Sunday, 9 July 2017

An Ape is an Ape is an Ape: An Analysis of Kafka's 'A Report to an Academy' (1917)

Trying to adopt another culture is difficult. Trying to adopt a different species is damn-near impossible. Kafka talks about the former through a fable about the latter. An ape assimilating into humanity allegorises a person of one ethnic background assimilating into a different culture. This person may mimic every behaviour and internalise every value, but at some level his audience will only see this person’s origin.

Red Peter – Peter to those who respect him – is an ape. An academy has invited him to talk about life as an ape. As Peter’s has no memory of his ape-like days, he hijacks the engagement to talk about how he became human. Captured in the Gold Coast by a hunting party, and imprisoned in a cage on a boat, Peter needed an escape. Ape-strength could not break his cage, and even if it could, a bullet would be his reward. The only way out, he realised, was to become human. Through a vigorous apprenticeship under his shipmates he learnt how to smoke, spit, and drink. He continued his education on dry land, employing five teachers at the same time to help him reach the level of the ‘average European’. With humanity under his belt, he took a job as a variety performer, the only job available to him outside the zoo. But as he says to the academy, he does not seek their approval. Through his narrative, he only hopes they understand him.  

A Report to an Academy is two stories: one, how Peter assimilated from apedom to humanity; two, Peter recounting how he assimilated from apedom to humanity to an audience more interested in his apedom. For the first story, his goal is to mimic humanity; in the second, his aim is to ‘spread understanding’ about where his mimicry has left him, and what assimilation entails.   

Peter did not assimilate into the human world by choice. He assimilated to survive. This survival does not require strength, speed, or any ability a jungle-dwelling ape requires; it requires a mastery of etiquette. Peter changes his behaviour to blend in with humans, so much that now he cannot even remember his ape days.

Prima facie, Peter shows assimilation done well. Through active and close attention to his adopted culture’s ways and manners, he has internalised them; he has ascended to the level of ‘average European.’ Yet the story Peter tells of how he got here, of the human ways and manners he studied, undermines not just Peter’s achievements, but the endeavour of assimilation.

Although Peter speaks like an educated bourgeois, his introduction to humanity came from a lower kind of person. Caged in a boat, he learnt human-ness from sailors. Far from the refinement he himself has achieved, Peter focuses on these sailors’ bestial ticks: their laughter, which ‘always tipped over into a nasty-sounding but finally insignificant cough’; their habit of ‘always’ spitting, and not caring where it splatted; their ‘grunting’ which replaced speaking.

To an audience which expected Peter to talk about his apedom, which still views him as an ape, Peter talks about these less than refined examples of humanity, whom none of the audience would see as less than human. This is the double-standard of assimilation. The dominant culture imagines an ideal member, and expects aliens to measure up just to be considered average, but rarely subjects natives to this standard. In his subtlest and calmest manner, Peter reveals the hypocrisy, describing the natives’ vulgarity with his ape-tongue’s refinement.

To pass as human Peter mimics human behaviour, but few of these behaviours seem essentially civilised. The bulk of Peter’s narrations tell of his first steps into humanity, on the boat, learning from the sailors. How he got his erudition and eloquence, he relegates to the denouement. Rather than tell his audience, in depth, how he gobbled and digested the highest flowers of European culture, Peter tells a grubby story of learning to smoke and spit. His story climaxes with him sculling whiskey without gagging.

The irony is that in learning these vulgar behaviours from humans, Peter shows a human virtue. One virtue that separates humans from beasts is being able to defer present pleasure for greater future pleasure. From the sailors, Peter learns smoking and drinking. To the sailors, these are hedonistic acts. To Peter, these are nauseating acts, and yet he does them, because he knows they will help him get out of his cage. By persevering with these personally revolting human hedonisms, Peter shows he was already, in some sense, more civilised than these humans.   

The defence given of rigorous assimilation is that outsiders must learn to live by values of the culture they live in. Perhaps there’s something in that, but often this talk of deeper values veils a prejudice for superficial behaviour. Peter’s story of the boat shows him, not internalising human values, but mimicking their behaviour. He copies how they ‘spit’, how they ‘smoke’, how they ‘drink’. This does not reflect a deep revolution of character; he acts, but does not understand why. Even after he mastered holding a pipe it took him ‘a long time to grasp the difference between a filled an empty pipe’.

But ultimately, one’s character hardly matters. Peter must appear human, which is impossible. His ape-ness, his unconcealable otherness, stops him from getting the complement of assimilation, acceptance. Peter says he has ‘reached the level of cultivation of the average European.’ His underestimation of himself only strengthens his implicit point: Are average Europeans viewed as he has been. By the end of the story, Peter has the superficial luxuries of class: drinking wine in leisure time, accepting visitors, frequenting banquets with learned people, etc. Yet Peter is still a show-ape on the variety stage, the ape who apes humanity. If he did not have this dubious claim to fame, one wonders if he could mingle with good-society; his foot-hold in human society comes from his not being human. The entire framing device of this story comes from his not being human: the academy asked him to speak about life as an ape. Peter has the character, diction, and manner of an above-average human, yet the average human will always see him as an ape.        

Quotes taken from Metamorphosis and Other Stories (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition), by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hoffmann, 2008

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