COCKROACH TOTEM
by Marion W. Copeland

"In literature and popular culture, in psychology, animal behavior, and fashion," claims Marjorie Garber in Dog Love (1996), "the last years of the twentieth century could be called the Decade of the Dog." 101 Dalmatians and Lives of the Monster Dogs aside, cockroach aficionados know that the 90ies are more rightly the decade of the cockroach! They appear literally as part of the urban setting in film and fiction, as peculiarly adapted to share and survive the worlds humans have shaped as they were to share and survive the world of the dinosaurs. That they flourished in Biosphere 2 suggests this adaptability will ensure us of their commensal companionship wherever future technology may carry Homo sapiens sapiens. National Geographic's three-part Alien Empire (aired Jan 1996) faced its human audience with the real probability that insects rather than humans are Earth's dominant life form and the likelihood that they, having evolved before us, will also survive us. Anyone seeking a totem spirit able to teach adaptability and survival and the importance of remaining in touch with the natural world as the key to that survival as the century draws to a close would be wise to turn if not to these alien empires in general, then to the ubiquitous cockroach in particular.

The cockroach's ability to survive is what has attracted writers in developing nations as well as writers among ethnic and minority groups in developed nations to the cockroach. That attraction begins long before the 1990's. The farmers in Aristophanes' Peace harnessed the cockroach in their struggle to end the Peloponnesian War. African folklore respects the cockroach as a trickster almost the equal of Ananzi and has passed the roach on to African-American writers as a figure able to survive the genocidal hatred mainstream society has directed against them. A number of Latino writers, beginning with Oscar Acosta, refer to themselves as "the Cockroach people." Acosta's autobiographical novel Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973) celebrates the roach's determination to survive. More recently, Chicano writers like Ana Castillo and the Cuban expatriate Reinaldo Arenas have joined the totem for similar reasons. The cockroach has also, since the first strains of La Cucaracha, been closely associated with the drug world. William Burroughs drew on the association in novels like The Exterminator and Naked Lunch, but it is nowhere more fully developed than it is in Steven Cronenberg's 1992 film Naked Lunch.

Thanks to the genius of Don Marquis who created archy, the cockroach poet, and Franz Kafka, whose Gregor shapeshifts into an insect that has become in the popular imagination, a cockroach, mainstream writers who feel marginalized for still other reasons have also joined the cockroach totem. archy and Gregor represent "the view from the underside," the perspective of the outsider. Cockroach literature has historically been and remains in the 90's satiric. The voices of archy, recently heard in archyology: the lost tales of archy and mehitabel (1996) and of Gregor are echoed in the 90's by a chorus of contemporary cockroach narrators and protagonists from Donald Harington's novel The Cockroaches of Staymore (1989), Daniel Evan Weiss's novel The Roaches Have No King (1994), and Janosz Glowacki's play Hunting Cockroaches (1990) and Norburtus Riantiarnoto's Cockroach Opera (1992) to Mary James's Shoebag series for young adult readers, Joe's Apartment (both MTV short and feature film), Berk Breathed's Outland character Milquetoast, X-Files' "The War of the Cophrophages," and the CD-ROM Bad Mojo. 1996 saw as well the publication of David George Gordon's The Complete Cockroach: A Comprehensive Guide to the Most Despised (And Least Understood) Creature on Earth and the development both in Japan and in the USA of bionic cockroaches. The icing on the cake was the news in Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas (1996) that in New York City in the 1820ies the most popular Christmas gifts were sugar candies shaped like rats and cockroaches.

Anyone interested in or eager to contribute to the Cockroach Totem may glean more information from back and issues of the Nature in Legend and Story Newsletter or from Marion W. Copeland, 128 Amherst Rd., Pelham, MA 01002 E-Mail: mwcopeland@comcast.net.


H-Net
Humanities & Social Sciences OnLine
Humanities &
Social Sciences Online
in cooperation with MSU Department of History
Contact Us
Copyright © 1995-2007