Professor Joe Goldblatt
My primary school teacher enthusiastically announced that our class was going to participate in an annual city – wide science festival. She encouraged us to submit ideas for the competition. I discussed this with my father who owned a small hardware shop and who had the perfect resources to help us create a phenomenal entry. Papa immediately suggested that he and I build an ant farm.
Papa and I had a long history of inventing interesting experiments. His father once owned a junkyard which today would be given the name of “formerly loved furniture and collectables” where all sorts of mysterious objects were on display. Tucked away in the far corners of Papa’s shop one could find statues of Zeus and other Gods and even ancient and modern electronic equipment such as telegraph machines and photo – cell devices with beams of light that when broken would immediately trigger an electrical reaction.
One day at the age of 12 I brought the photo – cell device to my bedroom and soon rigged a system for dropping a sock filled with white powder upon any person’s head as soon as the intruder broke the beam of light. The first victim was unfortunately my mother and that brought to an end this experiment. However, undeterred, Papa and I decided with the teacher’s approval, to proceed with the creation of the ant farm.
The ant farm would be constructed with thick plate glass that papa had in abundance at his shop. After carefully measuring and cutting the glass, papa helped me connect the pieces using an epoxy that would seal all of the edges. Next, we filled the new home for my ants with white sand. Finally, we introduced a small colony of fire ants that quickly and efficiently multiplied in number.
The ants soon went to work organising themselves brilliantly and harmoniously and within a few days they had constructed ramps, bridges, tunnels and other marvels that I viewed with amazement. Unfortunately, their well organised society came crashing to an end when one day when I accidentally knocked the glass ant farm and it fell to the floor shattering the glass and allowing the ants to escape. Papa quickly came to my rescue and instead of admonishing my clumsiness he demonstrated how the immediate use of an insecticide that would bring an end to their society and save our family from hundreds of future painful ant bites.
Perhaps this is why when I saw the thousands of protestors storm the government buildings in Brazil that I remembered the potential for evil behaviour within every social group. I had the same feeling when on 6 January 2020 I watched evil men and a few women storm the U.S. Capitol resulting in human death and destruction of public property. These scenes also reminded me of the Greek fable known as Pandora’s box and George Orwell’s classic novel entitled Animal Farm.
According to Greek legend, in 700 BC in Hesiod’s poem, Pandora’s curiosity led her to open a box left for her husband and this released physical and emotional curses upon humankind. There have been multiple dramatic depictions in art and in literature of this story, however, my favourite is the French play by Philiippe Poisson that was first produced in 1729. In this version, Mercury visits the world of Pluto and interviews the ills that will soon be unleashed upon humanity. He discovers characters such as Old Age, Migraine, Destitution, Hatred, Envy, Paralysis, Quinsy, Fever and even Transport.
These ills certainly seem familiar today as we are surrounded by political unrest and industrial strikes. Interestingly, the character of Love argues that he deserves to also be included as an ill because he also brings social disruption. And so it appears today as folk who are passionate on the far left and far right seem to believe that their strong love for their cause entitles them to bring about social disruption and even death and distruction, as occurred with my wee ant farm when it fell crashing to the floor.
A later play was written in 1743 by Pierre Brumoy and it was entitled Curiosity Punished. Set in the home of Epimethus it features six children created by Prometheus. The god Mercury soon visits and brings the fatal Pandora’s box with him. Within this box are the evils of what he describes as the seven flatterers including the Genius of Honours, of Pleasures, Riches, Gaming, Taste, Fashion, and False Knowledge. These were followed by seven deliverers of evil starring the usual suspects of evil: envy, remorse, avarice, poverty, scorn, ignorance, and inconstancy. Fortunately, the corrupted children are rejected by Prometheus until Hope finally arrives at the conclusion bringing reconciliation.
It is obvious within these two plays that blame for the unleashed social chaos has shifted from Pandora to the trickster god who appears to be enjoying subverting the natural universe through unleashing disruptive passions that destroy the possibility of harmonious life. In my view, we are experiencing the same challenges today. Whether the argument is transgender rights or the outcome of elections, our disruptive passions have sought to unravel the harmony society has enjoyed in times past.
The concept of disruption may also be found twenty years later in Orwell’s 1945 ground breaking novel Animal Farm. This satire or fantasy depicted, similar to the Soviet Union itself in 1917, a society where the farm animals rebel against their human owner to bring about freedom, equality, and happiness. He said that this work was his attempt to “Fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”
Perhaps it is now time to experiment and invent new systems for harmonious life similar to the ant farm that Papa helped me build those many years ago. The structure of the farm where the survival of all depended upon the harmonious contribution and effort of many hands working together to build rather than destroy, is something we should all aspire to today. If one outcome of artistic purpose is to promote the aesthetic, I wonder if we just might combat the evil vices unleashed by former diabolical leaders through experimenting with new systems to promote more civil discourse that could lead to greater harmony throughout society?
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. His views are his own. To read more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot