In one of Franz Kafka’s short stories, titled ‘A Report to an Academy’, an ape nick-named Red Peter tells his story to an assembly of intellectual dignitaries: how he was shot and caged in West Africa, then shipped to Europe, and how he managed to find there, if not freedom, at least a “way out” of his captivity by becoming a performing animal, a human impersonator, on the vaudeville circuit. The description of Red Peter’s laborious and finally successful attempts to turn himself into a sort of human make an uncomfortably satiric fable. It’s usually understood as telling the story of Jewish assimilation into Western culture: reasonably enough, since Kafka was himself Jewish, and the story was first published in the journal Die Jude. It might also be read as the sacrifices which an artist may have to make to fit into a society made by Philistines, or more generally as the transformation of the Freudian child into the socialized adult.
But that’s not how Red Peter is understood when he turns up in a more recent address to an academy, the one given by the fictitious novelist Elizabeth Costello to the academics of Appleton College in J.M.Coetzee’s story The Lives of Animals (itself originally delivered as an address to an academy, in the form of the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, 1997-8). Costello starts her discourse by telling her audience that as she stands in front of them she feels “a little like Red Peter myself”. But in case they should take this for self-deprecating good humour, “a light-hearted remark, meant to set you at ease”, she bleakly insists on its literalism: “It means what it says. I say what I mean.” And likewise she will not be interpreting Red Peter in good academic style as the artist obliged to please in order to live or, say, as the woman making her way in a world fashioned by men. For again she corrects the academic habit of abstraction: “I have a literal cast of mind . . . When Kafka writes about an ape, I take him to be talking in the first place about an ape.”
What then does Red Peter mean strictly as an ape, and an ape who, so far from standing in for a human (for the Jew, for the artist), is himself now apparently being stood in for, at Appleton College, by a distinguished old lady, Elizabeth Costello?
In the same year in which Kafka’s short story appeared, 1917, the psychologist Wolfgang Köhler had published The Mentality of Apes, an account of his work with chimpanzees at a research station on the island of Tenerife. Like Red Peter, so Costello says, Köhler’s apes “underwent a period of training intended to humanize them”, which included the setting of various problems or difficulties for the chimpanzees to solve in order to get at their food. You note that word “training”. Costello speaks of “what the apes on Tenerife learned from their master”, and of the most adept of them, named Sultan, “beginning to see how the man’s mind works”. Köhler’s research was not, then, aimed at understanding the ape-mind as it naturally is; rather the aim was to see how nearly it could be induced to work like a man’s. His title might more accurately have been The Mentality of Humans.
That, at any rate, is how Elizabeth Costello reads the book – a book which she in fact suggests Kafka himself had read before writing ‘Report to an Academy’. She analyzes Köhler’s experiments thus: “As long as Sultan continues to think wrong thoughts [i.e. not puzzle-solving thoughts], he is starved . . . At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought . . . he is relentlessly propelled towards lower, practical, instrumental reason.” And this is indeed how Red Peter has earned his own food, his means to live comfortably: by imitating the behaviour of humans (spitting, drinking, or shaking hands, according to the models available) and deliberately relinquishing his ape heritage. “I can no longer attain,” he says, “the old apish truth.”
So Elizabeth Costello sets the story of Red Peter in the context of animal research, and of the stripped-down version of the animal which is all that is useful or even intelligible to it. (Thus Oxford’s Professor Burdon Sanderson in 1876: “The study of the life of plants and animals is in a very large measure an affair of measurement.”) For all Red Peter’s rather ghastly self-satisfaction (part of being ‘human’, perhaps), he is no more than anthropological evidence for his attentive academicians, as he is no more than a ‘turn’ for his vaudeville audiences. And for this acceptance into the human circle, “what has he had to give up?” asks Costello. A painful defeat has been involved.
But there is also a much larger context of defeat to the story. That human mentality, in favour of which Red Peter has foregone his own “apish truth”, has in fact overshadowed the whole kingdom of animals. “In the olden days,” says Costello (the fairy-tale phrase suggesting that she’s not proposing to speak the language of “reason” herself),
the voice of man, raised in reason, was confronted by the roar of the lion, the bellow of the bull. Man went to war with the lion and the bull, and after many generations won that war definitively . . . Animals have only their silence left to confront us. Generation after generation, heroically, our captives refuse to speak to us.
Except Red Peter, that is. And in him we can see how humans have indeed made themselves and their “reason” the measure of the world: he can only be understood, only respected and allowed out of captivity, as a quasi-human, a plucky runner-up in life’s race. That’s why in fact he admits, right at the beginning of his address, that he can tell his audience nothing about the life of an ape. All that he now knows of it, they already know: he is, after all, their creation.
So it’s the tragic character of this defeat, this loss of the animal voice and share in the world, that Elizabeth Costello means to represent to her Appleton audience when she tells them that she feels like Red Peter. For all his grotesquely humanoid manners, Red Peter is, she says, “a branded, marked, wounded animal presenting himself as speaking testimony to a gathering of scholars.” And just so is she, “an animal exhibiting, yet not exhibiting, to a gathering of scholars, a wound, which I cover up under my clothes but touch on in every word I speak.” Red Peter’s wound (he sometimes shows it to his audiences) is the one made by the rifle which brought him down and hustled him into the human world: it’s the record or scar of his humanization. Elizabeth Costello’s is the converse of that: it is her heritage as an animal, her share in Red Peter’s wound and in all the wounds which modern life inflicts upon non-human animals.
But she has to remind her audience that it isn’t she alone who has this heritage: “we are all animals”. Accordingly she insists that we all do have (contrary to what the philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued), the capacity to understand other animals as they really are, and the duty therefore to compassionate them: “I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life.” It is not just a case of imaginative sympathy, although Costello does indeed urge the Appleton scholars to use and trust this faculty: “open your heart and listen to what your heart says.” (The scholars are “nonplussed” by this emotional appeal.) It’s also a matter of fact: there really is that “substrate of life” which we share with all living things. Without it, we could not have come into existence as a species. Red Peter himself impishly reminds his academicians of it, when he refers to “your own apehood, gentlemen, to the extent that there is anything like that in your past”.
And now we can appreciate better the story that Kafka’s Red Peter, understood not as a Jew or an artist but literally as an ape, is telling: it’s the story of human evolution, and of our misuse of it. Red Peter is both the first and the last man: the first as, struggling out of his former species, he becomes human; the latest, as he pulls up the ladder, forgetting his ape-life, speaking scornfully of his former species, keeping a miserable “half-trained chimpanzee” as a sort of concubine but shunning her during the day. Just so has humanity pulled up the ladder connecting it to all that “substrate of life” from which it emerged. What impoverishment has been involved is suggested in the superficial tricks and manners which constitute Red Peter’s humanity. In Coetzee’s story, it is suggested also in the discomfort of the Appleton minds, their awkward inadequacy in facing Elizabeth Costello’s unhappy passion, her “wound”.
But of course there is a worse impoverishment entailed for the animals themselves. That wound, metaphorical in her case, is horribly factual in the case of the real animals whose lives, “all around us as I speak”, are circulating in the modern world’s “enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing . . . an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them”. Their story, implicit in Kafka’s sardonic fable, is presented to the academy by Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello in plain light as the human and animal tragedy it is.
Notes and references:
Quotations from ‘A Report to an Academy’ are as translated by Stanley Applebaum in The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Dover Publications 1996, pp.81-88.
J.M.Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals later became ‘Lesson 4’ in the novel Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, which is the text from which the quotations above are taken (Vintage Books 2004, pp.91-115). There’s more about Coetzee and Lives of Animals on the VERO web-site here: http://www.vero.org.uk/matthewsimpson2.pdf
Professor Burdon Sanderson is quoted from a lecture published in the journal Nature, 1876, vol.14, pp.117. The painting Science is Measurement (1879) by Henry Stacy Marks is said (by Terrie Romano in Making Medicine Scientific Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, p.127) to have been inspired, at least as to its title, by Burdon Sanderson’s lecture. It belongs in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.