Since September, I have been very much down south: Chichester, and most recently, Bognor. I’m only three hours at the most from my native Suffolk, but some of the differences I’ve come across in terms of wildlife are fairly startling— particularly the size and kind of spiders.
Despite a few choice nightmares, I am not worried by spiders. Last week though, I found myself re-evaluating this position. Coming home from Easter Vigils, I walked into my bathroom to find myself face to face with a Woodlouse Spider. For the sake of any arachnophobes out there, I’m leaving out the pictures, but suffice to say, they are unnerving looking creatures. With a dark red thorax and legs, and a cream, ovoid, abdomen, this one appeared unusually glossy, and moved in a way that seemed beguilingly calculated. I noted in particular, that if I breathed out hard from the other side of the room (about two metres away), the spider would stop in its tracks. Bearing in mind it didn’t freeze when I walked in and turned the light on, I must assume it has some kind of chemoreceptors that react to breath (I am no arachnologist). I repeated this process a few times, and eventually it stopped reacting and continued its way along the bathroom wall.
A few things struck me about this spider in particular. First off, the contrast in size between it and the Woodlouse Spiders I’d come across back in East Anglia. In this part of the world, with a warmer climate (Bognor boasts that it’s the sunniest part of the UK, I beg to differ), this was the largest I’d ever seen. From chelicerae to spinneret, it was 2cm long, which I’m fairly sure is unusual even for this weird part of the world. What got to me more than anything else though, was the strange, unnerving feeling of being watched.
In her first novel Under the Net, Iris Murdoch mentions how the spider is the smallest creature that is capable of making people feel that they are being watched. As the protagonist observes:
I am very sensitive to observation, and not only have this feeling in the presence of human beings but in that of small animals. Once I even traced the source of it to a large spider whose mysterious eyes were fixed upon me. In my experience the spider is the smallest creature whose gaze can be felt. (‘Under the Net’)
At this moment, I could easily believe it. The spider made its meticulous way along the wall and I turned my back to see if the feeling would go away. It didn’t. This was curious. I stared at the spider a bit longer: its gait, one shared by other spiders that actively hunt their prey, was perhaps, I considered bringing out the fear in me. After all, the mannerisms of a hunter are (at least outwardly) fairly universal across species. I thought about the species of insect which I had observed treating me as their prey: the Assassin Bug which bit me so painfully it woke me up, the Elk Flies you get in Sweden that have a nasty habit of dropping out of trees onto you as you pass below. One even survived being hit with my copy of The Faerie Queene (it’s a huge book), something which would have at least stunned me. And of course, there is everybody’s favourite, the Mosquito. In his later essay ‘Sleeping and Waking’, F. Scott Fitzgerald recounts an encounter with a lone Mosquito that he pinpoints as the first time he began to suffer from insomnia. He writes:
It is astonishing how much worse one mosquito can be than a swarm. A swarm can be prepared against, but one mosquito takes on a personality— a hatefulness, a sinister quality of a struggle to the death. (‘Sleeping and Waking’)
Abstracted out from the multitude of the swarm, the Mosquito comes to take on a significance far beyond what we’d normally attribute to it. It is no longer a simple case of kill it and go back to sleep, but a ‘struggle’. What Fitzgerald encounters is an otherly gaze, a bewildering and unexpectedly potent one, that threatens to upset the hierarchy that places him and humankind above such insects. Like the Murdoch quoted above, the very possibility of some sort of insect agency is imbued with a creeping kind of horror. This creeping horror comes to a climax in Fitzgerald’s account when, having finally killed his antagonist, he notes:
… the Pyrrhic victory, and the small mangled spot of blood, my blood, on the headboard of the bed. (‘Sleeping and Waking’)
The horror is twofold here. Fitzgerald, presented with his own blood, is given a painful reminder of his own mortality. The spot’s bathetic size, its mangled state evokes a needling sense of insignificance. What’s worse though is the sense that, if only for a short while, his blood was inside another creature. Not only has the creature, at least for a brief time, had some kind of conception of him as an object, but now literally contains and surrounds him. What Fitzgerald so keenly feels is the assault of an insect other, and the precariousness of his own superiority to them. It’s chillingly apt that he calls his triumph a ‘ Pyrrhic victory’.
An important fact that I have so far failed to mention about the Woodlouse Spider is that it is one of the few spiders in this country capable of penetrating human skin. It’s bite is, of course, harmless, less painful than a bee sting— but painful all the same. I put my hand in front of the spider and it gradually begins to explore my palm. I should not be so apprehensive. But it is not so much the pain of a bite that worries me, but the humiliation of it— the idea that such a small creature should be capable of inducing in me a state I have little or no control over. Among many things, pain is a crucial, though much mourned and maligned, link between us and the non-human world of creatures. And worse than this, the sense of being watched has intensified. I fancy I can almost feel my whole self slowly being reeled in, compressed down, and couched in the coils of that arthropod’s nervous system. It sees and senses me. I put it down.
I wonder at what point it becomes possible to feel a genuine, relatable, solidarity for a creature— or whether it’s possible at all to make distinctions between life forms without slipping into a profound hypocrisy. After all, to a certain degree, we have a lot in common: our needs for warmth, nutriment, space, etc— those needs so often called ‘basic’ which are in fact the most complicated of all. But I did feel solidarity for this Woodlouse Spider, with its, for want of a better word, ignorance, more than anything else. I felt solidarity for the fact it could not feel my solidarity— and even self-pitied myself a little— in that, like the spider, so much in life must constantly be streaming over my head— beyond and through and past me, without my even noticing, save when some poetic glitch turns up and forces me to look again, or some deep, animal response, causes me to freeze not knowing why or how. But that’s something for another day. The Woodlouse Spider goes back to investigating the space behind the bathroom mirror and I return to my room to think. Pausing, I realise with a laugh, that of course, the spider does not care at all about any of this. To me this is somehow both the most and least important thing I could have learnt from our encounter.