This is a short story I wrote last February for my friend Cathal’s sdv_duras short story writing competition. I’m publishing this lightly revised version of it here because I think it actually manages to anticipate some things I only started thinking about seriously recently, in relation to my PhD work. In particular, it is a quite common for neo-Aristotelian ethicists (e.g. Philippa Foot) to suggest that human life is somehow relevantly similar to that of bees, but of course to endorse this claim in anything like a straightforward way seems like a mistake.
Years ago I went to an interview where the HR department wanted to psychometrically test me… they had lost the ability to speak. In fact all real (that is, human) language seemed pretty well beyond their grasp and the test did not consist of written questions for which written answers were required but rather hand gestures which I would have to answer by pressing a series of bells. The staff of the HR department scuttered about the office in their goblin manner frantically totting up the results of this test as I proceeded through it pretty much blindly, them, the HR staff, alternately smiling and tutting and making a thin guttural noise which may or may not have signified anything and which did not at least seem to be directed outwards towards any of the other members of the department or myself, in such a way as it might be taken to have meaning for them.
It was nevertheless clear that these creatures staffing the HR department had once been human, no matter how profound their physical or mental decline. Some of what looked like the fresher ones still walked almost upright, and uniformly you could make out that their attire – such as it was – comprised something that had once been recognisably a suit.
As I stumbled my way through the test, the tutting intensified, and eventually it emerged that I had failed (something that I did not learn – possibly this was given the incompatibility of our communicative schema, and so this was because I could not have learned it – until I had been shooed out of the HR department by the creatures and returned to the real offices upstairs). The order in which I had rung the bells, however it was I had rung them after all, indicated that I was not psychologically suited for the job, which I would now not be getting, and the interview process was over. I would never return to the office complex or have anything to do with the company whose offices they were again, and I do not know in what state their HR department is in now; whether it is still like this, or has got better, or worse.
Despite the clear decline exhibited by the staff members of the HR department at this particular organisation, they did not live in squalor or disorder. Although there was something definitely filthy about the withered physicality of these creatures, the office itself was very clean. The layout was bright and modern, and all the coffee mugs etc. were washed in the adjacent kitchen as soon as they had been used. And despite the test’s appearance, to someone like me, of being bafflingly arcane, there nevertheless seemed to be a distinct logic to it, a logic that was rigorously applied even if it was apparently impossible to discern.
It is for this reason that I believe the HR department was allowed to persist in this state as it had been. It was able to give off the appearance of order, of running itself in a professional and effective way, even as it had become, mysteriously (and I know nothing of the department’s history) somehow less than human. But I would not liken these creatures to apes or anything like that, and even ‘goblin’ which I have been using is wrong, they were not subhuman in that way (in either of those ways): they were more like ants, or bees. And this hive had somehow installed and integrated itself into a human organisation, participating in it with a blind purpose that could probably be observed with a relative degree of comprehension by a botanist or zoologist, but never a management consultant.
Just as I once encountered this group of humans who had become like bees, so I once encountered a former bee who was now living as a human man. His name was Bernard Wagglestaff, and his transformation was certainly comprehensive; he had managed to grow to the size of a man, he dressed in the clothes of us men, and frankly I would never have noticed, if he hadn’t told me this very fact loudly and repeatedly, that he was in any sense at all not a man, but originally a bee. And then of course one begins to notice little things about his physiognomy, vestiges of bee-likeness that one can spot, or a particular sort of buzzing to his movement, a hidden bee muscularity behind his new human one. But previously, I’m sure, it could have been as if they were never there at all.
He did not like bees, and was very proud of himself for no longer being one. He took issue with the bee lifestyle for a number of reasons. He had left the hive, he claimed, because he had, one day, suddenly grown conscious of the fact that he was an individual. He had lived all his life, he realised, as if he was just one cell in the great hive-matrix, blindly following orders based on some logic that existed entirely outside of himself, a logic that would eventually eat him up, dictate that he was useless and cause him to be devoured by the other bees and die… but that this was not how it had to be, or how it should be, because he was in fact an individual bee, a sort of consciousness, who could make his own decisions. And so he flew away from the hive. But then he quickly realised that one could not live, as an individual, like a bee. And so he learned and adopted the ways and the biology of the humans (something that he did over time and not without other very interesting – but really I think tangential to this story – struggles).
But although Bernard was an engaging guy who had clearly lived an interesting life, there was a strange sort of misguidedness, I think, to the way he approached the world. He hated the idea of, not just accepting help from anyone, but of co-operating with anyone at all. He wanted to somehow create a life for himself where he was utterly self-actualising, and in complete control of himself and his surroundings. He did not want anything to happen to him, in the dative case, as it were; he wanted to set himself up so as only to ever act on the world, in the accusative case. And needless to say, this meant that all of his endeavours of any sort were basically failures. He had been a failed pub landlord, a failed freelance writer, a failed furniture salesman, a failed stock broker, a failed barber, a failed professional gambler, even a failed apiarist. In each case his venture had failed largely because he did not in fact want to enter into any sort of agreement or contract with anyone, so he would end up a sort of loneness, frictionless cog spinning off by itself detached from the economy as a whole (or the whole of whatever particular economy, e.g. apiary), even as he tried to force his way into it. It was sad in a way, but also somehow miserably impressive, how he was apparently persisting through all this. When I met him he was ostensibly trying to get his funeral directing business off the ground, but really he seemed to be just sat on his own all day in the pub. He asked me if I had any recently dead relatives, but I did not at that time.
And really, I mean I only met him a few times, but I think this whole impossible ideal of self-actualisation was motivated by his time spent as a bee, and how he did not want his life as a human to ever at all resemble his life in the hive. And who could, in a way, blame him? But this is just not what human life is like. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, somehow like bees.
They go on about the bees dying, just dropping from the air dead, suddenly, from their hives collapsing, due to fungus or cities or lack of pollen diversity or their all being kept in big rows in disused quarries by farmers. But maybe it is just that the bees, at this point their history, have reached the point where nothing seems to sustain their logic anymore, the logic of how they are acting, what they are doing. That they have taken a look down, and realised how empty it is, and then just dropped from the sky dead because they are nothing but a logic. Or maybe it is nothing that agential (how could it really be, if they are nothing but a logic) and it is just that the logic that the life of the hive exhibits has, for whatever blind reason, run out, and this is why the bees die.
And maybe if I was to return to the HR department now, years later, I would find the same thing (or one day the company that they exist within will actually find them like this): behind the doors to their part of the offices, the HR department, suddenly all dead, the victim of its inability to resist the unexpected unravelling of its own yes futile but anyone might have thought always self-perpetuating existence.
There is a sense in which something can exist only in and for itself, but nothing can really live like that (or be living).