Chapter 2: Unsolved Secrets

Excavating the Termitary

Chapter 2

Unsolved Secrets


“So we have the following facts:

     -The Queen is incapable of movement
     -The doors of the cell are too small for her to come or go by.
     -The insects cannot lift her.
     -Yet she vanishes from one cell, to appear in another.”
Eugene Marais, The Soul of the White Ant


Maurice Maeterlinck as a boy
“Long ago there was a boy named Maurice, born to wealthy parents, Polydore and Mathilde, in the magical land of Ghent. The castle where he lived was enchanted, but only Maurice knew of its mysteries. Deep within the walls of the castle, darkness lurked. Young Maurice, being gifted with second sight, grew fearful of the darkness and he resolved to seek light. His inner knowing emboldened him to search beyond the walls of the castle for he understood its dangers. But as the darkness from the castle pervaded the town, much as a canopy of mist and trees blocks the sun, a shadow of gloom was cast over Ghent.  This left the boy no choice but to turn inward for solace. Whenever he was unable to find light, Maurice would sprout wings and take flight into the wilds of land. It was only there that he could cast off his wings and stretch his growing legs upon the lush landscape that had been bequeathed to him.”
Maeterlinck’s hand came up to stop me.
“I see what you are doing, Golaud. I didn’t mean to criticize you so quickly, but the parallels you attempt to draw between myself and the termites are about as obvious as the nose on your face. It’s quite awkward. You move too quickly through the introduction and you don’t allow the audience, which I am assuming is only me, to settle into your narrative. I’m a boy in Ghent. I understand this. Now suddenly I’m like a termite with wings? If I were to be searching for light it would only lead to my demise. Am I a suicidal termite? Termites despise light. Or am I a very special termite? I’m very confused.”
“Perhaps I was getting carried away with the omnipotence of voice,” I said, “but for now, please be patient. This is my story to tell and I’ll do so with the limited skills in my possession. My intention was to show you in a romantic light first. Then later, the audience will forgive more of your sins.  And by audience, yes, I do mean you.”
Maeterlinck settled back in his chair, waving his hand to indicate we were moving forward. Permission had been granted.
“Yes, Golaud, please do carry on with your story. I admit that I feel rather self-conscious hearing the story of my life and I am apt to correct you here and there. I am a stickler for details but I suppose since it only us here, I can let some unessential details pass without comment. I will try and remain silent or we’ll never get through this.”
“Your input is most welcome and I appreciate your keen ear. For you are the professional here, Maurice. Even though I am as close to you as anyone, it is possible that some events may not be correct. I would like to be accurate as possible but up to this point, nothing of note has occurred. I’m only setting the stage. It’s no wonder you never took up teaching.”  
“I will allow some poetic license in regards to my childhood.”
 As Maeterlinck yielded his control, he seemed as curious as I where that freedom might lead me. I wondered the same thing as he continued, “It will help shape my character more thematically. Since you were not present, I trust that you will do the best that you can with the information that you have. However, childhood is very important in understanding any great character. It provides the framework for the adult in later life. In my case, I have sought to retain the simplicity of childhood in my work, keeping an analytical eye, of course, but always maintaining my childlike innocence. I hope that you will be able to capture that spirit.”  
“Who is telling this story?” I barked. “You are like a Mother-in-law in the back seat of automobile on a long journey! We have not yet pulled onto the road, we have a long journey ahead and you already want to stop for refreshments!”
“Do forgive me. Proceed. I’ll remain quiet.” Maeterlinck slouched back in his seat, his hands crossed upon his paunch. Knowing him as I do, I was hesitant to continue. When the road appeared to be clear, i.e. Maeterlinck was done critiquing; I proceeded.
“It was about the age when boys began to notice girls that young Maurice first cast his eye upon a maiden within the dank walls of the castle home. To be precise, it was his governess. She tutored him in French and encouraged him to cast aside the lowly Dutch language of his region by any means necessary. He enthusiastically embraced her belief (and the belief of his parents) in the superiority of the French language, and when his mastery was assured, they moved on to advanced studies of a more biological nature.”
Maeterlinck raised his index finger, unable to remain silent.
“What is it now?”
“Excuse me. I must interject here. I know I said I wouldn’t interrupt but this is such a crude depiction of the spiritual bond between Mademoiselle Michelle and myself. As you were never present during any liaison, you can only report what you may have gathered through hearsay and conjecture. How could you presume to know the depths of the love I experienced, Golaud? We shared a kind of intimate affection you could never be capable of understanding. I have nothing but sweet memories of our love affair and I must say that I resent your crass depiction of it.”
Maeterlinck pushed back a tuft of silver hair that had fallen over his deep-set blue eyes, which revealed the remnants of a heart broken in tender youth that until this moment, he had forgotten, having buried that part long ago. He remembered most of what happened in the love affair except the end. I had to remind him.
“Do you not recall the time you discovered your first love with your Father, who appeared to be receiving some instruction of his own from the fair Michelle?”
Maeterlinck’s eyes clouded over lost in that moment from long ago. The veil of his amnesia lifted as brief images of stark white flesh, tousled hair and smeared lip rouge passed through his mind, causing his own fleshy cheeks to redden and his eyes to water.
“It does bring up a sensitive time of my youth, one that I suppose I had preferred to remember more idealistically. If I remember correctly, I was sent away shortly after the incident, an incident that had been dismissed as soon as I left, unlike the tutor, who stayed on.”
“Who’s telling this story?” I asked.
“Right. You are.”
“Maurice was then delivered to the Jesuits at the College of St. Barbe, who were to further educate him and prepare him for the world as a man. Thus began what he later described as the seven year tyranny.”
“Your tone suggests that something less than holy occurred during my schooling. I’d prefer it if you didn’t graze among the sodden fields of innuendo. Why must you always descend into the lurid as a method for driving your story forward? It’s rather cheap.”
“That was not my intention. How very interesting to note your interpretation. Allow me to rephrase: It was with the Jesuits that Maurice developed a distaste for religion, and his interests began to turn towards inquiries of a more mystical nature. The few joys Maurice found emblazed in his heart were swiftly extinguished by the Jesuits. As any gentle boy might, he retreated into a world of fantasy, seeking comfort in the works of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Villiers de l’Isle Adam, who would later become his mentor. But it was in the work of medieval Flemish mystic, Jan Van Ruysbroeck that set Maurice on a spiritual path.”
Jan van Ruysbroeck, Flemish mystic
“You are as holy as you wish to be.” Maeterlinck drew in a deep breath reciting of his oft’ quoted Ruysbroeck, the mystic monk that who wrote in the vernacular Dutch, Maurice’s own native language, eschewing the scholarly Latin, preferring to write in a way that would reach the common people of his country. Ruysbroeck was to serve as Maurice’s role model, and he set out to emulate the sage, who would also guide him along the path to taking his place in the annals in the history books.
“My words are strange but those that love will understand,” I quoted.
“How apropos, Golaud. Another one of my favorites.”
“This new study of enlightenment changed the course of Maurice’s life, now making it impossible to accept a dull life in the practice of law that had been set out for him. Instead, he decided upon becoming a poet and yearned to move people with his ideas and words. In order to satisfy the wishes of his father, the elder Polydore, Maurice graduated with a degree in law while concocting a plan that would take him to Paris and inevitably to his fate.”
I provided a brief pause to allow Maeterlinck’s inevitable interruption.
“That’s quite a nice touch. If I were you, that might signal the end of an act. It leaves one hanging, curious to see what Maurice’s fate might be. I can hardly wait to hear what happens next.”
Maeterlinck’s enthusiasm whether it was real or false gave me a sense of triumph, like I had finally found the crux of the story I was to tell, but I could not allow his approval to get the better of me.
“Do not forget that Maurice is you and not some character of your imagination. It seemed a good time to introduce the idea of fate at this point since during those years you were so obsessed with idea that fate was the master of all things.”
“What youthful poet is not tiresome, I ask?” Maeterlinck mused. “But the idea is not without merit. Villiers often spoke of the universe as a living thing that was possessed of a soul. That idea has long resonated with me and long before the termites, I might add.”
Maurice Maeterlinck by Hippolyte Petitjean
“How you understood anything from that lush I’ll never know. He was only paying you and your companions the compliment of conversation in exchange for beers. Not a bad plan, I might add.”
“My early days in Paris at 22 rue de Seine were such a meaningful time. I wonder what’s become of that place. Such memories from a magical time. How did those days slip away?” Maeterlinck sighed, fumbling with his spotty hands, all too aware of the time that had passed.
“As much as I’d like to reminisce about your glory days, I’d like to move on to more pertinent events of your life. It’s better to get to the meat of your story.”
How could I not empathize with Maeterlinck? I, too, wondered how we ended up in a room in this way, he in his worn wing-backed chair, I seated on a red chaise lounge recounting bygone days. From my vantage point near the great window of the room, I watched as the lowering sun was extinguished by the blue Mediterranean Sea. Although a daily occurrence, it seemed unfair of the sea to swallow the sun whole, without seeing any trace that it had been there until morning.  As I watched the sun disappear, I didn’t believe it would return. I imagined for a moment that the sea would hold the sun’s head down and not allow it to rise again, that it would hold it in its depths embracing it a watery embrace. Before I could disappear into my own illusion, Maeterlinck carried on, as if nothing had occurred, as if time had stopped for the sun so that I might notice it.
 “I had a feeling you might say that. I’d quite enjoy a spot of romanticized nostalgia but I can see we won’t be lingering much on my carefree days. They were gone in an instant. And there is no returning except through the escapes of the mind. However, that’s not something I need to tell you.” 
It is said Maurice had a knack for second sight. He knew we could not linger in the carefree days spent at the Brasserie Posset with his cohort of left bank friends that his friend, the poet Verlaine, flippantly called The Cymbalists.  I had to trudge forward and stay in control of the conversation. Maeterlinck’s uncanny sense for knowing things without being told was threatening to me. While I had been shining a spotlight on his life, there were things that I had refused to acknowledge about myself and my presence. If I was to continue, a little ambiguity was needed until I stockpiled some authority, if only for myself. I was the elephant in the room and I was not yet prepared to make any explanation. Maeterlinck knew the truth but had not played his hand in acknowledging it yet. He hadn’t said a word about the most obvious thing in the room. Knowing Maeterlinck as I do, that was a card he would play when the moment was right. For now, we continued to pretend nothing was peculiar. I continued:
“After this brief interlude of wild-oat-sowing in Paris, having run out of excuses to avoid it, Maeterlinck was forced to return to Ghent to practice law and face the orderly life as prescribed by his family: he would practice law and assume his role as a respectable member of society. His heart was not in it, of course. He found some small distraction in beekeeping, horticulture and trekking through the rugged landscapes of the north, which would later figure prominently in his early poems so often brooding with snow and darkness and moody emotions. The summers he spent tending his father’s apiaries at his family’s estate in Oostakker, Belgium would also inspire him later to write about bees and other insects, his solitary nature drawn to the social communities, where he could distance himself and observe from above.
His boredom in Belgium inspired him to publish a collection of his poems he had written while living in Paris. This small momentum led him to writing his first play, Princess Maleine, which he published with 250 Francs given to him by his Mother. He had begun to write a new kind of theatre and lucky for him the time was right for such a change.”
“I find the beginnings to be my favorite part of any story, said Maeterlinck. “ It is at the beginning where anything is possible, before you can write yourself into a corner and where the most magical things can occur because the beginning is the location of the first spark. That spark can be fanned and turn into a warm fire to sit beside or it can sputter. Princess Maleine was my start, my true beginning, the first spark in my writing life. Once I completed it, I sent the play to Stéphane Mallarmé, who then passed it on to Octave Mirbeau who praised it in a review. Do you not recall Monsieur Mirabeau’s quote in Le Figaro, Golaud?”
Octave Mirbeau
Before I could stop him, Maeterlinck, in his rather thin, nasal voice ill-equipped for oration summoned the quote.
“‘Maurice Maeterlinck has given us the work of this age most full of genius, and the most extraordinary and most simple as well, comparable and –dare I say it? –superior in beauty to what is most beautiful in Shakespeare.’ I would be hard pressed to pen such a glowing review myself.”
I motioned to a frame on the wall. “How could I not recall it? It’s there, plain as day for everyone to see. Yes, the Belgian Shakespeare, I know. You were named the Belgian Shakespeare and no one will ever forget it.”
Maurice blushed. He was generally a humble man, but had gotten swept up in a reverie of his ecstatic youth.
“But of course, I almost forgot. The review caused such a clamor in the literary world. I had no choice but to retreat back into my introspective, solitary life, and shut out all such distracting noise. For that is how writers work best, Golaud.”  
Maeterlinck’s words implanted a desire in me. I found myself wanting to do just what he suggested: retreat. I wanted nothing better than to end his story here. I knew it was better to press on for I could allow no more distractions or interruptions. I had to quiet the noise in my head; and I had to resist letting Maeterlinck tell the story. I had to tell the story myself. It was for me to tell this story. No one but me could do it. I summoned some resolve and carried on.
“As I was saying… And I do hope that you will allow me to see this to its conclusion. On the heels of his success with Princess Maleine, the English publication of his next play, Pelléas et Mélisande, was released, and suddenly Maeterlinck was an international sensation. Pelléas et Mélisande was the work that both defined him as a writer and served to make him a leader of the Symbolist movement. An incident of such significance would not leave Maeterlinck unchanged, and of course it would alter the course of his life forever.
Georgette LeBlanc as Carmen
Change was nigh. While Maeterlinck was being honored for his play, elsewhere in Paris, Georgette LeBlanc was suffering with the beatings inflicted on her by her husband, Buenaventura Minuesa, the Spanish gambler. Contrary to his name Buenaventura Georgette’s alliance with him had been neither good nor lucky. He had lost all of their entire fortune and turned his frustrations on her, who after a particularly frightful beating spent weeks in a convent recuperating. While the sisters of the convent nursed her, Georgette’s brother brought her a copy of Maeterlinck’s play, Pelleas et Mélisande. She read it avidly and upon finishing Georgette resolved to meet the man that wrote it.  As she recuperated she began to calculate ways to insert herself into his life.
And at the same time, the composer, Claude Debussy had decided he would set that play to music in the form of an opera. He sought the permission of the author. He knew gaining his trust would be difficult. Maeterlinck’s use of silence within drama had intrigued him and he challenged himself to write an opera of silences. It was something he was charged to do. He didn’t realize it would take a decade.
Eugène Marais
And meanwhile, somewhere in the bushvelds of South Africa, termites click-clicked their typewriter ticks, keeping metronome time in their busy network of signals for all the work that was to be done. Eugène Marais could not hear them for all the din emanating from his own typewriter as he tapped out articles for Land en Volk, where he advocated for the Boer people and promoted the Afrikaans language. Unlike Maeterlinck, there was no silence for the likes of Marais. But perhaps it was better that the cacophony in his life left him deaf to what was to come. Not yet would he hear the screams of his wife, Aletta, who would die of puerperal fever after the birth of their only son. He could not foresee the horrors of the Boer War or the indifference of Maeterlinck and the controversy that would follow.
Even then, even before all of these things happened he had already begun to depend upon the habit that would bring him succor and anguish for the rest of his life. For Marais, morphine was a relief, refuge, solace and comfort. He first tasted its warm embrace in the teething balm his mother used to soothe him when he was a baby.  You might say he cut his teeth on the drug. It became his most constant companion. Marais’ love affair with morphine would continue until his death and eclipse all other loves in his life.”
I felt some concern about continuing further with Maeterlinck for I was not sure how much more he could take. My words about Marais had left him silent. He was like a character in one of his plays where there is luxury of time and space to think and respond.  Although I didn’t say this to him, it pained me to speak those words to him.
Silence is a thing for idlers, a pastime for the privileged who choose to exploit it or who use it to some advantage. The industrious termites were anything but silent. Of course they never heard the din they made, at least not by ear, for they had none, or not in the usual sense of the word. Their messages were received in a frequency understood by some inborn, native instinct that only they possessed. Their fate was that which was written in the stars, the course of their lives predetermined. Their days were consumed by tasks, and their entire existence was nothing more and nothing less than to perform the labor of carnage and construction, and most of all, service to the Queen.

Georgette LeBlanc
 As for Georgette, she too, knew little of silence. On the stage, thrumming with vitality as she belted out Carmen’s Habanera at the Opera Comique in Paris, she would find herself unable to hear above the clamor of the orchestra or the beat of her heart. Away from the stage it was often much the same. But unlike the termites, or Marais or Maeterlinck, she chose not to surrender her life to the likes of fate or any of its compadres or accomplices. She was neither silent nor able to hear the sounds she made, though they reverberated through time and space and set history on its course. As she danced, clicking her castanets, embodying Bizet’s Carmen, she tapped out a code that would call to Maeterlinck and in turn, would deliver him to his fate. And in doing so, Maeterlinck’s silence would be coming to an end.

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