Duncan Butt-Juvonen

Making Use of Monkey

For centuries humankind has been stressing its own perfection over other species, beating its own chest, normally with a supportive religious belief system in tow. This has always been practical, in order to distance ourselves from the animals we kill to live, thereby making their slaughter more humane. The demarcation between human and animal is something that has eluded conclusive definition by science and philosophy.

We now know that a mere 0.6% of genetic material separates us from our closest cousins in the animal kingdom. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that monkeys hold a special power over our imaginations (and have done so since long before such genetic information was made available to us): they are uncomfortably close to us. Artistic activity is one feature commonly used to distinguish our species so I’d like here to briefly consider two artworks.

In Paula Rego’s painting Wife Cuts Off Red Monkey’s Tail the red monkey gags wretchedly in pain and grief at the loss of his tail. The erectile, two-legged posture and body language is human and familiar, while the loss of a tail is something we can only indirectly empathise with. Perhaps, as we have the remains of a tail in our skeletal system, we too have, in some sense, lost a tail in evolving into humans having passed through various animal states. The red monkey has, in fact, become more human with the amputation of this green and sickly member. His unrepentant, blank-faced wife also doesn’t appear to be a monkey herself, placing their union on soggy turf indeed. While the reason for the wife’s harsh vengeance is unknown, we might suspect it is somehow due to him following his more animalistic instincts (primates rarely form monogamous pairs) which wouldn’t sit comfortably with the very human institution of marriage.

Our monkey has also been introduced to the even older human institution of justice, here meted out with scissors. Perhaps his wife is simply helping accelerate his evolutionary process. There is of course a Freudian interpretation of the loss of the tail that would suggest that the sexual lapses native to a monkey were being punished by the wife in a manner that would preclude re-offence.

The monkeys in Robert Armitage Sterndale’s Gond Hunters and Monkeys (1886) help push the discussion of our species’ proximity further, towards the darker ends of the pursuit of Darwinian logic. Only the short stumpy tails distinguish the monkeys from the hunters in this ‘scientific’ illustration. Clearly the artist considers the evolutionary advances of man to be quite slight in this instance. The monkeys’ tails are more like pigs’ tails, suggesting that they are already receding in an evolutionary shrinking act that will reduce them to a bony croissant. Yet, just as clearly, the very medium for conveying this message is by use of a sophisticated visual technique, employing printing techniques, for which the enterprising artist would be hard pressed to find a ‘mirror’ echo of in the animal world, thus making sure the analogy only goes so far. The potentially humorous observation of our similarity to our primate friends adopts a distinctly unpleasant tone in being culturally specific in its comparison.

It is notable that two of Sterndale’s illustrated books were the primary sources from which Rudyard Kipling’s “zoological knowledge is drawn”. Given that Kipling is hardly celebrated for his attitude towards racial equality, we may reasonably speculate that such a book was supportive in the formation of Kipling’s world view. The success of Kipling’s vision in the form of The Jungle Book seems to be comparatively benign and his works have received enduring success (If was voted Britain’s most popular poem in 1995 in a BBC opinion poll) despite the clearly damaging attitude much criticised in his work for adults, such as The White Man’s Burden’s, which makes reference to colonised people in general as “half-devil and half-child”.

Darwin planted the idea in our heads that we used to be animals and hand in hand with that, came the fear that we might regress, degenerate back to that animal state. This is a powerful fear and provided a platform for much unpleasant thinking about how to control the direction in which our species evolved. A glance around a children’s department or shopping aisle will reveal that, generally speaking, anthropomorphic images in the 21st Century gravitate towards whimsy and kitsch. Yet the images mentioned sidestep this, one by grounding the image in dysfunction, violence and a black humour, the other twisted by racial prejudice. They reveal the darker roots of anthropomorphism that grip deeply in human culture’s belly. Something gives a nagging tug on a phantom tail. We reach for the scissors.

Duncan Butt-Juvonen

Next: Sam Kean