We must not take this text—or any of the subsequent texts, or “books”—as if they were mere children’s books. They are, in fact, discourses to prepare young minds for the harsh, cold realities of the world. Namely, that the world—or, as what we deem the “world” is nothing more than a shared illusion by humanity that we call “society”—does not revolve around them. They are naught but a cell in a greater, much more complex organism. It is, in other words, as if they are a singular ant in the greater colony.
However, there are texts that negate and disagree with the above statement. These texts view the individual in the Nietzschean sense—in other words, that the individual, or “self” as the individual looks in upon herself. Specifically, the texts view the individual as potential übermenschen, temporarily betrodden by the world—“society”—but quite capable of rising up and fighting the outside forces that, even on a daily basis, look upon the individual and would see him play his role as nothing more than an automaton.
There is no clear “right” or “correct” answer in either one of these—or so believes the author of this place—as “society” is completely controlled and created by individuals, and that the collective illusion of a society may be changed over time; this implies that the “truth,” or “reality,” is varied and nuanced, created as humanity’s collective thought changes, or “evolves.” However, this is simply a framework to view criticism of these texts on a metatextual level, and not a filter through which to view the texts themselves. Thus, we shall keep our focus upon the works discussed, beginning with Peggy Rathmann’s Goodnight Gorilla.
The work is set in a zoo—a society wherein there is a clear hierarchy and caste. We have our uniformed zookeeper at the top: He wears a uniform not entirely unlike that of a policeman or a constable. The implication therein is that this zookeeper is the guardian of the order of the zoo—that is to say, the “order” being a clear, defined, and designated system by which the animals (the lower beings in the society) are contained, confined, and repressed, forced to live their lives in confinement and be leered at as if they were attractions (for they are) for the entertainment of those at the top of the caste pyramid, which is to say, the humans, or “the aristocracy.”
The zookeeper is not wholly antagonistic, though. Along with his watchful eye and stern sentiment—bespoken by the trimmed moustache just barely visible on the first page of the text—he carried with him a flashlight. It is not too great a leap of logic to connect this flashlight to that of the famous lantern found in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. We may thus infer that this flashlight is Rathmann’s attempt at theorizing that, while there is an inherent repression by the part of the “aristocracy,” the top of the caste system does have its uses: namely, spreading enlightenment by use of its class. Of course, it is not entirely certain that this is the intention of the zookeeper, since, as we see, the flashlight is not turned upon the animals, but on the ground. Thus, it is highly possible—though not necessarily highly likely—that the “aristocracy” has no intention of spreading the light of knowledge upon those that “it” deems unworthy of possessing said enlightenment. Rathmann does, however, imply that the “aristocracy” is willing to give the gift of enlightenment to its subordinates; the zookeeper, or “aristocracy,” as he patrols the grounds of the zoo, or “society,” does address the gorilla by name, saying, “Good night, Gorilla.” By no means is this the warmest greeting one could give, but it is evidence that the zookeeper, or “aristocracy,” is not wholly antagonistic, as hypothesized above.
Below the zookeeper, and we may assume, other humans, are the animals. At this point, we see only the gorilla, what appears to be a spider monkey in the background, and a small mouse, holding a balloon tied to the bars of the gorilla’s cage. (The balloon is an interesting anomaly. We know not from whence it came, but we may assume that it was left there, and tied to the bars in what appears to be a basic bow knot. Is this yet more evidence that the lines of caste and class are not so distinct as we may first think? Or is it evidence of the mockery of the upper class of the lower class? A child tying this to the bars, saying, “Gaze upon what thou may not possess.”) The gorilla appears to be stunted in size. If this were a child gorilla, then surely its parents would share its cage—however, save for the mouse, this gorilla is alone, giving more evidence that this is a stunted creature. We do not know why the gorilla is stunted, though. It appears to have ample food—and, as shall be discussed, its cage is full of exercise equipment in the form of ropes, a tire swing, and a bicycle (!)—thus we must suppose that the gorilla is a claim by Rathmann that those below the top are not yet to their potential. Thus, we have the first statement of a philosophy that is, in parts, Nietzschen and Platonic. The üntermenschen who has yet to realize her potential to be the übermenschen has yet to break away from the symbiotic relationship with the zookeeper, or “aristocracy.”
But wait! The gorilla is not passive. The gorilla, seeing an opportunity, reaches out from the cage and—barely—takes hold of the zookeeper’s keys. It is a bold move. For if it fails entirely, then the gorilla remains trapped in its cage, but if it takes hold of the keys, and the zookeeper realizes what is happening, then surely the gorilla will be punished in some way. But, if the gorilla succeeds… now, there is the crux of it all. If the gorilla succeeds and grasps freedom in its hands, then it has made the leap to Nietzsche’s Superman. Thus, we have the beginnings of a masterful narrative of the inevitable conflict of class. The lower classes do not necessarily—or so Rathmann seems to say—require the light of the aristocracy’s knowledge. Knowledge does not solely belong to the aristocracy, or society’s leaders—but can be grasped and created by the lower classes in its own need and form. However, while this is possible, there is danger inherent in the act: The aristocracy thrives and is made powerful by the arrangement of the class system; the rebellion of the lower class—symbolized of course by the gorilla grasping for the zookeeper’s keys—would upend the system and render the power of the upper class obsolete. All the while, it would seem, the mouse sits upon the lock and watches. It is perhaps stating the obvious that the mouse represents the meek, and the meek are able to slip through boundaries by virtue of their slim profile, yet it requires mentioning. What may seem to be passive may yet become powerful.
And before progressing, we must make quick mention of the exercise equipment within the cage. Any individual who has been to a zoo is familiar with the sight of primates playing with human-made toys. It is evidence of our common ancestry that what we find amusing, so do the apes. However, in the context of Rathmann’s treatise, they take on a greater meaning. They become distractions employed by the upper classes, “zookeeper,” to ensure that the lower classes, “animals,” remain placid. However, as we see, this is not to remain the status quo forever. The proletariat can only remain distracted by toys for so long—in other words, it is inevitable that the working class will shirk their “opiates,” as Marx put it, in order to grasp what is theirs by right of their humanity.
On the next page, we have the gorilla climbing out of its cage. Its attempt at grasping freedom was successful and it is now free—free to control its own destiny, free to break out of the confines of a role defined by “society.” The future, it would seem, is an open, blank book, waiting to be filled. As the gorilla has take the initiative and escaped, we see the mouse, or “the meek,” climbing out of the cage, after tying some string to a banana. We may thus infer that Rathmann’s “meek” wish to be free as much as the gorilla, but needed some catalyst to prod them along in their own quest. And, further, it was the momentous event of the gorilla grasping the keys of the zookeeper that allowed it to do so.
But that is not all that occurs in this portion of the text. There are two images that are quite striking. First, the gorilla retains the entire keychain in his left hand. His intentions are murky, but we may perhaps guess that the intention is not to hog the ability to free oneself, but to spread it around. Thus, Rathmann may be stating that as a member of the lower class frees itself with the knowledge of its own potential and destiny, it is the duty of that individual to spread the lesson to its peers. Additionally, we have a brief, almost fleeting image of the balloon lifting into the air. It has been separated from its tether by the actions of the mouse—or “the meek”—as it grasped food for the strong. In other words, the meek is not totally a passive entity. While they remain off to the side—ostensibly nothing more than a spectator in the grand drama of the active, rebellious gorilla—we clearly see that “the meek” is not the inactive party that we may have first assumed them to be. Instead, we find that “the meek” is the willing and useful ally of those who would otherwise take center stage upon the inevitable rise to being the übermensch.
The next page in Rathmann’s text gives us a scene of suspense. Our three principal figures are caught in a scene of stasis in a path between cages, with no features save the barely-illuminated pavement and the soft, rolling hills of the countryside laying beneath the night sky. In the foreground is the zookeeper, stopped in a pose of surprise—a man walking through a darkened house, for example, who hears a sudden, eerie sound. It surprises him and catches his nerves—the goosebumps upon his arms begin to raise and his hair stands at attention. But what has our zookeeper heard? It is unclear—perhaps, though it is the gorilla, behind him and looking up at him with a knowing grin upon his primate face, clutching the zookeeper’s key ring now in his right hand. Behind the both of them, the mouse struggles as he carries a banana, with string still attached.
Rathmann here presents a conundrum. The “aristocracy” robbed of the authority over knowledge symbolized by his key ring, realizes that there is something awry. They are not to be completely fooled—for they have not risen to their position for nothing. While they may remain momentarily clueless about the sheer, almost unbelievable significance of the recent events, they are aware that something, however minute, has changed. The gorilla and the mouse, the key players in the rise of the proletariat, follow the zookeeper. For it is incredibly difficult for a society to form out of nothing. Something must form out of what came before, Rathmann seems to say, and it is natural—however perplexing—that those who break from society must keep some facet of society within themselves—for to create something out of nothing, as science tells us, is impossible.
The gorilla’s grin, here, represents the knowledge of the proletariat that, however much they must disdain their “superiors,” they must acknowledge that, without them, there would be utter and supreme chaos. The knowledge that some order is better than nothing, in other words, is the central tenet in “society,” and though the light of knowledge—once again, the zookeeper’s flashlight—is turned away from them for now, it is not a fundamental truth of the universe that it must remain so. For as long as the lower classes hold their own destiny within their powerful hands—the “key ring” in the “gorilla’s right hand”—they have the power to realize that “truth” is but a relative concept, and there is little to nothing keeping them from creating their own “truth” about their own existence and what “society” is.
Our next page continues the zookeeper’s trek through the establishment. Whatever momentary panic he may have felt has disappeared, and he has continued on in his nightly duty of ensuring that the animals are still in their cages. (Of course, to reiterate, this is the “aristocracy” ensuring that their hold over the lower classes is still strong, that knowledge is still in their hands, and that the proletariat are preoccupied with their baubles.) Now, he passes the cage of the elephant—or, the latent wisdom of the proletariat—caged and trapped. The elephant’s eyes are pointed downwards, gazing longingly at peanuts which have fallen out of his cage and are sprinkled upon the asphalt. Behind him is a rubber ball, decorated by elephants, and to the side of him is a toy pachyderm, crowned, and toppled on its side. The gorilla, about to pass by the elephant, looks back at him through the cage, while the mouse—now fully in charge of the banana—trundles along behind the übermensch. In the background, the balloon floats into the sky.
The elephant himself has been discussed, so we shall focus on the accoutrements found within his cage. First: The rubber ball. There are two explanations for this ball being designed the way it is. The first, and most obvious one, is the obvious. That the elephant’s wisdom spans the globe, and that—being that elephants cover the ball—the globe, or “world,” is open to being covered in wisdom. That is to say, there is wisdom to be found wherever one looks in this world—whether it be in nature or human “society.” The second explanation is that the ball represents the “world,” and the “elephants” pictured thereupon are not elephants, but instead represent continents. To illustrate, the elephant facing the reader more than slightly resembles the Eurasian continent—the seat of philosophical thought throughout human history. Thus, we have a clear statement that human “society” is meant to be driven by wisdom. It is possible, though not assuredly the definite case, that wisdom is meant to be spread in an egalitarian fashion—considering the continents are drawn to be made of elephants, or, “wisdom,” there is credence to this idea.
However, the conflict on the page—seen as the gorilla looks back at the caged elephant—is the central focus. It is a question about how nations are formed and how “society” operates. Shall the future be paved in animalistic emotion, or shall it be forged with the steel of wisdom? That is the question that Rathmann leaves us within this page, and one of the central questions of Goodnight Gorilla.