The author of this personal essay wishes to remain anonymous. While the editorial staff are in no position to judge, he insists that even its most lurid and controversial details are factual. The opinions expressed here in no way reflect the opinions of the Editors at Add to Cart Magazine, whose policy is to attempt to hold no opinions whatsoever.
They say, dear reader, that business success and sunken treasure have one thing in common: you discover the truth of both by digging into the story of their origins.
In 1959, in an obscure but seemingly well-to-do corner of Brussels, there was a zoo. It had all the vital attractions: tigers, chimpanzees, a gorilla, two giraffes, a pair of Russian eagles, several Sumatran snakes, bears from both Alaska and the Arctic, and a selection of the African Big Five. But for most of its existence (it was a family run business that had been passed down from father to son for a number of generations) the zoo was known for its human exhibit.
It was the last of its kind. The hodgepodge of ebony- and caramel-skinned specimens came mostly from different parts of West Africa (with a few token Indigenous Americans and Australians thrown in, perhaps even a Micronesian or a Maldivian specimen as well). They were lured, conned, and cajoled into a large enclosure at the very centre of the zoo. A chain of faux shrunken heads adorned this enclosure’s main gate. The displayed humans were told how to behave, were given new names, and were appointed specific familial roles; they became one tribe. People would come from all over Europe to watch these zoo-folk cook and skin carcasses, sit morosely around a fire, canter and prance about, and perform any number of arcane rites (all of which were made up by the owner). The visitors laughed and pointed and occasionally threw a banana or two at these human animals, and went home feeling immensely pleased with themselves. It was a fascinating drawcard for a small, rather inconspicuous menagerie.
Or at least it had been for most of its existence. In truth, attendance at the human exhibit dwindled after the war. By 1959, some visitors were even known to shake their heads and cry “shame” over the display. And since the zoo overall was surpassed in every way by the larger zoological gardens in central Brussels, the owner soon began to feel the pinch where it hurt the most: his pocket.
He tried everything to remedy this. He organised parades, whereby the tribe was made to dance around the zoo in fiendish masks. He prepared hunts wherein young tribesmen would fight a mangy Alaskan brown bear. He opened the zoo at night and set up occasional fire rituals, some of which even offered adult visitors the chance to watch the natives copulating under the shadowy gaze of the faux shrunken heads.
But nothing seemed to work and he did not understand why. Finally, in a last-ditch attempt, the dejected owner was forced to close down the large enclosure with its tribal huts and gazelle-hide mats and move his entire set of human specimens into the ”Great Apes” exhibit. The chimps were not at all pleased with their new co-habiters. He renamed the ethnological exhibition “Sub-humans of the sub-Sahara” and put up a large statue of the Great Evolutionist. The owner could not bring himself to part with the shrunken heads; they were wreathed around Darwin’s great faux white beard.
I’m afraid even this was not enough.
I remember the moment distinctly when the owner came to me asking for any last gasp ideas that might save his business. I was inside the chimpanzee cage, by my straw-lined cot, oiling my body in preparation for my two o’clock cavort with the silverback. I was his prize performer. Or at least I had been. The fact was that the days when women would come from miles around to gawk at my supple brown thighs while their menfolk would laugh at my faux savages’ speech were well and truly past.
The owner looked haggard. I had few ideas for him, and none that he could comprehend fully with his very limited sense of imagination. When I leaned against the bars of the cage and asked him how he was bearing up, he only sighed and looked at the leather tips of his shoes. His reflection shone back at him in dual elongated grimaces. No doubt it was a sorry sight.
“Well, King Hadar,” he said. “I fear we will close by the end of the year.”
I looked out toward the rim of the enclosure. Two chimps were defecating next to a small naked child, but there were only three or four visitors waiting for my gorilla-meets-closest-ancestor show.
“You will find a way, Mr Aldebaran.” I felt curiously sorry for him at that point, so dejected was he. “You are a good businessman from a long line of good businessmen.”
He shook his head. “You must have heard them talking, old friend. The visitors. The complainers. I’m afraid this is the end, Claude.”
He was rattled enough to break his own rule that we were not to use our real names during opening hours. And, since I spoke French, English, and German, and had in fact learned to do so well before I was bribed away (under dubious pretences) from my town on the Malian coast, I knew him to be correct. I knew exactly what visitors from all over Europe were saying about the zoo. I knew better than he.
“Humiwold, you can try your hand at another business. You’ll see.”
He did not see. As I prepared my well-oiled body and long spear for what would be one of my last performances, I remember clearly that this was the point when I realised I had learned all I could learn from Monsieur Humiwold Aldebaran about how to run a successful business. His own expectations about his family legacy, his own esteem for his family business, and his very real anxiety about his family’s financial fortunes (he had a fretful wife and two sickly children) were clouding his measure of viable branding strategies.
The fact was that the market for human zoos had changed in a subtle but very important way. The exotic allure of the noble savage remained. But its narrative had twisted and turned. All over Europe during the late fifties there was a deluge of romanticism about human brotherhood and a new generation was spouting ideas that elevated the colonised cultures to a new level, in some cases to a level that surpassed even that of the Europeans. The new visitors did not want to ogle natives in their natural habitats; they wanted the savages to live among them in their Londons and Berlins, or, in the case of those who held to a reactionary counterview, they firmly wanted them far away in deepest darkest Africa where they could mind their own business and not threaten a Western modernity suddenly turned fragile. Somehow, the brand of European sophistication had lost its innate glamour and resilience (in Europe at least). The lines were being drawn hard and fast, both for and against the indigenous Other.
And that’s when I began to ponder whether or not some European visitors also longed to join the savages in their unspoiled barbaric Edens (or even in our cages), and, if true, what this might imply about the self-worth of these Europeans, and how this might be exploited for profit. I had already cottoned-on to a golden rule implicit in any business endeavour: the wealthy must indulge their bellies, but even more so they wish to feel like people first.
By the beginning of 1965, Humiwold and I were sharing an apartment on Rue-de-Fiente in the L’Inconnue district of Paris, adjacent to the Seine. We were poor and relied on each other’s meagre scratchings of income, but we still aspired to be self-made men. It was hard for European society to fully accept me beyond the bounds of my show-pen, but Mr Aldebaran tied my fortunes to his, and so his to mine. His wife had left him when one of his children had passed away from consumption while he was too poor to pay for the child’s medical bills. This haunted the man.
We knew the world had changed but I was the only one of us who had begun to see opportunity in it. You see, dear reader, the concept of the human zoo, while morally abhorrent, is one that hits at the heart of effective marketing (as do most morally abhorrent enterprises), which I was beginning to understand in those uncertain times and as I will explain to you in due course.
We started a small travel agency in the 1970s. I was commencing on a business journey that would cement my fortune, but I was also beginning to feel an irksome craving, an old desire. It started when I stumbled upon an advertisement in a travel magazine spruiking a trip to the recently independent Congo.
And on top of this I was distracted by the need to look after Humiwold.
He still defended the human zoo, at least in his speech if not in his heart. He spent those days sitting on a settee by the window, morose and enervated, looking out at the sluggish sunset meandering over the edge of the Seine, partaking of his pipe, ensconced in a gloomy afterglow. The human zoo, he said, was no worse than a museum. We needed to preserve a dying culture, rescue a people from themselves, save the barbarians from the barbaric hunger of Western progress, and preserve them like the fossils in the Louvre. More so, he exclaimed, he had not stooped to stealing babes from the Belgium Congo as others had in the past, no monsieur, not he. Indeed, a significant proportion of his profits had always gone toward the conservation of the indigenous species and their native habitats.
On certain evenings he would drink gin and toy with the faux shrunken heads that he had rescued from his zoo until he fell asleep in his chair, drunk. Mr Aldebaran seemed to think that laws against grooming foreign workers were solely to blame for the sinking of his family venture. I knew better.
Why had people wanted to see me and my kind on display with the apes and bonobos and faecal-flinging chimps? Why, because by marvelling or ridiculing the noble savage the European was able to define, uphold, and magnify his own sense of humanity, to make his particular culture and psyche and life choices the very essence of the human non-animal, the barometer of normalcy.
And why had cultural and market forces shifted to the point that human zoos had become not only illegal, but also undesirable, unsellable? Because the European had begun to crave a new way of cementing his humanity.
I was not able to clearly define this new way for a number of years, mostly, I believe, because of the strange yearning that began to preoccupy me, irk me, this niggling desire to see the West African coast again, to swim in the old warm seas of my youth. Yet even then, amid the dinge of wet Paris winters, haunted by my responsibility for a depressed old man who used to own me, I knew that the comprehension of how the well-to-do white defined himself as human (nay, dear reader, how he must insist he is the very emblem of humanity, defending his humanity against all the terrors of conscience, doubt, and ghosts of ancestral crimes) was the key to marketing to him in a fundamental, enduring manner. And marketing to white man society, no matter the colour or gender of the consumers within it, was fast becoming the paradigmatic effluence of so-called postmodern civilisation.
Anything else was just cheap salesmanship, as doomed to fade before the ebb and flow of fickle tastes as, well, the human zoo.
In the 1980s Humiwold and I established a cruise line. I had begun to test and pry and prod into the base needs of that moneyed animal, the European with disposable income, and to leave behind formulaic ideas of product and service and sales-pitch in favour of appealing instead to these base needs. In a cruise ship I saw an amalgam of such: the need to explore, the need to be safe, the need to relax. It obviated the risks of overseas travel, it relieved the tepid boredom of local holidays, it delivered the comforts of the familiar and indolent. Humiwold provided the business contacts to get us financed; he was the face of our company.
We were leading the market for Mediterranean and Alaskan cruises among forty-somethings by 1992, and were well on our way to cementing a small business empire, when Humiwold was found dead in his villa in Alsace-Lorraine. He left behind a note saying that he was to be buried with his faux shrunken heads. It was then that I gave in to my incessant tickle, my gnawing need.
I arranged his remains, and I went home.
The dust of my small town by the sea was unchanged; it was still mildly red, and silky, and over everything. But the town was no longer a mere town. There were no high-rises such as those I had seen in New York, nor any grand villas such as those I had rented on the Galician coast, but the town had by then joined the broad, rambling city. At first I stayed at the Marriott in the centre of town, but eventually I was able to track down my relatives. It had been nearly forty years since I had been among them. I had left a young man, a mere boy; I was returning old, and grey, though still full of vigour. It was only as I left the taxi and walked down the narrow street towards the long white walls of my cousins’ houses that I realised how much my heart longed for this, for a sense of home, of identity.
But it was not a happy return. I stayed nearly a month and was given every courtesy. I was feasted by uncles and grand-nephews and long-lost cousins. Yet laced through it all was a thread of iciness. I felt unwelcome. I noticed how they looked at my silver-lined suit, my leather-tipped shoes, my watches and my spectacles. They accepted all my gifts with graciousness but there was always a hesitance and an askance look. When one of my cousins took me to meet a friend who turned out to be a business acquaintance looking for investment, I realised how they truly saw me, and realised how I was in some ways just another tourist to them, albeit an odd specimen. I understood the iciness came not from them but from me, from my businessman’s innate distrust of the envious. They felt I had left for the glamour of Europe and had failed to remember them in my indulgence, and so in some way I was made to feel I owed them, and I resented them for this.
On the flight back to France I realised I had forgotten to take a dip in my old warm seas, whose waters had been an enduring memory all those long years of my captivity, keeping me warm and safe in my dreams during those first tumultuous years at the zoo, years full of betrayal and shame.
Back in Paris, I promised myself I would return to Africa again but I felt no heart for it. This made me brood. How could a person, even after so many years, return to one’s roots and home and blood and feel a stranger, worse still, an interloper, a tourist? Where else could I belong? In Europe, where I was deceived and put on show? Was I European now? It perplexed me; it made the question of how one feels oneself to be human all too personal.
Had I, a proud survivor of the patrons of a human zoo, come back as patron of the zoo that the entire continent of Africa had now become to me?
These thoughts plagued me no end. They rumbled around my head with my ideas about why Europeans had turned their backs on the noble savage and what this meant for their self-concept of humanity. They worked away, itching, constantly ferreting, as I tried to return to my business in the months after Humiwold’s sudden death and my awkward trip home.
And it was in this crisis of confusion that I was finally enlightened, dear reader. It was the catalyst for a revelation that has made me the rich and successful man I am today.
And the spark ignited by this catalyst was one singular event. It happened there, back in Brussels, before the old gates of the old zoo, seen again by me nearly thirty years after I had found freedom.
I was in Brussels to secure a new catering contract for my cruises when, during a free afternoon, I decided to ramble around the suburbs. My feet took me on a long thoughtless circuit. The sky was pristine and the afternoon light slanted demurely through the trees and the gaps between buildings, brick, and stone. Then, quite unintentionally, I was before the zoo. Its black gates were unchanged but from within I heard the sound of a carousel, the sound of children’s laughter, and no sound of wild animals. The cages and enclosures were gone; it had become a park and fairground. A sign advertised an arboretum showcasing the historic black pines of Belgium.
It did not move me in the slightest. I found myself walking casually past the entrance when I saw a small family detach itself from the crowd at the gates and stand to one side.
They were Indian, or Pakistani, or perhaps from Ceylon. I noticed them at first because the father was wearing a promotional blazer from one of my cruises. They were of three generations. The eldest, a grandmother, had wisps of thin white hair. She looked lost and removed from the scene, far away, no doubt caught up still in her memories of a faraway home. The father and mother were casting dubious glances in my direction and pulling on the arm of their daughter. This daughter, the youngest, was staring at me with a wry smile on her face. Well, not only at me. I realised that at that moment a group of young men from Guinea were passing by, as dark as myself, heading nonchalantly to the entrance of the park.
The young girl tore herself free of her mother’s hand and skipped over to me.
“Why are you like that?” she asked, pointing at my face.
Before I could reply her mother shushed her, hurrying over, and told her not to talk to ”those people.” She threw me another dark look while she and her husband led the family away, the daughter departing wide-eyed and innocent, the grandmother uncaring and set apart.
I returned back to my hotel. My mind was now wholly diverted from cruise ships and catering. By the time I was on my flight back to France I was tremendously excited. By the time I returned to my offices I finally understood. I had hit upon the answer. Why had the human zoo failed? What did the moneyed European now want? Why did I not belong in Africa?
“Why are they like that?”
From generation to generation, we do not know ourselves by looking inward and finding some core of humanity. No, this is too hard. We look outward, beyond our fathers and grandmothers, and we find the Other. We look to the Other, in fear or curiosity, in contempt or compassion, and in their reflection we can securely say: this is what I am. I am not this Other one. Alike, yet unalike. Here, we can begin to prescribe upon others our universal laws of humaneness that we allow ourselves to make up. Here, the boundaries of humanity are set. And ready to be bought and sold by the likes of me.
People panic during pandemics and wars, they hoard and steal and flee, but at the same time they deride and punish others who seek the same refuge among them. Why? Because their reasons for refuge, their stories, their very brand, is of the Other. None can escape this Other-ing, this innate urge to separate. Those who are desperate to find a connection that is derelict in their own culture rush to embrace the Other, to protect them, put them up on a pedestal, yet they can never give up the creature comforts of their own privileged ways that keep them stuck in their civilised anomie. Thus, they blithely ensure they do not suffer the discomforts given to the Others that they adore.
In a year I had created a worldwide business based, in essence, on the same principles of the human zoo where I had long been a performer, an employee, and a sub-human animal.
My new business invited people from Europe, North America, and Australia on long trips to far flung places across the globe. I initially offered visits to my native town, but soon expanded to Ceylon, Vietnam, Peru, and various other remote, raw, and underdeveloped places. There, the visitors could present money, health, education, labour, and support to the natives. There, the visitors could build schools, teach their foreign languages, and provide copious amounts of food and clothing so that the natives could begin to look and feel a little like them. There, the visitors could adore, serve, and delight in natives in their natural habitat with no need for human trafficking, enclosures, and made-up sub-human rituals.
There, hundreds of wealthy visitors could look at the Other and see their own reflection by contrast: well-off, superior, graciously willing to share of themselves, of their munificent culture, of their material wealth. Safely, calmly, they were able to return home from these alien places and tell each other that they had felt at home, yet it was all so wonderfully different! Alike, yet unalike! The visitors would leave with the same satisfaction felt by the visitors of the old human zoo: they felt humanity defined more cleanly, and to their own moral advantage.
Monsieur Humiwold Aldebaran’s Volunteering Hub. See the world, heal the world, be the world.
Humanitarian tourism. The cruise industry meets the human zoo.
There has been little need to hype my product, or protect it against mistrust, changing trends, or even recession. People yearn to pay to volunteer and travel and be among the Other. It would take an unimaginable economic shutdown, or a global pandemic, to hinder my fortunes. After all, I offer something with a value that runs deeper than anything given up to the belly. My product speaks to a near subconscious instinct; there is no price you can fix on feeling human (though I set a reasonable fee nonetheless).
I am long retired now, and perhaps not long for this world. Amid my wealth and luxury, I sit at my desk and think on all my accomplishments. I have ample time to be proud of what I have achieved, to ponder…
I suppose, if I am being honest, as I am suddenly able to be after foisting this introspective exposition upon you, dear reader, this all comes down to a kind racism. Not the kind driven by hate, the harsh stupidity of conservatism, but the benevolent sort of racism, the kind that is far more insidious and generally accepted, especially by those who are aghast at the sort of racism inspired by hatred. You do not have to hate to denigrate, dear reader. After all, we see this all the time in the way we raise our children. The deeply hidden, supercilious, and contemptuous racism of the human zoo, inspired by a bedrock of disgust and despisal of the indigenous and uncivilised Other, lives on in this counterpart. This kindly and benevolent racism of the volunteer and philanthropist who goes out of his way to defend and serve the indigenous Other, this token inclusivist, this smug defender of rights, this curiously culturally curious observer (who has the same look in his eyes when he asks me “where do you come from?” in a first class lounge as the one held by those who once smiled at me from across my cage bars and offered me bananas), is driven by an even more deeply hidden, anxious, and fearful need to ensure that his own civilisation, the very one keeping the Other downtrodden, is washed clean and justified by its humane generosity.
Well, some of us do not remain downtrodden. Some of us play the game. Not the game of hate, of benevolence, of racism. This game, while not entirely condemnable, dear reader, since we are all born playing it in a world defined by colour, nation, shape, and name, and so is natural to one and all, is not the true game. No, the true game, the game behind the game, is the game of fiat value, the marketed brand. It shapes the rules of who can be objectified as the Other by fear or reverence; money, market, and consumer identity decide which racisms we are allowed to accept and abhor in any given society. In this true game people are products, of differing and fluctuating value determined by comparison, to be respected or dismissed as a mode of consumption. I have played this game and won. I was produced to be sold as an exhibit, now I produce humans in travel experiences and sell them to exhibit the humaneness of other humans. How ironic that I have played it to the same tune as the man who owned me as a zoo animal, only with more polish! How fitting.
Yes, now I sit at my desk, and I ponder my success. I wonder if all this will one day change. I wonder if the natives will one day take over and take charge of their own destiny without needing to rely on our charity and so teach us to live for not much more than the dumb old warm seas. I wonder, why…
I have never again returned to my town on the Malian coast; it is no longer mine, if it ever was. I have no need to belong anyplace. I have found my own humanity, I believe; I have my place, which is much like no place. I merely stay in my châteaux in the shadows of the Vosges Mountains in France, occasionally toying with the shrunken head of Mr Humiwold Aldebaran that I keep in my desk drawer (a handcraft which I will leave behind as a reminder for my great-grandchildren), and I wonder, content.
I wonder, why do we need to know our humanity? If we did let this riddle go, casting aside any need to define the humane and human, then we would surely not buy most of what is marketed to us, for we would lose our stomach for the promise of feeling not just the use of a thing, not just the rush of consumption, not just goodness, but the promise of feeling right, acceptable, of belonging, the promise of feeling like a correct human being. We would then not need much. We would accept all, love all, hate all, be part of all, and let the inhuman and human sit together, left behind as one. Our value, unfixed, disregarded as a very concept, would wash away into the freedom of nothingness, unmarketable, unsellable, unbuyable.
In the end, I assume this is all I truly know. I know how to make money, and that it spills out from the fountain of that old feeling. To be proven human; the proof of humanity. Sell this, and they will buy anything you have forever. Buy this, and nothing else satisfies quite as well.