The Chimp as a Metaphor for Jewishness in Shalom Auslander’s “Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp” – Part II



It goes without saying that the question of man’s relationship to apes has created major historical challenges and changes over the last three centuries. Although it is the case that the material culture must be deeply examined to understand these challenges and shifts, it is the act of imagining an ape with human features that needs the most thought. The ape-man is a staple in fiction and film. The important differences of genera that can be seen throughout different media must be noted. The most apparent difference to note is basic: that while man-apes are figured as cute and adorable, others are frightening. This difference is often pronounced and is commonplace. But the tension between which can be articulated by way of a comical figure is rare.   And this tension has, in the hands of Franz Kafka and Shalom Auslander, become a comical figuration of modern Jewish self-consciousness.   In its tension with a fictional people (in this or that ape-man fiction), this odd figure for Jewish consciousness takes on Yiddish and urban notes. Sometimes these notes are dark, other times they are light.

We see one of these figurations in Kafka’s “Report to an Academy.” Kafka’s story gives us a chimp who is at odds with himself; in his “report,” he acknowledges that he remembers how he was wounded when he was sundered from this people. Through the sexual other, he is aware of his broken existence. However, he betrays these memories and this knowledge by giving them a lower status in his report to the academy (about what he has learned in his journey to becoming an ape – adopting language, dress, custom, consciousness, reasoning, and freedom).

Kafka’s ape is aware that he is free – which is based on denial – and this is more important to him than his shame at betrayal.   As Kafka discloses at the end of his story, this shame is linked to his awareness of his sexual “other” (who serves as a mirror of his real self). He sees this otherness through his mate not at night but during the day when everything is clear. From these realizations, the reader can see that he is a divided man-ape. This consciousness mitigates the comical nature of his situation at the academy: namely, that he is an ape who knows that he is acting “as if” he is human and has escaped his past.   We all know that his existence is based on denial and that this is not a laughing matter. In fact, many of us would like that he remember and rebel against the academy. And this is, as I noted elsewhere, a metaphor for Kafka’s Jewishness which he didn’t take a stand on, but was deeply aware of – as can be seen in his journals and diaries.  Kafka had to hide this awareness in his man-animal parables. The smallness of his man-animal characters – as in “Josephine the Mouse Singer, Mouse Folk” – illustrates this very well.

In contrast to Kafka’s “Report from the Academy,” we see the figure of a Jewish ape-man’s consciousness in a more concrete, contemporary, and comical form in Shalom Auslander’s “Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp.”   While Ausladner carries over Kafka’s figure of the Jewish ape-man, he makes it more obvious and comical that he is Jewish. And by making it more obvious, he is free to create a distinct figure of modern cynical, Jewish self-consciousness and existence – one that is situated in a ridiculous American variant of the capitalist, cultural system.   More importantly, four words, for Auslander, sum up the core of this consciousness in four words: God, Death, Shame, and Guilt.

Right off the bat, Auslander focuses on the initial event of discovery at the Monkey House (the area where the public sees the monkeys, so to speak, on display).

As 9:37 in the otherwise ordinary mourning of May 25, Bobo, a small chimpanzee in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo, achieved total conscious self-awareness:




Guilt. (11, Beware of God: Stories)

But instead of leaving us in shock, as Kafka does, Auslander couches this revelation in a comical language:

Each one dropped like a boulder onto his tiny primitive skull. He grabbed his head in his hands and ran shrieking around the Monkey House, overturning water bowls and tearing branches off the trees. (11)

The monkey runs after fellow monkeys in a comical manner and then experiences, for the first time, a kind of transport above his body: “It was as if he had been somehow transported to the top of the tallest tree in the forest and was looking down upon himself below”(12).   Now, like Kafka’s ape-man, he sees “a brute, a beasts, a dim, half-finished creature”(12). His “newly acquired skills” (of consciousness, shame, etc), however, are not there to built but to destroy (they are a “weapon”).

When he notices his “bright red erection,” “shame filled his soul.” Shame, asks the narrator, “That was new.” Seeing him in this state, the other monkeys start crying and screaming.   And they “point at Bobo’s hideous primitive penis.” Following this, the narrator brings in the teachers of the ape children and notes that instead of “explanation,” they give the kids a “Denial”(12).

He’s just happy, children! Tried one teacher.

“Happy, yay!” clapped the other. (12)

What is most interesting in this comic portrayal is how his consciousness is based on shame and a sense that he is at odds with not just the other monkeys but the teachers as well. He lives in a shameful truth that can’t even be noticed or discussed by the educators of the community. This shock informs Bobo’s “self-hatred.”

This mayhem is also noticed by the “Management” of the “Monkey House.” They shut down the facility clear the “innocents away” and “sedate” Bobo. The narrator of this short story notes how this internal state means nothing to the Management who cannot know it and how are too busy “restoring” the Monkey House so that more people will come and patronize them.   He jokingly notes how there is a new décor: “Chimpanzee Bay, a freshwater pool that was built to look like an ocean, complete with a Deluxe WaveMaker 3000. Judging by the crowds pressing their faces to the glass on opening day, it didn’t seem to bother anyone that chimpanzees can’t actually swim”(13).   It is the consciousness of this by the reader, the narrator, and Bobo, which creates the effect of an aggravated man-ape consciousness.   Our frustrations give us a kind of bitter cynical consciousness, that is inseparable from – as we saw in the opening of the story – God, Shame, Death, and Guilt.

Turning to a more comic note, the narrator points out how the Management gave Bobo a wide array of drugs – ranging from Viagra to Paxil – to deal with his PTSD (14). Like Kafka’s Ape-Man, Auslander’s wants “out”(14). But while Kafka’s ape sees his desire to leave (or move) in terms of a past ape memory (and thus falsely), Auslander’s ape-man does not. He knows that the Management has made him into an animal without any freedom whatsoever.

The narrator stages the mental rebellion of Bobo against the Management. He articulates Bobo’s thoughts against the humans; namely, that the Lab Technician, for instance, should acknowledge that he and humans – like the Lab Technician – share an “awareness of our own mortality and unique self-perception”(15). But this thought is not heard. Like Kafka’s bug in “The Metamorphosis,” when he speaks, his thought come out as odd noises.

They don’t care about his thoughts. This is his private shame.

Bobo :isn’t a fool.” He knows that the public wants a cute ape: a “Curious George,” “Megillah Gorilla” or a “Monchichi.” They don’t want the bitter ape, the apte-as-self-hating-artist. Perhaps in order to increase his sense of alienation and humiliation or perhaps because that’s the way “life” is, he notices that his “Judeo-Christian” sense of the words “right and wrong” sets him apart from the other apes (16).   And this prompts him to apologize to a female chimp – Esmerelda – for “objectifying” her for sexual reasons.   But, as in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, she doesn’t care and goes off for the alpha male ape, Mongo.

The guilt at this clearly puts Auslander’s Bobo in the realm of the schlemiel that Woody Allen dwelled in for half his career.   Bobo – like Allen’s schlemiel in many films – watches his sexual failure in a comical way:

Bobo watched with contempt as Mongo humped away at Esmerelda, his ridiculous testicles bouncing this way and that like terrified children on the back of a runaway camel in the African Safari Park. “Help! They screamed to shout. “Get us out of here!” Bobo knew how they felt. Look at us, Bobo thought, shaking his head sadly. A bunch of fucking monkeys. Where is our dignity? Where is our pride? Where is our pants? (18)

Following this, Bobo retreats away from the cruel world. He retreats into the world of art. After Mongo has sex with Esmerelda and “shits” next to Bobo, Bobo takes the shit and flings it against the wall making art:

By the end of the first week, he was creating sweeping tableaus which he saw as scathing attacks on chimpanzee culture and primitive mores. His Self-Portrait was a devastating attack on racism, his Unhuman Stain a poignant plea for self-respect and dignity, his Life in Monkey House a searing assault on political power and corporate gain. (19)

The observers love this shit-art, so the Management gets him real paints. His paintings start to change. They grow “darker with each passing day”(19) because he starts “wrestling with existence and the meaning of death”(19).

But, as Auslander wittingly conveys, this art can’t keep him from thinking of Esmerelda and his sexual failure.   He portrays – in his mind – Esmerelda and Mongo as “mutually….selfish.” They want to breed, but he, he wants to create art. He is, as Kafka might say, a “hunger artist.”   But this only leads him to the deepest cynicism. And the schlemiel turns into a serious, self-hating character: “you’re an angry little monkey aren’t you? Yes, you are!”

After this cynicism takes hold of him, he stops painting and becomes suicidal.   He sees everything fall apart around him. So he “stood up and walked calmly to the edge of Chimpanzee Bay.”   He just gives up on existence. He wants nothing to do with it.

Everyone watches him commit suicide but they have no idea what he is doing. And while he is dying, Mongo mounts Esmerelda: at this moment, sex and death are in a clearly figured tension. The reader gets a deep sense of this cynicism and, in effect, shares it with Bobo.

However, there seems to be hope. A chimp named “Kato” notices the death and his struck by: “God. Death. Shame. Guilt.” Auslander, using the same opening sentences as he did with Bobo (describing the awareness of these words and their meaning) jokingly suggests that the cycle will now overtake the next free monkey-man-subject, Kato:

“Look at us,” Kato thought, “a bunch of fucking monkeys”(21).   The only difference is that he pulls Bobo’s body out of the water.   Bu tit is too late. He is the only one who is “mourning.” And this fills his soul with “shame.” However, the last words of the story ironically suggest that the “new” awareness of shame.

As a cynic, we can say that this awareness is not new at all. It is not only typical of a man of conscience – which is spurred by God. Death. Shame. Guilt and the “Judeo-Christian” – but it is typical of an existence that is consistently inhumane and injustice.   To be sure, it is the disclosure that the world doesn’t care about monkeys-with-consciousness that typifies his more obvious figuration of a particular kind of Jewishness and a general sense of a world that consistently prompts cynicism.   Is it this consciousness that is, for both Kafka and Auslander, inevitable.   Regardless of how comical it is, it is the disconnect between Jewishness and the world that gives birth to a kind of cynical consciousness that Auslander is figure in this and in a book like Hope: A Tragedy. The schlemiel takes part in this endeavor but when it becomes cynical, the world seems to displace the possibility of going beyond self-hate.   And on this note, we should end with a question: between Auslander and Kafka’s figures of the man-animal, how does the figure of the schlemiel of writers like Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer fare? And how does this pertain to the writer and the reader? While Aleichem and Singer foreground the battle between goodness and a society that can do without it, Kafka and Auslander describe the consciousness that is caught up in this realization.   They are both – as Arendt says of Kafka and Chaplin in an essay on Kafka – like “men of good will.”   But  it is their depiction which makes the difference.  One depiction – which we find in Auslander and Kafka – can prompt an increased sense of a split consciousness and cynicism while the other – which we see in Aleichem and Singer – can give hope or at least a sense of what is at stake in the tension between goodness and…The Management.








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