Chapter 6: The Composite Animal
Excavating the Termitary
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 or sleeps? However carefully you observe it, you will never surprise the termite at rest or asleep.”Eugene Marais, The Soul of the White Ant
|Termitary pictured in 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.
In the case of this nest, if you will, the raw material for its construction depends upon the destruction of others and the debris of some half-decayed shrubbery of souls. It, like the termitary, also functions as a compost heap, fertilizing new growth and generating some new configurations. One might call it the natural of order of things. Young life is fed by the old and dying; structures are razed and built into new ones. In the case of the termite mound, from time-to-time that which is rebuilt is often a distortion of the original and the structure, unable to support itself, crashes down to Earth, its parts scattered and left to return to dust. Is it only on the Earth where this occurs or have I caught the scent of some deeper pattern? This question and many others plague my mind. At times, it’s too much for me to fathom. And now, I sense that something has gone awry and I fear I have become a part of the mound.
I do not pose these questions to merely distract or arouse curiosity as to my identity. There is a bit of a busybody in the best of us, wondering what everyone else is up to, how they live their lives and where they make their money. It is only natural to search for patterns and come up with conclusions and make judgments, especially those that support our various opinions and desires. My analysis is not strictly scientific. I attempt to collect my scattered thoughts in this haphazard reconstruction, examining the warp and woof, searching for the invisible thread that weaves through it.
I feel a little like Marais in the veld, unschooled in any scientific method but dedicated to the intuitive sense, depending on the power of intuition, faking it as I go. I see that I myself have become a living, breathing part of the exploration and find that I am also a functioning part of the termitary. I am no longer detached and I can no longer remain unknown. I can no longer remain anonymous. My investment is this adventure has begun to affect me as much as Maeterlinck or any of the others.
So who am I?
I am Golaud.
And who, you might ask, is that? One might say that I am nothing more than a projection that appeared with the help of the collective consciousness but that tells you little more than you already know.. That I exist is a matter of debate, but let us for time being just agree that I am here and present in some form. A signal was sent, received and now I am here. The form seen by Maeterlinck is that of a dog; to be more accurate, he sees what he thinks of as the ghost of his beloved French bulldog he shared with Georgette. They named him after the character Golaud from his play Pelléas et Mélisande. Like my literary namesake, I am an asker of questions. Golaud was forever hounding Mélisande with questions: Why are you crying? Has someone hurt you? What did they do to you? Where do you come from? Where did you run away from? Who gave you that crown? Will you come with me?
|Golaud watches Pelléas and Mélisande|
The most crucial question that Golaud asks Mélisande that I ask of Maeterlinck:
Are you guilty?
Maeterlinck, like Mélisande hasn’t answered.
If Maeterlinck is indeed guilty, will he ever admit it? Will he explain it? And does it even matter now? Is this all a big misunderstanding? All of these questions are befitting of a spirit named Golaud.
It was Pelléas et Mélisande, as you may recall, the very same play that brought Georgette crawling out of the woodwork, first setting her sights on Maeterlinck and, to no small degree, at least in the beginning, on snaring a part in the opera Claude Debussy had set to music until the composer enraged Maeterlinck by casting another soprano in Georgette’s place. Maeterlinck stormed into his home and threatened the frail composer with his walking stick, but to no avail. Maeterlinck divorced himself completely from the opera, vowing to never see it. Like Golaud, the jealous husband who kills his half-brother, Pelléas and fatally wounds Mélisande for their betrayal, Maeterlinck was unforgiving. Twenty years later he’d see the opera and admitted he had been completely wrong.
|Georgette LeBlanc's depiction of Golaud|
Later on I even made an appearance in the book Maeterlinck’s Dogs, which was written by Georgette, complete with charming anecdotes and doodles, which might add a little flesh to my existence in the world. While I still retain the memories of the animal I once embodied, it is only part of who I am. Is it not true that the soul of any beloved pet is in some way the creation of those who care for them? The real dimension of my existence is the product of their imaginations. I would even say my identity is richer and more fleshed out than most of the characters in one of Maeterlinck’s plays, since they exist to represent ideas and types more than individuals made of flesh and blood, with passions and hopes of their own. Being Golaud, I am as much a part of Georgette as I am of Maeterlinck and everything they encountered together and apart. I am myself and I am also the sum of all these parts, and through some alchemy of love and imagination, if you will, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Maeterlinck, or Maurice my master, was of the opinion that he was losing his mind. He had come to accept my visits and our conversation. He was amused by the idea that I am one of the spirits sent to help him review his life, and I do not deny there was some truth to his suspicions. It was a fact that his death was approaching quickly, and it was true I may as well be such a spirit, considering all the questions and stories I have presented to him. I was just as amused to play this role for him. Or I could have easily served as his Anubis, the god that ushers the dead souls to the afterlife. However, with my small stature, it would have been poor casting. I was more of a dog than a god. And then, having survived Georgette and of course, Marais, Maeterlinck sometimes acts as if he has won some endurance contest, having in some sense beaten them all in his survival. Strangely satisfied in this way and resigned to death, he knew that any more life would be gravy for his kibble. In that way, my presence was gravy.
|More from 'Maeterlinck's Dogs" by Georgette|
For this victory, at times he paid dearly, especially with his young wife Renee, who took the place of Georgette, although their reigns overlapped by at least seven years. Renee entered their lives in much the same way as a newly adopted pet. It was all very modern, in fact, until things finally broke down with Georgette. And how could they not? Renee had complete unquestioning devotion for Maeterlinck, yet she provided little challenge or inspiration in the way that Georgette did. Renee, on the other hand, kept him well fed in body and ego. Marriage like this was not unlike a business exchange. She kept him entertained and distracted from the things he would rather not deal with and in return she enjoyed complete authority over his household and the right to share his wealth and prestige.
After Georgette was gone, from time to time Maeterlinck would fall into one of his spells, remembering a time long past when he had felt valid and vital. Even now, he sees glimpses of himself at a time when he believed he was more fully himself, and he mourns the loss. Today was one of those days.
“Maurice you seem down. What’s on your mind?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about. This is just how my face looks. Life and age have drawn it to this place where it rests. I am no longer able to prop it up in such a way to be pleasing to the likes of you. And while we are the subject of you, why must you continue haunting me in this way? It’s becoming tiresome and now, you have taken to criticizing my appearance.”
Maeterlinck pretended to go back to his writing, keeping a close eye on my movements as I paced back and forth in front of the window.
“But the weather is so fine today, Maurice. Wouldn’t it be nice for us to take a walk on the seashore and relax in the sun? There is nothing you are doing that can’t be done later.”
“I don’t know how I feel about taking you out into the world, Golaud. It is fine that we stay holed indoors together while you accomplish what you must with me. Must I really take you out into the world? I’m likely to get locked up if I bring our conversations outside of this room. I am assuming, of course, that I am the only one who can see you. If I were to bring a ball and play fetch with you, would you return the ball to me once I’ve thrown it or would I be required to get the ball for myself in an effort to keep up with this illusion?”
“Why not? You have nothing to lose now. How well you negotiate with what you believe to be your own lapses of sanity, Maurice.”
Maeterlinck didn’t answer.
“So Maurice, now that you’ve become accustomed to my visits and have adjusted your mind to my apparition, tell me, who is responsible for this manifestation before you? You are a man of deep thoughts and words. How would you describe this experience?”
Maeterlinck laid his pen down, crossed his arms and sat back his chair and for the first time since I could remember regarded me directly. Generally his inclination had been to look away, to deflect and to avoid my gaze.
“It has been a comfort to me to know that that this skin I live in is insoluble. I know that if need be, I can remain in water for ten days and not dissolve into nothingness. My skin protects me from light and air. As I grew into this skin I grew from within as did all of the parts of me beneath the skin. The corpuscles of my blood fear the light and air and it is a natural thing to shun these things when they might become all consuming. That I fear death, and fear that your presence might be a harbinger of my demise, is a most basic human response. At some level my very flesh knows that the moment life departs from me, my skin will change and become permeable, and the rest of me will soon be exposed to the elements that decompose what is left of me. That you are here in this form, incorporeal and protected from my touch, I can’t completely trust myself nor can I trust my perception of you. That I cannot strike you causes me much consternation. I suspect if I tried, my hand would surely go through you. For the moment, I do not wish to take responsibility for your appearance before me, for I do not wish to quarrel with myself. I can only assume that there must be some outside force at work or this would never be possible.”
Maurice sat motionless, emotionless. Even in his eighties, he retained an exactitude of mind and a certain precision in his expression. His lips, always more terse than pliable, somehow failed to interfere with the words that even now flowed from his mind. But the words- were they his words or just something dredged from his memory?
“I see your attitudes about corporal punishment haven’t changed. How refreshing that you recall Marais’ writings about insoluble skin so clearly. Or did you again forget that it was his description?”
It was surprising to see a man of his age and stature blush. One would think that after his years of suffering with neuralgia that his sympathetic nervous system would have almost entirely shut down, refusing to relax his veins and deliver a gush of blood to his face, his neck and chest. But something very exquisite that had burrowed deep beneath his skin was threatened, gashing this epidermis and touching upon the organs that he protected so well. My own ethereal hide was warmed by the splotchy rash of verity apparent on his face. And then, in an instant, it was gone. Something internal had been gravely disrupted. Perhaps this shock to his system had forged a new passageway within. While I had entrapped Maeterlinck somewhat and exposed his tendency to annotate others words as his own, I confess I am ashamed of the tactic I have used to do so. His habits, like most, were of a mechanical nature. He just did them without awareness. It made me think of Marais and the impulses of his habits and his work.
My mind always goes back to Marais working, studying his termites on the veld. Like them, he kept
his work, never knowing why or what was driving him. He had no will to stop as
he was driven by some unknown force to go ever deeper and uncover more that lay
beneath the surface. He didn’t know what propelled him. If I was to be honest, I
didn’t know what propelled me as I plunged into the psyche of Maeterlinck. I pierced
the skin to see if it would bleed, collected the data, and continued my research. So
that Maeterlinck might remember. So that I could remember too. I felt as if my
life, such as it was, depended on it.
|Illustration from The soul of the White Ant|
With Maeterlinck the compulsion to work was a different thing entirely. He had continued to write, conjuring words from nothing, rehashing the theories and plotlines and philosophies. Work, work, work was his credo, never ceasing to lay words upon the page, bricking himself in among the chambers of his thoughts. He knew there was a signal that was broadcast especially for him to receive but somehow along the line, the tower emitting it may have been knocked over or for whatever reason, the signal meant for him had become distorted. Or perhaps it had been diverted entirely.
Each day he would erect his listening apparatus, waiting for blips and bleeps in the ether, but when none arrived, he’d adjust the antennae and fiddle with the receiver, trying to clear the static that had become so loud in his mind. His Queen termite had been exterminated. And without the Queen there is no life in the termitary. For a time she had set me on a path that suited her needs, and now only silence remained. Maurice had found himself adrift, a solitary soul with no memory of how to cross the water alone. And now, all he had was his faithful dog, Golaud to take him. I think it was for this reason that I remained anonymous for so long, hiding behind my name, pretending to be more than I am. For who would trust such a guide? Who could blame Maeterlinck for his skepticism?
|From 'Our Friend, The Dog' by Maeterlinck|
Georgette, the supposed loser in the survival race had found her lifeboat, whether it was real or imagined in Gurdjieff. He had given her a passage to back to herself so that when it was her departure time, she would be complete. How might Gurdjieff have accomplished this? Who was this man? Was he legitimate? Could he be trusted? As Golaud I am prone to ask such questions. Like my understanding of Marais, I only know what I’ve been told of Gurdjieff and what has been said about him. His tale began much like a story by Maeterlinck but mulled with the exotic flavor of Scheherazade.
In the Caucasus region, the gateway between the East and the West, lived a seeker of knowledge, a maker of rugs, a teacher of dance, a hypnotist and a keeper of esoteric knowledge all contained within the confines of one man. It had not been my privilege to know of the George Ivanovich Gurdjieff until much later but his imprint on my life would be felt like a thumbprint of the hand of God. More than a fair share of frauds and imposters had emerged from Gurdjieff’s region of origin, bringing both truths and illusions to those searching for an indescribable kind of enlightenment. While Gurdjieff had often been lumped into the category of charlatan, as a self-proclaimed scoundrel he embraced his own brand of fraud as a mean to distance those who lacked the inner material to do the work he prescribed. That in itself, would keep me in a constant state of confusion over the man, his methods and the reliability of his character.
Born the son of a rug maker, a spinner of both threads and tales, G.I. Gurdjieff had been imbued with the desire to know. As a youth, his Father, Yiannis Georgiads, a well-known ashokh recited from memory the Epic of Gilgamesh and sang the poems from a distant past that had been passed through the generations through oral tradition. Gurdjieff’s life reflected the same epic stature of that of a semi-divine hero. The more I learned of him, the less I knew. Such is the nature of an enigma. He had been made from the tales he had been told. The mysteries that he had learned very early on were not the result of his reading. Instead, it was the spoken word that had been transmitted from Father to son that was the mythic passing of knowledge that transcended the words on a page. With this foundation and his natural assuredness of character, Gurdjieff set out into the world. As he traveled far and wide, he came to know the dervishes, the mystics, princes and paupers, and charlatans, all from which he would learn. There are many tales about Gurdjieff early travels and for my own reasons at that time, I chose to believe them. Or at the very least, I entertained them as true. For instance, it is said that during his odyssey he mastered the powers of hypnotic persuasion so powerful that he was able to influence a mind through a leaden wall from sixty feet away. And from the Tibetan monks he gained the ability to conjure a life force so strong he could kill a yak on sight.
|Gurdjieff as a young man|
However, that innate assuredness of character he wished to retain forbade him from applying such tactics. The curse of the blessing was that he could not use it without dire consequences. Hearing that as I did, I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of consequences would occur. What was the price of using such methods? Was it worth it to peek into Pandora ’s Box, discover its contents and forego what was contained inside, keeping the blessing dormant, like an inert volcano? A trickster like Gurdjieff could make that choice, opting to know and to not use, but the pulsation of the palpable energy of knowledge is unpredictable and it is unknown when an inert volcano might become active again.
Gurdjieff made the decision to live without these preternatural abilities and instead, he lived by his wits. The knowledge of the knowledge was sufficient enough for him. Whether he pedaled rugs or sold painted parakeets as canaries, he lived to gather the “zeroes” he required to continue his real work. As he often said zeroes add value to a number, multiplying it by ten. Therefore for Gurdjieff, the collection of zeroes was a worthy endeavor. After traveling the world in search of mysteries, Gurdjieff had crystalized his essence to the vibration of a Master. The Fourth Way, his method of returning a person back home to the original self, was developed through travel and excavation. His personal excavation began in the caves of Syr Darya in Turkestan and would in time, lead him to the Caves of Lascaux in France shortly after the episodes of interest which I am still struggling to understand.
There were many travels Gurdjieff took; too many to speak of now. On his way to begin his school in Fontainebleau, Gurdjieff safely led a group of Russian followers across Eastern Europe, through the battles between Bolsheviks and Cossacks, alternatively disguising themselves as the situation required; such choreography that only a Master of sacred dance might achieve. It was through his dances that he was able to parlay his teachings (or his legominisms as he called them) to a higher level. Jesus chose the system of the parable, which aided, as Gurdjieff put it, the mentations of his students to align their understandings to arrive at a “something.” Gurdjieff brought the dance, the physicalization of truth into his vessels, his students. The angles and meridians of movement constructed aligned each of the dancers to a dimension of authenticity. The collective dancers, in turn, brought the viewers to a similar cognization, by disrupting the synapses with surprising movements, which jar and delight the senses in a shock and in turn, advancing the viewer to the next level.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized that each story of Gurdjieff was much like the tapestries he created in his Persian rugs. His rugs could make one take flight into the woven fibers that contained secrets that we were to believe that only Gurdjieff knew but in fact, are retained within the memories of our cells. Whether I speak of Gurdjieff in sequence or not (and I find it most difficult to address his life linearly) he remains to me as I imagine one of those rugs he created; his legominisms deeply imbedded in the fibers of the rugs but perhaps trampled by dirty feet or covered with elaborate furniture. That I immediately disliked him was to be expected. Gurdjieff was a man that sought the Achilles heel of every person and situation and then, the Achilles heel of the heel, methodically stripping away at any mechanism of defense.
To reiterate, I am Golaud, a dog who was put out of misery due to some ailment unknown to me by Maeterlinck’s bullet. Before I can go on with Maeterlinck or attempt further involve Gurdjieff, I still have some business of my own to which I must attend. My own approaching shock requires a reference point, a pause, if you will that I can refer to after all of this is done. By breaking away and leaving the narrative and leaving Maeterlinck for a time I am able contemplate all and everything, absorb this rich tapestry of impulses I am experiencing and fully take it in for the purpose of my own sanctified memory. More simply put, I can see how it all relates to me.
Sometimes I ponder the question whether everything just refers to me. What business is it of mine whether Maeterlinck plagiarized the work of a South African naturalist and whether that plagiarism contributed to Marais’ suicide? Had Maeterlinck’s humane bullet found its way to Marais, as well? Was Marais the first to come up with the theory that the termitary was a composite animal; that the termitary its parts and inhabitants were only small parts of a whole? And why is this a concern of mine? I am starting to see myself as a part of this large termitary, perhaps functioning as the fungus garden, the part that digests the information for the termitary as a whole, and filters the information like a liver or a spleen, liquefying the matter into something nutritious for the workers and soldiers. Or do I serve a Queen that I cannot see or hear or smell? It is possible that I’ve taken this idea too far. I’ve taken Marais and his theory too seriously.
As a the spirit of a dog who had been snuffed out by his master can I not see how Marais, in some way, wished he had a master to perform such a humanitarian favor for him? That, after the toils and the spoils of another useless war left him mangled and after the many abuses of the needle and after all of the pains from malaria, he had sought clarity within the termitary. He sought the minute instance of understanding, however fleeting it might be as a way to free himself from his bondage of the liquid serum that coursed through his veins, seemingly in the opposite direction of his truth.
And so now I exist somewhere outside the realm of Maeterlinck where I ponder in this organism of hatching with the first seeds of fungus incubating these ideas, or mentations as Gurdjieff would say. I also contemplate the fairness of losing the opportunity to experience my own pain, the searing comedy of nerves that travel through my own solitary composite animal. My mind, the Queen of my establishment, had been shut down; shot out of empathy by a man qualified enough to understand the nature of pain. As I deal with the effects of this, it is becoming apparent to me that it is through my killer and my deliverer, Maeterlinck, I am confronting the Queen termite residing within my own termitary. By doing so, I must tend to Maeterlinck and deliver him from himself.
In this messy, messy life we all make small decisions that arrive us to a destination outside of our imagination. The brain, the organ, is but a minion to the frequency of the Queen, who provides kibble and treats to persuade us to explore a messy chart, ungraphical, misspelled and calculated with an abacus with missing beads. Those beads are just pieces of what we deem information. I had returned to Maeterlinck, looked into those almond-shaped mysterious blue eyes and searched for those beads but they had already scattered across the floor and found refuge beneath the red chaise lounge, then moved further into a nook behind one his immense book shelves that had been dusted over with cobwebs in a neglected corner of the room, hidden from air and light, stagnant, stifling and static like a Maeterlinck drama, covered with the musty algae of forgotten impressions.
But this sort of rambling is not the stuff of myself that I recall. It is more like the frayed threads of a Gurdjieff tapestry. Having existed in the in-between for so long, I have forgotten the thrill of life, of cold air burning in my lungs after a hard run in the countryside, the ache that throbbed with pleasure, my paws in the frozen mud of Normandy that bit the skin between my toes. Even the ghosts of the abbey that haunted us then were a part of the life that I lived: the virgin nun that had given birth to the stillborn child, the hunchback that loved her for her innocence and yet, had so easily snapped her fragile neck once their sin had become evident.
These spirits have lingered among us as I do now. They, too, searched for answers, justifications and missing beads. The hunchback had been ignorant of the causes of the nun’s pregnancy and forgotten the rape he abhorred. However, in that house we cherished with trellises draped with luxurious bougainvillea, I can see remember the days of Maeterlinck roller skating through the hallowed halls of the abbey, me nipping at his rusty wheels that shrilly screamed piercing my little ears. My stout body had not been built for speed for I struggled to keep up with Maeterlinck’s own long-legged easy pace. He was at an unfair advantage, as he generally was, either on his roller skates, his bicycle or his loud automobile that terrorized the countryside with exhaust and the persistent ah-oo-gah of his horn. As he skated, my short legs brought up the rear, my snout snorting in rebellion of my stature.
These occupations were less than suitable to me but I accepted it as part and parcel for the job. I required little more than a generous scratch behind the ears, some confiscated meat from the table and when close enough, a stolen slobber on Maeterlinck’s mouth. Eventually we’d retire back to his library where I’d snooze on the cushion designated for me and dream of the words he was writing floating over my head, like ants trailing back to their hill. They were nothing but scribble to me but somehow his words were absorbed by me, like Gurdjieff’s Father’s words to his son. And when we were done, I felt as wise as my Master himself.
There were, of course, days that the words did not float over my head with fluid ease and the interruption of flow would stir me from my sleep. I’d sit up, expecting the words, the scratching of his pen and the long deep breathing of Maeterlinck to begin again. With his left hand on his head, massaging the expanse of his developed brow he’d often look to me as if the lapse had been my fault.
“Let’s go admire the bees,” he would often say when this happened.
Maeterlinck was of the opinion that observing the productivity of the bees would illicit a productivity in him. The pollinators would fly from the lavender fields to the hive and back out again to frolic amongst the daisies, and then, through the bougainvillea trellises, forever working to keep the countryside bursting with fragrance. We would continue observing in this way, Maeterlinck following the flight paths, my nose burrowing the blossoms until a sting of a bee or Georgette would call us in to sup and interrupt our bliss. And the dance would come to an end.
Everything I learned of dance came from Gurdjieff: Every planet is represented by a sphere and is placed at a determined distance from the central sphere, which is the sun. Set the mechanism in motion and all of the spheres begin to turn and move into a definite path. This is the mechanism that reminds you of your knowledge. Through dance certain laws are recalled and this is sacred. This choreography is the movement of celestial bodies. As above, so below.
The parts were the sum of the whole. It was the mechanism that I now sought.
Today was the day that everything changed. Maeterlinck presented me with a letter and everything I thought I knew up to now was altered. My perceptions shifted...
The parts were the sum of the whole. It was the mechanism that I now sought.
“If nature possesses a universal psyche, it is one far above the common and strongest feelings of the human psyche. Nature is inescapably harsh, relentless and ruthless. She has certainly never wept in sympathy, nor stretched a hand protectively over even the most beautiful or innocent of her creatures.”
Eugene Marais, The Soul of the White Ant
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