The Soul of the Ant

“die Siel van die Mier”

A performance by Josse De Pauw with Jan Kuijken & George Van Dam

A music-theatre production on termites and a man who studies their lives. A story of the order of insects and the chaos and passions of the human soul. A performance in which music and word live in symbiosis like the termites and protozoa.

AUTHOR David Van Reybrouck
MUSIC Jan Kuijken, George van Dam
PERFORMERS Josse De Pauw, Jan Kuijken, George van Dam
DESIGNER Herman Sorgeloos
DRAMATURGE Marianne van Kerkhoven


Josse De Pauw had for a long time wanted to make a performance with the musician-composers Jan Kuijken and George van Dam. It was quite by chance that he read Maurice Maeterlinck’s La vie des termites. Could this be a usable subject? George van Dam – who grew up in Namibia – replied that in this book Maeterlinck had plagiarised a great many insights and theories from the South African writer, poet, morphine addict and ape and ant expert Eugène Marais. Shortly afterwards an article about this plagiarism by a certain David van Reybrouck appeared in De Morgen, with the announcement that he was working on a book about it and was in this connection going on a trip/quest to South Africa. His book, De Plaag. Het stille knagen van schrijvers, termieten en Zuid-Afrika has in the meantime won the 2002 Debut Prize.

It was from this set of circumstances that the concept of the music-theatre production Die Siel van die Mier developed: Jan Kuijken and George van Dam will together compose the music and perform it live on stage; David Van Reybrouck is writing the script, which Josse De Pauw will perform and sing.
This is more or less the basis of the ‘distribution of tasks’; however, in practice this piece has arisen out of a ‘conversation’ between the four creators, which resulted in a construction like an anthill: a creation in which one can no longer determine who laid which stone. As far as its form is concerned, Die Siel van die Mier also refers to the structure of the anthill: termites build ‘from the inside out’, and their architecture is not concerned with what the construction looks like on the outside; what is more, their building is constantly in motion and under construction and may therefore assume unpredictable forms.

This method, applied to this theatrical project, has in the meantime led to the complete disappearance from view of Maeterlinck’s book and the issue of his plagiarism. As far as Eugène Marais is concerned, the title of the production was in any case taken from the book on the life of the ants which he wrote in 1934, and his own life – the talented and tormented personality whose ‘dark side’ started to dominate his life both as an artist and scientist – continues to be a source of inspiration. The South African setting also vanishes and is increasingly replaced by our ‘own’ colonial context and history in the Belgian Congo. However, the central metaphor of the anthill, as an image of the perfectly organised society, in which the individual sacrifices himself for the survival of the collective, still remains.

Die Siel van die Mier starts with a lesson taught by a professor of biology passionately involved in his subject; he develops an argument on the organisation of the anthill, the physiognomy of and distribution of tasks among the workers, soldiers, the king and the queen; the building of fungus gardens; the symbiosis between termites and protozoa; the annual spectacle of the ‘wedding’, and so on. However, this man’s scientific and personal passions gradually derail his rational and ordered exposition. Experiences and memories once again put us on the trail of his search for a different sort of truth, which may well ultimately be poetic in nature…

‘When the first light pierces inside, the winged creatures swarm out.
Ready for their short flight in the evening light.
Ready for life. Ready for their duty.
On peut pas les étouffer, on peut pas.’
David van Reybrouck