The question of motivation is a strange one. Our reasons for acting seem so to us so clear in the moment, so intuitive, that we often hesitate to defend them. “It’s obvious, isn’t it,” we want to say; “things being what they were – and I being who I am – how could I have behaved any other way?” We seem to know that, when forced to explain ourselves, what was clear and pure in our minds will turn milky and the tongue which we fancied so sharp will morph into a club that can only offer bludgeoning rationalizations.
It’s the same for our hobbies and our passions. One can easily account for a fascination with sports by accepting that it’s part of a social ritual intended to facilitate bonding or to allow that one’s writing is a kind of meditation meant to ward off the omnipresent noise of a frivolous mass-culture but again, there’s something self-serving – something dishonest – in such explanations. They feel over-thought, disingenuous: they feel more like excuses than actual explanations.
Even scientists seem driven by inexplicable mental currents. “To present… empirically cool, scientific usefulness as my primary motive would be… the height of hypocrisy. That reading is only self-important. No one learns to tell the song of the woodlark from that of the skylark in order to make it easier to detecting approaching catastrophe. All of that comes later,” concludes entomologist Fredrik Sjöberg after attempting, over the nearly 300 pages of The Fly Trap, to answer why he’s devoted 20 years of his life to the systematic capturing, cataloging and studying of an obscure branch of the animal kingdom known as hoverflies.
What exactly comes before that usefulness, though, remains obscure, and the main concern of the book. It’s not, he believes, a matter of simple amusement; he’s quick to dismiss his own assertion that maybe “(his) proclivity for catching flies [is] a matter of cheap anesthesia.” Nor is it a matter of “vanity… and the eternal longing to be best.” For Sjöberg, there seems no easy answer to explain his own motivations, let alone the motivations of anyone else.
He’s not unwilling to consider these ideas or to dismiss any objections off-hand. Sjöberg devotes considerable time to examining the pleasures his hobby provides. Whole chapters are devoted to “the excellence of everything slow”, emphasizing especially the patience required for fly-catching. Much is made of the joy that comes with sharing in the mastery of a subject with others; if discovering a new species of fly is exhilarating it never does compare with rediscovering insects that others once discovered but have been missing for decades, even centuries. “It’s like getting an unexpected picture postcard from an old acquaintance off on a long holiday.”
But for each explanation he offers, Sjöberg is just as quick to offer a refutation. Whatever joy he finds in slowness he distrusts as “a poetic paraphrase meant to make a virtue of… a genetic inability to deal with choice.” As socially rewarding as the study of hoverflies can be, it’s only in those very, very rare instances that bring Sjöberg into contact with other experts; too often he is alone, jealously considering the career of the entomologist who studies moths and butterflies and any other insect popularly considered beautiful. He does not deny that there is joy in his career or even that there is reward in it, but any assertion that pleasure drives his devotion to hoverflies seems to raise his ire.
Similarly, Sjöberg can rarely sustain his metaphors, his descriptions or any thread of thought for more than a line or two at a time. A beautifully realized depiction of the birds outside of his window – of “a sea eagle, broad as a banner at a protest march, streak(ing) past over the ice outside (the window)”, of “ravens reconnoitering from the top of the radio tower… whose age no one knows” – too quickly morphs into an exploration of the forensic uses of entomology. A hilarious drubbing of self-righteous environmentalists – “gentle flagellants (sic) who hunker down beside their ill-smelling compost piles and rest easy in the certainty that much of life on earth has run its course” — turns without any warning but the author’s own admittedly clumsy notice into a discussion of the Apollo butterfly.
Like a fly, he flits from topic to topic and image to image, trying to arrive at some conclusion as if trying to move past a person to get to the plate of food they’re guarding. He seems afraid to stay still for too long, as if to linger risks being smashed by some larger truth. So he jumps about, from discussions of the life of entomologist Rene’ Malaise, his hero, to meditations on hoverflies and their uncanny ability to imitate wasps, bees and other insects, to the value of limits and celebration of D.H. Lawrence’s “The Man Who Loved Islands”, suggesting connections between them that he never takes the time to honestly establish. It’s frustrating behavior, to be sure.
And yet if it’s difficult to imagine the author who “limits (himself) so as not to lose sight of something (he) is forever seeking”, whose stated mission is “to say something about the art and… the bliss of limitation”. transitioning wildly between a description of a festering badger’s corpse to a look at the world of art forgeries, it’s more difficult still to imagine the man who writes, without a hint of the arch or the precious, “you never know when a dead bird will come in handy” shackling himself to any topic of real seriousness for too long. For all of his intelligence and erudition, Sjöberg is also quick to acknowledge his own “need to flee blindly”. Because he’s willing to admit with more than a touch of self-deprecation that his fickleness is all part of a desire to “resist becoming a copy of the world’s expectations”, he warps what is most frustrating about the book into what is most endearing.
Yes, it’s easy to demand a more sustained discourse on the study of hoverflies – nature’s “fine print” – and on the nature of imitation, authenticity, mastery and patience, when the author is so insightful, when his style is so nimble and when he approaches, at his best, the familiar, intimate and wistful power of that other Scandinavian literary giant, Karl Ove Knausgård, but it’s also to demand Sjöberg jettison everything that makes his work such a pleasure. It’s too quick, too vibrant, to support serious study. He holds attention not because he’s able to write at length about these erudite subjects but because he can, in a handful of concise lines, convey so convincingly what is beautiful in topics that seem either impenetrable or beneath interest. As much as Sjöberg would like to present himself as a pragmatist, a man for whom the “path to what is beautiful must first pass through what is meaningful”, ultimately his writing betrays him, in form as in content: he is a stylist before all else.
Not that this is a major revelation: who else but an aesthete would describe nature as an “impenetrable body of text in a foreign language” and the study of hoverflies as an effort to translate the “footnotes” and “fine print” of this text into “great art” and “sweet music”? It is, however, a welcome one because it frees Sjöberg from any accusations of pretension. If by his own account he’s “never been much of a philosopher”, why be frustrated with him for writing a book that never arrives at any grand insight into the nature of motivation, but remains a stylistic joy? If Sjöberg, in his own words, “falls flat on his face, his truth as incomprehensible and strange as it was to begin with”, at least he has delivered that truth in a manner that oddly emulates those same elusive, beautiful, imitative hoverflies he has devoted so much of his life to.