Chapter 1: The Beginning of the Termitary
Excavating the Termitary
The Beginning of the Termitary
“The beginning of the termitary dates from the moment termites fly, after rain and usually at dusk, in order to escape their numerous enemies. Even here, we see a remarkable instance of the wonder of instinct. The termites, beginning their thrilling flight, know nothing about enemies. They have never been out of the nest before. The peril of their existence is to them a closed book. Yet nine times out of ten, they don’t fly until the birds are safely in their nests.”
Eugene Marais, The Soul of the White Ant
|Maurice Maeterlinck in his study|
I heard my name. In that moment I was at Villa Orlamonde in the study of Maurice Maeterlinck who appeared to be sleeping, slumped over his mahogany desk, which was hardly visible for all the mementos, books and correspondences he kept there. His cheek lay heavy on his journal marking a dying man’s face with his own thoughts. Here was a man with regrets and secrets, perhaps even a man ready to break his silence. Without raising his head, still in the delirium of his dream, he continued to call my name.
“Golaud, Golaud,” he said, unaware that I had already arrived and stood before him.
That he would call out to me after so many years since my absence might be surprising to some. But it wasn’t to me. I had been expecting it. But now, I had no memory of where I was before he called or how it was possible, after so many years had passed, that I came to be here with my lifelong friend. It had something to do with him calling my name now, which was as impossible to ignore as it always had been. In that book-lined room pitched like a nest among the gables, Maeterlinck, the poet, the mystic, the playwright sat, asleep, dreaming unconscious of the Côte d’Azur below, here in his estate in Nice at Orlamonde, which had remained in a state of disrepair since Maeterlinck’s absence during the War. The sound of his voice calling “Golaud” hung like a mote in the dusty air of the former defunct resort and casino he had purchased for a song.
Glancing at his journal, I saw he had written my name there, too. When Maeterlinck shifted in his sleep, revealing almost the entire entry, I felt compelled to read. What does a dying man write about? Where do one’s thoughts roam when time is short and there is little left to lose by exposing what happened in the past? I reasoned that calling my name was very near to an invitation to read what I could see there. Perhaps these notes had been written for me. I had been privy to so much in the past, time and distance should hardly exclude me from his confidence. And perhaps it would help me to understand why I had been called. Not knowing when Maeterlinck might wake up, I seized my chance.
May 5, 1949
It has been years since Georgette left. Along with her possessions, she took the remaining seeds of my inspiration and even all memory of who I had been prior to her arrival. My recollection of the person I was and what occupied my days before Georgette was shrouded in a fog that hovered for a time but even that since evaporated leaving me lost in an arid desert, thirsty for creative sustenance. All the while I grasp at hard desiccated cactus needles in a dry landscape, pricking my hands, drawing blood without receiving nourishment.
Our “fateful” introduction she had contrived with a determined resourcefulness, a scheme of a trollop, a singing parasite set on fastening herself to my reputation and distinction, although I was, at the time, innocent of her designs on me. We met in Brussels at the home of the honorable Edmond Picard located in the Rue Ducale at a midnight supper following a stimulating performance of Strindberg’s play “The Father” at the Théâtre du Parc. As a general rule, I avoid such soirees, finding it unpleasant to travel to the City and leave behind my tranquil life in Ghent, but Monsieur Picard had persuaded me so forcefully there was little I could do to deny the request of such an avid patron of Belgian literature. Thus I find these excursions to Brussels tedious and only undertake them when it cannot be helped. The noise and the bustle of the city upset my discreet disposition, causing me to lose the threads of my thoughts, which I often find impossible to pick up again after such an evening. Had I known that this particular occasion would set me on such an uncharted course, I might have risked the affront for not attending. But alas, that was not to be my fate.
That evening, Georgette was the last to arrive. She made her entrance costumed in the manner Mélisande, the ethereal heroine from my play, Pelléas et Mélisande, even her forehead wore a jewel hung by a ferronniére, arranged just so to entice me, to lure me from the customary reticence with the adornments from the medieval age, the aesthetic that appeared often in my writing. But, as I say, I was innocent of her intentions and inexperienced with the likes of Georgette. Initially what attracted me was her shamelessness, being a trait that I lacked. I proceeded with her as I only knew how, allowing fate to lead me where it chose. But fate found a stronger opponent in the will of Georgette. I was but a player in the drama she conceived. She was to teach me that there was a limit to the powers of fate and my work would then begin to reflect this false empowerment. I was now on a course that fate would rewrite in accordance to her will.
Georgette’s marriage to a Spanish dupe who had gambled their fortunes away prevented me from making her my legal wife. It was prohibited to divorce in Spain, and in any case, her husband was a passionate man already quick to anger without such provocation. His beatings had commenced as soon as he began to recognize her true nature and his little significance in her world; a mere cog in the wheel of her grand design. The Spaniard had been a device to her, much as the rest of us, a means of averting the fate chosen by her Father. When the truth was as plain as the mustache on his oily face, the Spaniard thrashed her senselessly. For my part, I chose instead to punish her with silence for all of her unforgivable indiscretions. It’s a pity she was immune to shame. Had I heeded the cautionary lines from Strindberg’s play on the first night we met, I might have avoided the pains that followed. “You hypnotized me when I was wide awake so that I neither saw nor heard; only obeyed.” But alas, I was blind.
When Georgette took, she maintained that she gave. That was her gift. Her power was to convince us all of its truth. And before she gave, she took only the smallest bites at first, nibbling as if on an amuse bouche, setting her teeth for the main course, the piece de resistance, which was my worth and pedigree. For all our years together she urged me to write but only as it suited her needs and becoming dependent on her inspiration, I lost myself. Left with the hallowed out remains of my psyche, is it any surprise I would then feed on the healthy stalks of someone else’s labor? Like her; I give when I take and the taking is necessary in order for me to give. I learned this much from Georgette. But a time would come when she unhitched the feedbag of her inspiration and deprived me of her fodder. It was then that I discovered Marais, the poet and naturalist who had a yen for morphine and, as I would later learn, for poetic justice. It had been said that I committed a crime of literary fraud, that I took his work and claimed it as my own, and that he took his own life, as if the events had a direct correlation. Ironically, the cosmic, manicured dance of the termitary, this gavotte of organic unity I had learned so well- being the subject of both our books- furnished me with all of the justification I required for what they alleged. His termites. The termites that became mine, the scavengers of the veld that masticate and create.
Of Georgette, who on the other hand had been without question been mine to exploit; I learned much from the working of the termites. It was as if the Queen of the termitary, expanding and growing, living and feeding off of the blind soldiers and workers trapped in their castes, senselessly building her towers to the unseen clouds, emitting her strong signals to earless receptors that respond without reason and with no hesitation at all, was the same individual as my Georgette. It has been observed that without the Queen there is no termitary, for it is pointless and dies. I had been the worker toiling for the Queen, who deemed it was her role to override fate. Like the Spaniard, I had been duped and I had lost my way.
From my own tower here in the sky, my Orlamonde, I can recall Pelléas and Mélisande, the ill-fated lovers born of my pen. At the beginning of the play Prince Golaud, a hunter, finds Mélisande by a stream in the forest, as if by some accident. She had lost her crown and did not wish to retrieve it. So he marries her. Later she meets Pelléas, the brother of Golaud sitting by a fountain where she had lost her ring. There was famine in the kingdom and change was nigh. The chaos of Anteros was imminent, primed to restore order through death and revenge. Later she would betray Golaud, favoring his brother Pelléas. Golaud kills Pelléas and wounds Mélisande for their deeds, thus completing the cycle of creation and destruction. It all makes sense to me in the context of a play. Like Golaud, I had believed that my meeting with Georgette was as if a synchronistic event had taken place. But I had been mistaken to think so. Georgette had never been lost and she would never relinquish her crown. She was only capable of pretending.
I sighed at the rather tidy portrait Maeterlinck depicted, not knowing why he would be driven to record it this way. I gathered his intention was to clear up a scandal all had forgotten long ago, to add a corrective footnote for historians to uncover long after his demise. Perhaps he thought that the journal would be found and examined no less thoroughly than the hieroglyphs found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. In this, he would be sadly mistaken. I felt it my duty to speak up before he could carry on much farther with this farce. My overdue visit could even be of some service to him after all if only to spare him an undue embarrassment in the afterlife.
Maeterlinck stirred in his sleep without raising his head, opened an eye to peer at sideways; a silver lock of hair had fallen down upon his mystic brow. He appeared to me much older than the last time I had seen him so many years ago at St. Wandrille but the lucidity of youth was still alive in his spirit. He did not seem surprised to see me; he might have believed he was still dreaming. I spoke to him as if there was nothing unusual about us being together, as if we had just been chatting yesterday, as natural as we would be on one of our fishing excursions, without the need for explanations, which in any case I could not do.
“Then why don’t you explain what happened, Maurice? You do go on about nothing. Anteros and Eros? Do you think anyone will understand your antiquated Pythagorean terms? Those ideas went out with the Symbolists.” I spoke casually, taunting him in an effort to make my appearance as something commonplace.
Maeterlinck regarded me thoughtfully and lifted his head from the desk, but seemed unable to comprehend the words I spoke. Strangely, he fixed his gaze not on my eyes but on my mouth. In his gaze I could see that something didn’t seem right to him. It was if the movement of my lips was unnatural or the sounds coming from them didn’t match the words. Although it was obvious he was momentarily confounded, he ignored it and proceeded to speak to me in an ordinary way, just as I had done with him.
“You mean the Marais incident? Truthfully, he should thank me for writing about the termites. If it hadn’t been for my book, no one would have even known who he was. And why write in Afrikaans if you want to be acclaimed? He gained more notoriety from the alleged scandal that he ever did from his work. One might even say I prolonged his life.”
His smugness, ever intact, was refreshing. Never one to admit wrongdoing, he had always held himself above reproach. He had built a fortress strong enough to rebuff any assault of man or nature with his gift for words. For the moment he looked fine. His defense seemed an offense and I hadn’t been prepared for his readiness.
“We’ll get to Marais soon enough and Georgette too, for that matter,” I said. “You don’t appear as if you are going anywhere soon. As long as we are holed up in this tower we may as well go through everything. You have a way of skipping ahead and avoiding the essential details. Marais can wait.”
“My friend, Golaud, what is it exactly we are up to here?” he prodded. “Why have you suddenly appeared after so long? Is this the end? Are you here to take me away? I must be dying!” Maeterlinck mocked me with false dramatics, raising the back of his hand to his brow. His stock stage movement reminded me of Georgette, in one of her many dying scenes, playing to the back of a packed house, sure of her audience, anticipating their applause. On Maeterlinck, it was unbecoming.
At first I didn’t know what I would say. I was unsteady after finding myself before Maeterlinck, nervous there would have to be an explanation I couldn’t provide and at the same time, overjoyed to be here, to see the kindly face of Maeterlinck, yet reticent about how much I would share, fearful I would spoil something very important. Then, in a flash, the words came to me. Instead of questioning their source, I decided to see where they might take us.
“We are here to remember.”
Maurice acted as if he hadn’t heard. I felt certain he had, but before I could repeat myself, he continued.
“Yes, I suppose you are right, Golaud. I can’t skip ahead like that. I am a storyteller and I should know better. But you probably know better than I what happened. I’ve lost all objectivity with myself and if truth be told, I’ve lost the will to remember. I’ve lost the will to care that I don’t remember. What good does it do a dying man?”
“It’s good that you at least recognize that you’ve forgotten. I’ve often wondered if you lack compassion. Lest you forget, the point of being a dying man is remembering. I am here to tell your tale and help you remember. And afterwards, if you deem it admirable, you can copy it down as your own.”
I said this to Maeterlinck only half in jest.
“That’s a brash proposition for you to draw, to assume that I might be in the least interested in cribbing your work, whatever that might be. I’m sure I couldn’t imagine what you would have to say Golaud, although in the past it had been the topic of many a conversation between Georgette and me. The source of your story is my life, I presume, but I’ll let that point go. As a gesture of good faith, I’ll allow you to wear my Nobel Prize around your neck as you tell the story. At any moment if you feel that I may take leave of myself and have an attack of plagiarism, you have my permission to abscond with the metal. However, the prize is meaningless to me. You might recall that I didn’t attend the ceremony in my honor. I told them I was ill.”
It was not unusual for Maeterlinck to bring up the topic of his Nobel Prize for literature. Any excuse, the mention of the year 1911 or a passing comment about Sweden, and the conversation would pivot to his Nobel Prize and how he had declined to attend the ceremony, by way of proving how little he thought of such accolades in the hopes of adding humility to the list of qualities for which he could be esteemed. I was accustomed to this sort of manipulation from Maeterlinck. It took little effort to see through his maneuvers.
I raised a lip in a sneer, “It’s not surprising you didn’t attend. How much of what you’ve written is actually yours? A sudden attack of the spleen is a convenient way of avoiding controversy and I can’t say that I blame you.”
“Influenza was my excuse and the only thing I was avoiding was speech-making. I detest speaking in public. I don’t need to reflect upon the disastrous episode that happened in New York City back in 1919 when I was asked to speak in English after being given a phonetic transcription of my manuscript. Of course I had been told that I would be speaking in French; at the last moment the director changed his mind, forgetting my tin ear for foreign languages. Unsurprisingly it didn’t go well. I arrived at the Carnegie Hall to a packed house of some of the most elite society of New York City and it was impossible to be heard or understood. I must have sounded like a fool. Finally the audience urged me to speak in French, but that manuscript had been left at the hotel. The program director’s son dashed to my room at the hotel, and as luck would have it, he was stopped by police for taking the wrong overcoat, prolonging my anxiety. By the time the young man finally arrived, after what seemed like an endless time waiting at the podium, as you can imagine, I was overwrought and my nerves had gotten the better of me. To make matters worse, I was blamed for the entire episode. The result was having my contract canceled, which in truth was an enormous relief. Imagine if I had allowed something like that to happen before the Nobel Prize committee. Americans might forget about such an incident the very next day but the same can’t be said of the Nobel committee. My caution was correct in sending someone in my place. Such are the things of nightmares.”
As amused as I was to see Maeterlinck relive his ordeal at Carnegie Hall, all of this hearkened back to a time far beyond the beginning of what occupied him in his journal, and of the subject of our conversation, and Maeterlinck was avoiding looking at things he would rather not see. In his own memoir of his youth in Ghent, his Bulles Bleues, he chose only to relive the most idyllic moments, neglecting the pains. None of this was helpful in remembering. Anecdotes were only a diversion.
“You’re getting way ahead of me. Like I said, let us start from the very beginning. As a tribute to you, I’ll tell the story in your fashion; as a fairy tale.”
“Yes, that is the way to tell my tale. The fairy tale is the purest form of storytelling. They are expressions of the collective unconscious. They reveal patterns hidden within the human psyche which then allows them to float into our awareness. They connect us a species. Do you not agree?” His question was clearly rhetorical.
“Much like the termites. Do you not agree? Did they also float into your awareness?”
“Why, yes. The termites. Back to the termites. I did admire their supernatural telepathy, which is why I chose to write about them in the first place. It was those qualities I wished to understand better.”
I may have pressed the issue too much and too soon with Maurice but up to this point, he had been taking my jabs well.
Behind the veneer of the sensitive poet, at his very core Maeterlinck was pragmatic and made no illusions about his nature. The Ghent countryside had bred a sturdy, robust gentleman. On our many hikes together, rarely was I ever able to match his long stride or his vigor. His connection to the Earth kept him grounded and vital. If I was to proceed with this, I needed some grounding for myself and in my present state, it was proving difficult.
“Fetch your Nobel Prize and place it around my neck. The weight of the 23 carat gold piece will be a constant reminder of the weight of my words. I understand that officially that’s about 175 grams.”
Maeterlinck was all too willing to retrieve his metal from his cabinet, for the opportunity it afforded to admire his collections of awards. Glancing at the honors bestowed to him he turned nostalgic.
“How symbolic of you Golaud. I appreciate that so much. If we had some of the marionettes from my puppet plays in the old days, perhaps we might enact our tale. Might that be easier for you?”
“I’m all thumbs when it comes to puppetry and your elaborate sense of fate. And I recognize that you are trying to distract me from my task. If you prefer, we can use a different method, altogether. Shall I call upon the three ghosts of Dickens and see what the night conjures?
“And what is your task, exactly? My humiliation, my absolution? Am I to reform overnight and once I awaken, buy the prized turkey?”
Maeterlinck had a point. I had arrived without a real plan and was speaking off the cuff. I had spent years with Maeterlinck, had observed him in many circumstances and still, much of what had happened, I did not understand. Like the characters from one of his plays, I often felt as if my role was merely symbolic, a thing to represent something else, not fully vested with my own life as if I were a projection of Maeterlinck. I was coming to the conclusion that this whole process was as much about me as him. I was still unable to comprehend the role I played in his life, but that wasn’t something I was willing to admit. Still I resolved to push ahead.
“’Instinct is something that only works step-by-step. If you destroy one step or omit it, then the whole system of their community collapses.’ That’s what Eugene Marais said about the termites. We must go through each stage.”
“Am I to travel through the Inferno of Dante on my way to Paradiso?”
Maeterlinck arched an eyebrow, scoffing at my Marais quote and my lousy attempt at schooling him. His intelligence intimidated me, which made me have doubts about my tactics. He could see through me, but was still willing to entertain me, even though what I said I was attempting probably seemed weak and unsubstantiated to him. He put aside his judgments of me and considering my identity and our relationship, it was rather sporting of him to do so.
And since I had already committed myself, there was no other option than to continue and see where this would lead us. As much as I might argue that I was doing this for Maeterlinck, I can admit that my own curiosity had gotten the better of me. I was here to satisfy something within myself as much as anything I claimed to be doing for Maeterlinck. I now wished to tell his tale before it came to its inevitable conclusion. The story would meet its end and resolve itself along with Maeterlinck. Then and only then would he remember.
And not a moment sooner.