Arts and Letters

Freeing the Elephants

What Babar brought.

by Adam Gopnik September 22, 2008

Some left-wing critics have read in the Babar story an implicit endorsement of the civilizing effects of French colonialism.

Some left-wing critics have read in the Babar story an implicit endorsement of the civilizing effects of French colonialism.

A chain of elephants, trunks and tails linked, wanders, with a mixture of upbeat energy and complacent pride, along the endpapers of a children’s book. So begins one of the stories that most please the imagination of the modern child and his distant relation the modern adult—Jean de Brunhoff’s “The Story of Babar,” published in 1931. The Babar books are among those half-dozen picture books that seem to fix not just a character but a whole way of being, even a civilization. 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. With Bemelmans’s “Madeline” and Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” the Babar books have become part of the common language of childhood, the library of the early mind. There are few parents who haven’t tried them and few small children who don’t like them. They also remain one of the few enterprises begun by a father and continued by his son in more or less the same style. Laurent de Brunhoff, who was twelve when his father died, at the age of just thirty-seven, picked up the elephant brush after the Second World War and has gone on producing Babar books, with the same panache, almost to this day. (Audubon’s sons’ continuation of their father’s “Quadrupeds” is another instance, but in that case the father was alive when the sons began to carry on the work.)

Babar comes to us now in a show, at the Morgan Library & Museum, of the early drafts and watercolor drawings for the first books by both de Brunhoff père and de Brunhoff fils. Jean had produced the very first Babar book at the demand of his wife and two children, who had fallen in love with an elephant-centered bedtime story that she had been telling the children in the summer of 1930. He came from a family of artists perched on the ledge—a broad one in the France of his time—between fine-arts painting and book and fashion illustration. (De Brunhoff’s father had worked with the academic Impressionist James Tissot, and his brother was the editor of French Vogue.)

Jean de Brunhoff was trained as a painter, and what strikes one first about his preliminary drawings for “Babar” is how much more conventionally masterly—the work of an obviously accomplished draftsman—they look than the final drawings do. The sketches are sinuous and authoritative as de Brunhoff searches out form and dramatic manner. (He made oil paintings for adult collectors, and those which survive are likewise quite conservative and finished.) The completed Babar drawings, by contrast, are beautiful small masterpieces of the faux-naïf: the elephant faces reduced to a language of points and angles, each figure cozily encased in its black-ink outline, a friezelike arrangement of figures against a background of pure color. De Brunhoff’s style is an illustrator’s version of Matisse, Dufy, and Derain, which by the nineteen-thirties had already been filtered and defanged and made part of the system of French design.

But the Babar books are more than the sum of their lines. By now, of course, a controversial literature is possible about anything, and yet to discover that there is a controversial literature about Babar is a little shocking—faut-il brûler Babar? (“Must we burn Babar?”), as one inquisitor puts it, in a famous French locution. And the controversial literature isn’t trivial: it touches on questions that are real and enduring. In the past few decades, a series of critics on the left, most notably the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, have indicted Babar in the course of a surprisingly resilient and hydra-headed argument about the uses of imagery and the subtleties of imperialist propaganda. Babar, such 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. The straight lines and boulevards of Celesteville, the argument goes, are the sign of enslavement. Through such subtle imprinting, the premises of imperialism come to be treated as natural. The case cannot be dismissed out of hand: it’s easy to see that, say, “Little Black Sambo,” for all his pancake-eating charms, needs to be thought through before being introduced to young readers, while, to take an extreme example, a book from nineteen-thirties Germany about the extermination of long-nosed rats by obviously Aryan cats would go on anyone’s excluded list, however beautifully drawn.

Yet those who would burn “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 and its close relation to the French domestic 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.

“Freeing the Elephants” continues
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