… These habits are so well-designed to disturb human beings that scientists for once, to their credit, have abandoned their professional dryness.
This is from The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader edited by Claudine Frank (2003). Today’s post is from ‘The Praying Mantis’ first published in 1934:
… It has long been known that the mantis does not make do with … half measures. Indeed, in a Journal de physique of 1784, J.L.M. Poiret conveyed his observation of a female mantis that decapitated her male before mating and then completely devoured him after copulation. This story was recently corroborated in a fine account by Raphael Dubois, with details that aggravated the case. Paul Portier and others … had originally thought that such cannibalism could be explained by the fact that the mantis needs albumin and protein to produce her eggs — and that she can find this in greatest quantity among her own species. This hypothesis was challenged by Rabaud, who noted, in particular, that the mantis does not eat the male just when she most needs the food. Thus, Raphael Dubois’s theory (which does not exclude the preceding ones, in my view), is more generally favored. This naturalist observes that after having been decapitated, a cricket performs induced reflexive and spasmodic movements both better and for a longer time than before. Referring to the work of Goltz and H. Busquet (if one removes a frog’s superior centers, it immediately assumes the coital position normally adopted only in the spring), he wonders whether the mantis’s goal in beheading the male before mating might not be to obtain a better and longer performance of the spasmodic coital movements, through the removal of the brain’s inhibitory centers. In the final analysis, it would hence be the pleasure principle that compels the female insect to murder her lover — whose body she begins to ingest, furthermore, in the course of lovemaking itself.
These habits are so well-designed to disturb human beings that scientists for once, to their credit, have abandoned their professional dryness. For example, in his recent monograph, La Vie de la mante religieuse, Léon Binct, professor of physiology at the Faculté de Médicine in Paris, seems visibly affected by them. In any event, it is quite surprising to see him briefly foreswear his scientific detachment to call the female a kind of “murderous mistress,” while venturing a most alarming literary quotation in this regard.* I myself shall take this revealing lapse as the basis for interpreting Binet’s conclusion: “This insect really seems to be a machine with highly advanced parts, which can operate automatically.” Indeed, it strikes me that likening the mantis to an automaton (to a female android, given the latter’s anthropomorphism) reflects the same emotional theme, if (as I have reason to believe) the notion of an artificial, mechanical, inanimate, and unconscious machine-woman — incommensurate with man and all other living creatures — does stem in some way from a specific view of the relations between love and death and, in particular, from an ambivalent premonition of encountering one within the other.
For all that, I would not deny the existence of facts amply vindicating in and of themselves the conclusion called into question above. On the contrary, this kind of overlap would significantly heighten the praying mantis’s objective lyrical value. Indeed, here again, reality exceeds our wildest expectations.
Above and beyond its jointed rigidity, which recalls a coat of armor or an automaton, it is a fact that there are very few reactions the mantis cannot perform in a decapitated state — that is, without any center of representation or of voluntary activity. In this condition, it can walk; regain its balance; sever a threatened limb; assume the spectral stance; engage in mating; lay eggs; build an ootheca; and (this is truly frightening) lapse into feigned rigor mortis in the face of danger or when the peripheral nervous system is stimulated. I am deliberately expressing myself in a roundabout way as it is so difficult, I think, both for language to express and for the mind to grasp that the mantis, when dead, should be capable of simulating death.
[* in footnotes the quote is given as (in translation) “She exhausts, she kills, and this only makes her more beautiful.”]