“I have drunk, and seen the spider.” On Swallowing Bugs in Fiction
Daisy Hildyard on Transcorporeality
There is a moment in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale when King Leontes makes a strange comparison between his wife’s infidelity and finding a spider in his drink. The spider is poisonous, its venom “steep’d”through the liquid, but the thing is, Leontes says, the drinker will only die if he notices the spider. If he swallows the contents of the cup without ever seeing the suspended arachnid, “knowledge / is not infected,” “and one may drink; depart, / And yet partake no venom.” Leontes has come to believe that his wife Hermione has been unfaithful and the news destroys him. “I have drunk, and seen the spider.”
“This scary speech is even crazier than it sounds,” writes literary critic Harold Bloom. Leontes’ wife is innocent, and Leontes, who depicts himself as a victim of poisoning, has in fact recently tasked a courtier with poisoning the other man. Leontes is convinced, in the way of dangerous idiots everywhere, that his biggest problem is too much insight. “Alack, for lesser knowledge!”
Much has been written about Leontes and Hermione, but I am interested in the spider. The image is weird, contorted and yet somehow forceful. The spider is barely there at all: a figment of an imaginary man’s imagination, it is characterized by its unsettled physical being. You have only drunk its body-liquids if you have noticed its body: it’s a contingency of human perception. It’s flickery. And at the same time, Leontes is invoking something very material: the expulsion of juice from miniscule venom glands, the liquid lacing the wine, then moving through the digestive system and dispersing in the bloodstream.
There is another small stowaway on the food in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders. Apple grower Giles is in love with ladylike Grace and so he is distressed to learn, at the end of a party he threw to impress her, that his kitchen served Grace a salad, inside which there lurked a tiny snail. “[I]t must have been in her few leaves of wintergreen,” says Robert, Giles’ servant, who noticed the little “Gentleman” on the edge of Grace’s plate. “But Robert, of all places, that’s where he shouldn’t have been!” cries Giles, to which Robert responds reasonably: “twas his native home, come to that; and where else could we expect him to be?” Robert has an understanding of the ecosystem that is straightforward and fair. “I don’t care who the man is, snails and caterpillars will always lurk in close to the stump of cabbages in that tantalizing way.”
Grace, for her part, behaves beautifully: “she didn’t say a word about it,” and only Robert’s impression of “the close-mouthed little lady” gives an intimation of how she chewed. Perhaps she didn’t really mind. As Robert says, these small creatures “were born on cabbage, and they’ve lived on cabbage, so they must be made of cabbage.”
He speaks sense. If you live on this planet and eat food, you’ve probably been there. I can still remember the time, decades ago, when I found a nest of pale worms inside a nectarine. It’s an experience that’s more intense than it should be, the prickle and choke when a midge flies right into your airways, or the pulse of movement—writhing, squirming, sliding, or wriggling—on your food or drink. It’s a physical repulsion, a joke in a nightmare. I think of the comical and brutal nursery rhyme about the old woman who swallowed a fly. “I don’t know why she swallowed that fly. Perhaps she’ll die!”
Perhaps she’ll die. But it’s unlikely that the fly will kill her: many people on this planet eat insects, and even if you don’t eat them for nutrition or pleasure, you might consume them incidentally, without conscious experience of it. There’s a well-circulated story that a person swallows, on average—insert number here—spiders per year, while asleep. Perhaps they don’t really count if you don’t think about them, like the spider of Leontes’ imagination. Or perhaps they do. (They matter if you are vegan, or a spider.)
Both the spider and the snail are asides: analogies, details, flourishes. They’re minor events in the overall plot of Hardy’s novel and of Shakespeare’s play, as swallowing a gnat is a minor event in an ordinary day. Material from one small body finds its way, mistakenly, into another, larger body. Do these little stories have anything to say? The philosopher Stacy Alaimo has written about what happens when attention is called to a “literal contact zone between human corporeality and more-than-human nature.”
A material meeting between one body and another, she suggests, reveals that bodies and environments are open: able to get into one another and change one another. Alaimo has a word to describe this phenomenon of movement across bodies: “transcorporeality.” She sees many different expressions of transcorporeality in the living world of the 21st-century—through host-parasite relationships, through sex, through contamination or toxic flows, through microbiomes; through disease or consumption or emission, through the atmosphere, through a wound. “Imagining human corporeality as trans-corporeality, in which the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world, underlines the extent to which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from ‘the environment’.” This is something substantial and political: “concern and wonder” for the real material world, which extends beyond human life, and also extends right inside it. Alaimo describes transcorporeality as a way of thinking about what matter is and a way of thinking about what matters.
As a reader, what I like about these moments in The Winter’s Tale and The Woodlanders is that they are material stories which have an emotional charge. The snail incident tells us something about who Grace is, and it offers a view of the world beyond the dining-room. Robert’s description of the cabbage leaf, circulating through the body of the snail, and then by extension through Grace’s body, is of its time and place and it belongs to Robert as a person, but it is also a lovely, funny vision of transcorporeality as an enduring inclination of the biosphere.
Even now—perhaps especially now—it is rare to experience such a plain material transaction in a literary tradition that is fascinated with mind and consciousness. What’s sad about Leontes and his imaginary spider is that reality eludes his hubris. By seeing the live world as a function of his own perception, he loses a lot. Leontes thinks he knows it all and he is mistaken. The spider is recessed into so many layers of consciousness, imagination, and speculation, that it poisons his life. Leontes tries to have his innocent wife killed, and then she flees the country and has to live in hiding, losing her identity, life at court, and her son, and the couple are separated for much of their lives.
These are old stories. Hardy is writing in the 19th-century, Shakespeare in the seventeenth, the old woman who ate a fly is ancient. This experience of swallowing creepy-crawlies is one that must have been happening to people everywhere, for as long as humans have existed. Right now, at this moment, somebody, somewhere in the world, is trying to tip out the spider that has dropped into their cup, the latest in a history of annoying and lively mini incursions that have been playing out for millennia, ever since the first hominid inhaled a wasp. A thousand years in the future, I wonder whether there will be contact between a warm wet human mouth and a worm at the heart of an apple.
Daisy Hilyard’s novel Emergency is available now from Astra House.