Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Next Beast Over

"Ape" from a Bestiary. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, fol. 16v
We know what to do with the beast within.  Our poets and psychologists expose it and soothe it, let us see it and understand it and, all told, pretty much control it.  It's the next beast over that is truly terrifying.  The one that is so close that we see ourselves, but outside of ourselves. The one called "simian," the medieval bestiary ventured, because it is so "similar" to us. The one that apes us.  And so it is that 48 years after the wild success of the novel surprised even the author, Pierre Boulle's 1963 book La Planète des Singes can still be made into a kickass movie.   It being the end of summer, we decided to make an event out of it. In honor of its author, we had a fully French meal (crème d'asperges soup, poulet rôti, pommes de terres, salade de tomates, fromages, tartes aux fruits, and fine wines).  In connection with this summer's fellowship, we had the wonderful student who worked with me over and, because he'll be visiting Paris while he's studying in Rome this fall, we also had the wonderful student who'd lived in Paris at the table.  We were a jolly company, trying to understand the hold that Boulle's book continues to have on the imagination.

Mac is sitting here at the breakfast table right now reading the original French version. He picked it up the minute he found out that Boulle also wrote The Bridge Over the River Kwai in 1952.  Pierre Boulle turns out to be a really interesting guy: an engineer who worked on French rubber plantations in Malaysia; a member of the Resistance in its Indochine theater of war captured by Vichy France forces in 1943 and award the Legion d'Honneur for the hardships endured; an author of 24 novels and several short story collections.  His career explains the wincing colonial content of the book, and its first movie's continued emphasis on race-and-class warfare.  Mac reports that the book has Betelgeuse (the planet of the apes) as a much more European place, where the hunters stop at an "auberge" after capturing their human trophies. The apes in the book live in multi-storied buildings within industrialized cities and drive cars.  The American film version from 1968 was not willing to give them that, instead creating the nightmarish quasi-medieval, quasi-19th century landscape (villages! science labs!) that kids of my generation grew to know so well from the endless Sunday afternoon screening of the Planet of the Apes movies (five) and spin-offs (countless) and parodies (always funny).

Until this latest film, Planet of the Apes had really always been about the struggle between oppressor and oppressed.  The human race behaved badly and got its comeuppance.  But now, and this is where I can't help but pay attention in connection with this summer's reading, there's a new player: a virus.  Humans behave no better and no worse than they usually do, but the amorality of the virus completely changes the game.  There's some weird science in there: the cure to Alzheimer's (vast improvements to brain function first tested out on apes) is delivered by a virus in mist form that has one effect on the apes and another on the humans (trying not to spoil it for you here, as, clearly, you must see this movie).  But the weird science works to awaken what we might fear even more than intelligent apes: intelligent apes in a network established by a virus.  Our fear of the closeness of apes is totalized by the inscrutable distance of viruses. The fear of apes, first, in the form of a naïve question: why are dogs domesticated but apes not? There are many ways to ask this question: why were humans able to domesticate dogs, who are genetically and in many other wises quite different from us, and domesticate them to such a degree that "having a dog" is a sought-after commonplace of millions and millions of people? Why were we unable to domesticate, on any kind of large scale, apes, who are so similar to us, who understand our ways (social, behavioral) so much more?  The proximity issue (that apes are too much like us to domesticate) doesn't answer it.  Human beings have, at different periods in history, enslaved more other human beings than they've ever enslaves apes (despite the contention to the latter of the utterly lame 1972 prequel, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). Or, as Adam Gopnik would have us ask in a recent marvelous essay in The New Yorker, why have dogs chosen us for cohabitation, while apes have not?  The reason that I chose the medieval image above is because it represents humans hunting a female ape (who, according to Pliny, will hold her preferred child against her chest, and let her less loved child ride on her back), in the company of dogs.  The dogs assist the human endeavor which places the apes oppositionally.  Medieval bestiaries are a fascinating world of human and animal intersection and difference unto themselves.  Animals here exist to reveal something about creation, and possibly, in those moments of intersection and difference, about humans themselves.  Or they just exist. Apes are deemed able to live only in Ethiopia, their place of origin, not next door.

We have one strange commonality with medieval attitudes to apes: humor. I could show you many more naughty marginal images of apes (and the fine mind at gotmedieval has plenty).  There are entire sub-genres (the ape as physician, the ape as knight, the ape as lover); so commonplace are ape parodies that one begins to wonder who is laughing at whom.  Parody is an enormous part of the entire Planet of the Apes sub-culture as well. I don't think that Pierre Boulle meant to be funny, but there is a long, rich strain of (nervous?) laughter from Charton Heston's clenched-teeth "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape" to its repetition in this latest film.  For us moderns, apes are funny, and then quickly, really really not funny.  They may have been just funny in the Middle Ages, living all the way far away in Ethiopia the way they did.

A final comment here might be about what makes the film so fantastically creepy: it's the motion-capture film technology that allows Andy Serkis to play the lead role of the ape Caesar wearing a computerized suit which captures his motions and then digitally dresses them in the body of an ape.  It makes me realize how much of our identity as humans (which may or may not be the same as our humanity) lies in how we move.  It's when the birds gather as hundreds of sentinels that Hitchcock can freak us out; it's when the apes start to walk on just two legs that we shudder.  There are grand motions like walking that make us human, but one thinks also of the famed uniquely opposable thumb, as a gesture wherein our humanity may lie.


  1. I read Boulle's original version as a teenager and it really freaked me out: it was the first time I realized (I think) that racism was so easy to express across a species line. And it was nothing like the Heston cheesefest I had come to love!

  2. Why do we love those movies so much? Mac is sitting here next to me getting freaked out as I write - he's calling the book an "Enlightenment thought experiment" in the tradition of Voltaire's Micromégas. There seem to be some big surprises (of class, of race) in there. That's so cool that you read it.

  3. Another fantastic post - now I really want to see the new Planet of the Apes movie! Have you heard of the documentary about a chimp called Nim-it's called Project Nim--I haven't seen it but heard about it on npr: it all sounds very sad...

    I also love the foreshadowing of the most recent post about the acquisition of Sawyer-who sounds like a great dog!!

  4. Hi Cathie! I'm actually kind of scared to see the Nim documentary - difficult to watch, I hear. But there was a great editorial in the NYTimes recently by a Congressman who is trying to pass legislation to ban further scientific testing/experiments on apes. Still need to see _The Rise of the Planets of the Apes_ movie, though.
    I hope that your move is going well - be cozy!