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Tarzan reconsidered, culturally, in Paris exhibit

TARZAN is back!

But this time the vine-swinging hero is a topic of serious cultural and philosophical study at a Paris exhibition exploring his links with popular culture.

The venue - the anthropological Quai Branly museum - dictates the serious treatment of Edgar Rice Burroughs' creation, who has been deconstructed in an effort to understand Western culture and how the West views the rest of the world.

Curator Roger Boulay says the exhibit - titled, naturally enough, "Tarzan!" - which runs through Sept. 19, has "philosophical aims" but in an amusing way, "without pretension."

Visitors are greeted by an huge, bashful-looking stuffed gorilla and a classic painting of Hercules borrowed from the Chateau de Fontainebleau, set to the familiar sound of Tarzan's throaty yodel.

In the popular view, Tarzan has lived through several incarnations - from erotic ape-man and noble savage to colonial apologist and racist. Burroughs was fascinated by the evolutionary theories of Darwin, and his Tarzan figure has been accused of justifying the supremacy of the white man.

But attitudes change with time, and Tarzan seems to have been rehabilitated. His latest guise is in keeping with modern concerns about the planet: an eco-warrier.

Tarzan was, after all, one of the earliest promoters of what people today call a sustainable lifestyle. And he was a fierce protector of the jungle from commercial interests, be they ivory traders or animal traffickers.

This is not lost on present-day advertisers. A recent campaign by the advocacy group WWF on the destruction of the rain forest shows Tarzan free-falling onto barren terrain as the forest ends and he runs out of vine.

This being France, the exhibit has, of course, a nod to philosophy.

Its subtitle is "Rousseau and the Waziri," a reference to the noble savage of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the fictitious Waziri tribe in Burrough's novels who are Tarzan's allies.

Key to understanding Tarzan, Boulay says, is Chicago, where Burroughs - who never set foot in Africa - was born in 1875. There, he would have watched the creation of an urban jungle of skyscrapers and in 1893, when he was 18, the World's Fair.

"It must have been an incredible shock for this young man to see a Moroccan village reconstituted, Bantu villages reconstituted, villages of ancient Egypt, Roman forums," Boulay said.

The story of Tarzan was born in 1912 with the novel "Tarzan of the Apes." After the death of his parents, Lord and Lady Greystoke, who had been abandoned on the African coast by mutineers, Tarzan was adopted by a tribe of apes and his adventures began.

The series of 22 books has been published in 56 languages and sold more than 15 million copies. It has inspired close to 15,000 comics, 42 feature films and countless television series and cartoons.

Boulay said the aristocratic polyglot of the novels has little in common with his grunting Hollywood incarnation.

The chat-up line "Me Tarzan, you Jane," was not from Burroughs' writing but is attributed to Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic gold medalist who became one of the most celebrated on-screen Tarzans.

It was not until the 1984 film "Greystoke" that the movie Tarzan would reflect the eloquent hero Burroughs envisaged.

According to Boulay, Tarzan's influence is responsible in part for the enduring popularity of animal print among fashionistas and for robot heroes such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

And the length of Tarzan's loincloth and Jane's attire - or complete lack of it - can be a gauge of societal values, a subject not overlooked in this exhibition.

And the French connection?

Boulay notes that Tarzan's first visit to the West was not to his ancestral home of England but to France. In Burroughs' novels, it is a French officer who brings Tarzan out of the jungle.


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