“See! See! See!” the Dukes kept telling me. Wherever they pointed, there were ants: under the door of a microwave oven, crawling out of the electrical outlets, heaped in the flower beds where I mistook them for fresh topsoil. It was shocking, and the Dukes seemed vindicated by my shock. “You don’t feel them crawling up your clothes?” Melvin’s wife, Sharlene, asked me at one point. She was walking around barefoot and in shorts, and I could see ants trickling across her feet and ankles and legs — spelunking between her toes. She clutched a can of a pesticide called Enforcer Instant Knockdown to her chest, more as a security blanket than as a weapon, and constantly swept her hands over her calves.
Soon ants were spiraling up the tongues of my sneakers, onto my sock. I tried to shake them off, but nothing I did disturbed them. Before long, I was sweeping them off my own calves. I kept instinctively taking a step back from some distressing concentration of ants, only to remember that I was standing in the center of an exponentially larger concentration of ants. There was nowhere to go. The ants were horrifying — as in, they inspired horror. Eventually, I scribbled in my notebook: “Holy [expletive] I can’t concentrate on what anyone’s saying. Ants all over me. Phantom itches. Scratching hands, ankles, now my left eye.” Then I got in my car and left.
The Hungarian-born philosopher Aurel Kolnai gave the horrifying qualities of bugs some serious thought. Kolnai ultimately decided that what upsets us is “their pullulating squirming, their cohesion into a homogeneous teeming mass” and their “interminable, directionless sprouting and breeding.” That is, it’s the quantity of crazy ants that’s so destabilizing. As the American psychologist James Hillman argued, an endless swarm of bugs flattens your perception of yourself as precious and meaningful. It instantly reduces your individual consciousness to a “merely numerical or statistical level.”