The Contradictions of Babarismo

Andrew Wilson’s over-hasty call last week for a jihad against elephants sent me back to Babar, where in marked contrast to the angry pachyderms of India the elephant king presented monarchy in its most tranquil and genial aspect. Babar was solicitous of the public weal, nice to his family, well mannered and not given to ostentation.

Babar was conceived by Cecile de Brunhoff, realized in watercolors and stories created by her husband, Jean, then carried on by their son, Laurent. When Jean had Babar and Celeste in The Travels of Babar, drift in a balloon and land on an island inhabited by cannibals, he produced, in the words of Babar’s historian, Nicholas Weber, a “depiction [which was] an unfortunate example of the sort of prejudice that marked French attitudes towards the inhabitants of its colonies in the 1930s. They are fat-lipped, bug-eyed stereotypes.” Laurent edited out the cannibals in the 1981 Babar’s Anniversary Volume, having been approached in the 1960s by his Random House editor, Toni Morrison, who protested similar stereotypes in Laurent’s own Babar’s Picnic in 1949.

I’m not sure that this retrospective editing is such a good idea. As Dr Johnson said of prudish eighteenth-century editors of Shakespeare, “If phraseology is to be changed as words grow uncouth by disuse, or gross by vulgarity, the history of every language will be lost.” If that was the way either of the de Brunhoffs saw things, then leave them be. Next thing you know, Jacobin elephants will be complaining that de Brunhoff stereotyped the elephant race as monarchists, thus ignoring the long tradition of republicanism for which elephants are justly renowned and which has been militantly expressed in recent days in India.

One day I will write a long political history of Babar’s kingdom from a Gramscian perspective, showing how Babarismo ossified social relations in the kingdom and chained the productive forces. Babar’s realm never had a bourgeois revolution and this evasion of history produced untold subsequent trouble.

Gramsci himself wrote a charming letter about elephants to his son Delio, which a reader sent me some years ago.

“Dear Delio, I don’t know if the elephant can (or could) evolve to the point of becoming a being capable, like man, of dominating the forces of nature and of using them for his own ends–in the abstract. Concretely the elephant has not had the same development as man and certainly will not have it because man uses the elephant, while the elephant cannot use man, not even to eat him. What you think about the possibility of the elephant adapting his feet for practical work does not correspond to reality: in fact the elephant has the trunk as a ‘technical’ element and from the ‘elephantish’ [oint of view it serves him marvelously for lifting trees, defending himself under certain circumstances, etc.–You wrote that you liked the story and so we came to the elephant’s trunk. I think that to study history it is better not to fantasize too much about what would have happened ‘if’ (if the elephant had stood on his hind legs to develop his brain more, if, if; and if the elephant had been born with wheels? He would have been a natural tram! And if he had had wings? Imagine an invasion of elephants like an invasion of grasshoppers!). It is already very hard to study history as it actually developed, because the documentation for a large part of it has been lost; how can you waste time establishing hypotheses that have no foundation? And in your hypotheses there is too much anthropomorphism. Why should the elephant evolve like man? Who knows if some wise old elephant or some whimsical young elephant, from his own point of view, is not hypothesizingf why man did not develop a trunk. I am waiting for a long letter from you on this subject”

The artistic elephant colonies founded by the Russian-born artists Komar and Melamid would have delighted Delio Gramsci, who died in 1981. Go to for photographs of the elephants at their easels. As the website notes:

“Komar & Melamid’s Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project is at once a serious non-profit organization that cooperates closely with the World Wildlife Fund and a continuation of themes familiar from the artists’ previous work. Having lost their jobs because of strict anti-logging laws in the late 1980s, Thailand’s 3,000 domesticated elephants have been forced to move into the crowded cities where they perform circus tricks, barely earning enough for their handlers (mahouts) to feed them. By establishing three Elephant Art Academies, Komar & Melamid have empowered these poverty-stricken pachyderms to make ends meet by picking up brushes and taking the artworld by storm.”

Of course the tough young Indian pachyderms waggle their ears cynically at the project as “demobilizing” and urge their Siamese brothers and sisters to “put politics in command”.


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.