Sei Shonagon The Pillow Book, Penguin Classics, p. 69. (C. 11th Century CE.)
A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat. Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put into a new silver bowl. A rosary of rock crystal. Wistaria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow. A pretty child eating strawberries.
Aren’t these fantastic word pictures? Still, I am not sure I’ve got the hang of this enterprise I’ve set out to boldly go on [Hi, Trekkies!] I may have to ease into this ‘list’ mentality. As my body becomes more unreliable my brain runs ever faster, as if it must say everything before I stop being able to, without much regard for its importance. My brain must be emptied, like an attic full of stuff. Maybe it’s not all that surprising to those who know what the score is. My one typing hand can’t keep up with the thoughts that are flowing. Nearly every word as I type is missing a letter, or has a wrong one, but it doesn’t matter that much. That can be corrected afterwards, and built-in spelling tools do a remarkable job of cleaning up typos. 27 Jan 2011. About midnight. It’s been a warm one today, no doubt. Suddenly for the first time this season, the ants have been trekking into the house in large numbers. Into the kitchen, heading for the food, and into the bathroom, obviously after water. I don’t quite get it. Just two days of high temps and they’re on the warpath inside the house, for food and water? What happened to all of it outside, all of a sudden? Did the food and water just disappear? It’s not like it’s cooler in here. There are plenty of places outside that are in the cool shade and a pleasant breeze. Soxy knows that. The last place she wants to be is inside. Ants.... I like ants. Somehow they seem clean and neat, unlike flies and cockroaches. They work so dang hard and it all seems there’s no real purpose but just to increase their numbers. All work and no play, though – what’s that about? Surely they’re entitled to sit around after a hard day’s work with a cool nectar and some potato crisps and have a chat, even for an hour or so? Apparently not. Seems you’re supposed to think of the nest they’re part of as the living organism and not imagine the individual ants as separate entities. But I can’t quite manage that. I tap the bathroom sink and they start running like blazes back up the wall. Or some of them do – a few other ones go the other way and mess up the retreat. Or are they transmitting messages? But the more you tap on the sink, the more likely they are to find their way outside once more. Stop tapping and they think it’s OK to come back and start drinking again. Dummies! Can’t you see I’m trying to save your little individual lives? Others would just turn on the tap and swish you down the sink, or spray you with you-know-what. Or are humans just the same as you with their frantic lives? Not really. The ants are true socialists, I guess – each according to her needs, each job as valid as the next one, each programmed so no-one has to tell anyone what to do. They just do it. Like the cells that make up each living organism, most of it seems coded in. No need for an army or police to keep internal order – just the soldier ants to keep foreigners out. But humans don’t behave like ants. Not always, anyway. Perhaps not often enough!
And sometimes too often.
"Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:" (Proverbs 6:6-8). What great Biblical scholars Google and I make as a team! And I like the fact that it gets the worker ant's gender right.
Yet once, not that long ago, I saw this amazing thing. One of the great rivers of China was in flood. I can’t say for sure which, but probably the Yangtze. A young Chinese soldier was in the river, physically holding up part of a levee bank. He wouldn’t leave his post and slowly slipped under the water and drowned, his body supporting the timbers. This was a young man who presumably had no conviction about going to heaven as a reward for his supreme sacrifice. He just knew that if he and others like him didn’t stay at their posts, the rest of the community had less chance of survival.
That’s not a new thing in China, though it would have had great propaganda value, especially in the Maoist days of the early 1970s. No, it’s been expected of individuals to sacrifice themselves for the good of the community throughout Chinese history, particularly against the powers of the great rivers in flood. Can you imagine heroism like that? I find it hard to. Yet it happens. Most parents would do it to save their children. I know I would. But to sacrifice life to save something more nebulous, that’s another matter; although patriotism engenders it no doubt, in times of war. You know what soldier ants also do when a downpour threatens the nest? They make a circle round the hole and press their large heads into the space at the entrance, and block out the water. How did they learn to do that? Sometimes I think there’s a lot in Lamarckian evolutionary theory.... But let’s not get on to evolution right now, or we’ll really be stuck in the abyss.
No, you get LOST in the abyss and stuck in a morass. Make up your mind.... Back to ants and socialism. It seems to me that the one critical thing that Marx didn’t allow for in his hope for a utopian future was that it would be sabotaged constantly by pseudo-Marxists. The purists were never going to survive - not in a form with real power to change things for the benefit of humanity, though they try hard enough. The pragmatists always win.
Just like Christians have been guilty of sabotaging the message of Jesus, or Buddhists have done so with the words of the Buddha, or Muslims with the Qur'an and some Hindu nationalists with Hinduism, genuine religious and philosophical convictions have been perverted and transformed into something grotesque. They’ve been used and abused and changed to something their founders would not have recognised, nor I suspect would have approved of. People of genuine goodwill and conviction believing in the fundamental principles have been shamefully abused by those who are the power-brokers in the ideology or religion. They also can become part of the oppression, often unwittingly.
The soldiers can be turned on the workers if it suits the leaders – or turn upon political opponents.
Enough for now. The ants have sensed it’s better to be outside and have left the bathroom of their own accord. Or by some mysterious instruction encoded in their genes.
This is a keeper. And a thinking-about-one. Meanwhile, did Sei Shonagon include 'a white sportscoat and a pink carnation'?ReplyDelete
Seriously..thanks for reminding us of this wonderful book. As for the ants, I'll deal with them another time (soon) I hope! On a practical note, there are so many ants this summer that I have (sadly) even poisoned them in some places as they made standing/walking there extremely uncomfortable.Before you know it, they have swarmed into the shoes and up the legs, biting as they go!!