In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940), the English writer W. H. Auden reflects, “About suffering they were never wrong/ The Old Masters.” The work which prompted this reflection was the paintingLandscape with the Fall of Icarus by the sixteenth century Flemish master Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. Bruegel’s painting, and by extension, Auden’s poem, were themselves contemplations on the ancient myth of the flight and fall of Icarus and its relevance to contemporary life, especially the myth’s inherent meaning, which translates (outwardly different but inwardly intact) across the ages about human aspirations and their inevitable failure. The insights that the myths offered, and which the old masters interpreted, remain basically true today—if one has the intelligence to perceive them and the artistry to express them. The same process of perception and expression is quietly, minutely, and triumphantly at work in Zbigniew Herbert’s The King of the Ants.
As spiritual and intellectual leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland and eastern Europe, Zbigniew Herbert used the themes and characters of classical mythology to comment on current events in a pointed but oblique fashion, both evading the censorship of a totalitarian regime and emphasizing the timeless and universal aspects of his writings. Although set in the landscape of myth—the islands of the Mediterranean, the halls of Olympus, the planes of windy Troy—his characters and their actions have immediate relevance to the personalities and events of postwar Europe, especially that period during the 1970’s and 1980’s when the facade of Communist Party power first weakened, then crumbled.
In such a fashion, the book’s opening piece, “Securitas,” is ostensibly about a new deity introduced during the early days of the Roman Empire to safeguard the emperor and the realm. The particular nature of the goddess Securitas was that she was pervasive but unknown; by avoiding publicity and even public worship, she became all the more powerful and interwoven into the affairs of Roman daily life. Her most seductive attribute was that she appealed to those who preferred necessity, however harsh, to the dangers of freedom. She had become a monster with a human face. Read figuratively, this tale about a fictitious Roman goddess tells the terrible truth about life under a totalitarian regime, where “security” is a code name for repression and “safety of the state” an all-purpose rationale for any action (however illegal, degrading, or inhuman) the authorities believe necessary. However, Herbert adds yet another level of meaning to his short piece by suggesting that Securitas finds a home not only in the lands ruled by communist dictatorships but in more ostensibly free nations as well, where she offers relief from the unsettling difficulties of liberty and the daily uncertainties of life. Herbert notes that the enigmatic goddess Securitas is the natural patroness of all those who seek life without struggle.
As can be seen in the varying layers of meaning in “Securitas,” the pieces in The King of the Ants are far from simplistic moral tales with a single, self- evident message. Rather, they are brief, highly intricate works that carry multiple meanings often with apparent contradictions that force the reader into deeper and more thoughtful consideration of the pieces. The book’s title piece is exactly such a story.
Ajax, son of Zeus and Aegina, a river god’s daughter, grows up on a deserted island in the Aegean, which he names after his mother. Solitary and a king without subjects, Ajax prays for a people to rule, promising to be a good and understanding monarch to them. His father Zeus transforms the ants of Aegina into a race of people Ajax names Myrmidons—“the people of the ants.” At first, Ajax is delighted. Then he notices that his subjects, though hard-working, obedient, and unfailingly loyal, are stubbornly resistant to ideas of progress, material prosperity, or intellectual adventure. He tries without success to tempt them through exposure to the material goods of merchants and the abstract ideas of philosophers. The Myrmidons reject both—if, in fact, they even comprehend them—and are content with their hard if simple lives, their underground cities without architecture, and their communal existence. As a result, they have no sense of progress but they do have a great sense of security brought about by perpetual full employment.
So far, the Myrmidons seem another simple reflection of life in a totalitarian country,...
(The entire section is 1870 words.)