The fly, in all of its varieties but in particular the humble housefly, is an almost universal symbol of filth, contempt, and even death. The reasons for this are very apparent; flies are attracted to decaying food, they spread germs, and, thanks to forensic-science programmes and cold-case investigations on the television, we know how quickly they gravitate to corpses. They are often used in movies, their presence being a portent of some calamity; in The Omen, for example, their buzzing indicates malevolent forces that are about to be unleashed. In contrast to these negative connotations, the Romans saw them as a sign of the ubiquity of the gods, for, just as flies were always part of our daily routine, so were the gods watching everything and present everywhere. In the East, it is traditionally associated with the soul, eternally wandering through different carnations. The fly has a long pedigree in Western art. Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child with a Goldfinch (1480), features a fly as a prominent part of the painting.
Both Mary and Jesus are studying this somewhat enormous fly, almost with an apprehensive air but primarily with disdain. The fly here is an emblem of death and disease, brought into the world as the consequences of original sin. Satan is known, in the Old Testament and borrowed from Babylonian religions, as the Lord of the Flies. Whereas illness and mortality are the fault of Adam and Eve, the pairing of Jesus and Mary form the antithesis of the first parents, for their fruit will be redemption and eternal life. The goldfinch, held so meticulously by the child, is a symbol of the freedom that we gain from the shackles of sin. The art historian Herbert Friedman lists almost 500 devotional paintings from the period that include a goldfinch and links this to the end of some terrible manifestations of plague throughout southern Europe. This knowledge gives an additional element to the image as the fly must have had an especial horror to people who had seen the devastation that this pestilence brought. Salvador Dali often uses the fly in paintings in much the same way as these Renaissance artists, that is to say as a sign of the corruption of the flesh.
As a random religious addendum: the town of Gerona in Catalonia makes chocolate flies to celebrate the annual feast of St Narcissus. When French invaders tried to pillage the saint’s tomb in 1285, a swarm of flies flew out from the coffin and caused the intruders to flee empty-handed. Salvador Dali alluded to this legend with his bronze sculpture St Narcissus of the Flies, executed in 1974 (above).
For my part, flies always make me think of Rimbaud’s poem, Voyelles. This sonnet was written when the poet was 17 years old and it is fair to say that it counts among his most difficult to interpret. Whole studies have been penned entirely devoted to these fourteen lines. Rimbaud gives each vowel a colour and related imagery, famously declaring in a letter that he had, alone, invented the colour of vowels. The poem reveals that he had the condition of synesthesia, but the particular colours that pair with each vowel are striking as black is allocated to A, expanded in lines 3 to 5:
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,
Golfes d’ombre ;
A, black velvety corset of shiny flies
Which buzz around cruel stench,
Gulfs of darkness;
[taken from the translation here]
It is a truly incredible poem, that combines eastern and western mysticism, the young man’s interest in alchemy, linguistics, and religion. The flies here, rather than remaining ciphers of doom and despair, are cast positively as life emerging out of death, a radical inversion of a traditional symbol. I often teach this work to students and it can lead to some interesting discussion, but ultimately any neat resolution of the poem’s themes is simply not convincing or perhaps even possible. In his seminal biography on Rimbaud, Graham Robb shows the futility of such endeavours by looking at a French high-school teacher in the 1960s who published an article claiming that each vowel represented a sexual position, beginning with its very shape and then the terminology, probably revealing more about the schoolmaster’s interests than Rimbaud (the teacher’s glossing was completely heterosexual, a world away from Rimbaud’s same-sex desires). I have always believed that the young man was struggling to articulate his sense of spirituality. He uses O as the last vowel, changing the order but also referring to Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet. This leads to an interesting visual effect that may be seen in the last line on the original manuscript below.
The last line reads: “- O l’Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux !” [O, the Omega, violet beam from His Eyes!]. The allusions to the Apocalypse of St John are obvious but the two Os at the beginning of the line form two eyes with a nose in their middle staring back at us. Who is it? Rimbaud, across time? I like to think that it is God, the God that Rimbaud is searching for but whose eyes, nonetheless, are not focused yet. He was to convert, several weeks before he died.
Today’s cufflinks are rather bold, not in their appearance but rather in the choice of the fly. They are made by Paul Smith and the material is brass with blue enamel wings. Along with Vivienne Westwood, I am partial to some of Paul Smith’s designs of cufflinks and find these ones very appealing because of their subdued quirkiness. I particularly like the reclaiming the fly from its predictable attributes and in this small sartorial way, Sir Paul is following in the footsteps of Arthur Rimbaud.