Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 24, 1995

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

     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

     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

     "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

     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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