Laline Paul’s ‘The Bees’, Hauntology and Acceptable Types of Lying

heart stabbed with a pen


I’m rereading, for the fourth time, Laline Paul’s ‘The Bees’. Its subject, Bees, is one I love revisiting and the writing style is untaxing. It’s a work of anthropomorphic fiction, same genre as ‘Watership Down’ or ‘Duncton Wood’. But, the switch from mammalian to insect protagonist means Paul is less reliant on mysticism for plot than a lot of these books. The alien nature of a hive provides all the drama of the story. Indeed, the only big step away from proper, believable bee science (other than the anthropomorphicism) is the conflation of two subspecies of domestic honeybee.

The book has been a huge success, both critically and commercially. Paul deserves this. But the language used to praise the books has sometimes been worth questioning. I’ve heard the word ‘pastoral’ used, which seems out of place. There are no shepherds. The feel of the book is claustrophobic, sweatily cloistered, with more of the feel of a convent or a space ship than Arcadia. Pastoral has to mean more than ‘it has trees’.

Another word I’ve heard is ‘lyrical’, and again, this book isn’t that. Part of its charm is its directness. It is paced like a commercial thriller, every chapter has a piece of capital P plot. There’s no room in it for meandering play with language. It doesn’t want or need musicality.

But I also hear what the critic is pointing towards. There’s a fullness here, a kind of abundant license taking we might call ‘poetic’. Laline Paul is not, as far as I know, a bee. But when she writes about a worker bee’s experience of the queen’s hormonal control as a type of ecstatic ‘mother love’, I believe her. Or, rather, I find the image so evocative, so suggestive of the genuine mysteriousness of other types of life, that I don’t mind being lied to.

I spend a lot of time thinking about lies and writing. My witchcraft practice is a kind of very pretty lie. My novel has involved a lot of lying about very real events. There are types of truth that don’t fit into the facts.

Until very recently, I used the language of hauntology to explain this. I’d talk about truth in terms of ‘ghostliness’ and Derrida’s ‘infinite deferral’. The ambiguous relationship between representation and truth imagined as a doomed séance, ghosts co-mingling but never touching. Truth as a phantasm that can’t quite be grasped or refused, not living or dead.

And that works, as far as it goes. But it’s started to bore me. It’s very clever, maybe even ‘true’. But it doesn’t sit right. The feeling of the image is too gloomy.

Hauntology rests on the idea of absence, of the endlessly retreating real, just beyond reach. It feeds a sort of nihilism. I agree that selves, words, ideas do not have fixed edges or centres. I agree that things are never self-same to themselves. I agree that truth is slippery. But the denial of identity doesn’t have to be read in terms of emptiness. The great potential in the gaps of language don’t feel like an emptiness to me anymore. It’s not that the words are empty, it’s that the truth is too enormous to live inside them.

This is an old understanding, almost mystic. I’m not being novel here. The Tao is both the formless and its manifestations. God is both Ain Soph at the top of the tree and Malkuth at the bottom. A lot of people, clever navel gazing people, have looked at the world and said emptiness and infinite possibility are the same thing. I’m not wise enough to expand on the work of the sages. But my experience, in this moment, is that truth is not slippery like a ghost. It is slippery like a Turkish wrestler covered in olive oil, and it is big, and I can’t get a handle on it, and the act of grappling means I am frequently thrown to the ground and frequently aroused. I am not scrabbling after ghosts. I am cheerfully adrift in multiplicity.

I’ve reached the end of my language here. Let’s return to facts. Laline Paul is not a bee. She, and all writers, are liars. But it’s not an absence of truth, it’s something else. Something we should have a German word for. Not a white lie — nothing in the text is intended to deceive. Not Terry Pratchett’s ‘lies to children’ — Paul isn’t laying down groundwork for something that I will eventually understand. Paul isn’t offering me a route to actually understanding what it’s like to be a bee. Annaliese Mackintosh, whose genre blending memoir/fiction practice was very helpful in shaping my thoughts here, spoke to me about Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’ at a literary festival last year. But this isn’t that either. Paul isn’t reaching for the ‘emotional truth’ of being a bee. This is an act of total projection. It is totally honest about its falsity.

What is the word? Fable, perhaps?  But even that feels too pedagogical. Too clearly moral. I need a word that means ‘a fiction that points to the mysterious unknowable in’. A koan? A lie-that-enlarges?

I don’t know. But I know when I read her book, and I go out into the garden, the blank spot of a bee’s mind is made enormous to me. A mystery that doesn’t tell me anything about a bee, but which makes me aware of all I don’t know. She is telling me a lie, but it is forcing me to look at a truth. I feel my limits, and I push against them.

I genuinely don’t know what a bee would make of that.