By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Report to an Academy’ is a short story by Franz Kafka (1883-1924), written in March and April 1917. The story takes the form of a speech delivered by a former ape who has learned to mimic human actions and speech, and who is reporting his life and experiences to a group of academics, hence the title, ‘A Report to an Academy’.
The story, like many of Kafka’s fictions, requires some analysis for its meaning (or meanings) to become fully apparent. Before we venture to analyse the story, however, here’s a reminder of the plot.
‘A Report to an Academy’: plot summary
The narrator of the story is a man who was formerly an ape; he has been transformed into a man using science. Speaking at a scientific conference, he delivers his ‘report’ to the audience, describing his previous life as an ape.
Formerly an ape in the African jungle, the narrator relates how he was shot and captured by a hunting party which packed him onto a ship bound for Europe. He reflects on this sudden loss of freedom as he found himself imprisoned in a cage on board the ship. He longs to escape, but knows that if he ended up in the sea, he would drown.
He begins instinctively to realise that his best chance of escape rests in learning to imitate the behaviour of the crew. He doesn’t decide to do this rationally, but his actions proceed as though he had considered his options and thought the matter through. He is merely doing what he needs to do in order to escape from his cage.
He soon finds that he can smoke a pipe with ease, but he is repelled by the smell of the schnapps which the men drink. However, he learns to drink it and keep it down, at one point drinking down a whole bottle while the men are watching him. But becoming like a man is difficult: whenever he masters human speech, he loses the ability to talk soon afterwards.
When the ship reaches Europe, he realises that he is faced with a choice between the variety stage and the Zoological Gardens, and, knowing that the latter would mean being locked away in a cage again, he tries his hardest to enter the stage as a performer. He manages to do this, thanks to the help of a succession of teachers, one of whom very nearly turns into an ape in the course of helping him.
Eventually, the narrator confides that he was able to pass as an average European, culturally speaking. He can no longer recall what it felt like to be an ape, so complete is his transformation. He says he keeps a chimpanzee for company at home, almost like a pet, and that he has achieved what he set out to achieve.
‘A Report to an Academy’: analysis
Like many of Kafka’s works, ‘A Report to an Academy’ cannot be interpreted as having one monolithic meaning, and is instead suggestive of a variety of interpretations. That said, it is easier to home in on one aspect of this story, and to view it as a fable on human evolution. In some respects, the story is another of Kafka’s ‘metamorphosis’ stories, a tale of transformation like ‘The Metamorphosis’, Kafka’s best-known short work.
However, unlike ‘The Metamorphosis’, in which the travelling salesman Gregor Samsa is suddenly transformed from a man into an insect, the transformation in ‘A Report to an Academy’ happens in reverse: from animal to human form. Of course, on some level the story can therefore be analysed as a microcosm of human evolution, whereby ‘man’ evolved from earlier ‘apes’ (or apelike creatures, who were different from modern apes).
Note how the narrator of ‘A Report to an Academy’ states that his imitation of his human captors happened almost unconsciously or instinctively, rather than being a conscious and rational decision. This description might also be applied to Darwinian evolution, whereby one species evolves to become another because of chance mutations and favourable characteristics which increase the individual’s chance of survival. And what is the narrator of Kafka’s story doing if not trying to survive, by adapting to his new environment?
When analysed this way, Kafka’s story becomes a satire on human society: through evolving into ‘civilised’ man, we have left behind the freedom of nature for the cage that is modern civilisation, where our best chance of blending in and surviving comes from putting on a performance.
Of course, all of the ape’s actions after he is captured constitute a performance, but it’s one that gradually becomes more conscious, until, by the time he arrives in Europe – the cradle of so-called civilisation – what was previously instinctive has now hardened into rational decision-making. And ‘performing’ has gone from something he does to blend in to something he does for a living.
The ape, then, ends up far from the Edenic paradise of his jungle: the descent of man mirrors the Fall of Man. His defensiveness at the end of ‘A Report to an Academy’ – when he enjoins his audience not to ask whether his conversion to mankind was worthwhile – suggests that his transformation from ape into a ‘higher’ form of primate represents a loss more than a gain for him.
But as he begins by telling his audience, the ape has already lost his ability to remember what being an ape feels like. Kafka is suggesting that modern man, too, has lost touch with his true nature, with his roots in the world of primates and jungles and relative freedom. Instead, he has become imprisoned by conformity, society, civilisation: whatever we want to call the world humankind has built.
It is significant that the acts of ‘initiation’, as we might call them, which the ape has to complete to become fully human are smoking, spitting, and drinking: these, and the handshake, appear to be the height of ‘what makes us human’.