St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

The Rape of the A.P.E. by Allan Sherman

The Rape of the A.P.E. cover.
Allan Sherman from the back of the book jacket.

This is a book that came out of left field. I’d known about it for a while because it’s mentioned in Steve Otfinoski’s wonderful The Golden Age of Novelty Songs in the section that covers Allan Sherman. Sherman was the musician behind “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” and was an enormously popular name in the early 1960s. The British Invasion and the sexual revolution wound up overtaking him, however, and suddenly his 1950s-style innocence seemed twee and out of date — the kind of jokes your dad thinks are funny. After a long career decline, in 1973, mere months before he died, Sherman published The Rape of the A.P.E. (American Puritan Ethic) with Playboy Press. And it is weird. Gone is the twee, childlike Sherman. Instead he’s turned his pen to a highly X-rated, no-holds-barred “history” of the sexual revolution.

I say “history” because I’m not sure I’d call this a history in the traditional sense. He literally takes us back 100,000 years to the birth of human society, not to explain how things like religion and shame were invented, but to demonstrate just how absurd those concepts are. It’s not even a memoir, although one of the things this book does right is convey just how alien and repressed society was in the early 20th century. That’s difficult for us to know from our lofty position in the 21st century when pretty much everything is permissible, but we forget that you couldn’t even mention things like pregnancy back then, let alone sex. Sherman does something really invaluable, then, by giving us that personal perspective on what it was like.

So no, it’s not a history. It’s more of a jeremiad, not against the sexual revolution per se because he clearly longed for some degree of sexual liberation and thought it was long overdue. It is instead a broad indictment his times, from consumerism to science to politics to violence. He felt that the revolution the world had needed for so long had finally happened, but when he had what he wanted he still wasn’t happy. The revolution happened and left the world somehow worse. The old morality was evil, but is no morality better? Did we dispose of society’s masks only to find out that the faces underneath were sad and lonely?

The first time I ever heard the word “anomie” was last year. If ever there was a good time to bust out a word like that, 2020 was it — anomie is the state of unrest and alienation that results from a breakdown in society’s values. The second time I heard the word was in The Rape of the A.P.E.. Sherman felt that society after the revolution had become rudderless. He didn’t know how to navigate this new and depressing world. “Now at last we could gauge the range of the American Dirty Mind — and estimate the unfathomable depths of loneliness in America.” Which was when it struck me that Sherman wasn’t just describing the state of the world in 1973 — he’s describing the state of the world now. The events of then led to the events of today, and we’re in much the same position as he was only the problems have slowly got worse. In some cases I think the problems have simply unfolded over time. In others technology may have exacerbated or accelerated them. “Most Americans, having won a measure of sexual freedom, are now out on the prowl every night looking for instant ecstasy; some long-awaited new fuck — painless, unconditional and free from emotions — the Promised Land of Promiscuity.” Sounds like Sherman just invented Grindr forty years early.

In many ways we got what we wanted too. The revolution in technology from the 1990s to the present day has given us so much, but at the same time taken so much away. It’s connected us but left us lonelier and more depressed. It’s democratised access to information, but made it impossible to tell what’s true. In The Cyberiad (“The Sixth Sally”) StanisÅ‚aw Lem expressed a horror of being overwhelmed by trivial information, but even a writer as visionary as he was didn’t predict a world where the facts get buried in falsehoods. Allen Sherman’s sense of anomie hasn’t left us. It’s still here. And that’s what makes this book such an interesting read. Yes, it is funny — a comedian as talented as Sherman couldn’t resist making lacing his potted history with puns and word-play. Yes, it is a valuable cultural artifact. And yes, it is delightfully obscene in its language and blissfully politically incorrect in a way that would make it unpublishable today. But I think it’s defied its weird origins and slapdash authorship by being sincere, by still being true, and by still being relevant. Sherman didn’t have to predict the future to describe 2021. He just had to say what he saw in 1973.

American Still Life: round chromium cakestand with yellowing transparent cover; inside, paper doily upon which lies one prune danish, one cupcake, several raisins, two of which are common houseflies deceased, lying on their backs in a crummy world.

There is a book waiting to be written, if it hasn’t been already, that picks up in 1973 where Sherman left off and carries the jeremiad through to the current day. It’s tempting to want to write the damn thing myself, but although I could happily cover the past twenty years I wouldn’t have a clue what came before that. I would also stop short of offering any advice for a solution because the last thing the world needs is another person claiming to have all the answers. That didn’t stop Sherman, though, who dedicates his last chapters to “The Answer”. But I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you: “I’m going to give it to you, on one condition: You must promise not to tell your friends. If someone asks you how to save the world, tell him he must buy this book and find out for himself.” This is a big book. This is a weird book. This book gets a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong, but it is nevertheless strangely inspired. Allan Sherman must have been a completely fascinating person to know — horny and eccentric and a big crazy weirdo. I would love to have met him.