A NAKED JUNGLE: Antsy On The Amazon

“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….

Tatsuya Morino. Empire of the Ants. H.G. Wells. "Speaking of ants, Wells portrayed conflicts between intelligent species in which there is no attempt to communicate at all. In The Empire of the Ants (1905) an Amazonian village is overwhelmed by a new sort of ant, and evidently an intelligent sort. When they move in the open the ants are in ‘spaced-out lines, oddly suggestive of the rushes of modern infantry advancing under fire’. But there is no attempt at communication. The ants simply overwhelm humans: ‘Their action has been a steady progressive settlement, involving the flight and slaughter of every human being in the new areas they invade.’ And on our side, ‘The Brazilian Government is well advised in offering a prize of five hundred pounds for some effectual method of extirpation’."

…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.

Stephen Baxter: Wells, the fifty-year-old human being appalled by the Great War, longed for peace between humans. But five years later he was still the Darwinian thinker who appeared to believe that peace was impossible between species, and that their competition must result in the extermination of one side or another, without hope of mediation by intelligence.

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 smas

down her door only to be treated to her mild reply that it’s never been locked….

"...If you know what I mean. I’m interested partly in the way this kind of narrative problem “troubles boundaries,” to use that old cliché, and especially in the way it does so by staging Charlton Heston’s personal investment in those boundaries. If “gender” de-stabilizes “colonialism,” it does so only because the myth of the white woman occupies a peculiar and powerful place in Heston’s mind; when she isn’t only a virgin he is flabbergasted, and when she isn’t only a whore, he’s crushed. When she’s a woman, in other words, instead of a myth, he has nothing to say."

…”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….

"And the last major characteristic that was apparent was that Leiningen was a sexist man. 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. "

…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.

"...and one suspects that the anonymous author had read Carl Stephenson short story "Leiningen Versus the Ants" not too long before. In this version of the story, Hugo Von Mohl is a rubber plantation owner in Africa, cruel to his workers, ruthless to his competitors. Then a sudden attack of the dreaded red ants threatens the area, and Von Mohl insists on staying behind to fight them any way he can, which involves a lot of blowing things up, shooting things and burning things. In the end, well, you'll see, not quite the ending Leiningen got. Lovely work by Ditko in this one, especially the close-ups of the ants, and some of the lush jungle scenes. And Von Mohl, with his scars and moustache and monacle, is a great looking Ditko character, a shame he'd never appear again, but we'd see his kind later. "

…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. ….

"This was one cool ass movie!! First off this movie if you didn’t know is based on the H.G. Wells novel Empire of The Ants which adds even more authenticity to its pop culture fame. The movie starred Joan Collins, Robert Lansing, John Carson and was directed by Bert I. Gordon. In the movie Joan Collins is a scandalous bitch of a scam artist and is trying to sell phony real estate deals in the Florida everglades not caring about whose lives she destroys along the way. As the movie progresses Joan Collins and her potential buyers come to realize the area has been taken over by giant mind controlling Ants. "

…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 )

"There is a growing anxiety among Chinese college students that, upon graduation, they will be unable to find high-paying jobs and find themselves unable to escape the ranks of the "ant tribe," a term used to describe a new class of Chinese youth. They are called this because they are industrious like ants and they live in crowded conditions. "If you choose to stay in Beijing after graduation, and say, you earn 4,000 to 5,000 yuan every month and buy a house inside the sixth ring road by getting a mortgage, you may end up paying off your loans in your 50s, meaning that you have to suffer being a mortgage slave for 30 years," an undergraduate from Beijing Jiaotong University discussed with his schoolmates. He is worried that he may not be able to afford a house after graduation and hence, become a member of the "ant tribe," because of soaring housing prices."

“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.

"----In The Naked Jungle, then, ants are exactly the unthinkable horror that Mau Mau was taken to be, a perverse and grotesque caricature of development which not only rejects development, but does so by using the very technologies of development to attack it. The ants organize themselves, moving in unison and with an implacable intention to destroy directed against the (newly) feminized domestic sphere of the plantation, and seem to emerge from the jungle in response to Heston’s efforts to create domestic spaces. In a sense, neither Roosevelt nor Dineson had to ever imagine such a thing happening in Kenya; Roosevelt “loved the great game” by shooting it while Dineson pastoral dream was of pulling the thorns out of the feet of metaphorical lions so they could lie down with lambs. For both, the animals loved them back. Yet, in another sense, I suspect these vigorous attempts to imagine pastoral bliss are motivated by a desire to dis-imagine the very contradictions of colonialism which Mau Mau both mediated and made immediate: what happens when Africans turn out to be human? The same thing as when a wife you’ve purchased turns out to have desire of her own. You freak out, and change the subject. “Look! A million billion ants!”----

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.

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