Interspecies love

February 5, 2011 • 10:57 am

The huge publicity about the evidence for mating between “modern” Homo sapiens and Neandertals shows me that people are fascinated with inter-specific (or inter-subspecific) love.  After all, isn’t that what King Kong was about?  Sunday’s New York Times reviews another Kongish book, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,by Benjamin Hale.

As related by reviewer Christopher Beha, the plot seems bizarre.  The narrator, Bruno Littlemore, isn’t human:

Specifically, he is a chimpanzee, raised in the primate house at the Lincoln Park Zoo and then, after his unusual intelligence is discovered, in the University of Chicago’s Behavioral Biology Laboratory. There he learns the ways and eventually the words of Homo sapiens, beginning with the nod, the head shake and the wave. “With these three signs,” Bruno notes, “you can say to anyone yes, no, harm, no harm, hello and goodbye. Add to these the smile, the frown and the finger point, and you’re practically already in basic-human-social-interaction business.”

At our university!  The genius ape falls in love with his keeper, primatologist Lydia Littlemore, which begins a tempestuous affair that includes sexual congress between woman and chimp.  Apparently, though, salaciousness is not the point here:

And the depictions of interspecies love are certainly discomfiting, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Ultimately, the point of these scenes is not to shock us but to ask what fundamentally makes us human, what differences inhere between a creature like Lydia and a creature like Bruno that disqualify the latter from the full range of human affection. In a twist that sounds heavy-handed when summarized but is expertly managed, Lydia suffers an illness that leaves her helpless and aphasic, reduced to her animal self, making the differences between the two seem even more superficial, and their need for each other even more moving.

Well, maybe.  Despite Beha’s positive review, I’m not running to the bookstore for this one.

In fact, Hale’s novel is so stuffed with allusions high and low, so rich with philosophical and literary interest, that a reviewer risks making it sound ponderous or unwelcoming. So let’s get this out of the way: “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore” is an absolute pleasure. Much of its pleasure comes from the book’s voice. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” Humbert tells us, and Bruno certainly obliges.

Perhaps someone who’s read this book can report back.

41 thoughts on “Interspecies love

  1. Actually, King Kong was a thinly veiled metaphor for inter-race relations. Poor little blonde woman, big scary dark primate and the need for the power of the state armed to the teeth to intervene and save the virtue of the woman. Like many a black man, Kong was killed. Hate that movie in so many ways.

    1. Actually, King Kong was a thinly veiled metaphor for inter-race relations.

      No, it wasn’t. Some people have imposed that reading onto Kong, but to say it “was” that is simply disingenuous. It was and is a monster movie.

      1. Yes, it was.

        It may have not been an INTENTIONAL metaphor, but its there. Just as its also a metaphor for the slave trade. And a metaphor for man’s ‘bestial’ side. Another common King Kong metaphor is the ‘social outsider.’

        Because, of course, metaphors are as much in the eye of the beholder, regardless of the ‘pure intent’ of the artist, as they are of the artist’s creation.

    2. It resonates with men because even though we know deep down we are savage beasts, we still have the chance to attract an angelic creature.

      1. I’d say it’s more biological than that. In mammals the male gets his attraction signal (stimulation) from female display of fertility. The female by comparison gets the signal from within her own body, not from the male.

        Our whole concept of beauty and attractiveness and the relative role these play for males and females is tied to this asymmetry.

  2. I was always told – by the artsy types that I know – that King Kong was about white American males being scared of the unsettling effects of black men on their women. I think I also heard this on an interview on Fresh Air within the last year or so.

    I just figured that, being neither originally American or artsy, I wasn’t qualified to comment. However, there would seem likely to be dimensional issues if Fay Ray ever decided she wanted to get down and dirty.

    1. That was Quentin Tarintino! He also said that the metaphor could have been unintentional. But, unintentional or not, it’s there from legitimate interpretation.

  3. Another example of media created by men for men: because if an unattractive loser/monster/alien/animal can win the affections of an attractive women, then they, too, can hold out for a supermodel instead of dating women who’s general attractivenesses are more on par with their own…

    The author could have made the chimp female and the researcher male. I would wager that bestiality is much more common involving human males, except for when there’s money and cameras involved…

    1. I was thinking the exact same thing. And since we all know that men will fcuk anything it would have been much more believable. Maybe … 😉

    1. Well you’re not GAY!!

      I heard that in an interview with a guy who’d married his horse. When the interviewer asked him the sex of the horse he screamed that he wasn’t GAY, ROFL.

  4. “… I’m not running to the bookstore for this one”

    But it’s available as a Kindle for only $12.99.

  5. To a 14 year boy (me in 1968) a funny line. I had changed it in my memory to “I’d kiss you but you humans are so damned ugly” so I looked it up.

    George Taylor: Doctor, I’d like to kiss you goodbye.
    Dr. Zira: All right, but you’re so damned ugly.

    Ape Kim Hunter telling human Charlton Heston, against popular belief, that he’s ugly.

  6. The idea of King Kong as a thinly veiled allusion to fears of interracial sex is certainly plausible; but I’ve always thought (perhaps because I was 13 when I first saw it) that it was about raging male hormones writ large and that Kong’s ascent of the Empire State Building was a metaphor for the world’s biggest erection and his fall and death the ultimate detumescence. I wasn’t much of an artsy fartsy intellectual at that age, but I still like my interpretation better.

  7. Larry Niven has a word for it — rishathra — from his Ringworld novels where thousands of divergent hominid species inhabit the eponymous space artifact (and have sex with each other).

    1. But they seem to do it for contractual/diplomatic reasons to keep the peace among the species…rather then anything sexual. Fetish reasons aside (ie zoophilia), I’ve always found this a flaw in the plot, because how would you “do it” to something that you don’t find attractive to begin with. None of the humoaniod species in Ringworld I would ever find attractive from their description…unless I was forced to pheromon wise by those vampire humanoid thingies. /tanj

      1. There was a line in one of the Ringworld novels about how some settlements kept a vampire around for just that reason.

        But if you stop and think about it, there’s some flat out problems with the physiology, too. The Grass Giants, for example, were just too darned big for it to really seem possible.

        Really, it ended up sounding like it was just Larry Niven getting his kicks.

  8. King Kong (speaking of the 1933 original – no idea what allusions the remake may contain) was a great movie built around the famous last line, pure and simple.

    1. Sorry, the author was Benjamin Hale (the link would have answered this); I’ve corrected the text.

  9. I moved to Canada to go to university and one of my required courses was Canadian Literature. I’d never knowingly read anything Canadian before, so this was quite an adventure!

    The first book we read was _Bear_ by Marian Engel. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read it, it’s about a woman who has sex with a bear. Seriously.

    So there was my impression of the Canadian literary scene – it’s all roughing it in the bush and having sex with bears (potentially at the same time).

  10. Don’t forget our relationship with the Denisovans. No relationship with the Hobbits existed,eh?
    Would it be ethical to mate with another great ape? What would be the status of resulting progeny?

    1. I remember that movie… It wasn’t deep or anything. Wasn’t even Martin’s best.

      But it was funny. Especially the Merv Griffin thing…

    1. This story was out in the blogosphere a couple of years back, but I heard it from a colleague who heard it from the paleontologist in question. Is that second or third hand?

      The paleontologist was present at a party of drunken anthropologists. They inseminated a female chimp with human sperm. The female chimp showed signs of being pregnant. In the sober light of day, they decided that was not a good thing, and gave her hormone treatments which terminated the pregnancy, if any.

  11. The huge publicity about the evidence for mating between “modern” Homo sapiens and Neandertals shows me that people are fascinated with inter-specific (or inter-subspecific) love. After all, isn’t that what King Kong was about?

    This reminds me of the movie “Bladerunner”. When I saw that movie, I found it very odd how much they focused on the sexual tension between the replicants and humans. There was this bizarre taboo flavor to it that I didn’t quite understand, not just by the humans, but by the replicants.

    But then you read about fetishes such as “furries” and all such tendencies seem vanilla.

  12. I’ve started reading it. So far, it’s very good. Jerry would enjoy the nasty things said about religion. The subject matter reminded me of the Franz Kafka short story ‘Vor der Akadamie’. actually, the connection is closer than I’d thought. In the Kafka story, Rotpeter was the name of the intelligent ape giving a lecture before a scientific academy. In the novel, Rotpeter was the name of Bruno’s father, so the short story seems to have inspired the novel …

  13. Wish by Peter Goldsworthy covers similar ground but if memory serves me correctly the gorilla is female with a human protagonist. Very moving & well written.

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