The Phantom of Liberty: The Serpentine Movements of Chance

<em>The Phantom of Liberty</em><em>:</em> The Serpentine Movements of Chance

“Of the various insects that like to make their home in our houses, certainly the most interesting, for her beautiful shape, her curious manners, and her wonderful nest, is a certain Wasp called the Pelopaeus. She is very little known, even to the people by whose fireside she lives. This is owing to her quiet, peaceful ways; she is so very retiring that her host is nearly always ignorant of her presence.”


In the library of Luis Buñuel’s house in Mexico City, there were two bookshelves that bore evidence of considerably more frequent consultation than the others: one held the works of the Marquis de Sade, the other the writings of Jean-Henri Fabre, whose volume on the mason wasp is quoted above.

Fabre’s Souvenirs entomologiques was the delight of my childhood, though Fabre did not write for children, and I suspect most very young people reading him would be scared out of their wits. “The Homer of Insects,” as Charles Darwin called him, describes the lives of the glowworm, the cricket, the cicada, the praying mantis, and myriad other tiny creatures with an empathy and keenness of observation that make the reader love them as much as Fabre did. All the more horrifying, then, when the great entomologist, a scientist before all else, relates how his characters come to their end:

I once saw a Bee-eating Wasp, while carrying a Bee to her storehouse, attacked and caught by a Mantis. The Wasp was in the act of eating the honey she had found in the Bee’s crop. The double saw of the Mantis closed suddenly on the feasting Wasp; but neither terror nor torture could persuade that greedy creature to leave off eating. Even while she was herself being actually devoured she continued to lick honey from her Bee!

Buñuel’s movies almost always feature insects—the bee Fernando Rey rescues from drowning in Viridiana (1961), the deadly scorpions of L’âge d’or (1930), the wasps that devour the dead mule in Las hurdes (1933), the fly in the martini in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). In The Phantom of Liberty (1974), Buñuel’s penultimate film, Jean-Claude Brialy’s character disrupts the arrangement of his mantelpiece with a large spider in a glass frame: “I’m sick of symmetry,” he announces, a line that could serve as an epigraph for this film. In it, the director gives the aleatory ordering of dreams and the role of chance in waking life equal weightlessness. Indeed, it could easily be titled The Dream Life of Insects.

Fabre’s genius, and de Sade’s, for that matter, consisted in evoking the human being’s inextricable connection to nature (in the unameliorative sense of “the food chain”)—Fabre anthropomorphized the insect world, while de Sade insectomorphized the human. Reading either of Buñuel’s favorite authors reminds us that nature has no morality, and the kind we cook up for ourselves is completely arbitrary. (As Witold Gombrowicz put it, if you want to know what human morality is all about, take food away from people for three days.) Buñuel, too, never lost sight of the primacy of instinctual drives. And also like de Sade, he was, essentially, a satirist of human folly. His characters often resemble the instinct-driven monstrosities of “the Divine Marquis.” But they also have the affectionately rendered charm of Fabre’s insects, who combine ingenuity and intelligence within their narrow ken and complete imbecility vis-à-vis their actual position in the food chain.

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