Chapter 5: Luminosity in the Animal Kingdom
Luminosity in the Animal Kingdom
“In the Transvaal, the fireflies create an amazing show. On the slopes of the Highveld, they appear at time in such numbers that the riverbeds stretch into the night like streams of light as far as the eye can see. It is difficult, however, to know for certain what the motive of the signal is. Despite long, careful observation, it was impossible to see the purpose, if there was one, of the signal. It almost seems as though the insect purposely hides its motive when it becomes aware of being observed.” Eugéne Marais, The Soul of the White Ant
Up to this point, I have confined myself to the parts of Eugène Marais’ story that might be said to
intersect the story of Maeterlinck. Sadly, my only knowledge of Marais is spare,
and to some extent, imagined, since it comes only from what little has been communicated
from writings about him and, of course, from his own words. While it is true
that we never met, there is a part of me that is intrigued by him and strangely
compelled to know more. I feel a sort of kinship or maybe, something close to
love for this man, and I’m not even sure why. I am driven to understand him
better and illuminate what I can, if, for my own purposes alone, which might
even be the true motivation behind this dogged effort I am making to help Maeterlinck
Thus, I may not be the most reliable of narrators, and I am the first to admit it. My attitude toward Marais borders on adulation and my usual loyalties have suffered because of it, which has put me at odds with myself. It would be natural to expect me to remain faithful and steadfast in my support of Maeterlinck, but I am tempted to turn against him, knowing that he has exploited Marais so remorselessly. It goes against my nature to betray Maeterlinck in this way, to challenge or reproach him for what he freely admits he has done; or at least he will not admit what he hasn’t done. It is hard to know my own motive, much less the motive of Maurice or Georgette or any of the others, and without such knowledge, how will I be able to unravel all the branches and roots in this confused forest? There has to be some strand that can guide me, but I know not what it is. So I am compelled to follow my own propensity and keep digging. But as much as I dig, I still remain Maeterlinck's friend, Golaud, despite what I discover; even as my fascination with Marais increases.
My inscrutable allegiance to Marais who, it’s has been said, was beloved by the all of the children and the animals who ever met him - the innocents among us- leads me to believe that my own leanings are of a simple nature but I’m willing to admit that I may have been swayed by sentiment and a romantic heart. Who would fault me for that? For Marais was known to mesmerize with his charms.
There were rumors after the plagiarism hubbub that Marais had, in fact, enjoyed the controversy and the attention that came with it, that he had been content to play the role of the martyr, especially in South Africa, where his countrymen immediately raised an uproar on his behalf. He had been rewarded with attention and approbation and had been turned into a symbol. Suddenly, he was being celebrated as a proud icon of everything South African during a time when the country most needed a standard-bearer. Marais the writer and Marais the patriotic were enjoying a current of commendation. However, his poetic frailties may have allowed him to be succumbed by these delights, favoring his victimization over his duties. Even though he had managed some periods of freedom, the one constant in his life was always the sweet release of morphine, through his pain and bliss, and inevitable remorse. And so, what became of Marais’ taste for morphine during this period? It has been said, he became more dependent upon it; and as luck would have it, it concurrently became more difficult to acquire. And once the need was satiated, he could only fixate on the next opportunity.
|Marais' silver holder and syringe|
These escapes would carry him farther and farther away from the truth he desired and distracted by the silent ripples created by the thud of a tossed stone into a pond, lost in the illusions playing out across the surface and then, completely forgetting the source of the ripples, the stone that lay on the silty depths at bottom of the pond.
At least that was how Georgette might describe Marais, although she never met the man. Her take on him would be of great interest to me now and I wish I had the power within me to put them together in the same place. More and more I find myself looking to Georgette and I try and imagine what she might do or say in my position, not that she was a paragon of loyalty to Maeterlinck, or to anyone else for that matter. Her betrayal had earned her a swift and decisive banishment from Maeterlinck, who believe in swift justice which was absolute, abruptly ending everything between them, without a moment of reflection or second thoughts. Her actions, at least to his way of thinking, absolved him of any guilt or feelings of regret. He believed himself justified and beyond recrimination for his part in how things ended between them. The goose and gander rule of thumb could have easily been noted but so shocked was Maeterlinck at Georgette’s multiple strayings, he would hear nothing of it.
Five years would pass before the murmurings would begin among their cohorts that Georgette had joined a cult. The word cult is an easy word to throw about, like a stick that is to be tossed, fetched and then, thrown out again, circling about in society for its time until people grow tired of the routine and they move onto something else. The term trips easily from busy tongues, lapping up news of a semi-famous conversion to a new belief. Especially when there is perhaps some truth to the story. All of this began during a time when Georgette had every reason to feel her life was over. She had been cast off by Maurice, her singing career was all but over and, to make matters worse, she had entered the early stages of an illness that would eventually take her life. The period when her days would be increasingly consumed by pain had begun, and her organs were alerting her to the folly of the beliefs she had held dear. Her eyes had begun to open, and she was primed for a new adventure. She knew it, and she counted on it.
After things had finally reached their conclusion with Maurice, it had been difficult keeping up with the news of Georgette, but, Georgette being Georgette, she was unable to break off all correspondences with Maurice, even though there was by then a new Mrs. Maeterlinck, who, it is safe to assume was fully aware of the post he received. There was a discarded letter in the waste bin that I came upon whilst rummaging in Maurice’s study. It is not my nature to pry but I couldn’t help noticing some intriguing scent, and I confess I nosed my way into the rubbish. I couldn’t distinguish it right away because of the riot of smells I found there. But once I saw everything together, the aromatic narrative came into focus. The contents included: Some pipe ash, a tin of half-eaten sardines and, lastly, a perfumed letter. The sardines were still fresh and were laid delicately on top of the letter, which had been laid upon the ashes, yet it was unclear to me whether it was Maurice’s intention to dispose of it or perhaps, knowing Maurice, the sardine and ash may have been placed in this way so that they might serve as a deep symbolic pedestal to Georgette’s letter. Or perhaps I give Maeterlinck too much credit.
At that moment in the empty study, I helped myself both to Georgette’s letter and the remainder of the sardines, an act doubly brazen and pleasurable. I rarely have the opportunity for such pleasure and considering the state I was in, I was far from being able to resist. This is what she wrote:
June 17, 1924Dear Maurice,I will refrain from a long introduction because I know well of your distaste for those lacking an economy of words. If our time together has taught me anything, it was to learn to write and speak with more efficiency, or refrain from speaking at all and follow your lead and practice of silence instead. But, already, I digress by explaining myself, don’t I?By this time word has certainly reached you about my love affair with Margaret Anderson, the brilliant co-editor of the Little Review. It was not a relationship I could have predicted. We became acquainted during a long voyage to America. After our journey it seemed unreasonable to ever part from her again. Through her I’ve had the honor of meeting some of the rising stars of literature, all of which I’m sure you’d hate. This new breed of up-starts would certainly annoy and vex you with their modern innovations and good looks. So it is probably best that you are tucked away with the new Madame Maeterlinck in the Palais de Maeterlinck in Nice, far from the opportunity to upset your delicate equilibrium. You may be interested to learn that the dashing and caustic Ernest Hemingway has paid a dubious tribute to yours truly in his new novel, The Sun Also Rises, assigning my name to one of his characters, who is a prostitute! Now there is a man after your own heart.But again, I must try and bring this letter back to my original intent. When there is so much to say, it is often difficult to get to the heart of it, and tangents have a way to evolving into segues and beguiling me into diversions. After all, why rehash what I already assume that you know? And yet, it’s my habit to share everything with you even though I’m aware you have lost interest. I am still unable to resist the urge, though I’m willing to wager that you may pluck the fruit from my tree, put it through the Maeterlinck mill, bake it and serve it as a rich dessert for the consumption of your readers. I am resolved to that.However, something unusual has happened to me. For an unusual event to happen in my life is not a rare in itself, I admit. And again, I know I am over-qualifying but you must know that I do this solely for my own amusement and of course, to bring a small annoyance to you. Perhaps it is the excitement of something fresh and invigorating that has erupted in my life that compels me to write to you. There was a time we shared everything and enjoyed the exploration of the mystical and esoteric together. But looking back, and after all I have experienced, I realize we were but children trifling about with hackneyed ideas, in love with the romance of the exploration and still too immature to delve deeply enough to actually comprehend anything. Those delicious delights of love and art may have been nothing more than soul deceivers in a vain attempt to manifest ourselves. I am skipping ahead, I apologize.On a recent trip to New York I met an extraordinary man. I know I have said that before, as I tend to exaggerate for dramatic effect, and generally my fascination with someone would lead me to the pursuit of something more lurid and erotic in an attempt to fill the gaping hole of my psyche (And other gaps that required filling!) Forgive me Monsieur Maeterlinck I am inclined to tease you for my own flaws. This time, however, that was not the case. Quite unexpectedly I was introduced to an Armenian mystic and philosopher that has set me on a whole new path. You are aware, of course, of my history of being drawn to men of brilliance, and that attraction, I now realize, may have been provoked by that aching desire to possess a bit of what you all have but on this occasion, it was something of a completely different nature. This odd man with eyes so intense that they can penetrate through a layer of skin, and at the same time so unassuming and dull, agreed to meet with me thanks to a little prodding from Margaret. His name, Gurdjieff, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff or G.I. as he is often called, was a name that I had heard in passing but I hadn’t paid much mind to him. I only knew that Katheryn Hulme, the authoress, had been under his influence.Now far be from me to jump on any bandwagon but after a time, I began to notice his name coming up in mind time after time. I’ve always had an attraction to the arcane and esoteric, but lately, with my illnesses, I hardly had the energy to go down yet another rabbit hole into the unknown. So if anything, my meeting with him was my attempt to put a stop to the persistent whisperings in my mind’s ear.Sometimes when one’s life is near that cusp of change it is a very small thing that can push a person over the edge. My meeting with Gurdjieff was after a talk he had given to a unique group of people. How these people had gathered is a mystery to me. If we had been in Paris, I feel certain that entrance into this exclusive club would have required some secret knock or password that would allow you to pass on through. Having escaped the turmoil of his home in Russia, it is understandable that he might be careful about whom he admits into his company or not. It was not a simple matter of exclusivity or the typical elitism of high society in this case. With Gurdjieff it seems he is guided by a desire to avoid superficial thrill-seekers so that he can bestow his attention only on those truly interested and capable of understanding his findings. That I had been allowed passage into this group surprises me, for who possesses the gift of such elaborate superficiality more than I?What I have most been trying to say to you- even while my reasoning remains unclear, I am compelled to say it- is this: When our eyes met, it was a moment of purity. He was directing me to a door, a door that was closed, and behind it were things that were both frightening and wonderful and true. I knew immediately he could give me the key to open that door if I wished, but I would have to open it myself. What lay beyond the threshold was hell and heaven in an orgy of ecstasy, and once I stepped over that threshold, there would be no turning back to the way things had been. The Georgette that you and I and everybody thought we knew would be no more.So I take this occasion at the beginning of my stay at the Institute of the Harmonius
Development of Man in Fontainebleau to bid you a fond and grateful adieu. It has been 5 years since we last shared our lives together. I hope that I brought you some happiness and on occasion inspired you. At this moment I can’t help but look back a little and cherish where I’ve been as I begin the arduous task of unearthing myself. It with pleasure that I recall our days of spring and the trifles with which we concerned ourselves; all those things that were of little consequence. But now I am wrestling with the despair of recognizing that I’ve lingered far too long with that beautiful illusory self and I’m saddened because I’ve just begun to see a bit of soul, the soul I have not yet known, and I so yearn for it.
G.I. GurdjieffI do not expect you respond to my letter, and I almost be sure you will discard it, perhaps along with some lunch you’ve only half-eaten while in your study. I remember your habit of never finishing a meal, despite your robust appetite, and how you held yourself in such high esteem for that show of self-denial. But I recall, just to be on the safe side, you always took a little more than you knew you wanted. Did you not? Do you continue with that practice? By wasting food you sent an important signal that there would always be more, and that seems to have worked for you, but tell me, do you never have problems with ants? Now that I think of it, I do hope that this letter ends up in the rubbish. For if I am to throw away my falsities I can only hope that you will join me in disposing what is no longer real or relevant. By saying this, I do hope my approval does not give you a dilemma of will.Do forgive me this last indulgence. I admit there is a part of me that wishes for one last prod at your ire. Ex-lovers take delight in pointing out the many things they have missed in the hope of arousing some pang of regret. Far be it from me to hold myself above such weaknesses.Lovingly, Georgette
I could not help but smile at Georgette’s transparent effort to elicit emotion from one so resolutely emotionless. There were few who succeeded in piercing the thick hide of Maurice and reaching a part of the man that actually lived and breathed a bled like Georgette. Invariably, she would shine a bright light on what she saw, exposing the white distended underbelly of the poet, which, in truth, yearned for exposure to sun and rain, but, left alone, he would always seek out the sanctuary of shadows. I could not allow this letter be cast aside in the same casual manner that Maurice would so often use to deny his own emotions and to preserve the self-importance he held so dear. Instead, I returned it to a place among his letters and correspondences, to which I knew he had a habit of referring during moments of dry scarcity and panic for ideas.
While occupied with his papers then, I noticed a news journal jutting out past the stationary, which was smaller than newsprint of the day. At first, I was unable to comprehend what I saw, for noting the name Die Burger I had assumed it was a German paper. But then I realized in an instant it came from South Africa.
If you are enjoying this story please consider making a small donation using the button below.
Coming soon...Chapter 6: The Composite Animal
“Anyone who carefully observes the termite will ask the question, ‘Why do they continue working?What is the mainspring of their restless activity?’ The termite is certainly a restless insect. Do you know that of equally developed creatures, the termite is the only one which apparently never rests of sleeps? However carefully you observe it, you will never surprise the termite at rest or sleep.”
Eugene Marais, The Soul of the White Ant
Since this morning when I arrived in Maeterlinck’s study, up until now, I have maintained my anonymity. I haven’t purposely concealed my identity as I tell this story. It is more a matter of minding my place or knowing my role; it must already be obvious I am more an observer than a participant in this story. I take my cue from Marais and consider myself an Ethologist. Here I play the role of the observer: Maeterlinck is the subject of my study and in this study, the dramatis personae- including Maeterlinck himself of course- are the citizens of a giant living termitary. . .
If you are enjoying this story please consider making a small donation using the button below.