It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself.
The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death. As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.
I first read this essay in 2011. It made no impression on me then, but upon re-reading just now I found myself laughing–in awe of the moth, same as Woolf. Facing down the thanatotic city-swallower, and righting himself with dignity. “O yes!” Would that we could all do the same!
Along similar lines, I’m so pleased that I’m different from my 21 year-old self. We don’t often get guarantees, but revisiting art allows us moments like this.