Chapter 7: Somatic Death
“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
|Illustration for Maeterlinck article in Cosmopolitan by W.T. Benda|
“Read it aloud, Golaud. I am ready to face the firing squad.” goaded Maeterlinck, cocking his head to the side as he placed the letter before me, pretending as if I would actually shoot him and put him out of his misery as he had done to me years ago. I stared at the letter for moment and then back at Maeterlinck.
“Is this real?” I asked him.
Judging by the stamp, the letter had been sent twelve years ago and had yellowed on its own within the confines of the envelope during that time. Light and air had somehow found its way through its protective skin, seeping through the cellulose shell that surrounded it. The letter had been unanswered, presumably, since it hadn’t been read until now; the static communication rotting as it seemed to wait for a reply like Georgette had once done, awaiting word from Maeterlinck. Or was it that Maeterlinck’s eyes had caused it to alter, yellowing it as soon as it was seen, wilting as the air touched it? I read the letter, as instructed.
Dear Monsieur Maeterlinck, March 26, 1937With the English translation of “The Soul of the White Ant” about to be released, I find that my conscience has been bothering me and that nagging has prompted me to write to you. Before I delve into the particulars, I feel I must first explain myself. For months I have been hesitating to write you as I was trying to decide whether I should tell you what I know or whether I should leave you in the dark to sort out the news of Eugéne Marais’ death on your own. I wasn’t even sure whether you knew or cared about any of this but eventually, I decided it was best to make an effort if only to clear space in my own mind and share with you what I have come to know.With the mails being as slow as molasses from South Africa to London my correspondences from Eugéne often came late and much of the news I’d receive would be old. It is rather jarring to receive a letter from a person after their death in any circumstance but with everything that had transpired between us it was particularly distressing. I may be making more of it than I should but I couldn’t help but feel as if the ghost of Eugéne Marais was reaching out to me and trying to tell me something; a confession of sorts. His letter arrived before I was able to fully comprehend what had happened to him. All that I had heard was that Eugéne had died and there had been rumors of suicide. Still, the letter arrived too late to change what had been written in the foreword of his book, which doesn’t depict you in the best light. Not that I would change a word about what I said about you. I stand by it. However, I realize that there is much confusion surrounding Marais’ death. And I felt you should know the details as I know them.What I had initially heard (and I believe it is what the news that had circulated) was that Eugéne Marais had been found dead March 29,1936 due to two shot gun wounds from an apparent suicide. He had been discovered beneath a Karreeboom tree located about 100 meters from Gustav Preller’s farm in Pelindaba. The gruesome particulars of his death were reported as follows: He borrowed a shotgun from Gustav and claiming he wanted to kill a snake he had seen on the property earlier. The first wound was to his chest. It wasn’t fatal. He was then able to somehow manage to position the shot gun in his mouth and like the Zulu meaning of Pelindaba, the place where he died suggests, put an end to the business.This information may be nothing new to you and it is not my intention to pour any more salt in your own wounds, if you have any. As soon as I heard the news much about the circumstances of his death bothered me, beginning with my initial reaction to the horror that he had been found dead in such a way and then, the more practical aspects of his death like the handling of his remains and the logistics of his funeral. Being a person of imagination, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the sleepless nights I’ve had thinking about this soulful man and the struggles he must have gone through to bring him to that point. What I had gathered from our conversations and letters was that he had finally turned a corner in his life and was looking forward to the attention he hoped to receive from his work. For 9 years he struggled with the aftermath of your plagiarism and with the publication of “The Soul of the White Ant” it seemed as if he could finally put the topic of the plagiarism to rest and be recognized from his own work by an international audience.It is said that victims often turns the tables on themselves and I wondered if he had somehow thought he had made some grave error and blamed himself for what you did. That seemed to the case for Marais. The failed attempts of a lawsuit were enough evidence for me. He had the support of the Boer nationalists and from people here in London; they were more than ready to spearhead his cause. But he dropped the ball and walked away from it before any real progress was made. For that, you can be grateful because from the information that we have collected you may have found yourself in a dire situation.It is probably apparent that I am waxing to-and-fro with my feelings of contempt for you and your actions and what is it I am so unable to bring myself say. Now that I am here to say it to you, I am stalling. I had been deceived by Eugéne and I feel foolish for that. I am an educated, professional woman and by sharing this with you, I am demonstrating my weakness as a woman. To you, of all people. I hope you can appreciate the sacrifice I take in order to help shed a little light on the truth.The bottom line is that I had been taken in by Eugéne’s charms, mesmerized by his charisma and brilliance, and the rest, I admit, is a fairly typical response to skillful seduction. I have kept that secret from my husband but on this occasion, I will share it with you and leave it to your discretion whether you feel the need to exploit that issue. I tell you this only so you might understand my part in all of this, how my sound judgment might have been shaken. Love does make one blind. I was lost the moment I met Eugéne and if he had lived, I fear I might have done anything he asked of me. Eugéne once described the female termite mating ritual and said that the dropping her wings was “quicker than a woman who discards her evening gown.” He hadn’t encountered me when he first said that. I’ll just leave it at that and go no further without any lurid descriptions.So now, in my own hand I have copied Eugéne’s letter word-for word. It arrived after his funeral and, as I said, after the book had gone to the printers. I am unable to send you the original because it is all I have left of him and I do wish to keep something of him. Although it tarnishes my image of him and what we shared, I felt it was important to at least relieve you some of the guilt you might have in regards to his death. I am hoping that this is something that we can share secretly but I will respect any decision you make in how to handle things on your end. I have not forgiven you for stealing Eugene’s work and I have no idea what might have been your motivation but I am willing to admit that there is probably much that I do not know of men and their reasons for the things that they do. And there is much about Eugéne that still remains a mystery, as well. You both have another thing besides termites in common: I don’t completely forgive him either.With much respect,Winifred de Kok, M.D.
As the time gets closer, I find myself more and more excited about the new English edition of “Die Siel van die Mier!” It’s not an emotion I am too familiar with for I have become so accustomed to disappointment that I have come to expect it. For now, please excuse any undue gaiety on my part. It has taken me some time to comprehend the immensity of having my Afrikaans manuscript translated into English and all that it might mean to me and to the Boer people. Initially my work was simply a means to ride the waves of the pains of malaria to which I continue to suffer. My recreational habits are not the best solution to what ails me but sweetness of the sensations I experience haunt me and as hard as I try, I cannot resist it. I wish I could promise I will not be lured back. I continue on with this battle and I hope that my research will eventually lead me to a cure for my addiction. And what first put me on to the despicable path, you may wonder? How might an educated man fall prey to this seduction?Initially I had been intrigued by the romantic evocations of Thomas deQuincey who so aptly wrote in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, “Thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium.” As a young man I was a likely mule to this fodder. Now that my addiction is being better regulated with dosages from Dr. Nel, I am better able to think and decide and rationalize than the drug addled miscreant that I transform into during my more melancholic moments. I only hope and pray I can maintain this equilibrium.It has been nine aggravating years since the plagiarism and I had thought I had reached the saturation point in my own defense of my work, self-worth and reasoning. I would question myself more than I would the perpetrator of the crime, M.M., wondering if I had done something gravely wrong and therefore deserved this injustice. I should only have look to my own termites, who know nothing of saturation, to understand the boundless nature of my own frustration. There would be no saturation point. The termites pursue moisture, endlessly. Being comprised of mostly water, it’s what they seek and need to survive. I hesitate in making such a reference to you but I sense that being a woman of Science and observation, you would forgive the parallels that I draw.There is a mystery in the termitary’s subterranean passages. They are filled with water vapour despite resting upon dry, parched kopje, even while suffering from a drought so historic I was unable to solve this mystery until the deep vertical aqueducts were discovered. As I have dug deeper and deeper through the dearth, I did not expect a wellspring to have been there all along. And that wellspring was you. You were the mysterious passage I was lucky enough to discover after so many years of searching and after so much defeat.But thanks to you my curiosity for the world around me has been ignited again. I have returned to the Preller farm to rest and begin considering the next phase of my study and my next course of action. The Transvaal is rich with life and there is much to observe. There is no richer language to express the world here than Afrikaans but a wider public can be reached with your translation to English. I welcome a little global vindication if only to soothe a bit of my long term despondency. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t made your generous offer and then, to add to the sweetness, your friendship, your love and support. I am at a loss for words. I reiterate that my Dwaalstories should and will be translated once we complete “The Soul of the White Ant.” I will be honored to be included with the works of your illustrious husband in a collection.
Rondavel on Gustav Preller's farm where Marais livedThat brings me to a topic that I feel that you, a fellow Boer, will understand. In speaking to my friend and compatriot, Gustav Preller, I’ve begun to reconsider some of my alternatives. He feels in order to promote the book, as well as promote our cause here in Transvaal, it might be a better idea if I were to vanish from the landscape before the release of the book. As you know Gustav is committed to preserving the identity of the Afrikaners and uplifting the people with stories that provide sense of pride in our history. Gustav feels that I better serve our cause by becoming a kind of folk hero to the Boers. If the public believes I am dead, then the value of my work will go up. I will, of course, make my previously ‘unpublished’ works available to you in the future. Since the end of the war, things have degraded for all of us and while I am able to somewhat detach myself from what goes on here, I am not completely blind to the changes that have taken place. My actions are of a passive nature and I will allow myself to be used in this way because the result Gustav suggests suits me at this time. The details of my disappearance are still being worked out but
Gustav, an artist in the ways of publicity, will devise a plan that will make my disappearance a thing of mystery and hopefully inspire the locals with a surge of nationalism. It is certain to help with the sales of our book.
Gustav PrellerMy loose plan is to join the Boer colony in Argentina under a new name and continue my studies. I am curious about the wild life and plant life throughout Patagonia and the environs and with your help, perhaps we can find a way to continue bringing my work to the English speaking public.I appreciate your discretion in regards to my relocation to Argentina. Gustav feels my place is there and is best for the cause. He will be in touch soon about the details of my demise and the tone that he would best support the work he is trying to accomplish here. If I am to be a legend, the best way to do that is to be a dead one. I will send word when I arrive at my destination.Lovingly, EugéneP.S. That is the last word that I’ve heard from Marais or Gustav Preller, for that matter. It seems he has moved on to a new phase; one that does not include me. An empty spot has been left in my heart which I now attempt to fill with my own work. Save this letter for those moments when you might feel a pang of guilt concerning the alleged suicide of Marais. As ever, he remains a mystery, more so than the subterranean passages he excavated. As quickly as he flew into my life he disappeared from sight. Until I know more, I continue to keep a close eye on the scientific discoveries that spring from South America as I try and recognize Eugéne’s hand in any of the work. Most recently studies on the various species of potatoes have emerged and also on the variety of storks in the region. Either topic might peak his interest. But it may just be wishful thinking on my part. WdK
Maeterlinck’s self-satisfied expression greeted me as I looked up from the letter. I don’t know what he thought he gained from this or if he considered this vindication. There was no proof that Marais was still alive. There was no follow-up letter. There was no way of knowing if Marais was dead, for certain. And if he wasn’t dead, I couldn’t help but wonder who was lying in his grave.
“And the reason you have kept this tidbit of information from me?” I asked.
“It was not that I kept anything from you. After some of our discussions it occurred to me that this letter might be of interest to you. I had completely forgotten about it. It has remained sealed until this day. When I first received it, I had no interest in hearing any more criticism from the Marais camp. So I filed in away.”
I sniffed the yellowed stationary that held Winifred’s words. Its scent was of faraway places, of smells unknown to me; not of perfumes and lilies and lavenders that I knew in the South of France but of acrid medicinal smells of the laboratory and of murky, saline tears. In a whiff I sensed Winifred’s regret of a love that had been false, of her life buried in service to family and research and the momentary lapse that allowed her to experience something beyond the pragmatic, only to discover it was an illusion. She had not known true passion and she had no true realization of herself. Knowledgeable noses are advantageous when it comes to sensations of the heart where words may fail. While I inhaled the life of Winifred contained within the letter I knew in an instant the significance of what she was not saying versus what she had said. The coolness of the paper had retained a bit of her imprint. The plainness and rigidity of the card-stock reflected her own disapproval of the feminine frivolity that she secretly longed for but would never allow for herself.
“Am I to believe that Marais is alive and living in Patagonia?” I asked nonchalantly. I feigned boredom to mask my shock.
“That is what Madame de Kok suggests. What I’ve gathered is that his entire suicide was a fit of fancy on the part of Monsieur Preller. It seems the spirit of P.T. Barnum had commandeered his person. I don’t know why it never occurred to me. Some quickstepping and a back-road murder must have been arranged posthaste in order to provide the necessary corpse to see this scheme through. I imagine in the wilderness amongst the knaves of the likes of imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes and Lord Kitchener anything is possible if you put your mind to it and if the correct people have been paid. With a heart and face destroyed, how might the body be recognized? It’s the sort of ridiculous mystery plot I could almost expect from Georgette’s brother Maurice LeBlanc. The plot is rife with twists, mistaken identities and devious plans. Such a disappearing act is so fraught with ordeals; it can only be accomplished with the help of a body double, and a dead one at that.”
|Illustration from My Dog by Maeterlinck|
“The faked has become the faker,” I said.
“Golaud, how you love to draw conclusions that are tied so neatly in a bundle, like Le Figaro tied with string and left on the stoop waiting to be read. You can go and fetch it for me, and I will still read it in the comfort of my home despite the slobber and bite marks you leave on it. You can chew it to bits if you like. I know nothing of the motivations of Marais but I can only reckon that he wanted to be left in peace in a place far away from all that he knew and enjoy the rest of his days reaping the rewards of his royalties from his Imperialist readers. I refuse to take the blame for the death of the unknown victim that was left to rot in Marais’ grave in Heroes’ Acre in Pretoria. If anything, Marais and his lot can owe me a debt of gratitude for the part I played for my contribution to the folk hero status of the much-abused, genius, Marais. I might also like to point out that the English version of his Soul of the White Ant seems to borrow a bit of the esoteric nature and conclusions that had been derived from my very own version, which most certainly had been read by Madame de Kok. She makes that very clear. It’s all fair in this game of plagiarize from the plagiarist roundabout.”
“But this seems too removed from what we all know of Eugene Marais. Might this letter itself been forged? Might there be some other explanation?”
“There are thousands of explanations and that is the point to be made. We all have our parts to play in this drama. There are the puppets and then there are the string pullers and sometimes it is difficult to know the difference.”
“So Maurice, are you a puppet or are you the string puller?”
At that moment I sensed I had pushed too far, that my own wounded pride had pushed me into the arena of cruelty. Maurice turned from me and opened a drawer within his large mahogany desk as if to retrieve a weapon. The drawer stuck a bit from the humidity of the room but eventually gave way. The drawer seemed to contain yet another secret, a secret which prompted the first revelation of the
day. Out of the drawer, Maurice pulled out a book, slightly bigger than the size of his hand. The title of the book was The Courage Machine: A New Life in the New World. The author: Georgette LeBlanc.
Before I could say anything, Maurice cleared his throat, stifling the emotion that had welled up in his throat.
“It’s really quite an accomplishment, this book. Georgette always had much to say but always lacked the mechanics, or so I used to say. But perhaps I was wrong about that. Perhaps it was the mechanics that got in my way. They may have provided me with the camouflage I required and then, I never found my way back, somehow. This book is beautiful in its imperfections and it comes to its end as abruptly as she did. In reading this, I feel that I had as much to do with the creations of it as she often did with the things I wrote, which I never gave her credit. The difference is this: I prefer not to have the credit for that is how it should be.”
“Does she mention you in the book?”
“Yes. She is annoyingly kind, which I know is her surest jab at me. Georgette has finally learned to use the power of silence to her advantage, saying more with the things she omits. But I must confess, she does mention a day in Paris when I happened to be there to meet with my publisher. I saw her strolling towards me from a distance. I could easily recognize her distinctive stride anywhere. I only had a split second to decide how I would handle seeing her after so many years. It was so unexpected and truthfully, I found myself in a momentary state of alarm. Do I face her and risk exposing my own wounds or do I flee?”
“Which did you choose?” I asked.
“I chose neither. An opportunity was provided which allowed fate to decide. When I first Georgette approaching I had stopped by a storefront window and so then when I saw her, I turned to face it, pretending to take an interest in the display. I stood in terror as she walked up next to me and joined me as I looked through the glass at an array of cheeses. Georgette stood next to me for an agonizing moment as I didn’t know whether she recognized me or if she had been enraptured by the sight of the multitude of varieties of cheeses that were available in the shop. I looked at her in the reflection of the glass in the uppermost corners of my sight with my head bowed down, not knowing if she would call my name or try to engage me in conversation. Standing there, I had a moment to observe her reflection. She was much the same, but older, appearing slightly more tired from life but somehow, she seemed more vibrant than when I knew her. I was a coward, I admit, but also in that moment, I was allowing Georgette to decide if we should speak. The ball had been tossed into her court. She chose to say nothing, which is probably for the best. My heart sank as she turned and walked away. In that small instant, I trusted her decision. For what could we possibly have say to each other? How are you? Oh, very fine. And then, knowing myself as I do, I would spend the rest of the afternoon replaying the subtleties of a superficial conversation in my own mind. And she would likely do the same. It was to no avail. I walked from that window with something more valuable. The exchange, our conversation, if you will, had taken place within our very cells that were so accustomed to the very silence we practiced in our years together. They conversed and said everything to each other, resolving everything in a very brief moment. Words would have only been uninvited guests in this conversation. We shared the air around each other and our respective hearts beat a little faster and then she walked away and I never saw her again. That was it. It wasn’t until I read this little book that I knew for certain that we had indeed shared that moment.”
“Her death was not something you would have wanted to partake in. You have neither the strength nor the compassionate nature to deal with that level of pain, a pain that she braved most valiantly, a pain unaided by morphine since it was in short supply due to the war. I was there sitting at her feet in same way as I do with you now. She spoke mostly of you, of Mélisande, of Debussy, of music and then she spoke of Margaret and Monique and Gurdjieff. She spoke of the silence between you after everything had ended and of the silence of the things unsaid that had ended things. And then she became very quiet and she slipped away. And yes, like you say, many of the things she didn’t say were indeed more palpable than what she did say. Until the very end she guarded her love for you like a pit bull, refusing to cast aspersions against you, knowing full well that she had been foolish in love. She had made mistakes but so had you, Maurice. So, in the end, there was nothing to say. Perhaps she was as foolish as Winifred was with Marais. For Georgette, however, the magnitude of her love whether you believe me or not, was more far reaching than the mind of a Gurdjieff or the signal of the Queen Termite.
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