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The essay reads Edgar Rice Burroughs’s pulp novel Tarzan of the Apes (1912) in the context of the tendency in Western thought to understand anthropogenesis as a process of going-astray or, to use a term that gets its contemporary connotation of sexual errancy around the time of Tarzan’s publication, of queering. The essay makes its argument by providing two interrelated discursive contexts for the novel. First, it explores Burroughs’s novel as an early twentieth-century text that illustrates the vocative ethics of Western thought. This tradition finds its most authoritative articulation in the concept of “calling” (Berufung) in Martin Luther’s theology; its twentieth-century elaborators include Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Jean Laplanche. To situate Tarzan of the Apes in this history, the essay analyzes a series of scenes where the novel’s protagonists are variously solicited in the process of their development. The most important of such scenes is Tarzan’s discovery of his “fascinating avocation” as he begins to read the books that, unbeknownst to him, have been left behind by his dead human parents. The essay takes the two terms—“fascination” and “avocation”—as keywords not only in Burroughs’s novel but also in the longer genealogy of thought that the text develops.
Second, the essay takes its cues from Burroughs’s previous readers, most notably Gail Bederman, who have argued that the novel evinces turn-of-the-century anxieties about the viability of Western civilization in the face of neurasthenic and other degenerative tendencies. The essay expands this argument in mapping this moment to a larger, and more transnational, context that stretches from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s eighteenth-century philosophy to nineteenth-century racial sciences and the subsequent emergence of sexology. It is in psychoanalytic thought, and particularly Laplanche’s work, that we find a late twentieth-century example of the thought of “queer hominization” as the human “calling” or “(a)vocation.” According to Laplanche, “enigmatic signifiers” “call” or “fascinate” the infant to an errant mode of becoming, one whose perversity includes the inhuman potential of the “grotesque.” After “fascination” and “avocation,” the “grotesque” is identified as the third keyword in Tarzan of the Apes, as well as the larger philosophical tradition in which the novel belong.