The other morning I caught an interview with one of this year’s MacArthur Foundation grants. This is a highly prestigious grant program, known popularly as “genius grants”, an interesting feature of which is that you cannot apply for it. This means that every year, the MacArthur Foundation drops 25 grants (a half-million dollars/year for 5 years) on unsuspecting people in various pursuits, ranging from the arts to quite esoteric areas of science.
The interviewee was a charming American poet named Heather McHugh, who is looking forward to having time off from teaching in order to concentrate on her own writing experiments. The interview closed as such interviews must always do, with the interviewer (Robert Siegel) asking her how she feels the award will change her life:
McHugh: … and also as General Stillwell said, ‘The higher a monkey climbs, the more you see of his behind’.
Robert Siegel: (laughs) You’re concerned about possible exposure from this.
McHugh: Exactly! That’s the noun exactly!
This humorous quotation has been popularized in recent years by former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but I don’t think we should hold that against it. General Joseph Stillwell was a rather eccentric American army general who commanded US forces in Burma during World War Two. This is from Time magazine, 6 April 1942:
In Mandalay last week a correspondent recalled a characteristic crack made by Lieut. General Joseph ("Uncle Joe") Stilwell, who now commands U.S. and Chinese forces in Burma. Said Uncle Joe: "The higher a monkey climbs on a pole, the more you can see of his backside."
I hadn’t heard this before, but it really struck me as both very profound and amusing at the same time. In our attempts to become the most important or famous etc monkey, a lot of us spend a lot of time trying to climb the pole. What this saying says to me, however, is that this is illusion, that what generally happens is that other people end of witnessing more and more of our most unlovely aspects: our arrogance, our narcissism, our self-defeating behavior, our contradictoriness, even our cruelty. The only proper course of action, therefore is not to be take ourselves so seriously, to be humble, interested and giving to others. If there are several monkeys up in the tree with us, then at least we will have company!