Recently I dreamed that Heath Ledger had been typecast: all his movies were about bedbugs. The only one I can remember is Bedbugopoulopolis, in which the earth is ruled by a Spartan-like race descended from bedbugs. I was to write a report about Ledger’s bedbug-related roles, and I was having trouble trying to spell Bedbugopoulopolis. Some other things happened.
I think I’ve worked out the meaning: it’s prophetic.
Look at the newspaper. Ninety-eight percent of the articles are about global warming, terrorism, and the impending death of journalism. While we busy ourselves with those issues, we will manage, through unrelenting chemical assault, to accelerate bedbug evolution until they metamorphose into gigantic insects capable of speech and thought—to the extent, that is, that any Spartan-like creature can be considered capable of speech and thought, a joke that would have killed in Athens 2,400 years ago—and enslave us all.
In the waking world, bedbugs don’t have a strong presence in Hollywood, although if you’ve seen Bug, adapted from the play by Tracy Letts, you’ve seen how people with bedbugs feel. They have, nevertheless, left a strong imprint on our culture.
“Bug” is a Celtic word “signifying a ghost or goblin,” according to the wonderful Curious Facts in the History of Insects, written by Frank Cowan and published in 1865. Cowan suggests the word “bug” was applied to Cimex lectularius “because they were considered as ‘terrors of the night.’” The reference is explained in a note: “Hence the English word Bug-bear. In Matthew’s Bible, the passage of the Psalms (xci. 5), ‘Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night,’ is rendered, ’Thou shalt not need to be afraid of any bugs by night.”
Ninety percent—an unscientific, basically baseless, yet accurate-enough estimation—of newspaper articles written about bedbugs contain some variation, usually in the headline or the lede, of the old nursery rhyme about sleeping tight, and not letting these damn devil bugs bite, and we’ll say nearly eighty percent make the claim that bedbugs have been mentioned as far back as Aristotle, who wrote, in book five of The History of Animals: “Those insects which are not carnivorous, but live upon the juices of living flesh, as lice, fleas, and bugs, produce nits from sexual intercourse,” and “Bugs proceed from the moisture which collects on the bodies of animals.” Richard Cresswall, the translator, identifies “bugs” in a footnote as “Cinex lectularius” [sic].
Yet they probably mean to say Aristophanes, who died in 386 B.C., two years before the birth of Aristotle, and who worked bedbugs into at least two of his plays.
In The Frogs (translated by Paul Roche), Dionysus, who is determined to go to Hades to fetch a proficient poet, asks Heracles for advice on confronting Cerberus. He’d also “like to know about ports, towns, brothels, bakeries, restrooms, roads, where to get a drink, landladies, and lodgings with the fewest creepy crawlies.”
In The Clouds (anonymous translation), Phidippides chides his father Strepsiades for tossing and turning all night. Strepsiades responds, “I have a bum-bailiff in the bedclothes biting me.”
When Socrates tells Strepsiades, who has become his student, to “Gather your pallet and come on out,” Strepsiades replies, “But the bugs will not allow me to bring it.”
Some translations use the word “bedbugs,” but I like this one because when the chorus asks Strepsiades what’s bothering him, he answers:
“Oh! I am a dead man! Here are these cursed Corinthians advancing upon me from all corners of the couch; they are biting me, they are gnawing at my sides, they are drinking all my blood, they are yanking of my balls, they are digging into my arse, they are killing me!”
A little while later, Socrates asks him what’s on his mind:
Strepsiades: Whether the bugs will entirely devour me.
Socrates: May death seize you, accursed man!
Strepsiades: Ah it has already.
In the intervening years, no one has captured the agony of having bedbugs as well as Aristophanes. There are, however, people who don’t look upon them as goblins. “For the sting of the asp,” according to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, turtle urine “is wonderfully effectual; and even more so, if bugs are mixed with it.”
Back to Cowan, from whom we learn that Jean-Étienne Guettard, “a French commentator on Pliny, recommends Bugs to be taken internally for hysteria.” That seems counterproductive.
Both Pliny and Quintus Serenus consented to the practice of giving seven bedbugs in a cup of water to adults suffering from lethargy. The children’s-strength remedy contained only four bugs.
There is mention, Cowan tells us, in a journal by a man named Nicholson,
of a man who, far from disliking Bed-bugs, took them under his protecting care, and would never suffer them to be disturbed, or his bedsteads removed, till in the end they swarmed to an incredible degree, crawling up even the walls of his drawing-room; and after his death millions were found in his bed and chamber furniture.
He quotes a Mr. Forbes, who visited the Banian hospital, an institution for animals, at Surat, in India. The hospital housed
‘horses, mules, oxen, sheep, goats, monkeys, poultry, pigeons, and a variety of birds. The most extraordinary ward was that appropriated to rats and mice, Bugs, and other noxious vermin. The overseers of the hospital frequently hire beggars from the street, for a stipulated sum, to pass a night among the Fleas, Lice, and Bugs, on the express condition of suffering them to enjoy their feast without molestation.’
Where do you go from there?
Bessie Smith sings a song called “Mean Old Bedbug Blues”:
Gals, bed bugs sure is evil, they don’t mean me no good.
Yeah, bed bug sure is evil, they don’t mean me no good.
Thinks he’s a woodpecker and I’m a chunk of wood.
Are bedbugs really evil? Consider the ninth edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary, which defines a bedbug as “either of two flat, wingless, evil-smelling insects of the genus Cimex infesting beds and unclean houses and sucking blood.”
The Rolling Stones sing about them:
You got rats on the west side
“Shattered,” though not my favorite song, is exactly how you’d feel.
MySpace is a place for songs about bedbugs. There are twenty eight of them. (So far I’m the only one who thinks it would be brilliant to reinterpret Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” as “Bedbugs of Brooklyn.”) BedbuG is a band from California. Maybe they can sign a deal with Bedbug Records, an Austin-based label that has been “Bugging since 2008.”
If you hate your children you can let them watch My Bedbugs or Bedbug Bible Gang, both available on DVD.
Because I didn’t get around to sending a real card in time, I sent Maureen an e-card for Valentine’s Day. The card I chose, from a company called Blue Mountain, featured a porcine Cupid offering “Hogs and kisses on Valentine’s Day,” but I could have selected a card with a song by “The Love Bugs”—the Alvin and the Chipmunks of the insect world—named “Stricken,” “Bitten,” and “Smitten.” Bitten, the Theodore of the group, is short, stocky, and brown, with two horizontal segments visible below his cardigan. He is definitely a bedbug.