Reading Tarzan, part 5

by zunguzungu

I’ve been thinking a lot about fantasy for this Tarzan paper I’m writing. There’s a moment near the end where Jane “realized the spell that had been upon her in the depths of that far-off jungle” as Tarzan lifts and carries her through the air and then — when she’s back on the ground, both literally and metaphorically — she realizes to herself that “there was no spell of enchantment now in prosaic Wisconsin.”

It’s an important moment in the book, which I haven’t fully worked out, but it seems really central to what Burroughs is doing with Tarzan, weirdly prosaic fantasy that he is. In one way, it’s a totally common rhetorical flourish: Africa as fantasy, as the place where you go to get away from the prosaic reality of the boring world. Yet in a weirder way, there are a surprising number of people around the turn of the century who are framing Africa as a used to be fantasy place, and now a place where we need to get real BORING about DUTY and HARD WORK.

For example, Lord Lugard in 1893, on The Rise of Our East African Empire:

“There are many who have seemed to look on Africa as merely a field for romance and adventure as a great blank continent on which explorers or adventurers were free to write their own names in capital letters. With the last decade of the nineteenth century, I trust that a new era has dawned for the African and a new conception of our duties with regard to him has dawned upon ourselves.”

I wonder if Conrad read that? This passage (Heart of Darkness 1901) seems like practically a revision:

“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off. Other places were scattered about the Equator, and in every sort of latitude all over the two hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and . . . well, we won’t talk about that. But there was one yet–the biggest, the most blank, so to speak–that I had a hankering after.
“True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery–a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.”

I think there’s a lot of underlying “the empire grows up” being played out here, an effort to distinguish the hard work of empire from the fantasy. When the late Victorians settled down to the business of administering the African territories they’d been sort of informally dominating (but hadn’t quite owned until the 1880’s), they still had a good bit of jazz from the great era of exploration narratives that they had to work out of their system. After all, that generation of colonial functionaries had grown up on exciting tales of Livingstone and Stanley and Burton and Speke, etc; it was that group of now-men who had to be trained to stop imagining it was AWESOME ADVENTURE TIME like when they were reading boys books, to start thinking of empire instead as a boring vocation, a thankless ceaseless toilsome white man’s burden.

Which makes me wonder if that’s a way to reframe part of how a certain American counter-narrative develops: the British injunction grow up and get boring meets the perpetual manchild Teddy Roosevelt, for whom being a game boy and living the fantasy turns out to be exactly how you acquire manhood. And Jane’s sense that there was no spell of enchantment on her in Wisconsin turns out, in that book, to be wrong. Her fantasy never ends.