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Dispatches

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September 17, 2012

When did the Berlin Zoo stop displaying humans? 1931, I think, but I’m not sure.

http://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Carl_Hagenbeck_575px_9.151.jpg
Image courtesy Dennis Desmond

Statistics From the Great War

Thirty-five countries participated and destroyed the following:

  • 4,760,000 acres of arable earth
  • 794,040 houses and apartment buildings
  • 9,332 factories
  • 58,967 kilometers of roads
  • 8,333 pieces of artwork

All of the above resulting in:

  • 71,000,000 cubic meters of trash
  • 330,000,000 cubic meters required to fill up 78 kilometers of trenches.
  • Total number of dead: unknown

Cost of the war = 2,500 billion francs = a small four-room house for every inhabitant of Europe, including Russia.*

Loot Plus

Leibniz was interested in ways of seeing. He collected lenses, mirrors, rotoscopes, and automata. He thought of museums as knowledge theaters and was especially attached to the Kunstkammer of the Berlin Palace, said to be one of the first museums in Europe, a site he envisioned as housing research, exhibition, and spectacle. In 1695 after seeing a machine walk on water, he wrote Drôle de Pensée, or A Funny Thought, which detailed an all-encompassing utopian sort of exhibition, a spectacle to end all spectacles. The long list of what would be shown included artificial meteors, fireworks, optical marvels, artificial war, concerts, rare musical instruments, talking trumpets, rope dancing, perilous somersaults, operations of transfusion and infusion, machines which project images against a wall, an object housing a small man who would advise spectators on the following day’s weather. The list was so extensive that the institution charged with accommodating the collection would be spread out across the city, taking over the rooms of ordinary citizens, apartment buildings, shops, warehouses, offices, factories, barges, parliaments, royal chambers, and perhaps would ultimately consume the metropolis itself.

…the question hangs in the margins: When did the Berlin Zoo stop displaying humans? 1931, I think, but I’m not sure.

Showmanship

I had some characters who needed to go to the Berlin Zoo in 1933. It’s a place I have visited, but not in 1933, and I wanted to make sure, to the extent I was able, what the zoo had been like. In the process I got sidetracked by the story of Carl Hagenbeck, animal and human impresario. Hagenback was born in Hamburg in 1844. I imagined him living in the quaint folkloric Germany of Clemens Brentano who wrote fairy tales about Schoolmaster Whackwell and manifestos, for the German Christian Roundtable Society, which promoted a highly exclusionary definition of what they felt national citizenship ought to be. Hagenbeck’s father, a fishmonger with a side business in exotic animals, gave Carl, when still a child, a seal and a polar bear cub as presents. Hagenback displayed them in a tub and charged a few pfennigs to spectators interested in watching arctic mammals splash around. Eventually his collection grew so extensive he needed larger buildings to house them. These early entrepreneurial endeavors led to a career capturing, buying, and selling animals from all over the world, destined for European and even distant American zoos. Hagenback, known as “the father of the modern zoo,” was a pioneer in the concept that animals should be displayed in some approximation of their natural habitat. Acknowledging little difference between humans (at least some humans) and animals in terms of questions of captivity and display, he also exhibited human beings: Eskimos, Laps, Samoans, African, Arabs, Native Americans, all stationed in zoos across Europe in reproductions of their native environments. Creating panoramic fictional spaces for his creatures, Hagenbeck is often credited was being the originator of the amusement park. How these captive people felt about the peculiar dress, language and eating habits of the spectators who came to see them has not, as far as I know, been recorded. European emissaries, whether propelled by diplomatic missions or for purposes of trade, went into the world and brought back artifacts, instigated the concept of collecting for those who could afford it. German museums would come to display the Gate of Ishtar brought brick by brick from Baghdad, vast Chinese temples, Assyrian fortresses, and other treasures. Hagenbeck, a hybrid figure, ethnographer, zoologist, showman, anthropologist, capitalist, but also the son of a fishmonger, was not of this class of adventurer. A populist, okay, but also the question hangs in the margins: When did the Berlin Zoo stop displaying humans? 1931, I think, but I’m not sure.

In a Berlin bookstore, I found a copy of Gerald Durrell’s Zoo in My Luggage, a long-lost book from my childhood. In 1957, Durrell and his wife traveled to Cameroon to collect endangered animals, bringing them back to England for his private zoo with the intention of saving some from extinction and re-introducing species back into the wild whenever possible. But where to keep them? Neighbors complained. In the interim, before a permanent preserve was set up on the isle of Jersey, they were housed in the basement of a Bournemouth department store, introducing the animals to a human environment. At one point, one of the baboons, Georgina, got out of her basement cage. Beginning in a window display where she left paw prints all over bedroom furniture, she was toppling lamps, swinging from Christmas decorations, pissing indiscriminately here and there, winding her way to a stack of linoleum rolls which she unspooled, confounding the pursuing constables, professionally stymied until Durrell himself was able to corner her.

Another chimp, Cholmondely, proved to have an amazing memory, remembering the route to a particular pub he’d been driven along at a much earlier date. Traveling in the sidecar of Durrell’s Lambretta, he got increasingly excited as they drew closer. He’d established a friendship with the pub’s owner, and in a Nim Chimpski-like display of humanoid recognition and empathy, as soon as he walked in the door, he began chattering, jumping up and down, clearly overjoyed to see her again. The place on the map where human species turn left and leave apes behind is a moveable signpost. Use of fire to cook food, the mutation that caused nasal passages and mouth to join at the back of the throat making speech possible, development of syntactical language, have all claimed that precise spot, that branch in the road where we wave good bye to chimps, and stumble along on our own. Empathy and recognition after a long period of absence, spindle neurons firing specifically in the hypothalamus, was another marker of what it means to be human, but when Cholmondely remembered and clearly loved the pub owner, the signpost was moved again.

The weatherman’s superiors were very suspicious men and saw plots in a whispered conversation, in a phone call, in a figure in a carpet.

The Futility of the Hangman’s Job in a Space Capsule

Creatures in confined environments run into contentious situations when privacy is required. Men in space have similar issues with bodily functions as humans and some animals when they are on display. In space, not only is privacy an issue with every move on camera, but the absence of gravity, a force that can’t be stored and brought out for later use when the need arises, is a problem. The body’s digestive system needs gravity to do everything it needs to do.

The comedy group, The Whitest Kids U’Know, made a short film, Space Potatoes, about these predicaments when, on a space launch, Barry is late for blast-off because the drinks machine ate his dollar, and he’s really thirsty. He rushes into the capsule, straps himself in, and proceeds to open a soda, which sprays all over the astronauts seated directly behind him. The soda is followed by a bag of candy, a gallon of milk and a can of powdered chocolate. All splatter backwards towards his screaming co-pilots who, because there is no gravity, become completely covered with each successive onslaught of food. He’s hungry, he explains between apologies, but continues to disregard the protests of the two men just behind him, thoroughly coated with whatever food he’s just tried, in vain, to consume. They yell at Barry, they will look disgusting for the cameras, for the newscast. Finally he opens a bag of potatoes. His fellow astronauts are pummeled by a barrage of spuds. Lastly, he tells them he feels really sick. They scream as the screen goes to black.

Astral Projection

Hitler’s meteorologist studied the sky as if he had his head in the clouds. He had offered his services to the Reich. His predictions of Nordic lights and thunderclouds proved fairly accurate most of the time, and in his present position his life depended on being right. The weatherman’s superiors were very suspicious men and saw plots in a whispered conversation, in a phone call, in a figure in a carpet. The meteorologist had studied atmospheric science, activity in the ionosphere, synoptic meteorology, thermodynamics, and barometric pressure, daydreaming from a university classroom with a view of the Spree, but at the same time, he desired to live in a castle like Ludwig of Bavaria with asymmetrical wings added at different eras, and he still dreamed of the monsters of his childhood, like Brentano’s giant winged Snorrasper, evil King of the Nightwatchmen. Just before D-Day he was positive the weather would be too severe for the Allies to attempt an invasion. Hitler slept through the day of the first invasion in history to depend on a forecast.

Rommel and others in the German command were convinced because of the rain and wind of June, Eisenhower would never give the order to invade. Rommel, who left France to be with his wife on her birthday, said they would have invaded in May if that were the Allies’ intention, but since May had come and gone, there would be no signs of enemy planes and boats along the Normandy coast.

Eisenhower’s weatherman had, in fact, said the opposite: No problem, all systems go as far as the invasion was concerned, because the rain and storms were expected to clear.

In The Longest Day, the Germans and the Allies have very different maps of the same continent. General Erich Marcks says about maps, why rush to Rennes just to push little flags around a table? The ruling German military meet in lavish rooms, drinking, playing cards by the fire, with no material needs, warm and dry, as opposed to the austere Americans and British who strategize in plain offices, standing in front of their maps, unsure, as John Wayne says, God is on their side. Just as Marcks is about to leave the mansion where the German command in France is headquartered, he receives a report that paratroopers are sited dropping out of the sky, the first hint, something is going on. The parachutists turn out to be rubber dummies. In the dark, from a distance, they looked like actual people, and they exploded on impact with the earth. (The English called them Ruperts.) Marcks cannot figure out what is going on. Eisenhower, he says, will never take the gamble on invading Normandy.

It was noted that Ishi never threw anything on the floor. He had taken up smoking while in jail. Matches, cigarette butts, and other detritus all ended up somewhere.

A Diorama For One

In 1911 Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe of northern California, was caught in Oroville, a small town southeast of Chico. After capturing him near a slaughterhouse, he was jailed, but soon anthropologists discovered him in his incarceration and brought him to San Francisco where he would spend the rest of his life, living in the California Museum of Affiliated Colleges. According to the San Francisco Daily Call, he lived in a secluded hall with antiquities, bones, Egyptian mummies, and other curiosities. He was afraid of the human remains, and when he ascertained what locks were for, bolted his door at night against ghosts and spirits.

During Ishi’s time at the museum, anthropologists recorded his speech and songs on a stenographer’s rubberoid phonograph record by having him talk into a tin trumpet, and he, in turn, interpreted the early twentieth century. Large crowds of mostly white people were terrifying. He had never seen more than five people at a time, and for most of the decades he lived in the vast canõns around Oroville, he had been entirely alone. Though he was frightened of roller window shades on springs, he was fascinated by watches, doorknobs, electric lights, cameras, typewriters, faucets, and safety pins. He used a teaspoon to eat a peach and made arrowheads from Bromo Seltzer bottles. Coins were meaningless except when a bird, buffalo, or other recognizable images were depicted. A telephone was put to his ear, but this, too, was a meaningless piece of hardware. If someone left him to answer the telephone he considered this the height of rudeness and conversation would cease.

It was noted that Ishi never threw anything on the floor. He had taken up smoking while in jail. Matches, cigarette butts, and other detritus all ended up somewhere. When given a piece of gum, he rolled it into a ball and put it in a pocket.

One speaker was found of Yana, a similar, but not by any means identical, language to Yahi, and once this imperfect route to translation was established, Ishi was able to reveal the names of more than three hundred objects kept in the museum. Eventually, he did learn some English, though at first he absolutely refused to. His favorite visitors to the museum were small boys, and he adopted their slang, their intonation. When a woman asked him if he believed in God, he answered, “Sure, Mike.”

Objects, the thingness of the onslaught of new, unfamiliar bits and pieces, were impossible to parse, and he accepted everything at face value. A telephone = a gum ball. Communication was a steep incline of frustration. He’d lived alone for so long, as if rocketing through space on a solo flight to a destination light years away, there had been no one to talk to. The anthropologists observed, it didn’t matter to him whether or not he was understood. In terms of his experience in the mountains and canõns, mattering wasn’t integral to survival. Ishi would pantomime his needs, desires, observations. Disgust was conveyed by miming vomiting, though this could be said to be a universal gesture.

A California vaudeville impresario offered Ishi $2,000 to be exhibited in Sacramento, but no one knew what exactly he would do before an audience. When taken to see vaudeville, Ishi thought clapping was meant to drive demons away. A Wild West Show elicited the same confused response. At neither performance did the acts mean any more or less than eating, cleaning, walking, or any other act. At the Wild West Show, however, a Sioux rode up to him as he sat in the audience. He reached for Ishi’s hair as a way of recognizing they were both chiefs of a kind, and then he rode off, never to be seen again.

During the day, Ishi was observed by men and women whose trousers and dresses respectively reached to the floor and whose pockets were filled with paper money. A woman came to see him wearing a “Votes for Women” button. Soldiers came in uniform before they were shipped out to Flanders, Verdun, or Gallipoli. Visitors had become preoccupied with the news of America’s entry into the war, the sinking of U-boats and the invention of the tank. When given a choice, as to whether to stay in the museum, working as a janitor sweeping, mopping, dusting or return to the mountains, Ishi chose to stay in the museum.

If the inarticulateable, to him, invasion were to somehow cross the continent for which he had no maps, reach Golden Gate Park, and decimate the city as the earthquake had done, he would push his way out, past the pulverized fossils and bones to stroll through the wreckage of the city. Out in the street, abandoned hot dog carts, pretzels, and cotton candy (all foods that were unknown to him, but all that was available in the immediate aftermath), as he and any other survivors would make their way, possibly into the Richmond district, not yet a Chinese neighborhood, but there would be a few stores you could loot here and there on Balboa and Geary. In Golden Gate Park, though, there were places he could hide, quail that could be hunted, fish that could be speared from the Japanese Tea Garden, before that which had been the park would take over the city, wilderness claiming the west bay peninsula again.

*Source: It Was the War of the Trenches,. Jacques Tardi, Fantagraphics, 2010.

Author Image

Susan Daitch is the author of three novels, L.C. (Lannan Foundation Selection and NEA Heritage Award), The Colorist, Paper Conspiracies, and a collection of short stories, Storytown. A novella, Fall Out will be published in 2012 by Madras Press. She is the recipient of two Vogelstein Foundation awards and a 2012 fellow in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

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You might also like

  • Chloe Pantazi: Detritus of InnocenceChloe Pantazi: Detritus of Innocence "We Went Back: Photographs from Europe, 1933 - 1956": Chim at the International Center of Photography
  • Shoes for NapoleonShoes for Napoleon Like every soldier he had deployed with, he would probably buy himself a new car, but for now, he bought his friends drinks and dinners and gifts as if it was Christmas and he was some lean and tan...
  • The Doctors’ DaughterThe Doctors’ Daughter Guillermo kissed her and she was not afraid of his tongue and his hands on her body, and she wanted to stay with him all night, wanted to lie down on the wet earth, but he turned around and began w...
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One comment for Dispatches

  1. Comment by Laurie Stone on September 17, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    This is a tremendously evocative collage of memory, history, and invention, an elegy for our origins and sorrow for the way our ancestry, when still visable in today, arouses violent impulses to disconnect. Beautiful, musical.

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