JIN-334 -- The Embodiment of Jean H. Fabre

T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R
Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News

Issue No. 334
Thursday August 25, 2005 TOKYO

+++ VIEWPOINT: The Embodiment of Jean H. Fabre
1. Boys as Amateur Entomologists
2. Forgotten at Home


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+++ VIEWPOINT: The Embodiment of Jean H. Fabre
1. Boys as Amateur Entomologists

Descending the stairs to the bathroom in the stillness of night,
I hear beetles tapping against the sides of the cages sitting in
rows on a shelf above the toilet. I observe their burrowing and
feasting on containers of a jello-like aliment. They are magnificent
creatures with black carapaces and great headpieces. Not for nothing
is one variety called the "kabutomushi" (helmet-head beetle) and the
other the "kuwagata mushi" (hoe-head beetle).

The beetles are my son's. When I was his age I kept frogs,
turtles, and even snakes but insects (except for fireflies) were
outside my ken. In my boyhood the worth of amphibians and
reptiles was self-evident. Likewise the value of beetles to him.

Boys here become amateur entomologists, poring over colorful
field guides and embarking on beetle-hunting expeditions. Indeed
the sight of a boy with a net in one hand and cage in the other
scouring a copse for kabutomushi is part of the poetry of summer
in Japan.

A favorite book of boys is "Souvenirs Entomologiques," by
Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915). Fabre wrote his magnum opus in
ten volumes, the last appearing when he was 84. Late in life he
gained fame, being elected to numerous societies and even
receiving a visit from the president of France.

Fabre was a self-taught natural scientist. His achievements lay
not in his science per se but rather in his creation of the beau
ideal of the entomologist. According to the "Scarab Workers
World Directory," "Fabre's works cannot be overemphasized
because, quite apart from their popularizing influence, he alone
set up the standards of observational patience and accuracy
that subsequent workers were then obligated to match."

Matching those standards is a challenge. In order to observe
insects, Fabre would crawl on his hands and knees, or remain
in the same position in the same place for an entire day. He
experienced what was perhaps his first epiphany in observation
of insects while a 25-year-old teacher of physics on Corsica.
As he observed the island's insects, he sensed they did
everything for the continued existence of the species, as if
they were guided by something. He began to ponder instinct.

He would later write: "Instinct is omniscient in the unchanging
paths that have been laid down for it; away from those paths
it knows nothing. Sublime inspirations of science, astounding
inconsequences of stupidity, are alike its portion." He described
the grub of the Capricorn beetle as "a bit of intestine that crawls
about." However, he acknowledged that "this nothing-at-all is
capable of marvelous acts of foresight; this belly, which knows
hardly aught of the present, sees very clearly into the future."

His inimitable literary style is a further reason for reading him.

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2. Forgotten at Home

In France, with the exception of men of letters and entomologists,
few have heard of Fabre. That oft-used contemporary yardstick of
recognition, Google, counts 5,670 web pages in French for "Souvenirs
Entomologiques" and 227,000 pages for "Konchuki," the title in
Japanese translation. Perhaps there is no Japanese who has not
heard of Fabre.

Japanese grade schoolers reportedly know more of "Souvenirs
Entomologiques" than do French adults. Now their familiarity with
the French scientist has been exploited by Seven Eleven. The
convenience store chain brought out this summer a "Souvenirs
Entomologiques" series of limited edition gifts attached to necks
of bottles of soft drinks.The series comprises eight pieces -- seven
insects and a figure of Fabre observing Minotaur beetles in a
device of his invention.

The kabutomushi remains a favorite of Japanese boys. What is the
attraction? "The kabutomushi is big and strong and good-looking,"
explained my son. "It's called the 'king of insects.' "

Certainly his and his friends' interest in insects is different from
Fabre's. The scientist would with monomaniacal intensity perform repeated
experiments with insects, his intensity crystallized in the words, "If
I ask questions that grasp essentials, nature will teach me everything
I want to know."

An early interest in insects is to be welcomed. It introduces children
to natural history. It hones their powers of observation. It inculcates
sympathy for other creatures and teaches the cycle of life. It leads
children to Fabre.

Fabre is one of a long line of men--Lafcadio Hearn and Townsend Harris
are two others--largely forgotten at home but enshrined in the collective
Japanese consciousness. This summer has witnessed his embodiment.

--Burritt Sabin

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Written and edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)

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