Mexican Anthropologist Visits With Mythical 'Wild Man' By Leslie Rice What is it about the legend of Tarzan that still captures our imaginations decades after he was conjured up by Edgar Rice Burroughs? Western cultures have a peculiar fascination with legends of noble savages. Our culture is drawn to stories, movies and comic books about men and women raised or living in wildernesses alongside apes or wolves, humans unable to be civilized by society. The invention of this folklore is not new to this century; stories of the wild man can be traced back to the very dawn of Western civilization. But rather than revealing the mysteries of the wild, these mythic stories of man-beasts can serve as eloquent descriptions of the civilized societies that create them, said an anthropologist visiting the Homewood campus this month. For the last several years, Mexican anthropologist Roger Bartra has studied this myth and has traced references to the wild man through art, literature and folklore in Western cultures since the early Greeks. "The man we recognize as civilized has been unable to take a single step without the shadow of the wild man at his heel," said Dr. Bartra. This month, Dr. Bartra has been teaching a graduate seminar based on his book "Wild Men in the Looking Glass: The Mythic Origins of European Otherness." The course, offered by the Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies, has proved wildly popular. "The course filled up as soon as we announced it," said Hispanic and Italian Studies professor Eduardo Gonzalez. "Dr. Bartra is a famous anthropologist, and he is also a public figure in Mexico. He was the editor of the most important weekly newspaper in the country, and he has written wonderful books that address the national character of Mexico." In fact, his book "The Cage of Melancholy" is considered one of the most important anthropological texts on the Mexican identity, Dr. Gonzalez said. It was Dr. Bartra's fame in both literary analysis and anthropology that had Anthropology and Hispanic and Italian Studies students scrambling to take his course. "This course is interdisciplinary in the truest sense of the word," said Elizabeth Wright, a graduate student in the Hispanic and Italian Studies Department. "It's very much a literary course, but his expertise in anthropology makes it a fascinating class. He's one of the most erudite scholars I've ever encountered." By studying the "slippery presence of these strange figures in history" that have held such a great hold on European imaginations for centuries, Dr. Bartra said he now has a deeper understanding of how Western cultures view "The Other"--the people or groups it views as radically different from themselves. He points to the Spanish conquistadors who returned from the New World, very comfortable with their notion of the land's native "savages." But the wild men they spoke of, creatures as much beast as human, often were not descriptions of the American Indian but in fact a reflection of their own cultural myths. By creating or inventing this idea of the savage, it becomes the stereotype for which it views those who are "Other," Dr. Bartra added. "It becomes a blind spot to the way Western cultures understand those that are different," he said. Dr. Bartra became interested in studying the origins of the wild man myth while researching "The Cage of Melancholy." "In Mexico, in most Latin American cultures, there is a sense of a duality between the savage, wild side and another side, one that is European and civilized," Dr. Bartra said. "The myth is very much a part of the Mexican culture. I saw it as a European-developed myth, and I wanted to pursue its origins." Dr. Bartra continues to study the wild man and is completing a follow-up book that looks at the myth from the 16th century to the present.
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