To Hell and Back, with Bugs

by John Phipps

My favourite opening of any written work is the opening of Dante's Inferno. Nel mezzo del cammin and all that. Sorry. Something less obvious, then: my favourite opening of any novel is from Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly:

Once, a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs.

Have you ever had bugs on you? It happened to me once. I was sleeping in a sewage-flooded dorm in a hostel, in a hot country. It was 30 degrees at night and there was no fan. Worse, there was no mosquito net. One night, me and my roommates went out drinking. The bug mesh had peeled from the window. While we were out, the mosquitos came in.

Mosquitos are like fish: people kill them for pleasure. There is one in my room as I write this. It wants my blood and I want it dead: crushed between my palms, ideally with a fat, vindicating smear of my own blood bursting from its body as it dies.

A mosquito’s job is to drink blood and reproduce. It is exceptionally good at its job, and amongst the blood-sucking species of mosquitos, most have not changed in fifty to a hundred million years. The same mosquitos that bother you and me appear in the Inferno, as a the sign of summer reaching its height:

As many fireflies as the peasant, nesting on the hillside, in the season when he who lights the world least hides from us his face
When the fly gives way to the mosquito, sees down along the valley, perhaps when he harvests and plows – with so many flames the eighth pocket was shining.

Inferno, Canto XXVI

There is nothing loveable, redeemable or ecologically necessary about the mosquito species that feed on human blood. It’s been estimated that 5% of the humans who have ever died have died of mosquito-borne diseases. They flash into earshot in the night with their indescribable, drilling whine, and disappear again. There is something both uncanny and flamboyant about their particular awfulness. ‘When did you start your tricks / Monsieur?’ asked D.H. Lawrence in ‘The Mosquito’. He wanted them dead too. ‘I hate the way you lurch off sideways into air / having read my thoughts against you.’ In the ’50s and ’60s, a massive effort was made to eliminate mosquitos. As it turns out, you simply can’t. Blast a city, vaporise a continent; if even a tiny nest of fertile insects remains, they can repopulate the world.

Why do you do it?
Surely it is bad policy.

They say you can’t help it.

— Lawrence, ‘The Mosquito’

The bugs in Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly are not real: they are hallucinations, caused by dependency on a dangerous and hyper-addictive drug. (The book is dedicated to Dick’s friends who lost their minds to drug addiction.) The bugs I had on me, when I had bugs on me, were not real either.

The night I had bugs on me I lay there in my sewage-flooded dorm, sweating, trying to fall asleep. Then I felt a little prick. Then another. I heard the needling whine of a mosquito pass into existence and then promptly wheedle out of it again. I realised I was being bitten. I felt an itch on my upper left thigh, where it creases with the groin, and knew I had been bitten again. Then I felt a prick on the outside of my right ear. A twitch on the sensitive round of skin between my hip and my pelvis. Another, another. I lay there for an hour, slapping hard at each sharp, electric twinge, wondering how long it could go on, afraid of not getting to sleep, beginning to fear that my fear of oversleeping would itself make me oversleep, feeling humiliated by the obviousness of that contradiction, humiliated again by the recognition that you could be cognisant of that self-fulfilling prophecy whilst still falling victim to it. And bitten, all the time: on the rim of my nipple, on the softest and deepest part of my armpit, on the divot in my temple, on the crease at the top of my back thigh.

Slowly, I realised that the bites weren’t itching. They weren’t itching because they weren’t real: I was feeling the hairs on my body standing up as my core temperature cooled. I had become so sensitively attuned to my own skin that I interpreted each twitch as a mosquito bite. So the bugs were in my mind. Knowing that the bugs were only in my mind made precisely no difference, to either my state of mind or to the strength of the illusion. As I lay there, twitching, sweating, horripilating, I started to cry. I felt like my sanity was being digested. I realised that the night would never end. I think this is what we intuit about hell: very quickly – after almost no time at all – the mind would start to torture itself.

— Inscription on the gates of Hell, Inferno Canto III

On what level is the idea of hell more natural: as a function of fear or anger? I’d like to claim that I’m with Philip K. Dick, whose drug-addled free spirits send themselves to hell by accident, not knowing any better. But a part of me is meaner. I was fired from my (volunteering) position at that hostel for recommending a rival surf school to a customer at the reception desk. (I didn’t know our hostel offered its own lessons.) Before I was fired, I was humiliated, threatened and publicly degraded by the proprietor, for this petty (and accidental) offence. I left the town genuinely afraid for my safety.

It would be wrong to wish the cosmic revenge of hell on this man, and perhaps he was lost too – confused, tangled up in structures of status and reputation and pride that he himself was not responsible for. But speaking personally, wherever he is – wherever that fucking guy is – I hope he has bugs on him. Sorry. I can’t help it.