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from the March 2006 issue

A Report to an Academy

Esteemed Gentlemen of the Academy!

I feel honored by your invitation to present the academy with a report on my former life as an ape.

I am afraid, however, that I will be unable to comply with your request. It is now some five years that I have been separated from apedom-a short time according to the calendar, perhaps, but an eternity when you have to gallop through it the way I did. And even though I was accompanied, at least for parts of the way, by fine human beings, good counsel, orchestral music and applause, my journey was in essence a solitary one, for the accompaniment-to stick with the metaphor-kept far away from the barricade. This achievement would have been impossible if I had desired to cling to my origins, to the memory of my youth. In fact the first rule I set for myself was the renunciation of any and all forms of obstinacy; I, a free ape, willingly accepted this yoke.

But because of that my memories withdrew more and more. And the gateway of return, had the humans willed it, which at first was as great as the heavens that vault the earth, became less and less lofty and more and more constricted as my development proceeded at its spurred-on pace. I felt increasingly at ease, increasingly included in the world of men. The storm that followed me from my past abated, and today it is nothing more than a breeze to cool my heels, and that distant aperture through which it blows, the same opening I once passed through myself, has grown so small that I would have to scrape the fur off my body to make it through-assuming I had the strength and willpower for the journey back. Frankly speaking, much as I enjoy finding images to describe all this, frankly speaking, esteemed sirs, your own apedom, insofar as something similar may lie in your own past--could not be further from you than mine is from me. But every creature that walks the earth has a ticklish heel: from the small chimpanzee to the great Achilles.

Nonetheless, I may be able to respond to your request after all, at least in the most limited sense, and I'm very happy to do so.

The first thing I learned was how to shake hands. A handshake is a sign of candor, and today, at the pinnacle of my career, I'd like to expand on that first handshake by adding a few candid words as well. And although what I have to say won't teach the academy anything essentially new, and though it's far less than what was requested of me-and what I cannot articulate despite my best will-I might nevertheless be able to offer a broad outline of how a former ape managed to penetrate the world of men and continue his existence in that world. Nor would I permit myself to say the little that follows unless I was absolutely certain of myself, having secured an unshakable position in the biggest variété shows of the civilized world:

I come from the Gold Coast. As to the method of my capture I have to rely on the accounts of strangers. A hunting party of the firm Hagenbeck-incidentally I have since downed many a bottle of good red wine with the leader of that expedition-had set up a blind in the bushes by our watering place along the riverbank, where I went in the evening together with my tribe. Shots were fired, I was the only one hit, I took two bullets.

One grazed my cheek, and although the wound was superficial, the bullet did shave out a large red scar that led to my being called Red Peter--a disgusting name, completely inappropriate, only a monkeybrain would come up with a name like that, as if the red mark on my cheek were all that distinguished me from the circus chimp Peter, recently deceased, who was well known in certain parts. All that just as an aside.

The second shot hit me just under the hip, and it was serious; to this day I limp a little as a result. I recently read an article penned by one of the thousands of gossiping gadflies that write about me in the papers, who claims that my apish nature is still not completely repressed, and cites as proof my predilection for removing my pants whenever I have guests to show the entry point of that bullet. The man who came up with that should have each finger shot off his writing hand, one by one. I may remove my pants in front of whomever I please, the most anyone would find there is an impeccably groomed fur and the scar from a shooting wound that was-and I use this word carefully so as not to mislead anyone-that was downright criminal. It's all plain to see, there's nothing to hide, for when it comes to truth, even the highest-minded individual is ready to let his manners drop. On the other hand, if the author of that article were to take off his pants when he had visitors, well, that would be another matter entirely, and I'll give him the benefit of any doubt he doesn't do this. But he should stop imposing his own delicate sense of propriety on me.

When I woke up after being shot-and this is where my own memory gradually begins-I found myself in a cage on a Hagenbeck company steamships, down in steerage. Instead of four walls of bars this cage had only three, and was fastened to a large crate, which comprised the fourth wall. The whole thing was too low to stand up in and too narrow for sitting down. So I just crouched inside, with my knees bent and constantly shaking, and my face turned toward the crate, as I didn't want to see anyone and wished only to be left alone in the darkness, the bars cutting into my flesh from the back. This method of confining wild animals is supposed to be particularly advantageous during the first days of captivity, and judging from my own experience I cannot deny that this is indeed the case, from the human point of view.

But at that moment I wasn't thinking about that. For the first time in my life I was trapped with no way out, at least nowhere I could go directly, since straight ahead of me was the crate, board securely fixed to board. And though I discovered a gap between the boards, which made me howl for joy in all my ignorance, it wasn't even big enough to stick my tail through, and all my apish strength couldn't make it any wider.

Later I was told I made unusually little noise, which led everyone to believe I would either soon die or else--assuming I survived the first, critical period--would prove to be very tamable. I survived. Dull sobbing, the painful search for fleas, apathetically licking a coconut, banging my head against the wall of the crate, and sticking my tongue out at anyone who came near me-this is how I first behaved in my new life. But my one prevailing feeling was that I had no way out. Of course today I have to rely on human words to describe what I felt then as an ape, so my portrayal is bound to be distorted, but even if I can no longer attain my old apish truth, at least my depiction is very much in that spirit, there's no doubt about that.

I had always had so many ways out, and now there was none. I was trapped. My freedom of movement couldn't have been more restricted if they had nailed me down. And why? You can scratch between your toes until you start to bleed and not discover the reason. Press yourself so close against the bar of the cage until it nearly slices you in two and you won't find the answer. I had no way out, so I had to invent one: otherwise I was doomed. If I had stayed staring at the wall of that crate I would have inevitably died a miserable death. But that's where Hagenbeck & Co think apes should be, and so I stopped being an ape. A beautifully clear train of thought I must have somehow hatched out with my belly, since apes think with their belly.

I'm afraid that you may not understand exactly what I mean by a way out, which I mean in the most ordinary and fullest sense of the phrase. I am deliberately avoiding the word freedom, because I don't mean this grand feeling of freedom on all sides. As an ape I may have known it, and I've met humans who yearn for exactly that. But I myself have never asked for freedom, neither then nor now. As an aside: freedom is something people deceive themselves with far too frequently. And just as it counts as one of the most sublime feelings, so, too, can it lead to the sublime disappointment. Often, before going on stage as part of a revue, I've watched this or that pair of trapeze artists high in the air by the ceiling. They would swing and sway, floating into each other's arms, one would carry the other by her hair in his teeth. "So that's another example of human freedom," I thought, "ego-maniacal and high-handed." What a mockery of holy nature! There's not a building on earth that could withstand the laughter of the apes at such a sight.

No, I didn't want freedom. All I wanted was some way out-right, left, wherever it might lead. I kept my demand small, so that if it turned out to be a delusion, the disappointment would be no greater. Anything to get on, to get out! And not just stand there with upraised arms pressed against the wall of some crate.

Today I see clearly that I could never have escaped without the greatest inner tranquility. Indeed, I think I owe everything I have become to the calm that came over me after those first few days at sea. And I probably have the crew to thank for that.

They're good people, despite everything. To this day I enjoy recalling the sound of their heavy steps that echoed through my half-sleep back then. They had the habit of taking everything extremely slowly. If one of them wanted to rub his eyes, he'd raise his hand as if it were a hanging weight. Their jokes were crude, but hearty. Their laughter was generally mixed with coughing that sounded dangerous but didn't mean anything. They always had something in their mouths to spit out and couldn't care less where it landed. They were constantly complaining about the fleas jumping from me to them, but they weren't ever really angry at me; they realized that fleas thrive in my fur and that fleas are jumpers, so they learned to live with that. When they weren't on duty they'd sometimes sit around me in a half circle, more cooing than speaking to one another. They would stretch out on the crates and smoke their pipes, slapping their knees whenever I made the slightest movement, and now and then one of them would take a stick and tickle me where it felt pleasant. I can't say I'd accept an invitation to take another voyage on that ship, but nor could I claim that all the memories I have from that passage are ugly ones.

Above all, the tranquility I acquired among these people kept me from trying to escape. Looking back, I think I must have sensed that if I wanted to live, I needed to find some way out, and I must have understood that fleeing would not accomplish this. I no longer know whether such an escape was possible, but I believe it was-surely escape is always an option for an ape. Today my teeth are such that I have to be careful even with ordinary nutcracking, but back then it would have probably been just a matter of time before I chomped my way through the lock on the door. But I didn't do that, for what would it have gained me? As soon as I stuck my head out they would have recaptured me and locked me up in an even worse cage, or else I might have crept off unnoticed, to the other animals--for instance to the giant boa that was caged across from me, and breathed my last breath in its embrace. I even might have managed to steal onto the upper deck and jump overboard, in which case I would have rocked a while on the water and then drowned. Desperate deeds every one. I didn't calculate things in such a human fashion, but under the influence of my surroundings I acted as though I had.

I didn't calculate, but I probably observed things in peace and quiet. I watched the people going back and forth, always the same faces, the same movements, I often had the impression there was only one of them. So this man, or these men, went about with no impediment. A lofty purpose began to dawn on me. No one promised me they would open the bars if I acted like them. After all, promises aren't made for seemingly impossible tasks. But when such tasks are accomplished nevertheless, the promises are made after the fact, and exactly where you would have looked for them in vain before. Except there wasn't much about these men that truly tempted me. Had I been a follower of the grand freedom I mentioned earlier, I'm sure I would have chosen the sea over the way out I saw in the gloomy faces of these people. But in any case I spent a long time observing before I ever had thoughts like that, and it was the only accumulated observations that first pushed me in a specific direction.

Imitating people was so easy. Within a few days I was able to spit. We would spit at each other in the face, with the only difference that I licked my face clean afterward, and they didn't. Soon I was smoking a pipe like an old salt, and if I pressed my thumb into the bowl to boot, the whole steerage would cheer; except it took me a long time to understand the difference between an empty pipe and one that had been fully stuffed.

The whiskey bottle caused me the most difficulty. The smell was sheer torture, I forced myself with all my strength, but it took weeks to overcome my aversion. Strangely, the people took these internal struggles more seriously than anything else about me. While I don't distinguish the people in my memory, there was one who kept coming back, alone or with his chums, day or night, at the oddest hours. He'd stand outside my cage with the bottle and instruct me. He didn't understand me, but he wanted to solve the riddle of my being. He would slowly uncork the bottle and look at me, to check whether I had understood; I confess that I always watched him with wild-eyed attention-all too eager, in fact-no human teacher on earth would find such a student of people. After the bottle was uncorked, he would hold it to his mouth; I would follow with my eyes, from the bottle to his throat. He would nod, pleased with his pupil, and place the bottle to his lips. Delighted with my gradual discovery, I would shriek and scratch myself all over, wherever I felt the urge. He liked that--then he'd tilt the bottle back and take a swallow, and I was so impatient and desperate to emulate him that I wound up soiling myself in my cage, which would again cause him enormous satisfaction. Then, swinging the bottle away from his body and back to his lips, he would drink, exaggeratedly bending over for purposes of instruction, and down the entire bottle in a single gulp. Exhausted from so much effort, I could no longer follow him; I'd hang limply on the bar, while he ended his theoretical instruction by stroking his belly and grinning.

Then came the practical instruction. But hadn't the theoretical part already worn me out? Indeed it had. Still, that's part of my fate, so despite my exhaustion I reached as best I could for the bottle being held out to me, and, shaking all the while, uncork it. Success gradually brought renewed strength, and I managed to lift the bottle in a manner hardly distinguishable from the original. I raised it to my lips, then threw it away in disgust, disgust, even though it was empty, with nothing left but the smell. I was so revolted I tossed it on the ground, to the sadness of my teacher, and the greater sadness of myself, and the fact that I didn't forget to stroke my belly and grin after throwing away the bottle didn't make either one of us feel better.

All too often, that was how my lessons went. And to my teacher's credit: he wasn't angry with me, though he did on occasion hold his burning pipe against my body in some place I couldn't reach, until my fur began to glow, but then he'd dampen it himself with his huge kind hand-he wasn't angry with me, he realized we were both on the same side, both struggling against my apish nature, and he knew I had the more difficult struggle.

So what a victory it was for him as well as me, when one evening in front of many onlookers-it may have been a party, a gramophone was playing, an officer was carrying on among the crew-at a moment when no one was watching, I grabbed a bottle of whiskey that had been inadvertently left outside my cage, and did a perfect job of uncorking it-to the increasing attention of the group around me. Then I held the bottle to my lips and without the slightest hesitation or grimace, like a bona fide professional drinker, with round and rolling eyes and letting the liquid slosh into my throat, I really and truly drained the bottle, and threw it away, no longer out of desperation, but as an artist. Of course I forgot to stroke my belly, but for that, because I couldn't help it, because I felt an irresistible urge, because all my senses were intoxicated-well, to make a long story short I called out "Hello!" in a human voice, and with this call I leaped into the community of humans, and their echo of "Listen to that-he's talking!" felt like a kiss on my body that was thoroughly drenched with sweat.

I repeat: I never felt any desire to imitate people; I imitated them because I was looking for a way out; that was my only reason. And even this triumph was just a small step. I immediately lost my voice, which I took months to recover, and my aversion to the whiskey bottle came back worse than ever. But my course had been set once and for all.

When I arrived in Hamburg and was handed over to my first trainer, I soon realized that I had two choices: zoological park or variety show. I didn't hesitate for a second. I told myself to focus all my strength on getting into the variety show, there lies your way out. The zoo is just a new cage, if you end up there, you're lost.

And study I did, gentlemen. You learn when you have to, when you're looking for a way out, you learn with no holds barred. You drive yourself with a whip, flogging yourself at the slightest opposition. My apish nature came tumbling out of me so fast that my first teacher nearly went ape himself, as the saying goes. He was soon forced to give up teaching and had to be taken to an institution. Fortunately he was released soon thereafter.

But I wore out many more teachers, even several at once. When I became surer of my own abilities, and the press began to follow my progress and my future began to shine, I hired my own tutors, had them set up in five adjacent rooms, and learned from all of them at once, constantly jumping from one room to the next.

What progress! How the rays of knowledge penetrated my waking brain from all sides! I will not deny it: it made me happy. But I must also confess that I did not overvalue my achievement, neither then nor especially today. Through an unprecedented exertion I managed to acquire the education of your average European, which might not mean a thing in itself, but at least it helped me out my cage, at least it provided me with this way out, this human way. I slipped off into the bush, so to speak-the human bush. I had no other choice, assuming that freedom was never an option.

Looking over my development and its purpose up to this point, I neither complain nor am I fully content. I half-sit, half-lie in my rocker, my hands in my pockets, a bottle of wine on the table, and look out the window. If I have company I show them the proper hospitality. My agent sits in the anteroom; if I ring then he steps in and listens to what I have to say. I perform nearly every evening, and my success could hardly be greater. If I come home late after a banquet, a scientific society, or a friendly evening at someone's house, a small, half-trained chimpanzee is waiting for me and I have my pleasure with her in the manner of apes. I don't wish to see her by day, as her eyes have the insanity of the befuddled half-tamed animal, which I alone can recognize, and which I cannot bear.

By and large I have accomplished what I set out to accomplish. It cannot be said it wasn't worth the effort. Nor am I asking for any human judgment; all I wish to do is disseminate knowledge, I only report, and that is all I have done for you tonight, esteemed members of the Academy: I have reported, and nothing more.

Translation © 2006 by Philip Boehm. All rights reserved. 

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