A Review

Edgar Rice Burroughs On Mars

The Chessmen Of Mars

Post II

Part I

The Dance Of Barsoom

See Post I for Intro.

 

     The twenties were a difficult financial period for ERB, indeed, as was the rest of his life to be.  The substantial sums he had made in Chicago were spent before he left.  ERB had saved nothing.  He arrived in LA with no other resources than his current income.  That income was very substantial by any measure but unequal to ERB’s massive spending capabilities so that at the time he wrote Chessmen he was already strapped for cash and headed for deep debt.

     Always envious of the fabulous sums paid Zane Grey by the slick magazines ERB wanted to sell this story for ten thousand dollars to one of the big slicks.  There were no takers so that the story went to the pulps for thirty-five hundred.  Adding insult to injury he was told that the stories were too preposterous to be considered.

     Part of ERB’s literary problem was that genre categories were not yet well developed.  H.G. Wells’ early sci-fi efforts were labeled Fantasias, a term that could be understood by the literary arbiters, while still considered what we would call today, literary fiction.  Even George Du Maurier’s  trilogy of essentially science fiction novels- Peter Ibbetson, Trilby and The Martian have never been considered anything but literary fiction.  They are three terrific stories of psychological dissociation  while it would seem certain that Burroughs read them and was probably influenced by them.  I can heartily recommend them.  Very choice.

     So the genres were taking shape at the period but had not yet evolved as they would during the thirties, forties and fifties until today fantasy, horror and sci-fi dominate the fiction best seller lists.  If Chessmen was thought preposterous in 1920 one wonders what his critics would have thought of such movies as The Exterminator or The Predator.  God, those people were so awkward and unevolved.  Well, it’s the price you pay for being an innovator.  Remember what the Pope told Galileo.

     So, ERB was stuck in the pulps.  Perhaps smarting from this rejection ERB would try to break out of his pulp rate with several realistic novels.  the first was The Girl From Hollywood, a very decent attempt at a literary novel, that ERB’s long time publisher refused to publish.  Following in the burro tracks of Zane Grey ERB wrote a couple of Westerns only one of which he could get published at the time.  I read a lot of Westerns in the fifties while a kid.  I thought ERB’s efforts were as good as what I read then.  They’re all potboilers, even the so-called classics.

     He even attempted a couple of Indian epics that I found so-so but I know other people who liked them a lot.  Not so critical as myself, I guess.  Oh, right, he couldn’t get Marcia Of The Doorstep published either.  So he was type cast as a sci-fi/fantasy writer.  At least he knew he could do that very well.

     Zane Grey wrote some pretty strange Westerns.  He himself was quite a womanizer and his novels pander quite successfully to the distaff side.  He knew women well.  Probably that was why he was paid those great prices by the Saturday Evening Post et al.  Oh heck, ERB was just too outre for the Post.

     In Chessmen ERB gives feminine appeal his best shot.  I would imagine he was trying to reach the ladies when he describes Tara’s fabulous bath.  Either that or he was trying to titillate us boys.  Worked with me.  But let’s assume he was trying to broaden his appeal as the title was offered to the slicks.

     Chessmen was based on his three favorite novels as are all his books- The Viginian, Prince And The Pauper and Little Lord Fauntleroy.

     Thus Tara teases Papa John as her ‘Virginian.’  We are then introduced to Gahan of far Gathol.  ERB presents him first in his princely guise as, indeed, he is a prince of Gathol.  ERB chooses to present him as a fop dressed all in diamonds and platinum.  Tara forms an ill impression of him as she thinks no real fighting man  would dress in such a fashion.  Shortly Gahan will exchange his dress duds for the plain leather gear of the Martian mercenary thus changing from prince to pauper.  Of course he will resume his role of Prince by novel’s end.

     Fauntleroy was born to the manor in England but spent his youth learning what it meant to be a real American boy before reassuming his English title.  Ah, American dreaming.

     Recalling his battle for Emma’s favors with Frank Martin Tara has been betrothed since at least young girlhood to Djor Kantos whose father is friends with the family.  So like ERB Gahan has to overcome this parental resistance.  Speaking of Frank Martin Chessmen is the only novel I can recall in which the hero doesn’t get bashed on the head two or three times.

     At the ball being given Djor Kantos fails to claim Tara in time for the first dance so that Gahan leads Tara in the Dance Of Barsoom.  Some sort of Grand March.  ERB explains that before Barsoomian youths can attend balls they have to first have learned three formal dances- The Dance Of Barsoom, that of their country and that of their city.  After that they can take up stuff like the Martian equivalents of the Grizzly Bear, Bunny Hug, Charleston and Black Bottom.  Kids being kids on Barsoom the same as on Jasoom.

     While the concept is quite charming one wonders of the source.  Burroughs himself was no slouch concerning the hit parade.

     I think we can trace the rigamarole back to the patron saint of old timey music, Henry Ford.

     Amongst all his many other enterprises Henry was revolted by the music and dances of the Jazz Age as the twenties are sometimes known.  Even though his very own flivver is billed as being responsible for some new objectionable habits and traditions Henry clung stubbornly to the old.  Thus in full revolt against the Jazz Age Henry was promoting the dances and music of his youthof around, oh say, 1880 or so.

      Ford had begun his publication of the Dearborn Independent in 1920 making him a newspaper man also.  It seems clear from internal references in Marcia Of The Doorstep that ERB was following developments in the Independent.  He would then certainly have learned of the evils of the new music and the virtues of the old.

     Just as Henry Ford was trying to rivive the old dances on Jasoom, on conservative, behind the times Barsoom Jazz has never even been given a chance.  The Dance Of Barsoom is just as fresh and lovely as the first time it was danced millennia before.  Martian kids didn’t mess with tradition so much so Gahan led Tara in that lovely old relic of Mars- The Dance Of Barsoom.

     Pledging his love during the dance Gahan was sternly rebuffed by Tara.

     The preliminaries finished the story begins in earnest.

     The following day Tara is fascinated by a cloudy stormy sky which is such a rare occurrence on Mars that she had never seen one before.  As I mentioned in the intro ERB borrows the next sequence from Baum whose Dorothy was wafted to Oz on a tornado.  Tara ascends into this tornado like storm where her flier is caught by the winds and she is driven before them.  When she lands she had been driven like Dorothy to Oz to a far land that has been all but forgotten if it had ever been thought of.

     The hero and heroine of Chessmen are Tara of Helium and Gahan of far Gathol, or rather, they are the Anima and Animus of ERB.  ERB always writes Anima and Animus novels.  As dreamers will he may have recognized the X chromosome or Anima in the green pastures of his sleep or, it is quite possible that as a Latin scholar at Chicago’s Harvard School he was required to read the myth of Psyche and Eros from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.  I only mention a couple of possibilities.  He may or may not have been familiar with Psyche and Eros but he was certainly familiar with the fairy tales derived from it such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

     While Apuleius is given credit for the story his version is certainly only a redaction of the tale or philosophical speculation dating much further back in history.  The Ancients were well familiar with the concept of both the male and female versions of the Anima and Animus.  In popular mythology the male chromosome is represented by the Goddess as X chromosome and the Bull as the y.  The female is represented by the two snakes as in the pictorial representations of Crete.  It will also be remembered that the Greeks imported Cretan priests to manage the Apollonian shrine at Delphi.

     The myth is that the two aspects were once united then driven apart wandering the world in search of each other.  Duly at long last they do find each other are reconciled and allowed by the Goddess of Love to reunite.  Thus the stories of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty evolved from Psyche and Eros and who knows how many other stories besides those of Burroughs.

     The question is was Burroughs only following a plot line, a pattern he had absorbed or was he consciously aware of what he was doing?  Had he thought the problem out?  Just as Tarzan and Jane were apparently mismatched in Burroughs’ dreamscapes so were ERB and Emma in real life.  In Tarzan And The Golden Lion Tarzan and Jane had no sooner returned home from Pal-ul-don than Tarzan fled to his Anima in far off dreamland Opar leaving Jane/Emma to more or less shift for herself in a very dangerous world.  Misfortune usually hit her too.

     In ERB’s dream couple of John Carter and Dejah Thoris the Anima and Animus seem to be united although we see little of Dejah Thoris in the series and not at all in this novel.  Even their son who may represent ERB is not present at all.  Even with Carter and Dejah Thoris the classic separation and reuniting form a major part of the Martian Trilogy.

     In this dream tale with Tara and Gahan ERB follows the classic formula- separation, the long pursuit and final reconciliation.  He appears to know what he is talking about but since he never discussed his ideas on the subject we can only infer that he did or doubt or deny that he did.  The psychological motifs he expresses throughout Chessmen leads me to believe he did.

     What are dreams and what is a dream story?  Freud originated the rational approach to dream interpretation.  ERB gave some thought to the problem.  Once can’t be sure he had read Freud’s Interpretations Of Dreams although in his short story Tarzan’s First Nightmare ERB used elements contained in Freud’s theory to explain the causes of Tarzan’s nightmare.  At the very least we can say that dreams and nightmares from which ERB suffered all his life were of great interest to him.  In the thirties he would buy at least one book on scientific dream interpretation.

     What is the basis of dreams?  It can only be experiences combined with memory.  That’s it.  Think about it.  You don’t have to look any further.  Nothing mysterious about them.  The basic problem can be expressed in the question of what is the unconscious or subconscious.  Is it some ultra mysterious process of the mind that can’t be penetrated, understood or accurately located?  Is it as Freud believed an organ independent of the body and mind yet which somehow controls the actions of the individual from outside him?  Or, once again, is it merely a combination of experience and memory, a faculty for interpeting the experiences of the day?

     Freud touched on a key concept when he realized that the mind, which never rests, processes the incidents of the previous day in the sleeping and dreaming state.  Burroughs also takes this approach in Tarzan’s nightmare whether he picked it up from Freud, Sweetser or realized it himself.

      In point of fact experience happens to us so rapidly and from so many angles at the same time that it is impossible for the conscious mind to process it all as it is happening.  Can’t be done.  So, it follows that the subconscious or back up mind retains, as it were, photographs of the day’s activities that it reviews in sleep for either discarding, repression or action.  How many times have you awakened with possible solutions to problems facing you?

     The problem with the subconscious mind is that analysis of situations is affected by fixations, more expecially by the central childhood fixation.  Childhood is that perilous time of life when the inexperienced mind is subject to being presented with challenges for which it has no programmed or immediately adequate response.  Defeated in analysis the challenge is encrypted and encysted in the subconscious where it interprets all similar challenges through the lens of the defeated challenge and response.  Thus all those strange compulsive behaviors we have.

     As it chances we know Burroughs’ central childhood fixation.  That was when he was eight or nine and he was challenged on a street corner on the way to school by a twelve year old Irish bully.  Terrified ERB broke and ran apparently thereafter branded as a coward.  Thus the central theme of his work is fight or flight and the state of cowardice.  He examines the matter endlessly throughout the entire body of his work.  These elements are all especially prominent in Chessmen.

     We know that ERB was stressed to the breaking point as he wrote in 1921.  Whenever he was stressed his personality fragmented, splitting at least once.  In Chessmen the Kaldanes are two separate entities, the physical Rykors and the mental Kaldanes.  Tara and Gahan, the ritual Burroughs’ surrogates are driven apart by the terrific storm.

     This is a dream story abounding in dream images.  One can provide an analysis of the storm scene based on the incidents occurring in ERB’s life at the time.

     The image presented to us is of this very rare Martian storm of very high winds as in a tornado.  Tara although warned against it takes her flier up.  Perhaps ERB was warned against buying Tarzana, I would certainly think that Emma was at the least apprehensive.  Tara navigates well beneath the clouds but wants to be in a cloud where she has never been before, i.e. Burroughs buys Tarzana.  Here she is buffeted about so to escape she rises above the cloud or storm where the winds abate.  But she has to get back down so she must reenter the storm.  She is then taken by the winds tumbled head over heels by their extreme violence arriving half dead in the land of the Kaldanes.

     Now, how does this represnet ERB’s actual situation in dream images.

     ERB left Chicago under one presumes, sunny skies.  His original intent was to buy twenty acres to raise hogs.  Instead he bought over five hundred acres.  He then began a massive building and improvement program with what appears to have been a substantial payroll and a not very well thought out plan.  He overspent his income so that by 1921 his bills must have been greater than his income forcing him to borrow.  He found he had neither the skills nor the talent bo be a ‘Gentleman Farmer’ so that he was forced to auction off most of his tools, implements and livestock in an effort to raise money and cut expenses.  Also at this time his sources of income came under attack as the movies refused to film his intellectual properties while his royalties also came under attack.

     In what I consider a purely defensive move he was forced to incorporate himself assigning all his income, copyrights and what not to the corporation in an effort to secure the means of his livelihood by putting his income beyond the reach of his creditors.  In what I consider a questionable move he subsequently transferred a portion of Tarzana to the corporation.  So, shortly after this storm broke on his head he became merely an employee of his corporation.

     At the time he wrote Chessmen then he was caught in the turbulence of this storm he had created.  Unable to get back down as with Tara he tried to rise above it in some way but was forced back into the problem where he was being blown along head over heels no longer in control of his affairs.

     In the relative calm of 1924 he wrote Marcia Of The Doorstep that chronicles and looks back at this period.

     Tara’s flight then is ERB’s day to day situation presented in dream images.

     The rest of the book deals with past and present in a series of dream images to which  we proceed.

Edgar Rice Burroughs On Mars

November 16, 2008

 

Edgar Rice Burroughs On Mars

by

R.E. Prindle

 

     ERB scholars have long noted that the entire corpus of novels reads almost as one long book.  I believe this is because ERB records his life in his novels.  If one reads the novels in the sequence in which they were written and if one understands the symbolism used by Burroughs against a background of what’s happening in his life ERB actually records his mental state of the moment.

     In this essay I am going to concentrate on a role of John Carter in the Mars series and that of Ulysses Paxton in the Mastermind Of Mars. 

     In real life before ERB began writing he was powerless on earth.  I would call him an abject failure but even though he appeared one he was only on the verge of being one and if his attempt at a writing career in 1911 had failed he would have been plunged into the abyss.

     As he was a failure or at least an unfulfilled seeker in 1911 he makes John Carter into a mold he admired, that of a Virginian and a soldier who was seeking his post-Civil War fortune in the deserts of the Southwest.  Carter, whose initials are JC, actually finds his gold mine but attacked by Indians he escapes death by transporting himself to Mars.

     Mars has a lesser gravity than Earth so on Mars he has superhuman powers.  Thus unable to realize any of his ambitions on Earth ERB transports himself in his imagination to Mars as the Superman, John Carter.

     Amazingly the idea struck a responsive chord in his soon to be Editor at Munsey’s, Metcalf, who bought the story.  It doesn’t matter for how much, the point is it validated ERB’s lofty opinion of his destiny.  Fortified by this response he brought himself down to Earth in the fantastic form of Tarzan Of The Apes in an imaginary Africa.  Here was the gold mine he as John Carter was seeking.  There was no one, no Indians, to drive him off so he was off to the races.

     The first rush carried him through the line into 1920 when he left Chicago behind and fled to Los Angeles.

     In LA his careless financial habits soon led him into hot water virtually bankrupting him but definitely stripping him of his assets.  By 1926 when he wrote The Mastermind Of Mars he was virtually financially prostrate.

     The hero of Mastermind is Ulysses Paxton.  Ulysses can stand for the Greek wanderer and seeker Odysseus or for the great warrior, Ulysses S. Grant.  So what we have is a duplicate of John Carter.

     ERB is on record as saying that he thought that every man was two persons not unlike Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, some more divided , some less.  Under stress the two personas like Jekyll and Hyde became distinct.

     Now, in 1911 ERB was an unrealized genius but in 1926 he was a failed genius.  In other words he had had his legs cut from beneath him.  He might as well have been dead.  Therefore Ulysses Paxton while serving in the Great War has a shell explode beside him.  When he comes to he realizes his legs have been blown away.  While he lies dying he looks up to Mars as John Carter had fifteen years before.  When he next comes to his legs are restored and he is standing in a garden on Mars.

     Thus in real life ERB imagines himself figuratively in Paxton’s situation returning in his imagination to the Red Planet in the hope of making lightning strike twice.

     He hadn’t written a Tarzan novel since Ant Men four years previously.  He was black listed by the movie colony that refused to make any Tarzan movies even though they would have been lucrative.  He was under attack nationally and internationally by the Reds who were doing everything possible to destroy his sales and reputation.  ERB truly had his back to the wall or figuritively had had his legs cut off.

     Fortune would once again favor him when FBO Studios broke the blacklist against him.  After a couple fumbling attempts at Tarzan novels he would hit a magnificent stride through the Tarzan novels from 1929 to 1936.

    The Mastermind Of Mars was his attempt to recover his career.  His style while revered by his fans was old hat by 1926 so he could no longer take the world by storm as he had in 1911.

     Mastermind is a complex novel of which I haven’t completely broken the code but let us concentrate on two aspects.  The first is ERB’s troubled state of mind over his marriage.  Thus he invents the story of Xaxa and Valla Dia as he fights to deal with his sexual problem.  The second is the religious problem caused by his confrontation with the Jews beginning in 1919 and continuing not only through 1924’s Marcia Of The Doorstep, and 1926 but  to the end of his career.

     In 1926 ERB had not yet met Florence Dearholt although he was probably already familiar with her husband Ashton and through that acquaintance he may already have seen her, and perhaps, also on the screen as she was an actress.  He did meet her in March of ’27 when Dearholt approached him on a movie deal and was either immediately smitten or had the opinion of her he already had confirmed.

     In Mastermind ERB expresses the thought that he has a wife to whom he owes everything but who he hates.  This strong emotion would be realized at his own Emma’s death.

     In this novel Emma is represented by the brain of the horrid Xaxa.  Ras Thavas, the demon mastermind of Mars and physician nonpareil, has transplanted the brain of Xaxa into the beautiful body of Valla Dia and vice versa.  Dia is Latin for goddess.  I don’t know what Valla means.

      The body of Xaxa containing the brain of Valla Dia is held in suspended animation by Ras Thavas.  Bringing the body to life Paxton is smitten by the beauty of Valla Dia’s brain.  Knowing that her body is of incomparable beauty he conceives the notion of restoring her brain to her body and taking her to wife.  Valla Dia may also be seen a version of Helen of Troy.

     I interpret this to mean that ERB’s Anima ideal was the beautiful Valla Dia, perhaps as he had once viewed Emma.  But to his mind Emma had developed an ugly mind that animated the body of his Anima ideal.  the beautiful mind he sought was thus in an ugly body while an ugly mind was in a beautiful body.  ERB’s dilemma was to shuck Emma and find a beautiful mind in a beautiful body.  When he met Florence in 1927 he thought he had found his Anima ideal of a beautiful mind in a beautiful body.  His problem then was how to rid himself of Emma.

     On that level then ERB is struggling with his sexual problem.  In this book his struggle would take the form of an astonishing number of dual and split personalities.  This is quite a study in that sense and an indication of ERB’s extreme stress.  Perhaps Mastermind is a worthy successor to Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde.

     The second and less resolvable problem is the religious issue.  At this moment in time the Jews of Hollywood have got ERB boxed.  Indeed, they have cut off his legs.  The logjam was about to be broken by FBO Studios which would free ERB up until the late thirties when he was forced into exile in Hawaii.  For now though he has to deal with this very difficult problem.  He has by now learned that freedom of speech ends where Judaism begins.  If I am right he was denied publication of Marcia Of The Doorstep because of the manner in which he discussed his dilemma.

     In Mastermind while the religious issue assumes primary importance ERB puts it into an ecumenical form denouncing all religion.  Does he refer to his Jewish situation in any cloudy form?  I think he does.

     The god in this story is a huge several story high idol named Tur to which all must bow down.  The name Tur is an odd name for a god, at least in my mind.  I have said before you cannot talk about that which isn’t in your mind.  If you haven’t studied religions there is nothing you can say about them. As ERB has a great deal to say it is obvious that he knows something about religion and religions.  Theology isn’t the issue here, that is a separate matter.

     Given ERBs method, when he learned he had a problem with Judaism I’m sure he went out and learned something about it.  It isn’t necessary that he had a profound knowledge; it is only necessary that he learned some things.  We can’t be sure what.  The word Tur is signficant in Jewish historiography.  His use of Tur may be a coincidence but there you have it- Tur is Tur any way you turn it, frontwards or backwards, Tur is Tur.

     The word Tur appears in Judaic lore in this manner:

     …Rabbi Jacob (Yaakov) ben Asher (1270-1343) the “Baal ha-Turim” compiled the Arba Turim, first printed in 1458.  “Tur” is used as shorthand for both the title of the whole work and for Rabbi Asher himself since it is customary in Judaism to call a compiler by the name of his compilation.  The Tur is the predecessor of Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Schulchan Aruch.  The four part structure of the Tur and its division into chapters (simanim) were adopted by Karo in the later code, Shulchan Aruch.  Each of the four divisions of the work is a Tur, so a particular passage is cited a Tur…

     p. 127 Hoffman, Michael, Judaism Discovered, 2008

     While one can’t be certain ERB learned the above fact it isn’t particularly recondite and might have been easily learned.  At the least the use of Tur for the god is a remarkable coincidence.

     Making Tur an idol to which all must bow would have been an egregious offence to the Jews and one which any knowledgeable Jew, who might have read the book, always a precondition, would have picked up on it  whether Burroughs intended it or not.  Paranoia strikes deep.

     The idol itself could possibly be modeled on the Alexandrine Egypto-Greek god, Sarapis.  Burroughs would have known of this from the Bible if not from his readings in the classics.  We know he reread Plutarch’s Lives at least twice with one of those times just previous to writing Mastermind.  If he read the Lives twice he undoubtedly read other classics so there is no reason to believe that he didn’t have knowledge in these matters.

     The manner of Paxton’s posing as Tur and bamboozling the bamboozlers is a mockery of religion in general although given the context of the word Tur the application of the mockery might have been taken more personally.

     Forced to use the most discreet measures to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism ERB may have thought he was undetectably clever while he is certainly having a good laugh.  Paxton congratulates himself  and gives himself a couple pats on the back at the success of his ruse.

     The end result, of course, is that he frees the people from the bondage to the false religion of Tur. 

     I’m not quite clear on the nature of Ras Thavas who is named after the Ethiopian Prince Ras Tafari who became the Emperor Haile Selassie and the namesake of the Jamaican Rastafarians.

     The book is a worthy of the attempted second birth of ERB’s faltering career.  The characters are magnificent and finely drawn.  Ras Thavas is surely one of the great characters of pulp fiction.  Mastermind paired with The Synthetic Men Of Mars makes for one of the greatest diptyches of science fiction.