Ants and Hospitality

Helena Duffy is a Collegium Researcher at TIAS and the Department of Literary Studies

I have been invaded, I am under siege. There was one of them first. A fast-moving, black spot on the kitchen counter. Then two, three, twenty, three hundred. Moving forward, swaying lines. The man from the management company looking after the terrace where I live tells me that it’s a very Finnish problem. “Every other rivitalo has ants”, he says. My landlady (a biologist) recommends a “product”, just as if it were a shampoo that was to give my hair more volume and shine. In “Prisma”, I locate a shelf full of ant “products”, which, as I later read on the internet, kill the ants by acting on their nervous system. I imagine a Novichok agent-type poison and an ant dying in terrible agony. No. I buy vinegar, a cheap packet of coffee, washing soda and a big packet of salt. I locate lavender and pepper mint in the set of sauna oils. With these scents, I will tell the ants they are unwelcome; they will understand and go. As simple as that. But they don’t listen or can’t hear.

What to do? I talk to mum, of course, but I don’t get the answer I need (“you need to learn to coexist with the ants”). I wish I could go and see a rabbi. But what if he tells me to poison the ants? Or, worse still, what if he tells me that I have to take the decision myself and then live with it for the rest of my life. For lack of a real one, I conjure up an imaginary rabbi and go through various arguments. Ok. It is my house, you (the ants) have come in uninvited, I have the right to defend myself. Then the ants’ defending barrister gets to her feet and asks me where is my unconditional Derridean hospitality about which I so eloquently and passionately write in my work. Changing her tone, she says that the terrace had been built in the woods, ants’ legitimate territory. So I am the intruder, not them. No, no, no. The house has been here for thirty years, so I am the legitimate tenant. Human law clearly doesn’t work here. God’s law? Moral law?

Or should I look for an answer in philosophy and literature, my familiar stomping ground? I don’t have far to travel. The Jewish mother of Hélène Cixous, on whose book, The Day I Wasn’t There (2000), I have been working recently, fumigates her clinic with a German product which “killed all the pests”, but which, surprisingly, was banned after the war. Her daughter says: “One cannot kill what one can see”. I can see the ants all right. So what? I serve them the Novichok agent-type “product” in a bait, they crawl away and die out of my sight, and the next day no ants in my kettle, dishwasher, honey, sugar, oven, fridge, butter, yoghurt, bread bin, dustbin. Or perhaps, to rephrase Cixous following Levinas, “You cannot kill the one whose face you can see and whom you can look in the eye.”

It’s widely known that Levinas didn’t care for animals, let alone ants. Ok, there is Bobby, but the stray dog greeting Jewish POWs with cheerful barking and tail wagging interests the philosopher only insofar as the dog recognises a human in him. Despite Levinas’s pledge to rescue Bobby from the slavery of symbolism, Levinas enslaves him as a sign of his own humanness. And so Bobby floats out of the camp and out of the narrative, his lot a matter of indifference to the philosopher. At least you can look the dog in the eye. Have a face-to-face with the dog (but not with a snake, according to Levinas, for whom the snake simply doesn’t have a face). But an ant? Where is the border between what deserves to live and what deserves no moral consideration? Size? Intelligence? Colour? Shape of the skull? And who am I, in any case, to install this border, shift it, erase it?

Agamben: zoe (the naked life) and bios (life in the polis). Is the ant the naked, mere life that knows no culture, law, morality, language, writing, philosophy, Bach and Goethe? And therefore can be killed with impunity? Does the ant not have its own polis that is perhaps even more sophisticated and complex than mine? Or is the ant, like me, the naked life that merits respect. My situation is the reification of Cixous’s dream about her house being invaded by all sorts of needy creatures. Shoo, go away. I need to work, write, live, eat, sleep, all undisturbed. I have a small child. Etc. There are no answers to my questions, at least I cannot find them in the quagmire of relativism into which I have got myself. If I have no law or religion, I should perhaps be true to my work and to what I preach. And I preach hospitality.

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One Response to Ants and Hospitality

  1. Anna says:

    Ants ? I like them.

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