As an undergraduate in the late 1980s, I’d originally intended to major in English or Philosophy. But I found the Philosophy majors too quarrelsome, the English majors too complaisant. The Religion department, unexpectedly, offered a negative-dialectical alternative to these lame extremes; we were encouraged to engage in flexible-minded, ironic (in an engaged way) analysis of the cultural memes and themes that have shaped our worldviews. For me, this course of study encouraged me to take my life seriously despite my ongoing awareness that everything about which I am serious is open to doubt. I’m borrowing, here, from Thomas Nagel’s definition of “the absurd” — which brings me to the little porcelain monkey figurine which I use as a desk paperweight.
Beginning in 1967, the year I was born, examples of this simian figurine — perhaps a monkey, perhaps a chimp, let’s not quibble — were cranked out in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, by England’s Wade Ceramics. Known as “Wade Whimsies,” these monkeys (along with every other sort of animal) were for years included as premiums, in the North American market, in boxes of Red Rose tea. Today, though I don’t think Red Rose still includes this particular figurine among its premiums, the market is flooded. Red Rose whimsies are worthless — you can’t give them away. Over the years, I’ve thrown away scores of them, straight into the garbage from the Red Rose box. But when I came across this little guy, at some point in the mid-1990s, I couldn’t do it.
Among the symbols with which I became fascinated, while studying Religion, the monkey looms large. In cultural traditions from Africa and Asia to Central and South America, the monkey (or chimp; I don’t think mythopoets paid much attention to the distinction) is a trickster figure: mischievous, obscene, greedy, driven by instincts. One is tempted to admire such tricksters, who disobey normal rules and conventional behavior, and in so doing inspire us to question the status quo, the dominant discourse. (John Lennon, in his baring-his-soul and showing-his-penis phase, boasted that “everybody’s got something to hide except me and my monkey.”) But then one thinks of, say, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon — poop-flinging tricksters who stir things up, not because we need to be reminded of life’s absurdity, but because they’re childish dicks.
However, as Lévi-Strauss and others who analyze mythology have demonstrated, in many myths — Indian, Chinese, Japanese — the trickster monkey is merely playing the fool. Underneath the buffoonery, we catch a glimpse of a wise and compassionate, yet still quick-witted and humorous, figure. When they’re not rocking and rolling, these woke trickster monkeys serenely contemplate the nature of things — as seen, for example, in Mori Sosen’s late 18th-century drawings on silk scrolls, one of which may have inspired the nameless Wade artisan who sculpted my monkey figurine.
Which sits in a posture of contemplation, head cocked at an impish, perhaps mocking angle — gazing at me and through me — silently goading, encouraging, challenging me. Every day.