Fresh Air: Interviewing Tarzan of the Apes

by zunguzungu

In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan book, the way Tarzan is “King of the Apes” is clearly a trope for white colonialism over a black continent. It’s also an argument for America’s supplanting of European colonialism, which he essentially cribs from his hero Teddy Roosevelt: as the son of British parents who grows up in the wilderness and marries into a Maryland plantation family, Tarzan’s frontier manliness pretty explicitly contrasts with the over-civilized and emasculated Europeans he will eventually supplant. So, on a symbolic level, the fact that Tarzan rises to dominion over the African great apes is an argument, conducted in quasi-Darwinian terms, for the white man’s dominion over Africa. Yet (and here’s the tricky part) his domination of Africans is also a symbol for his dominion over, um, Africans.

Burroughs was a very successful novelist, but he wasn’t a very good one, if I can make that kind of distinction. So I don’t think he worried too much about the fact that he had symbolic representation of Africans in a novel that also had, you know, actual Africans in it too. This is sort of like the way The Wire has two characters based on Jay Landsman (one being named “Jay Landsman”) and a third character played by the actual real-life Jay Landsman, but not named Jay Landsman. But a funny little quirk in the hermeneutic texture of The Wire (more an in-joke than anything else) is a much more interesting dissonance in Tarzan of the Apes, and something that might actually be worth exploring. For example, while there are good apes and bad apes, Tarzan himself has a kind of uniform, instinctual revulsion for the Africans he meets (and usually kills). While an Ape is not intrinsically threatening to him (and can even be an object of emotional attachment), an African is, as such, something he finds instinctively vile, not merely a kind of bare life which can be killed without consequence, but a kind of life that needs to be killed.

On the most basic level, I think it’s the claim to human status that an African might mobilize that makes them threatening to him: while an Ape represents exactly what, for Burroughs, an African is supposed to be, an African who occupies the same narrative frame as an Ape will almost necessarily stand in implicit contrast to it, looking all the more human (and all the less Ape-ish) for the fact of not being an Ape. So an almost hysterical imperative structures Burroughs’ narrative: the African must be killed so that the Apes can occupy Africa (and be, in turn, occupied by Tarzan).

I was reminded of this when listening yesterday to a Fresh Air interview with Brent Stirton, a photojournalist whose pictures form the spine of a story in the latest National Geographic about some Gorillas that were killed in Eastern Congo. As the reporter quickly asserted, there’s something incredibly surreal about a handful of dead gorillas eliciting a cover story when what has been called the “African World War” remains firmly off the West’s radar screen. This is a conflict in which (conservatively) five million people died between 1998 and 2003, and though there are a series of cease-fires and negotiated settlements that keep things quieter, this also means that instead of being a crisis, violence has become a way of life there. By any reasonable standard, that area is still a war zone, and as such, these pictures were taken at the center of an ongoing ten year human disaster of a significantly larger scale than that in Darfur, but a disaster that remains firmly off camera. Stirton himself emphasized that he was there to cover the deaths of actual people, something he recognized as more important, but it was only when the story he wrote about the deaths of some Gorillas was picked up that he was able to do so to the extent that he was.

Why does this happen? After all, the MSM more often recognizes the selectivity of its own gaze than it transcends it. Putting the best spin on the issue that he could, Stirton suggested that the huge numbers of humans killed somehow inhibits the West’s willingness to be engaged (a number too large to conceptualize), while the more personal story of the Gorillas could seem less hopelessly unmanageable. I don’t buy that at all, but I was also interested in his suggestion that the deaths of these animals could serve as a symbol for what’s wrong with the region, and that, as such, it could draw some sort of positive attention to it. He notes, for example, that the local warlord who is based in the conservation park (and who probably killed the gorillas) is aligned with the government in Rwanda and that the United States has good trade relations with Kigali; the numbers of Africans he’s killed is prodigious, but he hoped that killing an endangered species, the Mountain gorilla, might cause someone to take notice. I’m not sure how optimistic he is about that, but I’m not, for exactly the reason I pointed to Tarzan of the Apes to illustrate: it wasn’t an accident that the story about the Gorillas gets picked up while the Eastern Congo disaster remains way, way off the radar screen.

The National Geographic story has several unspoken (but easily heard) subtexts, no matter what the reporter himself wrote or didn’t write: scary shit happening in Africa and intrepid white man going off to discover it. People have been reading variations on that story in the National Geographic for well over a century. But the specifics of this story, the fact that the Gorillas being killed is a tragedy (and a failure of conservation) in the very site of a stunningly invisible human tragedy, represent something parallel to Tarzan’s Ape/African problem. Like Burroughs, I think, the MSM is much more comfortable with “apes” as a symbol for what’s going on out there in that heart of darkness, and much less interested in allowing Africans themselves to occupy that conceptual space. As with Burroughs (and especially with Teddy Roosevelt), the metaphors of conservation are a far more attractive way to conceptualize problems of governance: not only does such a story foreground the “failures” of Africans to bring order to the continent (a story the West loves), but “conservation” also provides a way to justify the anti-democratic and paternalistic assumptions about Western liberal interventionism in the Third World that the West is always on the lookout for ways to rationalize, an excuse for anti-democratic surveillance and policing of de-humanized subjects (yet with their best interests in mind). Whereas treating Africans like human beings would make the question of intervention impossibly complicated, because Africans tend to insist on having a complicated society with complicated social divisions and conflicts of interest, a conservationist doesn’t have to worry about any of that. A conservationist doesn’t have to ask his subjects what they want or need – he can simply tell them – and can freely intervene (is impelled to do so!) without such complications. Democracy (and the non-existence of a single “best interest” for a people) is not how conservation is understood.

None of this has anything to do with any claim I might make for what should be done, and I’m not going to, though it does seem to me that to even ask a question like “How can the West intervene” you’d need to think about the many ways the West is already fundamentally involved in what’s been going on (something the MSM as an entity seems constitutionally unable to do). But as Timothy Burke pointed out yesterday with reference to Zimbabwe, rigidly adhering to either the principle of humanitarian internationalism or national sovereignty tends to be more a way of not engaging with all the complexities of these situations, of filtering out the many complications that make simple answers impossible. But in cases like this, “conservation” as a metaphor for a continent achieves exactly the same purpose, transforming a practically unsolvable problem of governance, with no clear lines dividing the good guys from the bad guys, into a narrative about those who selflessly bring order to the jungle and those who despoil it. And even if an easy avenue for intervention is not therefore suggested, that’s a much more palatable story for Western readers.