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Monkey House

Strange Reflections at the Singerie

Monkey house in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris. (© Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images)

ISSUE:  Winter 2022

The Jardin des Plantes in Paris, which contains one of the world’s oldest zoos, is located across the street from the Austerlitz train station. During the French Revolution, the king’s royal zoo was pillaged at Versailles, and his collection of animals was mostly either eaten or destroyed. The animals that remained, including a lion and a rhinoceros, were spared a death sentence after the king was guillotined, and thus formed the beginnings of the first menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes: an abandoned royal collection joined by trained monkeys and dancing bears after the government seizure of circus animals in Paris, their former owners hired as the first zookeepers. Napoleon stocked the menagerie with a Noah’s ark of animals. Crowds gathered to see an elephant, a zebra, a giraffe, a polar bear. In the next century, due to conversations about the ethics of enclosed space, most of the large animals were transported to larger zoos, or died. There are now mostly small animals in the Jardin des Plantes’ outside enclosures, such as ostriches and flamingos, some grazing creatures, small red pandas cavorting in the Napoleonic bear pit. But still, there are the glasshouses with a metallic framework, such as the rotonde des singes, constructed in 1934 in the art-deco style, like a glass palace for primates, where two sides can view each other: man watching ape, ape watching man. Much as John Berger writes in a 1991 essay on visiting the zoo in Basel, Switzerland, this open design makes the architecture of the monkey house feel like theater in-the-round, with multitiered seating (as well as balconies from which the actors can urinate), and makes more pronounced the sensation that the great apes are pantomiming for an audience. It is a strange theater, he writes, where on either side of the glass, each group might think it is the audience. The word evolution, Berger writes, is from the Latin for unfolding, and his essay on watching the monkeys at the zoo folds and unfolds in strange and surprising ways, traveling back in history to become a meditation on time. He remembers going to the zoo as a child, with his parents, especially his father. In fact, he tells us that this is one of his spare happy memories of childhood, but doesn’t tell us if that’s because his memories of childhood are not happy or, just as likely, too many decades have passed for him to remember. There is perhaps no more pronounced a gap of awareness and experience between child and adult than when visiting the zoo. As Berger has written elsewhere, what a child witnesses as curious or joyful when looking at the animals—and Berger has his doubts that this is the case—the philosophical adult observes with melancholy, and often a burst of empathy for the oppressed dailiness of the creatures behind bars, a feeling that dissipates somewhat when they’re out of sight, for zoos are incredibly complex, psychic spaces that are more often than not deeply sad, an odd choice for regular pilgrimages of fun. And yet, Berger remembers sitting as a child with his father, watching the monkeys at play, and pondering a sense of mystery, as he writes, to the unfolding of evolution, especially—as is the cliché—the links between ourselves and the apes, the drama of a 99 percent resemblance. He and his father would lose all sense of time, Berger writes, sitting there in a comfortable silence. He repeats this phrase, lost to the passage of time, blinking back to his present day, an old man in a foreign country amid animated youngsters and their families, traveling back to his London childhood, to when his parents were alive. As Gillian Osborne has noted, one paragraph at the end of the essay startles in its pathos of the critic remembering his stuffed chimpanzee that he received when he was two years old. This paragraph comes suddenly in the midst of a recitation of facts about the evolution of animal locomotion, the accidents that become natural selection, like the aleatory movement of this essay, how the anatomy of apes evolved to allow them to hang from trees and swing from branch to branch, a type of movement known as brachiation, that he depicts in writing in a series of sequences that resemble Eadweard Muybridge’s sole-yet-somehow-multiple baboon walking on all fours and climbing up a pole. He remembers as a very small child greeting every visitor to his family’s London home with his stuffed chimp, named Jackie, and this is the pathetic gesture in this paragraph, this sequence of memories, toddler John Berger moving across time; just like the toddlers he’s observing at the zoo in Basel, he moves into the darkroom of his memory, and cannot say for sure that the stuffed monkey was named Jackie. The only one who would really know for sure was his mother, and his mother was dead. Perhaps there is the smallest chance—the same one-in-a-million chance, he notes, as a genetic mutation by natural selection—that a reader will be able to tell him that they were one of the many visitors to his home back in his youth, who went through his door, to this room of his childhood. It is this attempt to beseech or connect to the reader that is one of the many moving and strange moments in this passage, not only the mother who flits a spectral presence throughout, more in periphery than the father, but the slippages of memory: Can anyone remember me? Can I even remember myself? Both faces are pressed up to the glass in this moment—the author and the reader—and it’s unclear who is the performer and who is the audience. The true meditation comes to the surface here: that of an awareness of mortality, and wondering whether monkeys share that same existential dread. The toddler clutching his stuffed monkey, now an old man, finds himself looking at his reflection in a mirror, that of an older gorilla who appears to be almost blind, which he compares to Samuel Beckett’s Pozzo, who chooses not to see, as opposed to having to think about time, or the inevitability of his death. He asks the young zookeeper what the age is of the elder gorilla, and she regards him, as if with pity, and tells him that they’re about the same age, a moment that does seem like it is out of a Beckett play. What do people think of this man in his early sixties alone—if he is in fact alone—at the zoo on an autumn day? And regarding a sepia-toned photograph of la maison des singes at the Jardin des Plantes—I note the one stark tree in the center of the enclosure that seems to be the stage design for a simian production of Waiting for Godot, theatergoers in their Sunday finest waiting around for something to happen, with the performers inside, uncertain of their role. Vladimir Nabokov reportedly first felt the flash of inspiration for Lolita after a newspaper account of an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, one that apparently produced the first drawing by an animal, a charcoal sketch of the bars of its cage, one of many historical accounts of orangutans on exhibition trained to imitate human skills, much like Berger’s reference to the chimps in the London Zoo he saw as a child in the 1930s who pantomimed eating and drinking. In the 1600s, Dutch physician Jacobus Bontius wrote of wild apes on the island of Java called Ourang Outang, or man of the forest. There were also secondhand accounts of early European explorers encountering wild humanlike creatures in the forest, finding them both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, living thousands of miles away, inside African and Asian jungles, with even those such as Rousseau wondering if they were a separate mysterious race of wild men. 

W Clerk, High Holborn / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

For two and a half centuries, a number of dead orangutans were dissected in anatomical laboratories, and a few of the juveniles, taken from their mothers, were kept alive in zoos, where a majority of them died after only a couple of years from human illnesses, or perhaps something else, such as in the case of three-year-old Jenny, dressed in proper girls’ clothes and kept in the heated giraffe enclosure at the London Zoo, and whose cage a twenty-nine-year-old Charles Darwin climbed into in an attempt to observe her emotional life, finding her throwing a tantrum like a naughty child when she didn’t get the apple that she wanted, only to then eat her apple contentedly in a chair once she got what she wanted. He ran experiments on Jenny and another young ape named Tommy, giving them mirrors, which fascinated them, and tickling them, observing them capable of jealousy, sulking, and play, recording notes in what are known as his “Transmutation Notebooks.” Young Jenny died after less than two years in captivity, of an unspecified illness, although the conditions of her captivity, including the inability to move freely, or exist in her preferred climate, and feelings of estrangement from her natural habitat, along with her isolation from other apes, were likely contributing factors. It is difficult not to look upon the fate of young Jenny with what we know now of an orangutan’s capacity for self-recognition and an awareness of the continuity of the self over time, such as the cognitive experiments performed on Bornean orangutans in Tokyo, who were documented as being able to discriminate between previously and recently recorded videos of themselves. “Every animal searches, only apes research,” writes Berger. This curiosity makes them suffer, he observes—from an overwhelming lassitude that he characterizes as ennui, after Baudelaire, when deprived of events or spectators. This is only the state, one can imagine, of captive apes who have learned to cathect onto the humans that keep them—or perhaps this boredom is our own projection, and is somehow linked as a term to how humans keep animals, including in the cage of our own language. Boredom, or the appearance of inertia, makes zookeepers nervous, as it deprives the ticket-buyers of spectacle. Perhaps this is why so much is made of the arrival of a new baby, an event that interrupts the dailiness of the monkey house. Berger, swinging from branch to branch, moves to the maternal spectacle, the matrilineal reproductive labor of the monkeys, that gives them relief from their tedium, when the younger females cradle the babies, the ongoing and pleasurable, even aggressive, ritual of grooming that he remembers his mother observing, possibly finding her own moment of recognition. Even the act of brachiation has evolved so the young can fall into the arms of their mother with a yelp, a moment in the essay that punctures with its own poignant cry, of memory, of mommy. He observes the mother orangutan cradling her baby like out of a Cosimo Tura Madonna and child, a tenderness, dare he say, that he defensively adds, in a fragmented, elliptical moment, isn’t a moment of indulging in sentimental confusion. 


I am reminded of my visit to the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes several years ago, when I found myself standing outside of the monkey house with my then two-year-old daughter, who was in a travel stroller. Approaching the monkey house always feels chaotic, with the sounds of monkeys as they swing in a complex geometry of ropes and pulleys and trees, or tree-like structures, in the outside enclosures that are still enclosed, so are at once outside-inside. I became aware of an older woman who had been following us, whom I assumed worked at the zoo, so knowledgeable was she of the well-being of all of the monkeys, although she wasn’t wearing a zoo uniform. She told us, in English, to go inside and see a wonderful surprise. Inside the ancient dark singerie we saw the flashes of light and heard the clicking of camera shutters as people took pictures of a massive orangutan lying on a bed of straw and fabric, cradling a very tiny baby who had just been born that week, whose name I later learned was Java. So, this was all of the excitement, I remember thinking, also that I wished she had privacy, even though I too was staring and desiring to glimpse this special sight with my daughter. How tired she is, I remember thinking, looking at the mother, whose name was Theodora. Milky, I said to my daughter, using the sign for milk, the clasping and unclasping of the hand, and she understood. The baby was latched on. As I write this, the baby, my second daughter, is on me like a monkey, and I am the weary, mammoth one, covered in folds of skin, who she reaches up to nurse on. In the singerie, my now older daughter and I watched for a while, the stasis of the mother and child, its silent vibrations, but the darkness, offset by flashes of light and sounds became too much for me, and we walked outside, where I found myself, still disoriented, stepping over a large tranquilizer gun brought by one of the zoo vets, who was approaching an extremely large orangutan with sagging breasts and a burnished, orange mane, who I realized later was the famous Nénette, the matriarch of a troop of five orangutans rescued from poachers in the forest of Borneo and arriving at the zoo in 1972, spending nearly her entire life in captivity. She trusts him, the woman said to me, as she was suddenly behind us again now, also watching the daily administrations of Nénette, as if this was a regular ritual for her. Since then, I have watched a documentary of Nénette in which the camera steadies on everyone clustered at the glass, murmuring often quite rude and sometimes philosophical meditations at the taciturn ape. It is something about her expressive face that makes her resemble a silent film tragedienne, somehow. 


Bontius reported that the Javanese claimed that these humanimal-like creatures could talk but stayed silent because they were afraid of being enslaved into work. She is an old lady, the woman at the monkey house said of Nénette, as the orangutan had just turned fifty, much longer than she was expected to live in captivity. When she told me this, I wondered how old this woman was, perhaps not much older than the ape, like a mirroring moment out of Berger’s essay on ape theater. And even now, as I’m gathering up these notes, I experience the slipperiness of time, as this was several years ago, even though I’ve meant to record these memories for some time, and I realize I am closer in age to the Nénette I saw then, who I thought was so ancient. Since then, I’ve witnessed other encounters of older women devotedly visiting the primate enclosures at zoos. In August 2021, a Belgian woman by the name of Adie Timmermans was effectively banned from making any more contact with a thirty-eight-year-old male chimp named Chita, after visiting him at the Antwerp Zoo every week for four years, saying goodbye by pressing her face against the glass for Chita to come in for a kiss. Chita was previously kept as a pet until, thirty years ago, he arrived at the zoo after being abandoned because his behavior was deemed unmanageable. Because of this, he was more accustomed to human companionship than the other chimps, calling to mind one of the cautionary tales of the 1970s chimp-language experiments, that of Nim Chimpsky, part of a Columbia University research study. Raised in a family and taught sign language, Nim’s surrogate mother carried him around on her hip for two years, until he began breaking things around the Manhattan brownstone and biting once he entered his terrible twos, only eventually to be abandoned to live an institutionalized life in cages with other chimps sold to a medical laboratory. Perhaps this was also the tragedy of Chita, raised with blankets and soft toys, in diapers and bottles, and then forced to live as a chimp on hard surfaces the rest of his life. Herbert Terrace, the lead psychologist for Project Nim, deemed that Nim Chimpsky couldn’t make language to form his own sentences and ideas, using his namesake’s definition of communication, instead insisting that he could only use signs as a form of mimicry. J. M. Coetzee’s alter-ego, Elizabeth Costello, lectures on Kafka’s Red Peter, an ape who has learned to mimic the language and mannerisms of his captors as a form of survival, seeing this fictional character as the first of the great apes to really speak. Costello hypothesizes that the inspiration for Red Peter was the chimp Sultan, one of the brightest subjects of psychologist Wolfgang Köhler’s experiments at the Anthropoid Station on the island of Tenerife in the early 1900s, which was devoted to understanding the mental capacities of chimpanzees. Sultan was particularly adept at solving problems to try to get the bananas just out of his reach, including climbing up on stacked crates. In her lecture, Costello attempts to trace his thoughts. “The question that truly occupies him, as it occupies the rat and the cat and every other animal trapped in the hell of the laboratory or the zoo, is: ‘Where is home, and how do I get there?’” Perhaps this is why Kafka’s Red Peter chooses the life of the music hall over the zoo, even though, despite the convivial atmosphere, he still remains isolated, neither human nor totally animal, going home at night to mate with a poor chimpanzee chosen for him who does not speak. 

Francis Bacon, <i>Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne (on white ground)</i>, 1965. (© THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. DACS/ARTIMAGE AND ARS 2022.)

A primatologist was interviewed in the New York Times about Francis Bacon’s 1957 painting Study for Chimpanzee, which, the scientist notes, looks more like a baboon than a chimpanzee, or at least like a blurry figure somewhere between human and primate, and was more likely than not inspired by one of Muybridge’s baboons, as Bacon painted from photographs that littered the floor of his chaotic studio, or perhaps was gleaned from Introducing Monkeys, a strange photobook by V. J. Stanek, the director of the Prague Zoo. She noted that there was something so unhappy about the sight of a chimp sitting by himself, as chimps were incredibly social creatures. This is why zookeepers have separated Adie Timmermans from Chita. A spokesperson for the zoo said they wanted to make sure he can be a chimpanzee among chimpanzees, since a primate that associates too much with humans is often isolated from the group, or his peers, as they put it. Chita already had trouble integrating into the chimpanzee troupe and was injured as part of a 2008 brawl. As a result of Chita’s kissy-face with Timmermans (and perhaps others), he spent all day sitting alone outside of zoo hours, shunned by his fellow apes, waiting for visitors, which does in its way conjure Francis Bacon’s study, which is likely a study of a photograph, although Bacon did visit the monkey enclosures at the London Zoo, perhaps with his friend Isabel Rawsthorne. Bacon’s triptych of Rawsthorne portraits has a simian quality, and she herself drew the baboons while visiting the zoo. Something about the redhead in the Rawsthorne looks like Adie Timmermans, suffering, heartbroken. “I haven’t got anything else,” Timmermans said to reporters. “Why do they want to take that away?” Bacon’s paintings are supposed to symbolize the agony of man, his primal scream, underneath the suited surface appearance. When describing his animal studies, Bacon has said that “we live through screens—a screened existence,” as if prescient of a current time when chimps from two separate Czech zoos look at giant Zoom screens of each other throughout the day, to keep company during a time when they cannot interact with human visitors, videos which then live stream on the zoo’s website in order to bring in visitors, if only virtually. It would appear that captive primates have inherited our boredom, what Mark Fisher, in his work on capitalist realism, calls our collective “depressive hedonia,” or the modern affliction of needing constant stimulation through screens. They seemed so bored, my students say, of visiting large-ape enclosures, and I teasingly ask them if they are aware of the intensity of their lassitude, in their boxes or cages, over Zoom while listening to me lecture on bored monkeys, their sometimes-frozen faces from bad connections resembling a Francis Bacon portrait. 


I connect the episode at the monkey house in Paris to one that took place sometime later, at the baboon enclosure at the Prospect Park Zoo, where once again I found myself conversing with an older woman who seemed intimately aware of the daily life of these great apes. Or should I say that once again I found a woman conversing with me, following me, as I scooted along the glass with the stroller, which I had managed to get down the stairs, watching the hierarchies of the harem of Hamadryas baboons and watching the young ones play and fight, taking rides on their mothers’ backs, grooming each other. As before, I found myself being polite while wondering why she was speaking to me, and why she seemed to know so much about the baboons. Was she a docent or a volunteer? As before, it left me with an odd and lingering feeling. She told me and my daughter, who could speak a little and ask questions, that when the weather is bad, baboons often watch television in indoor facilities. I don’t know why she would know this if she didn’t work there. Ever since, I always imagine that all of the animals that can’t be seen are watching television—often, as I’ve read, videos of other monkeys, like the bonobos at a German zoo who could choose three options of viewing pleasure: watching primates eat, play, or mate; surprisingly for the hypersexual bonobos, the last was not the most popular option. The baboon enclosure at the Prospect Park Zoo has tiered seating, much like Berger documents in Basel, and when my daughter was very young, as young as when Berger first had Jackie, we would regularly visit the dimly lit monkey house. My daughter would often press up against the glass, along with the other children, trying to see the monkeys scurry across from a suspended height. I always marveled at the markings of the male Hamadryas baboons, whose remarkable silver manes resemble to me the stiff collar in an Old Master painting, like Velazquez’s Philip IV of Spain, and there’s an aptness to this reference, since the monarch presided over most of the Thirty Years’ War, and baboons are prone to violent and destructive wars, even more extreme than the chimpanzee war that Jane Goodall observed in Gombe, or recalling Chita beaten up by his fellow chimpanzees in Antwerp. I believe one of the last times we went to see the baboons, if not the very last time, was when we witnessed an extremely bloody fight breaking out between two older males, which became so scary for the children watching that we went and sought out someone who worked at the zoo in order to tell them, and were informed that a new troupe of baboons had been placed within the enclosure, and that the fight was over territory. It was only later, while conducting research on what the conditions of the London Zoo might have been like when Berger visited as a child, that I learned of the massive and ongoing conflict at the London Zoo’s Monkey Hill in the early 1930s, an outdoor enclosure like a large rock that mimicked not only their native habitat but also the outdoor exhibits of the Hagenbeck Zoo, which promised fresh air and space for their primates—as opposed to being kept inside in the dark, sickly and bored—while also providing a better show. Kafka’s Red Peter, captured by a Hagenbeck safari, chose the music hall to avoid ending up at Hagenbeck, and in Minima Moralia, Adorno, in a passage on the zoological garden as not only a site of imprisonment but also nineteenth-century colonial imperialism, takes on the apparently humane open layout of Hagenbeck, with trenches and no bars: “The more invisible the boundaries become,” he writes, “the more completely the freedom of the creatures is repudiated, whose gaze could be ignited by the longing for the wide distance.” In 1925, a shipment of approximately one hundred baboons arrived at the London Zoo by boat from the Horn of Africa—most of them male, but six female; the males were preferred because of their dramatic and gaudy coloring, without anyone from the Hagenbeck cluing the Zoological Society of London in to their extremely patriarchal society. Because they were kept in a relatively small enclosure, this resulted in a bloodbath, and over the first few years at the zoo, when Berger would have been a small child, their numbers dwindled to just a few. Perhaps this is why Berger’s mother didn’t like to go with them to see the monkeys. “I sometimes think when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens,” said Francis Bacon. When was the last time we’ve been to the monkey house? It must have been before everything closed down. We’ve been to that zoo since then, but have remained outside, avoiding the inside. It feels like so long since we’ve been inside anywhere at all. Did we stop going to them because of the startling violence we witnessed there, or simply because the animals were too sad? Have the monkeys been okay since we’ve been away? 


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