A Glance Into the Symbolic Landscapes of Tarzan
By John David Ebert
If Edgar Rice Burroughs, with his earlier protagonist John Carter, Warlord of Mars, had in 1912 established the pattern of the superhero who arrives on the ground from the heavens above, then with his second creation — Tarzan, Lord of the Apes â€“ he invented the idea of the superhero who emerges, Titan-like, from out of the earth itself. The narrative pattern in which Tarzan is raised by apes in Africa to become a literate, thinking man capable of walking the streets of Western cities is a disguised retelling of the Darwinian myth of human evolution from apes to civilization. For Tarzan, brought up amongst a tribe of African apes, is symbolically descended from beings of the earth, the same beings, no less, who have spent six or seven million years quietly constructing the human physical body beneath an enclosed canopy of African trees. By the time this body was ready, with Lucy and her people, to embark upon the traumas of the open savannah, it was simultaneously prepared for the descent of the human mind which took up its residence in this newly constructed body like a mother bird settling down to brood in her nest.
It is, however, also possible to look at the Tarzan narrative from a Gnostic point of view since the image of a man who has lost himself amongst the animals but yet gradually acquires the tools of language which allow him to recall his properly human self has something in common with Gnostic narratives like â€œThe Hymn of the Pearl.â€ In that story, a man is sent into Egypt (symbolic of the earth; the fallen world) by his parents in the East (the land of light and hence a stand-in for the heavens) in order to find a mysterious pearl (his soul) and bring it back. But once he has arrived in Egypt, he forgets his mission and begins to think and dress like the Egyptians (as does Tarzan amongst the apes). He has to be reminded of his cosmic mission by a herald who is sent down on behalf of the heavenly powers to help him (in this case, his friend, the Frenchman Dâ€™Arnot, who teaches him how to speak), and once he remembers his true identity, he is able to slay the serpent and steal the pearl and return with it to his parentâ€™s abode (i.e. back to the heavens). Tarzan, likewise, having been raised by apes, is in the position of a being who has forgotten that he belongs to another world entirely (Europe, in this case), but he is reminded of who he really is â€“ a rational, thinking being â€“ once he discovers his parentsâ€™ abandoned tree house where he teaches himself how to read. His acquisition of literacy sunders him from the animal realm, opening up a new world horizon of being-human in the Heideggerian sense, for he realizes that he is a being capable of greater (mental) feats than they and soon he rises amongst them to the commanding position of â€œLord of the Apesâ€ at the top of the animal hierarchy (the Gnostic kingly motif in disguise).
Tarzan is an iconic character whose essence consists in stripping him of all civilized encumbrances: he wears no clothing save a panther-skin loincloth and for weapons, carries only his fatherâ€™s hunting knife, and a bow and arrow. Through having been raised in the jungle by apes, he has become incredibly strong and has learned amazing gymnastic feats by means of leaping from treetop to treetop. He has recovered abilities and instincts of the physical-animal body which have become atrophied by us moderns dwelling in the concrete and steel caverns of our metropolises. We take note that it is at precisely the moment when the skyscraper is growing like an iron tree out of the grimy concrete canyons of Chicago and New York that Tarzan hatches from out of the egg of folk culture as a counter image to this new urban apotheosis, for he embodied everything which the West was leaving behind in preparation for its ascent to the stars. In Meriam C. Cooperâ€™s King Kong (1933), the ape is cast from the heights of a skyscraper and hurled out of the heavens to the earth below, like the Greek blacksmith god Hephaestus who was kicked from the sky and sent crashing to the island of Lemnos, for the antipathy between ape and city in that film parallels the solemn hatred of Tarzan of the Apes for the modern megalopolis. They are mutually exclusive principles.
The crucial thing about Tarzan as a superhero â€“ in many ways, the first superhero who will lead directly to the medium of the comics â€“ is that he is absolutely antithetical to civilization. In contrast to the superhero as later reinvented by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby during the 1960s, Tarzan is a poliphobic hero full of hatred at all things urban. As Burroughs himself remarked: â€œPerhaps the fact that I lived in Chicago and yet hated cities and crowds of people made me write my first Tarzan story. . .â€ (Porges, 220)
The 1983 film version of the Tarzan story makes this antipathy between Tarzan and cities quite clear, for in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, the central point of the film is that Tarzan hates the city and loves only the jungle. Letâ€™s pause for a moment to dwell with the filmâ€™s glistening examples: the curtain opens on a primordial image of the jungle in which a distant volcano spews incandescent lava across a landscape riven with molten shafts of sunlight. This image out of a nineteenth century Romantic landscape painting points to the affiliation between Tarzanâ€™s poliphobia and the antipathy toward Industrialization evident in the Romantic sensibility generally. The filmmakers proceed to tell the story of Tarzan mostly as Burroughs has given it to us, only they have Tarzanâ€™s friend Dâ€™Arnot, after being nearly killed by jungle natives and saved by Tarzan, teaching him how to read and write in addition to learning how to speak. (According to the original novel, Tarzan is raised by apes but he eventually teaches himself how to read when he finds books in his parentâ€™s abandoned tree house. Later, Dâ€™Arnot teaches him how to talk, but by this point Tarzan has already learned, through reading books, how to reason, and he has therefore liberated himself from a merely horizontal equation with his fellow animals. He is more than animal, even while preferring their company to that of other humans, for animals cannot think abstractly using concepts).
In the film, Dâ€™Arnot and Tarzan make their way toward civilization and as they move out of the African jungle, their first contact with anything resembling civilized society comes in the form of an ivory trading outpost. Here, the two are treated badly by the locals who suspect them of being criminals on the run, and while the men are on the verge of attacking Dâ€™Arnot, Tarzan leaps down from the rafters above and shouts â€œFire!â€ while simultaneously tossing a gas lantern onto a tapestry which bursts into flames. Tarzan and Dâ€™Arnot flee, and as they climb back into their boat, the burning town is visible in the distance behind them.
Thus, Tarzanâ€™s first encounter with â€œcivilizationâ€ ends in its very decimation. As the narrative progresses, Tarzan and Dâ€™Arnot eventually arrive at the Greystoke estate in England, where Tarzan is greeted warmly, despite still exhibiting many ape-like characteristics. Here, he meets and falls in love with Jane (in the novel, he encounters her in Africa, as the victim of a shipwreck). The filmmakers, interestingly, show him lingering about the rooftops of the estate, thereby indicating the inward relationship shared by his arboreal habitat with the later rooftop econiche of the comic book superhero whom he prefigures. Through most of Burroughsâ€™s novels, Tarzanâ€™s perspective is from the treetops, where he looks down upon men in order to spy on them or else rescue them, for though he has emerged from the earth and belongs to the realm of the earth archetype, he is also a spirit being forever swooping down to catch and rescue the poor human soul who has fallen and become entangled upon the earthly plane below, like Superman forever plucking Lois Lane from one scrappy situation after another. (Compare Cupid lifting up Psyche from the realm of her domestic drudgeries and carrying her to his rooftop castle).
In the film, meanwhile, Tarzan has a number of adventures in London that are mostly disappointing and humiliating to him, including an episode in which he discovers his ape father held captive as a lab specimen in a cage and sets him free so that the two can run about the streets of the city, eventually winding up in a tree, where the ape is shot and killed by a constable. Tarzan holds civilization accountable for the murder of his â€œfatherâ€ and decides that he will have nothing more to do with it. In the filmâ€™s closing scenes, we glimpse him frolicking once more amongst the apes in the jungles of Africa, while a fully clad Jane stands beside Dâ€™Arnot looking on with no evident intention of joining his idyll.
Historically, the nomad is a figure entirely at odds with cities. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have written in their â€œTreatise on Nomadology,â€ the nomad travels across smooth space and represents a â€œwar machineâ€ perennially crashing into cities mostly because they happen to lie in his path. Cities, on the other hand, represent the world of striated space, for they disrupt the smooth and even flow of the vast plains across which the nomad moves. Wherever the nomad goes, he is primarily attempting to follow the contours of the world of his smooth space; cities merely get in the way of his accomplishing this task.
Tarzan, too, is a loner and a nomad who prefers his own company. He calls the jungle his home, but he sleeps only in the trees and never stays in one place for very long.
In him, we become aware that the superhero begins as a type of retrieved Paleolithic hunter – nomad essentially in opposition to the city as such.
Tarzan belongs to the genre of the castaway that began with Defoeâ€™s Robinson Crusoe in the eighteenth century and continues on through Swiss Family Robinson and Jules Verneâ€™s The Mysterious Island in the nineteenth. The story of Tarzan, however, differs from all these other narratives in that Tarzan himself is a second generation castaway since his parents, the original castaways, are dead. Raised by apes, Tarzan has been cut off almost entirely â€“ although not completely, for there is that tree house of his parentsâ€™ â€“ from his own society. In the case of those earlier Robinsonades â€“ as the genre used to be known â€“ the castaways normally attempt to rebuild a miniature version of Western civilization out of the scraps of seaspawn and seawrack immediately available to them (this remains true even of late and decadent examples of the genre such as Peter Weirâ€™s film The Mosquito Coast or Robert Zemeckisâ€™s Castaway). The point of such narratives seems to be that even if you take all his civilization away from him and cast him ashore upon an island, Western man is so aggressively inventive that he will spontaneously proceed to reconstruct that very same mechanical civilization even if he has to use cocoanuts for weights and palm fibers for pulleys. Tarzanâ€™s parents, with their tree house stuffed full of books and belongings, had likewise attempted to build a scale model of Western society.
Tarzan, however, differs from all of these castaways in that not only does he never attempt to recreate a miniature version of his own civilization (which would be familiar enough to him from the contents of the tree house) but he actively disdains the very civilization which produced him.
Now letâ€™s take a look at a particular scene from a Tarzan novel, The Return of Tarzan, in which Tarzan is walking alone one night in the streets of Paris when he hears a woman scream and he runs inside a building and rushes up a staircase into a room where he finds the woman being harassed by a group of men. He makes short work of the men, who all flee, but when the police arrive, the woman claims, to Tarzanâ€™s astonishment, that it was Tarzan who had broken into her room and tried to assault her. The two policemen insist on taking Tarzan into custody, but he will have none of that and so beats them to a pulp and escapes through an open window out onto the Paris rooftops. This scene occurs within the first few chapters of the second Tarzan novel, and we can already see it foreshadowing the coming development of the entire superhero mythos. Let us take note of the structural elements here which will later become pre-fabricated features of the superheroâ€™s universe: first, the image of the hero who rushes blindly to the aid of an anonymous cry of distress in a big city; then the scenario of the superhero who single handedly takes out a group of villains in close combat; but most importantly, the conflict between the hero and the police, for the function of the superhero is not an extension of the law, as is often wrongly assumed, sometimes even by the creators themselves. His actions are those of a vigilante who by-passes due process and takes matters into his own hands: that is his whole raison dâ€™etre, for he actually represents a return from the world of tribal man of the old mythical justice of lex talionis, an eye for an eye, the archaic blood vendetta of tribal societies like the ancient Scandinavians or the Arabs.
Thus, the type of mythical consciousness that his actions signify actually subverts and undercuts the rational consciousness of due process presupposed by the builders of the modern megalopolises. There is, furthermore, one other important structural element in this episode: the image of Tarzan escaping through the window out onto the crumbling rooftops of a moonlit city at night, a scene which foreshadows the advent of the rooftop dwelling superhero and his frequent entrances and exits through windows. (There is further to be remarked the fact that the vision of Tarzan dressed in civilized clothing walking the streets of Paris, where he is known as â€œJohn Greystoke,â€ is roughly an equivalent of Supermanâ€™s Clark Kent persona, and shows us that Tarzanâ€™s psyche is already riven by the fracture lines of the schizoid ego which later characterizes most superheroes).
After this scene takes place, we find Tarzan recounting to his friend Dâ€™Arnot what happened, whereupon he remarks:
Your Paris is more dangerous than my savage jungles, Paul. . .Jungle standards do not countenance wanton atrocities. There we kill for food and for self-preservation, or in the winning of mates and the protection of the young. Always, you see, in accordance with the dictates of some great natural law. But here! Faugh, your civilized man is more brutal than the brutes. He kills wantonly, and, worse than that, he utilizes a noble sentiment, the brotherhood of man, as a lure to entice his unwary victim to his doom. It was in answer to an appeal from a fellow being that I hastened to that room where the assassins lay in wait for me.
The world of hyperreality discussed so often by postmodern philosophers is already heralded in the figure of the comic strip incarnation of Tarzan who, beginning in 1929, channel surfs his way from one historical epoch to the next. As the Sunday strips (these, unlike the dailies, were in color) begin in 1931, we find him dwelling amongst the Arabs of North Africa, but soon a back alley of the jungle leads him through a time warp into the age of the dinosaurs. Then, while fleeing this world, he stumbles upon a fossilized survival of ancient Egypt, which becomes his primary adversary for a number of episodes. When he is finished battling that civilization â€“ and he does, indeed, battle the entire civilization (for he is against civilization as such) â€“ he encounters some pirates who carry him onward into a facsimile of Turkish Islamic society, then into an African tribal society, a Viking society, and so on.
Thus, the Tarzan of the comic strips already prefigures Disneyland, in which all of history is seen as going on simultaneously in the present, like a movie studio where one can simply cross the lot from the Roman Empire and walk into Napoleonâ€™s invasion of Europe. This is precisely the historyless world into which Western society as a whole (and not just America) has slipped: a transpolitical, ahistorical landscape of simulacra without meaning or value.
Tarzan as a character, furthermore â€“ especially in the novels â€“ inhabits an ahistorical world space of pre-cultural anthropoid man locked into a seven million year struggle to build the physical body while surviving amongst dangerous animals in an age where time does not exist and nothing of cultural import or significance ever takes place. This archaic world, oddly enough, has become our world now, the world of real time video monitor screens and ersatz cities, a world which exists in a similar kind of unending sameness of limitless temporality. We live in a world nowadays in which culture has ceased to evolve, history has stopped developing, and only technology is undergoing anything like what we would call an evolution, although it is an evolution which acts as a disintegrative and destabilizing force on highbrow culture as a whole.
Thus, the American invention of the superhero is tantamount to the creation of a series of avatars of a senile, aphasic, amnesic society that wishes to have no connection to the past, fight no wars of historical significance (hence Americaâ€™s reluctance to enter both World Wars) and to build an endless horizontal landscape corrugated by shopping malls and striped by freeways beneath the dome of a neon sky. The superhero as created by Edgar Rice Burroughs is a nihilistic protagonist who wishes to be cut off from the past and the realm of discourse altogether. He wants only to exist like an animal for whom the world knows neither past nor future but only an endless eternal â€œnow.â€
Thus, Tarzan is the prototype for the apathetic American consumer who cares nothing for ideas and is obsessed with his body (endlessly overfeeding it and then, stung by remorse, exorcising it of its caloric demons). Tarzan, with his disdain of civilization and his desire to simply hide out in the jungle with his ape companions and to be left alone (in a zoological garden of plenty where there is never a shortage of groceries) untroubled by the pangs of history, conscience or remorse, essentially is the forerunner of the average American consumer of today. Tarzan, in short, is Nietzscheâ€™s Last Man at the End of History who dreams of no world horizons more, but only wishes for safety, security and material comfort. He is the ape who has left behind the troubled horizontal world of the unprotected savannahs which produced the traumas of history â€“ and the history-making overmen who built civilizations â€“ and returned to the vertical world of the trees and the jungles which protected the apes of the great southern rain forests to the west of the Rift Valley, where they survive, untroubled by the physiological deformations of evolution, in the form of gorillas to this day. We must never forget that the crucial thing about Tarzan is that he wishes to go back to the trees in the Garden of Eden from whence humanity was expelled once, so long ago.