Like flies to wanton boys

Do you have a thing about flies? Not those things that are sometimes left partially undone in pants, or anything- no, flies. You know, the real ones that party on meat or gather in the kitchen after a lazy afternoon in the garden. They’re usually up to no good.

When I was young, I used to think they were cute -always rubbing their little hands whenever they landed as if they were plotting their next foray or something. The fact that they were actually wiping off their own dirt so they could figure out what was in my sandwich didn’t really occur to me. I mean who would have guessed that they smelled and tasted with the hairs on their legs? Maybe nobody knew in those days. But, at any rate, despite my mother’s horror whenever one landed on her meatloaf, I was more amused at the rubbing than the landing. At least it was pretending to wash its hands just like me in the bathroom. It was a sort of borrowed kinship, I suppose.

It was only after I was exposed to kindergarten and began to climb up the unending rungs on the ladder to higher education that I came to harbour a suspicion that their incessant handwashing might rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine. Flies, it seems, are bad omens.

I probably would have left the subject there, forever circling the neuronal plaques accumulating in my brain, but a particularly persistent fly recently landed on my laptop screen while I was reading, and I was able to catch it with my hand. And no, I did not memorialize the deed on my belt like the Gallant Tailor in the Grimm Brothers’ story, but it did get me wondering about flies again.

It’s interesting how experience validates episodes of Jungian synchronicity, isn’t it? How else to explain bumping into an essay about flies in the Conversation? Well, in fairness the article had to do with a black fly which landed on Pence’s white hair during that long-ago American vice-presidential debate that I didn’t watch -but all the same, it was my fault for wandering through some old archival issues to kill a bit of time before dinner.

Anyway, the debate was only an excuse for the author, Sally Hickson (an associate professor of Art History at the University of Guelph) to expand on the meaning of flies in Art.

Just for the record, I do not pretend to any deep knowledge of either Art, or Flies, and as far as I have been able to ascertain, nor do any of my friends, but I was intrigued that there was at least one person out there who felt there was a gap that needed filling. So, had I not tripped over the article, perhaps the knowledge would have remained forever hidden in the steganography of the Art Elite.

Hickson admits that flies, per se, are not much to write about: ‘That’s probably why a French word for spy is connected to the same word for fly, mouche. When a fly becomes famous, it’s worth wondering why.’ She goes on to explain that ‘Flies have long held symbolic meaning in the history of art. In portraits made in Renaissance Europe, the presence of a fly symbolizes the transience of human life.’

Actually, their effect on a painting is quite remarkable. In her essay, she includes a Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, painted in about 1470 and now hanging in the National Gallery in London. The woman is wearing a magnificent cream coloured Hijab-like covering on her head that is absolutely stunning and literally takes over the painting. But there seems to be an imperfection: a little fly, that appears to have landed on it to remind us ‘that our life, like hers, is impermanent’.

Another of my favourite examples that Hickson supplies, is ‘Portrait of a Carthusian, the most famous portrait featuring a fly, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, [and] was painted by Petrus Christus in 1446. It depicts a bearded monk. The fly perched on the ledge in front of him signifies we’re entering a zone where all is not what it appears: we might say that what seems real is only an illusion. Or, perhaps the artist has enhanced “the quality of the subject’s ‘real’ presence by the fly resting momentarily on the fictive frame,” according to the museum.’ I would probably have missed that, though; hopefully there is a little note under the painting to point it out -I’m useless in a museum.

Mind you, lack of practice may play a role. The big red brick public school of my early years  used to herd classfuls of us into museums (or is it musea?) once or twice a year in hopes we would actually look at stuff -but I don’t think there were many flies in or on the paintings. Winnipeg -even in the post war years- was not replete with flies in January as I recall, so I’m sure we would have noticed. And the more theologically inclined of the class would have told the teachers that in the book of Exodus in the Bible, God mustered swarms of flies as punishment, or whatever. Fortunately my own Sunday School was more lackadaisical about Biblical punishments. Ours were more focussed on the here-and-now-in-Sunday-School retribution, so I don’t recall any fly threats. There were a couple of expulsions I think, but they were careful about them because the expellees just goofed around in the yard outside the window until church got out. At least that’s what I did.

Interestingly, ‘Entomologist Ron Cherry has explored how  insects have long-standing mythological associations with death. In Renaissance thought, which tended to blend medieval fabulist tales about nature with ideas about religion, flies were considered to represent supernatural power, mostly associated with evil and corruption, because they seemed to be spontaneously born from decaying fruit and rotting organic matter.’

Maybe that was what my mother was concerned about with the fly landing on her meatloaf. Actually, she knew I preferred her meat fritters, but in those days I don’t think I knew enough about evil to accuse her of anything. And besides, the less said, the more pie for dessert.


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