Chapter 3: Language of the Insect World

Chapter 3

Language of the Insect World

“Things always seem pretty hopeless in the beginning when we are dealing with phenomena which lie far beyond our senses, but ‘perseverance pays’ must be the motto of the traveler along these dark and unknown pathways.”
Eugene Marais, The Soul of the White Ant

Maeterlinck's study
As the darkness of the evening permeated the room, Maeterlinck circled around turning on lamps. Once the room was brightened he closed the curtains of the great window so that any potential on-lookers from below would be unable to peer inside. As he did this, I half-expected him to demand a dinner break for I have long known him to be a gourmand with elegant tastes and he had always been rather persnickety about punctual meals. Instead, a young maid arrived with a tray containing an assortment of fruits, cheeses and a crunchy baguette along with a vegetable pâté and a bottle of dessert wine and quickly departed. Maeterlinck moved to my side on the chaise lounge and offered me a bite to eat, which I refused. It was habit of his to offer me food, one that showed both his innate breeding and also his care for me, but completely unnecessary in my current state. As he sipped his wine, I continued on with his story.
Maurice Maeterlinck as a young man

“A soiree was held in the home of the most honorable Edmond Picard in Brussels for the cast of August Strindberg’s The Father. An exquisite menu had been set for the evening but it would be the unsuspecting Maurice, attired quite fetchingly in a long Macfarlane, who would be served up as the main course, at least for Georgette who had set her teeth for him. Fame has its disadvantages, and one that Maurice hadn’t anticipated was that a song bird from Paris would be in attendance for the sole purpose of making his acquaintance. His fame placed the target on his head and Georgette’s dead eye was as reputable as sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, who she had marveled at the Paris Exposition just a few years earlier. Her weapons were loaded, cocked and ready for firing. This absurd bird came clad in fineries designed to entrap the elder literary figure she had imagined. Georgette was nothing if not thorough, so she contrived to dress in such a way that referenced Maeterlinck’s heroine Mélisande so conspicuously in fact he should have been hit over the head with the obviousness of her intentions. Being a tad on the clueless side, his oblivion intact, he stepped right into her trap."

Georgette LeBlanc
 Suddenly I felt self-conscious as I told the story of Georgette and Maeterlinck’s meeting. Much of what I said could be deemed hearsay and I admit that my version of the events was beefed up for the sake of entertainment. I looked to Maeterlinck for some sort of approval, but there was none. There was no rebuke either. He regarded me with a bemused look, saying nothing, offering no advice. I was on my own. What else did I expect? I had instructed him remain quiet.  I couldn’t help but elaborate a little with regards to Georgette for I was incapable of remembering her in mundane terms. Those were the days when she was at her peak, when the world was her oyster. And at the center of that oyster was Georgette, the invading parasite, who had secreted her crystalline nacre and formed into a pearl. Maeterlinck’s silence, by my own estimation, was an indication that he rather enjoyed this memory, for how could he not?
“A train of floral golden velvet scuttled behind Georgette as she crossed the salon; it nipped at her heels much like a line of baby partridges unable to keep up with their mother, leaving in its wake a trail of glittering tears and tufts of feathers that had plucked themselves from the menagerie, as if they were abandoning ship from the assault of her finery. A brilliant diamond upon her forehead glinted through the assembled guests and flashed through Maurice like a beacon. He leaned against the oak mantle, struck dumb and appearing stodgily thick, unable to budge from his position. The painted face of Georgette appeared before him, casting her eyes up then down and then up again, shamelessly taking possession of him, heart and soul, energy and will all at once. Her ringlets of brown hair bounced with expectation as she appraised him. 
‘How wonderful! He is young.’ Georgette blurted, fully aware that she had spoken her thoughts aloud, having committed to this perilously bold approach. In any case modesty was not something Georgette could easily muster.  It was better for her not to attempt it.
And what could Maurice do but excuse himself to the sanctuary of the one place he was sure not to be followed: the smoking room? This, however, would not be enough to deter Georgette. She had prepared herself for such resistance and awaited her next opportunity, which would come soon enough. After dinner, the guests gathered around the magnificent grand piano as Georgette sang a few songs with poetry written by Maeterlinck, unaware that he had neither taste nor ear for music. But somehow he had been charmed. Her signal, loud and clear and without interference, had reached Maurice. Just to be assured, upon leaving Georgette dropped hints that hit the ground with the weight of a leaden wrecking ball.
‘I should love to see Ghent,’ Georgette announced.
And Maurice, the poor unfortunate, responded without hesitation, ‘I was just going to suggest it.’
 “Oh Golaud, as entertaining as this is,” Maeterlinck said, “ you make her sound like such a viper. I am not as naïve as you make me out to be. I had never met a person quite like Georgette; this much is true. She made me feel curious. And terrified, if I am to be completely honest. For as you know, there is not much difference between fear and attraction.”
It wasn’t until I had given Maeterlinck a voice in the story that he felt inclined to speak. This should have come as no surprise to me.
“Her initial attraction was to your Mélisande. The play was to be turned into an opera and it’s clear that she desired the role. The bonus was that she was relieved to find that you were not an old man.  It’s much easier to feign true love that way.”
“I can’t fault her for that. Georgette always knew what she wanted.”
“You must think back to the many afternoons Georgette and I spent together while you shut yourself away in the silence of your study. You were so easily rattled by the slightest noise in the house. We tip-toed through the house, finding little alcoves where we could talk without disturbing you. We walked so lightly, eggshells would have survived our steps. Since Georgette was a talker, she disclosed many things you knew nothing about at the time and I had no means of repeating.”
 “But, Golaud, that’s just not true. Georgette and I shared everything. There was not a matter that hadn’t been covered. We spoke at length at about the most intimate of things.”
“You talked to her about nothing. You spoke to her to pump her for inspiration when your creative well had been run dry. What did you really know about Georgette?”
“Why, Golaud, you surprise me. I thought you were on my side. Where is your loyalty?”
“I’m not one to bite the hand that feeds me but it may be time to share what I know about Georgette.  She revealed much to me during those afternoons at La Montjoie. I always refrained from betraying her because I sensed that she wished to unload a bit of her troubles on me. I was hardly in the position to disclose any of this to you, although I did feel much conflict over keeping it from you at the time. But far be it from me to judge her for her misdeeds and follies for none of us were saints.”
“What exactly do you mean? Misdeeds? I’m not sure I need to hear any more of this. It wasn’t until much later that I became aware of her extracurricular activities.”
“Your memory is clouded by your romantic notion of young love. Allow me to continue: 

It was during those days throughout the summers when Georgette would often bicycle throughout the countryside. At the time, you were working on some ghastly heady essays and she was either bored or exhausted from trying to win your favor. During one of our long rides, winded and sweaty, we stopped in a field of daisies to rest. Georgette liked any excuse to position herself in a scenario that might somehow be captured in the form of a painting or mise-en-scène, which would present an ideal image of her. I was content that day, enjoying the fragrance of the grass, resting next to her, with the warmth of the sun on my neck when out the blue she said to me:
‘Maurice stole the very first thing I ever wrote to him.’
Stunned, I could only listen and observe as she lifted her skirt to reveal a kind of bloomers I couldn’t quite comprehend. These ruffles seemed to magically grow from her loins. They billowed outward in such a distracting fashion, I’m sure my noble composure had vanished by then and my expression was one pure surprise.
 ‘Pay no mind, dear Golaud. I am hot from the ride. You can share in this little secret with me, can you not? Let’s not mention it to Maurice,’ she said.
Georgette unbuttoned her boots and removed her shoes revealing her tiny white feet which emitted a pleasant kind of sour odor that I admired and, at once, I found I wanted to taste. But I resisted. Georgette was well versed in the art of attraction, knew exactly how to position herself to display her most favorable side and exploit the frailties of will in her admirers.”
“Golaud, you are not deluding yourself into thinking she was seducing you? It’s inconceivable!” Maeterlinck gasped, trying to conceal his laughter.
“I’ll say only this: She was very flirtatious and affectionate. And even more so when we were alone. Nothing happened, of course. Not to say there was not the opportunity.”
Maurice huffed in mock amusement. I don’t know why he found this so amusing because the seduction was clear to me. Had he acknowledged the early signs, perhaps he could have spared himself later on. And perhaps it was that very arrogance that prevented him from admitting Georgette’s nature, even as a young woman. I had more to share with Maeterlinck.  I only hoped I wouldn’t be blamed for what I would say next.
“As we basked in the sunshine, enjoying a cool breeze Georgette continued,
‘It had taken much time before Maurice and I could be silent together. With us it’s much easier, Golaud. You are not as complicated as he, nor are you as apt to criticize. With Maeterlinck I have to be on my toes, constantly vying to impress his great mind to prove my own intellectual merit. It was after one of our first torturous meetings where he had talked my ear off about some philosophy he had read and my mind was driven to such fatigue from trying to keep up, later in the quiet of my room, I wrote a little entry on the topic of silence, thinking that he might take the hint but instead he stole the words and used them in an essay.’
Georgette found a large rock to stand upon to deliver her address. With a very contrived kind of self-importance she recited the letter she said she had written to you after your meeting in Malines at the St. Rombaud cathedral.
La Cathédrale Saint-Rombaut, Belgium
‘We do not yet know each other because we have not yet dared to be silent together. To be silent is to show one’s naked soul. An instinctive sense of shame has established that it is an impropriety to “let the conversation drop,” as if the clothing which words afford us were indispensable.’
At this point in her discourse, she began to peel away the layers of her frock piece by piece. I admit I am not well versed in the frocks of the women of the turn of the century. I am convinced, however, that their complexity mirrors the very psyche of the woman of the time. I have so few words available for the many vices and contraptions that hoisted and molded women’s bodies to conform to a shape that was judged to be ideal for pleasing the opposite sex. Perhaps that is why they were referred to as ‘unmentionables’ but I digress.  She then continued her speech on the virtues of silence, which you, Maurice, should recall.
But beautiful souls like healthy bodies are ignorant of shame. When we were alone in the salon I wanted to be silent, but at the same time I had the conviction that between us silence could be so complete, so sacred that it was not to be desired so soon and, so to speak, ‘unconsciously.’ Therefore, contrary to my habit, I continued talking out of respect for our souls.’
She squealed with laughter, peeling away her last layer, kicking aside her stocking. This ecdysis was punctuated with a thrust and grind of the hips I hadn’t expected from the refined woman of the stage I had observed in your presence. She seemed to have returned to her roots in Rouen, and was as base as the roux of a béchamel sauce. Here was a girl who had been raised by servants in the place of a dead Mother and an emotionally absent Father, shedding the skin of her cossetted breeding. Her mask had fallen away along with her clothing. Any refinement she had previously demonstrated had been put on for your intellectual seduction. My sharp instincts alerted me to all of this in an instant. In a moment I had discovered her nature and never for a millisecond did she show anything resembling embarrassment. She knew nothing of this.
I remained speechless, shocked by the starkness of her white skin. By the time she finished her soliloquy on silence, she was completely naked. She settled herself, lying upon her garments, cooling herself beneath a tree that seemed all too willing to shade her nakedness. It was as if her pale skin had never seen the sun until that day but I imagine that I may have been mistaken on that account. Her healthy body was completely ‘ignorant of shame’ as she tousled about among the daisies, flattening them with her still, stunning nudity.”
Maurice cleared his throat. “I am moved to make a comment here. As a Symbolist, I very much appreciate how you describe the daisies as being flattened. That’s a very good touch since traditionally daisies represent all that is pure and chaste. In Christianity, they are often symbols of the Virgin Mary. That Georgette is flattening the daisies, you may be pointing out that at that moment she had squashed all impression of chastity you may have had.”
It had been my intention to paint a portrait of Georgette in this manner and appeal to the Symbolist in Maeterlinck but my flair for expression may have gotten in the way of what I had been trying to communicate. I was as bad as Maeterlinck, caring more for how I said a thing instead of just saying it.
“Maurice I think you are missing the point here. But Georgette had warned me of your indifference 
that very afternoon. Naked and exposed, she felt free to say what she could not say to you. And so she told me instead.
‘What do you think he did? He took my letter and copied my words in The Treasures of the Humble. Was I given credit? No. I’m only given a mention as someone I love above all. My writing, as he put it, lacked technical merit. And one evening on reading his pages aloud he said to me, ‘I steal from you, don’t I?’ On another occasion one very hot day we were both kneeling under the pine trees watching an ant-hill. Maurice was teasing the ants with a stick. Suddenly in spite of myself I asked, ‘When you quote me in The Treasures of the Humble why have you put each time, an old philosopher friend said…or else an old friend said…or I don’t know what sage has said… or merely quotation marks?'
Astonished Maeterlinck lifted his head, ‘But don’t you see it would be ridiculous to mention you. You’re on the stage, a singer, nobody would believe me. It would be ridiculous.'
Treasures of the Humble, French edition
Yes, ridiculous! But not ridiculous enough to omit my words, however! And it is better to write down verbatim what I write, assign it as your own and then say later I couldn’t rewrite my own words nearly as well. But I guess it serves me right. Perhaps he’s cleverer than I expected. Perhaps I am not the seductress in this game at all. Perhaps I am the one being exploited for my gifts. Perhaps. Perhaps.’

Georgette had a way of speaking that always seemed to be a declaration of immense magnitude. While it could be exhilarating to be in her presence, with all of her charismatic magnetism, after her afternoon display, I found myself both tired and hungry at the same time and I had begun to lose interest in their squabbles. My growing disinterest must have been apparent to Georgette. Always quick to take a cue, she gathered her clothing and quickly dressed. The care she took in dressing was so routine and such a disappointment after the artistry she took in removing her clothes that all we could do is head back to the house. 
In silence.

Coming soon: 


Chapter 4

What is the Psyche?

“That which is known as the psyche or the soul is far beyond the reach of our sense. 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

“My dear, Maurice, you seem flustered.” 
Maeterlinck’s face reddened with emotion, and he perspired just enough to require a dab from his handkerchief. He fussed with it as a bit of stagecraft as if to forestall what he might say. 

to be continued...


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