delanceyplace.com 8/26/10 - babar the elephant

In today's encore excerpt - the beloved children's book, French author Jean de Brunhoff's "The Story of Babar," published in 1931 in the days of French colonies and the global French Empire:

"[In the book] an elephant, lost in the city, does not trumpet with rage but rides a department-store elevator up and down, until gently discouraged by the elevator boy. A Haussmann-style city rises in the middle of the barbarian jungle. Once seen, Babar the Frenchified elephant is not forgotten. ...

"Every children's story that works at all begins with a simple opposition of good and evil, of straightforward innocence and envious corruption. ...[In this story] Babar's mother, with her little elephant on her back, is murdered, with casual brutality, by a squat white hunter. ... (Maurice Sendak, in a lovely appraisal of Babar, recalls thinking that the act of violence that sets Babar off is not sufficiently analyzed—that the trauma is left unhealed and even untreated.) ...

"Babar [some] interpreters have insisted, is an allegory of French colonization, as seen by the complacent colonizers: the naked African natives, represented by the 'good' elephants, are brought to the imperial capital, acculturated, and then sent back to their homeland on a civilizing mission. The elephants that have assimilated to the ways of the metropolis dominate those which have not. The true condition of the animals—to be naked, on all fours, in the jungle—is made shameful to them, while to become an imitation human, dressed and upright, is to be given the right to rule. The animals that resist—the rhinoceroses—are defeated. The Europeanized elephants are as in the colonial mechanism of indirect rule, then made trustees of the system, consuls for the colonial power. To be made French is to be made human and to be made superior. ...

"Yet those who would [so interpret] 'Babar' miss the true subject of the books. The de Brunhoffs' saga is not an unconscious expression of the French colonial imagination; it is a self-conscious comedy about the French colonial imagination. ... The gist of the classic early books of the nineteen-thirties— 'The Story of Babar' and 'Babar the King' particularly—is explicit and intelligent: the lure of the city, of civilization, of style and order and bourgeois living is real, for elephants as for humans. The costs of those things are real, too, in the perpetual care, the sobriety of effort, they demand. The happy effect that Babar has on us, and our imaginations, comes from this knowledge—from the child's strong sense that, while it is a very good thing to be an elephant, still, the life of an elephant is dangerous, wild, and painful. It is therefore a safer thing to be an elephant in a house near a park. ...

"All children's books take as their subject disorder and order and their proper relation, beginning in order and ending there, but with disorder given its due. ... Disorder is the normal mess of life, what rhinos like. Order is what elephants (that is Frenchmen) achieve at a cost and with effort. To stray from built order is to confront the man with a gun. ... Fables for children work not by pointing to a moral, but by complicating the moral of a point. The child does not dutifully take in the lesson that salvation lies in civilization, but, in good Freudian fashion, takes in the lesson that the pleasures of civilization come with discontent at its constraints: you ride the elevator, dress up in the green suit, and go to live in Celesteville, but an animal you remain—the dangerous humans and rhinoceroses are there to remind you of that—and you delight in being so. There is allure in escaping from the constraints that button you up and hold you; there is also allure in the constraints and the buttons. We would all love to be free, untrammelled elephants, but we long, too, for a green suit."


author:

Adam Gopnik

title:

"Freeing the Elephants"

publisher:

The New Yorker

date:

September 22, 2008

pages:

46-50
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COMMENTS (1)

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JohnSmith

Yesterday at 7:31pm
Gianni Russo is a liar, which makes this excerpt junk.