What is it about flies?

Dorcas Wangui

What are we to make of the flies that appear in contemporary art? Arundhati Roy had her moths, butterflies were written into Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the art of Ilya Kabakov also exhibited the The Life of Flies. If you remember, even Owl City had their catchy Fireflies. What is it that is so valuable about the life of a fly for artists and thinkers today?

Svetlana Boym answers this by connecting this insect to the figure of the migrant, with its metaphorical ‘elusiveness of departure and destination’.[1]  The way I see it; a fly does not stay still for long. It lives in transit. The gap between coming and going. It has always come from outside, and will return from where it came.

The Life of Flies is an exhibition where Kabakov uses the insect as a metaphor for ‘the image of the banal.’[2] He emphasises this further with particular attention to the fly’s gravitation towards human waste and  garbage. Indeed there seems to be something base about the fly which Rushdie himself utilizes through his butterflies of symbolic death and destruction. The prophetess Ayesha is united with the butterflies that clothe, feed and guide her. Butterflies that guide her, we suspect, to her prophetic death into the Arabian Sea.

Although she was completely naked the butterflies had settled upon her body in such thick swarms that she seemed to be wearing a dress of the most delicate material in the universe.[3]

In The God of Small Things Pappachi’s moth is ghostly in the way it haunts every house and descendent connected to its discoverer. The motif of the moth is used whenever fear is being described, replacing traditional and stiff description with something more spacious and uncanny. [4]

A cold moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts landed lightly on Rahel’s heart. Where its icy legs touched her, she got goosebumps.[5] 

Roy uses the moth as an eerie undercurrent; we are unaware of its presence until it flaps its wings. The God of Small Things is a narrative filled with the litany and repetition of various images. This flickering is one of the reasons that the text is so vivid and cinematic. Out of the many litanies employed by Roy, the fly, for me, is most interesting because its symbolism simulates a way of thinking about student life.  Boym describes the fly as a nomad and escapist – but also a homebody.[6] The lifestyle of the fly is split by this tension. Indeed, I have always understood my university experience through those moments of responsibility and spontaneity.  Home and away. The touches of those wings when things are different. Home, maybe. Yourself, more likely.

I find that the progress of pilgrimage is almost always filled with butterflies.

The butterflies were with them, high over their heads.[7]

At this time of year when we all pack up the souvenirs salvaged during term and begin to look homeward, are we not imitating flies and butterflies and moths? Jumping from place to place. Hoping not to get squashed. Remembering those places we landed in briefly, before we moved on.  After all, that’s what it means to have butterflies. An anticipation of what is to come. Be it sinister. Or lovely.


[1] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Book, 2001), p. 320.

[2]Ilya Kabakov, The Life of Flies, cited in Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Book, 2001), p. 320.

[3] Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, 2nd edn (London: Vintage, 2006), p. 225.

[4] Shmoop Editorial Team, ‘The God of Small Things’, Shmoop.com, 11 November 2008, <http://www.shmoop.com/god-of-small-things/pappachi-moth-symbol.html&gt; [accessed 25th June 2012] (paragraph 2 of 4).

[5] Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, (London: Flamingo, 1998), p. 112.

[6] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Book, 2001), p. 321.

[7] Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, 2nd edn (London: Vintage, 2006), p. 501.


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