Tarzan

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
June 25 1999 9:00 PM

Tarzan

Disney turns Burroughs' Ape-Man into a Momma's Boy.

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Carl Jung once observed that it is easier to discern the presence of archetypes from the collective subconscious in works of pulp fiction by writers such as H. Rider Haggard than it is in literary masterpieces. If only Jung had put Edgar Rice Burroughs on his depth-psychologist's couch. Burroughs was the George Lucas of his day, creating in Tarzan and other characters beings as profoundly mythical--and as stereotypically superficial--as Darth Vader. Like Luke Skywalker's saga, the tale of Tarzan mixes and matches motifs from the archetype-haunted dreamtime of humanity anatomized by Jung and Jung's disciple, Joseph Campbell. The tale of the prince raised in secret by adopted parents (King Arthur, Luke Skywalker) is fused with the story of the feral child raised by animals (Romulus and Remus, Enkidu, Mowgli, Pecos Bill) in the romance of the orphaned English lord raised by a foster family of African apes.

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The fact that Tarzan is really an English lord--Lord Greystoke, to be precise--was central to Burroughs' conception of his character. In the pulp fiction of Burroughs, as in pulp fiction of any period, timeless archetypes rub shoulders with the vulgar prejudices of the writer and his audience. In the works of Burroughs, today's race/class/gender theorists can easily find a key to the racial, social, and sexual anxieties of early 20th-century white American men and boys. When the first Tarzan books were published, the British Empire ruled the waves, the United States had recently joined the ranks of imperial powers, and white supremacy was the norm in the United States and throughout the world. Confidence in the innate superiority of the Caucasian race--and, within that race, of its Anglo-Saxon variant--coexisted with paranoia about the yellow peril and black "savagery."

The two major characters in the oeuvre of Edgar Rice Burroughs are Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars. Although John Carter never made it in Hollywood the way that his cousin in the jungle jockstrap did, it is worth reviving him to make a point. Tarzan and John Carter were both exemplars of Anglo-Saxon masculinity--Tarzan, the heir to an aristocratic English family, and John Carter, an upper-class Virginian by birth. The Tarzan and Carter stories can be viewed as experiments--take a member of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class, strip him of all his advantages, and put him in a radically different environment, in order that the innate superiority of his breed may be demonstrated. Whether in Africa (the symbol of precivilized savagery) or on an old, desiccated Mars (the symbol of overrefinement and cultural exhaustion), the Anglo-Saxon man proves that he is royalty. Tarzan becomes Lord of the Jungle, John Carter weds the Princess of Mars. Space, in Burroughs, is a metaphor for time. Tarzan and John Carter represent the era of Anglo-American civilization, at the midpoint between prehistoric barbarism and post-historic decadence.

Burroughs' genius can be seen in the way that he redeemed the imagery of savagery for his Anglo-Saxon ape-man. In the mythology of white supremacy, even before Charles Darwin, black Africans and other nonwhites were assimilated to apes (Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, finds credible the rumor that African women mate with orangutans). In much 19th- and early 20th-century pulp fiction, American Indians and black Americans have a mystical rapport with animals, which author and audience alike understood arose from their proximity on the evolutionary scale. But Burroughs' Tarzan is closer to the animals than the black Africans who live nearby. The Great White Hope is at once more civilized and more savage than the "natives"--he is the Lone Ranger and Tonto. With Tarzan monopolizing the highest and lowest rungs of the Chain of Being, the "natives" find themselves deprived of the one asset that racist mythology attributed to them, closeness to the animals, leaving them without any particular function in the economy of kitsch literature, except to be rescued by Tarzan from rogue elephants and the occasional witch doctor.

When first published, the Tarzan stories provided a largely American audience of white men and boys with a fantasy version of the ultimate White Guy, the virile aristocrat, who, far from being effete and degenerate, could go Ape as well as Ascot. Something like this vision inspired Theodore Roosevelt, the asthmatic Yankee patrician who turned himself into a cowboy and, as an ex-president, nearly died while exploring a tributary of the Amazon in Brazil, in an adventure that might have been scripted by Burroughs. George Bush--a professed admirer of TR--is the Tarzan of our day: A patrician Yalie (Lord Greystoke), and at the same time a Texan redneck (Tarzan), engaged in wildcatting (could there be a more metaphorically resonant term?). By jumping out of airplanes in his 70s, Bush continues to battle the Wimp Factor. Perhaps he should swing from vines as well. By contrast, George W., a rich kid who, unlike his father, sat out the war of his generation, is Boy.

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T he Tarzan mythos, then, depends on a balance of tensions--between Tarzan the Ape-Man and Lord Greystoke, between England and Africa, between civilization and savagery. Play down one side of the equation, and the meaning of this whole system of pre-World War II social stereotypes collapses.

This is what happened when Hollywood got hold of the Tarzan story. Beginning with the Johnny Weissmuller films, the jungle began eclipsing the English manor. Tarzan became simply a feral child, a white Mowgli. The genre changed to pastoral: Tarzan and Jane became the equivalents of the innocent shepherds and shepherdesses of Hellenistic Greek and Renaissance pastoral fiction, striving to preserve their natural idyll from corruption by civilization. Pastoral Tarzan need not be an English lord. He need not even be white. A black or brown or Asian Tarzan would defeat the whole point of the Burroughs mythos but would not be out of place in the Hollywood or TV versions.

Disney's new animated Tarzan is the politically correct heir of several generations of Hollywood Tarzans--a facsimile of a facsimile. Gone is the social Darwinist worldview that underpinned the original. In the prologue we see Tarzan's parents, but we do not learn they are titled. Indeed, from their facility at assembling a tree house we might think that they are, not Lord and Lady Greystoke, but Mr. and Mrs. Robinson (as in Crusoe or Swiss Family). The embarrassing problem of what to do with the "natives" in a post-racist age is solved by eliminating the natives altogether. Disney's gorillas live in a jungle uninhabited by human beings, until Europeans intrude.

The Disneyfied Tarzan is such a wimp that he is not allowed to kill anything or anybody, although our Paleolithic pacifist is permitted to use martial arts techniques in self-defense. The two villains of the movie are a homicidal (and simiocidal) cheetah and an English hunter--the Evil White Male without which no PC epic would be complete. But when the time comes for them to die, both do themselves in accidentally while fighting Tarzan: The cheetah falls atop a spearhead that Tarzan happens to be holding, and the Englishman inadvertently hangs himself on jungle vines. This Tarzan is a warrior for our day, when the United States refuses to send soldiers into combat because one of them might actually get hurt.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, a prostitute lures Enkidu away from his animal companions. Once he has slept with a woman, the animals refuse to associate with him; he cannot go home again. Masculine wildness is overcome by civilized femininity. In Disney's Tarzan film, nature is feminine and civilization masculine. Disney's Tarzan is not only post-imperial, post-racist, and post-classist but also post-masculine. Tarzan is a momma's boy. His gorilla foster mother, Kala (whose voice is provided by Glenn Close), remains on the scene after he reaches adulthood. When Tarzan introduces Jane to Kala, he grovels and whimpers before a disapproving Ma Gorilla.

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