To say this is to immediately condemn him, in our time, but in the eighteen hundreds, the idea of a man finding beauty in a child was not a great cause of alarm. He did not molest children, and in fact appeared to have little sexual interests at all. But he could certainly fall in love with them. And the one he fell deepest for, so deeply that it unquestionably contributed to his eventual mental collapse, was the too-perfectly named Rose LaTouche.
Rose was the daughter of a very proper Calvinist Irishman, John LaTouche. When she was eleven, and he, Ruskin, in his forties, he wrote to his friend Margaret Bell about Rose. "I don't know what to make of her...She wears her round hat in the sauciest way possible." To me, there's a terrible sadness in that 'sauciest'.
Eventually, after years of Rose recovering from illnesses, and being forbidden to communicate with Ruskin by her father, and becoming fanatically religious, Ruskin married her. It wasn't a happy marriage. She died not long after.
Ruskin himself slowly went mad. Even before his marriage to, and soon thereafter loss of, Rose, he, one of our greatest essayists, began writing in "baby talk" to his close friend Joan Agnew: "Me so glad to like piggie-wig 'oetry: me tink him very pity too.-- only me too coss to ite so must as he oosed."
Near the end of his life, he continued to write beautifully shaped and balanced sentences, only now, they made no sense whatsoever, the words that filled the sentences seemingly chosen more for their sounds than their meaning.
I read the first volume of Hilton's biography while I was still reporting to an office each day. I'd read it during breaks, going down to the smoking area of the parking lot, where a park bench had been set up under a carport (the smoking area occupied the first two yellow-lines-on-pavement slots of the carport.)
Everyone in the smoking area was astonished someone was reading a book. I was asked repeatedly what the book was about, and listened to carefully. The general comment was, "He sounds like he was pretty fucked-up."
But now, at home, I'm reading in silence, the best kind of reading. Reading is one of the most enjoyable things we can do alone, because it allows us to enter another mind over space, over time, and feel, in our aloneness, joined. "He who touches this book, touches a man."
This past Tuesday, thinking, It's only Tuesday?, I wandered out into our backyard at lunch, sitting under the tall trees at the rear of our property, trees that give that section of our yard the aspect of a clearing in the woods, the paths beneath devoid of grass, just soil and snaking roots, and lit a cigarette.
Almost immediately, a screech, louder than a bird, dopplered past my left ear, dropping to the path.
I leaned over in my chair to get a better look at what had startled me.
On the ground, one large insect was attached, face to face, to another large insect. As is so often the case, it was impossible to tell if the first insect was mating with, or eating, the second insect.
I don't normally kill insects that are outside where they're supposed to be, but the screech, the fact the loudness of it had come from something as small as an insect, got to me. I searched for, picked up, a nearby shovel, grasped its wooden handle, brought it down on the union.
Now here's the haunting part.
As the curved-up back of the blade slapped down at the insect, it let out another screech, one of alarm at the descending shovel. The sound it made, this cry of alarm, was so suggestive of intelligence, so human-like, I would have stopped the descent if I could. How did it exactly sound? Like the screech of an old woman, so uninhibited as to sound almost comical. As the descent completed, downwards slap ahead, the insect tried to frantically scrabble towards the brick border of the path, repeatedly tipping left, right in its flee, as if loaded down with suitcases.
It didn't make it.
I felt bad. Only because it knew, but couldn't avoid, its end. I didn't expect it to have that knowledge. I didn't want to kill something smart.
The next morning, this past Wednesday, I went out on our back patio, standing on the concrete, waving goodbye to Mary as our silver CRV disappeared among the green boughs of the back road behind our home. As I waved, I heard a rustling. Where was that coming from? What was moving?
Ear cocked, I placed the sound as emitting from one of the empty clay flowerpots on our patio.
Another member of the species that screeched in alarm at its descending death was lying on its hard-carapaced back in the bottom shadows of the flower pot, six upraised legs blackly stretching, tapping up at the circular nothing above it, going through the multi-elbowed articulations of its demise.
Click on the thumbnail below to see the arena in which it died, at last motionless, dry, weightless.