Chapter 4: What is the Psyche?

Excavating the Termitary

Chapter 4

What is the Psyche?

“That which is known as the psyche or the soul is far beyond the reach of our senses. No one has even seen or smelt, or heard or tasted or felt the psyche, or even a piece of it.”
Eugene Marais, The Soul of the White Ant

Maurice Maeterlinck
“My dear, Maurice, you seem flustered.”
Maeterlinck’s face reddened with emotion. He perspired just enough to require a dab from his handkerchief, fussing with it, waving it this way and that, as a bit of stagecraft to forestall what he might say.
“I am trying to understand my own feelings and assign some kind of meaning to them.” Maeterlinck expressed in an exasperated tone. “After what you have shared with me about Georgette and the nature of your relationship, I suppose I feel a bit betrayed, which may account for my flustered state, as you put it. That she would misconstrue my intentions so is very hurtful, and now I feel foolish for ever sharing my heart with her. I have always valued my conversations with Georgette. They were not simply a means of seduction and manipulation by which to steal her thoughts.  Perhaps I was unwise to trust Georgette’s intentions, placing her on a pedestal too high for her not to fall. If I did encourage her to express her thoughts, it was because I was interested. I may have imagined we were on a similar path. It was through our many letters and discussions that we were able to explore so many important ideas together. But keep in mind, if a writer is to write, he must first gather inspiration from wherever and whomever he may. If you speak to a writer, it is understood that everything is fair game. Besides, it is impossible to keep track of every little morsel that passes through my consciousness. Georgette wrote and said many things, most of which were ill-conceived and in need of refinement, which is what I was able to do for her: provide a variation on a theme, a baroque ornament with the intention of elevating the matter from its basic form so that it might be transformed into something more profound and complete, so that it could be presented to the public in a palatable form.”
His apparent frustration betrayed him. On the surface he may have believed his own words but I wasn’t going to back down just yet.
“I figured you would say something like that. You had another one of your monumental attacks of Cryptomnesia or what did you call it? Oh yes, crypto-psychism. I recall you using those phrases to your lawyer, Emile, when he first spoke to you about Marais. How did you say it, it was like you were possessed by the words. Did the words float over your head, hone in on your brain, and force you to write them down?  You had no choice in the editing or the annotations? The words themselves were responsible for your actions. Is that how it works, Maurice?”
“I don’t know how you could know or recall any of that with Emile. I still barely recall anything that man said that day. I had no idea who this Marais was or why he would try to tarnish my reputation. The lawsuit was only a means for Marais to attach himself to my prominence and from I understand to his political cause, which I knew little about at the time. I would rather not discuss him. Maybe it’s time for you to leave, Golaud.  I’m tired and my neuralgia is acting up. It’s hardly the time to be talking about such ancient history. That’s all this is. It’s history. It’s no longer important. And nobody cares.”

Maeterlinck moved towards the great window and opened the curtain revealing a pane of
Villa Orlamonde, Maeterlinck's study
darkness overlooking the ocean.  With his back to me, I imagined that he was remembering the warm light of the sunset from earlier as it bled through the swaying palm trees in the distance that etched their dark silhouetted forms into his retinas. As he closed his eyes and bowed his head, the ghost of the silhouette appeared before him, the twin palms sentries emblazed in his mind’s eye. From my vantage point I could only see Maeterlinck reflected in the glass, his hand rubbing the back of his neck for relief. I could also see myself, as an impotent reflection behind him, still seated judiciously on the red chaise lounge. Looking into the glass that was devoid of reality and seeing Maeterlinck as only a reflection, I could easily picture him as one of the characters from his plays locked in a tower, looking out over the moat that encircled the castle. With his lowered head he gazed down further at the murky waters flowing around him, barely lit by the lamps at ground level, and he perceived in it a semblance of protection, watching it as it wound its watery groove endlessly, recounting and overlapping its own course and never arriving at a destination. By saying what I did to Maeterlinck, I had cast him into the moat and had effectively lowered the drawbridge upon his head, thereby halting the stream of his willing consciousness. It was unkind of me, and it would not bring me any closer to my goal. I needed to pull back and proceed again with more caution. But I could not give up entirely on this thread of inquiry. I had to proceed cautiously, in a way that Maeterlinck alone could relate and would not personally threaten him.
“I was there. You may not recall it due to your selective memory but I saw the whole thing, heard every word. I can only remind you of what Emile shared of Marais, his fable, his story.”
“If you must, you must. It’s all water under the bridge and his story has no bearing on me whatsoever.”
I was briefly taken aback by Maeterlinck’s mention of a bridge, feeling for a moment as if his Crypto-Psychism and second sight might reveal more to him than I was ready to disclose at this time. I attempted to divert his mind by appealing to his vanity.
“If anything, Maurice, I think you will appreciate the romantic quality of Marais’ life. It mirrors so much what you desired to be from the start. In some ways you are both like tributaries that flow into a larger lake. By knowing him, you might know yourself more.”
Maeterlinck moved away from the window, closing the curtain behind him, placing a blanket upon his knees, settling himself back to his arm chair for the continuation of my story.

Home where Marais grew up in Pretoria
“In Pretoria a son was born, the thirteenth and final child of Catharina and Jan Nielen Marais. A series of personal tragedies had propelled the Marais family to leave the comforts of their life in the Cape and move to the quiet village of Pretoria in the Transvaal region of South Africa with their surviving children. A professional impropriety had led Jan Marais to prison and on the heels of that scandal, Eugéne Nielen Marais was born. Shortly after the birth, his Father finished his sentence and returned home from jail to meet his son but now, following his disgrace he was considered a lame duck, and it
Jan and Catharina Marais
left the boy fatherless. The late lamb or laatlam as he was called had been born under the mystic number thirteen and was raised with his six elder siblings under their austere scrutiny. With his entry into the world the powers of fate had taken charge of the youngster, providing young Eugéne with such circumstances so that he might, in Maeterlinckian fashion, discover the true essence of himself.”
“You insult me with your obvious and shoddy mimicry. I can see through your attempts to flatter me and appeal to the weaker side of my character. If this is the best you can do, I will endure it if it means it will be over sooner. Please carry on.”
 “If you can see past my inadequacies, you might be able to appreciate the moral of this story, Maurice. I tell the story in my faux Maeterlinck style not as a spoof but as a way of relating to you better. As simplistic as it is, if you stick with it and hear Marais’ story, we might be able to return to yours. As I was saying:
Eugéne Marais as a boy
The boy, Eugéne, was unusual and gifted. He was marked with the destiny of the hero. But like all heroes, hardship would be part of his destiny, too. Young Eugéne was a colicky child, and to ease his suffering, which was greater and more frequent than most, he received a common elixir derived from the poppy plant. It soothed him in a way that he would never forget. That need for solace and relief would stay with him for the rest of his life. The experience of release from childhood suffering would be his lifelong requirement. It would provide respite from the cataract of uncomfortable feelings that tormented him and would give him release from both his worldly troubles and the pain that plagued his psyche. The hero in flight from his true essence often takes a path of resistance. Eugéne had always been a distance runner, capable of marathon elusions from the psyche but his habit of escape would come at a terrible price.

As Eugéne became of age, it was a time of chaos and change was afoot throughout the land. The recent discoveries of diamonds and gold had exposed the people of the land to the depredations of a new kind of greed, a kind of greed that young Eugéne could not fathom. His heart was completely filled with his love for Aletta and fresh enthusiasm for the language of his land. He had begun to write poems in Afrikaans. Forever after, his literary reputation would be linked to this choice. When his beloved wife, Aletta, became
Aletta Marais
pregnant, the young couple looked forward for a life together filled with happiness. But it was not to be. A year into their marriage and still alight with the pleasure of being in love and awaiting a child, Aletta delivered their son, but it was a disastrous birth. Although the child lived, she never recovered. She would die scarcely a week later and the loss thrust Marais onto a new course, reshaped the tide of his ocean, overturning all that once knew to be true. With the uprisings of the Boer War and his own loss of spiritual innocence he then threw himself into the struggle against British rule. He would lend his voice to the Boers and their cause. In the hands of Eugene, where the sword was a weak, the pen was a mighty instrument. In this way, he became a better Father to the language and to his countrymen than he ever was able to be to his only son. 
And when he could take no more of man and civilization Marais turned to nature where he sought to discover answers that would free him from his pains. He found he had an uncanny ability for peering into the natural world and perceiving the innermost nature of its creatures. In Waterberg, where he studied the black mamba, the spitting cobra and puff adder he found he was able to mesmerize the creatures, spending his days among them as one of their own, and he began to understand, as they did, that they were connected by a shared consciousness. It was in the wilderness, free from the influence of his peers and far from civilization that he began to learn the true nature of man. From his notes it was clear that through the world of nature he was determined to understand himself above all. He wrote:
A day in June, in the year of the great drought,
Is it by coincidence that my thirst for knowledge coincides with the biggest drought in recent history? The Earth and I are beside each other with our needs and I can only listen to her as I try and settle my preoccupations. This dry land is not satisfied by the rain and the inevitable evaporation cycling back-and-forth creates a deficit of moisture. It is not a perfect cycle. There is always a possibility of loss. The rain falls in its own tempo and doesn’t concern itself with the thirsty Earth, dry of spirit and sparse of foliage. Like the cycle of birth and death, the rain cycle doesn’t mollify the mourning. This Earth is a sponge, soaking up all that she can extract from the ether, nourishing her subterranean portal.  
As they hauled away the 50 year old Orange Trees unable to thrive in sand and dead from thirst, I could only see myself. I yearned for the days on the Highveld not that long ago, when the lotus land was ripe with fertility and I had not yet succumbed to this intolerable addiction that plagues me. But my pain, as I so often say, is the thing that safeguards my life. It is the footpath to that Psyche I ache to know, to be certain of so that I may merge with it like a lover and a friend. But I sit in this arid place and I ask, “What is that noise there? What’s the wind doing?” as if an answer will arrive. I’m carried away from myself by mundane thoughts that pull me away from the fear I have of myself.  
My friend the baboons look at me as if it’s all very simple; content to accept the mealies from me and continue their excursions. I, however, must turn to my serum when all understanding is impossible, where I travel to a microscopic place beyond the likes of my termites, where I have a moment of peace from the tok-tok-tokking in the atmosphere that envelops my mind. It’s these vibrations that drive me. Eventually the serum takes hold of me, dissolving the static and then peace is mine. Once I arrive back, I often think I had failed once again, that just beyond the precipice of my pain the answer sat perched on a twig, like a buffy pipit, with a drop of water in its beak, waiting to nourish me. But, alas, this pain is my existence. The escape, sadly, is the purpose of all striving. I continue to thirst.
“What care I about the gibberish of a drug addict? And what does this have to do with me? I fail to see the connection” said Maeterlinck.
I felt Maeterlinck’s tolerance for this sort of testimony quickly drying up, and I felt hard-pressed to come up with another form of evidence. From the start, I knew that swaying Maeterlinck in any way would be a challenge. The foundation of our relationship was based on the understanding that I was to refer to him first and foremost.  In our pack hierarchy he was the alpha to my beta. By challenging Maeterlinck, I was breaking our unspoken pact. This was as much a strain on me as it was for him. I was beginning to understand that this personal trial was as much for me as his was for him. My limits were to be pushed as much, if not more, than his. I had a preexisting idea of Maeterlinck’s boundaries but given my state, I had not been able to thoroughly test my own. Even with my discomfort, I had to press him further about Georgette.
“Georgette knew of the drought of spirit. Did she not? She experienced it most decidedly and ironically when she went to take her cure at the watering place in in Schinznach. It was there that you conducted your own scientific research, if you will, on the psyche of the female in love. Do you not still have the letters? The telegrams? They’re all here, Maurice.”
“Golaud I am burdened with papers of little use and my filing system for my notes is atrocious. I feel nothing but pity for the individual who is taxed with making sense of any of it after my demise. Rifle through it, if you must. I really don’t know what you or I have to gain from any of it.”
“There is one letter of interest and I’m sure you know the one I am speaking about. Certainly, it was not one of your finer moments.
Dear Maurice,
As much as I am in need for a cure my throat and I know that it was absolutely imperative for you to travel to England, the gulf between us has been a burden to my soul and a constant turmoil for me. I am ashamed to admit my weaknesses for I have always hoped I would be everything that you admire in a strong, robust woman of the modern age. However, I find myself faltering and in need of an encouraging word from you; it would indeed serve as a balm to my soul. While my brother, the other Maurice in my life, is able to speak of you to me, he knows only the man of letters, the works, which he admires almost as fervently as I but sadly, he knows nothing of the man as I do. I lack companions who are might partake in the kind of female chatter, that until now, I did not realize was an essential rite of passage. I now understand this practice is a way to bring the reality of love into a manifestation of matter, giving it weight and matter that I might cling to during our separation. Without it, I only have these things that float in my head and I begin to think I may have imagined the whole thing. The bigger part of me somehow manages to cast those fears aside, but it is not with without intense effort and concentration.
I don’t know if I have told you much about my other Maurice. The first Maurice, who was my savior, who opened the Pandora’s box of knowledge that made me the woman that you so cherish. Like you, our Father had distinct ideas about the occupation of his only son. He was intended to enter business with Father but would that not have been such an incredible waste of excessive imagination? For he will in time do great things. Of this, I am certain. It was Maurice who first mentioned your name to me after Octave Mirbeau first praised your work heralding you as the Belgian Shakespeare. It was he that set me on the path to you. I am forever grateful that he did!
 But now, and before I get carried away with the trivialities of my past, I must ask, why the silence? What is the reason you close your heart and mind to me? The waters here do nothing to quiet the loudness of your silence and I fear my cure may be doing more harm than good. I await you. I await a word. Or two? Do I dare? 
Lovingly, Georgette
“And so she waited, enduring 10 days of torturous silence, until a letter arrived. It contained no explanation of the silence; no apology was offered. Do you recall what you said to her when she asked you why you were so silent?”
“Why, yes, I do.” Maurice looked away, avoiding the answer that was ready, taking some delight in delaying it.  Instead of playing at this little game of his, I jumped ahead.
“I will tell you. You told her: ‘I did it to make you suffer…Love wants that. One never has pity for the being one loves.’ That was the explanation that you contrived on your voyage home from England.  It took days of introspection to perfect a wording that would both offer an explanation and excite Georgette’s imagination in such a way that she would be powerless to refute it. You do so love speaking in terms of absolutes. And its second purpose was to shield the truth from yourself, the truth that it had wounded you for her to go away on her own. You wanted to punish her for being exactly the way you had asked her to be.”
“But Golaud, as you well know, an ideal is only as good as the practitioners of its parts,” Maeterlinck said rather cryptically.
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s the best I could do at short notice.”
“You, Maurice, are a master of deflection. You’ve never learned from your mistakes as you repeat them over and over again, experiencing little remorse, retreating into your emotional detachment. It’s what drove you away from Georgette. You are like the black road-maker ants Marais wrote about. A little furrow of water in your path creates a flurry of chaos and panic and instinct drives you to avoid getting your feet wet. Your nature tells you to construct a bridge of leaves and twigs to carry you over the threat. And then, alone, you stall and hesitate, forever testing the safety of your structure. But once charged with a task, you move swiftly across with no fear for the consequences or your own life. If the bridge collapses, you cling to its sticks and twigs until you find your way across, and once on the other side, you have no memory of how you got there.”
“Golaud, you do amuse me. The road maker ants are creatures of instinct. They are motivated by the need to bring food back to their nests. Beyond that, they have no purpose. The point that is to be made is that as many times as the ants crosses the bridge, its behavior never changes. They never learn whether the bridge can withstand the extra weight of their haul. They are predictable to a fault and the outcome is always the same regardless of any new information they might acquire along the way.”
“That is precisely my point. You illustrated that beautifully.”
At that moment, Maurice fidgeted in his seat like a schoolboy. It was possible that he was uncomfortable reminded of the times he had been caught in a lie by the Jesuits and had been pitilessly reproached both physically and emotionally. The punishment rarely fit the crime, and very well might have permanently affected the psyche of Maurice. He had often said the Jesuits has extinguished every flicker of joy in him, but to this day had never revealed the particulars of their actions.
While I chided Maurice for his basic instinctual nature, I admit it was the thing in him that was most innocent and pure. Unable to learn from his experiences, he constructed that bridge of leaves and twigs again and again, clinging to it in desperation until he found his way across. I recall Marais’ words on the subject very well, and I remember hearing Maeterlinck make similar points while speaking in Flemish and a language uncannily close to that of Marais’ Afrikaans, to be sure, much closer than French. As he recited the words perhaps he heard only himself. Perhaps speaking in that uncustomary tongue had changed Maeterlinck himself, removing him from his natural habitat, and in this way, out of repetition, he discovered the words to be his own.

Nature is not a charitable institution.

Marais was righter than he may have known. The human race pays a high price for their new kind of psyche. The price may be so high, that it is bound, surely and slowly, to bring about its natural extermination. What kind of extermination that might be is hard to say. When the penguin exchanged his wings for oars, it did not become more perfect. The long neck of the giraffe puts it as a disadvantage in flight from its predators. Once dogs were domesticated they lost their ability to survive in the wild. Hostile environments that were once negotiable become more troublesome, if not fatal, to those that lose their nature.
By removing himself from so thoroughly from his native Ghent, Maeterlinck might have disabled that homing device so crucial to his delicate instinct. Not all creatures are of a worldly view. Remove them from to their environment and they react in ways foreign to their nature, even as they evolve and adapt. But there is a cost to be paid by the environments they inhabit for such advances in consciousness. And there were those living within the environments of Maurice that may have been left with the tab for his evolution.

Coming soon: Chapter 5: Luminosity in the Animal Kingdom 


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