by guest contributor Yaelle Frohlich
On the surface, Franz Kafka’s short story “A Report to an Academy” (1917) and Bernard Malamud‘s last finished novel, God’s Grace (1982), appear quite different, but they each boast a striking similar feature: Both contain verbal apes who serve to drive home a point about the Jewish condition. Various readers —of Kafka’s piece, in particular—have described the device as a “grotesque” metaphor for otherness, depicting a world that is, in the words of literary scholar Matthew Powell, “eerily reminiscent of our own, yet not our own” (130). In other words, these riveting works achieve a literary version of the uncanny valley effect.
In “A Report to an Academy,” an ape named Red Peter describes his experience breaking into the human cultural scene. He recounts his capture on the “Gold Coast” and captivity among coarse sailors, during which he desperately seeks “a way out” of his impossible circumstances—a cage “too low for [him] to stand up in but too narrow for [him] to sit,” where he ends up “with knees bent and trembling all the time”(247). He successfully carries out an ingenious plan to imitate his human captors (the main requirements: boozing and spitting), and eventually wins enough human acceptance to land an entertainment career on Hamburg’s “variety stage” and acquire the education and “cultural level of an average European” (254).
The story never mentions Judaism or Jews by name. However, it was originally published in Martin Buber’s monthly German-language journal Der Jude, and is widely—and compellingly—interpreted as a critique of Jewish attempts to assimilate into non-Jewish, Western European society, as well as of that society’s prejudicial treatment of its minorities. Matthew Powell connects Kafka’s animal stories to his autobiography—both to Kafka’s failed relationship with a non-Jewish woman, whom he felt would never be able to understand him, as well as to his father Hermann’s lack of social acceptance among non-Jewish peers even in the aftermath of legal emancipation (137-138).
Metaphors for the Jewish experience are visible on every page of “A Report to an Academy”—from Red Peter’s alienation from his previous identity as an ape (plus the distance his associates maintain from him “to keep the image”; 245) to his internalization of anti-Semitic/ anti-ape stereotypes about crudity and materialism. Notably, he remarks that “only an ape could have thought of” the “utterly inappropriate” name Red Peter, which refers to the red scar leftover from his captors’ bullet. Katja Garloff interprets this wound as castration, but I think it is possible to read a circumcision motif into Red Peter’s “predilection” to pull down his pants to show people the wound, claiming proudly that “you would find nothing but a well-groomed fur and the scar made (246-247). Red Peter also states that “apes think with their bellies,” despite the fact that it is his sailor-mentor who teaches him that one should rub one’s belly with a grin after over-consuming schnapps (252).
But the most strikingly Jewish passages of the story describe Red Peter’s excruciating decision to excise his identity as an ape, in order to survive his brutal ordeal. Red Peter’s path is precarious, and his sailor-mentor—like European monarchs toward the Jews, sometimes even like God himself—is alternatingly cruel and benevolent; “sometimes indeed he would hold his burning pipe against my fur, until it began to smolder in some place I could not easily reach, but then he would himself extinguish it with his own kind, enormous hand” (252).
For Red Peter, self-effacement provides the “way out; right or left, or in any direction” that he seeks, despite finding “no attraction…in imitating humans,” and despite having no expectations of true “freedom”(249-253). He proclaims: “I could never have achieved what I have done had I been stubbornly set on clinging to my origins, to the remembrances of my youth. In fact, to give up being stubborn was the supreme commandment I laid upon myself; free ape as I was, I submitted myself to that yoke” (245). The language here, which alludes to the twin yokes of Heaven and Exile so poignant in traditional Jewish texts, recalls the painful choice facing Western European Jews: Which yoke was more burdensome to bear, that of tradition or integration?
In Malamud’s God’s Grace, the roles of man, ape, and Jew are reversed. Furthermore, unlike in Kafka’s story, the prominent role of Judaism is explicit. God’s Grace takes place in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. A nuclear war has destroyed the earth and all its inhabitants—apart from Calvin Cohn, a rabbinical student turned paleologist, who survives the war in a submarine, but, according to God, only due to a “marginal error” (5). Cohn discovers a surviving chimp child, Buz, and the two are marooned on an island, where they find more living chimps, along with a lone gorilla, George.
Cohn, as the sole human, finds himself in an unusual position of power. Like Red Peter’s sailor-mentor, he tries to remake the chimps, and this new world, in his own image—but with seemingly more refinement and goodwill. He humanizes the chimp community by giving them speech, and tries to provide them with a foundational Jewish education, ranging from traditional biblical exegesis to Kierkegaard and Freud.
Despite some authoritarian moves (like marrying the one female chimp on the island), Cohn’s intentions are good. But even the last Jew on Earth can’t catch a break; Buz has inherited his former trainer’s anti-Jewish prejudices, and Cohn becomes the chimps’ despised other—more for his Jewishness than for his being a Homo sapien. (For instance, the ape named Esau threatens to “break every Jewbone in [his] head,” while Cohn, like a fiddler on a roof, implores him to “try to reason together”(201).) At the novel’s close, Buz leads the chimps in an Oedipal rebellion against Cohn; after being Adam, Noah and Abraham, Cohn finds himself playing the role of Isaac in an animalistic, reverse Binding of Isaac orchestrated by his adopted ape son.
Ironically, despite the violent ending of God’s Grace, the novel closes more optimistically than “A Report to an Academy,” in which Red Peter enjoys a safe but lonely existence with a half-trained female chimp companion whose haunting presence (and implicit reminder of his ape identity) he can only half-stand. As D. Mesher notes , Malamud himself drew attention to his novel’s final, hopeful scene, in which “George the gorilla, wearing a mud-stained white yarmulke he had one day found in the woods, chant[s], “Sh’ma, Yisroel, the Lord our God is one,”” and recites “a long Kaddish for Calvin Cohn” (223).
I’ve found no definitive proof that Malamud read “A Report to an Academy,” but Kafka and Malamud’s stories explore flip sides of the modern Jewish experience. Kafka asks: What is the place of the Jew in society? While Malamud asks: What is the place of the Jewish idea in the world? The artists provide similar answers, but through very different mediums. Kafka paints a dark picture that suggests that only disfigurement, not liberating transformation, can result from identity denial. But Malamud’s message is a positive one: that the teachings of Judaism might shine forever—even in the absence of humanity, or of Jews, and in the silence—or indifference—of God.
Yaelle Frohlich is a PhD candidate in History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies at New York University. Her work focuses on diaspora Jewish perceptions of the Holy Land during the mid-nineteenth century. During the 2016-7 academic year, she will serve as a Public Humanities Fellow through the New York Council for the Humanities.