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Keynote Lecture. Rachel Mundy

The Moth and the Nightingale


Rachel Mundy


Assistant Professor of Music in the Arts, Culture, & Media program at Rugters University in Newark, USA


In this lecture, Rachel examines the meaning of life, death, and survival through the filter of the singing nightingale and the silent moth. The pairing of these two animals first appeared in 13th-century Persian poetry and resurfaced in startling ways in the 20th-century writings of North American lepidopterists--specialists in the study of moths and butterflies. By turning to their work in a time of global pandemic and climate crisis, she hopes to link modern notions of survival to much older questions about the value of life itself. The scientific naming of moths has echoes in 19th-century opera, whose female characters--the "nightingales" of the stage--inspired the names of newly-discovered species of moths. In this talk, Rachel examines the ways that nightingales, operatic women, and winged moths were heard as "doomed" lives shaped by a gendered tradition of sacrifice. The death of women, birds, and moths taught ethics to the West's literati and lepidopterists. By turning to this interconnected and uneven morality, she seeks to locate twentieth-century conversations about survival and extinction in relation to an older and unequal ethics of sacrifice. By doing so, Rachel hopes to make possible new ways of asking not only what it takes to survive in the twenty-first century, but also what it means to die well.

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