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Monday, October 29, 2012

The Absence of Drama

Bow and I had a very quiet weekend. We had a task to accomplish, and we have accomplished it. We needed to go over the proof of the book Transatlantic Lives. The proof came back to us from the author, marked through in many, many places. We looked it over, and eventually I corrected it. It took three days of intensive work.

Today, after correcting the entire interior, I made a book trailer for Transatlantic Lives. And then when I was done, Bow asked me to spend some time with him. Sometimes he just likes to sit next to me, both of us quiet and still and nothing much happening. Sometimes, he asks to go out, and again nothing much happens. Our lives are marked by a conspicuous lack of drama.

In a novel or a short story, a lack of drama is a serious flaw. Drama is not just something that we look for in plays. Any story requires drama to hold our attention. Epic poems, ballads, and novels all require drama.

 Drama does not merely consist of a list of events that happen in a given sequence. There has to be tension. There needs to be suspense. There are plot points and cliff-hangers and climaxes  and denouements. If we don't have those things, then it's not dramatic.

 One of the peculiar qualities of Transatlantic Lives is that even though the book tells about extremely dramatic historical events and how they impacted the lives of two individuals, the telling of it minimizes the drama, to the point where you almost feel that you are experiencing moments frozen in time, crystallized and preserved in all their stunning detail, but with the drama sucked out.

In this day and age, drama may not be what everyone is looking for, both in their reading material and in the lives that they lead. Many avoid drama, thinking that the word refers to people behaving badly or drawing undue attention to themselves. In common parlance, drama has come to mean melodrama or false hysterics.

I don't mind, at this point in my life, that not every day involves a dramatic turning point. But I sometimes wonder whether Bow might not be missing out on the usual dramas that take place in a chimpanzee social group: males fighting over dominance, coalitions forming, couples forming and going off to mate. These are all good things to have happen in your social group, and I'll readily admit that nothing even resembling that is going on around here.

Some people think that Bow belongs with his own kind and that keeping him from these kinds of interactions is a form of abuse or neglect, because every chimpanzee longs for the drama of natural social group, so that he can practice his social skills and feel that every day is a meaningful, significant plot point in his short, but highly dramatic life.

Yes, in the wild life is much shorter, and much more exciting. And I do feel guilty sometimes that Bow has been deprived of that. If I could, I would provide him with a mate. If I could, I would give him other males to play -- and fight -- with.

But recent criticism of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has made me realize that the people who want Bow to be sent off to a sanctuary are not actually planning on letting Bow enjoy mating and striving for dominance in a social group.

Sue has been accused of "abusing" the bonobos under her charge because:

   1) She allowed them to be together, and in some cases this involved two or more of the males getting injured in a fight over dominance.

  2) She allowed them to be together, and this has led to copulation and pregnancy.

And now these people are saying that the bonobos should be taken away from Sue and sent to a sanctuary where nothing like that can ever happen.

If depriving a chimpanzee or bonobo of the companionship of his own kind is abusive, and if allowing them to have that companionship is also abusive, then I can't imagine what would not be abusive.

At the moment, Bow and I are pretty content with our undramatic lives. He's not yet eleven, and though he longs for a mate, he would probably not be allowed to mate by other males in his group, if he lived in a social group. In fact, he would probably get beat up a lot, to keep him from mating.

But if the time comes when it's possible to provide Bow with companions of his own kind, I am willing to put up with the drama, for the sake of the fulfillment that would come with it.

What the critics want, however, is very unclear. It's almost as if they are hoping for a utopia where all the fulfillment of striving for happiness comes with none of the drama. I think it's a pipe dream.


  1. I enjoyed your analysis of the book Transatlantic Lives, and the connections between drama, and lack there of, with the current bonobo situation. Intriguing blog post!

    1. Thanks, Julia. Since I was working on editing the book while the issue of what is going on at the Great Ape Trust came up, I could not help but see the connection between the absence of drama here and in the book, and the highly dramatic circumstances in Iowa.