Apes and Opera Singers
Solomon had a poster on his wall - an image of an ape side by side with Povarotti. Above, writ in 72 point embolden caps, was the question: ‘Who are you?’ Now that might, in some circles, have been considered rather adolescent, but Solomon, though not really fuelled by ontological obsessions, still considered it something that was slightly on his mind ever since he was old enough to entertain the idea that he might actually be someone – but who? He had a name given to him by his parents; he had a birth certificate, a vaccination certificate, a National Insurance card with his unique number embossed across the front; a degree from a semi-prestigious university and a post doctorate from a slightly more celebrated one. But who was he? The ape or the opera singer?
‘ You’re neither,’ Daisy reminded him.
‘ I’m both,’ he corrected her.
‘ You’ve never sung opera in your life,’ she said. ‘Though I admit you eat a lot of bananas.’
‘ How do you know?’ he asked, raising his left eyebrow.
‘ That you eat bananas or that you’ve never sung an aria?’
‘ That I’ve never sung an aria.’
‘ Well sing me one, then,’ she said, in that challenging tone of hers which might well have launched a thousand prima donnas.
‘ I don’t know any at the moment,’ he admitted. ‘But that doesn’t mean I didn’t sometime in the past…’
‘ In this life or another?’ she queried, looking at him with the same suspicious eyelids-narrowed, searchlight stare that made him quiver.
‘ In this one. I like singing in the shower.’
‘ What, what?’
‘ What do you like to sing?’
‘ Something from The Barber of Seville…’
‘ Go on, sing it then…’
‘ I don’t know the words.’
‘ Then hum.’
He took a deep breath and hummed.
‘ That’s awful!’ she said, wrinkling up her nose. ‘Truly, madly awful. In fact it give a new meaning to awfulness.’
‘ I didn’t say I was good,’ he replied.
‘ So you’re not an opera singer.’
‘ You don’t have to be good to be an opera singer,’ he corrected. ‘You just have to sing opera…’
‘ But you weren’t singing.’
‘ I was.’
‘ You were humming.’
‘ Humming is a sort of singing, isn’t it? The accepted definition of the verb “to sing” is the act of making musical sounds with the voice. It doesn’t necessitate the use of words…’
‘ It’s the notion of “musicality” I think that’s problematic,’ she replied.
‘ The word “music” derives from “mousik”, he said, ‘a Greek word which means “the art of the muse”. No actual muse is specified.’
‘ So it might be the muse of bad singing?’ She thought about that for a moment. Then, looking back at him sweetly, with child-like eyes (‘Uh, oh,’ he thought, ‘here it comes…’). ‘If I understand what you’re saying, you – who admits to knowing not a single libretto, and has a voice that would send chills down the quills of a porcupine, are…’ (and here she pointed back to the poster on the wall) ‘… an opera singer somewhat similar to Pavoratti…’
‘ I didn’t say “similar to”…’
‘ Your poster sort of implies it.’
‘ The question you asked me, sometime ago…’ (How long had it been – seconds, minutes, decades – ages!) ‘… had to do with whether I saw myself as an ape or an opera singer because the poster which you refer to has a print of a commonly accepted image of each, of both, though it could have simply had the words “Ape” and “Opera Singer” instead of pictures and then you would have had to supply the image yourself, in your mind’s eye, so you might have substituted the ape you last saw when you went to the zoo …’
‘ I don’t go to zoos,’ she interrupted. ‘I don’t like the idea of animals being kept in cages…’
‘ Good zoos don’t keep them in cages anymore…’
‘ Animals should be in the jungle where they belong…’
‘ The jungles are disappearing. Something to do with climate change and the never-ending quest for resources…’
‘ Which is why I’m always so pissed off at you when you don’t recycle your rubbish!’
He closed his eyes and held up his hand, realising that if he let this conversation go so far afield they’d soon end up in China and back to the debate on the origin of green tea which took up an entire evening last month.
‘ Could we rewind?’ he asked.
‘ Back to where?’ she replied.
‘ Back to when I said, “…in your mind’s eye, so you might have substituted…”’
‘ Ok, but leave out the zoo.’
He sighed. ‘Alright…’ Then, taking an all-suffering deep breath, he continued, ‘The picture of Povaratti was meant to be that of a generic opera singer and was used because he is so easily recognisable. So you were meant to think “opera singer” not “Povaratti” when you saw the picture. Just like you were meant to think “ape” in general rather than a specific one…’
‘ I don’t know any specific apes…’
‘ You don’t know Povaratti, either,’ he reminded her.
‘ But I do know the picture of the opera singer refers to an actual person. The picture of the ape doesn’t…’
He went over and inspected the ape image more closely. It wasn’t a drawing but a photo – probably cut out from a larger scene. From the jungle or the zoo? ‘It probably is a specific ape,’ he said. ‘We just don’t know him…’
‘ Or her.’
‘ Our eyes aren’t trained to recognise specificities in apes. A picture of an ape is simply an ape but one of an opera singer is more defined. We know the ape is an ape because of its shape, its stance, its general appearance but we wouldn’t know an opera singer except by some reference to a person who we know to sing opera.’
She let that regurgitate for a moment before replying because even before she put it together in her head, something didn’t sound right. ‘You’re not comparing like with like,’ she said. ‘You could either contrast ape and human, in which case you would have two general representations of specific species or you could compare banana eater and opera singer…”
‘ All apes eat bananas. Not all humans are opera singers,’ he said.
‘ From your definition of “opera singer” I suspect that all humans are.’
‘ Well, how do we know that all apes eat bananas?’ he replied.
There was a sudden look of confusion in her face. Did she actually know all apes ate bananas? Or was it just another case of clichéd generalisation – something she detested. ‘I think it’s still OK, what I said…’ she mumbled, looking at him anxiously.
He took her hand, seeing that she needed reassurance. Maybe this had gone too far. ‘No. You’re right. All apes eat bananas.’
‘ But what if one was shipwrecked on a desert island…’
‘ You know, a jungle ape snatched from its habitat and put on a ship bound for the New York zoological gardens. Suddenly there’s a force ten hurricane. The ship is caught up in a ferocious storm and smashed against a gigantic reef…’
‘ Where what?
‘ Where is the reef it smashed up against?’
‘ I don’t know. Somewhere between the Caribbean and Boston harbour, I expect…’
He nodded. ‘Ok. Go on…’
She blinked her eyes, having really been caught up in the story of this ape seized from the wilds, torn from the arms of its loyal mate, heartlessly separated from its children and the banana trees it so deeply loved and admired…
‘ Poor Harry!’ she sobbed.
‘ The shipwrecked ape,’ she explained.
‘ He has a name?’
She looked at him as if he had been the ape snatcher, himself. ‘Why shouldn’t he have a name? The opera singer has a name, doesn’t he?’
‘ Yes. But what’s the point you’re making?’
‘ Point? Oh, yes, there was a point. Let me think…’
‘ Actually, things don’t really have to have a point…’
‘ Yes they do!’
‘ So what is it?’
Then it flashed into her head - ding, dong! Of course! There is a point! ‘If the ape was on a desert island – a desert island without banana trees but lots of other fruit, like apples, pears, persimmons, avocados – would it survive? And if it did, could we still say all apes eat bananas?’
‘ Maybe that’s the exception that proves the rule,’ he suggested.
‘ I never really understood that expression,’ she said, looking at him curiously. ‘Why not say that’s the rule that proves the exception?’
‘ I was just trying to be helpful. You seemed to be so caught up in your story. I simply wanted to give it a happy ending, that’s all…’
‘ By telling me that’s the exception that proves the rule? Either all apes eat bananas or not all apes eat bananas. One is true, both aren’t.’
‘ There’s always an exception,’ he told her.
‘ How about, ‘All people need to breath air or else they’ll turn blue.’
‘ You see? That itself is an exception.’
‘ To what?’
‘ To the statement, “There’s always an exception.”’
She blinked at him once and then twice and then twice more.
Later that evening he did a bit of research on shipwrecked apes. He found reference to a rather bizarre case during the Napoleonic wars of a French galleon sunk off the coast of Hartlepool. The citizens anxiously waited to see if there were any survivors. As there was only one, he was captured and immediately hung as a form of summary justice meted out to enemy sailors who dared step foot on English soil. Only later was it pointed out to the good people of Hartlepool that the enemy sailor was actually an ape that had been kept as the ship’s mascot. When questioned, the townsfolk admitted the survivor looked a little strange but, then again, they had never seen a Frenchman.
Reading that bit of fantastic history caused him to scratch the mole on his forehead as he recalled that sometime ago he had come to the conclusion that all true history was bizarre – the rest, the reams of books full of battles, dates and infinite varieties of statistical data, were the kind of fluff that both pillows and schoolboy minds were stuffed with. But that thought was quickly supplanted by another and the new one concerned the mole he was scratching (molesting?) out of habit. This particular mole was on his forehead right beside the tip of his eyebrow that pointed uneasily toward his left ear. And realising he was scratching it, even though he knew he shouldn’t, made him think of moles and that made him wonder how many things he could think about before he stopped thinking – full stop – like a bucket filled with water that couldn’t take any more without sloshing over the top and onto the wooden floor causing both a mess and a predicament for the grumpy neighbour who lived below him.