Years ago I worked in a large modern building with dark grey glass doors and windows. One morning when I was out smoking, I noticed a bright spot on the wall next to the door — a white moth, with soft, furry body and silvery antennae. It was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen—delicate and fragile, highlighted by the darkness of the glass and granite building. It was held there against the wall by a grip frozen in death.

I was reminded of this moth when I read W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz with his references to moths; subtle symbols of the lead character's search for the truth of who he is, like the moth's obsessive desire for illumination, regardless of the cost. And in the book, memories are tipped out into words forming stories as fragile as the wings of a moth preserved in a jar:

None of the containers was more than two or three inches high, and when I opened them one by one and held them in the light of the lamp, each proved to contain the mortal remains of one of the moths which — as Austerlitz had told me — had met its end here in this house. I tipped one of them, a weightless ivory-colored creature with folded wings that might have been woven of some immaterial fabric, out of its Bakelite box onto the palm of my right hand. Its legs, which it had drawn up under its silver-scaled body as if just clearing some final obstacle, were so delicate taht I could scarely make them out, while the antannae curving high above the whole body also trembled on the edge of visibility.

In college I was introduced to another story featuring a moth, Virginia Woolf's essay, Death of a Moth. In it, Woolf writes about a moth flying about a window pane, its world constrained by the boundaries of the wood holding the glass. The moth flew, first from one side, to the other, and then back as the rest of life continued ignorant of its movements. At first indifferent, Woolf was eventually moved to pity of the moth:

The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so...

Similar Essays