THE GLASS BEES
Does it seem possible for someone to make out the greater picture, the universe of a book, after reading only a few fragments from it? Which fragments should these be? The last or the beginning? Whatever the answer, I chose to use The Glass Bees as a testing ground. My idea was to hand out to my students excerpts from the last eight chapters of this book. I limited their “reading-at-first-sight” perspective to a maximum of two chapters and handed out different chapters to four groups of readers. The first task set: summarise the chapters after reading.
In doing this I meant for synthesis to precede analysis, for summarizing to precede indepth thinking.
Did it work? In the very beginning, the readers found the summarising rather challenging. Summarising a fragment from The Glass Bees is not an easy task. In the chapters chosen, the flood of memories washes out the happenings and events of the present and manages to carry characters and readers alike into a realm of implausibility. I made sure, though, to drop a key. It’s nothing more than a man waiting in the garden for a possible employer to finish interviewing him for a job, I told them. The interviewee, Richard, the mighty and mysterious interviewer, Zapparoni.
What is plausible, and what is implausible for you in the chapters you just read? was my second question. It’s not at all easy to discern what is real from what is artificially constructed in this superbly written novel. Cut-off ears, transparent glass bees, surveillance cameras hidden inside tiny, bee-like automatons, thorough descriptions of feelers quivering or delicate calyces are all confusing and charming the reader.
If you were to use this story for a movie, this movie would be… A science-fiction movie or a thriller with cut-off ears swimming in a bloody pond were the answers from some. For others the answer was silence. We have no problem understanding the words or the plot. The underlying meaning, however, eludes us, they concluded. Bees and glass bees – possibly a symbol for work or a working class… were some of the hypotheses, but the ideas seemed to stop there.
Let’s meditate on this for a while, shall we? I suggested. But what is the meaning for you, they insisted. I started then by laying out some reference points from the author’s life and the beginning chapters. Junger was a paradoxical personality, a brilliant military man and a renown entomologist. A man at times on a war path, carrying a gun while collecting rare flowers and bugs. The character in his book, Richard, is a man who knew and lived in two worlds: the “shining armour” time of his youth, when he was an atypical soldier in the midst of heroes and foes, and the present time of need – a kind of belated maturity, when he has to turn his weakness into strength, his defeatism into another kind of victory. The book witnesses the struggle within the character before he turns his weaknesses into the strength to be harnessed by the responsibilities and tasks of a certain type of work. This is where I stopped at the time.
I would like this blog to be a continuation of my own meditation on The Glass Bees. Give me a moment. I’ll be right back.
Alright. Thank you!
Two ages are facing each other in the two species of bees. Unlike their natural counterparts, the glass bees are perfect workers. Sexless, they need no sleep, no food, they can work without interruption. Their flight back to the hive which they never enter is a mere reminiscence of the “homecoming” instinct of most living creatures. This association is striking. All the more so, considering the fact that their glass, probe-like, tubular tongues collect almost all the pollen during one stop around a flower, leaving none, or close to none, for the rest of the bees. How generous is nature? we may ask. Can “its plan” accommodate the artificial, man-created automatic bees? Is the honey produced by them as good as the natural honey? Richard is asking himself similar questions. He mentions that “[b]ees are not just workers in a honey factory. Ignoring their self-sufficiency for a moment, their work – far beyond its tangible utility – plays an important part in the cosmic plan […]”
“As messengers of love, their duty is to pollinate, to fertilize the flowers,” he continues. (p.98)
What is man’s part in the cosmic plan? Is it to “push the developments of these automatons ahead […], manufacturing them in series,” in the manner of Zapparoni? (p. 104) Will man be superseded by his mechanised replica, by his automatic alter ego?
“I was like a man of a former civilization who stands at a traffic intersection” Richard finds himself thinking. (p. 105)
Just like “the first automobiles which made the horses shy,” the existence of the glass bees marks the beginning of change. “The horses sensed what was in store for them. Since then the world has changed.” (p. 34) At the moment when Richard discovers the glass bees, and later on the cut-off ears floating in the pond, he senses that the world has undergone yet another change. He senses all too well that he does not want to be a part of this changed world. He’d rather stick to his own defeatism, go home to his Teresa, and look for another job. When Zapparoni reveals to him the story behind the cut-off ears, and welcomes him aboard the new establishment as an arbiter of change, he reconsiders his options.
“I might now conclude my story as in those novels where one presses on to a happy ending.
Other principles hold good here. Today, only the person who no longer believes in a happy ending, only he who has consciously renounced it, is able to live. A happy century does not exist; but there are moments of happiness, and there is freedom in the moment. […]
Soon perhaps, I shall describe in detail the consequences which my position as an arbitrator involved, and my experiences within the Zapparoni’s domain. (Until now I had been only in the outer courts.) Only a person who does not know the force of destiny will assume that my evil star faded out. We do not escape our boundaries or our innermost being. We do not change. It is true we may be transformed, but we always walk within our boundaries, within the marked-off circle. […]
There were rooms into which I had never looked before, and there were also great temptations; until finally my evil star triumphed again. Who knows, however, if my evil star might not be my lucky star? Only the end will tell.
But that evening, driving back to the plant in the little underground train, I firmly believed that my bad luck was over. One of the cars which I admired that morning took me back to the city. Fortunately some shops were still open here and there; I could buy myself a new suit. For Teresa I bought a nice summer dress with red stripes, which reminded me of the one in which I had seen her for the first time. It fitted to perfection – I knew her measurements. She had shared many hours with me, mainly the bitter ones.
We went out for dinner; it was one of the day one never forgets. Quite soon the happenings at Zapparoni’s garden began to fade in my memory. There is much that is illusory in techniques. But I never forgot Teresa’s words, and her smile when she spoke. Now she was happy about me. This smile was more powerful than all the automatons – it was a ray of reality.” (last chapter, pp. 148-149)
Can this be made into a thriller, a horror, or a science-fiction movie?
To me it is “a ray of reality.” It is the book or the movie in which man is wandering through the convoluted maze of his thoughts and recollections while being confronted with the genius, the middle- and master-minds of the present. The fact that he finds his way back home does not exclude the possibilities of getting lost again in the future. However, there is a ray of light that pierces through defeat, loss and disappointment, and this is love. Whoever follows it is led on, safely, home.
In the darkness of today or tomorrow, one only has to follow the light.