“Dese ants,” said Gerilleau, after collecting information at a rancho,
“have big eyes. They don’t run about blind–not as most ants do. No! Dey
get in corners and watch what you do.”
“And they sting?” asked Holroyd.
“Yes. Dey sting. Dere is poison in the sting.” He meditated. “I do not see
what men can do against ants. Dey come and go.”
“But these don’t go.”
“They will,” said Gerilleau….
…It was the inhuman immensity of this land that astonished and oppressed him. He knew the skies were empty of men, the stars were specks in an incredible vastness of space; he knew the ocean was enormous and untamable, but in England he had come to think of the land as man’s. In England it is indeed man’s, the wild things live by sufferance, grow on lease, everywhere the roads, the fences, and absolute security runs. In an atlas, too, the land is man’s, and all coloured to show his claim to it– in vivid contrast to the universal independent blueness of the sea. He had taken it for granted that a day would come when everywhere about the earth, plough and culture, light tramways and good roads, an ordered security, would prevail. But now, he doubted. ( H.G. Wells, Empire of the Ants, 1905 )
Should we be rooting for the ants? In The Naked Jungle (1954 ), ostensibly set in the Amazon, the colonial tropes line up perfectly: white aligns with cleanliness, while the dark natives are filthy and smell. The jungle is a place of primeval chaos, but Charlton Heston has made himself into “more than a king” by tearing a plantation from the earth, building a dam and thereby, almost literally creating land where before there was none, in a narrative that bears recognition to a return to Zion where a garden is fashioned from the desert, and a woman from the rib of Adam…As Leiningen ( Heston ) puts it: “Go ten miles in any direction from here and it’s civilized. Go ten paces past where I stopped and its the bush. It’s the living jungle, where no man has a name, and the only law is to stay alive.” And though he alludes to the always feared prospect of going native, noting carefully that when he was starting out, he had “nearly forgot the English language” — you wouldn’t know it to hear his sonorous voice, nor would you guess it from the verve with which he plays colonial gentleman in the Amazon. Instead of surrounding his house with skulls on fenceposts, he has built a Victorian mansion, and drawn firm lines.
He likes the firmness of these lines, and the movie’s narrative initially seems to takes its shape from them. But the simple plot of white man against swarthy dark invaders gets more complex when gender is introduced: having long been in need of a wife -for children, for serving coffee, and for playing the piano-, he imports one, getting a friend of a friend of a friend’s sister shipped out to him. And at first, even this bourgeois desire matches up neatly with the rest of the colonial tropes, for just as he’s ripped a plantation from the virgin jungle, so too does he plan to tear a wife out of this virgin woman he’s purchased. ( Zunguz )
First, when the mail-order bride arrives, it turns out she’s a widow, and his anger that she’s been with another man is second only to his rage that he suddenly finds himself occupying the place of the innocent. “If you knew more about music,” she says, “You’d know that a good piano is better when it’s been played.” And after a marvelous shot where two whiskey glasses objectify the moment’s sexual tension, he drunkenly smasdown her door only to be treated to her mild reply that it’s never been locked….
…”In about two hours, all the nests of Formicae were rifled, though not completely, of their contents, and I turned towards the army
of Ecitons, which were carrying away the mutilated remains….The armies never march far on a beaten path, but seem to prefer the entangled thickets where it is seldom possible to follow them. I have traced an army sometimes for half a mile or more, but was never able to find one that had finished its day’s course and returned to its hive. Indeed, I never met with a hive; whenever the Ecitons were seen, they were always on the march.” ( Henry Walter Bates )
I thought one day, at Villa Nova, that I had come upon a migratory horde of this indefatigable ant…. All soft-bodied and inactive insects fall an easy prey to them, and, like other Ecitons, they tear their victims in pieces for facility of carriage….
…In the Carl Stephenson story, “Leiningen and the Ants”, Leiningen has shown himself as an extremely over confident person, the archetypical ugly American, arrogant and self-deluded. From the time he was aware of the impending danger of the ants, to when he was almost willing to give it all up he still believed that he could conquer them. This is shown on the very first page of the story where Leiningen says “Decent of you, paddling all this way just to give me the tip. But you’re pulling my leg of course when you say I must do a bunk. Why, even a herd of saurians couldn’t drive me from this plantation of mine.” A second sign of his over confidence is when he reverts to the sexism of the knight defending white patriarchism; in the beginning of the story he stated, “Act of God, my eye! Anyway, I’m not an old woman; I’m not going to run for it just because an elemental’s on the way.” And he later said, “Critical situations first become crises, when oxen or women get excited.” These two statements show that Leiningen thinks of himself to be more important that any woman or beast. He believes that he is helping the situation by sending the oxen and women away, but by today’s standards he is being sexist by degrading women with his remarks, and excluding them from the fight where they could have been very useful.
…It has been said that the real owners of the Amazon valley are its ants, and the masters among the ants must certainly be the Ecitons- the foraging , or soldier ants. When their formidable armies start to march, every living creature must remove itself from their path. The Ecitons will attack anything they encounter, regardless of its size, and naturalists attempting to study them have described their aggressive tactics from personal experience….
There is an unassailable, post-modern fascination with the Ants as a European fantasy of the modernized colonial subject, gone horribly wrong, the fantasy which transformed Rousseau’s noble savage into a dark Frankenstein or aborginial vampires. To wit; Europeans have come to the jungle to make things better by organization and development, but sometimes the natives actually respond to development by getting worse, becoming more savage. The fault is clearly not Heston’s in “The Naked Jungle”; when the ants come, his men flock to him and stay -because he’s a good master-, and he stands and fights because of his people. As he puts it, “Fifteen years ago they were savages. I took them out of the jungle. If I leave now, they’ll go back. That’ll be the end of civilization on the Rio Negro.” He plays the enlightened European, uses science against the ants ,studying them under a magnifying glass, and uses his ability to dam the water and release it as his major tactical advantage, to ultimate victory , sigh, of course. ….
…The ants will climb up an intruder with surprising speed and fasten their powerful jaws in their flesh; then, using this grip as a fulcrum, they will double their bodies around and sting them with their tales. They are merciless to other insects and will not hesitate to plunder the nests of wasps or to overwhelm colonies of viscious fire ants. Henry Wallace Bates classified ten different species of this insect, eight of them new to science and all of them differing amazingly in their habits. Some, quite blind, would carry out their depredations through long tunnels just beneath the surface of the earth. Others would climb into the forest canopy. Their only common characteristics were utter greed and immaculate organization, as is shown by Bates’s description of a raid on the home of another kind of ant, the large but harmless Formica:
“They were eagerly occupied on the face of an inclined bank of light earth, in excavating mines, whence, from a depth of eight or ten inches, they were extracting the bodies of a bulky species of ant, of the genus Formica. It was curious to see them crowding around the orifices of the mines, some assisting their comrades to lift out the bodies of the Formicae, and others tearing them in pieces, on
account of their weight being too great for a single Eciton– a number of carriers seizing each a fragment, and carrying it off down the slope. On digging into the earth with a small trowel near the entrances of the mines, I found the nests of the Formicae, with grubs and cocoons, which the Ecitons were thus invading, at a depth of about eight inches from the surface. The eager freebooters rushed in as fast as I excavated, and seized the ants in my fingers as I picked them out, so that I had some difficulty in rescuing a few intact for specimens. In digging the numerous mines to get at their prey, the little Ecitons seemed to be divided into parties, one set excavating, and another set carrying away the grains of earth. When the shafts became rather deep, the mining parties had to climb up the sides each time they wished to cast out a pellet of earth; but their work was lightened for them by comrades, who stationed themselves at the mouth of the shaft, and relieved them of their burthens, carrying the particles, with an appearance of foresight which quite staggered me, a sufficient distance from the edge of the hole to prevent them from rolling in again….” ( Bates )
“The Naked Jungle”, Stephenson’s story, and the original H.G. Wells’s “Empire of the Ants” is a context inspecific version of a white colonialism and imperialism narrative; an explicit presence, instead of merely implied. And if Ernest Hemingway is the other side of that coin, ridiculously excessive, hair on the chest masculinity through shooting Africans , it’s only because he read Teddy Roosevelt carefully.
It stems from fantasies of African savagery, and why ants are the appropriate animal metaphor,since they are organized in their way of opposing development in the manner it is imposed on them. People like David Livingstone could afford the luxury of not knowing any better, so they imagined that Africans lived in some version of Rousseauvian anti-development, a tribal life that was close to nature in the sense that development was an absence, and one which, it was implied, “development” would naturally disrupt.
By 1954, such an illusion was no longer available, and nature now signified not the absence of development, but the two possible paths a permanently de-humanized portion of the human race could take: the path of the domesticated animal or the path of the wild animal. While the former could be taken in and allowed to serve – wild animals were those who could never be trusted with development, and who had therefore to be “conserved” in wild places set apart for them.
The effect, in other words, is to displace all the fears and anxieties of the first part of the film onto the people themselves, humanizing the loyalists while animalizing the dissenters. It’s an example, in other words, of how you “Mau Mau” a peasant revolt: to foreclose the possibility that people’s discontent stems from being exploited and denied the fruits of modernization, you imagine that they are angry at the very prospect of modernity itself, that they have chosen, irrationally, to attack rationality. Offered the choice of becoming happy modern subjects, with schools and churches and stuff, these ungrateful savages instead turn to violence and cannibalism and mindless violence (usually under the influence of an authoritarian leader) thereby allowing the good Western liberal to cluck his tongue and reluctantly put his assent to massive campaigns of violence.
This is not dissimilar to the way the war on terror has been conducted – I would note, parenthetically – and while Al-Quaeda is certainly not the equivalent of the Land and Freedom Army in Kenya, the narrative strategy taken by the West to the both of them is similar enough to warrant the comparison. In Kenya, there were good Africans and bad ones. And today, as Mahmood Mamdani puts it, there are two possible images the West can have of Islam: “Good Muslims” who have become secular and modern and “Bad Muslims” who have chosen not to.