Story of the Ants
(from Dialogues of Gurdjieff, Vol. I, p.88), by Jan Cox
(La carte de chose: l’essence des choses)
Once there was a colony of ants. A group that went about the proper business of being ants. Nothing more, and nothing less. They dwelt not in the past, nor dreamed in the future. They engaged themselves not in ideological warfare with neighboring colonies, nor were there any personality conflicts among themselves. There were no discussions or debates regarding their individual duties; everyone had their own position and responsibilities, everyone had their place. All in all, everything was as it should be for a society of ants. Nothing more, and nothing less.
One fine day a band of scouts discovered a picnic table far from the colony’s home, and it was covered with such a bountiful array of foods that the colony could scarcely believe the story the returning scouts had to tell. Gossip of the newfound cache spread throughout the colony and excitement reached such a fevered pitch that the leaders began to fear a panic. To help restore the natural calm of the community the leaders announced that they and the wisemen of the colony would go personally to investigate the unbelieveable report. Consequently, things returned to relative normal as the ants awaited the return and report of their wise leaders.
When the leaders and the wisemen reached the picnic table they too were astounded–it was indeed a staggering sight to behold. Not only was there more food than they had ever seen before, but the quality and variety of the edibles transcended all ant knowledge and experience.
After their initial delight in affirming the scouts’ story, the wise leaders became concerned at the potential difficulty the colony as a whole would have in being suddenly confronted with the unexpected magnitude and diversity of the almost mystical discovery.They retired to the shade of a nearby tree and pondered the problem.
Then one of the wisemen had what was, for an ant, a most unusual idea. To help prepare the colony for this shocking new experience, and to minimize the possibility of riot and pandemonium, he suggested that they devise a ‘map’ of the picnic table and present it to the colony before they be allowed to visit the area in person.
After much discussion and after the wise ant had formulated and described exactly what a ‘map’ would be, it was agreed that this would be the best possible approach under such unexpected circumstances. To stall for needed time, one of the scouts was sent back to the colony to report that the leaders would yet be gone a few more days, and when they returned they would bring most joyful and unexpected news.
That done, the wise ant began the formidable task of constructing, from scratch, his notion of a ‘map.’ He first had to devise a means of transferring his abstract idea of a map into physical reality. Among his immediate tasks were:
The invention of a written ant language;
The discovery of paper, and
The production of writing utensils.
A most redoubtable undertaking–an almost unbelieveable sight; one lowly ant doing in a few short days that which took men thousands of years to accomplish. But necessity and intent ruled the day, and soon the task was completed.
On a small paper napkin, under the wise ant’s direction, they drew and labeled a precise, scaled map of the gigantic picnic table, complete with detailed pictures and invented names for all the mirific morsels. Indeed the map was a work of art. It was beautifully drawn, carefully scaled and laboriously colored. An ant masterpiece, without doubt. (And, I might add, the dawning of a new day for the humble ants.)
Carefully and painstakingly they carried the map back to the colony, and as they drew close a lookout sighted them and rushed back to tell the waiting populace the news of the impending arrival. There was unparalleled excitement in the colony as the ants anxiously awaited their returning leaders and the findings of their expedition.
After the leaders had quieted the populace, they all gathered around the napkin-map and the wise one explained its purpose. He first interpreted for them the written language he had devised. He then defined what the scale of the map represented. He then led small groups around the napkin-map as he attempted to explain its purpose and every detail. After all the ants had taken the tour and heard the wise one’s exposition thereon, the leaders were satisfied that they had made the proper decision. But when night fell they became less sure.
As the leaders roamed about the colony they found a reign of excitement; the ants had no idea of sleep that evening. They were gathered in large and small groups engaged in furious discussion, but discussion NOT about the fabulous food discovery–no!
They were all wildly talking about the map!
The leaders gathered together with the wise one to consider this unexpected turn of events, and after staying up all night considering the problem they called the colony together the next morning and attempted a further explanation of the map and what it represented. But the ants showed no interest in the food that the map represented: instead, they were filled with questions about the map itself.
Perplexed, the leaders withdrew once again to deliberate the matter, and after a time the wise one proposed a new plan. He reasoned that if a new, enlarged map were made with greater detailing on a scale that more closely represented the picnic table itself, then the colony would more readily realize its purpose and intent, and would be anxious to address themselves to the practical matter of journeying to the table and availing themselves of its offerings.
So again the leaders secluded themselves and set about the task at hand. They unfolded the original napkin so that they could construct a new map, one that would be four times the size of its predecessor. They worked day and night, and again produced a work of art.
When the new, enlarged map was presented to the colony the ants were more excited than before.
They ran here.
They ran there.
They ran everywhere.
What a sight to behold! Thousands of ants scurrying to and fro, stopping first here, then there. Examining a drawing labeled ‘chocolate cake’ and dreaming of what manner of exquisite delight this strange thing might be. Then one would stop and contemplate the area marked ‘potato salad’–potato salad–what a pleasant ring to the very sound of it. There was much pushing and shoving as they scurried about, and there was great discussion concerning the possible nature of these mysterious ‘cakes’ and ‘salads.’ It was a non-stop holiday: running and looking; looking and discussing; discussing and running. (I told you a new day was dawning.)
The leaders were almost beside themselves with bewilderment. The colony was ignoring its everyday duties and responsibilities, and the map, rather than proving to be an aid in their assault on the picnic table, had become an end unto itself.
In one final, desperate attempt, the wise one persuaded the leaders to send back to the picnic table for more napkins, which he pieced together into one gigantic map, rivaling in fact the actual size of the picnic table.
It was the ultimate masterpiece, faithful in size, color and detail to the table and its reputed rewards. At its unveiling the colony was in pandemonium. The ants were so infatuated with this colossal reproduction that it became impossible to get them off the map and on to their normal duties of securing food and building shelter. The ants simply adopted the gigantic napkin-map as their new home.
They lived, slept, made love and died on the map. They developed stories and legends about particular areas and aspects of the map. Myths grew up around certain of the unexperienced substances depicted thereon. Ants, here and there, gained a reputation concerning their knowledge in certain of these areas:
There were the ‘Chocolate Cake Experts’;
The ‘Potato Salad Guides’;
‘Parsley Gurus,’ and the
‘High Priests of Chopped Liver.’
Quite soon the whole colony fell into complete disarray.
Being in such close confinement with each other on the limited surface of the map, they grew quarrelsome and discontented. They began to display personal hostility. They began to fight among themselves over non-material interests of ‘opinions, beliefs and interpretations’ of the map, and killings became frequent.
The final straw was that in ignoring their natural ant responsibilities they found themselves without a normal food supply, and they began to try and eat the unnourishing map and its pictures of food. After this, the inevitable–cannibalism.
A few of the leaders and wise ones found this all a most sorry sight, and with great reluctance decided to abandon the whole affair. Taking nothing with them but their experience, they silently retired to the picnic table, where they ate in peace and reflected on just what’n hell had all happened.