No, he’s not actually Tarzan, of course…I mean this.
And then this.
Hmm…so how do you update Tarzan for a new age, in such a way as to load him up with actual drama instead of just a few soap-opera elements here and there?
It’s an interesting question. And with a tip of the hat to Harvey Jerkwater, I think I’ve found my answer…though in the end I’m sure I’ll still like Andrew’s better.
…So the first thing you have to know, is that the word Tarzan means “crazy person”, in the language of the Kasua people of New Guinea. Except, of course, it really doesn’t: I just made that up. But what the hell, if I am trying to update Tarzan I am practically guaranteed to do something disgustingly colonial somewhere along the way, so maybe with this appropriation I have gotten it out of my system.
Well, we can hope.
You may have heard of the “Lost Volcano” of Papua New Guinea, where researchers recently discovered about fifty new bizarre species…and this probably shouldn’t be too surprising, given the unplumbed richness of that island. So high a percentage of the world’s languages, so many fascinatingly-preserved birds and plants and animals and customs, so much extraordinarily rough ground, so much territory simply unexplored, both historical and physical. It’s hard to set a Tarzan story in Africa in the 21st century without either collapsing from frustration or retiring from guilt: if we don’t know Africa well enough by now not to consider it “the dark continent”, it’s only because we’ve chosen not to know it. To blithely cling to Africa’s nineteenth-century “imaginative terrain” is probably even worse than clinging to the idea that a white person can be a better African than Africans themselves…the latter idea’s racist as hell, but it’s only passively despicable: all about shoring up a European mystique of superiority that’s never really stood all that firm to begin with. The former, on the other hand, is an active, willing refusal to accord Africa the rudimentary dignity of being a place, and the Africans the dignity of being real at all.
But New Guinea’s a different sort of imaginative terrain — the appendix of the world, long thought useless, but now recognized as the place where diversity is stored up against the day of catastrophe. For us twenty-first century types, New Guinea isn’t the locale of atavism, but the very site of the new: right over there, that’s where our science fiction is going to come from, postmodern, post-colonial, post-post-post…how to be new people, how to see new possibilities, how to do new things. Forget your old futurescape narratives of motors and metals and monies and monoliths, the old clashes of technology and tribalism…because here is where the heart is.
And thus: Tarzan.
I’ll just briefly set the stage: our heroine Jane, an evolutionary biologist by trade, very much the career scientist, is visiting the region with her zoologist husband and botanist father-in-law — her father-in-law is a very big wheel indeed, so their expedition is pretty large, and quite well-equipped: lots of high-powered experts, lots of high-tech gizmos. They are going inside the region of the Lost Volcano for ten weeks to live and work — deep into the hazardous zone where no one, whether New Guinean or Western, has been before.
But of course they can’t just go in right away. First they have to spend a couple months making day trips, scouting the region for a good base camp site, interviewing the locals (let’s make them an as-yet-unencountered group of tribesmen living very close to the crater), etc. etc., and it takes a long time because the only thing like “air support” this expedition is ever going to get is some donated satellite imaging from time to time. The existence of this unexplored ecosystem is a treasure beyond price — the only way they’re getting in there no matter what is by being just about the most sensitive, non-intrusive expedition of this kind that’s ever been mounted. That’s a lot of the reason why they’ve got such nifty high-tech equipment, in fact: to make the whole operation as “clean” as humanly possible. And I know, it sounds a bit more like The Lost World than Tarzan, but work with me here. Anyway, but all this preparatory stuff is also pretty Big Science in its own right, you understand…and since Jane speaks the language and has a lot of similar experience, her job is doing the interviews with the local people. And we’re going to put some sort of clock on everything here, too — say that after the ten weeks the heavy rains are going to come, and it’s going to make things a lot more dangerous and difficult: people who go into the crater often don’t make it back out anyway, but no one who goes in there during the monsoons is ever heard from again.
So, tick-tock, tick-tock. Time passes, and Jane compiles a lot of data. She gets to go on just a couple of the day trips, but that’s okay because she’ll get to go on the first overnight trip when that comes along. Eventually it does, and she does…into the exotic landscape that stirs her romantic soul so profoundly. They could do some remarkable astronomy in there, even: the stars are so bright. And then of course you all know what happens next: Jane can’t sleep, and sees Tarzan, who’s come to investigate the overnight camp. She thinks she’s hallucinating, but then she sees him again later on.
Back outside the crater, she quizzes the tribesmen privately, and the story gradually comes out: they are actually not the first white people ever to come there, or to be curious about the Lost Volcano. Many years ago, a small group showed up — and what happened to them is unclear, but it appears they all went into the crater during the monsoons, and were all lost, except for one little boy. Who, miraculously, came back out alive. So the Kasua, for whatever reasons of their own they had, tried to rescue him and raise him…but the boy kept running off. He wouldn’t live with them. For years and years, just when they thought he must be dead by now, at the fringes of their firelight they would perceive an occasional shadow, listening to their talk. And sometimes they’d catch him again, and sometimes they’d think they’d saved him for good this time, but he always got away again and ran off over the lip of the volcano. And that’s why they call him Crazy Person…but Jane knows another word for him: feral child. And as Harvey informs me, feral children aren’t world-beating jungle supermen, they’re children operating at tremendous disadvantages, with tremendous cognitive and physical deficits — they don’t learn language, they’re small and weak, and they don’t generally live very long. So it seems incredible, impossible, that one could have survived into adulthood in this uttermost wild spot. Well, he’d gotten some help from the Kasua, so maybe that explains it a bit…but still, what an astonishing possibility this “Tarzan” represents!
So naturally, when the ten-week expedition gets underway, Jane has Tarzan on the brain, and she ends up meeting him. And maybe our story would be different if Jane were a psychiatrist instead of an evolutionary biologist, but she’s not — she can’t help seeing Tarzan as a functional part of his environment, though she knows this is wrong. She can’t help seeing him sympathetically instead of clinically, and scientifically instead of sympathetically, and ultimately romantically instead of scientifically, all at once. Oh, but not that sort of “romantically”…Jane is happily married, and Tarzan is a bush-man…but rather his very existence speaks to her aforementioned romantic soul in such a way that she finds herself torn over what to do about him. Thanks to his interactions with the Kasua, he can make a decent approximation of baby-talk in their language, and so they can talk, and become fascinated by one another…of course Jane knows she can’t really believe they are developing any sort of actual human bond of the type she knows, but part of her believes it nonetheless, interpreting Tarzan’s behaviour as though it were the behaviour of an ordinary human person. An ordinary human child, though in an adult human body.
An ordinary human child, who needs a…
And then — you saw it coming! — something happens to trap Jane in the crater-region during the monsoon season, as the rest of her expedition is forced to escape, and she discovers that Tarzan is not like an ordinary human person, and not at all like a child. As they go deeper into the backcountry, that seems to grow more exotic with every step, this fancy starts to desert her, to be replaced by another…she starts to see Tarzan as a beast, among other beasts: wild and uncontrollable, mysterious, with his own private and unfathomable nature.
And yet he cannot be this, actually. In reality, human beings are human beings the world over, and they’re all the same: they live in groups, with language and culture to aid them in survival. They didn’t “come up” from the beast-world in some arbitrary way, so they can’t go “back” to it that way either: these are artificial, prejudicial distinctions. Tarzan is very, very strange, because he’s lived his life since childhood completely free of all the ordinary evolutionary advantages that belong to human beings…
And there’s never been a human being like that!
At least, not one that lived to see maturity.
His trademarked call…what is that, anyway?
The food he eats, and gets for Jane (unwilling to eat some of the meat he gets, she’s frequently given different kinds of plants as a substitute), how did he learn about it?
The animals in the jungle…how could he have survived them? He seems to have an extraordinarily supple sense of tactics, but he also seems…well…crazy. He bursts in on a conclave of peculiar apes with merry abandon, and doesn’t get killed…are they playing with him, or trying to kill him and failing? Or, is there a difference? He can out-obnoxious monkeys and birds, he laughs to play with dangerous reptiles, he hunts jaguars by jumping on them from tree branches, it is crazy, it’s all crazy, and suddenly in a moment it comes to Jane that the animals think he’s a crazy person too…but, what makes him that way, and what makes it successful behaviour? There’s no evolution at work here, neither past evolutionary fruits being gone back to, nor new evolutionary features being gained — that’s not how evolution works. So it must be something else…
Tarzan learns a bit of English, and in teaching him Jane also learns a portion of his mysterious self-made language, the squeaks and grunts, the bizarre vocal expressions so unlike the vocalization of animals or people, the fractured pieces of Kasua, the odd bit of English stirred in…she is getting inside his head, and it’s a very weird place. What must an acultural existence be like for a human being? Is it just an endlessly shifting gallery of stimuli? What lies beyond the fear-filled existence of the foredoomed feral child, what’s it like to be a competent feral adult? Jane begins to make the connection you have surely made already: Tarzan’s not a savage, he’s a sophisticate. His mode of existence has far more in common with that of a Western urbanite, than it does with the civilized, grounded existence of the Kasua — everything is in a constant state of flux for him, as it is with our own alienated masses. He plays with language by himself, since there’s no one else to play with — he’s made his own niche in this rainforest’s startling ecosystem, out of nothing. Not being able to evolve to fit it, he’s done something far more novel than that, he’s made it fit him, somehow…he changes the parts of it that are around him, he habitually breaks every one of its pre-existing rules, and pre-existing roles.
Tarzan survives by being an artist.
Hey, but wait a minute…
Does that actually make any sense?
Oh, shit…what in God’s name has she been eating.
He just gives her stuff, and she eats it. But he’s a unique singleton living off in an uncharted, unsurveyed wilderness! Jesus, he’s given her berries. Holy shit, he’s given her mushrooms. What in the fuck was she thinking?
How long have they even been out here? Are the rains still falling?
Curse her romantic soul, it’s going to end up killing her! This guy isn’t a treasure-trove of botanical knowledge, that’s the Kasua…!
So, long story short: yes. Jane is tripping. She’s been tripping for days and days, but now she’s peaking. Suddenly she sees Tarzan in vivid hallucination, first as a victim reeking of superhuman tragedy, a lost human with needs he can’t even acknowledge, nothing but mute hurt and pain…then, terrifyingly, he’s an infant cannibal, coming after her to eat her romantic soul, her brains, the soft parts of her body…
Jane freaks, takes off suddenly at a dead run into the jungle. Tarzan is surprised, and runs after her. To protect her?
But wouldn’t that urge be foreign to his very way of thinking?
Suddenly he is a wild beast on her trail, hunting her. He’ll kill her if he catches her, crunch her bones, slurp down her blood…she has to get away. But get away to where? Back to so-called “civilization”? But every person there is secretly a Tarzan, every person there is a singleton, negotiating their world’s capricious stimuli by practising a distant, inhuman form of art…and she’s one of them too, and she cannot even get away from herself…inside her is a Tarzan, the idea of Tarzan now coming for her, coming for her…the monster gliding deeply, coldly, under the attractive skin of her false identity…
Tarzan is now freaking a little, himself. Jane is moving fast, really fast. Too fast for the jungle. He bolts up a tree, spies her charging along. He gives his weird neither-fish-nor-fowl yell, to freeze her. It works…
…And then a jaguar comes right at her from out of the bushes.
Tripped-out Jane’s response?
She goes for it.
Faster than a blink, she does something Tarzanesque to it, something stupidly unexpected: she puts her whole arm right down its throat up to the shoulder and grabs its jaw with her other hand to hold its mouth open while she messes around down in there. The jaguar is…well, let’s say startled. Jane is toast, of course; but she’s bought herself about a quarter of a second. Maybe just an eighth.
(Oh dear, this has gone a bit of the rails, I think…whoops…)
But fortunately this is time enough for Tarzan to swing down on a vine (on a vine! What?) and kill the jaguar before it tears Jane to shreds. In the aftermath, Jane has her final hallucination. Once again, she sees Tarzan…
…But this time, she doesn’t see him as a child, as a victim, as a beast, or even as an idea. Against all expectations, she suddenly sees him, with alarming vividness, as a man.
And it is at this point that they consummate their relationship. Very new stuff, to Tarzan! As at last, the real irrevocable human connection is made, and cemented.
So, end Part One.
And then Part Two naturally goes like this: the rains end, and Jane’s husband and father-in-law return, and what with one thing and another Tarzan and Jane leave the Lost Volcano for the outside world. And here are a bunch of your major soap-opera elements, right in Part Two where they should be…but in a sense, to Tarzan it’s all one: he’s still an environmental artist, the outside world is just as full of madness to him as was the jungle, and he deals with it the same way…I hope you can picture it all as automatically as I can…but then in Part Three he and Jane return to New Guinea, to, I don’t know, thwart the evil plans of bioprospecting poachers? There’s a lot of new (old) knowledge in Tarzan’s jungle, but Tarzan himself is still the major repository of it…”how did he survive” is still a very important question that he will never be able to answer. But Jane might be able to answer it, in time, and that’s her new field of research: discovering what Tarzan knows, that he doesn’t know he knows. And it’s very fruitful research indeed, but then that’s where the danger comes from, too. The world spins on into the twenty-first century, and times change, but people don’t: the last storehouses of biodiversity, as they become more vitally important to the human race, also become focusses of wealth, power, and all that crap. Meanwhile the “archive” that Tarzan’s unmarked, uncatalogued experience represents still has Elephants’ Graveyards in it, waiting for Jane to discover them…
Oh, and I think that’s probably all I can manage for tonight. But I think there’s enough there to do more stuff later…I mean, in order to interpret Tarzan’s experience lucidly, Jane will have to spend a lot of time with the Kasua, who as previously mentioned are the only source of cultural knowledge in the region…it probably ought to be that in Part Two it’s discovered Tarzan has not only a fortune waiting for him in the outside world, but relatives…the geopolitics New Guinea is embedded in today might easily offer thrilling extrapolations for future Tarzan stories…
Hey, just think of it as being written by Kim Stanley Robinson instead of me, okay?
Oh, this bloody thing almost killed me, and now suddenly Andrew’s got a new one up…
Curse you and your manifestoes, Andrew! I knew nothing good could come of all this!
Since you have already MEMED everybody who reads you, I don’t suppose I should say I’d like to see what RAB’s Tarzan or Doctor Who would be like…
But, y’know…I think I will, anyway. He did miss the Darkseid one due to Marc saying everything, after all…so that’s clearly his fault and he should be made to pay…
And hey…anyone ever read “Showboat World” by Jack Vance?
I wanna do some Jack Vance blogstuff pretty soon, I think.
Okay, now I’m just rambling.