Marais, Eugene Nielen 1871-1936

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MARAIS, Eugene Nielen 1871-1936

PERSONAL: Born January 9, 1871, in Pretoria, South Africa; committed suicide March 29, 1936; married Aletta Beyers; children: a son. Education: Law degree.

CAREER: Writer, journalist, naturalist, and lawyer. Land en Volk, journalist and owner.


Gedigte (poems), 1925, reprinted, Witwatersrand University Press (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1956.

Versamelde Gedigte, 1933, reprinted J. L. Van Schaik (Pretoria, South Africa), 1972.

Die Siel van die Mier, J. L. van Schaik (Pretoria, South Africa), 1934, translation by William de Kok published as The Soul of the White Ants, Dodd, Mead & Company (New York, NY), 1937, reprinted, Penguin (New York, NY), 1973.

Burgers van die Berge, J. L. van Schaik (Pretoria, South Africa), 1938, translation published as My Friends the Baboons, Blond & Briggs (London, England), 1975.

The Road to Waterberg and Other Essays, Human & Rousseau (Cape Town, South Africa), 1972.

The Soul of the Ape, introduced by Robert Ardrey, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1969, revised edition, introduced and annotated by Peter Henzi, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1990.

(Editor, with Ashley H. Kirk-Spriggs) Dâures: Biodiversity of the Brandenberg Massif, State Museum of Nambia (Windhoek, Nambia), 2000.

Also author of Dwaalstories (title means "Wandering Tales"), 1927. Contributor to books, including Erik Holm's Fruit Chafers of Southern Africa, Ekogilde (Hartebeespoort, South Africa), 1992, and Type Catalogue and Bibliography of the Cetoniinae of Sub-Saharan Africa, State Museum of Namibian (Windhoek, Nambia), 1992.

SIDELIGHTS: Born in an isolated farming community near Pretoria, South Africa, Eugene Neilen Marais was an Afrikaner—of Dutch and French Huguenot descent—who began his career at age nineteen as a journalist and editor of Land en Volk, a pro-Afrikaner newspaper. By the age of twenty, he became a coowner of the paper and then the sole owner. Marais also studied law and medicine in England. He was married in his early twenties, but his wife died a year later in 1895 during childbirth. The couples' son survived.

At the outbreak of the Boer War between the Afrikaners and England, Marais had just received his law degree and was living in England. Because of the war, he was viewed as an enemy of England and was forced to leave the country. He went to Central Africa and tried to help the Afrikaner cause by smuggling guns and medical supplies to the Afrikaner army. Disgusted by the atrocities committed by the English army during the Boer War, Marais refused to write in English for some time and came to distrust the English influence in Southern Africa after their victory. By 1902 he was back in Pretoria working as a journalist and lawyer, and in 1910 he moved to Johannesburg.

During this period Marais was writing poetry in Afrikaans, a language developed by the Afrikaners who settled in southern Africa. His poems were deeply patriotic and became well known to his countrymen, who were called "Boers" by the English. His 1905 poem "Winternag" is considered one of the first important Afrikaner poems. Marais's poems are also emotionally honest and reflect his disillusioned view of life. His poetry was later published in two collections and also made up part of his 1927 book Dwaalstories. In the book, Marais recounts several primitive mythical tales of his African homeland, some of which he heard when he moved to the mountains and encountered an African Bushman storyteller.

Marais's move to the mountains resulted from his increasing withdrawal from normal social discourse and society. He was addicted to morphine, which he began taking at the age of twenty-one after reading Confessions of an English Opium Eater as either the result or the cause of his bouts of depression. (Marais's battle with morphine during a nine-month period is the subject of the 1977 film The Guest.) He moved to a farm in the isolated Waterberg Mountains in South Africa in 1907. Apparently having made a substantial amount of money from his newspaper and other work, Marais was free to do what he wanted. He turned his attention to the natural life around him, beginning with termites and baboons. In 1925 he published his first, and at that time, the definitive, article on the habits of termites, or white ants. Already in bad health and still suffering bouts of depression, Marais's psychological condition worsened when, in the following year, Maurice Maeterlinck, a Nobel Prize winner, plagiarized Marais's work and published The Life of the White Ant. Marais continued to work on his own book however, and Die Siel van die Mier, or The Soul of the White Ant, was published in 1934.

As described by Derek Stanford in Books & Bookmen, The Soul of the White Ant expounds on "Marais' idea of the group-soul of white-ant communities." Stanford also pointed out that the book, in part, could also be a metaphor for the "collective spirit of social communities." He went on to note: "As what is possibly a long-sustained metaphor, expressed in clear and vivid prose, Marais' masterpiece is hard to equal." Writing in the New Statesman, noted South African novelist Doris Lessing called the book "unique, rough, tough, shaped like a root by the necessities of its growth."

Suffering from depression and hooked on morphine, Marais committed suicide in 1936, a year before the English version of the book was published. A large part of what makes much of Marais's writings as a naturalist so interesting is that he was largely unconnected with the scientific community. He became one of the first people to conduct a long-term study of wild primates and wrote a series of newspaper articles about his observations that were eventually published in 1938 as the book Burgers van die Berge, or My Friends the Baboons. In her New Statesman article, Lessing called the collection "marvelously alive," pointing out that "his isolation was the saving of an original genius."

In 1969 a manuscript was discovered that Marais probably wrote around 1919; it was published as The Soul of the Ape. The book deals the chacma baboons and Marais's life during the time he observed them. The book marks a number of firsts in terms of primate information and naturalist writing. Marais makes one of the earliest, if not the earliest, observations of tool use in primates. A reviewer writing in Choice also noted: "Marais's text is one of the first attempts to relate primate behavior as observed in the wild with inferences about the evolution of man's behavior." The reviewer commented that the book also serves as "a base on which to build his philosophical speculations on man's nature" and as a "useful biography of Marais." Louis Barron, writing in Library Journal, called the book "full of magnificent insights."

Although Marais spent less than a decade in the Waterberg mountains, this time was perhaps the most important period of his life as he collected the information for his books on white ants and primates. He left Waterberg in 1916 and never returned. While he was never widely recognized for his work while he was alive, the late publication of his book The Soul of the Ape has shown that Marais was a pioneering ethologist. As Marais biographer Leon Rousseau wrote in the South African Sunday Times, "His notes on baboon behavior in The Soul of the Ape are regarded as honest and reliable by modern ethologists."

As Lessing pointed out in New Statesman, Marais's observations of the natural world were unique and groundbreaking. "He offers a vision of nature as a whole," wrote Lessing, "whose parts obey different time-laws, move in affinities and linkages we could learn to see: parts of making wholes on their own level, but seen by our divisive brains as a multitude of individualities, a flock of birds, a species of plant or beast man." As for Marais's troubled life, Lessing noted: "Marais was solitary, but one of a scattered band of South Africans bred out of the veld, self-hewn, in advance of their time—and paying heavily for it."



Rousseau, Leon, Die Groot Verlange: Die Verhaal van Eugene N. Marais (title means "The Dark Stream, the Story of Eugene Marais"), Human & Rousseau (Cape Town, South Africa), 1974.

Rousseau, Leon, Eugene Marais and the Darwin Syndrome, Ibis (Cape Town, South Africa), 2000.


Books & Bookmen, April, 1971, Derek Stanford, "Ants and the Muse," p. 33.

Choice, September, 1970, review of The Soul of the Ape, p. 870.

Library Journal, August, 1969, Louis Barron, review of The Soul of the Ape, p. 2800.

New Statesman, January 29, 1971, Doris Lessing, "Ant's Eye View," pp. 149-150

Spectator, September 1, 1973, review of The Soul of the White Ant, p. 285.

Sunday Times (South Africa), September 24, 2000, Leon Rousseau, "Eugene Marais: The Great Longing."

Times Literary Supplement, June 4, 1971, review of The Soul of the White Ant, p. 653; January 16, 1976, Lord Zuckerman, "Apes, Ants, and Fantasies," p. 62.

Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe, Volume 12, 1972, Leon Rousseau, "Die Minder bekende Eugene Marais," pp. 265-284.*

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Marais, Eugene Nielen 1871-1936

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