As a child, I remember much enjoying the story of The Story of Babar the Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff, so I gave it to my son as Christmas present. Reading it to him, I have been struck by what very strange – very French – story it is.
For those unfamiliar with the tale it goes thus. Babar is a happy baby elephant. One day his mother is killed by “a wicked hunter.” Babar then goes to the city, where he is befriended by a rich old lady. The old lady buys him some very dapper clothes (described in great detail), gets him some pastries, and Babar is very happy. One day his cousins come to visit. Babar buys them pastries and dapper clothes. After some time, all the elephants decide to return to the forest. Babar marries his cousin, and the elephants decide to make him their king because he has such nice clothes. The end.
Think about the logic of this story. Babar suffers a great evil, the death of his mother. He find’s solace in fashion and pastries. Rather than seeking justice, he seeks elegance and this seems to be a fully satisfactory replacement for both justice and his mother. He then magnanimously shares his elegance with unfortunate relations, and – after an incestuous marriage – is made king on the basis of his fashion.
In this story, style becomes the ultimate arbiter of life. It is style that redeems Babar from his sadness. It is style that justifies his elevation to royalty. It is style that wins the heart of his cousin.
Had the story of Babar been written by an American it would have gone thus. After the wicked hunter killed his mother, Babar would have devoted himself to avenging her death and exacting justice from the hunter. There would have been a tense scene in which Babar confronted the hunter and said, “Hallo! My name is Babar! You killed my mother! Prepare to die!” Babar and the hunter would then have struggled to the death. It is not clear whether Babar would actually kill the hunter, but at the end of the struggle, it would be clear who the alpha-elephant is. In fact, I don’t think that Babar would actually kill the hunter, but rather would leave him to live out the remainder of his miserable life fully conscious of his horrible crime, cankered and destroyed by guilt and remorse. Babar would then vanquish a bully elephant in single combat, and thus become king of the elephants. And he would marry the bully’s girl friend.
This is why the French have great pastries and fashion, while Americans invade Iraq.