Monday, August 16, 2010

The ape who drew the bars of her cage

Some years ago, researchers into the development of the primate brain gave a captive ape pens and a board to draw on.  For several months the only output of this experiment was meaningless scrawls. Until one day, on inspecting the ape’s writing board, the researchers found that she had created something which was clearly intended to be representational. What the ape had drawn, quite distinctly and unambiguously, were the bars of her cage.

A parable for our times.  I first heard this one on the Guardian books podcast.  Now we come to the point. Having tried to source this report of the ape drawing the bars of her cage, I drew a blank, and I conclude that the story is probably apocryphal.  So the question is : why does it matter?  That is does matter, to me at least, is quite definite. The story loses any traction unless it’s verifiable. But why isn't it good enough for it to be just to be a story, a parable?


  1. Great story! Just checked some "urban myth" type sites, and it seems the story came from Nabokov by way of explanation for his inspiration for "Lolita". He supposedly read a newspaper article detailing the artistic primate's efforts, but no such article has ever been found, despite many researchers trawling through all likely newspaper archives. Apparently sometime later the writer himself hinted that it had indeed been an invention. I agree Pete, the story seems pointless if it's not true, and loses its poignancy.

  2. I just read about this in Cheryl Strayed's Wild & had to google it to see if It was true. So it's not, but still makes you pause and think.

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