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Aesthetics in Africa Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Pallavi Mogre, India Mar 13, 2006
Culture , Education , Human Rights , Child & Youth Rights   Opinions
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“ Most of the stories I wrote were the stories I told myself just before I went to sleep”

- Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan is a colossal daydream spanning twenty six books that spawned over forty Tarzan movies, hundreds of comic books, radio shows, television programmes, and other Tarzan paraphernalia, including Tarzan toys, Tarzan gasoline, Tarzan underwear, Tarzan ice-cream, Tarzan running shoes, Tarzan … – the list is virtually endless. Edgar Rice Burroughs became one of the twentieth century's most popular authors, and Tarzan one of the world's best-known literary characters.

Mittyesque daydreams make life bearable, and do away with the monster of ennui. Tarzan proves instrumental here. Gore Vidal calls Burroughs ‘the archetypal American dreamer’. It is no wonder then, that the basic appeal of Tarzan lies in the fact that Burroughs, a ‘master dreamer’, provides an alternative Utopia that we can inhabit. Tarzan’s world is an Eden that no serpent can invade (and if it is indeed invaded, Tarzan always overcomes), an Elysium that is idyllic and tranquil in spite of the action. To cut a long story short, an environment that one can dominate completely. Tarzan, thus, is a classic dream-self that provides the reader a spacious sense of mastery over a world that more often than not, tends to elide the individual. Tarzan triumphs even if we fail !!

Applying Freud’s idea of ‘play’ to Burroughs’ Tarzan daydream, one could say that Tarzan is a manifestation of subconscious desire. Antony Easthope points out that Tarzan, to be more precise, Burrough’s first Tarzan novel, "Tarzan of the Apes", with its African adventure setting, addresses itself to a dominantly masculinist culture; takes up directly the issue of European colonialism; and also bears the imprint of Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and the debate over heredity, environment and genetic racial difference.

It concerns a white man – Tarzan AKA Lord Greystoke – who has, to use colonialist phraseology, radically ‘gone native’. It contains as one of the central features, an idealised stereotype of women as the lover that stifles masculine desire. Thus, Easthope opines that "Tarzan of the Apes" explores boundaries between the self and the other; boundaries defined as those between animal and human, white and black, ‘civilised’ and ‘savage’. Consequently, as Tarzan consolidates specific binaries, this daydream transmutes into a nightmare from the postcolonial perspective, as it explores and legitimises the colonial unconsciousness.

Tarzan, which literally means ‘white-skin’ in ape idiom, is obviously a white man who cannot but survive as he is naturally the ‘fittest’. It is not surprising then that baby Tarzan survives in a remote part of wild and savage Africa. Burroughs flings a baby into the African wilderness, and the infant survives to metamorphose into Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’. In order to substantiate his ‘original jungle-hero’, and to make him credible, Burroughs takes recourse to what an African critic, N. Khalfani Mwamba, calls the ‘Tarzan Untruths’.

These ‘Untruths’ change Africa the continent, into Africa, the continent of tropical forests. Africa, comes from the Sanskrit word ‘jungala’ which means ‘dry desert’. Nevertheless, English textuality stresses the opposite, and Africa becomes the land of ‘thick vegetation and dense forests’, the African truth being that it has less forest cover per square mile than any other continent.

The first glimpse of Africa that Burroughs gives us describes its shores as, “beautiful with semi-tropical verdure”; and the country, “rises from the ocean in hill and tableland, almost uniformly clothed by primeval forest”. Strangely enough, though Eurasia has more forest cover per square mile than Africa, it is the Africans who have been termed ‘Jungle Bunnies’.

That pre-slavery Africa was ‘uncivilised’ and ‘unchristian’ is another ‘Tarzan Untruth’ or myth that many live by, and which Tarzan of the Apes no doubt endorses with its repetition of the word “savage”, which is applied to the land as well as to its inhabitants. Burrough’s camera obscura focuses only on the ‘uncivilised’, and conveniently dismisses African ‘civilisation’. ‘Civil’ comes from ‘city’, and Africa’a Ta Ibit (centuries after its construction, renamed Thebes by the Greeks) is the first historic city of historical record. Also, Ethiopia was the first Christian country in history, declared so by King Azana a full century before Constantine did Byzantium in 325 A.D.

To borrow from Edward Said, the Orient - Africa with "Tarzan of the Apes" -, becomes a projection of the European underground self. Africa has often become the locale for metaphysical encounters with evil as in books like, "Heart of Darkness", "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "The Mighty Young Joe", and "Out of Africa". Tarzan needs Africa to confront his evil or ‘savage self’. This savage “Tarzan of the Apes” grasps his “food in his strong brown hands, tearing it with his molars like a wild beast"; whereas, “Monsieur Tarzan” uses a “knife and fork” to eat “cooked food” as “No civilised men eat raw flesh”. Though the “blacks” cook their meat, they are still less ‘civilised’ than Tarzan. Tarzan will not “ruin good meat (by cooking it like the blacks) in any such foolish manner”, and he “craves” and “needs” meat because he descends from an ancient “race of meat eaters”.

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