Idiot Parable 5

(Thanks to David Edwick for finding this image.)

The Parable of the Gecko and the Praying Mantis

Kuhl’s flying gecko, Prychozoon kuhli, drawn on lithographic stone ready for printing by Frederick William Frohawk (1861-1946). Natural History Museum, London.

At night, the Gecko liked to sit above the white globe of the outside light which, positioned above the French windows, illuminated the patio.

It would remain motionless for hours in the cool of the night, looking like a little wrinkled greeny-yellow rubber glove that someone had thrown up there, which had somehow stuck. (Though it would be a glove for a very small hand, as though babies did the washing up.)

Occasionally, if a moth bashed it on the head too many times in its ecstasies over the light, the Gecko would eat it, but mostly it left them alone to their devotions, as it contemplated its own business.

On this particular evening, however, it suddenly rushed at something and bit it sharply, so that the thing, which looked like a very pale string bean, fell onto the rough concrete of the patio. There it lay for a moment, before getting up and running round in crazy stunned circles, and revealing itself to be a Praying Mantis.

It had taken such a knock that it looked at first as though one of its cruel, cunning arms, that fold to conceal thorn-like claws, had been bitten off entirely. But, when it paused in its circuits, it was evident that it was holding both sets of arms away from the side of the body that had presumably been nipped, and that its loss amounted to no more than a truncated feeler on its pea-green triangular head.

Partly because it was an insect, but also somehow because the Mantis’s eyes were exactly the same colour as its head, there was of course no way any expression could be read into the tiny face, and, as the Gecko had reverted to its usual immobility, there was no hope of understanding either the motives or actions on either creature’s part that had led to this skirmish. It therefore appeared as a small example of inevitability, of the behaviour of the universe as it were, something neither natural nor mechanical as we think of those terms.

It was neither the opening of the jasmine flowers growing opposite the light in the same hours of darkness, nor the rare but regulated appearance of some figure in the display of a great clock. It was more like an encounter on the sub-atomic level, between particles that are still largely a mystery to us, and as such, it gave the impression that it had happened many millions of times before, and would happen many millions of times again, but that this would still be a finite number in the unfolding of the universe.

As with those particles, a small question hovered over the incident: did it make any difference whether or not it was observed?

After a few minutes, the Mantis was again able to walk in a straight line which, though still listing slightly, it did, and was soon gone from sight.


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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