Butterfly Minds

by Theodore Dalrymple (August 2013)

When I was a boy of about 9 or 10 the BBC used to broadcast to schools (I haven’t the faintest idea whether it still does). We had to sit still in rows and listen to the broadcasts, all of which I have forgotten except one. It was about dinosaurs.

The BBC had arranged for one of its correspondents to report from the dinosaur age, as from a present-day civil war in Lebanon. It was gripping. The correspondent was in the middle of a Cretaceous forest and was watching the giant herbivores such as Brontosaurus graze as the Pterodactyls glided overhead when all of a sudden, crashing on to the scene through the tree-ferns a hundred feet tall, came that perennial favourite of all schoolboys: Tyrannosaurus rex. The correspondent, for obvious reasons, had to abandon his pastoral description of the herbivores and run for his life. Whether he escaped from the terrible beast was left open; the last we heard was that he was fleeing breathlessly in his attempt not to be torn apart and eaten.

But the sub-text of the broadcast, as a literary theorist would no doubt put it nowadays, was that the dinosaurs were doomed. They might be able to catch and eat the odd BBC correspondent, but their days were numbered. The future belonged to mammals such as we. The correspondent had described how he had seen these clever little creatures, so much more alert than the pea-brained, cold-blooded (and therefore slow-thinking) saurians, preying upon the eggs of the brutes. If size were what counted, the dinosaurs would have won hands, or at least pachyderm, down; but intelligence was more valuable and successful in the long run than brute force. It was, on reflection, a subtle way of inculcating a lesson, even if it was not strictly accurate from the palaeontological standpoint. (In those days, I think, the theory that the dinosaurs died out because a collision with a giant asteroid had altered the climate not necessarily to the advantage of the dinosaurs, as the Emperor Hirohito would have put it, had not yet been put forward, or if put forward generally accepted.)

We were promised, the following week, a report from the land of the mammoth and the sabre-toothed tiger, though I do not remember whether the correspondent was to be resuscitated like Sherlock Holmes after the events at the Reichenbach Falls.

The dinosaur broadcast was well-timed, for I was then going through the dinosaur stage that all boys seem to go through (few girls share the fascination, for reasons which a brain scanner will no doubt one day reveal, at least to the satisfaction of neuroscientists). This is interesting, because of course dinosaurs were really only discovered or made popular in the 1840s and first entered imaginative literature in the opening pages of Bleak House. Has human boyhood, then, changed since 1840, or was there an equivalent stage before dinosaurs?

At any rate, I found it oddly comforting to observe a nephew of mine, at about the same age as I at the time of the broadcast, going through his dinosaur stage. I remember him playing on the floor with his model Tyrannosaurus when he should have been doing his homework which was (if I remember rightly) learning the five pillars of Islam, which he refused to do – though I think it right to point out that he would have shown an equal resistance to learning the three components of the Trinity. From a very early stage in his young life he had displayed a strong aversion to learning anything that was enjoined or forced by others to learn; he would learn only what happened to interest him. We old wiseacres predicted a grim future for him, since we were of opinion that no one could succeed unless he was prepared or able to learn what he did not feel inclined to learn, but we were wrong; when finally the boy was allowed to pursue the course of life he had mapped out for himself, and no longer forced into the procrustean bed of academic training, he was a great success and never looked back, his adolescent combativeness ceasing at once. Well, one lives and learns: not that I would erect an invariant educational theory around this experience - or any other, for that matter.

Now my main regret about my dinosaur stage is that it did not last longer, go deeper and leave a richer residue of knowledge. I was thinking this as I went looking for fossils on the land around my house in France. Really I am very ignorant of palaeontology: when it comes to the Ammonites and the Trilobites I am a little like Disraeli’s wife, who could never remember which came first, the Greeks or the Romans. I think the Trilobites came first – I conceive of them either as the wood lice of their time (though, of course, they were marine, and I vaguely remember putting wood lice into water to see how long they would survive in that medium, ostensibly to see whether they were indeed like Trilobites, but really to inflict suffering), or as a defeated tribe in the Holy Land, as in ‘And the Ammonites rose up and smote the Trilobites.’

When it comes to nature, it is not that I have lacunae in my knowledge, but rather knowledge (and very little of it) in my grand Lacuna.

It is too late now to fill the grand Lacuna. Alas, the awareness that one does not have an infinitude of time before one comes too late in most people’s lives to repair the damage done by laziness, insouciance, and the thousand other natural vices that flesh is heir to. I know that there are some people of whom this is not true, who have lived constructively from their earliest childhood (just as there are some people who have always used their money wisely, never having frittered a penny, and who as a consequence can face their old age without financial anxiety): but they are not many, and I am not sure a world composed only of such people would be a better one.

Still, I wish I had pursued nature study (as it was then called) with more concentration, application and determination than I did. Then perhaps I would be able to answer questions with ease such as the following, that came to me quite unbidden recently: where do the butterflies that flutter all day around the lavender bushes outside my window go at night? They disappear some time before sundown as if in response to an order. Do butterflies sleep? Do they have enough mental activity for their rest to be called sleep? Do they go to their rest as individuals or collectively, and if collectively do they roost according to their various species? How do they avoid night predation? Surely lepidopterists must know the habits of the creatures they catch and collect: they are not just, well, butterfly-collectors, who merely hope for a full set issued by Nature as philatelists hope for full sets as issued by the Post Offices of countries long ago and far away (lepidopterists of my acquaintance are obsessional). How would one go about discovering the nocturnal habits of butterflies, or would one have to rely on chance observation? Could one follow butterflies to their lairs at close of day?

These questions, not very profound and perfectly obvious, occurred to me after I had observed these creatures with delight for several years. The butterflies of Europe are not very numerous as to species (by comparison with the tropical world), nor are they dramatic in size or colour, but they are, if I may so put it, tasteful. The largest and flashiest of them, the swallowtails, are creamy coloured with black markings, and their red and blue spots are restrained: there is no iridescence in the butterflies of Europe. Most of the butterflies are pure white, white with black markings, black with white stripes, or yellow. There are a several rust-coloured types, again with black markings, that make me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem (that I was taught at school two or three years after the dinosaur broadcast, an epoch in a child’s development):

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow…

The only blue butterfly is tiny, not more than half an inch in wingspan, the blue of its wings matt and pale, the underside ‘all in stipple upon trout that swims,’ to quote Hopkins again; a very shy butterfly this (we anthropomorphise even insects, and I even feel a little sorry for a drab and undistinguished wood-brown butterfly, so much less pretty than the others), that folds its wings modestly as soon as it lands and never stays for very long, as if it felt it had no real right to stay among its bigger brethren, of whom it cannot be afraid because they have no means of attack.

In fact there is something ungraspable about the beauty of butterflies; their season is short, but more importantly even the tardiest of them do not stay longer in one place than a heart-stopping phrase of Mozart or Schubert, that would allow us to examine and – we suppose – fully to absorb their beauty, digest it and make it part of ourselves as we digest meat and potatoes. Of course one can take photographs (infinitely better than pinning them, etherised and dead, to a board), but the living qualities of butterflies, their peaceful flitting from flower to flower, their floating on the air, their rhythmic opening and closing of their wings in a breathing movement, is a large part of their beauty for us. We love them on the wing, but in the very moment of our appreciation there is decay, and thus melancholy. Everything is transient and fleeting; the wish that joy could last for ever is impossible of fulfilment. Another of Hopkins’ poems begins:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?   

And ends:

It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret that you mourn for.    

Why, when I had spent many hours happily (though idly, from the point of view of cost-benefit analysis) looking at the butterflies on my lavender bushes, did the question of where they went after dark never occur to me before? It is not that I had not noticed that they disappeared within a short space of time more or less together, like unionised workers walking off the job when a strike is called.

The reason is that I simply took the way things were for granted, without thinking why they were as they were. Of course we have to do this for most of our lives: we cannot be paralysed by curiosity. And yet the opposite extreme, the habit of taking everything for granted, never wondering about anything, is one of the worst fates that can befall a man (if taking everything for granted can be called a fate rather than a decision). To walk in a world devoid of mystery is to embark on a voyage that is as tedious as it will appear long.

It seemed to me, from talking to many of my patients, that that was the kind of journey upon which they were embarked. They had been relieved of the requirement to take an interest in their surroundings that the often painful necessity to wrest a subsistence from them conferred, for their subsistence was assured; on the other hand, they had not been encouraged to develop or had not attained the mental attitudes to find the world of inexhaustible interest. The result was a kind of ontological boredom: they were bored with being, with existence itself. To this boredom there were two possible responses (other than to revise their attitude to the world, of course): the first was a listlessness, conducive to the grossest overeating and chronic hypnosis by television, and the second was an attempt to overcome boredom by the introduction of drama, no matter how destructive, into life, which was thereby turned into a soap opera. Better pain and misery than waking anaesthesia.

Pasteur said that fortune favoured the mind prepared; but minds, except perhaps for very rare exceptions, do not prepare themselves but have to be prepared. Do we do our best? Do we even try?  


Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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