Reading Tarzan, part 7

by zunguzungu

…What is most conspicuously missing from the Weissmuller films is not merely Tarzan’s origin and back-story, but the meticulous interest with which Burroughs addressed them. His careful account of Tarzan’s origin and in drawing broad principles from the particular examples of his genealogy and upbringing are themselves examples of the capitalized principle which separates Tarzan from the jungle, which “had raised him far above his fellows of the jungle–that little spark which spells the whole vast difference between man and brute–Reason.” Yet while Burroughs struggles to make Tarzan make reasonable sense — and to demonstrate through his development general principles about human rationality — Weissmuller’s Tarzan just is, completely composed by the dream logic of pure image stripped of (and independent of) any kind of framing context.

In the universe of Burroughs’ Tarzan, the present predictably connects the past to the future through inductively reasonable principles which can be determined by experimentation and reason, and so the interesting thing about the character for Burroughs was the experimental scenario that his anomalous upbringing allowed him to play out, the jungle bildung (or absence of it) that allows his white heredity to be the determinate variable in defining his personality and character. In the jungle with Weissmuller’s Tarzan, on the other hand, there is only the present, and neither goals nor origin can even be said to be legible. As in a dream, life and death can and do simply emerge from the jungle without the slightest warning: a rhino can charge from the bushes and kill — as happens to Cheetah in Tarzan and his Mate (1934) — or new life can simply appear, as in Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939), in which Tarzan’s son quite literally drops out of the sky.

In fact, our frustrated knowledge of his origin gets tangibly shown through the frustrated speculations of the white men who invade Tarzan’s jungle home. Not only do they always ask how a white man could be native to Africa and attempt to theorize answers, but their repeated frustration in the attempt has the effect of showing the endeavor to be misguided: Weissmuller’s Tarzan is not an character with an origin. And while the plot of Burroughs’ Tarzan hinges on a fifth act reveal of his true parentage — since Jane requires knowledge of Tarzan’s origin before the romance plot can be completed — the Jane played by Maureen O’Sullivan quite pointedly gives up the civilized life of striving for goals, meaning, and outcomes, never knowing (or caring) about his origins even as she, in effect, gives up her own. Jane therefore learns to live with him by simply responding to the fundamentally unpredictable warp and woof of events in his eternal, timeless present, a jungle existence defined by the supreme absence of any rationally traceable causation.  Even the narrative structure of the movies reflects this total disinterest in chains of causation: to the extent that the movies even have plots, they are functions of the financial speculations of treasure hunters from Europe or America which Tarzan will need to literally frustrate, while the bulk of the actual film tends to be incredibly long and (in plot terms) irrelevant monkey chases and wildlife footage. The first Tarzan film, in fact, began with wildlife footage left over from the previous year’s Trader Horn, which its script was written to make use of; story was literally a second-order consideration to pure, decontextualized spectacle.

The fantasy represented by the Weissmuller Tarzan, in this sense, is not merely a different version of reality than Burroughs’. It is actually the repudiation of his presumptions about the rationally predictable nature of reality; since Burroughs’ is a rationality inseparably linked to the question of how humans differentiate themselves from nature, the Weissmuller fantasy of pure human coexistence with nature is, as its inverse, just as much a function of the original set of claims and propositions. It is, in other words, an Edenic dream of forgetting what Burroughs sought to prove…