In Praise of Fleas


Woman Catching Fleas, Georges de La Tour (ca. 1638)

Along with Muriel Spark, Natalia Ginzburg convinced me that I might as well be a writer since I wanted it so bad even though I was terrified I would never be any good at it. They assured me, through their work, that being any good at it was nice but beside the point. A writer’s relationship to her writing is symbiotic. You choose writing as your vocation like a flea chooses its host and then you struggle to suck out of it the most you can while trying not to get crushed out of existence in the process. I am doing a new translation of Ginzburg’s Lessico Famigliare and so am very tuned into all things Natalia. I think on twitter I came across her essay “My Vocation” (1949) recently and just about wept over how perfectly her words continue speak to me. Here’s a small excerpt:

“Such is my vocation. It does not produce much money and it is always necessary to follow some other vocation simultaneously in order to live. Though sometimes it produces a little, and it is very satisfying to have money because of it — it is like receiving money and presents from the hands of someone you love. Such is my vocation. I do not, I repeat, know much about the value of the results it has given me or could give me: or it would be better to say that I know the relative though certainly not the absolute value of the results I have already obtained. When I write something I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think this happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it. But that doesn’t matter much to me. Only, I don’t want to think about names: I can see that if I am asked ‘a small writer like who?’ it would sadden me to think of the names of other small writers. I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much a mosquito or a flea of a writer I may be.”

From Natalia Ginzburg’s essay “My Vocation” (1949) translated by Dick Davis.

Ginzburg’s flea image reminded me of John Donne’s great poem “The Flea.” In college I fell in love with John Donne and the metaphysical poets. Donne showed me the beauty and power of juxtaposition, and how in things disparate we can find our deepest connections. Above all Donne taught me that the writing I loved best was that which surprised me.

by John Donne

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,
And cloister’d in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck’d from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
‘Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.


Once you see one or two fleas they are soon everywhere.

In writing about the mathematical biologist Dorothy Wrinch recently (see last post), I came across this incredible image of a flea from Robert Hooke’s bestselling Micrographia, (1665) in which using a 20x microscope he drew what he saw with “a sincere hand and faithful eye.” The image inspired Jonathan Swift to compose a ditty:

So nat’ralists, observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller fleas that bite ’em,
and so proceed ad infinitum.

Which somehow led to my discovery of Dame Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005), a natural scientist, zoologist, and parasitologist also know as “Queen of the Fleas.” Author of Fleas, Flukes and Cuckoos: a study of bird parasites among many other books, she was the author of over 350 scientific papers. Not only was she the world authority on fleas, she also founded a research fund to study schizophrenia and the role of art in the treatment of mental illness. Here’s her obituary from The Telegraph.

William Blake believed that fleas were inhabited by the souls of blood thirsty men who were luckily contained in such tiny forms because otherwise they would destroy humankind by drinking their blood.

The Ghost of the Flea (1820) by William Blake

And of course, The Flea Circus.

Here’s a demonstration of one from 1950:

Last but not least, when we were little my eldest sister Laura, used to come up with the most wild and weird nicknames for all us. For a long time my then youngest sister Martha was called Flea or Fleaflea or Fleabert, hence, no doubt, my ongoing fascination and adoration of all things Flea.


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