The ape is our era’s creature, we know this now – from Freud who led our animal selves into metaphor and Darwin who led our metaphorical selves into the animal. This history I have written is a re-orienting of the origin ape of Freud (who had a baboon fetish laying closest to his right hand) and Darwin (who wrote about monkeys, but never really studied them.) That ape in the closet tells of sex, race, culture, biology, and our ever-so-serious entertainments. In these 24 thoughts I attempt to chart a course through colonial waters.

  1. Jane Goodall is an evangelist for the apes, not making them more then they are, but giving them credit for what they deserve. For Goodall, apes are animals that resemble humans, have emotions and perhaps thoughts – but in her dozens of years in the jungles, her relationship is one of steward and ward. She gives them names, but cries against apes as actors, as clowns, as entertainment. When she presents these creatures, it is with a populist didacticism. Her thick grey hair and clipped tones, in addition to a sly bemusement and general distance indicate that she is not a mother for her chimps, but a nanny whose job it is to broker peace between the “civilised” world and the “natural” one.
  2. Dianne Fossey was sexier then Goodall, American too. This meant brashness, and more concern with action then documentation. She wanted Silverback Mountain Gorillas to exist beyond a generation. (Notice the size and aggression of gorillas versus chimps and the personalities of Goodall and Fossey: each chose the species that matched.) Goodall has completed a series of powerful gestures over a long life, in rain forests, seeking private solitude. Fossey pushed poachers obsessively, taking each death personally – for this she was honoured with the hagiography of a Hollywood movie, starring an attractive and tough lead. (Sigourney Weaver, who perfected the butch maternal in the Alien movies, the difference being that in Gorillas In The Mist the mother didn’t have a gun.)
  3. Ape environments are being destroyed. They are being poached for trophies and bushmeat. More gorillas live in zoos then out of them, but in zoos they are a danger to themselves and others. Even the zookeepers, who claim the parks as new found arks, have noticed social orders disintegrating resulting in reduced rates of fecundity and fertility
  4. Some see the history of western democracy as a snowball of individual rights, starting with white male property owners, then swallowing other identity sets when the public response became loud enough. Jews, then women, then Africans and the First Nations, then working classes, and – tentatively – sexual others have been claimed as liberated, one after the other. The physiologist Jared Diamond and the biologist Richard Dawkins have begun this process for apes, arguing that a certain amount of intelligence and 98 per cent of the same DNA should guarantee a place at the rights table. Are apes just lesser humans? If we are descendants of monkeys, should monkeys be allowed into our trough? How do we judge the intelligence of non verbal animals – the claims of memory retention, vocabulary and cognitive distance made for caged gorillas have been made for macaws, African grey parrots, pot bellied pigs and ravens. There seems to be an element of Orwell here. All animals are equal but some are more equal then others.
  5. We can see ourselves as apes: in the opposable thumb, the hairless palm, the bipedal motion, in the glee of an orang-utang swinging, the mischievousness of a chimpanzee playing, in the alpha male presentation of gorillas. This awareness is often followed by a list of differences, invoking our innate superiority – for example logic, freedom, social codes, legal systems and what we create. The ape question is a question of tension, between how much in us are primate, and how much in us is something better.
  6. It started, like most of the things that we assume to be eternal, in the 19th century. That was when the future and the past coincided. For every adventure story where progress was a goal (the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland) there was a story that moves back to an arcadian past (The Secret Garden). HG Wells wrote about dinosaurs and superfuture catastrophe in the same book. This looking forward/backward applies to the first giant ape epic – Tarzan, which manages to combine class warfare with a nostalgia for a golden age of masculinity. Lord Greystoke would become, in all of his forms, a prediction of what was expected in a decades’ men (from the vibrant athleticism of Johnny Weissmuller in the 1930s to the whippet grace of Tony Hawk in Disney’s 1990 animated disaster).
  7. Monkeys accompany robots. In pop culture, the other that terrifies is either bestial or mechanical – Fritz Lang quickly followed the robot overlords of Metropolis with the beastly child murderer in M. In America King Kong, an evil exported from unmapped lands to terrify America, shocked in the same way as War Of The Worlds’ metal-shelled aliens. They were both dangerous unknowns. 40 years later, technology run amok pieces like The Omega Man rub up against the immensely popular Planet of the Apes series. But as these others become more familiar the use of them is made ironic – see for example indie stalwart James Kochalka’s absurd gem Monkey versus Robot.
  8. Charlton Heston has seen the end of the world more times than most, but his roles in Omega Man and Planet of the Apes might shed some light here. The 70s were a good time for apocalypses – a blossoming of fears about ecology, new sexual mores, and over population led to thoughts of the earth returning to a stripped desert planet, where human beings descended the evolutionary ladder. In the Planet of the Apes the destruction of New York comes as a surprise, and is a literalization of terror of the other. This other is more vicious, uncaring of human values, with no loyalty to America – who are the apes supposed to resemble?
  9. If the apes destroy civilization in Planet of the Apes, then it is a subtle and clear twist on King Kong, where all sorts of human methods attempt to control Kong. He almost defeats all of them, in the process climbing the representation of capitalist striving. What defeats him is fighter planes. Acting as an apology for military might, and as a case study for how to put down insurgents when the life of citizens is at risk, Kong foresaw later world wars, as he looked back on the First.
  10. In between Planet and Kong is 2001, an attempt for Stanley Kubrick to teach us in his words, that we “are not fallen angels but risen apes”. In its first scene apish neanderthals attempt to communicate with a large black monolith (an airplane emergency system? an embodiment of the modernist aesthetic? a time-lost Sakrah, where new Haji could flock? or something else entirely?) – they knock it down, fight over it and with it. It finally blesses them with knowledge and foresight. When one of them throws a bone up, it becomes a space ship. Ape, Man and Machine are one.
  11. Humanity descended from one family in Ethiopia, if certain anthropologists are to be believed. Our mother, Lucy, was black. Some Western liberals use this as an example of universalism – a common origin leading to a common goal. They sharpen the line between monkey and human that overt racists prefer to blur and move. Everything we have talked about so far has been a white echo of that African diaspora -Tarzan, Goodall, Fossey, the Great Apes Project, Kubrick’s Apes, even Kong from his Africa-analogue Skull Island. The racist code linking apeness to blackness remains on some European soccer terraces, where overt slurs can be replaced by the less easily policed ‘monkey noises’.
  12. How might King Kong use this code? Maybe King Kong is a slave narrative – Kong, powerful and strong, is taken from outside ‘civilisation’ in manacles, made to work for nothing. Maybe King Kong is the 800 pound elephant shitting in North America’s collective living room, and everyone knows the piles, and they step in it anyway. Maybe King Kong is a miscegenation scare story – a black man falls in love with a white girl, and perhaps the white girl falls in love with the man. In either case the tragedy of King Kong is a coded tragedy of race (the founding American tragedy). By presenting himself at the place of power Kong allows justice and injustice to be meted out.
  13. The last time they tried to make anything like King Kong it bombed. Congo, filmed in 1996, was a B List cast on an A List budget. It was on most critics worst-of lists that year, and Rotten Tomatoes gives it a score of ten percent. More people objected to the depictions of race in the movie, and were bothered by depictions of Africans as savage. Has the code become clearer or are we, as audiences, better at noticing it? There was a Planet of the Apes Remake in 2001, it didn’t make much money and had critical pans, mostly because the ending changed. The interesting thing about the remake though is the love subplot between one of the apes and one of the humans. Some of the newspapers tried to figure out exactly what taboos were being violated, if any.
  14. In Cabaret, the emcee sings a duet with a woman in a gorilla costume. It is a plea for understanding, a refusal to apologize for sexual freedom. Cabaret is as much about the time it was made then the Weimar republic, and it was made in the midst of gay liberation – the last line of the song: “she doesn’t Look Jewish at all” could easily be translated as “He doesn’t look queer at all”. Kong was a side long glance at sexual taboos, this number was a full frontal ogle.
  15. We have touched on race, and sexuality, but not on class. If we look at Tarzan and Mowgli, we can begin to understand how becoming close to wilderness is to reverse class barriers and how this reversal needs to be restored to its natural order. Mowgli, raised by the animals of the jungle, is wild, and almost achieves a super-intelligent ape-state, but when he comes of age he is returned to a human village. Tarzan is recivilized by the love of a good woman. Jane makes him an Englishman again, by training him to read, write, and have tea. This is made most clear in Greystoke:Legend of Tarzan, the 1984 film by Chariot of Fire director, Hugh Hudson: she takes him back to the home country, restoring his place in London society. He remains animal only in the bedroom.
  16. There are other kinds of movies with monkeys, silly kid movies like Most Valuable Primate (and its sequels) or Bedtime for Bonzo, where the creature makes a monkey out of adults and bands together with kids. The animals are dressed as an attempt to humanify, but those clothes become more and more absurd. Reagan and Bonzo in matching pyjamas, the chimp in MVP in brightly coloured shorts and t-shirts. They make the animal a man, but only in a very limited sense. They make them an infant or child, someone at the very base level of culture.
  17. Then there is Michael Jackson and Bubbles. At first an example of general eccentricity, as his Peter Pan fantasies grew, the rumours that surrounded Jackson and the chimp became weirder. There was talk of constant resupply: as each Bubbles grew older, he was replaced with a younger model (could this be a precedent for the constant changes to personal appearance?) Then there was talk of the monkeys in the bed of the singer. Then there was the tabloid hack biography by Christopher Anderson, where he talks of an incident with the first Bubbles, where the monkey was brought downstairs to meet company with certain key parts shaved. When the guests noticed what Michael had done, he responded with giggles, saying “I’ve been a bad boy”. No one knows how self aware Jackson is: are the monkeys furthering Childhood or are they substitutes for something else?
  18. Sometimes a monkey is just a monkey. On Friends, in the first couple of seasons, a lemur named Marcel interrupted scenes with an abandon that human actors usually lack. It was later revealed that the simian was fired for throwing things, missing his cues and disappearing when cameras where about to roll, as well as being abusive to others on the set. The prototypical difficult actor, except for a while, with Marcel, the shit throwing became literal.
  19. In the zoos, the throwing of objects is related to compulsive masturbating: both act as stress reliving exercises , especially in the contexts of limited space. Snowball, an albino gorilla, had a 24 year career with the Barcelona Zoo, becoming a mascot for that city. He spent the last years of his life wanking and throwing shit. His death was prolonged, painful and unique – the skin cancer that was his undoing was thought only to be limited to pigs and humans.
  20. Snowball was also famous for being on the cover of Rooty, an album by Basement Jaxx, and most of my research about Snowball was done for me by the London hipster mailing list Pop Bitch. His white colour made him unusual: pure, cute, twee and more loveable, for the same reasons baby seals win more support then hagfish, or Pandas have become so close to our cultural radars, while worms and snails have not. That, and his naughty reputation had a certain schoolboy charm.
  21. There was a gag, near the end of an episode of Murphy Brown, around the time Dan Quayle blurred real and TV moralities. In this gag the hard and professional television journalist Brown is forced to do station promotions with an uncooperative chimpanzee, after claiming that the new fall season on her networks was not nearly highbrow enough. It was a perfect example of a series being smart enough to get a cultural joke before most of their viewers did.
  22. Sometimes it goes other ways. There is an ape called Koko, who apparently speaks human, with an added cyborg twist: she cannot vocalize, and uses a board hooked to a computer to “speak”. This board translates animal to human. This artificial speech means that she can go between human intellect and animal instinct, through training and intercessors, to communicate as she loses what is natural to her.
  23. Peter Hoeg wrote a novel, The Women and The Ape, about an ape who is made intelligent by artificial means – the logical extension of the Koko paradigm. The ape can talk like us, think like us, and is human scale. He falls in love with a woman, or more accurately, a girl falls in love with him. Technology redeems Kong, makes him more human, shrinks him into an accessible presence, but that presence remains a problem. Hoeg asks us what it means to be human, and then what it means to be other. He also aesthicises, there are passages in the book where what makes the creature non human is what makes him erotic–the blue skin, the thing fine ever present hair that marks sex instead of repulsion.
  24. The ape is our symbol for animalistic destruction, for the baser elements of our nature and for some of the baser elements of our culture. It is easy for racists to use the imagery as ammunition, because it is so much a part of a bedrock mythology that the armaments are laid out for them. The ape is us, and we are the ape. Michael Ondaatje wrote a poem once, comparing Wallace Stevens and King Kong as parts of his poetic nature. I have King Kong in me, that great martyr for love, his corpse clogging the arteries of American commerce. I have Wallace Stevens in me, being hidden under three piece suits, selling insurance and writing of Key West in the same brain. This is the beginnings of an attempt to reconcile the two, for me and for others like me.

(Editor’s Note: Ondaatje’s poem can be found here)