Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Yellow Sweater

The Yellow Sweater

  My wife and I had just moved into an elegant old three-story Victorian in Saint Louis during the midst of a cold, wet spring. The house was a bit drafty but otherwise in fine shape. We made our bedroom on the second floor.
  The very first night in the house, I awoke—or thought I awoke—deep in the middle of the night, and glanced about, somewhat startled by the strange dark room in which I found myself, before remembering that we had just moved into our new home. I turned to see my wife, slumbering quietly beside me, then glanced in the other direction. I noticed an indistinct shape of some light color on the bedroom floor and tried to make out what it was. After a moment, I was able to determine that it was a sweater, of what appeared in the dim light to be a yellow color, lying crumpled on the hardwood floor, half over the bedside rug. The thought occurred to me to pick it up and hang it up in the closet, but I just as quickly shrugged off the idea, wondering why I should go to the trouble in my sleepy state rather than just wait till morning. I turned over and soon enough fell back asleep.
  When I next awoke, it was light out and I found myself alone in the bed. I could hear my wife downstairs in the kitchen, making something for breakfast. As I rose from the bed, I noticed that the yellow sweater was not to be seen.
  After washing my face, I joined my wife downstairs. “Morning, love,” I said, giving her a kiss on the cheek as she prepared French toast. “You sure are up early for Sunday.”
  “Early? It’s almost nine.”
  “Like I said, early for Sunday.”
  “So how did you sleep?”
  “Very good, actually. Only woke up once, for a few minutes. Speaking of which… I saw you picked up that sweater from off the floor. I would have gotten it myself, but it was the middle of the night when I noticed it and I was way too sleepy to get out of bed.”
  “What sweater?”
  “You know… that yellow one.”
  She looked at me quizzically. “I don’t own a yellow sweater, honey.”
  I frowned. “You sure?”
  She chuckled. “Yes, I think I would know if I had a yellow sweater. You know I don’t even like yellow that much.”
  I sat down at the table, the frown still on my face. “Well… did you pick up any sweater?”
  “No, sweetie. Why?”
  I shook my head. “I just… I could have sworn I saw a sweater on the bedroom floor when I woke up last night.”
  “You were probably just dreaming.”
  “Yeah. Yeah, I guess I must have been. It’s so weird, though. It really felt like I was awake.”
  “Well, you know, that happens sometimes. I get dreams like that too, where I really think I’m awake, in my familiar surroundings, only to wake up for real and realize I had only been dreaming before. You’re right, it’s weird. That’s the human brain for you. It plays tricks sometimes.”
  “I know, you’re right. It’s just a little bit freaky, you know.”
  The next night I seemed to wake again at some unholy hour, finding myself in the dark bedroom. Like the night before, I turned first to see my wife, contentedly asleep, then turned the other way.
  My breath caught. I saw what appeared to be a young girl, wearing the yellow sweater I had seen the night before. In my half-asleep, half-awake state, I felt the terrible urge to scream rising up in my throat, but then reminded myself I was only dreaming.
  This isn’t real, I thought. It’s just one of those dreams.
  I looked again at the girl. She was sitting on the floor, a few feet away, facing away from me toward the closet. I could not see her face, only her brown hair, tied in two braids, the yellow sweater, a dark-colored skirt, white socks, and black shoes.
  Even though I knew she wasn’t real, the thought occurred to me to talk to her, to ask her who she was and why she was here. But I just as readily dismissed the notion. How silly… why converse with a figment of your own unconscious mind?
  I listened. She seemed to be sitting silently, but after a minute or two I could hear, barely perceptibly, what sounded like crying. I then noticed that her shoulders heaved gently.
  I suddenly felt sorry for her, a strange deep sympathy warming my heart. I closed my eyes.
  Next thing I knew it was morning. I looked at the floor, feeling foolish for doing so, and of course saw no girl, and no sweater.
  I did not mention the dream to my wife that morning before we both headed off to work. Why not? I asked myself after leaving the house. Was I afraid she’d think I’m losing my mind? Or is it just not worth giving her an account of every little strange dream that I have? She’d get bored by it very quickly.
  I also wondered why I should have such similar dreams two nights in a row. I did not usually have recurring dreams, but I suppose anyone could. That’s it, I told myself. Just a bizarre recurring nightmare. Who can explain it? The mind is indeed a mysterious thing.
  But why did I say nightmare? Were the dreams really nightmares? The first one wasn’t scary at all—it was actually rather banal—and the second one, though alarming at first, soon gave way to curiosity and even pity. And yet… as embarrassing at it might have been to admit, and against my better judgment, I felt a slight apprehension about going to sleep that night.
  I lay awake for awhile, well after my wife had dozed off, watching TV, but not really able to pay attention to the shows. Why are you so nervous? I asked myself. I knew it was utterly irrational, but I couldn’t seem to help it. There’s no reason, I said to myself, to be afraid of a dream. Besides, you don’t even know you will ever dream about it again. Maybe that’s it, just those two.
  Eventually, I drifted off to sleep.
  In the wee hours, in the dark, I found myself once more lying awake—or seemingly awake—in the bed. As before, I first turned to make sure my wife was there. She was. I didn’t want to look the other way. I tried to control my breathing.
  Don’t you realize how silly you’re being? I thought. This is only a dream. Yes, it feels quite real. It feels like I’m really awake. But it… is… only… a dream.
  My heart froze. I heard, ever so faintly, the sound of a girl quietly weeping.
  I did not want to look. And yet… and yet… I again found my fear overcome by pity. And a searing curiosity. Who was this girl? Why did she seem almost… familiar?
  I summoned my courage. The knowledge that it was only a dream, combined with my sympathy, finally overturned my trepidation. I sat up and looked.
  I was startled to see her sitting much nearer the bed, this time facing me. I still could not see her face, however, since she hung her head as she wept. I noticed for the first time how incredibly pale and thin she appeared.
  I gathered up all my nerve and spoke. “Why are you crying?”
  She didn’t look at me at first. My heart became even less frightened, more soft.
  I tried again. “It’s okay, I’m your friend. Why are you so sad?”
  She slowly turned her head upward and looked at me. Her face appeared, like the rest of her, wan, emaciated, and sad. I felt nothing but compassion for this strange nightly apparition.
  “Don’t you remember?” she said, her voice soft and somehow—I don’t know how else to describe it—hollow.
  “Remember what?”
  “Don’t you know?”
  I gazed at her seriously. “No, I’m sorry. I don’t.”
  She sniffed. “I’m you.”
  I stared at her, uncomprehending. “Wh—what?”
  But she only hung her head and started sobbing again, soft and quiet as before.
  “What do you mean?”
  “Never mind,” she said, and stood and walked out of the bedroom.
  I heard her walk down the stairs.
  When I awoke, I did not remember the dream at first. It did not come back to me until I was on my way to work. Even then, I did not find it so much disturbing as strangely fascinating. What on earth was my mind doing? What was this all about?
  “I’m you.”
  The words haunted me throughout the day. What the hell did that mean? Perhaps it didn’t mean anything. It was just a dream, after all. Who can make sense of them? Why look for rhyme or reason in the brain’s unconscious nighttime scribblings? Why look for logic or sense?
  And yet… and yet…
  Of course I am not the type who believes in ghosts, or anything supernatural for that matter. I know it is all just a dream, if a troublingly reoccurring one. The disquiet I felt had mainly to do with my own mental state. Was I going crazy? Sliding into some dark psychosis? Why is my brain obsessing over this bizarrely random image of a poor sad girl in a yellow sweater? The same yellow sweater every single night? If only I could understand…
  The fourth night in the house arrived, whether I wanted it to or not. This is really getting ridiculous, I thought. Isn’t three nights in a row enough? And it keeps getting weirder each time. What could possibly happen next?
  I, of course, realized in the same moment that was a very foolish question to ask.
  As the night before, I stayed up late watching, or more accurately not really watching, late night TV, knowing full well that I was going to regret it when the alarm went off in the morning. This is so stupid, I told myself. I mean, you have to go to sleep. Just don’t get so worked up about it, man. It’s only a dream.
  Then, laughing at myself, I turned off the tube and lay down in the dark.
  Once more, in the dark and lonesome hours in the middle of the night, I seemed to wake up. My first emotion this time was frustration, almost anger. I kept my eyes closed. Enough of this, I said. I’m going back to sleep.
  But of course, I’m already asleep. This is just another of those weird little dreams. Why won’t my brain just give it a rest already?
  But my brain would not give it a rest. I heard her.
  Not sobbing this time. She only sighed gently, then said, “I lost my ring.”
  I opened my eyes, the sound of her sorrowful, empty voice somehow, again, causing my heart to soften. I turned and saw her, some feet away, near the closet, wearing the same outfit, the same yellow sweater, so thin and pathetic, gazing toward me plaintively.
  “Won’t you help me find it?”
  “Your ring?”
  “It was my favorite. It was Grandma’s ring, you know.”
  I stared at her for a moment. “How do I find it?”
  “You know where it is.”
  “I do?”
  “You remember.”
  She turned and left the room. I heard her walk upstairs to the third floor.
  That morning I woke early, well before the alarm. The light was still dim but the dark was already beginning to be dispelled by the dawn. I looked around and saw no girl, no sweater. My wife lay peacefully beside me.
  I recalled the latest dream—what the girl said about her ring. I remembered that she had gone upstairs.
  Part of me wanted to go up there. Part of me most definitely did not.
  I did not go up there.
  However, I could not stop thinking about it. Despite myself, I felt intensely eager to go up to the third floor, which we were using only for storage, still filled with unpacked boxes, to look for the girl’s ring. The rational part of my mind told myself how utterly laughable that would be.
  But still…
  My wife customarily left for work a little earlier than I did. When we kissed goodbye that morning I did not tell her my plans. How could I? I justified it to myself by explaining that I only wanted to prove to myself how very fantastical and silly the whole thing really was.
  The thought occurred to me to research the history of the house. I brushed it off—as I thought, because of the simple ludicrousness of the notion—although, if I had to be completely honest, it was as much because I did not want to know.
  I ascended the stairs to the second floor. I surveyed the bedroom, the floor, the closet—not a yellow sweater to be seen. See? I said. It’s all in your head. Of course. Why do you even need to be reassured of that?
  Feeling bolder, confident in the light of morning, I ascended the stairs to the third floor. When I reached the door I hesitated. Why? Don’t be an idiot.
  I turned the knob, peered in.
  Of course it was empty. Well, except for all the boxes.
  I stepped in, leaving the door open behind me.
  After a minute or so, I shrugged. The boxes surrounded me, silent and unmoving. I chuckled silently. Why are you even up here? You’re so pathetic.
  And then I had a strange thought. I don’t know where it came from. I suddenly had the uncanny notion that there was a certain cabinet in the room, and in that cabinet a box, and in that box…
  I felt a chill. Must be the draft, I thought.
  I turned to look behind me, nearer the door, at a certain corner of the room—the corner I had in mind. There was a set of cabinets there, but I already knew that. Just my mind being stupid.
  Nevertheless… okay, god damn it, just get this overwith. Prove it all wrong. Expose it to the light of reason, the light of day…
  I walked over to the cabinets. The topmost one… that was the one that some completely irrational, superstitious part of my brain was prompting me to look in.
  I put my hand to the knob… hesitated… opened it.
  I gasped involuntarily. I felt myself, against my will, begin to tremble slightly.
  There, inside the cabinet, was a little wooden box.
  Still, I told myself... just a coincidence. I mean, the odds are pretty good there might be an old box around in one of these cabinets, right? It’s an attic, after all.
  I reached in. I stopped. Why? Did I not want to know? Wouldn’t it be more rational to just leave it to be, to resist the temptation to open it, to justify these silly senseless urgings arising from some deep, childish part of my psyche?
  But no, I said. Of course that is only a rationalization. It’s because you’re scared of what you’ll find. Good God, just open the box and get it over with and have a good laugh at yourself. No one ever has to know.
  I grabbed the box and pulled it out of the cabinet.
  I held it in my hands, staring at it, my skin tingling.
  Just open it!
  I took a breath, then opened the lid.
  I lost my breath. There, sitting inside the box, was a small silver-colored ring.
  My mind whirled. I tried to calm my nerves, tried to understand
  Just then I felt as though someone were behind me. I heard a girl’s voice.
  “You found it!”

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Rainbow Report: November 21, 2014

My sophomore effort in the art of writing novels, Rainbow, has, after 17 months, now surpassed 20,000 words in length. That is obviously a very slow rate of expansion (especially compared to the sudden supernova appearance of its predecessor, The Bluebird of Happiness), but is perhaps closer to the norm of novel writing.

One thing I have realized is that I do feel very inspired about Rainbow, but my inspiration is working in a different way than it did with Bluebird. The inspiration this time around is perhaps not quite as dramatic and intense, but is more diffuse and remarkably long-lasting; after all this time, the project is still very exciting to me, I am constantly thinking up new ideas for the story, and (thankfully) have not been suffering from writer's block.

That last situation is perhaps largely due to the fact that, since my last progress report back in May, I created a loose outline for the remainder of the novel. This served the double purpose of giving me a greater sense of direction by helping me to see more clearly the overall shape and flow of the narrative, having put the multitudinous individual scenes I had thought up into some kind of workable order (one that is not completely linear in chronology, but rather a narrative sequence that made sense to me as the author, the order in which I wanted to reveal the various parts of the story), and of providing me a rather thrilling view, from on high, of the entire grand, vast scope of the novel, which further added to my inspiration.

As I have mentioned before, Bluebird and Rainbow are related stories, involving many of the same characters, but neither is a sequel or a prequel to the other. Their relationship is much more ambiguous and complex. One thing that I have found both challenging and fun is to write Rainbow in such a way that, no matter which book someone reads first, there will be surprises in store when they read the other volume. Each book reveals things that the other one conceals. You might say that they keep each other's secrets. So it really does not matter greatly in which order someone reads them. The fact that Rainbow is being written after Bluebird hardly matters if at all; if someone starts with Rainbow, they will still encounter surprises and revelations in Bluebird.

Not only that, they will no doubt also find themselves a little perplexed as to the exact relationship between the two narratives. I am also attempting to write the second novel in such a way that nothing in the narrative creates explicit discontinuity with the first novel, but also in such a way that it may create a vague tension in the reader between the claims of the two narratives. (When, exactly, is this scene in Rainbow happening in relation to that scene in Bluebird? Et cetera.)

In this way, the second novel is independent of the first, yet does not definitively contradict it. So, while a reader may wonder--may feel, if not be able to explain just why, there is a subtle tension between the two stories--it will still be entirely possible to maintain the belief that somehow the two novels provide quite different but non-conflicting accounts of the same fictional universe.

Even within the sprawling, non-linear context of Rainbow, it will probably be challenging to piece together the exact sequence of events (hell, it's even challenging for me, and I'm the one writing the damn thing). The narrative ranges freely throughout the span of Martin Lane's life, at least from his childhood up until middle age, and, unlike Bluebird, there does not seem to be any clearly defined temporal center to the story--in other words, there is no specific time period that feels like the main "present" of the story (other than Martin's entire adult life, or the roughly three decades of it that are covered). I do not know that I did this on purpose, but I think the decentered temporal setting has the effect of making the story feel somewhat uprooted, which is entirely appropriate to its nature.

Just as the relationship between the two novels is ambiguous and complex, so are many of the relationships among the characters, and so is, above all, Martin Lane himself. I like to think that Rainbow is a mystery novel of sorts, only one where the mystery is not a crime to be solved but the main character, who, like a real human being, is never really solvable or completely definable. It is not the nature of my stories to provide tidy endings where all uncertainties and ambiguities are resolved; I rather delight in leaving the reader with a feeling of open-endedness and an even deeper sense of mystery.

I recently took a look at some of my early notes on Rainbow and was happy to be reminded of some of my more playful descriptions of the story: "barbaric, vast, and wild"; "the higher form of decadence"; a "fashion epic". (I only hope I can live up to such visions!) Those are as good descriptions as any of what it is I am attempting to do with this work of fiction. As for what it all means, what it is about... well, I must leave that to my readers to discover for themselves. It would be impossible to explain anyway (or, as I often say, I can only explain by writing the novel itself).

In any case, Rainbow still is to me a grand vision, just as it was at the beginning when it first emerged from the mists of my imagination, only now it is much more fully developed, and the story continues to grow ever larger in my mind each day. It is actually rather amazing to realize how that small seed of a story, so vague at first yet rumbling with low, distant thunder, has evolved over the months into such a vast, complicated, intricate novel with its multitude of concrete details and subtle meanings. I am aiming to paint a lifelike portrait of one human being and his life, which is something that defies easy or neat summarization. I like to think that Rainbow is a realist novel in the best sense of the term, that is, a grand, elaborate story, completely made up, that shows life for what it is: something enormous, unexplainable, and wondrous.

"The answer, of course, is Martin Lane."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Something Better Than Man: The Strange Humanism of Planet of the Apes

Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.

These words are from the sacred scrolls of the apes, the intelligent and civilized simians who rule the earth in the distant future prophesied by the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. The passage is striking as a stern condemnation of humanity and its perpetually evil ways. In unmistakably religious tones, it paints "the beast Man" as irredeemably wicked and perverse; the only way to deal with him is, in essence, to avoid him at all costs. 

Of course, in reality, these words were penned by human beings, who are their own harshest critics, and there is no way we can avoid ourselves. As Kant said, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." This is a sobering perspective that would ultimately give the lie to all dreams of human progress, for we can never escape what we are, and what we are includes all of the darkness within. According to the tragic vision of human nature that has traditionally dominated Western thought, that darkness can never be eradicated by social or political action nor by the application of science and technology (at least not without, as has often been argued, taking away something fundamental from our very humanity, such as free will). 

When I was a boy, Planet of the Apes was one of my favorite movies. Back then, of course, I had little to no understanding of the film's themes; I just enjoyed it, as I did many another science fiction movie, as a spectacle of strangeness and wonder (which it very much is). I read the novel it was based on (by the French author Pierre Boulle) just once, when I was in about the second grade, but I still remember it vividly. The book differs from the movie in several significant ways, and, although it is probably, as might be expected, a more sophisticated work than the movie, I believe that the film approaches the theme of the worth of humanity in its own distinctive way, and, at least by Hollywood standards, with a fair degree of subtlety and poignance.

One of the sections of Boulle's book that has especially haunted me is an extended scene involving ape scientists who are performing psychological experiments on the bestial humans of their planet. The apes have figured out how, by way of hypnotic regression, to get the erstwhile dumb, brute human beings to speak—not in their own voices, however, but in the voices of their long-dead forebears—and thereby to elicit a series of narratives, culled from the depths of the humans' unconscious ancestral memory, about the gradual eclipsing of the former human civilization by the apes. This scene is not only wondrously eerie, because of the mechanism of having people who are long dead speak through their living, not to mention mute and unintelligent, descendants (a feat of channeling that is accomplished by scientific means!); it is also haunting because of the stories that are told, and the lost history that is revealed, by the voices of the ancient humans.

Unlike the movie series, which portrayed the apes' conquest and the humans' downfall as happening rather suddenly and dramatically, the parallel process in the novel is revealed to have been much more gradual and mysterious. For whatever reason, the humans are undergoing a process of devolution while the apes are rapidly evolving their capabilities of thought and language. Eventually the apes begin to display increasingly defiant and ominous behavior toward their human masters, who are simultaneously less and less able to function to their full human capacities. Eventually, the apes are the masters, the humans their servants. When shown in this way (a manner which is, to be sure, better suited to a novel than a Hollywood movie), the ascent of the apes and corresponding descent of humanity become much more chilling and somehow more believable. 

Boulle's novel has been described as a sort of space age variation of Gulliver's Travels, and, like Swift's classic novel, uses its fantastical setting and situation to satirize the human race. It can justly be said that, in some sense at least, both novels are misanthropic. The main point of each is not to provide mere escapist fantasy adventure, but to hold the human race up to ridicule and mockery, to deflate our pretensions and vain hopes, to condemn our flaws and failings, and to keep us humble. The movie does not eschew satire, but it often expresses it much more broadly, one might even say in a dumbed down way: for instance, when the three apes visually enact the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" motif; the "human see, human do" joke; etc. Of course, so much is to be expected in a major Hollywood motion picture. However, the movie does something else with Boulle's premise, something that might at first glance appear to be a mere concession to popular taste and sentiment, but which is actually quite nuanced, moving, and profound. The film almost seems to reverse the polarity of Boulle's novel and thereby turn Planet of the Apes from a misanthropic satire into a tragic and ultimately deeply humanistic morality play. 


Colonel George Taylor (Charlton Heston) is the protagonist in this drama, the U.S. astronaut who finds himself on a planet where intelligent apes rule and humans are mere beasts. Taylor is himself a misanthrope, but the bizarre situation in which he finds himself ends up turning him into an unlikely defender and advocate of the human race. It is this complex and ambiguous attitude toward humanity (particularly as exemplified by Taylor) that gives the film its distinctive philosophical cast and a large part of its dramatic power. 

At the beginning of the picture, we see Taylor aboard his spaceship, recording his final thoughts before entering hibernation on the far voyage across interstellar space. He says: 

This much is probably true - the men who sent us on this journey are long since dead and gone. You who are reading me now are a different breed - I hope a better one. I leave the 20th century with no regrets. ... Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor's children starving?

Later, after the astronauts have arrived on the titular planet (but before they have discovered the nature of its civilization), Taylor says to one of his more idealistic companions: "I'm a seeker too. But my dreams aren't like yours. I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be." 

This sardonic statement concisely expresses Taylor's misanthropy, a rebuttal to the humanistic notion that man is the pinnacle of creation. It recalls Nietzsche's statement in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, with regard to his concept of the √úbermensch (Overman or Superman), that "Man is something to be surpassed." However, as with Nietzsche, Taylor's apparent antihumanism is conjoined with a strange sort of idealism—the longing for a being that is better than man, that succeeds where humanity fails. While Nietzsche saw this being, the Overman, realized in the future history of human evolution, Taylor seems to believe that such a superior being must already exist somewhere in the universe. His statement implies a belief that the universe would be mysteriously incomplete, not to mention disappointingly lacking, if in fact humanity proved to be the highest and most advanced creature it had produced, considering all that humanity leaves to be desired. 

Shortly after their arrival in this strange new world, the astronauts stumble upon the seemingly Edenic existence of the primitive humans who dwell in the planet's forests. They are unimpressed by their uncivilized human counterparts. Taylor quips, "If this is the best they've got around here, in six months we'll be running this planet." 

Of course, Taylor goes on to discover a civilization on the new planet—one that is certainly different from man, but not necessarily better. To his shock, this civilization consists of apes. Boulle's device of casting apes as intelligent and humans as beasts is in itself a bitterly antihumanist conceit, upending as it does the entire notion that humanity is inherently superior to other animals. In the context of humanity's age-old pride of place in the cosmos, this inversion feels to us both humiliating and perverse. To think! That the "monkeys" would be our masters! That we would be their pets, their zoo animals, and their unwilling scientific research subjects! 

And yet, this outrage to human pride is, incomprehensibly, the actual state of affairs on the planet of the apes. Almost immediately on the heels of this bewildering and disturbing discovery, Taylor is wounded by gunshot and captured by the apes, then brought into captivity. To make matters even worse, due to his injury he cannot speak and therefore cannot prove to his ape captors that he is in fact an intelligent and articulate being. He must endure being treated in the inhumane and undignified way in which we ourselves often treat animals, and is unable even to protest. 

Eventually Taylor recovers his voice (in one of the film's most memorable moments: "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!"), and comes to be regarded as a freak of nature by the apes. Ironically, his cause is not helped by the fact that the apes, as exemplified by the learned orangutan Dr. Zaius, seem to share Taylor's own misanthropy: "You are right, I have always known about man. From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself." 

What did Taylor expect? That the apes would regard humankind much more favorably than he himself does? It is when he faces antihumanist attitudes from intelligent nonhumans that Taylor's heart begins, almost of necessity, to change. In this "upside down" world, he finds himself the lone voice capable of defending what our humanists once called the Dignity of Man against the withering contempt of the apes who believe themselves infinitely superior to us. The fact that the apes regard humankind as essentially worthless causes Taylor to appreciate and to defend what worth we may possess in spite of it all. 

He accomplishes this, at times, by less than noble means. After making a journey to the wasteland known as the Forbidden Zone, Taylor ties up Dr. Zaius in order to facilitate his own escape. The ape most sympathetic to Taylor, the female chimpanzee Dr. Zira, cries out, "Taylor! Don't treat him that way!" 

Taylor: Why not?

 Zira: It's humiliating!

 Taylor: The way you humiliated me? All of you? You led me around on a leash!

 Cornelius: That was different. We thought you were inferior.

 Taylor: Now you know better.

But the film is far from being a simplistic cheerleader for humanity. Its pessimistic vision does not champion the liberal Enlightenment faith in human progress—a faith which has been seen by some historians as being based to a large degree on assumptions inherited from Christianity. Instead, Planet of the Apes echoes another, much less sanguine heritage of the West's Christian tradition: the concepts of original sin and the Fall of Man. At one point Zaius remarks: "The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise. Your breed made a desert of it, ages ago." 

There is no need here to describe the film's ending, one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, and I would not spoil it for those who have not seen it. Because of its familiarity, it is difficult for most of us to register the full shock of it, but the final visual revelation, its unforgettable image of ultimate ruin and loss, remains powerful and chilling. It is commonplace to make fun of the dramatic final lines shouted by a distraught Charlton Heston, but in the context of the picture, seeing not Heston but a broken Col. Taylor, this utterance is nothing less than deeply tragic. They are words of heartrending despair, spoken by a shattered, uncomprehending, and, in the moment, barely articulate human being: 

You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell! 

The film's tragedy lies in the fact that the human race, by its actions, has justified the apes'—and Taylor's—misanthropy. They have betrayed Taylor's would-be defense of humanity and proven themselves worthy of the apes' condemnation and derision. And yet, as with all true tragedy, humankind is shown to be noble even in its weakness and its downfall—even in its moral failings. It is tragic precisely because something very great has been lost; it grieves us to know that we failed so completely, so terribly, because we know we could have done better. In our tragic fall, we see not only our failure but our nobility and our promise. 


When I watched Planet of the Apes as a child, as I said, I simply enjoyed the imaginative wonder of it. Even after many repeat viewings, it remains just as strange a film to me today. It is strange, however, not only in the same fantastical ways I appreciated as a boy, but also now in new ways that are related to its theme. From my distant but still remarkably clear memory of the novel, I would say that the book seems to leave us simply with the bleakly pessimistic impression that the human race is not all that important in the grand scheme of things—that we may (and ultimately will) be easily and carelessly superseded by other species. It is a message befitting the book's bitterly satiric misanthropy. 

In the film, however, I sense a more complex, more tantalizing vision. Taylor may be a misanthrope, but he is, in his own words, a seeker. He seeks something better than man. He hardly finds it on the planet of the apes, for the apes' society exhibits many of the same follies and foibles as our own—it is, in fact, a mirror of our own. The shifting, silently mesmerizing cosmic lights seen at the beginning of the picture and the sleekly futuristic spaceship in which the astronauts traverse the stars suggest the wonder and mystery of the cosmos and the hopefulness and courage of human exploration, expectations which are profoundly disappointed by the desolate and forbidding landscape of the world upon which the astronauts arrive and by Taylor's harrowing and dehumanizing escapades among the hostile ape society. This is a bold exploratory reach for the stars that proves entirely futile and demoralizing. It is an expedition of adventurous discovery that ends in total waste and utter defeat. Zaius's response to Taylor's desire to venture further into the Forbidden Zone may very well apply to the astronauts' original mission to explore the unknown universe: 

Taylor: There's got to be an answer.

 Zaius: Don't look for it, Taylor. You may not like what you find. 

It is a statement that seems to underscore the inherent risk involved in any type of exploration or discovery, any quest for knowledge. If we seek truth, we just may find it—whether we like it or not. We may discover that the world is not as welcoming to us as we had thought, that the universe is indifferent to our highest human aspirations and ideals. We may discover deeply unhappy truths about ourselves. 

At the end, Taylor's quest—his search for "something better than man"—remains unfulfilled. Stranded on the planet of the apes, he has no hope of ever finding what he seeks, his mission a dismal failure, leaving him alone in the universe, in possession only of the most bleak and bitter of truths. Perhaps he has found wisdom. But at such cost. 

And yet, I remain haunted by Taylor's words, by his almost spiritual quest (indeed, as he has no evidence of any such superior creature existing in the universe, it can only be a matter of faith that such a being might in fact exist; and it may also be considered spiritual in the sense that it is an aspiration or desire of his soul). He may not have found the object of his vision, but we are left with the tantalizing possibility raised by the vision itself—what if, somewhere out there, there really is something better than us? What if the universe really has produced a creature more noble and pure—everything that we aspire to be, but never seem able to become? To me, there is a profound sense of longing and emptiness at the heart of the picture. The desolation of the landscape stands as symbol of that unfulfilled cosmic yearning, while the shimmering silence of the stars beckons mysteriously toward the unknown object of that longing. 


It is interesting that Planet of the Apes was released the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey. The latter picture, of course, through its music, makes overt reference to Nietzsche's Overman myth as told by the prophet Zarathustra, and it, too, is a film that expresses sublime cosmic yearnings. 2001 is a more optimistic film than Planet of the Apes, but both films are informed by the idea that "man is something to be surpassed". This is, at first glance, a seemingly antihuman sentiment that nevertheless often finds expression in a desire for transcendence and transfiguration. It is not so much the notion that humanity is worthless as it is the idea that we were meant to be, or at least are capable of becoming, something more—something better than man. Ultimately, then, it is perhaps closer to being a profoundly humanistic conviction, a faith in what the philosophers have called our last end—our final potential and possibility, the true fulfillment of our being that we have not actually witnessed in empirical reality. Humanity has always felt this longing, as seen throughout the vast history of its religions, and it is a desire that has not vanished in our modern secular age. All dreams of progress are based upon it. 

For the time being, though, we are left with ourselves as we are. Both religious and secular faith in the perfection of humanity must wait for the future to see their fulfillment. Until that day comes, if it may and however it may, we must continue to live with our crooked timber, and we must never give up the ongoing, inevitably imperfect attempt to treat each other with—as we so poignantly call it—humanity. 

Yes, Col. Taylor. I'm afraid this is the best we've got.