Rise of the Poet of the Apes

Article excerpt

DID MONKEYS HAVE A RENAISSANCE? If a Renaissance is synonymous with "self-fashioning" and if self-fashioning is, as Stephen Greenblatt avers, "always, though not exclusively, in language," then a Renaissance for monkeys would have to presume that these nonhuman primates have selves--that is, inner phenomenal lives and autobiographical memories--and, on top of selves, language. (1) Do monkeys have selves or language? Do the larger, "smarter," great apes--gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos? If not, are monkeys and/or apes capable of acquiring either selves or language? Is it possible to have a self without language? Some of these questions have definitive answers while others remain hotly contested among primatologists--and psychologists, psychoanalysts, and literary theorists. Indeed, Jacques Lacan's essay, "The Mirror Stage as formative of the function of the I," begins by noting Wolfgang Kohler's observation in The Mentality of Apes that both human children and chimpanzees recognize their reflections in mirrors; but Lacan quickly differentiates children from chimps by insisting that only the former are effectively captivated, fascinated, and finally identify with the image in the mirror in a way that ultimately leads to the formation of a self. More importantly, what Lacan describes as "the transformation that takes place in the [human] subject when he assumes an image" is necessary but not, by itself, sufficient to establish an ego, self, or "I." What Lacan calls the imaginary or "specular I" of the mirror stage makes possible the subsequent symbolic or "social I" acquired exclusively through language. Lacan's theory remains problematic, alas, not only because Kohler never suggested that chimpanzees quickly lose interest in their mirror-images but also because Jacques Derrida has subsequently challenged the assumption that language and grammar govern only alphabetic systems and not nonhuman codes, signals, dances and gestures. (2)

In the science fiction blockbuster, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a genetically augmented chimpanzee named Caesar acquires both a self and language as a result of receiving an experimental drug being tested as a cure for Alzheimer's. The scientist who created the drug has a personal stake in its success: his father, a Shakespeare enthusiast, whose Signet Classics edition of Julius Caesar gets a close-up in the film, is not only the primary caregiver and name-giver for Caesar the chimp; he is also suffering from Alzheimer's. As Caesar's "rise" or "renaissance"--his sudden spontaneous self-fashioning--takes place against the backdrop of a Shakespearean's descent or "fall" into amnesia and loss of self, the film invites us to consider which is more human: the chimp with a self, what Hamlet calls "that within which passes show," or the human without one. Rise of the Planet of the Apes invites us to imagine a future renaissance for great apes and none at all for monkeys. But what if monkeys and apes both had a Renaissance? And what if, instead of happening in a day-after-tomorrow future, it happened several centuries in the past? I want to suggest that long before Pierre Boulle, author of the original Planet of the Apes novel, envisioned a world where "man is brute and ape intelligent," Shakespeare had already begun to monkey precociously with established simian-human boundaries. (3)

From Hamlet's cryptic cautioning of Gertrude not to "Unpeg the basket on the house's top, / Let the birds fly and like the famous ape / To try conclusions in the basket creep / And break your own neck down" to Apemantus's puzzling observation in Timon of Athens that "The strain of man is bred out / Into baboon and monkey," Shakespeare's apes, baboons, and monkeys usually require, even demand, some further explanation or interpretation. (4) Hamlet's "famous ape" tries conclusions--that is, it gets intellectually curious, conducts experiments, and tests hypotheses--while Apementus's devolutionary "baboons and monkeys" have been bred--cultivated, domesticated, and finally speciated--from human ancestral stock. …