Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature - David Quammen (1996)


The Lives of Eugène Marais

A JELLYFISH IS SOMETHING much more than the sum of its parts, but that hasn’t always been so. Early jellyfish ancestors followed simpler arithmetic. They were precisely, and only, the sum total of a grouping of similar cells; they were in fact colonies of individual unicellular animals, each individual not terribly different from an amoeba. In the primordial gumbo of Precambrian oceans, the consensus for togetherness came about first, then division of labor, finally morphological specializations that fitted certain of the individuals for certain tasks. Some members of the colony went into service as gut lining, some as tentacles. This pattern of evolution toward multicellularity, not uncommon in the history of life, has been labeled amalgamation. The principle is as familiar as the print on a dime: e pluribus unum. Many simple lives fused into one complex life. Sponges evolved the same way. So did sea anemones and hydras and others of that gooey ilk. And so also, if we are to believe a charming crank named Eugène Marais, did an animal known as the termitary.

A termitary is a colony of termites.

In South Africa, where Eugène Marais spent most of his years, the predominant sort of termitary consists of sand particles heaped up like a giant pointy anthill, glandular secretions applied as mortar, fungus gardens kept damp in hidden compartments, and the moving bodies of uncountable individual termites. There is also one termite queen, swollen grotesquely with ovulation, too fat to move, ensconced and well tended within a royal chamber. Such a termitary might be forty feet high and hundreds of years old; it might include more than a million termites. A termitary found in the Limpopo Valley, according to careful measurements made by an engineer friend of Marais’s, reportedly incorporated 11,750 tons of earth. And that mountainous pile of slobber-glued sand, with its intricate system of passages and rooms and ventilation ducts, with its hothouse mushroom patches, with its million living constituents clambering everywhere, was in reality—so Marais argued—a single animal. He was quite serious.

Eugène Marais was born in 1872 near Pretoria, and within the space of sixty-four years he lived more lives than a Hindu cow. He was at various times a naturalist, a newspaper publisher, a lawyer, a journalist, a medical student, a smuggler of munitions, and one of the first important vernacular poets in the Afrikaans language. He was also a morphine addict and a suicide. Beyond these details, given vaguely and sometimes contradictorily in a very few sources, the facts of his life are little known. If Eugène Marais hadn’t existed, it would have been Jorge Luis Borges who invented him. But he did exist. That much we know for sure, because he left behind a matched pair of posthumously published books too concrete and too bizarre to have been imagined in fiction.

These are The Soul of the Ape and The Soul of the White Ant. It is entirely typical of the warps and wobbles of factuality throughout the Eugène Marais story that the first of the two is not about apes, the second is not about ants, and the pair were written in two different languages.

At age nineteen, Marais was the editor of a Pretoria newspaper called Land en Volk, and two years later he owned it. Pretoria in those days, just before the Boer War, was the capital of the Transvaal Republic and the site of its parliament, the Volksraad. Reporting and editorializing on parliamentary tomfoolery for his paper, Marais evidently was so scathing that, in the words of his son, “he had the distinction of being expressly excluded from the press gallery by a resolution of the Volksraad.” Soon after that he stood up against Paul Kruger, the country’s dictatorial president, who was taking steps to repress public gatherings and the press, in mind of turning Transvaal into an equatorial Prussia. Suddenly, for his meddling, Eugène Marais went to trial accused of high treason. Before the Supreme Court at Pretoria, he beat that charge.

During this early period as a political journalist, Marais was already developing the other interests that would later make him a fanatically observant naturalist, notable for his arcane sympathies. While running the newspaper, according to his son, Marais showed a strong affinity for animals and “was never without tame apes, snakes, scorpions, and the like.” One of his favorite pet scorpions, by account of Marais himself, was a formidable female almost six inches long. This creature once attacked and killed an adult chicken in ten minutes. But she would sit on Marais’s hand, grip him kittenishly with her claws, hold back her sting. Marais wrote: “She liked being scratched gently.”

In 1894 he married a young woman who bore the one son and then died. About this time, taking the loss very hard, Marais began his morphine habit. And the next year—in the first of his abrupt metamorphoses—he went to London, with the idea of studying law or medicine, or both.

After four years of medical training—and again this is typical—he somehow became a lawyer. Then the Boer War broke out. As an enemy national during wartime, he could remain in London only on parole status. He left. When the war ended in 1902, with the defeat of his people by the British, Marais was back in Africa, preparing to smuggle a load of explosives and medical supplies across the Limpopo River to embattled Boer forces. About then he was hit with a bad attack of malaria. The supplies were buried, and he limped back to Pretoria. There he settled in for a phase of quietly practicing law.

Now the second metamorphosis: While living the life of a local attorney, he emerged almost magically as one of South Africa’s most influential poets. The Afrikaans language was a slangy variant of Dutch, still fresh and unrecognized in those days, and Eugène Marais with his lyric poems seems to have done for it something of what (in a much grander way) Dante did for Italian. He showed that it was supple enough, beautiful enough, to hold art. His poem “Winter Nag” has been called the heraldic beginning of the new Afrikaans movement in literature. Today in South Africa he is chiefly known, despite the two visionary books on animal behavior, as an Afrikaans poet.

Naturally, after a few years of lawyering he was bored and disgusted. Metamorphosis number three: He retired to a remote gorge in the mountainous Waterberg district, built himself a hut, and lived there for three years in the company of a large troop of chacma baboons.

Long afterward he described that baboony time in a letter: “I followed them on their daily excursions; slept among them; fed them night and morning on mealies; learned to know each one individually; taught them to trust and to love me—and also to hate me so vehemently that my life was several times in danger. So uncertain was their affection that I had always to go armed, with a Mauser automatic under the left armpit like the American gangster! But I learned the innermost secrets of their lives.” Those behavioral observations, and the innermost baboon secrets Marais felt he had deduced, became the basis for a book which he hoped would be his masterpiece, but which he never finished. A partial manuscript was finally published as The Soul of the Ape—though not until 1969, and then only through the help of the late Robert Ardrey, whose own African Genesis had been dedicated to Marais.

Marais harbored a high-flown opinion of the ideas in his baboon manuscript: “I have an entirely new explanation of the so-called subconscious mind and the reason for its survival in man. I think I can prove that Freud’s entire conception is based on a fabric of fallacy.” The kernel of his argument is that the human unconscious, as discovered and described by Freud, is nothing other than the older and more basic conscious mentality of prehuman primates, which has been pushed into the psychological background, but not eliminated, by the newly evolved human consciousness. In other words, the human unconscious is identical with—in Marais’s choice of phrase, meant literally—the soul of the ape. It’s a proposition that, to say the least, has few followers among modern psychologists.

The baboon watch ended when Marais’s recurrent malaria and his morphine habit (possibly also loneliness) drove him back again to Pretoria. But throughout his three years among the baboons and perhaps (the tapestry of known fact is at this point especially threadbare) for seven years thereafter, Marais was, in addition to all else, a passionate student of termites. He spent long hours watching them. He performed experiments. He traveled to inspect unusual termitaries. He scratched his head and speculated. How, in a parched countryside, do millions of termites satisfy their constant need for water? Why do they grow fungus and gather hay? How does the queen get from one royal chamber to another, given that she’s too large to fit through the door, incapable of moving herself, and seemingly too heavy to be lifted? For these mysteries and others, Marais found solutions—some right, some wrong but plausible, some cockamamie. Above all he posed and answered the question, What manner of thing is a termitary? It is an organism, he said; a single living animal.

The life of a termitary begins with the nuptial flight, when a winged male and a winged female—each dispersed from an existing termitary—meet and mate and dig a small nest for their offspring. This founding pair, from which all the millions of other individuals will be directly descended, are in Marais’s view the “generative organs” of the termitary. The king remains small while the queen grows hugely distended and is before long laying 50,000 eggs every twenty-four hours. The offspring are mainly wingless and asexual, divided into worker and soldier castes; these workers and soldiers, according to Marais, constitute respectively the red and white corpuscles of the bloodstream. Deep within the termitary, fungus gardens serve as stomach and liver, wherein vegetable food from outside is left to be decomposed by fungi before the termites themselves eat it. And meanwhile the queen in her hardened chamber, giving off a pheromonic essence that inspires purpose and cohesiveness among all the population, is (besides being the ovary—Marais’s theory is not without some wooliness) the brain. Kill the queen and, true enough, the entire termitary dies.

Marais concluded: “The termitary is a separate composite animal at a certain stage of development, and lack of automobility alone differentiates it from other such animals.” It is, he added, “an example of the method in which composite and highly developed animals like the mammals came into being.” That is, in the deep past, at some simpler phase of their evolutionary history, by amalgamation. This is his personal argument, remember, not mammalian or termite phylogeny as presented by more reliable authorities.

Marais’s termite studies appeared, beginning in 1923, as a series of short articles in various Afrikaans newspapers and in a magazine called Die Huisgenoot. A final and definitive article was published by Die Huisgenoot in 1925. Written in Afrikaans, it would have been intelligible only to Boers, Dutchmen, and anyone who spoke a version of Dutch, such as Flemings.

Maurice Maeterlinck, an eminent European playwright and Nobel Prize winner, happened to be a Fleming. Evidently he saw the 1925 article. The following year Maeterlinck published a book titled The Life of the White Ant, expropriating the detailed observations of Eugène Marais, and his terminology, and his theory about termite amalgamation. The book was a success. Marais got no acknowledgment. He hadn’t the money to press a lawsuit.

Downward spirals of morphine, self-pity, anger, depression. Nine years passed, and then a woman in London, Winifred de Kok, began translating Marais’s own termite pieces into English for their eventual publication as The Soul of the White Ant. She corresponded with Marais, and the letters to her tell us most of what we know about his inner life. He seemed to take new hope. He seemed buoyant for the first time in years. He was finally to have vindication. In one letter he wrote: “You see that your kindly enthusiasm has infected me!…The thought of reaching a bigger public intrigues me.”

Five months later he put a shotgun to his head and fired.

What are we to make of such a man, such a life, such a set of lives? Robert Ardrey has called him “the purest genius that the natural sciences have seen in this century.” Well, no. The works left behind by Eugène Marais don’t begin to support that claim. What, then?

As a newspaperman, he ruined himself by excessive and caustic candor.

As a lawyer, he was a good poet, or at least an influential one. As a poet, he was not Wallace Stevens. I once spent a day in the New York Public Library with several scarce old collections of his poems, and the stuff seemed to me pretty terrible. Maybe it was the translations. Maybe not.

As a descriptive naturalist, he was, at his best, wonderful. But even The Soul of the White Ant is a badly flawed book, with patches of metaphysical gobbledegook and lame guesses and non sequiturs mixed in among the wonders.

As a theorist of insect and primate evolution, he was, I think, more than a little brilliant and more than a little nuts.

So what’s the bottom line? There is none. It’s a reductive concept, bottom line, and Eugène Marais—less even than most humans—just can’t be thus reduced. He does not lend himself to categorization, easy dismissal, unreserved adulation, or summary assessment of any sort.

Except maybe this. As an amalgamation of many individual lives, that polymorphic phenomenon to which adhered the name Eugène Marais was one exotically complex jellyfish. He was a man of parts. But he was something much more than the sum of them.