In hindsight, the 19th century, with its far-flung outposts of colonial power and its scientific expeditions deep into the Conradian jungles of empire, looks like a golden age of exotic contagions, tumors, abscesses, and other morbid curiosities, not to mention heretofore unknown afflictions brought on by the venom of hitherto unknown animals.
Vermin infest accounts of life in the far corners of the map, and are often surrogates, in the colonial unconscious, for the natives and their alien ways. From the letters, journal articles, and travel writings of 19th-century Europeans to the Yellow Peril propaganda of the Second World War to the jingoistic, red-baiting comic books of the Cold War, insects and their kin have doubled for colonial subjects, enemy combatants, and immigrants. In his nativist tract The Chinese and the Chinese Question (1888), James A. Whitney exhorts white, Christian America to stem the flood tide of Chinese laborers, “in all things alien to us as would be the inhabitants of another world”: “At first a few in number, like straggling ants, they came, then more and more, by thousands and tens of thousands…Silent and persistent as the white ants that destroy the strongest timbers while the householder sleeps, they go further and further…” The ant metaphor had legs, as they say, reappearing in hymns of anti-immigrant hysteria by the social Darwinists of the Victorian era and in calls for racial hygiene by the eugenicists of the 1920s. In a 1903 talk describing his visit to Canton, China, the popular lecturer John Stoddard swoons in horror at a city “swarming” with “nearly two million beings, almost as difficult for a foreigner to distinguish or identify as ants in a giant anthill.” (Asians never miss an opportunity to swarm if they can help it—unless, of course, they’re teeming.) Not all subhuman Others are ants, however; in his 1939 essay “Marrakech,” Orwell wonders if the wogs and coolies trod underfoot by empires are “merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects.” The cover of a 1952 issue of the blood-and-guts comic Warfront (“War is hell!”) is splattered with simian, buck-toothed commies (“Red Chinese,” in the parlance of the day) eating lead; the caption bawls, “The red lice crawled for mercy as their guts melted in the face of the…BAZOOKA!” The racist bestiary also includes the occasional centipede: in 1884, the Reverend George N. Thomssen, doing the Lord’s Work among the heathen in Vinukonda, India, spies, on the floor of his mission house, a centipede writhing in agony, alive with little red ants trying to drag the “ugly, poisonous creature” into their lair. The good reverend sees a parable in this Darwinian tableau. “In witnessing the battle now carried on in India between Brahmanism and Christianity,” he writes the Baptist Missionary Magazine, “Brahmanism certainly is a huge, poisonous centipede, with its ramifications extending into every part of the moral, political, and social body.” Curiously, the ants are the good guys, in this instance: “The Christians, like the ants, are a small, but a very active body,” engaged in a “life-and-death struggle…with this large mass of superstition and idolatry.”
The centipede is atavism embodied. Its natural habitat is nature’s id: the malarial swamps; caves knee deep in bat guano where Ebola lies in wait, biding its time; and writhing, fever-dream jungles where disease and depravity breed. An 1834 dispatch from the Indian island of Sangor, in the Bay of Bengal—a pesthole whose bushes are “alive with snakes and centipedes” and whose atmosphere is thick with “noxious pestilence”—tells of a young English seaman who woke to find a centipede “some 14 inches long” inside his waistcoat, clinging tenaciously with all of its “hundred feet” to his chest. “To disengage it,” the narrator recalls, “we had to tear it from its venomous limbs, which remained inserted in the breast of our friend.” It was three years before the lad was fully recovered, we’re told, and to this day “he almost swoons when he sees even a European scolopendra, or English centipede.”
In the colonial imagination, centipedes prey not only on doughty Englishmen but on the heathen, too—especially on the heathen, finding hiding places in their superstitions and idolatry, and tunneling—literally—into their brains: a correspondent for The Medical News reports, in 1898, the unshakable belief among natives of the Philippines “that the centipede can make its way through the ear until it reaches the brain and causes death.”
In a sense, the centipede has delved deep into the mass mind, breeding fear and disgust in the collective unconscious. Centipedes, J. L. Cloudsley-Thompson observes, in Spiders, Scorpions, Centipedes and Mites (1958), “seem to exert a weird fascination on the morbid appetites of the hysterical and insane.” But don’t centipedes arouse a fascinated revulsion in most of us (myriapod scientists and proud owners of scolopendra excepted)? This rapt horror is rooted partly in the primeval fear, buried in the folds and fissures of the hindbrain, that the many legged Lower Orders will one day rise up and, through single-minded rapacity and sheer force of numbers, usurp our rightful place as evolution’s capstone.
But it has also to do with our repulsion from—and attraction to—the Other, especially that alienated aspect of ourselves that could be called the Other Within. Archetypically, the Other is a racial Other, an ethnic Other, a cultural Other that defines what we are by embodying what we are not: the Sardinian tucking into his fetid, maggot-ridden casu marzu ; the naked savage poking an exploratory finger into the cold, flabby meat on Darwin’s plate in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872); the “African Arab” in the throes of religious mania, swallowing centipedes alive, in R.F. Lawrence’s Centipedes and Millipedes of Southern Africa (1984); the sniggering Beavises and Butt-Heads enthralled by the sight of their pet scolopendra making a messy meal of baby mice mewing in fear; the credulous natives who believe that centipedes will worm their way into their ears and gnaw straight through to their brains.
Of course, the Other is always, to some extent, an Other Within: a reaction formation, so to speak, that manifests itself as a phantasmic image of the things in ourselves we can’t face, projected onto the face of another—typically, a stranger. (In the nonhuman regions of the symbolic realm, the strange, not the stranger, provides a screen for our projections. Case in point: the centipede.) If, as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan implied, the I is really an Other (meaning: the coherent I we hold in our heads is really a mash-up, a reassuring fiction pieced together from the I reflected in the reactions of others), the reverse is equally true: the Other is really an I, a collection of presumptions and prejudices, mapped onto some conveniently incognita terra, that says more about Us than it does about Them.
No one argues this point more eloquently than Edward Said in Orientalism, his classic study of the East as reflected in the Western eye, a seductive yet sinister mirage populated by decadent caliphs, sloe-eyed odalisques, simpering eunuchs, sybarites, sodomites, and, more recently, mobs burning American flags and, behind every keffiyeh, beard, and burka, a terrorist. Historically, images of the Orient as morally depraved, sexually perverse, medieval in its backwardness, and governed by religious manias and mob violence have legitimated the West’s imperial ambitions and justified its colonial brutality. Yet, as Said points out, the West’s dependence on the Orient as a signifier of everything it isn’t joins it at the hip, ironically, to its Other—binds it to the object of its fascinated repulsion as all halves of philosophical dualisms are bound to their opposites. “Neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability,” Said reminds us. “Each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other.”
Oddly enough, William Ian Miller, in The Anatomy of Disgust, unearths the roots of disgust in an Other Within: “Ultimately the basis for all disgust is us—that we live and die and that the process is a messy one, emitting substances and odors that make us doubt ourselves and fear our neighbors.” Disgust, for Miller, is the mind gagging at the nausea of embodiment; the gothic opposite of Bakhtin’s Rabelaisian delight in “the lower bodily stratum,” Miller’s corporeal horror originates in our revulsion “with what we are”—the sweating, defecating, scrofulous, flatulent, flabby, decaying animal our minds are tethered to—“or with what we are likely to slide back into,” the moraine, far from evolution’s pinnacle, where the ants and centipedes scuttle.
“Humans are most likely the only species that experiences disgust,” Miller contends, an assertion that sounds amusingly like the latest in a series of increasingly desperate bids for human exceptionalism at a moment when claims to human uniqueness are under siege on all sides: by the latest research into animal cognition, by breakthroughs in artifical intelligence and emotion (affective computing), and by the radically anti-anthropocentrist school of post-postmodern philosophy known as object-oriented ontology, which goes the animal-rights movement one better by putting things at the center of philosophical inquiries into the nature of existence. According to Ian Bogost, one of the movement’s leading thinkers, object-oriented ontology ( “OOO” for short) maintains that
nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.
What, in this light, does our disgust at the centipede, our insistence on regarding it as not just Other but Utterly Other—a primordial horror, “the most alien-like thing on earth,” spawn of Planet Venus—say about us? Centipedes, I propose, incarnate our fear of all that stands outside, and by its very existence calls into question, the human frame of reference.
In a mental universe where man is the measure of all things, animals are metaphors, standing in for us and our social worlds. Either that, or they’re Other (which is, again, just a mirror reversal of Us): meat for our tables, raw material for our factories, savage brutes capable only of meaningless yawp in contrast to us, articulate apes whose mastery of language—and opposable thumbs—set us above the beasts (we tell ourselves). From Pat the Bunny to the book of Genesis, LOLcats to The Lion King, Planet of the Apes to the GEICO Gecko, Animals Gone Wild to My Cat From Hell, we can’t seem to see animals outside our anthropocentric blinkers.
Centipedes refuse to be metaphoric. They won’t be anthropomorphized, and their irredeemable Otherness is a rebuke to anthropocentricity—its naiveté, its arrogance, its philosophical provincialism. Like H.P. Lovecraft’s “inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable” monstrosities and non-Euclidean geometries, “loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours”—attempts to dream outside the human frame of reference that have led the philosopher Graham Harman to claim him as object-oriented ontology’s patron saint—centipedes are so far removed from the mammalian mold that they seem not only nonhuman but barely even animal, more nameless thing than living creature. I like to imagine centipedes as the shock troops of what the OOO philosophers call anthrodecentrism, destabilizing the human-centered worldview through their radical Otherness, an Otherness so irrecuperably alien it seems to push the boundaries of Linnaean taxonomy, crossing Animalia with the machine kingdom, maybe even violating the symbolic order in their ineffable alienness. Lovecraft: “The Thing cannot be described—there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order.” The fossil record testifies to Chilopoda’s earthly origins, but we can’t repress the sneaking suspicion that these things come from some pathological galaxy on the far side of infinity, where the stars are open wounds and the geometry’s all wrong.