Sunday, 29 January 2012

Refusal of Work

Leopoldo Lugones's short story 'Yzur' (from his 1906 collection Strange Forces) is a tale premised on the idea that monkey's have refused language so they will not be forced to work. The narrator of the story evolves a theory that this initial refusal has led to a degeneration in monkeys, and he aims to demonstrate this by returning one to speech. He buys the animal Yzur from the circus and proceeds to his experiment.

Using methods to treat deaf-mutes the narrator laboriously tries to encourage the development of speech through physical manipulation and a system of association of vowels with food treats. This initial process takes three years and no word is uttered.  What does happen is the monkey develops a contemplative sensibility, and the tendency to cry.

The narrator becomes more and more frustrated, deciding that Yzur can speak but is choosing not to. This is reinforced when the cook tells him the monkey has spoken a few words (although the cook can't remember all the words, only bed and pipe). The next day the narrator, convinced the monkey is ironically taunting him, beats the creature violently and the monkey only sheds tears in silence.

Yzur then falls terribly ill, and the narrator desperately tries to save him. This ilness seems to humanise Yzur, but still he does not speak. The lessons continue, beginning with 'I am your master' or 'you are my monkey', but the monkey is now in decline to death.

The narrator speculates that the refusal to speak is the result of an 'intellectual suicide' that is 'petrified in the animal', from that long distant refusal of labour. He thinks man had persecuted these creatures, enslaving them in the ancient past, until they decided 'to break all advanced connections with the enemy.' 'Thus, their act of mortal dignity: to take sanctuary, as an ultimate measure of salvation, in the darkness of their animality.'

Yzur finally enters his death throes, remaining faithful to the ancient vow that refused speech, but at the final moment of death he draws the narrator close and murmurs 'Water, master. Master, my master ...'

In Spanish the play is 'Amo', which means master or as a conjugated verb I love. Lugones, who passed from socialism to fascism in his politics, inhabits the usual tropes of racism (we might also recall the teaching scene from Robinson Crusoe). The monkey is a failure to develop, a degeneration through the refusal of work, but one who still has the same capacities as humans (or, for the narrator, degenerate humans). Also, the monkey seems to taunt or refuse the strange scientific drive of the narrator that, typically, results in violence. Gwen Kirkpatrick notes Lugones own time as an Inspector of Schools... The positivism and modernism of Lugones are typically cast in equivocal light in this story, with its final enigmatic concession.

What we also have is the trace of the refusal of labour and slavery, and the implied 'hominisation' that takes place at the intersection of speech, labour, servitude. Unsuprisingly one of Borges's favourite stories, Yzur is an enigmatic fable that deserves to belong an anthology of stories about labour...

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