Action novels invariably mirror the sexual dynamic. They embody the same tension/release mechanism as orgasm, and like the movies they often inspire, always result in a climax – in their extreme, simplistic form, with a literal explosion:
After an hour and half of mounting tension, Luke Skywalker’s rocket ship finally penetrates the Deathstar and he lets go his torpedo. There’s a long anticipated burst of pyrotechnics, then characters and audience alike settle back in the warm afterglow of e-mission accomplished. There is intent, a resistance to intent, a struggle to overcome it, and finally, the moment when the intent is achieved. Then there is reflection and calm. The intent can be an idea, a person, or an object that embodies an idea, but achieving it always involves conflict.
The Tarzan adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs are action novels: the ongoing saga of a manly-man in the company of apes in constant conflict with the jungle, his adopted family, man-eating/ape-eating cannibals and ruthless white men bent on exploiting all three.
In the books, the future Lord Greystoke and his wife are washed ashore after a shipwreck off the west coast of Africa. A child is born, but both parents die soon after. A female ape discovers the child and convinces the rest of the tribe to let her raise it as her own. She names him Tarzan.
These apes are composite creatures with no actual real-world counterparts. They’re not Gorillas since Gorillas are clearly established as their mortal enemies. Apart from their size (they’re more than twice as big) the apes they resemble most are Chimpanzees. Their social structure is the same and as Jane Goodall confirmed in the late nineteen-sixties, they are also both meat eaters and cannibalistic – all of which adds more possibilities for conflict. They would of course be Pan Troglodytes Chimpanzees, not their cousins Pan Paniscus.
Pan Paniscus chimps or Bonobos have a very different outlook on life.
Bonobo society is predicated on avoiding conflict. Tension, no matter when and where it occurs, is immediately defused – through sex. As a result, Bonobo chimpanzees have some form of sex, on average, once every four and a half hours. They make no distinctions between gender or age. Young and old, male and female, indulge in manual, oral and copulatory sex whenever and with whomever they choose. They do this both to relieve anxiety and for enjoyment. If Tarzan had been raised by these kind of apes, it would have been a different story altogether.
His childhood would have been essentially conflict free. His disagreements with Terchak and Tublat the dominant ape males would have been resolved with mutual masturbation or fellatio, not by terrifying fights to the death, in which scalps are torn off and hearts are ripped from rib cages. Bonobos simply don’t do that sort of thing. Unlike their cousins, they don’t eat meat and they certainly don’t eat one another. They don’t kill anything at all. For a would-be, he-man action figure this would be a serious handicap.
There would be other drawbacks too. According to Mr. Burroughs, Tarzan’s older male relatives weighed in at around three hundred and fifty pounds. Given the closer relationship between body size and penis size in Bonobos – i.e. ‘theirs’ are relatively much bigger than ‘ours’, this suggests that Tarzan’s childhood may have been trying at times. In keeping with the original story, it might explain why he wandered off a lot and learned to read. (“I feel like reading tonight” being a well-worn response to inconvenient sexual advances.)
In light of such an upbringing, Tarzan may not turn out to be quite the acrobatic hunter killer that Edgar had in mind, but what he lacked in fighting skills would be more than compensated for by an extensive repertoire of sexual strategies. A buff and horny young man, he would set off into the world fully prepared to solve each and every crisis with his johnson.
In the case of his family’s mortal enemies the Mbongas, attempting to roger an entire tribe of pointy teethed cannibals into submission, would present him with far greater challenges than simply yanking them up into the trees and slitting their throats – particularly since genital manipulation by a white man, or worse yet, actually being mounted by one, would in all likelihood have only hardened their resolve. And doubly hardened it if the same tactics were also being applied to their womenfolk. Tarzan’s ability to triumph over such improbable odds would require a sexual technique comparable to his remarkable ability to swing through the trees: knowing just which vine to grab, and for exactly how long, before reaching for the next.
While he was engaged in this ongoing plate spinning routine with his enemies, he would also be dealing with the confusing behavior of his so-called human friends – particularly Jane.
Bonobo meal times are occasions when fun and anxiety present themselves big time. Eating is enjoyable, but everyone is concerned they get their share. Sex and food are therefore synonymous.
When the Porter party is abandoned on the beach, food is naturally an issue, but in addition to the problems of finding it, their up-tight, English “After you”, “No after you” concerns for correctness, makes them a doubly high-anxiety group; an up-tightness that only increases when table manners are involved.
Having made it his business to supply them with all they need, Tarzan would be confronted with a level of tension he’s never encountered before, one that could only result in his having to patrol the table with a constant erection, ready to administer calm at the slightest hint of discomfort or distaste – or conversely – the merest sign of enjoyment. The outrage and embarrassment caused by such a no-win state of affairs would then further escalate the level of tension among the dinner guests, turning every mouthful into a potential sexual indignity.
For the castaways, food and sex would also become synonymous but the alternative -worrying about starving – would create apprehensions that placed them in even greater jeopardy. Esmeralda, the African maid, with her hysteria and tendency to faint at the drop of a hat, would be at particular risk. And Jane who has the double handicap of being constantly nervous, as well as the object of Tarzan’s affections, would probably spend most of her time in hiding – especially since she is also obsessed with him. Tarzan is a handsome, intelligent hunk of a man, and her thoughts as she buries herself in the sand each day, would be an emotional tangle of gargantuan proportion.
The classic, “Me Tarzan. You Jane.” line, (never uttered in the novels) would be modified to “Me Tarzan, where Jane?” or “where everybody?” for that matter. As a woman desperately in love desperately hiding from the man of her dreams, Jane would be a certifiable wreck in no time. Life in the hut, would deteriorate into a kind of Jumbo Johnny Holmes on speed meets Gilligan’s Island affair, with men and women fucking and fainting left and right, only to be resuscitated by more fucking. Eventually everyone would go mad.
An essential premise of Romantic love is the notion of uniqueness, the idea that we are the sole focus of another’s attention. Having your loved one suddenly slip out from behind you in order to cheerfully administer a blow job to your dad who’s dropped his fork, then move on to diddle the befuddled maid, is difficult to reconcile in those terms, particularly when it occurs on a relentless hourly basis. Being hostage to food, nature and the intractable hard on of an overbearing wildman, could only lead to one thing:
They would have to kill him.
Despite Jane Goodall’s contention that Bonobo society represents an “Idyllic way of life,” humans can only put up with so much peace and loving. (Several women writers have swooned in print over the joys of Bonobo society, a world where love conquers all they say. But few if any of them, I venture, would trade a Bloomingdale’s charge card for a lifetime of random unpredictable fucking. Where’s the leverage in that?)
Bonobo life style only works for Bonobos. For other primates, even other kinds of chimpanzees, a life devoid of tension is no life at all. It doesn’t go anywhere. This is particularly true for humans. If Tarzan had been raised by Bonobos he would have been confronted with this reality the moment he stepped out the door. His story would have contained all the requisite intents, obstacles to intents etc., but he would have been on the wrong side of the line. He would have been a sitting duck, in fact he would never have been in the picture to begin with. The pointy teethed Mbongas would have eaten all the Bonobos, long before he got there.
That’s what action’s all about, right Luke?
“Trust your instincts. Use the force”… Fuck the bastards.
Malcolm Mc Neill’s first project out of art school was a seven-year collaboration with writer William S. Burroughs. His two books about the experience were published at the end of last year.
His most recent exhibition of paintings was in August 2013 in New York.