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.

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