Lamentations For The Ant That Crawls Over The Space Bar
“This axe,” says the lumberjack, “used to belong to my grandfather. Sure, I’ve replaced the head three times, and the handle twice, but it’s still his axe.”
Every time I press space, this ant gets jostled around. Every word is another bounce that he can’t comprehend. It’s doubtful he would even question it. This is the way the world is to him. But I like to think that he’ll head back to the nest eventually and go to sleep (I presume ants sleep, even if it’s just a power nap), and while asleep the tiniest sliver of that minuscule brain will try to interpret the day for him, try to reason the bounce of the space bar, and he’ll dream of the ocean. He’ll dream of the break of the waves as he leaves the shore, of the slow metronome roll from the swells of the deep. Maybe he’ll dream of an ocean so still it looks like glass. The ant, with his small size and tiny limbs barely denting the surface tension, would see water as a solid anyway. On such a clear sea he could walk across the whole world.
This is all but a dream, though, and a single ant could no more cross the ocean than I could walk to the moon. Not just out of physical impossibility, but because there is really no such thing as “an ant”, any more so than the liver is not a distinct being, separate from ourselves. The ant is legion—gestalt, even, a German word with the closest translation of “whole form”—a hive mind that exists as more than the sum of its parts. It exists to help the nest, the colony, to keep it alive and healthy, to help it survive. It wouldn’t, couldn’t, take that step out of sync with the rest, just as our liver wouldn’t, couldn’t, spontaneously decide to try being a lung instead.
There are some species of ants that are living, breathing, moving nests, never settling in one place. They cross jungle floors and savannah plains. They cross rivers. They bundle themselves up into a chain link formation and migrate en mass, walking across the water and using their own bodies as bridges against the current. Many will drown on the voyage, pushed under by the weight of their own kin walking across them. But we should not feel bad. This sacrifice is no more than the hairs pulled out by the hairbrush, the skin shed by the pumice stone, the replacement handle on the grandfather’s axe. We see victims on the news, read eulogies of a beloved celebrity and feel…what? We feel empathy, we feel humility, we feel the idea of our own mortality. And all without having to push them underwater to keep the nest going. Maybe that is the price of individuality.
Lament, then, for the ant, who lives as this gestalt. The ant is a Facebook profile, a twitter feed, linked by pheromones instead of fiber optics. Without its network it ceases to exist. And this is the ant’s purpose. It posts a status update in a chemical nugget, a Foursquare check-in for a potential new nest site, a Pinterest board of the best way to divide up a leaf, an Instagram photo of where the spilled drink has left a sugary stain on the floor. But this is where the similarity ends. The ant does not show others the sugary stain, filtered in shades of hipster sepia, to show off its unique and varied social life. The ant does not roam the statuses of other ants, flexing superior knowledge just that second learned from Wikipedia, vowing never to break that last (human) taboo of saying “I don’t know” (or even worse, “I was wrong”). The ant does not know #YOLO. The ant just shares with the perpetual gestalt, which is in turn, the ant itself.
The common ant lives for roughly a month. It will spend most of that life walking, searching, following, feeding information back to the colony through the social network. It will do all this, and then die, and then be replaced by another any who will pick up where the deceased left off. So, here we have the ant. No more an individual than the handle of the axe is the axe itself. And here we have the human, the sum of its parts and nothing more. The axe complete. We strive to be the best we can be, to live the American Dream and succeed off the sweat of our own brow. Help is for the weak, co-operation for the feeble. We let others know of this via Twitter, and then feel alienated and unfulfilled when it does not get retweeted around the globe. We are ants who once dreamed of being human.
Last year, we had an invasion of ants into our apartment. We’d see one or two along the walls or on the kitchen counter, and think nothing really of it. An ant on its own isn’t such a big deal. Then we’d come out in the morning and see a black patch on the floor, where a cat had puked up in the night. The patch would be writhing, squirming, dozens of ants crawling over the remnants of the hairball, like some kind of living stain. We’d try to track their path, try to follow them back, try to find out just where the fuck they’re coming from, because they seem to be phasing through the walls like the goddamn X-Men, but we never found out where they were getting in. We stopped up gaps in the walls with a combination of home remedies stolen from the Internet, filling the cracks in the sideboard with salt or Splenda (supposedly a ruthless ant killer, should the bloggers and Yahoo Answer posters of the world be trusted) or bunches of tissues soaked in lemon juice. We set traps filled with a mixture of honey and sugar, the ant equivalent of a Phishing e-mail, to pull them away from the real food. Still, they roamed the countertops and the bathroom floor. They’d disappear in between the fibers of the carpet. We’d vacuum the floor, and when we changed the bag we’d find them trapped in the filter, endlessly searching for the pheromone network they could never find, like someone waving their phone around reaching for a decent 4G signal in the middle of the desert.
Then they just stopped coming one day. Maybe they’d gotten all they could from us, maybe some other apartment somewhere else had a higher quality of discarded food, a good brand from Albertson’s rather than WalMart Great Value, and the ant social network had flocked to it like a trending hash tag, a new meme to spread and share. Once in a while we’ll see one, like this one wandering over the keyboard. I like to think they’re driven here by some primordial memory from the colony, some kind of shadow left in the genetic code of their distant ancestors from that summer. A shadow that compels them to take a look at what once was, a brief moment of deja vu as the gestalt remembers the cat puke and lemon-soaked Kleenex and thinks “yeah, that time was good.”
Remember that ant colony that was down at the bottom of the yard when you were a kid? It’s the same old colony as it ever was. Sure, it’s had seventeen new queens and gone through a hundred million workers, but it’s still that colony. Still there, maybe with genetic hints of the time you went at them with a magnifying glass, a can of hairspray, or poured your soda over them all. Maybe, just maybe, the gestalt will flinch ever so slightly when it sees you.
Of course, such a reaction would be almost Pavlovian in nature. They flinch not because of psychological feelings of guilt or hostility, but to protect from what it knows is bad. Nothing more, nothing less. The human colony would take its armchair psychiatrist approach, musing from behind their screens and dispensing their opinion gleaned from Psych 101, or even from the merest skimread of Freud’s Wikipedia page. They may conclude that the nest’s flinch is due to unresolved tensions in the Phallic Stage, and that it should seek therapy to avoid flinching at the can of hairspray in the future.
One summer’s day in my youth, an ant once crawled into my drink, and when taking a sip I accidentally bit him in two. His top half fell back into the glass, and I watched him squirm and twitch while I spat out the broken chitin and the taste of formic acid. I think that was the first moment of individualism for him, cut off from the nest, from the pheromone trail that could lead him back to the gestalt, and he died alone, in pain, in the ocean he once dreamed of.