You Can't Always Get What You Want: Week #30 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On murderous dromedaries, shadow selves, and middle-aged love
This essay originally appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.
The other day my friend Matt told me a story about a camel that fell in love with him. Scott and I were on a Zoom call with him and his partner Tania—the two of us in Mississippi, Tania in Santa Barbara, and Matt in D.C. It had been a year since we’d all Zoomed (I remember this because both calls were on my birthday), and no one was sure how we’d let it go so long since we had so much fun whenever we talked. I had been friends with Matt and Tania in college when they were first dating, but we’d all fallen out of touch for decades. Although the phrase “first dating” is misleading: they were together for a year or so in college, broke up before graduating, went their separate ways (long relationships, a marriage, kids, doctorates, a divorce) and then got back in touch during the pandemic. And then started talking every day: Matt in dreary D.C. with his neutral greige therapist’s Zoom background, Tania in her sunny California kitchen with beautiful goblets of straw-colored wine and plates of imported cheese. And then they got back together again, over 30 years later. I hope there are lots more heartwarming Covid stories like this one out there, but this is the one I know about, and it’s a pretty fucking great one if I do say so myself.
So Matt and Tania were telling us that they were planning (ha ha! “planning”) to go on vacation together to Mexico in a few months, which prompted Matt to tell the story of the amorous camel, whom he had encountered on his last trip there. He was visiting a monkey sanctuary on the Mayan peninsula (as one does); there was a camel living there, too, who had previously been in a zoo or a circus, because the person running the sanctuary rescued all kinds of miscellaneous animals in his spare time. Matt and the camel immediately bonded the moment they met. I wish I had asked more questions at the time, because I now realize that I’m not 100% sure what “bonding with a camel” actually entails, but as Matt was telling the story it seemed to make perfect sense. They hung out together the whole time Matt was at the sanctuary, more than half an hour, basking in each other’s presence. I like to imagine that at one point Matt gently leaned against the camel’s flank, stroked his soft nose, and whispered something like “There there, big fella”—but of course I am making that up. As far as I can tell, Matt more or less ignored the monkeys, but we all have to make difficult choices from time to time.
Matt remembered that camel. I mean, wouldn’t you? If you were singled out for particular attention by a random pachyderm (note to self: check if camels are pachyderms), made to feel special and beloved, informed by the animal’s awed human companion that your new paramour never pays attention to visitors and this is a rare and noteworthy event, wouldn’t you remember that? I guess that Matt must have told a lot of people this story (again, wouldn’t you?) because a few years later someone sent him a news clipping (note to self: clipping? or link?) about that very same camel killing the owner of the monkey sanctuary on the Mayan peninsula in Mexico. Apparently the camel’s person used to bring the camel a bottle of Coke every day, and one day he forgot, which threw the camel into a rage. The camel kicked and bit his rescuer and then sat on him once he was down on the ground, crushing the air out of him and killing him.
I asked Matt if the camel had to be destroyed, and he didn’t know—didn’t want to know. So just now I searched the internet for “camel monkey sanctuary mexico coke,” and the first 10 hits were news stories about this incident. You might think this unremarkable, but that would be because you use Google. About a year ago I decided to scrub my life of Google, so I got rid of my Gmail account and Google Maps and as many other Google-brand apps as I could, and switched to Duck Duck Go for all my internet search needs. Like many things done for reasons of virtue, this switch was inconvenient and made my life worse. It turns out that those very same algorithms we deplore for following us from app to app and saving secret information about us actually make our experience on the internet better: they present us with ads for products we will probably want to buy—which we can experience either as intrusive, evil capitalism or a consumerist utopia—and tailor our searches to help us find what we’re really looking for but don’t realize we’re looking for. The main selling point of Duck Duck Go is that it doesn’t save your searches, doesn’t store any information about you, and doesn’t create a creepy profile of your every wish and desire—which means it absolutely sucks at returning relevant search results. Since I rejected Google, my search life has become a freewheeling, Wild West-type situation where pretty much anything can come back: just now I fully expected “camel monkey sanctuary mexico coke” to call up some embarrassing paparazzi photos of a D-list actress shooting a film about a primatologist in Tulum while wearing painfully tight jeans. Or, you know, a search with the words “Mexico” and “coke” so close together—who knows what abominations you’ll unearth. So the fact that I actually got what I wanted—news stories about a homicidal maniac dromedary who cut a man down in cold blood over a carbonated beverage—tells us something.
What exactly does it tell us, you ask? For one thing, most immediately and pressingly, it really changes my friend Matt’s story. Overnight, and through no direct intervention on his part, it goes from a slight feel-good passing anecdote to the stuff of high drama. “I once met a camel who hung around me for a while and really seemed to like me” is a cute filler piece for a dull spot in a conversation about zoos or impossible love, while “I once met a camel who fixated on me and later went on to crush someone to death” is a proper narrative. As Chekhov once famously said, “If in the first act you introduce a tame camel, then in the following one it should kill a man.”
Second of all, the success of my internet search tells us that people are very interested in this particular news story. Fair enough: stories of animals—especially wild animals, and even more especially domesticated wild animals—killing people are straight-up fascinating. The vast majority of human beings on this planet will never be in danger of being killed by an animal, and that just seems wrong. Our safety has been bought at the expense of the biosphere—wild animals make up only 4% of the world’s mammals, while humans account for 34% and livestock 62%. So stories about grizzly bear attacks and mountain lions stalking hikers and villages menaced by tigers and monkey-sanctuary owners from suburban Chicago being sat upon by thirsty camels tickle our sense of dramatic irony. Yes, of course, such incidents are horribly tragic and I personally do not select being trampled by an elephant as my preferred cause of death, but such stories also feel a little bit like justifiable revenge: the persecuted servant slipping some arsenic to the dastardly viscount, the underdog softball team creaming the assholes from the rich school across town. I suspect we all carry around a substantial load of guilt about our comfortable position at the apex of the planetary order (and if not, we should), and animal revenge stories are one way of displacing those feelings of discomfort. In this fantasy it’s still an even playing field; I could in theory be slain by an avenging beast; I am still a part of Nature; there still is a Nature. As Robert Louis Stevenson—of Jekyll and Hyde fame—groused in 1887:
Our race has not been strained for all these ages through that sieve of dangers that we call Natural Selection, to sit down with patience in the tedium of safety; the voices of its fathers call it forth. Already in our society as it exists, the bourgeois is too much cottoned about for any zest in living; he sits in his parlour out of reach of any danger, often out of reach of any vicissitudes but one of health; and there he yawns.
If we really want to get literary about it, we could imagine the homicidal animals in such stories as our shadow selves, principles of pure id set loose in the world to do our unconscious bidding: dangerous beings as projections of our own repudiated desires. Perhaps the locus classicus for literary shadow selves is Victor Frankenstein’s unnamed creature,1 who goes on a murderous rampage focused on the members of his creator’s own domestic circle: his younger brother, adopted sister-servant (don’t ask), best friend, bride, and father.2 Yet Victor brings it all on himself: a self-taught scientific genius, he goes off to university at age 17 and doesn’t visit, write to, or have any contact with his family for six years while he builds a gigantic artificial man and then abandons it when it (surprisingly?) turns out to be hideous and malformed. To quickly recap: emo teenager ditches his family the second he has the chance and immediately builds a killing machine to wipe them all out. Whenever I teach Frankenstein to undergrads (which is constantly), I wait till our last class on the novel to spring this reading on them—no one ever comes up with it on their own—and then sit back and watch their emo teenaged eyes turn into giant saucers of shock and discomfort. Then, always, within minutes, they’re gleefully on board, chasing down other clues in the text to support this reading, nodding their heads vigorously and cackling with the pleasure of textual interpretation. Or something.
Let me hasten to say that I don’t think my students want to kill their own families (mostly). Nor does Victor, really.3 The point of the shadow self is that it’s a repository of aggression, hatred, and fear that we are too uncomfortable to admit as part of our selves. (Victor does not murder his family with his own hands. He doesn’t even want them dead. He’s just really resentful of the stultifying domesticity in which he was raised4 and outsources his anger to a terrifying simpleton who takes his creator’s feelings too literally.) But the existence of the shadow raises the question of what it even means to “really” want something. Are the repudiated desires of the shadow more authentic than the soothing, socially acceptable stories we tell ourselves? Or the other way around?
According to Karl Jung, the shadow self
is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance. Indeed, self-knowledge as a psychotherapeutic measure frequently requires much painstaking work extending over a long period.
Shadow selves are simultaneously not “real” in the sense that we don’t literally, actually, consciously ask wild animals or hideous man-beasts to murder those we dislike—most of the time—and also quite “real” in that the desires themselves actually exist and wreak all kinds of havoc if not painstakingly integrated into the whole personality. (For Victor, that integration comes at the end of the novel when his own death releases the grip of murderous revenge and the creature vows to destroy himself to complete “the series” of vengeful acts.5) Your shadow is not more real than your kindness to orphans and your love of fluffy kittens; but neither is it less real. Both sides alone are incomplete; what is “real” is the co-existence of the light and the dark.
So what the hell was that camel doing? I mean, it’s pretty perverse to murder the one person who brings you what you want every day: where does he think his next sugary beverage is coming from? I imagine that he was pretty sick of his own version of stultifying domesticity—all those monkeys!—and the only pleasure he had to look forward to every day was his goddamn bottle of fucking Coke. The murder part—that was not well thought-out, not logical. Did he want to express his rage, to get more Coke, to be loved, to be free?
What do any of us want? Sometimes we think we want family love but we also want to flee to the darkness of the Arctic Circle and feel the ice shards collect in our hair. Sometimes we desperately want to go home. Sometimes we think we want to chat with an old friend during a global pandemic and don’t even realize we’re looking for love. Sometime we think we want to surf the internet in privacy and sometimes we want someone to show us an ad for the perfect comfortable high heel. Sometimes we just want the monkeys to shut up.
I always point out to students that readers started erroneously referring to the creature as “Frankenstein” almost immediately after the novel’s publication, which itself is powerful evidence for our tendency to read the monster as part of Victor’s own psyche.
One brother, Ernest, mysteriously remains. He also sort of drops out of the narrative at one point, never to return. Obviously someone needs to write Ernest! The Musical at some point in the near future.
Of course Victor doesn’t “really” want anything because Victor is a textual effect, not a person. I just want to make sure I don’t lose my English professor membership card and attendant valuable discounts.
If you haven’t read the novel (or not in a while) you might be wondering why he’s so pissed off. Among other things, in the original version of the novel he is forcibly betrothed as a child to his own cousin, who is raised in the family as his sister. Ick.
Or does he? As I also always point out to my students, the creature vows to throw himself on a funeral pyre—in the Arctic Circle, above the tree line, where it’s presumably pretty hard to get a fire going.