an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 14, Summer 2017, ISSN 1552-5112
Tarzan on Guard Around Black Men?
For most commentators, there is little question that Tarzan of the Apes (TA) is racist in the most virulent of ways.1 Here are some stark examples motivating the reading of TA as a racist text—a text that regards race as a heritable feature accounting substantially (indeed, in a buck-stopping way) for character, and that regards a member of another race as inferior on the basis of this fact. TA arguably implies that Tarzan, “the killer of beasts and many black men” (Burroughs 116), would not have achieved mastery over the African jungle were he not—to use the literal translation of his name—White Skin (Carey-Webb; Kasson 212; Newsinger 62). The bumbling and corpulent Esmeralda, who serves as Jane’s loyal domestic servant, is a mammy character arguably meant to reinforce anti-black stereotypes, as well as the (revisionist) notion that house slaves stayed on as servants because they were such a loving part of the family (see McElya 3; Newsinger 62). The indigenous tribesmen, in addition to being depicted as superstitious and ignorant demons (as is typical of anti-black literature: hooks 127; Fanon 20, 112, 146), are seemingly considered lower not only than whites, but perhaps apes as well, in that they violate the cannibalism taboo recognized, in some sense at least, by Tarzan and even the apes of his clan (see Berglund 1999). Despite being born and raised in the jungle, and despite being sexually vigorous, Tarzan does not seem to be attracted to the apes he grows up with or the blacks he frequently encounters; and this may suggest a message that, as far as TA is concerned, miscegenation, on a par with bestiality, is unnatural and wrong, and that a healthy member of the superior white race would have no part in it (see Theroux). Looking beyond the confines of TA itself, a book bowdlerized right away due to offensive racial language and depictions (see Schneider), the racist reading seems to be corroborated by a rather damning quote from Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) himself. Describing his motivation behind writing TA, the first out of more than two-dozen books in the Tarzan series, he explains: “I was mainly interested in playing with the idea of a contest between heredity and environment. . . . For this purpose I selected an infant child of a race strongly marked by hereditary characteristics of the finer and nobler sort” (see Taliaferro 14).
Given the above listing of evidence, it goes without saying that picking out a racist discourse in TA is quite easy. Upon close and open-minded examination, however, this picture in the least gets significantly muddied—indeed, deconstructed in the technical sense of that term; that is, in the way that having Bart Simpson on your tie deconstructs your tie: a formal garb undermining its own formalness. Not only are there feasible grounds for explaining away even the aforementioned suggestions of racism,2 there also thrives a considerable anti-racist discourse—one that, at minimum, renders TA aporetic concerning its stance on racism, and that may even prove strong enough to preclude our counting TA as racist in the way defined above (thus dissolving the aporia in question). I will present a few elements of such evidence in this paper, but I will do so mainly in service of my examination of a narrower topic: whether Tarzan is committed to the view that black men are particularly ferocious. To this end, I will focus on a late passage, one of Tarzan’s longer speeches, where he voices staunch opposition to the view that black men are particularly ferocious, endorsing instead the view that each being deserves to be judged individually, not as a token of a type.
In the very least, my goal in this paper is twofold. First, I want to ward off the quite feasible reading that Tarzan is speaking facetiously in this passage, that he is trying to convey the opposite of what he literally says. In short, I want to argue against the interpretation that Tarzan truly believes that black men are particularly ferocious. Second, I want to argue that Tarzan’s between-the-lines claim, here in this speech, that he will continue to be on guard around black men is reasonable for his situation and not a function of racism. My additional hope is to show that, if Tarzan of the Apes is a racist text, it undermines its own racism particularly through Tarzan’s speech. In spite of this effort, I will spend some time motivating the possibility that the anti-racist positions in the text are so strong and thorough, and so able to disarm the evidence that TA is racist, that such a deconstruction does not really take place. To be sure, the task of defending the view that TA should be seen, in effect, as consistently anti-racist is—in addition likely to being impossible (without wishful, anachronistic spin-doctoring)—a book-length toil. At minimum, then, the evidence I will raise for this third end—the end, in effect, of demarginalizing the anti-racist reading—is perhaps simply to be construed, in the context of this paper, as further evidence that TA undermines its own racism.
A few months into their journey out of the deep jungle, Tarzan and D’Arnot, the French soldier that Tarzan had saved from being eaten by the black men of Mbonga’s tribe, enter a dinner conversation about big game hunting with some “polished” whites in an African port town (Burroughs 243). Having reached an impasse concerning whether lions are brave or cowards, the gentlemen ask Tarzan whether he has had any experiences with the beasts in question that could perhaps settle the disagreement (244).3 Tarzan responds by saying that he disagrees with the very assumption motivating the debate: the assumption that we can make such absolute claims regarding the character of a group as a whole (245). Because each creature roped under the same label “lion” is in truth radically singular, we are technically not entitled to make such sweeping character claims. For Tarzan, so it seems, each creature, no matter how much it appears to be identical to another creature in some respect or other, is radically individual. The general labels men use to chop the world into kinds do indeed prove to be of practical convenience, especially in a jungle setting when it comes to, say, snakes: red and black is a friend of Jack; red and yellow will kill a fellow. But the just thing to do, as it best aligns with the reality of radical singularity, is to judge the character of each being case by case.
Tarzan explains that the difference in opinion at the table is mainly a function of each man encountering a different sampling of lions: some ferocious, others timid. That said, the implication of Tarzan’s radical individuality thesis is that, no matter how large one’s sampling is, one is not entitled to make a character claim about lions in general (about some lion character essence, if you will). A further complication, Tarzan suggests, is that not only is each lion—and, by extension, each animal—in truth absolutely singular, but the men making the judgment, doing the classifying, are themselves radically singular and thus, given their differing constitutions, may very well be employing different standards in judging. Hence it might be the case that, just as this water is cold to the hot hand whereas it is hot to the cold hand, a difference in constitution among the gentlemen judgers of lions is playing a significant role in the disagreement.
Tarzan cites some examples to bring home his point about the radical character individuality of each lion and thus the foolishness of trying to make general claims about their characters. Referring to the drunken and violent black man that the gentlemen had witnessed him subdue on a previous day, Tarzan says that it would be absurd to judge all black men as ferocious just because this one individual was—according to Tarzan’s own standards— ferocious: some are violent, others are not. Referring to the fact that pretty much all the white men he has met have been—according to Tarzan’s own standards—cowardly (see 226) (including the very gentlemen at the table themselves since, as Tarzan does not fail to point out, they hunt with guns), Tarzan says that it would be absurd to judge all white men as cowardly and timid just because—merely from one’s own sampling and one’s own perspective—they have been cowardly: some are cowardly, others are not.
Consider now an additional complication mentioned by Tarzan. Even when we control for the different constitutions of the judgers and find two or more beings that are all characterized in the same way, it is false to say that they have, strictly speaking, one and the same characteristic instantiated in each of them, or one and the same property present through each of them. Rather, just as each lion is different from each other lion, characteristics such as fear, which is the example Tarzan uses, are different in different beings. Tarzan is not saying, then, that beings are unique merely in the way that the following three things with properties x, y, z, and q are unique: xy (being 1), xz (being 2), and xq (being 3). He is apparently even ruling out the possibility of a common property, a common trait of character. He is saying that the x— say, fear—perceived to be present in these three beings is, in truth, different in these different beings. There is not one and the same feature present in each of them. Strictly speaking, the property marked by x in each of the three deserves its own unique variable (and it is just that the classifying mind—understandably, no doubt—slurs over this fact).
Comments, and the reasonableness of Tarzan’s being on guard
In accord with the stress TA puts on the interplay between heredity, training, and environment making an individual what it is (47, 49, 81, 85, 156, 172, 173, 188, 216, 236, 271, 273), Tarzan defends the foolishness—and, indeed, unjustness—of making a claim about the general character of lions. He claims, instead, that each being has a singular character and thus should be judged case by case. Indeed, given his stress on the thorough individuality of all things to the extreme extent that no two creatures that we categorize as, for example, afraid - are afraid in the exact same way, Tarzan seems to be committed to the nominalist view that only individual beings have reality, not the kinds to which they are said to belong or the properties they are said to possess. As the hero of the story, it makes some sense that he would voice such views. ERB himself was an avid and rather sophisticated proponent of Darwin4 and Darwin himself endorsed the radical individuality of all beings (Darwin 52). Presumably encouraged by his early study of John Locke and his own belief in the common descent of all humans and indeed all animals on earth (a view endorsed in TA as well: Burroughs 5, 18, 31, 59, 82), Darwin in fact was an unabashed nominalist about kinds (species, races, and so on), calling them “merely artificial combinations made for convenience” and saying that such a realization of their lack of ontological status would free thinkers “from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence[s]” of the beings roped by the classifying mind under a label such as “species” (Darwin 485). If ERB is on board with these views, which it is reasonable to think insofar as his heroes (Tarzan and Darwin) seem to be, then this goes a long way to tempering ERB’s claim, mentioned in the introduction, about a kind marked by noble characteristics.
Especially on the strength of the fact that Tarzan, as the hero of the book, speaks for the book, that is, reflects its sentiments and attitudes, Tarzan’s speech serves as a strong indication that—if the book must be said to be racist—TA subverts its own racism through this very speech. Through the stress Tarzan puts on regarding each being as radically singular, this speech provides a line of flight from the racist scripts that TA itself is commonly said to project onto blacks, and it thus prevents and combats the depersonalization involved in acting out such scripts (see Hall 18). Tarzan’s words are grounds for resisting the pressure put on blacks—arguably by TA itself—“to wear,” as Fanon puts it, “the livery that the white man has sewed for [them]” (34). Tarzan’s words serve as an antidote to the process of transforming blacks—a process arguably carried out by TA itself—“into something that,” to use Foster’s description of the negative side of African diaspora, “is no longer fully human, at least in the eyes of others” (141). What is interesting, and for some thinkers essential for any genuine deconstructive moment (see Rorty), is that TA achieves this deconstruction in the subtlest of ways. After all, the speech that undoes what for so many readers are central messages of the book (white superiority and black depravity) - appears to be rather incidental.
Liberating as this reading may be, Tarzan does tell the gentlemen that, even though each lion is radically individual, he always goes on guard when around a lion. Since blacks and lions are being analogized in the speech, and since the drunk black man he makes reference to was ferocious (and, indeed, since most of the black men he has known before this point have been ferocious in superlative ways), the implication is that, by extension, he will continue to be on guard around black men. Now, Tarzan’s being on guard around black men is not a function of a commitment to the view that blacks are particularly ferocious, or a commitment to racism in general: Tarzan’s speech opposes the notion that black men are particularly ferocious, propounds the radical individuality of all beings, and endorses view that taxa are mere conventions reflecting the constitution of the classifying mind. In light of such information about Tarzan, his being on guard around black men can be boiled down to two reasons. First, a “life among the fierce wild brutes of the jungle” instilled in Tarzan a personal eagerness to find enemies to battle, an addiction to the rush of combat (Burroughs 71, 82). Second, as a matter of practical concern for survival in such an agonistic setting (50), those outside Tarzan’s clan were considered “aught else than enemies” to be killed according to “law of the wild” (82). Tarzan comes to consider black men in particular as enemies due to firsthand experience of poignant examples of black ferocity: (1) the slow torture and cannibalism practiced by Mbonga’s tribesmen, which inspired Tarzan to believe they were “more wicked than his own apes” “and as savage and cruel as Sabor [(the lioness)]” (91), and (2)—“the greatest tragedy [Tarzan] had ever known” (76)—the killing of his ape foster mother, who loved him as much as, if not more than, any human mother could ever love its own (nursing him from her very breast, for example) (52) and for whom “Tarzan would have sacrificed all else” “[h]ad she lived” (103).
Pressing the issue, one may contend that Tarzan is nevertheless advocating a rather disgusting view, one prevalent among many a store clerk and cop. He is saying that in order to be safe (not to mention for the love of combat!), it is prudent to assume that black men are a threat of some sort, prudent to be on guard: and so the clerk eyes the black through the convex mirror while he grips the bat under the register; and so the cop is high strung to reach for his gun. But when we keep in mind (1) Tarzan’s own savage training and environment, (2) his horrible experiences with the one and only tribe of blacks he has really been in contact with by the point of his dinner speech, and (3) his habituation to thinking rigidly in terms of kinds, I think that his attitude is the best one can expect given the specifics of his situation. He’s on guard, yes. But, compelled by reason to see the misguidedness of the all-too-jungle instinct to break reality up into rigid kinds, he is not misguided into thinking that this is due to some real essence that black men share. He knows what is just: judge each being case by case. But due to pragmatic considerations, the “zest” for combat instilled in him by jungle life (71, 82), and his knowing only black men that were—from his perspective—wantonly cruel (especially in the slow torture of their prey: 90-91, 125, 196), he finds it best to be prepared to fight when he sees a black man. In this way, his radical individuality theory is not divorced from the practical concerns and needs of his situation. His knowledge that each being deserves to be judged case by case is thus hygienic in the sense that Nietzsche describes in his second Untimely Meditation—hygienic insofar as it is guided by a concern for life: Tarzan does not let this theory make him, as it very well could, vulnerable in situations that he has been habituated to regard as dangerous.
There are two other points to keep in mind. First, Tarzan’s dinner speech is temporally indexed. Given a larger sampling of blacks, more civilizing training, the further recession into the past of memories not only of tribal torture scenes but of Kulonga, the murderer of Tarzan’s ape mother Kala (84), the implication is that Tarzan will change. In light of the synergism between his already high adaptability, his already high openness to contagion, his understanding that his attitude is the result of his personal limited experiences, and his trust in the radical individuality of all beings, the implication is that this on-guardness will get toned down considerably.5 Second, Tarzan is literally saying that he will only be on guard around lions, as well as blacks. For reasons mentioned above, it does seem that what goes for lions here goes for black men. Even if this is what Tarzan was saying between the lines, it is still not definitive that he was singling out black men in particular. What goes for lions could go for all men and all beasts, and (as I will make clear in section 5) there is more than enough description in TA of the savageness not only of beasts, but of humans—humans explicitly of every single race, nation, and class—to warrant such an attitude (see especially 82-83, 100, 178, 259, 266, and 273).
It may not even matter whether one finds my defense of Tarzan’s pragmatist attitude here convincing. My defense supposes that Tarzan is speaking sincerely in the speech and thus that he truly believes in the radically singularity of each being and in the justness of judging each person case by case. Nevertheless, a multifaceted argument can be made for the view that this is actually a false speech by Tarzan and that, between the lines, Tarzan is committing himself to the view that blacks are particularly ferocious. I want to give voice to such an argument here. Afterwards, I will explain why I think that this argument is not sound.
Only a few lines prior to Tarzan’s statement that each being must be judged case by case, the narrator explains that “D’Arnot and Tarzan had agreed that his past be kept secret, and so none other than the French officer knew of the ape-man’s familiarity with the beast of the jungle” (244). Since Tarzan and D’Arnot agreed (presumably at D’Arnot’s request) to hide Tarzan’s familiarity with jungle life, it is reasonable to assume that Tarzan is not speaking honestly at the dinner table. If Tarzan is keeping his promise, which we would expect given that his loyalty to D’Arnot runs so deep that he puts off going to see Jane for over a week to nurse him (212-218), then the implication is that Tarzan’s talk about jungle matters is false. As it turns out, the falsity of his speech is all-too-explicit at times. When the gentlemen say that he must have had some jungle experience in his life, the first thing he responds is: “Some,” which is of course a blatant lie (245). The reader is thus prepared for the rest of the speech to be similarly facetious.
Approaching the first civilized town that he has ever experienced, the first thing that Tarzan does when he spots black men gardening on the outskirts is pull out his bow. Tarzan is certain that these gardeners are a threat: “they will kill us if they see us,” he tells D’Arnot. When D’Arnot tries to calm Tarzan down by suggesting that “Maybe they are friends” and that he should wait until people prove themselves to be enemies before killing them, Tarzan coldly responds: “They are black” (240). Although Tarzan ultimately gives in to his friend’s insistence, his sarcasm indicates that he remains unconvinced: “let us go[, then,] and present ourselves to be killed” (240). It is important to note that Tarzan here is not merely being on guard in the presence of the blacks. Were it not for D’Arnot’s intervention, Tarzan—provoked merely by the blackness of the men—would have killed them with his poisoned arrows (the arrows he has stolen from Mbonga’s tribe) without them even knowing of his presence.
This passage, which tellingly occurs only three pages prior to Tarzan’s dinner speech, suggests that Tarzan was not in fact speaking in his true voice during that speech. And this can be seen more definitively by considering the following. During the long foot-trek out of the deep jungle, D’Arnot goes through a painstaking process of civilizing Tarzan. He tries, for instance, to get Tarzan to eat with a knife and a fork—no small order for someone who eats the raw flesh of his victims and actually looks down at the black tribesman for cooking meat (78). During Tarzan’s first training with knife and fork, the narrator comments that, although Tarzan tried hard to eat with the utensils, “in his heart he hated” doing so (236). This acting against his heart closely parallels what goes on only four pages or so later, when Tarzan begrudgingly resists shooting a black gardener with one of his death-tipped arrows. It is for the sake of achieving the cultivation needed to enter Jane’s society that Tarzan begrudgingly eats with utensils and begrudgingly resists killing the black gardener. Hence, it seems reasonable to conclude that in both of these events, not just the utensil-eating one, Tarzan’s heart is opposed to his action: his heart tells him to eat raw meat with his bare hands; his heart tells him to kill the black gardeners at first sight. Since the dinner speech comes up only three pages or so after Tarzan’s akratic interaction with the gardeners, it seems reasonable to conclude that Tarzan’s heart was still in the same place at this point. Since what Tarzan says in his dinner speech is opposed to his heart’s desire to kill black men right away, it would seem to follow that he was not speaking in his true voice—that he was speaking against his heart, if you will. In effect, just as Tarzan is merely going through the motions of eating with utensils, he is merely going through the motions of speaking a view that, as D’Arnot has taught him, civilized people hold: that each being—beast or man—should be judged case by case, rather than being seen as a representation of a kind, a token of a type.
In order to obviate the response that Tarzan’s heart changed by the time of the dinner speech, the following should be noted. When Tarzan cuts the dinner short by going into the woods nude to kill a lion with knife and rope (a feat the gentleman wager he will fail to accomplish), the narrator explains that, swinging through the trees, Tarzan felt free again, free from the “hindrance and nuisance” of “clothes” and other such “restrictions and conventionalities,” which presumably include eating with utensils and not killing black men at first sight (246). Indeed, even by the end of the book Tarzan explains that he is “still a wild beast at heart” (265) and, in fact, still an ape (266). A few pages later he proceeds to prove this by choking out Canler, who Jane promised to wed out of guilt over the fact that her father could not repay him a large sum of money. While Canler is dangling in the air, the narrator tellingly says that Jane “knew that murder lay in that savage heart” (my emphases, 269; see also 273). And Jane turns out to be right. Even after witnesses implore Tarzan to free Canler, he still persists and is indubitably about to kill: “Do you release [Jane] from her promise? . . . It is the price of your life” (270).
If the radical individuality view does not reflect Tarzan’s heart, then why does Tarzan espouse it in his dinner speech? Consider the following two facts. First, throughout the story it is said that Tarzan, raised as he was by apes, is compelled to ape what is new (156, 271). The procedures and beliefs of civilized men that D’Arnot is pushing on Tarzan are obviously new. It follows, then, that Tarzan is compelled to imitate them—even if so doing goes against his instinct, his heart. Hence, even though the radical individuality view does not reflect Tarzan’s heart, he is compelled to ape the view, impressed on him by D’Arnot (240), that each person must be judged case by case. Second, Tarzan freely admits that he is becoming civilized because of Jane. Indeed, he says that he will become whatever she wants him to be (274). Since D’Arnot teaches Tarzan that civilized men judge each person case by case, it seems to follow that Tarzan’s voicing of this teaching in the dinner speech is just a matter a practicing a script that will make him, so he believes, more civilized and thus more pleasing to Jane.
Consider another piece of evidence for the claim that Tarzan is speaking facetiously in his dinner speech. Ask yourself whether you think it is appropriate to judge lions case by case regarding whether they will be ferocious to man. Many will say that, far from being appropriate, the very suggestion is repugnant. After all, barring some unusual circumstances, lions are ferocious to man (see Isaiah 35:9). Presumably Tarzan believes the same thing. If his life in the jungle taught him one thing, it was that lions are predators and that men are considered their “prey” (141). Indeed, when D’Arnot stops him from killing the gardeners, Tarzan says: “I do not know why I should kill the blacks back there in my jungle, yet not kill them here. Suppose Numa, the lion, should spring out upon us, I should say, then, I presume: Good morning, Monsieur Numa, how is Madame Numa; eh?” Hence when Tarzan says it is absurd to judge lions in general as being ferocious just because one was, he is being his typical self: a jokester (44, 85, 92-94, 99-100, 110-112). The joke is that he means the opposite of what he says in the case of lions. Indeed, the joke turns out to be rather morbid, as it usually is with Tarzan (see section 5). Extending the case of lions to that of blacks, as is suggested in Tarzan’s speech that we do, when Tarzan says that it would be absurd to view black men in general as ferocious just because we saw one or two that were, he is actually saying that black men are in fact particularly ferocious. That Tarzan would be saying this is expected in light of the fact that earlier he noted that Mbonga’s tribesmen “were more wicked than his own apes, and as savage and cruel as Sabor [(the lioness)], herself” (91). This reading of Tarzan’s speech as ironic is, moreover, perfectly in line with Tarzan’s sarcastic response to D’Arnot’s claim that Tarzan should not just kill the black gardeners wantonly, but rather should see if they are friends first. Tarzan says, recall, “let us go present ourselves to be killed” (240). This reading also makes good sense in that the first readers of TA were those who not only thought that lions were particularly ferocious but thought that black men were too. ERB presumably expected the readers of Tarzan’s speech to get the joke, then.
If Tarzan—the very hero of TA—is speaking falsely in this way, then the resulting message is highly disturbing. Despite knowing next to nothing about human history (slavery, civil war, reconstruction, and so on), Tarzan has come to a similar conclusion that prejudiced whites in civilization have come to: that black men are violent and depraved. The effect is thus that black depravity gets naturalized. In order to justify their mistreatment of blacks and be able to live with themselves, it makes sense that white men of civilization would have a discrediting desire to prove, among other things, that black men are ferocious. Ignorant of the history of human kind and any other life outside of his small jungle locale (39, 82), however, Tarzan is an objective observer, having no such discrediting desire. His coming to the conclusion that black men are ferocious, then, is in effect a sneaky way of suggesting that the prejudices of whites in civilization are well-founded in nature, rather than a function of some self-deceiving axe to grind. It thus seems to be that Tarzan is not the only diabolical prankster here. ERB himself is.
Reply to the false speech charge
However strong these pieces of evidence for the disingenuousness of Tarzan’s speech may be, I think the evidence for the opposite is stronger. In this section, I want to disarm these objections as well as make a positive case, adding to what I have already done, for why Tarzan is in fact speaking in his proper voice when he defends the radical individuality thesis and the unjustness of making character claims about groups of beings.
Although Tarzan is not being truthful when he says that he has only spent “some” time in the jungle, the jungle knowledge he expresses for the men seems honest, which is what matters. There is much support for this in the rest of the content of Tarzan’s dinner speech. Take the following, for instance:
‘I do not exactly understand what you mean by fear,’ said Tarzan. ‘Like lions, fear is a different thing in different men, but to me the only pleasure in the hunt is the knowledge that the hunted thing has power to harm me as much as I have to harm him. If I went out with a couple of rifles and a gun bearer, and twenty or thirty beaters, to hunt a lion, I should not feel that the lion had much chance, and so the pleasure of the hunt would be lessened in proportion to the increased safety which I felt.’ (245)
It is unquestionable that such a comment is through-and-through Tarzanian. And here is perhaps the most powerful case demonstrating Tarzan’s general honesty in his speech. Although he knows that most whites he has met are cowards, he knows that he himself is white and not a coward. This suggests that, for him, each white must be judged case by case, rather than by the color of their skin. When he says as much in his dinner speech, then, it seems he is speaking honestly. Since blacks and lions and whites are being analogized in the speech, by extension he would be speaking honestly, in his own voice, when he suggests that each lion and each black man be judged case by case.
Despite what was said in section 3, I think that the main purpose of the narrator’s explanation that “D’Arnot and Tarzan had agreed that his past be kept secret, and so none other than the French officer knew of the ape-man’s familiarity with the beast of the jungle,” is to inform the reader that the men at the table are not already privy to Tarzan’s past—not so much to highlight some pact that Tarzan and D’Arnot made to hide Tarzan’s past at all costs. To be sure, Tarzan and D’Arnot do agree to keep secret Tarzan’s familiarity with the beasts of the jungle. But note that Tarzan has no problem proving the skeptical gentlemen wrong by going naked in the woods to catch a lion. If such behavior counts as revealing his familiarity with the beasts, as it seems it does in the most drastic of ways, then Tarzan was not honoring the “pact” anyway. The argument regarding Tarzan’s heart, how his dinner speech was not in line with his inner feelings, is more difficult to handle, but I think it can be done. Tarzan is a man gifted with great reason (99, 104, 156). In light of the following two facts, then, it makes sense that Tarzan would have shifted his attitude from the time when he first saw the gardeners to the time when he makes his dinner speech. First, in the month or so period between these two events, he confronts a different sampling of blacks than Mbonga’s ferocious tribesmen (such as the ones who sew him and D’Arnot the new duck garments that he wears to the dinner: 242-243). Second, the gardeners do not attempt to kill Tarzan and D’Arnot despite Tarzan’s certainty that they will. Tarzan gets proven wrong about the gardeners. Because Tarzan has so much thinking power, and because he had such an intense commitment to what gets proven wrong, he surely would have synthesized this learning experience. Hence we expect to see the very attitude-shift reflected in Tarzan’s dinner speech.
In general, Tarzan has been confronted with experiences that have taught him to realize that he cannot count on individuals behaving a certain way, having a certain character, merely because of what taxon the classifying mind has inserted them into. The most poignant early experience that inspired him to realize this was seeing that Kala, in drastic opposition to the rest of her kind (36), loved him deeply (52). A later experience was recognizing that, unlike the whites he has met, he not only swings from trees, eats raw meat, and so on, but is not a coward. Also there is the fact that he has witnessed some of Mbonga’s own men, who are supposed to be brave and fierce, frightened and timid (112). Note, moreover, that when Tarzan proceeds to “present himself to be killed” in the gardeners scene, the gardeners run away in fear at the sight of him. “Presently one of the blacks looked up, and beholding Tarzan, turned, shrieking, toward the palisade,” and then the air became “filled with cries of terror from the fleeing gardeners” (241). It seems strange to say, then, that Tarzan’s articulation of the view that we must judge each being case by case, and particularly that we are not entitled to say that black men are particularly ferocious, was insincere.
This is especially strange when Tarzan’s stress on the one-of-a-kindness of each being is repeated throughout the book. For example, the police official that D’Arnot takes Tarzan to meet in Paris says that no two creatures will probably ever have the same exact fingerprints: “It is very doubtful if any single fingerprint will ever be exactly duplicated by any finger other than the one which originally made it” (251). Another poignant example is the fact that D’Arnot, despite having been (as Tarzan well knows) tortured and about to be eaten by black cannibals, has enough experience as a man of the world who speaks up to eight languages (213, 217) to know that just because a man is black does not mean that he cannot be a peer and a friend, which is why he begs Tarzan (whose pool of blacks is too small at this point) not to kill the gardeners without foundation.
One might maintain that Tarzan’s heart nevertheless stays committed to killing black men at first sight, and thus that his speech, which does not reflect that, is insincere. But even if I admitted, against what I have argued above, that Tarzan’s heart has remained the same from the event with the gardeners to the dinner speech, that is no matter. After all, and to stick with the metaphorical speak, Tarzan is more than just his heart. As is repeatedly emphasized, Tarzan has the gift of reason over and above instinct. In this case, Tarzan speaks sincerely only if he honors his entire self, the combination of his heart and his mind. And I think that the balanced attitude that Tarzan articulates in his speech does just that. Think about it. He still claims that he will go on guard when he sees a black man. He does not compromise on that. Because of his new experiences, though, he has learned that, as D’Arnot suggested to him, it was rash of him to judge the character of people merely due to the color of their skin. Tarzan’s commitments balance his own jungle comportment—his own “heart-requirement”—to be on guard, on the one hand, with an experientially and rationally grounded understanding of the individuality of all beings, on the other hand. Hence it is infeasible to claim that his speech was false. His knowledge that it is preposterous to make a character judgment about an entire group of beings tempers his jungle instinct to engage in combat and kill, but not so much that he winds up on the other extreme. For despite knowing that the black skin of men will not entail that they have a certain character, he will nevertheless be on guard—a pragmatic attitude taught to him by jungle life. If Tarzan intended his speech to be false, why would he even try to cater to his own heart comportment like this?
I think that what I have said suffices for discrediting the heart-argument. But notice also that it is undermined by the following facts. First, for every claim that Tarzan’s heart is savage and oriented away from the civilized mode of life there are claims to the very opposite (66, 81, 89, 200, 218, 243). D’Arnot tells Tarzan that the effort to make Tarzan civilized is merely a matter of bringing his exterior into alignment with his interior: “God made you a gentleman at heart . . . but we want His works to show upon the exterior also” (243). The narrator himself also describes Tarzan as having a civilized heart (81).
Second, in order to obviate the response that Tarzan’s heart changed from the meeting of the gardeners to the dinner speech a month or so later, the following was pointed out in section 3: right after the dinner speech, as Tarzan is hunting the lion in the jungle to win the bet he has with the gentlemen, Tarzan is happy to be free from the restrictions and conventionalities of civilized life. But here is my response. First, this does not entail that Tarzan is annoyed by all conventionalities of civilized life. Second, being annoyed by certain conventionalities does not necessarily entail that one hates them in one’s heart. Third, it is possible that Tarzan can be split-hearted: both hating and not hating a given conventionality, such that his hating something in his heart does not entail that he does not hate it at the same time with another part of his heart. Fourth, there is evidence that Tarzan has in fact grown no longer to hate the conventionality of eating with utensils by the time of the dinner speech and so perhaps, by extension (and as we would expect given previous arguments), has grown no longer to hate the conventionality of not killing blacks at first sight. A few days or so before the dinner speech the narrator reports that Tarzan now manipulates the knife and fork as “exquisitely” as a true gentleman, no longer flinging them to side in contempt (243). The implication seems to be that he no longer has this contempt in his heart—or, in the least, that he has become split hearted.
Third, it has been said that Tarzan is simply compelled to imitate everything new, even if it goes against his heart, and the suggestion is that Tarzan’s using of utensils and his no longer killing blacks at first sight is just such an imitation that he is forced to carry out even though it goes against his heart. But, obviously, just because one imitates some activity or attitude does not mean that such an activity or attitude is at odds with one’s heart. And even if the activity and attitude one is imitating is at odds with one’s heart at time 1, that does not entail that at a later time one’s heart cannot shift to being in alignment with that activity and attitude.
What about the argument that says that Tarzan is obviously speaking ironically since he says something manifestly absurd: that lion characters should be judged case by case; that we are not entitled to believe that a given lion is ferocious just because it is a lion? Well, especially given the arguments that I have already made, I do not see why we would not take Tarzan seriously here. Tarzan has had experience in the jungle. More than any of the men at the table. The implication is that Tarzan has seen the sorts of lions that have provoked some men at the table to consider lions cowards and has also seen the sorts of lions that have provoked others at the table to consider lions brave. Moreover, note that if one takes the reading that Tarzan is speaking ironically in his speech, a rather odd result follows. Recall that Tarzan is not just speaking about lions and black men, but also white men. He says that one would not want to say that white men are cowards just because one has met a few that were and, likewise, one would not want to say that black men are ferocious just because one has met a few that were. But if Tarzan is being ironic in here, then in addition to saying that blacks are ferocious he is saying that whites are cowardly. In contrast to the section 3 argument, this does not sound like a white racist line. Moreover, Tarzan knows that he himself is white and thus that whites are not all cowards. This is why it makes sense for him to be speaking sincerely. As I argued earlier, he knows firsthand that each individual deserves to be judged case by case.
A major assumption in one of the section 3 arguments for why Tarzan is speaking insincerely is that he is just playing the civilized part, conducting himself in a way appropriate among these civilized white men. But surely calling the white men at the table cowards, which he would be doing on the reading of the speech as ironic, would not be in line with behaving with civility. If one retorts that the irony of the speech was not intended to be noticed by the men, then Tarzan’s speech would nevertheless offend the men: he would be representing a view that these presumably racist gentlemen would not: that one ought not draw a conclusion about a being’s character merely based on the type of being that it is, the color of its skin, the shape of its nose, or so on. Besides, if Tarzan’s speech was ironic but not intended to be understood as such, for what reason would he be delivering it?
I take it, then, that Tarzan’s dinner speech is sincere. He believes precisely what he is expressing: that he is not entitled to make the sweeping claim that black men are ferocious. Yes, he does apparently suggest that he will continue to go on guard around black men. However, he knows that this reaction is not a function of justice, but of his own habituation. He knows that, in reality, each being is radically individual and for that reason deserves to be judged case by case. In light of this, and particularly in light of the fact that Tarzan also seems to be committed in this speech to nominalism about kinds in favor of the view that the only things in existence are radically singular individuals, I take it that his speech subverts the message of racism that many commentators have found TA to have (and that it at least tempers ERB’s personal talk of a kind marked by noble characteristics, taking away its absoluteness).
The speech racist even if sincere?
Even if I am right about Tarzan’s speech being sincere, and even though that seems to mean that Tarzan is not endorsing the ontological claim that black men have ferocious characters, there is room to argue that this speech is racist nevertheless, thus failing to subvert the racist message of TA and leaving TA’s racism perfectly consistent (rather than under erasure). Perfectly in line with—and, indeed, fortified by—the repeated positing of blacks as inferior to whites (several examples of which were mentioned in the introduction), notice that Tarzan in this very speech speaks of a hierarchy of “order” among animals precisely during one of his articulations of the radical individuality thesis: “There is as much individuality among the lower orders, gentlemen, as there is among ourselves” (245). In light of other comments in the book suggestive of the notion that blacks are lower on the order, such as Porter’s talk of “higher white races” (148), we might take Tarzan to be counting blacks in those lower orders—despite the fact that he mentions only non-human animals in the paragraph (245), and despite repeated evidence of the humanity of blacks (4, 72, 100-101, 251). In this section I want to further my defense of the view that Tarzan is promoting an antiracist message in his dinner speech. To this end, after first explaining away some—I cannot pretend to handle all—of the apparent racist moments in TA that would encourage reading Tarzan’s speech (in particular, his talk of lower orders) as committing him to racism, I will highlight certain facts about TA suggesting that Tarzan’s talk about rank of order is to be taken merely as a hierarchy relative to a certain perspective, rather than as something truly independent of the classifying mind.
For every description of the tribesmen as savages (2, 73, 90-91, 196, 204, 224, 229), there are correlate depictions of Tarzan. Indeed, Jane even describes this man of a noble pedigree as having a “savage heart” (269) in line with the narrator’s description (82, 188). The same applies for every description of the tribesmen as hideous (compare 86 and 91 with 40, 75, 137, and 181). The same applies also for every related description of the tribesmen as demons (197, 198, 207; compare with Carey-Webb). Despite being white and noble, Tarzan is described as a “devil” committer of “diabolical tricks” (44, 92). Note as well that, despite the depictions of the tribesmen as demons (which are explicitly cast anyway as the mere subjective judgments of characters in the story, as I will explain later), the tribesmen and in fact all black people are stressed to be human rather than, as the label “demon” would suggest, subhuman (4, 72, 100101, 237). In one incidental but poignant scene, which is included for no other reason (it seems to me) than to stress the humanity of black people, the police official tells D’Arnot and Tarzan that despite the fact that each being has a unique finger print, one would not be able to tell a black fingerprint from a white fingerprint, as both are humans (251; see also 75).
For every description of the tribesmen as ignorant (see 2), there are correlate depictions of whites. Even the officers of the Fuwalda are described as “illiterate” and “coarse” (6, 12). Indeed, the Fuwalda contains men of every race, nation, and class and yet these people are so ignorant that only threats of violence can move them (4). Tarzan thinks that the whites of Jane’s group are “stupid” (135, 150). In fact, even though he has in mind white men in particular, he thinks that “[m]en were . . . more foolish . . . than the beasts of the jungle” (155, 237). Tarzan himself is depicted as stupid outside of the jungle context: he thinks that fingerprints change over time as the old tissue gets worn away from activity (250). Tarzan is in fact depicted as fairly stupid relative to the tribesmen: he cannot make cassava cakes and so must steal them (165); he cannot create poisoned arrows and so must steal them (111-112); he cannot create a village and so he just pillages the fruits of the village (93); he cannot create a fire and so waits for Ara, the lightening, to strike or the tribesmen to start one (78). Not only are the black tribesmen more intelligent than Tarzan in these particular ways, but Mbonga himself is called “wise” in an unqualified sense (99, 111). And in other books, such as Tarzan and the Golden Lion, certain African tribes are particularly praised for their intelligence (see Newsinger 64). It is true that Esmeralda is depicted as stupid as well as too frightened to live alone in the world, sobbing and fainting all the time as she does (129, 150, 168, 171, 177, 192). As I will explain below, however, I think that her state is not intended to be an indictment of blacks, but of the system of white oppression and confinement that yielded such beings as herself.
Not only do I find the superstitions of the tribe reasonable given the events that they experience, for every description of superstitious blacks (87, 93-94, 100, 112, 147, 256) there are descriptions of superstitious whites. Tarzan early on discovers the superstition of the tribesmen, and he exploits this to play pranks on them. On one occasion when the men are cooking some human meat, Tarzan tosses at them a skull pilfered from one of their huts. “The dropping of the thing out of the open sky was a miracle well aimed to work upon their superstitious fears” (93). Fearful of the “unearthly evil power” that they believed to lurk around their village, they start placing food offerings out to propitiate the offending deity (94). Not expecting it to be eaten (since spirits never usually take such offerings), they spiral into great fear once they find it eaten, not knowing that a mere man is the culprit (100). On a later occasion, after taking the food offering, resupplying his poison arrows, killing a guard for his clothes, and then flinging him through the air at the feet of the rest of the tribe (which sends them scattering), against the village gatepost he props the body, leaving it displayed with a grinning face. Seeing the body when they return from their flight, the tribesmen reason that the guard died because he had seen the face of the evil spirit (112). In the context of this story, the reasoning that the tribesmen go through to explain and handle the unseen disturbances is quite reasonable. It is true that ERB was at least agnostic (Hillman 2011). But to say that ERB is making fun of their superstition here would be to demand too much from the tribesmen. Even with all the influence of western science upon me, I myself might have started putting out propitiating offerings after seeing a skull fly out at me from the open sky or the dead body of my friend shooting through the air “turning and twisting” and then coming down at my feet (111). Aside from this point, realize that the whites in TA are equally superstitious (24-25, 130, 134, 137, 142, 167, 183, 211, 213) and, in fact, Tarzan’s activities are, in some sense at least, perceived by Jane’s band to be the work of a God as well (134, 137, 163, 182, 187, 203, 204, 210, 229).
For every description of the tribesmen as violent, there are correlate depictions of whites of civilization. The Fuwalda, the ship that takes Tarzan’s mom and dad to Africa, is said to contain people of every race, nation, and class (3-4). And yet, as with three other similar ships mentioned in TA that presumably contain such a similar diversity (see 115, 125), gruesome mutiny occurs. Seeing the cruel behavior of the men on the Arrow, the ship that carried Jane’s band, Tarzan finds that whites are as “ferocious and cruel” as the tribesmen (123, 113). Tarzan himself, despite being of noble blood, derives much pleasure from violence (82, 245). Clayton, despite being trained in alignment with his noble pedigree, has murderous thoughts in his heart and is prepared to act on them:
if ever a man had murder in his heart it was William Cecil Clayton, Lord Greystoke, when . . . Robert Canler drew up before the farmhouse in his purring six cylinder. . . And in his heart he knew that it would require but a tiny spark to turn his hatred for Canler into the blood lust of the killer. (259)
Moreover, the whole reason Tarzan’s father is sent to Africa is investigate the brutal treatment of the indigenous at the hands of white imperialists (2). And perhaps the most poignant, albeit subtle, indication that the tribesmen are not picked out in particular as being violent is that the “atrocities” committed against Mbonga’s tribe at the hands of white imperialists are considered so heinous, and explicitly so much “crueler” than any practices of the tribesmen (including cannibalism), that they are unspeakable, and in honor of that the narrator, in a powerful use of rhetoric, never articulates what in fact these violent atrocities are (196). Indeed, it is suggested that the “poignant memory” of such unspecified “barbarities” has had a major role to play in the savageness of the African tribe (196). As one would expect from all this evidence, it is man in general, not black men in particular, that are violent according to TA—indeed, “more cruel than the beasts of the jungle” (155), leaving no “safety for bird or beast” (100). Violence of the most heinous sorts—including rape (8, 13)—is common to “every race and every nation” of men (3).
One major topic that I want to devote particular attention to here is cannibalism. For every description of the tribesmen as cannibals (73, 196, 198), there are in fact correlate depictions of all sorts and manner of men. One harrowing instance of white men practicing cannibalism is described late in the book. Adrift at sea without food, the men of the Arrow, the ship that carried Jane and her group to the African coast, started to eat each other so voraciously that, by the time the Arrow was found, the corpses on board looked “devoured as though by wolves” (178). ERB’s editor, Thomas Metcalf, tried to get ERB to excise this ghoulish scene of cannibalism because it put whites on a par with African tribesmen. Burroughs felt, however, that it was too important to cut (see Berglund 1999).
To be sure, one could always argue that the whites here cannibalize under dire straits whereas the “demon” blacks (207) do so even when they have other things to eat (see 165). This is in fact reinforced by the claim that “[h]unger was changing [the crew of the Arrow] from human beasts to wild beast” (179), which also suggests that the tribesmen are subhuman. Aside from the fact that the tribesmen are unequivocally counted as human and that this is only one dejected tribe (rather than a universalization of all tribes, let alone all blacks), note that the devoured bodies were not just eaten in the delicate way depicted, for example, in the 1993 movie about the rugby team whose plane crashes in the Andes (Alive). Instead, we get the description of the “corpses appear[ing] to have been partially devoured as though by wolves” (178). This does not suggest a deep unwillingness to eat in the crewmembers. This passage suggests to me that, way before dire straits, some were lip-licking away in secret at the sight of the muscle contractions of their fellow men. Now, the whites on board the Arrow may have just been the remaining detritus of “white trash” that remained after mutiny, which is something that Esmeralda suggests (150). However, we are led to presume that there would be “lip-licking away in secret” even if we were dealing with whites of a higher class. After all, as far as TA is concerned, non-white-trash imperialists have committed more heinous acts than even cannibalism, and have done so not out of desperation but greed!
This is perhaps all that needs to be said, but also consider the following facts. First, Mbonga’s tribesmen are in dire straits themselves: the dire straits of the jungle, where it is, according to TA, kill or be killed. Second, Mbonga’s tribe begins practicing cannibalism as a form of retaliation against their oppression and harassment by the “white man’s soldiers” (73). One may argue that there is nevertheless no saving explanation for why the tribe continues to practice cannibalism after Mbonga’s tribe have escaped the white terror (see Berglund 1999). But there are some things to take into consideration (besides the fact that, as cannot be stressed enough, this is only one small and dejected tribe). Because of wars with white imperialists, who were treating them cruelly out of greed for “rubber and ivory” (73), the tribe of Mbonga that the reader finds in TA is a small and dejected pack of men and women who were able to flee the decimation that took the lives of countless of their brothers and sisters. It is easy to imagine that because of the horrors of white imperialism, something is not quite right—mental illness, resentment, despair—with this remaining “little remnant of a once powerful tribe” (73). This makes sense given the stress ERB puts on how the detritus of remaining members were haunted by “the poignant memory” of the “barbarities” inflicted upon them by whites (196). This makes sense in general given that all the blacks in TA face the burden of white oppression, and this serves to explain their behavior: with the tribe, it is the “virtual slavery” and the unspeakable brutalities of greed (2); with the drunk that Tarzan subdues, it is white-introduced rum that is used precisely to numb the effects of white oppression (244; see also ERB’s poem below); with Esmeralda, it is the grand specter of diaspora, slavery, and the failure of reconstruction.
Here is an additional fact suggesting that the tribal practice of cannibalism was largely the result of white oppression. The small remnant of Mbonga’s tribe that escaped the white terror is described as having “slunk off into the gloomy jungle toward the unknown” in order to do so (73). That it is the deep jungle into which they slink off is significant. There we get closer, at least according to the logic of TA (as well as many prominent philosophers such as Hobbes), to a state of nature scenario where resources, especially food, are limited. Just as new possibilities for sexual interaction infamously open up in a prison environment, surely new possibilities for what is considered food open up in the state-of-nature environment. As we saw in the case of the Arrow, when food is limited (not to mention when the people involved have been mentally and physically corrupted), there is no telling what will happen. Hence, and especially in light of the fact that, in TA, there is a precedent of deep instinctual behaviors changing due to haphazard events (36), the cannibalism practice need not be seen as a mark of inborn depravity, but actually a function of white intrusion (compare Newsinger 62).
One may think that I am overstressing ERB’s focus on the horrors of white imperialism because, as a white man of his day and age, he would have supported the colonializing forces into Africa. Maybe. Maybe not. But the harsh descriptions of black exploitation, dehumanization, and depravity as a result of white imperialism are all here in TA. ERB was evidently concerned about the horrors being unleashed on the African indigenous by white imperialism. Perhaps one might say that ERB only brings the effects of white imperialism up because he gets off on seeing the blacks so tortured and dehumanized. One may emphasize this point by bringing up the fact that ERB does not seem to show any compassion for the tribes people after their family is slaughtered by the French (see Newsinger 62) or the fun ERB seems to have in laying out yet another effect of sustained white oppression: Esmeralda and all her over-the-top ignorant speak and malopropisms: “terrifical” (163), “gorilephant” (168), “hipponocerous” (211), “ripotamuses” (211), “carnivable animals” (225), “opportiunit[ies] to escapade on that boat” (225), and so on. In addition to the points that I have already made and will make, however, this possibility seems at odds with some of the biographical details about ERB. A Northerner of a proud Unionist family (White 796) with an often remarked “positive personal record of intercultural and interracial relations” (see Berglund), ERB is the author of the parody of Kipling’s racist poem “The White Man’s Burden.” In his parody poem, appropriately entitled “The Black Man’s Burden,” ERB describes several of the burdens faced by blacks at the hands of white imperialists: being afflicted by the disease of the white religion, which— convenient for slave-mongers—preaches that meekness and servitude in this life are rewarded in the next; being afflicted by the alien white God, which—convenient for slave-mongers—subtly teaches blacks that they were not made in God’s image and that dark skin is evil; being afflicted by the disease of rum, which—convenient for slave-mongers—hypnotizes one and lowers the bar on what sort of horrors one is able to endure, and so on. I think, therefore, that ERB’s presentation of the ignorant and dependent state of Esmeralda and the racking pain left in the wake of atrocities against tribe (leaving the women and children “weeping and moaning” for their loss after the attack by the French: 207) is not a perverse poking fun at blacks, but precisely a chastisement of the horrors and disadvantages that have resulted from white oppression.6
In general it needs to be pointed out, against those who harp on ERB for having black cannibals in his tales, that African cannibalism is a historically accurate phenomenon. Moreover, one of the major devices that TA uses to create excitement and grip the reader is to have the story take place in a jungle setting at great odds with the society life with which the reader would be familiar. Factually and in the minds of ERB’s readers, Africa is such a place. The presence of cannibals only adds to the gripping and entertaining horrors of this locale. Was ERB supposed to make the jungle creatures less threatening to avoid offending people? That would detract from the entertainment of the story, and keep in mind that ERB’s central aim in writing TA was entertainment (Porges). Were the jungle cannibals supposed to be white? That would be fanciful to the story when the people indigenous to Africa are largely dark-skinned. ERB wants to bring only one main fanciful thing to the fore: a boy from a world so far removed from the jungle raised in the jungle by nonetheless than apes! To add other fanciful elements in this first book in the series would detract from the main one. (Note, however, that in other works he does have white-skinned cannibals: the Therns, for example, in The Gods of Mars.)
Further complications concerning the issue of cannibalism remain. In the moment when Tarzan is about to proceed as usual and devour raw his vengeance kill, it is suggested that he was struck with a sense that eating Kulonga, the black man who killed Kala, would not be right. An overwhelming feeling of nausea described as being a result of “hereditary instinct, ages old” then comes over Tarzan (81). For many commentators, the suggestion is that Mbonga’s men, who readily devour other men, do not have this hereditary instinct and thus are cast as inferior (see Berglund 1999). Apparently even worse for these men, the cannibalism taboo that Tarzan is in tune with due to heredity is described as “a worldwide law” (81) to which even Tarzan’s ape clan consistently adheres (at least to the extent that they do not eat members of their own clan) (59). In this case, even with African cannibalism historically accurate, we still see, one may argue, the subtle workings of the racist mind of ERB insofar as he marks the heredity running through the tribesmen blood as inferior.
There are several responses I want to make to this argument (in addition to the work I have already done that would serve as a response as well). TA complicates the issue as to whether the nausea Tarzan feels when faced with the prospect of eating Kulonga is entirely a function of heredity. First, note that Tarzan is trained by his clan not to cannibalize. In that context, this means he is not to eat apes inside his clan. As we see in the Dum Dum scene, however, those outside of his clan are open game—as Tarzan himself does not fail to let us know through his devouring practices (62). Due to Tarzan’s reading of the books in the cabin that unbeknownst to him was built by his father, he starts coming into the realization that he is a man. His base identification is not just with white men, but all men. This is clear by the fact that, as he becomes more and more convinced about his humanity, he makes it a point to dress in the tribesmen gear as a testimony to this fact (110). Given his deep training by the apes not to eat his own kind, it is thus natural for Tarzan to start transferring those feelings to man in general. In addition to this fact, no pictures or descriptions of men eating each other was contained in the indoctrinating books in his father’s cabin: they were mostly for children and cannibalism is taboo in white society anyway (28). In contrast, were the books written by the apes, we would see beings of roughly the same form eating each other. An additional fact to consider is the repeated mention of the interplay of heredity, environment, and training that goes into forming a being (47, 49, 81, 85, 156, 172, 173, 188, 216, 236, 271, 273). At times these are so enmeshed that it is seemingly impossible to say: “that there was the contribution of heredity.” On top of this, note that the role of training and environment is so strong that a non-ape can actually become an ape through being trained by apes in an ape environment and through performing like an ape (68, 172, 266). These points justify at least a bit of skepticism about the narrator’s claim that Tarzan’s feeling of revulsion was merely due to instinct. But why are we entitled to be skeptical at all about the narrator’s claims? Well, recognize that the narrator is neither ERB nor some omniscient figure. The narrator is, instead, a character in the book itself, and he is building the story from a compilation of written records plus the oral tale of yet another character (1). It is safe to say, then, that we cannot be absolutely certain whether his evaluation was right. Sure one could say that we can be skeptical of everything he says. But presumably we can be more trusting in the descriptions of the outward actions than we can of the description of the inward thoughts and feelings.
Consider another angle one could take to diffuse the charge that TA is racist because the tribesmen cannibalize whereas Tarzan and the apes in some sense do not. On several occasions TA describes cases where a deep-set instinct gets removed due to external factors. Here is a poignant example where merely one experience eradicates such an instinct. When swinging around the jungle canopy, ape mothers simply allow their young to ride on their back: arms clasped about the neck and legs locked underneath the armpits (36). They do not cradle the young as this would impede on their speed and agility. Kala, however, had a tragic experience once when, fleeing into the canopy from the fury of the head male ape, her child fell to its death. Kala here switches up her instinct, a deep cultural practice, due to merely one incident. We see the strong role that experience plays in making one what one is also in the case of Tarzan. If the cannibalism taboo is an instinct of pedigree, then presumably so is the instinct to be shocked at the sight of dead and dying animals or the instinct against eating raw flesh. And yet because of Tarzan’s experiences and training, he is inured of the sight of dead and dying animals (47) and freely gorges on raw flesh. So the point is that it would be too quick, given the world of TA, to get so offended at the presence of cannibal tribesmen in juxtaposition to the non-cannibal Tarzan. Although this does not matter since again this is only one mere tribe among countless others, for all we know the tribesmen have the same hereditary instinct as Tarzan and it just became corrupted by certain experiences and conditions. What experiences and conditions could we be talking about? Why perhaps the literally unspeakable horrors brought about by white imperialism, followed by diaspora out of civilization and into an unknown state of nature! The reader should note, however, that some of Tarzan’s instincts, and perhaps the instinct against cannibalism is one of them, are described—by the narrator anyway—as ineradicable even by “a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment” (188). If the instinct against cannibalism is one of them, then one might still find grounds for being offended insofar as this statement could be taken as a sign of Tarzan’s ontological superiority to the tribesmen even under the assumption that they have a genetic disinclination towards cannibalism. Although this lifetime of uncouth and savage training does not seem to include unspeakable barbarisms at the hands of white imperialists, I will put this defense to rest.
Here is yet another angle on the issue. One consideration, also invited by TA, is that the tribesmen in question conceive of cannibalism differently than Tarzan and, in particular, conceive of it like the apes: simply as the practice of eating those inside one’s own tribe. In the context set up in Tarzan’s dinner speech, where kinds are divisions of reality reflecting the needs, interests, speeds, concerns—in short, perspective—of the mind doing the dividing, perhaps the tribesmen just divide up reality differently (which, by the way and according to Tarzan’s dinner speech, would not mean that their divisions are somehow wrong). Given Tarzan’s dinner speech, where it is said that each being has a radically individual constitution, it might be expected that the tribesmen would divide up reality differently. If the radical individuality of character is true even among people more closely related on an ancestral line, then think about what this means for those more distant relations. The point can be pushed further. Given merely the resources of TA itself, there are strong motivations for thinking that the tribesmen would be, like the apes, more inclusive in whom they consider subject to being eaten. Times are rough in the jungle. Resources are few, and this is especially true of food. Survival at stake, it makes sense that people in such an environment would want to leave more food options open to themselves than people in an environment where more food resources are readily available with less struggle involved. Crucial to note as well is that in the agonistic jungle environment of TA the brotherhood of man is not present (82). If there is not simply a war of all against all, then there are, as is the case with Tarzan and his clan of apes, at least groupings into small tribes, where everything outside of one’s tribe is a “deadly enemy” (82). It makes sense that in such a context, and under the assumption that some sort of cannibalism taboo is in place with the tribesmen (as it is with the apes), clan differences are going to be considered to be marking out the substantial dividing line between food and non-food (as it is with the apes). Of course, it makes sense why the members of a clan would not eat each other: otherwise the clan would not survive. And it makes sense why members of one clan would be open to eating members of another: not only is that good meat in a time when food is scarce, but it gets rid of some of the competition, and inspires fear in the competition that remains (as we see with the apes).
These points aside, it could be said that the very use of heredity in the cannibalism issue, where Tarzan seems to possess (to use Darwin’s term for the unit of heredity) a gemmule, or (to use the turn of the century term that we have grown to love) - a gene, steering him away from cannibalism whereas the tribesmen seem to possess a gene for cannibalism, entails the racism of TA (see Kasson 212; Rivera 2007, 106). I have already attacked such a line from several angles (only one crestfallen tribe, heredity-training-environment intersectionality, and so on). But let me now explain why I think that the racism claim is to be resisted even if we do assume that Tarzan and the tribesmen differ genetically in such a way—indeed, even if we assume (against both reality and, arguably, the reality of TA) that the genes in question do not merely incline behavior (because behavior is also shaped by training and environment), but determine it.
In a Darwinian worldview, which ERB accepted, it is untenable to make the acontextual, absolute claim that Tarzan’s possession of this gene marks him off as superior to those who fail to possess this gene. Just as with his “gene” for graciousness, which “was the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding” (188), presumably Tarzan has this gene because, unlike the cannibalism gene, it has been selected for in Tarzan’s Anglo-Saxon environment throughout the centuries—I say “presumably,” because we know that cannibalism is a taboo in western cultures and nations, in which case cannibals will have relatively low levels of fitness in them: less chances for reproduction (when repulsive to mates, when jailed, when killed due to retaliation, and so on). First, let me just say that the mere fact that some of Tarzan’s features are present in him because they have been selected for clearly does not imply racism. And thankfully not since the fact that features get selected for is as clear of a truth as any we can get in the sciences. Even if the tribesmen have a cannibalism gene, which as I said is not definitively established in TA, that itself is just a descriptive fact. Besides, TA leads us to believe that the cannibals of Mbonga’s tribe are exceptional figures even in the African context, in which case it could be said that the gene in question does not predominate among Africans because their environments have selected against it as well. If this is true, then the cannibals would be less fit in a Darwinian sense. But even this does not justify calling them lower in the absolute sense at issue here.
The fitness of a being is not absolute, but rather context-dependent, environmentally-dependent: whereas the shining white moths are fittest in the environment where the tree bark is bleach white (since they do not stand out to predators against the bark), in which case the gene for white will start swamping the population, they are not the fittest in an environment where the tree bark is darker (due, say, to recent industrial pollution), in which case the gene for white will start diminishing in the population. The relativity of fitness is much stressed in TA. D’Arnot at one point is stricken with one of those fevering diseases, perhaps malaria, that “commonly attack whites in the jungles of Africa” (216). Whites are not as resistant to diseases like malaria the way blacks are. Indeed, the prevalence of sickle-cell trait in blacks is partially due to the fact that it has been selected for in the environments where diseases like malaria flourish. Since the sicklecell trait makes one resistant, to some extent, against malaria (Gelpi and King, 1976), those with this trait have greater chances for survival and reproduction than those without it, and thus this trait has increased in frequency throughout the population. This all said, even if the cannibalism gene did predominate throughout the African people, that would only mean that the practice it inclines—or even determines—is selected for in these environments, which again is just a descriptive fact.
If one were to reply that the western reader is going to construe such behavior as a mark of inferiority, one would be largely right—even for contemporary readers. But this is the reader’s issue, not the book’s. Surely TA plays off of the fact that readers will find such lifestyles horrifying, but this does not entail that it is excoriating such lifestyles—especially when the author, a Darwinian, knows that if cannibalism was heritable and widespread in Africa, then there would be selective reasons for it, reasons why the cannibalism lifestyle is superior, from a fitness point of view, to a non-cannibalism lifestyle. So not only are their strong doubts, as I already mentioned, about thinking that the cannibalism of this one meager tribe with a whole lot of haunting baggage is a dominant behavior among Africans in the world of TA, as well as doubts about the tribesmen carving up reality the way that Tarzan does and thus conceiving of cannibalism in the same way, even if the tribesmen have a gene for cannibalism that does not itself make them inferior. That is a non-normative fact to which valuation is superadded. To be sure, the narrator, Tarzan, and even, as I mentioned in the introduction, ERB himself speaks of certain behaviors and traits as nobler than others. But if this talk is based on a Darwinian conception of reality, as it is frequently taken to be, then these claims are not to be taken in an absolute sense, but rather relative to a certain context.
This discussion of heredity, and how in some locales certain behaviors are selected for that are selected against in other locales, leads to another important fact that has bearing on the cannibalism issue (especially concerning the narrator and Tarzan’s use of negative value terms to describe the cannibal lifestyle, and ERB and Tarzan’s use of the language of superior and inferior). Indeed, it has tremendous bearing on every single other apparent instance of TA’s racism. I have mentioned several ritornellos occurring throughout TA, but one of the loudest and most thoroughly sustained is relativism (see Vernon 27). Repeated again and again in this book is that what is beautiful, intelligent, normal, valuable, noble for one person or culture is ugly, dumb, odd, worthless, ignoble to another (21, 36, 39-40, 66, 73, 76, 91, 108, 150, 155, 197, 205, 216, 224, 237, 245, 248, 249, 250, 271, 274). For instance, normal human adults would have cooed over the baby Tarzan where the apes only growled and bared their fangs in repulsion (36). In line with the repulsion the apes feel towards Tarzan’s look, Tarzan by the age of ten starts to feel particularly ashamed by the white hairless skin that people of his Anglo-Saxon locale would have cherished (39). Looking at his reflection in the water, Tarzan—in direct contrast to how a normal Anglo-Saxon person would see things—is appalled by how grotesque his countenance looks in comparison to that of his ape playmate:
It had been bad enough to be hairless, but to own such a countenance! He wondered that the other apes could look at him at all. That tiny slit of a mouth and those puny white teeth! How they looked beside the mighty lips and powerful fangs of his more fortunate brothers! And the little pinched nose of his; so thin was it that it looked half starved. He turned red as he compared it with the beautiful broad nostrils of his companion. Such a generous nose! Why it spread half across his face! It certainly must be fine to be so handsome, thought poor little Tarzan. But when he saw his own eyes; ah, that was the final blow—a brown spot, a gray circle and then blank whiteness! Frightful! not even the snakes had such hideous eyes as he. (39-40)
It may be that ERB held back many anti-racist sentiments in order not to offend his largely racist consumer base, but it is hard not to see this scene as forcing the reader to stare, along with Tarzan, at his own reflection and realize that he himself, like Tarzan, mistakenly takes his own culturally-influenced personal taste to reflect the true aesthetic ordering of reality, where purportedly, white is more beautiful than black, and a thin nose is more beautiful than a broad nose. In addition to making the reader consider how their own values and standards of beauty are relative, thus serving as an antidote to the racist fantasy that whites are in an absolute sense aesthetically superior to blacks, this statement of beauty relativism undermines the absoluteness of all other statements in this book that seem to disparage typical non-white features.
The listing goes on. Clothes are hideous to Tarzan (66). What spells “freedom and the pursuit of happiness” for the tribesmen spells “consternation and death” to many jungle creatures (73). Kala, hideous to both tribesmen and western whites alike, is beautiful to Tarzan (76). Tarzan looks down on the tribesmen for cooking meat whereas the tribesmen would look down on Tarzan for eating meat raw (78). Tarzan is disappointed with the tribesmen’s huts compared to his father’s big house by the beach (91). The tribesmen, however, would look down on that house because it is built and structured in such a way that does not fit their needs. Fairly nomadic, especially with the white imperialists at their back (73), they do not devote the time and energy to creating large impenetrable structures. They make up for the small size of their huts by having an open village of many houses; and they make up for their relatively weaker walls by the use of a perimeter sentry system. Moving on, teeth sharpened into fangs is a liability in civilized spaces, but an advantage in the jungle (174). Tarzan considers the otherwise smart bunch of white people (especially Professor Porter) to be “helpless” (237) and more “stupid and ridiculous” than monkeys (150, 155). The forest that these whites find so terrifying Tarzan finds to be secure and peaceful and liberating (155, 246). D’Arnot and others are horrified to see Tarzan eat raw meat with his bare hands. Knowing that taking the time to cook meat and then eat it slowly and in small bites with silverware is disadvantageous in the jungle, Tarzan has the same reaction to their way of eating (205). The ape roar that Tarzan and his clan use as a sounding off of pride, the tribesmen and the whites regard as “awful” and “uncanny” (248). Overt violence is good in the jungle, but a liability in western society; and money is good in western society, but is useless in the jungle (249, 271). Tarzan is intelligent in the jungle but ignorant outside of it (250). Different cultures are governed by different ethics (274). And so on.
One of the strongest apparent counterexamples to the relativism of TA is that cannibalism is said to be a “worldwide law” (81). But as we see from the widespread cannibal practices in this book by both blacks and whites, as well as from the one tribe that practices cannibalism, this worldwide law is no descriptive law of nature. Indeed, it is merely a taboo against cannibalism widely accepted among the more “developed” and “civilized” societies. Relative to other societies and cultures, with different ethical standards and/or with different standards as to what counts as cannibalism, things are different: again different cultures are governed by different ethics (274). Indeed, when Tarzan is about “to get down to business,” the narrator, sensitive to this fact, tells the reader that it would be foolish to judge him from the standards of our culture: “How may we judge him, by what standards, this ape-man with the heart and head and body of an English gentleman, and the training of a wild beast” (81). Yes, Tarzan feels nauseous at the cannibalizing prospect due to his inheritance, but as I argued above this mere Darwinian fact does not entitle us to make the claim that his response, in contrast to the behavior of the tribesmen, was the acontextually, objectively good one. As is especially brought into relief by the emphasis of relativism, and particularly the notion that different cultures have different ethics, when readers find the cannibal behavior to be a mark of badness and depravity, they are only judging from their own standards.
To be sure, the narrator, Tarzan, and even, as I mentioned in the introduction, ERB himself speaks of certain behaviors and traits as nobler than others. But given the stress on relativism in TA, it becomes natural to understand such claims as articulations of one’s own personal tastes (cultural, hereditary, or so on)—personal tastes that are to be understood merely as such, rather than as absolutizing ontological claims. When we set Tarzan’s dinner speech in such a context, his talk of the lower orders (which may not even be including blacks) is not to be understood as a claim reflecting the absolute truth of the matter, but just of the cultural and personal tastes, if not of Tarzan himself then at least the gentlemen with which he is conversing. And the same goes for ERB’s talk about the “hereditary characteristics of the finer and nobler sort.” In a context of value relativism, he would not be committed to a claim about what is objectively finer and nobler, just what is finer and nobler, in the least, for the audience to which he was writing.7
There are several apparently racist moments that I did not touch upon. For the sake of space I will conclude with one of the most mentioned: TA’s apparent scorn for miscegenation especially seen in the fact that the only mention of Tarzan’s sexual arousal is at the sight of white Jane. Why not the black women who make the poisoned arrows that Tarzan comes across when he is older? Indeed, why not the ape women of his clan? First, Tarzan’s attraction could be explained by the environment. He knows that he is white and he reads about white people in his books. Never seeing whites, they take on a mystical and divine air (159, 166), and so it makes sense that he would be intently curious about the whites in Jane’s group and, on the assumption that Tarzan has heterosexual drives demanding expression, that he would home in on Jane. Second, even if his attraction is explained by heredity (by a gene for being more attracted to white women than black women), that says nothing about whether black women are worse than white women or that miscegenation is bad (any more than my arguably-highly-hereditary repulsion at the sight of spiders means that spiders are bad or that my playing with spiders is wrong). Third, in other stories in the Tarzan series (such as The Return of Tarzan), where his early life in the jungle is not so quickly passed over as it is in TA, it is revealed that he was attracted to certain black women (see Newsinger 64). Fourth, Tarzan does presumably feel attraction for ape women insofar as he finds Kala, his mother, to be extremely beautiful (76). Fifth, in TA we get an instance at least of inter-species maternal love (43, 76). Sixth, it turns out that miscegenation and interbreeding—not only between human variants of different structure and skin tone, but between different species as well—is painted positively across more than six works by ERB (see Bozarth 2000).
The presence of a Darwinian worldview (where superiority is context-dependent), the radical individuality thesis, relativism, and all the textual antidotes to the many candidate racist passages should in the least disturb the repose of the dominant reading of TA, opening up a more liberating and multifaceted presentation of the text than is usually offered by scholars. If one maintains that TA is committed to racism, I take it that the counter pressure I have applied in this paper at minimum indicates that TA subverts itself regarding that very commitment. If I have not even accomplished that, then I am at least satisfied to have done the following: (a) shown that Tarzan, in his dinner speech, is not committed to the view that black men are particularly ferocious; (b) shown that Tarzan’s time-indexed suggestion that he will continue to go on guard around black men is reasonable for his situation and, in light of other factors, is not a function of racism; (c) helped put into better relief, for future commentators, the specifics of TA’s racism.
Here are some recent examples: Bady; Bederman; Berglund 1999 and 2006; Carey-Webb; Cheyfitz; Jacobson; Jurca 1996 and 2001; Kasson 212, 717; Newsinger; Rivera 104; Slotkin; Sommer; Taliaferro; Theroux.
Here is a smattering of commentators who
voice such a defense: Bozareth; Faulkner; Lupoff; Porges; Robinson; White 796.
3 Here is the entire passage in question for the reader’s reference.
“Monsieur Tarzan has not expressed himself,” said one of the party. “A man of his prowess who has spent some time in Africa, as I understand Monsieur Tarzan has, must have had experiences with lions—yes?”
“Some,” replied Tarzan, dryly. “Enough to know that each of you are right in your judgment of the characteristics of the lions—you have met. But one might as well judge all blacks by the fellow who ran amuck last week, or decide that all whites are cowards because one has met a cowardly white.
“There is as much individuality among the lower orders, gentlemen, as there is among ourselves. Today we may go out and stumble upon a lion which is over-timid—he runs away from us. Tomorrow we may meet his uncle or his twin brother, and our friends wonder why we do not return from the jungle. For myself, I always assume that a lion is ferocious, and so I am never caught off my guard.”
“There would be little pleasure in hunting,” retorted the first speaker, “if one is afraid of the thing he hunts.”
D’Arnot smiled. Tarzan afraid!
“I do not exactly understand what you mean by fear,” said Tarzan. “Like lions, fear is a different thing in different men, but to me the only pleasure in the hunt is the knowledge that the hunted thing has power to harm me as much as I have to harm him. If I went out with a couple of rifles and a gun bearer, and twenty or thirty beaters, to hunt a lion, I should not feel that the lion had much chance, and so the pleasure of the hunt would be lessened in proportion to the increased safety which I felt.” (245)
This is seen especially in his press statement concerning the 1925 Scopes Trial, where he calls evolution by natural selection an immutable law of nature (Hillman)
If Tarzan is to remain our hero, however, presumably it will never get toned down to the level of Jane’s father, professor Porter, who is too oblivious to be concerned with even the threat of a stalking lion (139-141).
The reader should keep in mind, however, the possibility that it not so much white imperialism ERB is against, but just the kind carried out by “whites” outside of the Anglo-Saxon world. ERB does make it a point to say that it was the Belgian imperialists that were so unspeakably brutal to the blacks. Perhaps the implication is that Anglo-Saxon domination can be carried out with much more civility and gentle paternalism.
Of course, it may not be that ERB himself was a value relativist. But, as I suggested above, merely according to the Darwinian worldview to which ERB ascribed, talk of hereditary characteristics that are superior to others is always environment relative. When to this is added the radical individuality thesis of Tarzan’s speech, which undermines not only the possibility and justice of deriving character from race but the very realism of race itself, it is hard to see how racism can get up and running. Add to this the fact that the role of training and environment is so strong in TA that a non-ape can actually become an ape through being trained by apes in an ape environment and through performing like an ape (68, 172, 266), and things get even more confused.
Bady, Aaron. “Tarzan’s White Flights: Terrorism and Fantasy Before and After the Airplane.” American Literature 83.2 (2011): 305-329.
Bederman, Gail. Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Berglund, Jeff. “Literacy, Race, and Cannibalism in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes.” Cannibal Fictions: American Explorations of Colonialism, Race, Gender, and Sexuality. Berglund. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.
Berglund, Jeff. “Write, Right, White, Rite: Literacy, Imperialism, Race, and Cannibalism in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes.” Studies in American Fiction Boston 27.1 (1999): 53-76.
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Foster, Thomas. “‘The Souls of Cyber-Folk’: Performativity, Virtual Embodiment, and Racial Histories.” Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory. Ed. M-L Ryan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Gelpi AP, King MC. Association of Duffy blood groups with the sickle cell trait. Human Genetics 32.1 (1976): 65-68.
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