‘A Report to an Academy’ is a short story by Franz Kafka told from the point of view of an ape. The ape, ‘Red Peter’, so-called for the red mark on his cheek, the only sign thought to distinguish him from his predecessor ‘Peter’, addresses an esteemed audience of academics on the topic of his life. Much of what he ‘remembers’ has been told to him. He doesn’t remember, for instance, the moment of his capture. That evening he came down to the shore to take a drink as usual. When the shots rang out all the apes in his troop scattered. He was the only one shot. He doesn’t remember the pain of the two wounds- one on his cheek, a ‘slight wound’, and one below the hip, the cause of his limp five years later. This part of his story was told to him long after the event.
His own memories, though it’s impossible to be sure, began when he ‘came to’ between the decks of the steamer that ferried him away from the jungle. His new home was three-sided cage nailed to a locker: “The whole construction was too low for me to stand up in and too narrow to sit down in. So I had to squat with my knees bent and trembling all the time, and also, since probably for a time I wished to see no one, and to stay in the dark, my face was turned toward the locker while the bars of the cage cut into my flesh behind.” Those first days were hellish. He was alone, uncomfortable, hungry, taunted by the crew; a beast in a cage.
He realised he had to find a way out. But as far as Hagenbeck, his captor, was concerned the place for apes was inside a cage. To get out of the cage he had to stop being an ape. “A fine, clear train of thought, which I must have constructed somehow with my belly, since apes think with their bellies.”
He didn’t know at the time how to affect this change, only that a vague seed had implanted itself in his head. He began to observe the men around him. They themselves held no great attraction to him, not as they went about with such ‘heavy faces’. But the more he watched them the more he came to understand. “It was only the mass weight of my observations that impelled me in the right direction”: he imagined that by becoming more like them he might be relieved of the condition he found himself in. Having watched the world around him he had built the (im)possibility of a way out.
It was easy to imitate the men. They appreciated it too, letting out a roar of appreciation when he performed such minor acts as pressing his thumb into the bowl of the pipe. The hardest lesson was the drinking (Red Peter realised that such a trick was vital to his evolution). “The smell of it revolted me; I forced myself to it as best I could; but it took weeks for me to master my repulsion.” One man among the crew took it upon himself to see to it that Red Peter mastered the bottle. It is worth quoting at length the beauty of this pedagogic relationship, the awe of student and the compassion of teacher. “He would slowly uncork the bottle and then look at me to see if I had followed him; I admit that I always watched him with wildly eager, too eager attention; such a student of humankind no human teacher ever found on earth. After the bottle was uncorked he lifted it to his mouth; I followed it with my eyes right up to his jaws; he would nod, pleased with me, and set the bottle to his lips; I, enchanted with my gradual enlightenment, squealed and scratched myself comprehensively wherever scratching was called for; he rejoiced, tilted the bottle, and took a drink; I, impatient and desperate to emulate him, befouled myself in my cage, which again gave him great satisfaction; and then, holding the bottle at arm’s length and bringing it up with a swing, he would empty it at one draught, leaning back at an exaggerated angle for my better instruction. I, exhausted by too much effort, could follow him no farther and hung limply to the bars, while he ended his theoretical exposition by rubbing his belly and grinning.” While his teacher was repeatedly disappointed, and Red Peter disappointed by this disappointment, they both took solace in the knowledge that they were fighting on the same side, fighting against the nature of apes in the name of humanity.
Red Peter persevered. At every moment he was stretched, physically and mentally, as he forced himself into a new way of experiencing the world, a new way of moving his arms, his eyes, his mouth. It was as people say of new born babies: that they learn quickly and develop their habits, behaviours and movements. Now Red Peter was undergoing the same process, but not, as it were, from scratch. The exhaustion he accepted as part of his ‘destiny’, as the necessary and only way out.
His transition came in a series of breakthroughs. The greatest came one night when there was a party below deck. Most of the crowd were pleased with themselves, not paying Red Peter any attention. One of them, perhaps already in a state of inebriation, placed a bottle near his cage. Red Peter, eager to please, took the bottle and ‘uncorked it expertly’. The group began to turn in ones and twos, their attention and interest slowly mounting. Red Peter, keen to his audience, set it to his lips and “with no grimace, like a professional drinker, with rolling eyes and full throat, actually and truly drank it empty; then threw the bottle away, not this time in despair but as an artistic performer; forgot, indeed, to rub my belly; but instead of that, because I could not help it, because my senses were reeling, called a brief and unmistakable “Hallo!” breaking into human speech, and with this outburst broke into the human community, and felt its echo: “Listen, he’s talking!” like a cares over the whole of my sweat drenched body.”
From this moment Red Peter’s progress and future were determined. He knew that he was no ordinary ape, no ‘zoo ape’. The point now was to take it further, to see how far this ape could travel towards humanity. So Red Peter under went tests: Food is placed on a high ledge beyond his reach. Red Peter is hungry. He knows that screaming or turning his back will not get him any more food, nor bring any more praise- and praise, he understands, is what keeps him alive. So, dutifully, he moves over to the corner and drags the two wooden boxes over to beneath the ledge. He climbs up and gets the bananas. The men in white coats smile at one another and speak sounds of encouragement, though Red Peter doesn’t yet understand what they mean. So Red Peter is groomed as an ‘intelligent’ being, a close relative. In the space of five short years he manages to reach the ‘cultural level of an average European’. “In itself that might be nothing to speak of, but it is something insofar as it has helped me out of my cage and opened a special way out for me, the way of humanity.”
No doubt his fate is an awful one. Later we learn of the bouts of depression he suffers, his need to be alone, his persistent and intense feelings of repulsion towards humans. Yet his own words convey a sense of achievement: he had managed to escape from the three-sided cage he was brought in to against his will. And how did he escape? By his own admission he escaped through his own intelligence. “And so I learned things, gentlemen. Ah, one learns when one has to; one learns when one needs a way out; one learns at all costs.” Red Peter learnt because he had to, because he was faced with two choices: life in a cage or life beyond the cage. “There was nothing else for me to do, provided always that freedom was no to be my choice.”
In the early days on board the boat, through the first fogs of his growing awareness, Red Peter weighed up his options. Between his sobbing, his apathetic licking of a coconut, the pain of the bars, he was filled with only one desperate feeling: no way out. “Of course what I felt then as an ape I can represent now only in human terms, and therefore I misrepresent it, but although I cannot reach back to the truth of the old ape life, there is no doubt that it lies somewhere in the direction I have indicated. Until then I had had so many ways out of everything, and now I had none.” He understood that having no way out he had to devise one, “even should the way out prove to be an illusion.” He considered the possibilities of escape, of flight- ‘for an ape it must always be possible’- now his teeth are filed down and straight but he must have had sharp teeth then, teeth capable of cracking nuts. But even if he bit through the lock they’d catch him again and treat him all the worse. It is not as though Red Peter asked for much. He didn’t want an abstract ‘freedom’, that to which some humans blindly aspire. He wanted only a way out, a way of exercising his arms and legs, of breathing air, of choosing where to go and what to do, “only not to stay motionless with raised arms, crushed against a wooden wall”.
And so Red Peter is forced through necessity, and we may call it desire, the desire to live, to do what the humans were unable to do: he extends himself into another world; he belies the impossible, the limitations of imagination and physicality, and becomes another being. The humans couldn’t understand that the ape possessed intelligence, yet it was he who discovered what it was they understood as intelligence, not through mimicry but through observation, attention, concern, desire and effort. He had to learn how they experienced the world so that they would accept him as something- a lesser being maybe, but one with freedom beyond the cage.
Humanity came to appreciate Red Peter’s progress as the movement of equality. They perceived the untamed Red Peter as a dumb, befouled, lice picking animal. They saw Red Peter’s imitations as some hope that there was really more to him than just that- something they had imagined possible through previous experiments, the way in which certain noises ‘they made’ were ‘just like talking’, or certain touches between a male and a female ‘just as if they were in love’.
This is determinism in its most brutal form: calculating and reducing the world to endless tautologies: is the ape intelligent? The ape shows it is intelligent if it gets the food; the ape got the food it must be intelligent. This determinism is applied generally. Of course the ape can learn and evolve, but only from a position of less, from a position of inferiority: it is never the one learning who defines the parameters of civilised and uncivilised.
Red Peter’s fate was determined by a choice: live like us or die like your own. He had no way of continuing as an ape, not in a world of humans. Transformation, adaptation, progress, change were thus held out to him as if they were empowering. “I repeat: there was no attraction for me in imitating human beings; I imitated them because I needed a way out.” This confession should cause consternation: he didn’t want to become more human, he was forced to against his will. After the consternation subsides the radical meaning of his confession becomes apparent: the ape was intelligent before he learned how to speak, before he learnt how to tie his own bow tie, before he learnt how to drink schnapps from a dirty bottle. He was intelligent from the start.
The aspiration to make things more equal by ‘raising the inferior’ is nothing more than the re-constitution of inequality through ascription and determinism. The way to break this circle is to assert another way of knowing, of being, of relating to the world. This is not easily done. It cannot be prescribed or represented. It emerges through the intelligence and expression of individuals, through moments of desire or fear, as experienced by Red Peter in his cage.
Red Peter explains how his life as an ape has been forgotten. “I could have returned at first, had human beings allowed it, through an archway as wide as the span of heaven over the earth, but as I spurred myself on in my forced career, the opening narrowed and shrank behind me; I felt more comfortable in the world of men and fitted it better.” But he adds that everyone, man and ape alike, retains the potential for that first, stuttering encounter with the world. “Everyone on earth feels a tickling at the heels; the small chimpanzee and the great Achilles alike.”
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