Threepenny Review, Spring Issue 2017
Saving Faye’s Home
One afternoon last summer I found myself finally alone on the island of Aegina. My friend Faye had lent me her place for the weekend and I’d gone there to do some writing. The home had been built in the late 1800s, with an ochre-red exterior, high ceilings with moldings, a chandelier, lovely pink marble floors, and large expansive doorways. In the garden grew forty or fifty pistachio trees, yielding two tons of premium pistachios per season. Which was why a small bowl of uncooked and very soft pink-green pistachios, filched from a huge burlap sack, sat next to my laptop, ready for the sort of absent-minded consumption that usually accompanies my efforts to put words together.
Staring out at the sheer blue sea from the veranda, I noticed a strange dance unfolding before me. A dozen or more snails were stuck like pegs to the wall, while three or four salamander lizards zipped with frenzy around them, looking for entry to their soft flesh. To complete the Nat Geo picture, an army of ants was coming and going in and out of a crack at the bottom corner, oblivious to the drums of war above.
Faye’s home had always been rife with life, and on any given day you’d find alfalfa and copper butterflies, enormous lunar moths, bumblebees thick as a man’s thumb, all sorts of flies, and emerald-green praying mantises. Which was why bread, cookies, and honey were placed inside special cages with very fine netting, and hung high.
The ants on Faye’s wall now seemed to be multiplying in number and pushing deeper and deeper into the wall. Since Faye had been kind enough to lend the home to me, no strings attached, I thought I should do my best to protect her place, keep it clean, and certainly prevent any threat to its internal structure. Yet perhaps because I had just sat down to write, or because nature was so abundantly present, one of those ridiculous ethical considerations about killing ants caused me to pause.
O. Wilson wrote that a single ant, without any company, shouldn’t really be considered as having an independent mind. The ant has only a few neurons, joined together by tiny fibers—this insect is more like ganglia on legs. Five or ten ants surrounding a dead butterfly on a path begin to resemble an idea. They fall and push each other and try and transport the massive butterfly to their nest, but it often seems as if they are moving randomly, without direction. Only when you see hundreds and hundreds of ants together can you begin to see the whole as a thinking being that plans and prepares. Thousands of ants together are like a computer made up of small crawling pieces for a brain, controlled by their own built-in wi-fi.
Knowing, then, that a single ant on its own had no consciousness, I told myself that the death of each ant separately should not enter into some sort of moral consideration. But what about hundreds and hundreds of them? Was there some sort of dialectic that excused one death but had no pity for those of us bent on mass destruction? Yet the only way to prevent their activity was to get rid of the whole lot of them.
In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a character asks: Would we choose the death of one person, if it would save the lives of thousands? These sorts of dilemmas play themselves out endlessly on post 9/11 shows like 24, where Kiefer Sutherland is obliged—with tacit viewer consent—to hit, torture, maim, or kill in order to discover where that damn terrorist nuclear bomb is hidden. The glib post-millennial TV viewer vote on killing terrorists is a resounding “yes.” But is that the ethically correct answer in the so-called real world? On the other hand, what if the wall suddenly collapsed on Faye and her friends while they were having dinner one night? Faye herself taught philosophy at the University of Athens, and I was of a mind to call her up for moral support. But then I recalled Plutarch’s Lives (a copy of which was in Faye’s living-room library), where Admiral Menas asks General Sextus if he shouldn’t solve all his problems and kill the latter’s foes in one fell swoop while they are gathered conveniently on board his flagship. Sextus replies that the killings could have been done without being his being asked, but since he is a man of honor, he must refuse the request.
The answer was clear: the ants had to be sacrificed for Faye’s safety, without involving Faye in any way, shape, or fashion. The burden was all mine.
I went to the kitchen and brought out the insecticide, called Baygon (probably some marketeer’s wordplay on the term begone). With one simple depression of the tab, I’d be able to commit mass extinction. Which I did. I sprayed slowly, up and down the wall and into the offending cracks, but took care to avoid collateral damage, meaning that I kept the kingdom of the salamanders and the snails spray-free. I felt a sick satisfaction and great power when the ants started to drop from the wall and fell to the floor. In a few minutes the place was littered with tiny black carcasses like goat manure. I swept them into the garbage can. I was certain they had felt little pain, but nonetheless a sense of guilt lingered.
I found some small feeling of redemption when one of the energetic salamanders on the wall caught a lazy fly and digested it in a second, without hesitation.