Talking about tarantulas is a very different thing than finding one on your bed.
This summer, my wife and I went to Les Cayes, Haiti to offer some teacher training to some day-school educators. The team leaders briefed us well in advance about the presence of big, hairy spiders in Haiti, or tarentules—to use the French term. (Haitians are more likely to use the Creole zaryen.) At times, we thought the spider-briefing was overdone, that the level of arachnaphobic detail was superfluous. Having gone twice before to Haiti, and having seen only one tarantula on both trips—and that one dead—I wasn’t given to much more than wincing and laughing about all the spider talk.
We saw so many tarantulas on this trip that we created a contest to help us deal with the trauma. I myself tabulated six, live, crawling, hirsute, and well-nigh college-educated spiders. I saw them behind me on a wall in broad daylight. I saw them in the dead of night while we were sorting medicines by flashlight in a clinic. I saw them after they’d been lurking in a duffle bag which we’d just been sticking our soft, warm hands into. I saw a tarantula so big that when you stuck a toilet plunger on it (as one of our Haitian guides did), the legs were still sticking out.
Our last night in Haiti, one of our teammates met a spider lounging regally on her bunk bed next to her pillow. She shrieked, we came running. The guard who usually sat on the front porch of the guest house in a tipped-back chair with his gun across his lap, wearing sunglasses at 11:00 at night, came strolling back to the room and sized up the situation. I myself would have been tempted to pull a Chicago gangster move on the spider: double-pump, shoot twice, aim once, that sort of thing.
Instead, the guard grabbed the nearest club—what was it, a shoe? a cap? a hairdryer? a toilet plunger? —and whacked the spider once. Although tarantulas can leap sideways with disconcerting agility, this one fell forward on to the floor and started its drunken death-crawl towards the door. The guard, without changing his expression, put his gun on his shoulder, and started kicking the tarantula from foot to foot like a futbol player dribbling through halfbacks, who were in this case played by hissing, ewwwing Americans. Down the hall, he and the spider went with the inexorability of Lionel Messi and a soccer ball headed towards the World Cup. The spider, still alive but badly bludgeoned, ricocheted his way out onto the front porch. One last kick, and the mass of blood and hair and darkness flipped into the trash can. Score. The crowd went—well, the crowd went limp.
I’ll let you work out for yourself the moral and philosophical range of this little parable.
For my own part, the tarantulas my students and I encounter are of a rather more textual sort. Everyday we work with commercial advertisements and blog entries and movie stills and all manner of rhetorical texts on clever, brightly lit PowerPoint and Prezi slides. When we go to Chicago’s State Street or Michigan Avenue, we meet messages on the move. The way we talk about texts and what we do when we encounter them are markedly different things.
Texts on the trail raise big, hairy questions. Thrust your toe at them, and they skitter sideways. Texts can even be toxic. (Tarantulas, incidentally, aren’t as poisonous as they look; you won’t die from their bite, which is instructive for people paranoid about the power of mass-mediated texts.) Messages, discourses, speeches, ads tend to cluster and multiply like tarantulas in a nest.
All right, granted, it’s not the only metaphor I’d reach for when thinking about a text. It’s a little too leggy and probably not sufficiently playful–unless you’re like the guard in our guest house this summer. But what if the hyper-aliveness you feel in the presence of a really big spider is just the sort of awareness you should cultivate while reading? What happens if a text makes you jump when you meet it next to your pillow late at night?