Tarzan: A Myth Man
In The Age of the

b y   B u r n e   H o g a r t h (1984)

  IN THE AGE OF THE ELECTRONIC TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY and the rise of the cybernetic world machine, we have shaped a time in which all existence seems negative and perverse. When we split the atom, we witnessed the emergence of a new nature and a new reality, a new world and a new man. It is a time which starts at the point of ethical exhaustion and moral failure, a time littered with the wreckage of dreams. What we have is a world of chance and peril, where truth in nature and natural law seems to have been suspended, and moral law and Mosaic law have been submerged in universal lawlessness.

Today there is disruption everywhere, a conscious bloodletting of the vital processes. The cybernetic society has permitted uninhibited machine output to be the pacemaker of human needs and demands. We have let our pious desire for abundance and the pursuit of happiness to pass from higher social standards into a depraved, hedonistic narcissism. We have turned away from our celebration of the brotherhood of man and praise of the human spirit to become a cult society conditioned to the ritual use of raw power and the routine threat of nuclear annihilation.

Conflict has become a law of cultural dynamics and crisis after crisis has become a normal way of life. In our time there are no greater disasters than man-made disasters. As Max Scheler put it: "... man is a complete deserter from life... Within the order of his species... man himself is a disease..."

Nature with all its phenomenal powers has not been able to disrupt the planet with such pervasive, unrelenting persistence as has humankind. Only man has been able to so damage or derange the function of living things as to produce irreversible changes in the environment. Since taming and manipulating nature in the 18th and 19th centuries, man is now moving to enslave, rape and deplete the planet on a world scale. Lessing sums up: "Man is a species of predatory ape that gradually went mad with pride over its so-called mind".

As the transgression of all nature has been accomplished with the use of the machine, so the 'new' society has reversed the course of human culture. The "industrialisation of culture" (Dorfles) and the technical invasion of the creative process have corrupted the artistic canons and ideals of an older humankind. The stereotype is replacing the archetype. In art, the Precious Object, the ideal form of earlier culture patterns, is dying or dead. Everywhere, we see the machine aesthetics of our technological culture—computerised drawing, laser-beam sculpture, 3-D holographic illusionism, media tectonics and structures, automated mobiles, electronic colour-organ circuitry, web, cable and membrane architecture, and an avalanche of plastic and plaster-cast reproductions from the Venus de Milo and the Virgin Mary to Donald Duck and the Seven Dwarfs.

It is undeniable that art always evokes the visual images and form-patterns of a time. In our era art forms tend to commonplace, mawkish or profane; or they are evasive, enigmatic or incomprehensible. They are, in truth, anti-forms, anti-objects, anti-art. That is to say, they are anti-human and anti-social anomalies, concoctions of the cheap, the shoddy and the tawdry, and in them we see the excesses and aberrations, the functions and process of this incredible era.

In the fine arts of our time, the anti-form is contrary to all forms of nature. This concept of form is a model of some kind of machine-made artefact. It is fundamentally a similitude of our sleek, supercharged culture, a factory-orientated facsimile of assembly-line, mass-produced objects. Beyond this facade of elitist "form follow function", there is the other side of pop culture, "form follows funk", which imitates the mountains of mass-consumed, dazzling, titillating technological junk of the macromachine.

It is an age of dada, folly, funk and fraud; a time of schlock, kitsch and rubbish. And because of its innate transitoriness and leisure-orientated concerns of ego gratification, our culture has let us believe that life is not genuine, that our aims are denatured, synthetic or spurious. As we become homogenised and standardised, blending and merging in a uniform taste norm of artless kitsch and simplistic chic, we take on pseudo-life values that have an inherent tradition-destroying power. We lose our sense of privacy and dwindle away in a rootless, conforming drift, while the irresistible culture sparkles and beckons, splendidly seductive through its cantankerous forms.

It is clear that the machine is the maker and the mover. The machine is the totem animal of modern man, the tireless, uncomplaining iron beast of burden. In the unceasing cycle of the mechanical slave there is no season of scarcity. It needs no care—only supervision. Man, committed to its ceaseless routine, becomes a routine functionary himself. Mimetic, his identity takes on the crisp, smooth, efficient characteristics of the mechanism. Because the beast never tires, if man becomes weary or complaining, he is cast aside like a malfunctioning part; he is judged incompetent or obsolete.

In the supersystem of the macromachine, man tends to become a faceless, anonymous example of collective mediocrity. As the culture creates a machine-made, anti-human art, so indeed does the society produce a utilitarian, institutional non-entity, a depersonalised adjunct of the macromachine.

* * *

On a larger scale, technology has created a new archetypal culture, unique in history, whose capacity to produce wealth is so enormous that to measure it by any past standards is meaningless. We are the "affluent society" of such opulence that our abundance is not measured by accumulation, but only by discard.

In the tonnage of junk, trash, clutter and glut is the visible fulfilment and climax of our social power.

The proof of our wealth is not in what we hoard, but in what we waste, how much we relegate to the garbage heap.

In the logic and dynamism of our superabundance, if the affluent society is to become ever larger, it must move to a new concept of growth, to a format of planned waste. Social necessity cannot be durable, permanent or precious objects. If the tempo of use must keep pace with the new growth, then use must be accelerated, and this means the creation of instant objects. Hence, the new tempo calls for total replacement of the instant object in the era of planned waste.

The name for this concept of progress is co-ordinated chaos and ruin. This is why we are fascinated with a cinema of holocausts, infernos, sharks, monsters, satanism and cannibalism. This is why we love the fragment in art—why we believe in the found object (objet trouvé), and why we cherish the assemblage and the collage, whose concoctions are random pieces of discard, the expendable metaphors of the cybernetic age.


* * *

Histories typically relate the large-scale events in human affairs, the panoramic overviews of a time. With their Olympian commentaries historians tell of immense patterns of violence—crises, rebellions, wars and revolutions, the "contours of our civilisation".

Of the shapers and makers of events, they narrate acts of ruthless ambition, policies of inordinate cynicism, gross paranoia directed against all rivals and a ferocious aggrandisement extracted from the weak. Those who advance such a grim view of official reality with a cool objectivity must at least feel some dismay, if not trauma, when they review the excessive rise of violent assaults, slayings and suicides, to say nothing of the wanton maltreatment and frequent murder of children and babies.

In these dark tales of the history of mankind as an unrelieved Armageddon, one looks in vain for the other side to this reality—for the singular imprint of the beneficent man, for the virtuous human persona. This other record is left for myth.

Myth enters the human record when the passage through life is too steep, the way too rough, the tunnel too dark—or the path is beset with dragons, monsters and dangers of every description. Then a myth figure appears, a hero to save us from the terrors of the world and to restore us to safety, security and sanity.

Myth begins in the web of the imagination, almost as autobiography, like a self-portrait, virtually as an autonomous act of creative art. Each individual sees the myth in a personal way, but in an idealised mirror-image of the exalted mythic personality.

However, this mythic persona projected on a world scale becomes symbolic of an era, subsumed in poetry, literature and art. The mythic image of the culture, developed from the needs and aspirations of a time, embodies the essence of the strains and tensions that afflict the world and its people. Hence, the universal world and the personal world respond in unison to the example and energies of the mythic personality.

What gives the myth its essential authenticity, however, is its power to possess and be "possessed". The mythic figure seizes and "consumes" us—it transmutes our character and personality as it transforms the world around us. It becomes a double reality of dreaming and consciousness: one side plausible, palpable, real; the other fictive, ephemeral, incorporeal—each existing simultaneously with the other.

But the motive force of the myth figure lies in its innate charisma, in its interpenetrating power to exact a magical, transcendental response. Its aura compels an orgiastic surge of inner life energy to relive in the life of the hero a personal drama, revealing powers that are demonic and wonderful. And in the end, a catharsis occurs, prophylactic and regenerative, restoring psychic balance and felicity, sunrise at the end of a dream.

* * *

When Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan of the Apes early in the 20th century, he scarcely realised he was creating a tale far beyond the dimensions of a popular romance. It was written on a theme that was not very original, in a form that was not very sophisticated, for a public that was not very mature.

Burroughs' style was entertaining and enthralling; his prose, vivid and seductive, had a magnetic quality of drama. His style of storytelling, indeed, took on a greater lustre in the telling, for it was beyond fiction—more than romantic narrative or heroic adventure. His tales set countless youths acting out the deeds of their hero, Tarzan. Burroughs, without realising it (although he admits in the opening page "it may be true"), created in Tarzan a myth-man, an authentic mythopoeic hero endorsed and validated in almost every way by the turbulent events of this 20th century "Age of Anxiety", the era of "anguish, torment and chaos", in the "civilisation of discontents".

It was a confluence of the some dust and ashes that riddled the personal world of Burroughs with an endless string of failures; and he began to write the first of his Martian stories, in an evocation of autobiographical desperation, on the back of a piece of stationery left from a bankrupt business.

His words are fantasy, but the mood is not. It is a saga of a "brooding, suffering man... fated to walk the earth in agony... in the midst of a dying planet".

But in the creation of Tarzan of the Apes, the untried, self-taught writer touched a raw nerve in his own unconscious that became linked to the elemental magma of the mythological stuff from which all ideal heroes spring.

Burroughs, indeed, was a man of his time—a frustrated dreamer. His act of creation was sublimely innocent, and Tarzan was the dreamchild of his own fitful yearning. Yet this creation became the archetype of every man's secret desire to be liberated from frustration and despair. For even as Tarzan is the anti-hero and orphan of his three lost worlds—his personal world, his jungle world, and his civilised world—so is Burroughs a rejected anti-hero-orphan of the world; and so is everyone.

There comes a time when Burroughs, the failure, becomes an unqualified success. It is 1932; come face to face with one of the most widely read authors in the world. His books are published in over 50 languages with more than 100 million copies sold. See him as one of the three most-read authors in the United States and, perhaps, the highest-paid writer then living. In Russia, the most popular writers in the English language are H G Wells, Jack London, O Henry, Conan Doyle and Upton Sinclair; but among them Edgar Rice Burroughs is the favourite. And in Germany, the creator of Tarzan of the Apes receives the highest royalties ever paid to a foreign author.

Now imagine Burroughs' feelings as he learns his books are banned by his local library for not meeting standards of good fiction. He is at the height of world renown, yet his name is not listed among the ten most popular authors of American fiction. He is consistently disparaged by critics, and so at odds with the literary world he has not the friendship or acquaintance of any writer of note or reputation.

The denial of Burroughs by his professional peers was so extreme a phenomenon as to be unmatched in the life of any modern author. He was a modest reticent man who had a profound and relentless need to belong, and the idea of rejection must have given rise to deep pain and humiliation.

What must Burroughs have been like when he faced this alienation and despair? Surely, he must have painfully recoiled into the depths of his psyche and soul—angered and hurt. How else shall we understand him if not from the volcanic source from which Tarzan was energised? What terrible fuel powered the wasteland of Mars and her annihilating wars?

We do not know exactly what forces worked on this prosaic man to make him write the golden legend of the jungle god, the modern myth of the demonic Tarzan of the Apes. We know Burroughs was a loser and a loner. We know, too, he was in some ways a perpetual adolescent; like Tarzan, he grew up but wished never to grow old—to stay forever young.

Burroughs had a compelling need to write, to shape a dream of fantasy and folklore. It was narrative pantomime, a kind of meta-literature that was outside formal fiction. It was, in truth, mythology. This fledgling upstart, learning to write, shaped a modern myth; and writing, shaped himself. He was an important writer and great in his way, though he never knew it. And that is why, perhaps, he was so misunderstood and rejected. For even at the end, he mistrusted his talents, disparaged his accomplishments, denigrated his education and denied his value and place, even in the face of great rewards, because he felt small against other writers whose accomplishments and distinctions were less than his own.

* * * 

If a single word were to describe the quality of Tarzan which holds every reader's interest, it would be enchantment. We are not here concerned with those fake pop-media words which abound in contemporary jargon, for example, in con-talk ads, two-bit instant psychology, funk-image politics, slob films, hip religion and the like.

What we are speaking of is a form of sorcery or mania; it is not unlike self-hypnosis or sympathetic magic. The terms are not important but the concept is: what we are dealing with is an animistic identity with deep, sensual undertones expressed on the primordial level of innocence, ego security and the vital sense of whole-feeling and all-being. Tarzan is the condensed demon-spirit who inspires the stubborn life-force in all of us. He is the fever of life that violates the coma. There is in this enchantment the miraculous and the wonderful, the impeccable and the incorruptible.

In our present crisis, Tarzan denies the end of mankind. He takes us back from the edge of the abyss of nothingness and negates the nameless, the unutterable, the unthinkable. He forms a bridgehead from the derelictions of the civilised world and opens a passage to the gardens of the mind. Rejecting the poisoned, unprincipled world of cash-box culture because he belongs to himself, he takes us away, not to Paradise or an Arcadian realm, but to a feral jungle in the dawn of man, where he is an ape among other beasts—and no living creature is a slave.

If today there is despair; if, in the era of ruin, we have seen the wreck of man and the death of God; if, in the society of planned waste, we have wrought the anti-form and the anti-man—then Tarzan is the antidote to the anti-self. We can believe in him because like ourselves he is naked, defenceless and alone. He is a child of tragedy, born to suffer and labour. Then by strain of wit and fang and claw, he struggles to survive—and rises, to transcend and triumph.

Tarzan is no automated man; his powers and passage are neither supernatural nor hypertechnological. Against the clatter of machines, his scream of challenge reminds us there is something powerful and life-defining in his presence.

"The Myth," says Cassirer, "emphasises the physiognomic character of experience." Indeed, with the onset of the technological supersystem, the great societies have dealt mortal blows to the prevailing myths of modern man. We have seen that happiness is not the natural state of man; goodness is not his natural conduct; freedom is not his inalienable right. We are told civilisation does not necessarily lead to progress; science does not categorically assure the betterment of mankind. The era of optimism is finished; the world's frontiers are closing down; and hope for the future is dying.

From this dismal view the world is a wasteland, depleted and moribund. This perception, it must be argued, is incomplete if not inexact. Its conception of despair has too low a centre of gravity and a sense of affliction that is too static, too melancholic, too stoic to meet the dynamism of the age.

Burroughs, without doubt, has constructed a better model. If the myth is physiognomic, it must also be synergistic (according to the Burroughs' schema) in that it opens the way for the insubordination of the ego. The myth, if nothing else, is a form of folklore; and as revealed insight to a culture it must project something of its aestheticism, its passions and aspirations.

That Tarzan confirms the tragic pattern of conflict and suffering indicts his world and civilisations to be parallel hells and purgatories with our own. He is scarred and wounded as all of us are, but the nostalgia, the yearning to return to the past in order to outwit the untenable future, is a nostrum for the sick, the feeble and the infirm. As we close down the 20th century and open the 21st with its inevitable collisions and commotions, we must, in Thoreau's words, move into the future with our ears tuned to a "different drum" and our eyes holding the vision of a different dream.

Tarzan is in a better position to transvalue and transcribe the modern myth. As the ape-man rejects status, inheritance, wealth and luxury in his modern world, he also rejects servitude, power, torture and all noxious manipulations of other human beings. That he is moral and humane are persuasions, not of written codes and creeds, but of an ardent response to all life's needs in a state of nature. Hence, he leads us "home", not to Nirvanas or disinfected Utopias, but to that abode of sanity, the wilderness paradigm of autonomy and optimism, to a celebration of forbearance, felicity and mercy.

Tarzan is not the tragic hero, the tortured champion or the suffering god. Such concepts are too pessimistic and permeated with masochistic resignation to be useful in coping with the problems of the future. Angst and breast-beating are latter-day manifestations of indecision and collapse in the face of crises. Resolutely, we ought to step back from the'abyss and cease contemplating the crippled ego of our existential being. There is still time for a reconstruction of "modern man", one who does not succumb to an internal tyranny of unrelieved subservience and cannibalise himself with self-hatred and rage.

There is still time for a new spirit to shape the pattern of the dream, taken, perhaps, from a form of play or wit, from childhood innocence. Or perhaps it may come from another kind of energy which shapes the cobweb and the rainbow and remakes the sounds of oceans in a seashell. From the infrastructures of the mind and the beating heart—it may come, perhaps, from Tarzan of the Apes.

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