September 18, 2008

Babar And The French Colonialist Hermeneutics Of Blah Blah Blah

Has is been four years already? Then it must be time for a long, brainy-seeming thinkpiece on the deeper cultural significance of Babar. In 2004 it was Alison Lurie in the New York Review of Books with the supposed evils of French imperialism. This year it's Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker with the parodic idealization of the Parisian bourgeoisie.

To which I say, n'importe quoi, folks. Both of these otherwise erudite writers pad their pieces with way too much raised-eyebrow recapping of Babar plotlines, as if none of their audience have ever noticed the propagandistic subtext of armies of winged elephants labeled "Despair" and "Integrity" on their own.

Re-reading it just now, I think Lurie's analysis misses by not distinguishing between the six original stories written between the wars by Jean de Brunhoff, and the Babar industry as reconstituted later by his son Laurent. Also she's wrongly dismissive of analysis of de Brunhoff in the context of such artists as Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy.

Gopnik's much smarter on discussing de Brunhoff's artistic milieu. But from my uninformed perspective, I wonder if his whole premise--that Babar isn't about colonialism and French Civilization rescuing the savage races, so much as it's de Brunhoff's genial insider's parody of Parisian life itself--doesn't hew pretty closely to Ann Hildebrand's history, Jean and Laurent De Brunhoff: The Legacy of Babar, which he doesn't even mention?

And anyway, is Babar really under critical condemnation for being an evil captalist/colonialist/whatever if one random Chilean Marxist wrote a chapter on the guy in 1983, and one other guy said, "yeah!" twelve years later? I went ahead and ordered copies of Hildebrand's book and Ariel Dorfman's The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds so I can see firsthand what all this brainflexing is about. So watch for my definitive essay on Babar sometime in 2012.

Freeing The Elephants | What Babar Brought, by Adam Gopnik, Sept. 22, 2008 [newyorker.com]
Previously: daddytypes on "The Royal Family" by Alison Lurie, Dec. 16, 2004 [nybooks.com]

1 Comment

As a student of history, it seems strange to me to be having a discussion on this topic in the post-Cold War era. Most of the anti-colonialist/imperialist movements and dialogs were directly or indirectly encouraged by the Soviets (and, ironically, by the United States, who were trying to exert our own sphere of influence post-WWII). So it seems almost irrelevant to be talking about in this day and age - sort of like having a heated discussion about the Spartans' persecution of the helots. Although it's interesting to note that this is coming up now, again (French colonialism - not Spartan civil society), coincident with the resurgence of Russian power and influence.

Anyway, we love Babar - partially because of its dated charm; the original stories provide a fascinating window into another time, place, and culture. And in one of those "six degrees of separation" things, Laurent de Brunhoff's brother was my wife's dentist growing up in Paris!

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