The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2017

All Issues
MAY 2017 Issue

LOST AND FOUND ANIMALS a misplaced bestiary
Part 8: The Visual Damselfly (coenagrioniidae cinemata)

Though limited to parts of Africa and Russia, these flies (coenagrioniidae) resembling the tabanids, have founded a peculiar order of commerce and have devised an uncommon set of social articles which cast a curious light on the layers of human interactions and may provide some means for a re-evaluation of communication and social intercourse among our species.

Coenagrioniidae cinemata has, first of all none of the sting of its close counterpart, the Bluet damselfly (coenagrioniidae), which transmits significant diseases and bites with ferocity, so much so that, at times, farmers in Russia have had to plow their fields at night, when these insects are inactive. 

Coenagrioniidae cinemata, or visual damselflies, as they are called, carry another kind of sting, one which leaves an imprint on the eye and fastens itself inwardly beyond the retina, somewhere in the image-transforming apparatus of the optic nerve.  With its l00,000 compound eyes, by far the greatest number of eyes of any insect, the Visual Damselfly records the scenes of its world by selecting what it finds most appropriate in its journeys.

Trapped on the retina for periods of up to seven days, these images reveal an astounding variety of observations.  There are images of the landscapes of flowers; of the death of a "singer wasp" looking at itself in the mirror of a curved water drop; images of a swarm of damselflies dancing in the air their star-pointed crystalline structures, their rounded arabesques, their waving, hairlike chorus lines; images of plants dipping their red juice into green sap; orchids invaded by an invisible hum; leaf ships of driver ants sailing toward the furthest shore of a river; and thousands and tens of thousands more, all like a temporary photographic album which changes under a changing chemistry and which records, often in sequence, events of great significance—death and birth, depression and exuberance, mathematical scrutiny and chaotic abandon.  For this reason they have been called coenagrioniidae cinemata, for they are a veritable floating montage of images and, by extension, they fluidly integrate ideas of all kinds and assemble projections of the life of their own species.

How does an image become imprinted on the eye of a damselfly?  A careful study undertaken at Kenya’s Zeiss Institute in Mombasa has shown that the cohesion of physical events and their resultant overtones of reflection trigger the chemicals floating in a particular lens, which, upon reaching a threshold of integration, produce an exactly reproduced image (one, however, not to be copied again, although, within limits, “approximated”).  The human eye, with its variably focused single lens, works on different principles, and the only comparison (a trivial one) might be the secretion of visual purple for night vision, a certainly different, far slower and far less efficient “photographic” process.

But there is a further stage in the receptivity of concrete images.  After the entrance of an image on one of the eyes of the damselflies, there occurs a further integration with all prior images of that individual's lifetime, even from its moment of birth.  The processing of these images is immensely complex; they are involved, within a deeper level of the eye, in a more sophisticated chemical integration which also has its series of particular thresholds and “counter-references” as they are called. There, a further image is created, a "compound" or “compounded” image (not the compound or “montaged” image of the normal insect eye, however) which exists on a symbolic level and reigns until it has been supplanted by another series of images, which, reaching a threshold of critical importance, alters and remakes the prior image without destroying its historical connections.

This integrative and dialectic process is, of course, extremely, transcendently complex.  Despite vigorous work by various “visual compounders” over the last thirty years, we understand at present very little of the damselfly’s visual “thought” processes, but we do know that our methods of sifting ideas through time and cross-correlating them bear only a primitive and extremely superficial resemblance to the damselfly’s multi-directional visual responses. For this reason, chemical reactions on the visual consciousness of humans have begun to be even more intensively studied, at the Zeiss Institute and at other research facilities, and new information on these convergences appears each year.

It is known that all insects with compound eyes have a single mental focus, and each eye contributes toward that singular focus.  But the visual damselfly, unlike any other insect, is able to pour its images simultaneously into one image and, at the same time, to view all images separately, as well as, simultaneously, to call its mental attention to each separate image or combination of images.  As a result, this visual thinking and evaluating insect has not one mind (which, unmistakenly, it also has) but l00,000 minds, one for each lens.  This "compound mind" within its compound visual system allows the damselfly a far greater flexibility of perception and integration than that of any other living creature—at least on the primary, visual plane.  The mind of the damselfly, though we know very little about it and its immensely intricate workings, must be a very complex meeting place for the images which it has retained; the correlation of those images must proceed at a pace we cannot begin to imagine.

This compound mind has only a rudimentary analogue in our species.  I refer to the minds of schizophrenics, divided minds as we know them. In our cultures they are, in our minds, fragmented creatures who, at worst, are merely confused and cannot function at what we think of as “our” optimum capacity and whose divided perceptions, at best, open in them new insights, which undivided minds cannot imagine.  Schizophrenics do not integrate clearly. It is as if the mind were too large for the ego, and the self were continually trying to find out where it belonged (to discover or, at least, uncover, its nested identity), a fruitless search for a mind whose left hand does not know what its right hand is doing (confused even about right and left), in its confusing search for unity, some parts of the left brain, perhaps, having found their way (or lost or imagined their way) into un-corresponding parts of the right brain. 

However, the visual damselfly indeed knows where it belongs. It senses place and time with remarkable exactitude. Its mental integration, as a result of this continuous integrative awareness, is equal, in fact, more than equal to, its constant and consistent intake and sorting out of images. Sympathetic awareness is multiply possible when the organism balances itself between input and integration, between foregrounded distinction and ultimate background, and this may be taken, perhaps, as a working definition of what we call wisdom. For integration, which the Greeks thought of as that of body and mind, is really the ego and the world grinding each other down to their ultimate powder through the finally smooth, finally finer and finer siftings and re-siftings of both.

We have begun to see, for example, that its migrations back and forth over four-year periods between Africa and southern Russia have a great deal to do with the "thought" processes of the visual damselfly; for it is this repetition which provides a “periodically based” stability and at the same time creates a softened shuttle which—weaving the weighted images and their consequent threads of hovering, though weighted, visionary displays—allows for both constant re-evaluation and constant change, the immediately imprinted comparison of past and present, as well as the delight, in fact constant delight, in that tenuous boundary between the narrowly new and the soon latently old, history. 

When a damselfly dies, often at the advanced age of twenty-two years (the longest lived insects in existence) its images, that is, the images of their whole lifetime, have been at this point entirely taken into their visual lives, and sucked up by their constantly feeding offspring (feeding, of course, on the images given them), each inheriting a portion of these series of periodic migrations.  When the images have been absorbed by offspring—and, barring the absence of offspring, by friends, neighbors, allies and others—the lifetime of the visual damselfly closes on itself (like a blurred mirror) and then, at this time, enters the clarified world of "blank space", to become, some say, the demiurge of all visual phenomena and the goddess (or god) of that other world which the damselflies worship.  (Despite their name and contrary to all hitherto existing mythology, it should now be pointed out, the males do, indeed, exist.)

During the first half of its life, the aim of a damselfly is to absorb carefully and critically as much visual information as possible and during the second half to dispense it as fully and carefully as it had once collected it (while, of course, continuing to absorb more visual waves of images).  Visual damselflies go to great lengths to impart information.  It is not unusual to see two, or more, of them sitting in a circle or across from one another, looking into each other's eyes, turning their heads so that other visions might be gained by their companions, waiting for new, fully-dimensioned images to appear, and looking with great concentration for the shimmering, composite in-sight, which only a few are allowed to behold; for this is how the visual damselfly loves the world and others of its species and how damselflies finally produce their offspring—through a long period of inward, carefully chosen revelations which go to the "heart" of the beloved and result in dozens of visually “melded” offspring.       

There, at a critical moment, when the series of images of the male and female have merged significantly, the chemical energy stimulates the genetic repositories of each, and they mate, and while mating, have in their eyes and heads a magical montage of implication-laden images, which penetrate through every cell down to the mitochondria and golgi bodies and floating vacuoles and other cellular elements and, as a consequence, organize their lifetime together.  This shared imaging makes them, indeed requires them, to mate for life, though no image is ever taken from the other and all is given to the offspring or the members of the larger community, at once assuring the continuity of both community and individual.

We have long ago discovered that the similarities between visual damselflies and humans are not always accidental, though a moral and intellectual comparison would leave homo sapiens, the so-called "wise" species, at a sorry loss, both in the multi-layered depth of their penetrations and the variously-patterned extensions of shared connection.  While we communicate through words and gestures, through socially generated music and dance, and through the primary categories of smell and touch—all are powerful and historically amplified roots put down to avoid the drift of time and tempest—we tend to see these actions and attractions as static, unchanging gestures which must be resisted in order to build a unified picture of what it means to be human.  Thus, wars are fought in the name of words, and gestures are powerless, time after time, to stop the resultant, horrendous slaughter, unlike our closer relatives, the other "higher" mammals. 

The visual damselfly, however, avoids these and other aberrations of our species and gazes deeply into an image which has no definite or defined set of dispersed or integrated meanings, no abstracted distancing of seer and seen, of absorber and absorbed, of language and interpretive listener, and absorbs, absorbs everything, pain and joy, knowledge and ignorance, shift and stasis, growth and decay.  We would say that "a picture is worth a thousand words", but this is our limited way of responding to an "active" universe, one in which there are no boundaries to our response, except our deliberate choices to set them up (or so we think), to define our place both against and with the things of the world, to find, in effect, friends and enemies, and in the static clockwork precision of this consciousness, to change sides, because we are constantly being pushed over a cliff of decision by what we call the “constant” unknown, by something we cannot know and do not know, which is outside of our genetically built history and our variously determined somatic and mental structures.  The damselfly, on the other hand, looks with a curiosity which finally eliminates the seer and the seen, the maker and the absorber, merges with the image it has accepted into itself, and "disappears", like the famous Chinese artist who, after painting his masterpiece, walked into its landscape and was never seen again.

But our science is not to be diminished by grandeur, nor our art belittled by the presence of any wonder. Painstakingly, we have assembled whole digital banks of photographs of the, to us, pixilated, images inside these eyes, have looked, ourselves, for the wonder in the eyes of the damselfly, have stared intensely for years at the multitudinous images, have dreamt them out into the open daylight, have put them to multi-tonal or tonal music or some other musical facade or facsimile, have meditated fixedly on one image which has, perhaps, seemed to recur inside the patterned world on which we have hitched a ride, and have found wonders, yes, wonders.  But (and this is the turning point of tragedy within our own kind) we have not, with all this subtle sifting, reached a transcendent amazement of integration into the soul of another as the visual damselfly has so easily and biologically succeeded in doing.

Of such a marvelous creature in such a marvelous universe there is much, and much more to be said.  We have not talked of its origins or distant fore-bearers, its branchings on the ontogenic tree, its genetic variations (foldings and unfoldings) of delicate yet decisive temperament, its lapses into exploded canvases of visions (color and distance thrown out of itself and onto the finally image-saturated air), its persistence in following its journeys between Africa and southern Russia, or its uncanny ability to identify each aura of belief in its religious world (each resonant wave pattern hovering before it), all of which are equally great feats which we can only hope to attain within the next 200 million years of our so perilous history.  They have had the time, and this is in their favor, though it is also in ours, time to allow the biological drift to come to terms with their (and our) flowering lives, a satisfied, expressive species which gives hope to the living world.


Sid Gershgoren

Sid Gershgoren has published six books of poetry and prose: The books of poetry: Negative Space, Mutual Breath (a book of 65  villanelles), Symphony (a medium long poem in a "symphonic" form), Through the Sky in the Lake (a book of "lines"), The Wandering Heron (a book of haiku), and two prose works, Past Rentals (a fictional "catalog" of a company that rent its "customers" space, place, and situation in a particular area of the past within a particular time, place, and situation), and The Extended Words (an imaginary dictionary). Sid Gershgoren has published widely in various magazines and anthologies. 


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2017

All Issues