Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What We Make of It

The illustration was scanned from Babar And His Children by Jean de Brunhoff. Shamelessly ripped under the guise of fair use for discussion. The real crime here is that I clipped the illustration when scanning it so you can't see Alexander's--the elephant flying out the carriage--bemused expression.

I looked on the bookshelf to see if we had Barbar stories because in this week's The New Yorker Adam Gopnik writes about Babar in an article entitled Freeing The Elephants: What Babar Brought. The copy of Babar And His Children on the shelf is an old library edition. Many of the pages are repaired with tape. I also notice that signatures have been re-sewn to some brown packing tape to atatch the cover securely, which was surely my mother's handiwork. I loved Babar stories as a child. My favorite stories however were Rupert Bear stories.

We had books in my house when growing up. Many of them were rummage sale finds. My mother particularly liked library bindings and those books were often rubber stamped with the word discarded. I do remember asking about the word as a child, but can't remember the answer. I presume it was something like, "It's ours now." In fact many of the old library books still had the pocket for the library card, some even a card. I can remember taking the cards out when I looked at these books and putting it back when I was finished.

I don't know many other Americans my age who knew Rupert Bear books. Rupert is huge in England, having been serialized in the Daily Expresssince 1920. It's fortunate my mother picked used books for us, otherwise I would never have had Rupert stories as a childhood companion. Rupert Bear is one reason my disenchantment of nature is incomplete. The possibility of brownies and gnomes still intrigues me.

I've been writing lately about religion and American politics and somehow haven't gotten around to saying anything important about it. Last Friday Jeremy at Naijablog posted a short post A world without god... I've got Naijablog in my feeds, but was alerted to the post by one of Emeka Okafor's "Quick Hits." I hurried over to read because the comments at Naijablog are very often quite lively.

In a conversation a Nigerian friend recently off-handedly remarked that he didn't believe in God. Jeremy wrote:
I wondered: if this chap can make the route out of the forces of unreason, how come most others fall into its snares and stay trapped staring at shadows deep within Plato's cave...
I've got an atheist Internet friend in Uganda. Over the years we've talked about Humanism. I told him about Tai Solarian whom Jeremy mentions in his piece. But my atheist friend is like Solarian a fierce critic of religion. I've told him I don't believe in God, but every once in a while my friend will begin to tell me something with, "A Christian like you..." I think where the confusion comes from is that he knows I'm not one to throw out unreason altogether.

Recently my friend and I were talking and the clans of various people we know came up. Talking with Ugandans on the Internet there are so many subjects with a common frame of reference, but an American like me can talk long without discovering differences which are hard to translate and to understand. How clans work is one of the topics for me. Here is a page listing the Clans of Buganda. The Buganda are the largest ethnic group in Uganda. I learned for the first time which clan my friend belongs. My friend sometimes will rail against tribalism, but in fact he seemed to relish telling me about the clans. His relationship to Buganda culture perhaps is a bit like my relationship to Christianity, in that for each of us there is a refutation of the tradition yet still tradition has its sway on us.

Google Book Search is cool. In looking for more information about Buganda clan totems I stumbled upon James G. Frazer's 1910 Totemism and Exogomy. Frazer's theories belong to history rather than main currents in anthropology today. Still I was struck by his descriptions of the Buganda clan totems ad by how the totems together created a cultural fabric.

In his article about Babar Gopnik addresses how Babar is controversial literature. In particular he mentions Ariel Dorfman who wrote The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds. In brief here's Gropnik on the controversy:
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.
Gropnik finds those who would burn "Babar" have missed the true subject of the books. For Gopnik the books are not colonial propaganda but rather;
a self-conscious comedy about the French colonial imagination and its close relation to the French domestic imagination.
If Babar was a part of your childhood, or perhaps you have introduced Babar to your children, Gopnik's article is really worth reading.

Jeremy really is a master at getting conversations going on his blog, shortly after his first post World without god.. he posted a second The God particle and the comments are superb. We in America would be better off if we made an effort to talk more about religion in politics. It's hard to do because so often such talk can seem attacks.

As my Ugandan friend has noticed, my position seems a bit wishy-washy. On the one hand I say that I don't believe in God, but on the other hand talk about how important stories are to our understanding of things. And there's no doubt that religious stories are among my most favorite. Jeremy's wholesale rejection of God is ironically less likely to cause offense. Either way, it seems a willingness to suffer a bit of offense is necessary for discussion.

Much of what we Americans seem to think of as religious are stories with a different origin. Babar in translation offers a cross-cultural exchange and through that makes our stories more visible to us. If Americans of differing religious and non-religious views would talk more, we would become better aware of the stories we use to navigate through life. It wouldn't hurt either for more Americans to listen to what people around the world are talking about too. We miss out by making our religious views too private.

I notice that Republican presidential candidate has caused a minor international incident. In an interview with Spanish press he suggested he would not be willing to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero. According to Talking Points Memo reporting most Spanish observers believe that McCain simply had no idea what Spain's head of state's name is and got confused thinking Zapatero must be a bad guy in Latin America. One would expect that a presidential candidate would get some sort of briefing prior to speaking with the foreign press. So some in Spain figure McCain must know who Zapatero is and is signaling frosty relations. My take is that surely McCain was confused and did not intend the insult. My opinion stems from observing McCain's bellicosity and a worldview of enemy's all around.

Pardon my French: Jesus! McCain scares the crap out of me.

1 comment:

Daisy said...

I think where the confusion comes from is that he knows I'm not one to throw out unreason altogether.

Another great post, John.

I am one who likes to interject stuff like "Reason? Rationality? Yuck!!!"--in my arguments with atheists. It totally stops them dead in their tracks. Likewise, their constant references to God as a "sky fairy" or whatever--my reaction is--"What's wrong with fairies? I LOVE fairies!"

Drives them crazy. They are dumbfounded. Probably because the usual Christian/believer response is to argue God IS NOT a sky-fairy... whereas I will grant the point, then ask, SO? They don't get it, while I think you would.

I don't want a world with no fairies. I can't relate to that thinking/existence at all; the difference is, I am an existentialist (meaning I take full responsibility for my irrationality) and I am very self-aware. I wrote about some of that here (skip down to #5).

I ask the atheists, are you going to take away our fairies? Are you going to LEGISLATE no public references to our sky-fairies? (some atheists sound as dogmatic and fascist as any fundamentalists) Because, you know, if you take away something, what do you propose to put in it's place?

RATIONALISM!--they yell back.

Well, sorry, TOTAL rationalism without fairy tales and assorted other mythology is quite simply no fun (stops to genuflect in Iggy Pop's direction) and will always fail. Are you going to force it? The USSR tried that. Bread and circuses? Been tried, now and in the past; people inevitably seek more.

The atheists (not agnostics) seem to want to WIPE OUT BELIEF--and (speaking rationally, haha) I don't think that's ever going to happen. IF so (see my link above), I think human irrationality will ultimately manifest in a scarier and more unpredictable, unwieldy fashion. We aren't all as smart as Richard Dawkins or rocket scientists, and (here it is) don't want to be. We want to be HAPPY and CONTENT, and most of the high-powered blogger/media atheists seem so profoundly UNhappy, just as some of the TV preachers seem SO ANGRY.

I know one thing for sure: I don't want to be like those people.

And on this feast of St Francis of Assisi, coming up this weekend, let me quote him: Preach the Gospel always, when necessary, use words.


Hope you don't mind the verbosity. :P