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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog


"For over seventy years, Babar has been the most famous elephant in the world—and the most controversial," writes author and Cornell English professor Alison Lurie in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. "He has been praised as a benevolent monarch, an ideal parent, and a model of family affection, loyalty, justice, good manners, and civilized living. He has also been damned as a sexist, an elitist, a colonialist, and a racist." And so, Lurie says, Babar "must be more than the ordinary hero of a children's picture book: he must represent important and sometimes contradictory views of both childhood and society."

Babar's world is a paradox of innocence and menace. He rules over "an ideal world, a kind of upper-middle class French Utopia whose capital is literally a heavenly city—as its name, Celesteville, indicates." And yet, the elephants' sworn enemies, the rhinos, dress and behave like the German army of World War I, Lurie says. Laurent de Brunhoff—the son of Babar's creators, Cecile (she died last year at age 99) and Jean de Brunhoff—who perpetuated the series, denies this allegorical connection, saying the rhinos are merely the opposite of Babar's peacefulness, gentleness, and wisdom. But Lurie says the nurses who treat the wounded elephants in The Travels of Babar are wearing "World War I costumes." And she says it's no coincidence that more recent portrayals of the rhinos—those published after the fall of the Berlin Wall—have been more benign and hopeful, at least in regard to the younger rhinos.

Observers have read other geopolitical implications into the de Brunhoffs' tales. In the 1993 Rescue of Babar, the main character suffers what Lurie calls "a midlife crisis"; he travels to an isolated land of pleasure (which Lurie says is a spitting image of San Francisco) and wants to stay. This book came out a few years after Laurent de Brunhoff moved from France to America and married an American.

If you think that kind of heady analysis is enough to spoil an otherwise innocent children's tale, you haven't seen anything yet. Someone—the gall!—published a book entitled Should We Burn Babar?, criticizing the series' supposed antifeminism, racism, colonialism, and glorification of idle luxury. Lurie defends the series against these charges by placing the books in the social context of the early- to mid-20th century, and notes that when Laurent took over the series, he sought to weed out its anachronisms; he was "one of the first children's book artists to make amends and include realistic drawings of black people in his public scenes." Fortunately, Lurie says, recent books on "the legacy of Babar" and "the art of Babar" provide more fitting tributes to this timeless children's character.


From the New York Times :

LONDON* — Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, as they call him here, has fallen victim to 21st-century notions in Britain. So far this holiday season he has been tainted by parental fears of sexual abuse, marginalized by corporate misgivings about liability and shoved aside by runaway commercialism (which he helped invent in the first place)—not to mention being accosted by teenage toughs on the street. "It's madness," said James Lovell, the director of a school for Santas run by the Ministry of Fun, a marketing and public relations firm in London that supplies Santas to the stores. The school has been hard hit by the Santa slump this year. Mr. Lovell expects that its enrollment by the end of Christmas will be 300, compared with 600 at the comparable time three years ago. The Santa spirit, typically found thriving in shopping malls and major department stores, has been evicted by the retailers' determination to fill every inch of space with merchandise.

SÃO PAULO, Brazil* - This is a city with nearly 11 million inhabitants and 4.5 million passenger cars, 32,000 taxis and 15,000 buses. Traffic jams more than 100 miles long are not uncommon, and even on an ordinary day, getting from one side of town to the other can take two hours or more. Only one group here in South America's largest city seems immune to those frustrations and delays: the daring army of motorcycle messengers known as "motoboys." Zigzagging among stopped cars, ignoring lane markers, red lights and stop signs, they regularly menace pedestrians and infuriate motorists as they zoom their way down gridlocked streets and highways, armed with the knowledge that without them business would grind to a halt. … The bulk of the motoboy's work involves rushing contracts and other legal documents from one business to another, especially for bank loans. But from car parts to architect's plans, human organs for transplant to passports or pizza, there is almost nothing he cannot or will not deliver.


• It may be too cynical to say that secular scientists are trying their darndest to talk about moral ethics without bringing themselves to say "spirituality." But Martin Marty, in his Sightings newsletter, says we should give the humanist journal Daedalus a chance as it tries out the phrase "intuitive ethics." A hybrid of nature and nurture, "intuitive ethics," the authors of an article on the subject say, means an "innate preparedeness" to judge the goodness of human actions. It comes in four categories: "suffering, hierarchy, reciprocity, and purity." This has to do with something called "virtue theory," they explain, according to which virtues are "social skills" that are not just the product of conditioning but also of intuition. They call their approach a "modified nativist" view, but hope to avoid middle-ground vagaries and instead find a "heretofore ignored link" between intuition and standards of behavior. This sounds an awful lot like what C.S. Lewis said a half-century ago in Mere Christianity, but Daedalus takes its theory for a test drive around American contemporary culture: "We have found that American Muslims and American political conservatives value virtues of kindness, respect for authority, fairness and spiritual purity. American liberals, however, rely more heavily on virtues rooted in the suffering module (liberals have a much keener ability to detect victimization) and the reciprocity module (virtues of equality, rights, and fairness)." Entry

Also from Sightings:
At age 81, Anthony Flew changes his mind about atheism

Isn't anyone in the Western world giving birth anymore? Sure they are, writes David Brooks in the New York Times . "All across the industrialized world, birthrates are falling—in Western Europe, in Canada and in many regions of the United States, Brooks says. "But spread around this country, and concentrated in certain areas, the natalists defy these trends." For these practitioners of natalism,  Brooks says, "their personal identity is defined by parenthood. They are more spiritually, emotionally and physically invested in their homes than in any other sphere of life, having concluded that parenthood is the most enriching and elevating thing they can do." And they band together in an increasingly kid-averse society. "In a world that often makes it hard to raise large families, many are willing to move to find places that are congenial to natalist values. The fastest-growing regions of the country tend to have the highest concentrations of children." These include Colorado's Douglas County, the fastest-growing country in the U.S. Perhaps Brooks' most provocative statement is this: "If you wanted a one-sentence explanation for the explosive growth of far-flung suburbs, it would be that when people get money, one of the first things they do is use it to try to protect their children from bad influences." But a close runner-up comes when he says that although natalists tend to be red-state people, they don't think in terms of those superficial categories: "What they cherish, like most Americans, is the self-sacrificial love shown by parents. People who have enough kids for a basketball team are too busy to fight a culture war." Column*

• Imagine a fashion model crusading against the fallacious ideals of beauty in celebrity culture. That model is Gregory Landsman, says the Melbourne Age. A South African native, Landsman strode down runways from Tokyo to Europe to Australia before growing disillusioned with the industry. "A supermodel is basically a manufactured commodity," he says to the Age, and to anyone else who will listen. "We're trying to aspire to something that's not real and it's a fantasy . . . the models themselves don't look like these [magazine] images." Landsman talked to schoolchildren, including six-year-olds who were dieting and an eight-year-old who longed for a nose job, and wrote a book the Age calls "semi-autobiographical": The Balance of Beauty: Explodes the Body Myth. "I think the messages are being absorbed at such a young age and emotionally I don't think they can really deal with it." Article

• When Monty Python's Flying Circus debuted on the BBC in the fall of 1969, hardly anyone laughed. "Much of the time," writes Dave Eggers in a retrospective in the New Yorker, the studio audiences were respectful but confused." John Cleese asked fellow cast member Michael Palin, ""Do you realize this could be the first comedy show to go out with absolutely no laughs at all?" But Monty Python found its stride, or at least found an audience, despite being what Eggers calls "the most consistently bizarre program ever aired on TV." But after 35 years, three movies and a group autobiography released last year, now Monty Python has to prove itself all over again, as "Spamalot" opens on Broadway in February. Eggers says there are plenty of question marks: "Would Broadway audiences take to the Pythons' particular brand of humor? Would they be able to understand all the words, if spoken with accents—one of them French? And, perhaps most important: Could a low-budget film, wherein King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table pretend to ride horses with the aid of pages banging coconuts together, be adapted for the stage, thirty years later, with the world at war?" Article

Also from the New Yorker:
Malcolm Gladwell on pictures and perception
James Surowiecki on drug companies, vaccines, and the developing world
Nancy Franklin on the latest wave of Beatlemania
Jeffrey Toobin on tea, religion, and legal tussles
Roger Angell on the baseball season gone by

Miscellaneous:Investing in a pastor's wellness at byFaith Online - Bob Dylan on 60 MinutesWho is Condoleezza Rice? From The Week - What's next in Iran, from the Atlantic Monthly - Who needs Harvard? From the Atlantic - The upside of discord,* by Julia Keller in the Chicago TribuneReal toys in an electronic age,* from the New York Times - In praise of Almost Great Books, from the Common Review

Most e-mailed articles from the New York Times (here*), Washington Post (here), and Boston Globe (here)

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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

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