Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000351, Mon, 24 Oct 1994 12:15:01 -0700

Hum-Hum (fwd)
From: Dieter E. Zimmer <100126.2576@compuserve.com>

In the 1956 *Lolita* postscript, VN says that the first shiver of
inspiration was prompted, in 1939 or early in 1940, "by a newspaper story
about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a
scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this
sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage." I think I remember
having read somewhere that Paris newspapers of that period have been
dutifully perused, without turning up anything. Now I have taken up a
different track on which I want to briefly report. It may very well be,
however, that I am not the first.
There is a monograph on drawings and paintings produced by apes
and monkeys: *The Biology of Art* (Knopf, New York 1962) by the Oxford
zoologist Desmond Morris who had made a number of experiments himself. One
of its chapters is a rather exhaustive history of ape drawing. There is no
mention whatsoever of any experiment at the Paris zoo. Of course, it might
have taken place nonetheless, not making it into any scientific journal.
So that does remain a possibility to be kept in mind.
According to Morris, the first apes that were made to scrawl and
scribble were young chimpanzees raised among humans: in Russia by Nadie
Kohts in 1913/16 (published in 1935), in America by the Kelloggs
(published in 1933). Both studies might have come to VN's attention, but
as these chimp children were not caged at all, it is most unlikely that he
had them in mind.
Morris, however, also says which was the first ape
drawing ever reproduced. It is in a book by the German zoologist Alexander
Sokolowsky: *Erlebnisse mit wilden Tieren* (Haberland, Leipzig 1928). The
drawing reproduced is a pencil "sketch" by an adult male circus chimp by
the name of Tarzan II who actually did live in a narrow cage with iron
bars. Sokolowsky who was then assistant to the director of the Hamburg zoo
coaxed Tarzan to make the drawing while the animal was appearing in a
Hamburg variety show. Actually Tarzan was not drawing but imitating his
trainer's writing. The drawing shows about fifteen irregular but more or
less perpendicular black lines on a white sheet of paper. Now this is
surprising. It is true that chimps, in later experiments, often drew fan
like patterns, but Tarzan might have produced just about any kind of
squiggle, and none of the many later pongid drawings in Morris' book has a
stronger resemblance to prison bars. So it seems to me there is a slight
chance that VN may either have seen Sokolowsky's book or that some
newspaper had run a story on Tarzan's performance.
It may be just one of those coincidences that in Sokolowsky's book
there are a few pages on another ape by the name of Hum-Hum. Whether the
ape in question was Tarzan or not, he will _not_ have attempted to depict
his prison. After quite some experimenting, scientists agree that chimps
and gorillas do not scribble randomly but wilfully produce patterns.
However, these patterns do not represent anything -- there is no
representational chimpanzee art. "The chimpanzee's incapacity is not the
lack of a motor skill, not a physical inability to draw. Rather, it is the
inability to analyze complex objects into their parts and to understand
the relations between them" (David Premack: *The Mind of an Ape*, Norton,
New York 1983, p.108). Thus the prison bars will have been only in the
eyes of the human beholder, no matter when and where and who.

In July, the point came up in NABOKV-L that the source(s) for
various mentions of tortures and executions in VN's oeuvre are unknown
(notably *Gift* p.203, *Pnin* p.168). The "enlarged snapshot of a Chinese
stripped to the waist, in the act of being vigorously beheaded" of
*Sebastian Knight*, p.39, was said to be reproduced in a book by one
Roland Villeneuve, *Le Musee des supplices*. In the meantime I have had a
look at this book -- a most seedy affair, on top of the revolting subject
matter, patently catering to the sado-masochistic voyeur. The author seems
to be endlessly producing books on satanism, fetishism, vampirism,
cannibalism and all conceivable kinds of physical suffering. In his
*Museum* (1982 edition, Henri Veyrier, publisher), there are indeed two
photos that fit the description equally well, on p.87 and p.175, one from
the Boxer rebellion, one from the civil war. There is no mention of the
other two incidents.
As far as I could find out, the first edition of the book was
published in 1968, and there were several subsequent editions. None of
them can have been Nabokov's source. So the initial question remains open.