The mind of a fly, such as it is, is a primitive thing – archaic and amoral, devoid of pity, remorse, forgiveness… and love. And yet. And yet we know within every species there is a great deal of variation: every species is, after all, an ingenious structure formed by Nature. Goethe – who we sometimes forget was as great a scientist as he was a poet – yes, the divine Goethe grasped two simple but essential truths. First, that species are real in themselves; not some mere classificatory device created by us. (I might add – inasmuch as it relates to the story that I am shortly to tell – that confidence in the reality of species as such was for the better part of the last century based entirely on the incontrovertible fact of reproductive isolation). Every species may indeed be viewed as a manifestation of planfulness. Yet we also know, and this is the second principle, by no means are species totally homogenous. There is always intraspecific variety, as they say – a flexibility in behavior and phenomena. The crucial point is that this diversity if you will – functional or otherwise – is the very raison d’être of the species. Is it any wonder then that Nature loves her eccentrics: every species has its individuals that wander along new roads – the honeybee, say, who returns carrying news within in his unique dance of hitherto unknown gardens and flowers, or a new tree in which to rear the hive. Insect behavior can be quite plastic.
I offer this preface to my brief and unhappy tale so that you will not think me mad or a fool when I say, once upon a time… I begin so, for this is indeed a fairy-tale, which is to say, my dear friends, it is as a true a story as you have ever heard. Once upon a time there was a fly – by all outward appearances an ordinary and inconspicuous housefly. But this fly was quite unlike its fellows, unlike any fly that has ever been or is ever likely to be again. For this fly was in love, and not with another fly let me hasten to add. This fly was in love – in love, I say – with a man. As you would imagine, the fly suffered terribly for its love. It was after all but a fly, and though it did not know much, it knew well enough that the object of its love – a human man – was utterly and forever unobtainable. It could never even make its love known to the object of its affection, though it tried best as it could.
And so, the poor fly pined away day and night, longing desperately for the merest glance from the man it adored. On one occasion, when it was still a fairly young fly, it did receive such a glance, and it set its little heart quickening and throbbing so that it thought it might die there and then on the spot. The unhappy thing would never dream of alighting upon the man; for if he had shaken it off, or brushed it aside, or worse, attempted to strike it, the open and explicit rejection would be more than it could bear. No, better to keep its distance – at least this way it could continue to dream that maybe, just maybe, a day would come when the man would gently pay it some heed, perhaps even show it some small kindness. O what joy! What rapture this would bring. It could then die happily and in perfect peace. Though for twenty-one days – which mind you is more or less a lifetime for a fly – it never left the man’s rooms, the moment that it so longed for did not arrive.
It will not surprise you to learn that our little friend took not the slight interest in any of its fellows. Other flies it regarded – and for good reason – as brutal and mean, incapable of sensitivity or understanding anything of the feelings that surged through its humble frame. To other flies our friend came off as rather arrogant and more than a little haughty. And very strange, indeed; thoroughly uninterested in the things that mattered most to them – namely food, water and reproduction. Our friend barely ate or drank and seemed positively repulsed at the merest suggestion of a romantic dalliance with another of its kind.
Of course, our exceptional friend cared not at all how it appeared to others. It knew instinctively that it was different, extraordinary, aware of things, of a beauty such as no fly had ever dreamt. And though its immense love for a man brought it great pain, the fly also took some pride in that love, as you would expect. Surely, we may forgive our friend this small vanity, for in its case such feelings were justified, and a small consolation for the agony it endured.
There was something else that brought the fly even greater happiness than the awareness of its uniqueness and exceptionality: it was the thought that although an infinite and unbridgeable gulf separated the fly from the one it loved, there had to be something, however small, which united them. And perhaps in the end it was not so small a thing which they shared. They were both after all living things. The fly knew this, not consciously perhaps, but somewhere in its body it grasped that life itself was a kind of common denominator. On one occasion it watched the man apparently weep, and the scene was indeed a startling one; for the fly had never imagined that the man – who to it was like a god – was capable of such a thing. Though it genuinely grieved the fly’s passionate heart to see the man in pain, it was also just a little pleased that here was something else that made them alike: they both could suffer. Yes, there was some common ground between them, though the fly knew all too well that the man surpassed it in everything, or nearly everything. And it was this that made it all the more amusing to the fly when it came to realize that there were some things after all that it could do which even that glorious man could not. It could fly. It had never seen the man fly and came to doubt whether he even could – for he had not wings – and eventually it concluded that the man could not. This made our friend smile inside, to the extent that a fly can do such a thing.
After three weeks the fly had reached late maturity. It was growing old and could feel its strength ebbing. By the twenty-eighth day it knew it had not much longer to live. It was extraordinary that the fly lived as long as it did, considering how poorly it kept itself. But the intensity of its love seemed to sustain it and give it reason to live. Eventually the time came when our little friend was dying. The fly’s life had run its course, and still the man had never paid it any heed at all, save for the one occasion mentioned earlier. It was on that occasion that the fly became conscious not of the man but of its love for him – which is to say, it was at that moment that the fly realized it was both blessed and cursed. Blessed because it knew and experienced things of which none of its fellows had any inkling. But also cursed – cursed it thought again as it lay there dying, not because its devotion had gone unrequited, but because that passion was never even to be known or acknowledged by the man it had day in and day out loved with all the might of which it was capable. The man would never know how it suffered so for its love.
And yet, just as it was breathing its last something occurred to our friend which brought its poor heart some peace as it beat for the last time: and it was the realization that nothing, but nothing could ever erase the incontrovertible fact that it had lived and loved.