Tarzan and the Tarnished Idol

Writing about Edgar Rice Burroughs in the last “Be A Better Geek” I hit upon a topic that I want to explore further. While particularly relevant to geeks it speaks to a nearly universal human experience: idol worship.

Elmo Lincoln, star of the silent “Tarzan of the Apes” (1917, dir Scott Sidney)

In the previous post I mentioned how I think that there are Burroughs apologists who want to downplay the racism in his books. I claim his works are openly racialist in content while others think it’s an exaggeration or even a projection of the biases of people always trying to find racism in things. Obviously, I think I’m right and I think the evidence is overwhelming.

But here is a point that I failed to mention: I love reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s books. I read “Tarzan of the Apes” 3 times while I was in high school. I had an actual, private conversation with “JOHN CARTER” director Andrew Stanton about our love of “A Princess of Mars” and the should-have-been Martian franchise that he proposed to Disney. As problematic as I find the ideologies reflected in ERB’s writings I still find his books quite enjoyable.

Burroughs brought a sensationalistic, mysterious tone to the adventure novel. He may have had his societal biases reflected in his work but he was also writing escapist fantasy. If you love space opera then you owe it to yourself to read his books. They are fun and descriptive, fast paced and action packed. The dude could spin a yarn. His influence is immense, particularly on another problematic writer whom I love even more, Robert E. Howard. You can love Tarzan and hate the racism surrounding the character and the culture from which he was created.

In the debate regarding separating art from artist I choose this compromise: be inconsistent and be flexible. Be okay with yourself for responding to different parts of art (like stories of Tarzan hunting) but also remember that just because some part of a book or movie or song resonates with you doesn’t mean that you have to fully endorse the creator. That’s how we fall into the trapping of idol worship. Maybe it’s an American quality, I’m not sure. But because we identify such emotional connection with the art we love we then project that love onto the artist. Sometimes this may be deserved. But other times it causes us to think un-clearly about the creator. I think we don’t want to acknowledge their faults because we fear that it can undermine our own emotional connection to art.

I think that’s a valid fear. An individual who once was a major influence on my world at large has turned out to be a terrible person. I can’t speak their name now. I can’t think of them without disgust. But I don’t beat myself up for their actions. But because I don’t hold them or any of the activities that I did identify with as sacred I am okay letting them go. Yes, you want to acknowledge the influence of others on your life and celebrate positive contributions. But it’s unhealthy and unsatisfying to base your own joy and self worth on the achievements or failings of others.

Fully engaging with the art and recognizing its faults is good practice for examining our own lives. You can still find areas in your life that need improvement without sacrificing your self love. For me it is a love of self that gives me the fortitude to address some of my shortcomings.