A Serious Look at Ballantine's
Lord of the Absolute Elsewhere
By Leslie A. Fiedler
New York Times Review ~ June 9, 1974
Leslie A. Fiedler is the author of "Love and Death in the American Novel"
and currently Samuel L. Clemens Professor at Sate University of New York at Buffalo.
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It is hard to think of Tarzan without thinking of one's own childhood. Yet that immortal myth of the abandoned child of civilization who survives to become Lord of the Jungle was not written for children at all -- as I keep explaining to my 9-year-old son whenever he snatches from my desk the volume I am currently reading. "Look," I tell him, "the only two books Burroughs ever deliberately wrote for kids are lousy. Stupid. And besides," I add, "your teen-age brother and your mother are next in line after me. Then you." But in some sense he has the prior claim. Certainly I was his age when I began the series, and I am his age still when I return to it now. Or rather, I realize returning to it that, at my deepest level of response. I have remained faithful to the dream which moved me then.
It has been a long time, however, since I last dreamed the dream all the way through -- near tears as I finished the last volume, though I knew I would always begin again. And, again and again. And again. Not that the Lord of the Jungle has ever completely disappeared from my life; but for many years I have encountered him chiefly in comics and movies, on radio -- and especially in those old films endlessly replayed on Sunday morning television. Tarzan between commercials. Tarzan as Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe. And however such versions may falsify details of the original text, they cannot betray the myth, which like all authentic myths has passed into the public domain, and must be re-embodied in whatever vulgar commercial form has preempted the popular imagination.
How could Burroughs, who died reading Sunday comics, have objected? True, in Tarzan and the Lion Man, which appeared in 1934, he satirized what Hollywood had made of his creation, showing in a final scene his hero being rejected as "not the type" to play himself. But in Tarzan and 'The Foreign Legion', published 13 years later, he puts into the mouth of a sympathetic character, confronted with the actual Ape Man, the words, "Is dat Johnny Weissmuller?" It is Burroughs's own last word on the subject, his final irony, directed this time not at the moviemakers but his own belief that the myth he created belonged solely to him.
From the start, I believed it belonged to me, a small Jewish boy in Newark, N.J. appalled at the greyness of the urban world between the two Great Wars. It was a Green World I needed to dream of but not a pastoral or Arcadian one, which iws to say, a world unremittingly green. No, it was a a Darwinian world, one green in leaf, but red in fang and claw that the times and I demanded. And this Burroughs provided, aware somehow that, though in his own heyday, the jurors at the Scopes Trial may have voted against evolution, the mass audience had decided otherwise. In the cities at least, Burroughs's Chicago, my Newark, no one could doubt the Struggle for Existence, the Survival of the Fittest, the bloody triumph of homo sapiens over the lesser beasts.
It is this triumph which Burroughs celebrates in the tale of Tarzan, making him the first Wild Man Savior to have been suckled by a she-ape rather than a she-wolf. The latter had fostered mythic heroes form the Romulus and Remus to the Mowgli of Kipling's "The Jungle Books"' but "On the Origin of Species" had persuaded Burroughs that apes are our closest kin. And the popular imagination had transformed them into our actual progenitors, twisting classical evolutionary theory just enough to suggest that our remotest ancestors have survived, and can be seen, in the nearest zoo. Or better still, in their native habitat, the living past of "Africa." Taking his myth for a fact, literal-minded readers are appaled by the mistakes Burroughs makes about the Dark Continent -- especially about its fauna, or the languages spoken by its natives. But it is merely a convenient name for the absolute Elsewhere, where the pop Darwinian Jungle shelters Indian Tigers and African Lions side by side. And Burroughs relocated it, when he was so moved, in Sumatra, for instance, or the "Island of Uxmal," or the Center of the Earth: the imaginary womb of the Great Mother civilization has in fact sullied and raped.
Darwin alone, howerver, could not teach Burroughs to convert science to myth. This he learned from other tellers of tales, like Jack London and Kipling, for whom he has registered his admiration and gratitude. But a third great popular myth-maker, H. Rider Haggard, whom he does not mention, seems to me equally important for him. It was Haggard who first suggested the notion that in the preserved past of "Africa," a castaway from the present could experience not only the victory of man over the beasts, but also the encounter of the male with the mystery of woman, the invention of eros.
Again and again, in the midst of human sacrifice, torture and the eating of raw flesh, Tarzan confronts erotically potent, unredeemably exotic and invariably naked females. As divine and mythic as he, they offer to yield up their divinity for his love, striving to win him with caresses and the threat of death. But always, of course, in vain. And the prototype of them all is La of Opar, whom Tarzan rejects like the rest, but returns to over and over -- in quest not only of the treasure of the guards, but also the renewal of their endless flirtation. But La is clearly of H. Rider Haggard's "She," a pop masterpiece as universally appealing (among its admirers are Carl Jung, Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence and Andre Lang) as Tarzan of the Apes. The infamous schoolteacher of Downey Calif. was, therefore, right when,, in 1961, she removed two volumes of Tarzan from her library shelves as "pornographic" -- wrong in particular (she thought Tarzan had never married Jane), but right in general. And Philip Jose Farmer, greatest living authority on Burroughs, was even more right when, in a porno-travesty called "A Feast Unknown," he revealed the sado-masochistic and homosexual aspects of Tarzan's eros.
As a boy, however, I scarcely noticed the erotic episodes, skipping ahead impatiently, as my 9-year-old does now, whenever some languorous charmer appeared. Yet Burroughs, I have learned since, thought of himself as a "dirty writer," refusing, for instance to dictate aloud to his secretary, as was his custom, passages he felt to be too titillating. To be sure, he uses only the chestiest language, and never describes the sec act at all. Even the consummation of Tarzan's marriage occurs off-scene, though he does render in detail the two occasions on which Jane almost yields to the Ape-man before they are duly wed. And perhaps the sultriest scene he ever wrote is in Tarzan and the Golden Lion, in which she is stopped at the last possible moment from making love to one of the three false Tarzans, who throughout the series so oddly undercut the credibility of the hero.
Resisted seduction and failed rape; these are for Burroughs the paradigms of passion. And rape is more central than seduction. Few rapes are ever consummated in his books but the unconsummated variety occurs with an astonishing frequency. One industrious critic has counted 76 rapes in the books Burroughs wrote in the first four years of his career and time did not slow down his pace. Indeed, "good women" exist in his fiction almost entirely to be threatened with violation and rescued. Jane is, of course, the target-in-chief, desired on sight by all males of the "lesser breeds": great apes, gorillas, black cannibals, Russians, Germans, Lascars, Japanese. And worst among them are the Kings and High Priests, those Bad Fathers, whose frustrated passion and eventual destruction Burroughs especially delights in imagining.
After a while, Burroughs seems to grow weary of Jane, whom, it would appear, he had never really wanted Tarzan to marry. His first volume ends in fact with Tarzan's rejection of her. And though his editors persuaded Burroughs to give her another chance, he keeps the pair separated for ever longer periods; perhaps because he senses dimly that his Forest God should have remained forever virgin. For a while, he relishes portraying her in the arms of some frustrated bestial attacker, but even this runs out.Leslie Aaron Fiedler (March 8, 1917 – January 29, 2003) was a Jewish-American literary critic, known for his interest in mythography and his championing of genre fiction. His work also involves application of psychological theories to American literature. He was in practical terms one of the early postmodernist critics working across literature in general, from around 1970. His most cited work is Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).