THE HAIRY APE AS EXISTENTIAL ALLEGORY
In an interview printed in The New York Times on November 16, 1925, Eugene O'Neill remarked that Yank, the protagonist of The Hairy Ape (1921), was a symbol of man, "who had lost his old harmony with nature, the harmony which he used to have in a spiritual way," noting that "the symbol makes the play either important or just another play." Although this remark has been frequently quoted, and despite the fact that Yank is one of the few O'Neill characters who functions on an almost exclusively metaphorical level, critics of The Hairy Ape have tended to ignore the deceptively simple question: What does Yank represent? Because any truly symbolic creation lends itself to multiple, and often contradictory, interpretations, I do not wish to insist upon a single reading that would dismiss the other interpretations (e.g., Marxist) which the play obviously invites. O'Neill himself, in a letter to Kenneth Macgowan dated December 24, 1921, said, "I don't think the play as a whole can be fitted into any of the current 'isms'"--a reference to the techniques of naturalism and expressionism which holds as well as a caveat against attempts to describe the play too narrowly as a drame à thèse. But because it is in terms of philosophic symbolism that the play has received least attention--and yet through which it gains most, I believe, in coherence, universality, and current accessibility--I want to focus on the existential resonances of the play. Specifically, I want to dwell on Yank's neglected soliloquy of self-definition in the eighth and final scene, a speech which not only explains this self-conscious simian's symbolic character, but which remains, even in its rude articulation, one of the most elegantly concise definitions of man in modern literature.
Yank may be said to represent three different stages of human development: (1) dehumanized, industrial man; (2) primitive man; and (3) the human self which is prior to either primitive or civilized consciousness. Although these stages of evolution occur in the reverse order of that in which I have given them, my sequence does reflect the amount of critical attention that has been allotted to each.
O'Neill's plays invite so unequivocal a categorization as social
drama. And, whether read as a Marxist allegory, or more broadly, as
O'Neill himself described it, as an examination of "man
Yank's second symbolic resonance, that of primitive man, has been more neglected, though it is an easy step--indeed, a necessary one--from the kind of cultural primitivism implied by the critical frame-works of Marxist or pastoral utopianism to a consideration of the individual within the context of private, or psychical, primitivism. Although several critics have noted, for example, the similarity between The Hairy Ape and The Emperor Jones in their mutual use of atavistic elements1, Yank himself has not, to my knowledge, been discussed as a part of the primitivist tradition, a context which will be especially useful here as a springboard for a discussion of Yank as a philosophical symbol.
Yank's central problem in The Hairy Ape may be that of "belonging," but within the macroform of primitivism he is a member in good standing of at least four minor traditions: (a) the tradition of the American Adam; an heir, in his illiteracy and innocent animal strength, of Natty Bumppo and Billy Budd; (b) the tradition of the noble savage, if by that term we designate, with Hoxie Neale Fairchild, "any free and wild being who draws directly from nature virtues which raise doubts as to the value of civilization;"2 (c) the tradition of the wild man, a figure common in ancient and especially medieval literature, and whose most striking characteristic is his physical resemblance to the non-human.3 And the tradition of the wild man, finally, is related to (d) another sub-category of primitivism--theriophily, the belief that animals are superior to, or happier than, men--in which Yank may also be said to participate. Such a nostalgia for animal existence forms a long and venerable tradition, as Boas and others have shown;4 and it is small wonder that it plays such a role in the literature of the modern world, conveniently symbolizing, as it does, our fragmentation. Baudelaire longed to "sleep the sleep of the brute," Yeats to be "Cold and dumb and deafer than a fish." Eliot's Prufrock concludes in a famous passage that he "should have been a pair of rugged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." And Robert Frost compares the blissful unselfconsciousness of "the uncaged progress of the bear" with that of man, "A baggy figure, equally pathetic/When sedentary and when peripatetic."
Although O'Neill's very rich and complex use of primitivism in The Hairy Ape requires a much fuller treatment than we can give it here, it leads us, particularly this last category, into the final and most important aspect of Yank's symbolic character, the one which makes the play, as O'Neill said, either important or just another play. And that is Yank as a symbol of the Self, the Self as it has been defined and examined most thoroughly by existential philosophy.
There is much evidence throughout the play--from the very first stage direction, where O'Neill describes Yank as a Neanderthal, to the reiterated parallel between Yank and "The Thinker" of Rodin, a statue of primitive man just beginning to think--that O'Neill wishes us to think of Yank in just such terms as I have suggested: i.e., as an embodiment of something prior to the social, and there-fore as a comment upon mankind's most fundamental condition. Yet the most compelling evidence, as we have already suggested, is surely Yank's "dialogue" with his enviable alter ego in the eighth and final scene of the play. By eschewing the nostalgic sentimentality of romantic primitivism, O'Neill achieves in this speech a very rare and very real pathos, describing, through Yank, a chain of being to which homo sapiens cannot belong since he, like Heideggerian man, is ever a human becoming and never a human being.5
Recently in this journal, Virginia Floyd has illuminatingly addressed the quest for selfhood in The Hairy Ape, while Michael Hinden has convincingly related the Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy expounded by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy to Yank's quest for individuation; but neither critic pursues the symbolic implications of Yank's position between man and ape.6 More appropriate here, perhaps, is Nietzsche's famous definition of man as a tightrope between animal and superman, "a tightrope stretched over an abyss." For Nietzsche, man is constantly striving to become either a subrational or a trans-rational being, a fact upon which Kierkegaard erected a monumental psychology of existence in The Concept of Dread. Man can experience Angst, or dread, wrote Kierkegaard, "precisely for the reason that by nature the beast is not qualified by spirit." For if man "were a beast or an angel," said Kierkegaard, "he would not be able to be in dread. Since he is a synthesis he can be in dread...man himself produces dread." Caught in the middle, man is necessarily unhappy, burdened by that Self which Delmore Schwartz memorialized as "the heavy bear" and "a dog named ego," because, as Kierkegaard says, "the spirit cannot do away with itself," and "neither can it sink down into the vegetative life." In Kierkegaardian terms, Yank has made the "qualitative leap" into human existence, but just barely. More recently, theologian Karl Barth echoes both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard when he writes: "Heaven is the creation inconceivable to man, earth the creation conceivable to him. He himself is the creature on the boundary between heaven and earth."
The Hairy Ape was written five years before O'Neill's famous letter to George Jean Nathan in which, speaking of Dynamo, he suggested that one subject--the death of God--must loom "behind all the little subjects" of any serious writer's work. Yet The Hairy Ape, which contains, in Yank, O'Neill's first fully formulated definition of the self, also has this subject at its center, and has much more in common with the nihilistic visions of The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey into Night than with, say, a more optimistic play like Days Without End, O'Neill's false start on the journey to Rome. For although Yank in his final speech defines himself according to the categories of existentialism, O'Neill's attitude here is much closer to Nietzsche's than to that of Kierkegaard and Barth, for both of whom, as for Pascal, there is a possible exit from the existential cul-de-sac they describe: the leap of faith, a leap which the disappearance of God has made virtually impossible for most twentieth-century men, just as the modern technological world itself makes impossible that pastoral dream symbolized by Donatello in the nineteenth century, and poignantly articulated by both Paddy and Yank in The Hairy Ape.
The comparison is illuminating: Hawthorne's Donatello is one of the greatest of the many literary symbols included in the utopian mythology of ideality or perfection, a lexicon containing Christ, the uroboros, the centaur, the sphinx, the hermaphrodite, and the mandala--to name but a few--all of which embody in peaceful co-existence the antithetical dyads of which all men are made. Yank, on the other hand, belongs to the dysutopian mythology of incompleteness, and as such is related to other members of the menagerie of the modern self such as Schwartz's dog and bear, Rodin's The Thinker, that fantastic tragicomic creature of the Dr. Doolittle books, the Pushmi-pullu, and the ape-men of Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey, all of whom represent in varying degrees--and perhaps Yank most of all--the tragedy of the inalterably between, or what Paul Ricoeur, defining the archetype symbol in Freud and Philosophy, calls "the pathos of self-reflection." The hero of O'Neill's existential zoo story is as contemporary and, in many ways, as sophisticated an embodiment of the modern malaise as the characters of Sartre or Hemingway or Kosinski, and, the obvious flaws of the play of which he is a part notwithstanding, he may well be the most successfully realized metaphorical character functioning as a symbol of the self in twentieth-century American literature, even as the hero of The Marble Faun seems to embody more concisely than any other character the nineteenth-century American self; they are objective correlatives, respectively, for existential dread and transcendental monism.
There are few O'Neill plays in which a map of Eden is not located somewhere in the text. The Hairy Ape is one of those few. In a world without God, and therefore without the possibility of Being, men join with objects in uttering "...the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves," as Wallace Stevens wrote in "The Course of a Particular." Deeper than any economic or historical crisis with which man might be confronted, O'Neill seems to suggest, is the existential problem of living in a godless, meaningless world. Shortly before he dies, as the result of having been crushed by his ape companion, Yank cries out: "Even him didn't tink I belonged. (Then, with sudden passionate despair) Christ, where do I get off at? Where do I fit in?" This is surely one of the most anguished and moving cries in literature since King Lear, a literary correlate to Edvard Munch's disturbing painting The Scream. Furthermore, when we recall Santayana's observation that "oaths are the fossils of piety," the utterance becomes even more poignant, since it is both an oath and an appeal. Even after he has been "freed" from his stokehole, Yank remains encaged within the prison of the Self, unable to effect his own transcendence, precisely because he can achieve neither the stupefied mindlessness of a "perambulating vegetable" (the phrase is Christopher Fry's) nor the dazed omniscience of the anemic angel. An existential Everyman, cursed with the birthright of between-ness, he remains spreadeagled between ape and essence.
1 Cf. Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York, 1972), pp. 241 ff.
2 The Noble Savage (New York, 1921), p. 2. Although it may seem unduly paradoxical to describe this denizen of a stokehole as a "free and wild" creature, it should be remarked that Yank becomes unhappy in his situation only after his difference from others is made known to him by the anemic capitalist Mildred. Before her, he is essentially mindless; after her he is able not only to work but to think, a capacity to which O'Neill does not necessarily attach a positive significance. O'Neill has inverted the usual pastoral habitat of the noble savage to emphasize Yank's psychic or existential predicament as well as his cultural or economic one. Cf. Lionel Trilling, "Introduction," The Hairy Ape .(New York, 1949), p. xvi.
3 One thinks, for
instance, in American literature, of such examples as, again,
Leatherstocking in his animal skins; of Donatello in Hawthorne's
The Marble Faun; and of the mysterious Val, with
4 See George Boas, The Happy Beast in French Literature of the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933).
5 Eugene O'Neill, The Hairy Ape, ed. Lionel Trilling (New York, 1949 pp. 257-258: "...yuh're lucky, see? Yuh don't belong wit 'em and yuh know it. But me, I belong wit 'em--but I don't, see? Dey don't belong wit me, dat's what. Get me? Tinkin' is hard--(He passes one hand across his forehead with a painful gesture)...It's dis way, what I'm drivin' at. Youse can sit and dope dream in de past, green woods, de jungle and de rest of it. Den yuh belong and dey don't. Den yuh kin laugh at 'em, see? Yuh're de champ of de woild. But me--I ain't got no past to tink in, nor nothin' dat's comin', on'y what's now--and dat don't belong. Sure, you're de best off. Yuh can't tink, can yuh? Yuh can't talk neider. But I kin make a bluff at talkin' and tinkin'--a'most git away wit it--a'most!--and dat's where de joker comes in. (He laughs) I ain't on oith and I ain't in heaven, get me? I'm in de middle tryin' to separate 'em, takin' all de woist punches from bot' of 'em. Maybe dat's what dey call hell, huh? But you, yuh're at de bottom. You belong! Sure! Yuh're de on'y one in de woild dat does, yuh lucky stiff! (The gorilla growls proudly) And dat's why dey gotta put yuh in a cage, see? (The gorilla roars angrily) Sure! Yuh get me. It beats it when you try to tink it or talk it--it's way down deep--behind--you 'n' me we feel it. Sure! Bot' members of dis club!"
6 Virginia Floyd, "The Search for Self in The Hairy Ape: An Exercise in Futility?" (January, 1978), pp. 4-7; Michael Hinden, "Ironic Use of Myth in The Hairy Ape" (January, 1978), pp. 2-4. Yank's symbolic status is touched upon also by Bernard Baum, "The Tempest and The Hairy Ape: The Literary Incarnation of Mythos," Modern Language Quarterly 14 (September, 1953), 258-273; and by Margaret Gump, "From Ape to Man and From Man to Ape," Kentucky Foreign Language Quarterly 4 (1957), 177-185.
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