Our Teacher: The Humble Ant

The enigmatic Eugene Marais

The enigmatic Eugene Marais

“I feel sorry for them,” Fanny says as she sees another ant tumbling into the antlion pit. “They really have no chance.”

“Ants, my dear, have been around longer than humans. They’ve evolved with time and now inhabit every continent except Antarctica.” Gertruida just can’t allow a chance to lecture pass by. “Remember Eugene Marais? He wrote The Soul of the White Ant, a stunning piece of work for that time. First published as a series of articles in Die Huisgenoot,  from 1925 to 1926,  the English and Afrikaans versions were only published in book form later.

“Marais was a keen observer. Trained as a lawyer, he had considerable medical knowledge as well – seems he picked this up during his studies in London from 1897 to about 1902. At the time, he was a widower, a morphine user and a seasoned journalist. He picked up other skills as well, the most notable of these his ability to hypnotise both people as well as animals.

“Anyway, he was the first author to promote the idea of a termitary,  where all the creatures combined their abilities to form a composite animal. At the time, that was quite a revolutionary concept.”

“You mean like bees work together as a unit, so do ants?” Kleinpiet thinks of all the cans of Doom he’s emptied on the lines of ants carting off his sugar.

“Indeed. They are, per definition, socialists. The individual is less important than the society. They work together to create a better world. No strikes, no protests. Every ant does what he is supposed to do, because then the entire colony benefits. And what’s good for the colony, is good for the individual. Win-win…and they all live happily ever after.”

Precilla arches an eyebrow, nods when Boggel offers a fresh beer, and taps the side of her head. “I remember something about Marais.  Didn’t he write books about baboons and apes as well? He was a sort of social recluse, lost in his world of depression, malaria and morphine. And yet he left a legacy like no other?”

“That’s true, Precilla. Much like Darwin, he formulated certain ideas about Nature, and strangely Darwin died of melancholy as well. Darwin just didn’t want to go on living, it seems. And Marais…well. he shot himself.”

“But he did a lot of good, as well.” Defending the memory, Precilla forges ahead. “Despite his lack of training, he delivered babies, operated on extremely sick men and women; and as far as I know, he never lost a patient, either. That’s not bad for a lawyer. There’s also a famous story about how he hypnotised a paralysed woman and she started walking again.

“Yes, he did that. After 17 years, she walked again.” A small frown creases the space between Gertruida’s eyes. “In a way he was much like us. An outsider, looking in. A loner who needed people around him. But while he used opium or morphine, we are much more civilised with our Cactus Jack. Like him, we observe and comment, without getting involved. Mind you, he had Piet.”

“Piet?” They chorus together, not sure if she’s referring to Kleinpiet’s family.

“Piet was a baboon he brought up. Used to ride next to him on his donkey cart – even steered the donkeys with the reins. That baboon was quite clever. Dressed himself warmly in winter and insisted on wearing a type of hat in summer. A lot of that experience prompted him to study a troop of baboons, which formed the backbone of his My Friends, the Baboons. I remember a poignant chapter from that book, where the primates tried to save the man they had learnt to trust.”

Vetfaan uses his scuffed boot to divert another ant from tumbling into the antlion’s trap.

“A collective unity. ” He muses. “A composite animal. They dig for water and save for the hard times.  Equal in duty, equal in reward. Every one pursuing a common goal.”

“Ja,” Oudoom sighs as he sits down for his daily snort. “The Bible teaches us to go to the ant and become wise. Marais may have been the first to make scientific observations regarding that, but the advice was given centuries ago.”

“…and it’ll be centuries before mankind stumbles upon that solution. Or never. At least, I can’t see it happening in South Africa soon.” Kleinpiet smirks at his clever remark.

“Oh no!” Gertruida wags a friendly finger at him. “We’ve got ants. Lots of them. Fire ants are what we’ve got. Nasty critters with venomous stings and strong little pinchers. They raid and kill. Sadly, they don’t live in mounds and ant heaps – they have huge houses they build with taxpayer’s money.

“Maybe that’s why he wrote:

‘n Druppel gal is in die soetste wyn;
‘n traan is op elk’ vrolik’ snaar,
in elke lag ‘n sug van pyn,
in elke roos ‘n dowwe blaar.”

(May be translated as:

You’ll find a drop of gall in the sweetest wine,

A tear in every happy tune,

In every laugh hides a sigh of pain.

In every rose a wilted petal.}

“We can dream, can’t we?” Gertruida sighs as the ants now forge a new road, around the antlion’s trap. “Maybe, one day, we’ll learn about ants and antlions; about working together and the beauty of caring. Until then… Marais said the ruler of the colony determines the activity in the nest. In the ant’s case, it is the queen who does this, of course. In our case we are ruled by a government and the president. We’ll just have  live with what we’ve got.” She smiles, shrugs, and then adds:  “The ants, I think, are extremely fortunate. They haven’t discovered politics and democracy yet…”

This is Randall Wicomb’s interpretation of one on Antjie Krog’s poems. It says something (to me, at least) about the life and times of Eugene Marais…


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