Gorilla My Dreams

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   March 8, 2022

On November 25, 1864, in a famous speech at Oxford University, the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli addressed himself to a matter which had been convulsing intellectual society since the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species. As Disraeli put it: “The question is this – is man an ape or an angel?” His answer to the question, as widely reported, was “I am on the side of the angels.” (Punch magazine subsequently featured a cartoon showing Disraeli admiring himself in a mirror, after having sprouted full-length angels’ wings.)

In one form or another, the problem of man’s relationship to his simian fellow-creatures has been beguiling us ever since. On one thing, at least, there seems to be general agreement: we are all Primates – which means that we’re all mammals of a certain kind, distinguishable by having flexible hands and feet, each with five digits. This includes the creatures we call apes, monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees, lemurs, and, of course, us.

Popular culture seems to be fascinated by this topic, going back at least as far as Tarzan, aka Tarzan of the Apes, who was created in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) and, in terms of longevity and adaptability, was one of the most successful characters ever imagined by an American writer. And yet, of all the scores of adaptations of this story of a human and his relationship with African apes, only one enduring four-word quotation seems to have emerged: “Me Tarzan – you Jane.” That product of the age of cinema and sound was in itself a travesty, since the original Tarzan was a cultured and educated English nobleman.

Burroughs himself, though a native Midwesterner, was fond of Southern California, eventually settling in an area of suburban Los Angeles, not far from Hollywood, where his movies were being made. There he established what began as “Tarzana Ranch” and eventually became the community of Tarzana. Tarzana now has a population of about 40,000, which includes 10% Iranians, and 9% Russians – but, to the best of my knowledge, no apes.

The year 1933, in which I myself happen to have been born, also saw the birth of another legendary cinematic simian, whom the whole world has come to love and loathe as “King Kong.” This gigantic gorilla-like creature was large and strong enough to hold a full-grown woman in the palm of one hand. That woman, with whom the monster became emotionally involved, was played by actress Fay Wray, who – although she lived to be nearly 100 – never outlived her popular image as the screaming victim of King Kong. Kong himself, however, in a triumph of early special effects, after scaling the Empire State Building in search of her, is gunned down by a squadron of warplanes. The heroine, of course, survives, to become the subject of Kong’s epitaph, which is ranked as one of the most famous closing lines in all movie history.

Another aspect of our multi-faceted relationship with our fellow-primates – and this one is non-fictional – concerns the musical profession, inasmuch as street-entertainers operating what were known as barrel organs may be called professional musicians. And what concerns us here is that these performers (many of whom were of European, and especially Italian, origin) were generally accompanied by a live monkey. The monkey would naturally attract attention and could also collect money proffered by the audience.

These sidewalk shows, while delighting some, were to many others so much a source of displeasure that they were actually banned by the City of New York in 1935 — not out of any concern for the monkeys, but allegedly because of such issues as noise and interference with traffic.

There have of course been many other forms of entertainment featuring the relationship and inter-action between us and our primate relatives – most notably the Planet of the Apes series, which all began with a 1963 novel by the French writer Pierre Boulle (who also wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai). The central question is one of species-superiority.

But there is another question which does not seem to have been so intensively explored – and that is one of aesthetics. Let’s face it: to most humans, apes, and all other members of our evolutionary family are, compared with us, simply UGLY. It is that idea which gives potency to the last words of King Kong (uttered by the man who captured and exploited him):

“Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes – It was beauty killed the beast.”  


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