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New Left Review 19, January-February 2003


Should collective identity be considered an essential feature of the modern world, and if so is it a neutral marker of belonging? Lutz Niethammer takes a critical look at the fables, popular and political, that the concept of identity has generated since the aftermath of the First World War.

LUTZ NIETHAMMER

THE INFANCY OF TARZAN

In the recent Disney cartoon of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan saga, there is an affecting post-structuralist Ur-scene that does not appear in the original text of 1914; it has more than one meaning. The little white child of a pair of castaways is rescued by a black ape-mother, after his own parents are torn to pieces by a tiger in the jungle; she brings him up in place of the children she has lost. But there are continual conflicts with other members of the gorilla band, incited by its male chief against this alien addition to the family. Even when he plays with his contemporaries, the human child is made painfully aware, as in Lacan’s mirror stage, that he is unlike them. After one such conflict the child, seeing his face reflected in a puddle, smears it with mud to make it more like those around him. Whereupon his ape-mother solves Tarzan’s crisis by constructing an identity for him. She wipes the grimy mask from his face and bids him close his eyes. To let him realize what they have in common, she lays the palm of his hand on the naked sole of her paw. Then she lets him feel the beating of his heart, and takes him gently in her arms, so that he can hear her own, consoling him with words of postmodern comfort: ‘You see? We’re identical!’

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