Alex Vernon’s On Tarzan

On TarzanTarzan is one of those icons of popular culture that has taken on a resonance that runs from the personal to the mythic. One of the ironies that underlies Alex Vernon’s On Tarzan is that old question that I confront regularly: how much did Edgar Rice Burroughs put into that character, and how much have we provided? Burroughs, as it happens, was actively hostile to the idea of taking his Tarzan stories as “anything other than mindless entertainment.” But, like all such phenomena, he may have put more into it than he realized.

Vernon’s discussion, he says, is not a “cultural biography or thorough scholarly accounting, but . . . an idiosyncratic consideration.”

[This book] focuses on the patterns of meaning that emerge from joint consideration, on the messages shared by, created in concert by, the various guises and texts and artifacts. My method . . . is to toss up as many contexts as possible, watch them cross paths as they cut their circles, and see which ones drop and thud, which ones keep in the air.

They mostly thud.

Vernon’s approach is one that can be insightful and illuminating if arguments are carefully constructed. Unfortunately, Vernon has put us on notice that he’s not going to do that, which sharply undercuts any value this book might have had. And although Vernon claims to observe the various media in concert, the focus is on film, with occasional references to the original stories. Such a focus, if given the care it merits, might have made a fascinating cultural commentary: film and television — visual imagery in motion — are arguably the twentieth century’s signature media, and Tarzan is a twentieth-century phenomenon. (The first silent Tarzan film was released in 1918; Tarzan as a television series came to a halt in the early years of this century.)

Vernon is heavily preoccupied with the issues surrounding colonialism, racism, male supremacy and their attendant paternalism, which become recurring motivs. The first Tarzan story appeared in 1912, when these — best to call them “assumptions” — formed the bedrock of Euro-American thought, which pretty much makes this analysis a no-brainer. Regrettably, Vernon’s treatment of these issues is only the first in a series of “Yes, and. . . ?” reactions. (Yes, I understood the racist implications the first time through. I think anyone would, at this point. I didn’t really have to be reminded very five pages.)

Vernon also begins early on to relate the Tarzan archetype to childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, especially, as he notes, “for the male of the species.” This is an investigation that eventually leads right into a swamp. A word to the wise, if I may: be very cautious about dragging Freud into discussions of this sort: he’s not a good fit. (Jung is much more on point.) In Chapter 7, when Vernon attempts to build a discussion on Freudian “instincts” for murder, incest, and cannibalism (no, I’m not making this up), I could only mutter to myself, “Oh. My. God.” It was like watching a train wreck.

(One of the problems with citing Freud in this day and age is that Freudian theory assiduously avoids any reference to the biology of human behavior. Understandable: in Freud’s day, we knew next to nothing about it. Now, we know much more, so it’s best if Freud, like any other holy writ, is read as metaphor. In this case, to cite without qualification as “instincts” behavior directly in opposition to observed norms, not to mention commonly held moral attitudes, is not going to lend credibility.)

Vernon does sum it all up, after a fashion. The last chapter (titled, aptly enough, “Endings”), after a section listing everyone involved with (Vernon’s version) of the Tarzan phenomenon who died — which is pretty much everyone — embarks on new flights of fancy. What I take to be the meat of it starts with Vernon’s bland acceptance of concepts that are, at the very best, arguable. G. Stanley Hall’s vision of the transformation from childhood to adulthood, which Vernon translates into our transformation of the physical world into a cultural construct, is — how shall I put it? quaint, and not at all a sure bet. Even more contentious is David Abram’s idea that the invention of the alphabet, as opposed to pictographic systems of writing, has somehow removed the real world from human thought — at least, that is the implication. What is not addressed here is what that alphabetic system of writing is used to describe. Dare I question the validity of that particular idea? (Let me just point out that human language in relation to the real world versus abstract concepts is not an “either/or” proposition, but rather an “and also” kind of deal: exclusion of one or the other is not required. It seems both Abram and Vernon have mistaken the means for the end.)

Vernon ends with the picture of the Tarzan story as a modern dance performance. Ouch. Sorry — I was, for a few, too brief years, a dancer — this one’s an absolute howler: Vernon has obviously never heard of postmodernism and its impact on modern dance, which has been significant.

I could, if I had nothing else to do with my time, parse this book to death. It wouldn’t be hard, it would just require a fair amount of grunt work. I’m not going to bother. Vernon’s out, of course, is that he never laid claim to any substance. Take that as you will.

(University of Georgia Press, 2008)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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