The Mosquitoes are Exactly What They Seem
Scratch the itch.
In the Coen Brothers’ uber-symbolic Barton Fink, our titular idealistic-but-nebbishy playwright (played by the great John Turturro) comes to 1940s Hollywood to write a big studio wrestling picture. He spends his first night in a run-down hotel, boiling in a heatwave.
Arriving at the studio for his first meeting with the studio head Jack Lipnick (a memorable Michael Lerner) he is asked what the hell is wrong with his face. Barton tells him it’s a mosquito bite. “Bullshit,” retorts Lipnick, “mosquitoes breed in a swamp, this is a desert.”
The cliche observation is that, culturally, Los Angeles is both. But in the film, the mosquito is what everyone around Barton denies about LA, even if he, sinking into isolation and madness, can see it clear as day. It won’t leave him alone. It wakes him up in the night. It bites him and leaves him itching. It lands on dead bodies lying next to him in bed.
I’ve been thinking about this sequence a lot lately. I spend lots of time outside for work, including right around sunset. Living on the East Coast and the Midwest, I was used to mosquitoes, even if I, like just about every sane person, was driven to annoyance by them. Just one more reason to hate the humidity.
My first two summers in Los Angeles were more or less mosquito-free. I chalked it up to the dry heat, which most locals confirmed. The fascinating desert surroundings made a difference; it was another reason to fall in love with the place. These pests need more than heat to thrive; they need water and moisture. This year, though, has been uncharacteristically humid. Again, the locals confirm it. And with the humidity comes that whiny hum, the pinprick bites, the itching that becomes more un-ignorable the harder you try to ignore it. The fevered swatting, the obsessive scratching.
It’s a minor annoyance really, until you remember that mosquitoes carry Zika and West Nile virus. “I’m just being neurotic,” we say to ourselves. But that’s the point. Neuroses seldom spring entirely fictional dangers. They may be amplified, exaggerated beyond any reasonable level, but they all have at their core a fairly reasonable fear. A student in the San Fernando Valley died of West Nile in September, the first of the year. A tiny proportion of mosquitoes carry the virus, but the more mosquitoes out there, the more likely it is to be bitten by one that carries it.
And the mosquitoes have definitely thrived lately. It’s because of an uncharacteristically wet summer, including a tropical storm. Despite all the panic among Angelenos, Tropical Storm Hilary was almost literally a damp squib, leaving minimal damage and no injuries. It did, however, leave plenty of water for mosquitoes to breed.
As I wrote at the time, the fact that an earthquake struck in the middle of an underwhelming Hilary was a reminder that this is a city on an ecological and geological edge. Disaster rarely unfolds all at once.
One must marvel at the mosquito: it is well-suited to what it is meant to do. You might call it the mirror image of the honeybee. For while the latter has evolved over hundreds of millions of years into a species that can elegantly and efficiently pollinate a dizzying array of foods for just about every other life form on the planet, the mosquito has perfectly gestated to sicken and spread disease.
For 200 million years, it has been a bloodsucking insect. It is difficult to imagine the Orkin man successfully doing battle with this level of natural design. But some natural historians assert that, prior to the rise of Europen colonialism, it was not a global pest. The ships that brought conquistadors and new diseases also brought with them mosquitoes.
If true, then it is grotesquely apt. Diseases transmitted by mosquitoes — most notably malaria — were both aided by and helped assist the spread of the British empire through Africa and the Indian subcontinent during the reign of Queen Victoria. The same with US imperialism in the Philippines, and elsewhere in Asia. Epidemics of malaria wiped out hundreds of thousands, their immune systems already weakened by forced labor and starvation.
Malaria is easily treatable today. The same cannot be said for Zika or West Nile. And like Covid, like the mosquito itself, these diseases evolve and find ways to break through the safeguards of what we call civilization.
There are greater tragedies in Barton Fink, though we only learn of them in passing. Fink’s writer’s block turns his own head into a claustrophobic cell, and we’re trapped in it with him. We aren’t sure if any of the slowly creeping horrors around him are real. The woman lying dead in bed with him. The cops that tell him that his neighbor is a serial killer (John Goodman). Are they real or just another tangle in Fink’s slowly unraveling mind? It’s difficult to believe all of this started with a blank page. A blank page he cannot fill and cannot leave alone.
Then comes a cursory realization: we’re at war. While Fink maniacally tried to fill the page, the attack on Pearl Harbor took place. Fink is brought into Lipnick’s office. Not only has all of the studio head’s previous gregarity vanished, he is wearing an army uniform, albeit one that he had the people in wardrobe make for him. Even the most rabid patriotism is a put-on in this town.
With military gruffness, Lipnick admonishes Fink for turning in a script which we are led to believe is a rehash of his stage play. “It won’t wash” he plainly tells the writer, despite having previously praised his idealism.
Obsessions can be easily traded out. The longer we scratch at them, the more easily discarded they become. Which isn’t to say they needle us any less. In fact, you could rather easily say that grand tragedy — wars, disasters, moments when the ground comes out from beneath us — needs the minor annoyances to remind us of the damage it left in its wake. At first, the enormity of loss and fear dwarfs the itches and scratches. We find it easy to ignore them as we confront the reality of grief and terror.
Over time, we learn to cope. We are surprised one day to find ourselves thinking of something other than what happened in that horrible moment. It never completely goes away, but we can keep going forward, but again, it never completely goes away. Almost like an irritant.
Then we shame ourselves for treating tragedy like an itch. Shouldn’t we be completely unable to let it fade like this? Shouldn’t such monumental loss create an unbridgeable chasm in our psyche? The only thing that can prevent us from becoming cold and callous is to fixate on it, never let it heal, scratch until it is raw and bloody. At least that’s what we tell ourselves.
Even in near-miss tragedies — those we thought would ruin lives but somehow let us escape — we never entirely avoid them. In some ways, the skin of our teeth is just a placeholder for when the cosmos finally decides it’s your turn. It’s one of the reasons for the disbelief when the total weight of events finally comes crashing down. The first human being to contract coronavirus likely just thought it was a nasty case of the flu, something that would pass in a matter of days, the kind of experience that at worst forces them to play catch-up next week at work.
We have long pretended that the grand accomplishments of history can somehow hover apart from the changing of the seasons, the natural rhythms of the atmosphere. Sure, more people today remember Shelley’s “Ozymandias” than do the Pharoah Ramesses II, but never mind all that. Artists and poets are prone to catastrophizing, don’t you know? As for climate change, you needn’t worry if it is going to have an impact on your life. Even if it already has.
Back in the real world, this much we know. One of the few things we don’t usually have to worry about in LA is making itself known in all its irritation. It’s not like this city has ever been entirely devoid of mosquitoes. Urban development unavoidably creates damp and warm corners. Until recently, those damp and warm corners have been minimized. Getting bitten was likely accompanied by a brief thought of “was that really a mosquito? In LA?” Now, it’s just one more thing to get used to in a city steadily filling with more and more irritants. Some are little more than just that: irritants. Others are standing in for something bigger, and potentially more terrifying.
Climates change. We know that now. And with them, so do our expectations for what to fear. That voice in the back of your head that says this could be catastrophic? Listen to it. Consider it. Ponder it. Argue with it if you will, scratch it if you must, but do not dismiss it.
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I am presenting my paper, “A Great Composer of Time: The Post/Anti/Humanist Socialism of Jóhann Jóhannsson,” at Historical Materialism London in just a few weeks. More information about the conference can be found here, but I will be part of a session on Friday, November 10, at 4:15pm GMT. Anyone planning to be in London around that time is encouraged to attend.