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Maeterlinck, Maurice - And the controversy over La Vie des Termites



Type of Spiritual Experience


I have hedged my bets and said one option is simple inter composer communication, but the two had never met and no bridge that I know of existed, so in reality, this is actually the less likely mechanism.

The more likely mechanism is simple inspiration - access to spiritual data stores.


A description of the experience

In 1926 Maeterlinck published La Vie des Termites (translated into English as The Life of Termites or The Life of White Ants), an entomological book.

Since the time of its publication he has been accused of plagiarising  the book The Soul of the (White) Ant, researched and written by the Afrikaner poet and scientist Eugene Marais.  But I don’t think he deliberately did.  Why should he?  Plagiarism is easily spotted so why do it, especially when you are as well known and respected as Maeterlinck.  I think he inadvertently tapped into the spiritual world where Marais’s ideas were.

Marais had published his ideas on the termite in the South African Afrikaans-language press, both in Die Burge  in January 1923 and in Huisgenoot, which featured a series of articles on termites under the title "Die Siel van die Mier" (The Soul of the (White) Ant) from 1925 to 1926.

Maeterlinck's book, with almost identical content, was published in 1926. So he wrote it at the same time as Marais, not after him.  It takes several months for a book to be published, often as much as a year.

Marais’s series of articles "Die Siel van die Mier" (Afrikaans "The Soul of the Ant") appeared in the Afrikaans magazine Die Huisgenoot, not a French or Dutch magazine.  Marais wrote in a letter to Dr. Winifred de Kock in London about Maeterlinck that

"The famous author had paid me the left-handed compliment of cribbing the most important part of my work... He clearly desired his readers to infer that he had arrived at certain of my theories (the result of ten years of hard labour in the veld) by his own unaided reason, although he admits that he never saw a termite in his life. You must understand that it was not merely plagiarism of the spirit of a thing, so to speak. He has copied page after page "

Maybe he did, but maybe he didn’t. Again, why would he do it?

Supported by a coterie of Afrikaner Nationalist friends, Marais sought justice through the South African press and attempted an international lawsuit. This was to prove financially impossible and the case was not pursued. However, Marais gained a measure of renown as the aggrieved party and as an Afrikaner researcher who had opened himself up to plagiarism because he published in Afrikaans out of nationalistic loyalty. Marais brooded at the time of the scandal:

 "I wonder whether Maeterlinck blushes when he reads such things [critical acclaim], and whether he gives a thought to the injustice he does to the unknown Boer worker?"

But Maeterlinck's own words in The Life of Termites indicate that there was something that worried him about the source of his material:

It would have been easy, in regard to every statement, to allow the text to bristle with footnotes and references. In some chapters there is not a sentence but would have clamoured for these; and the letterpress would have been swallowed up by vast masses of comment, like one of those dreadful books we hated so much at school. There is a short bibliography at the end of the volume which will no doubt serve the same purpose.

But maybe he couldn’t give a comment because he didn’t know where it all came from.

There is no reference to Eugene Marais in the bibliography. Maeterlinck's other works on entomology include The Glass Spider (1923) and The Life of the Ant (1930).

Marais' biographer, Leon Rousseau, speculated that Marais enjoyed and thrived on the controversy and attention generated by the controversy. He certainly gained a lot of publicity he would not otherwise have had.

The source of the experience

Maeterlinck, Maurice

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps