Babar’s Mother in the Harvard Club

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CommonDreams.org

Babar’s Mother in the Harvard Club

"The hunter has killed Babar's mother! The monkey hides, the birds fly away. Babar cries."  ---- Jean de Brunhoff, The Story of Babar.

I was invited last week to unveil my recent portrait of Frances Perkins at a fundraiser for the Frances Perkins Center. Frances Perkins was the Secretary of Labor under FDR, the first woman in a presidential cabinet and the person most directly responsible for the programs of the New Deal. The event was held at the Harvard Club in New York City.  

I had never been in the Harvard Club and was unprepared for my reaction to it. Harvard's color, as you may know, is crimson. So, crimson predominates. The floors, the walls. The crimson and the dark wood paneling give the building an atmosphere of plushness, power, prestige, blood passing from red toward blue --- a kind of hushed, dark, comfortable, dignified self-satisfaction. One can nearly hear the avuncular creak of the mortised joints of the crimson leather bound chairs. And, as one would expect, memorabilia adorns every surface. Photographs of fresh-faced football players from 100 years ago, champion crews, squash teams --- the hallways and rooms are lined with them. In the library, the great room (Harvard Hall), meeting rooms, and in the dining rooms are the portraits of exemplary Harvard graduates, dignitaries, presidents, members of the corporation. From Teddy Roosevelt to Lawrence Summers. There are two outstanding portraits by John Singer Sargent painted in the 1890s. The air seems redolent with legacy, lineage, and ego as though one's mere presence here entitles.  

Besides the portraits, drawings and photographs, though, the walls are decorated with the busts of large game animals. Surprising. We are not in the hunting section of L.L. Bean, nor in a memorial for Ernest Hemingway. And one suspects that these moose, elk, ibex, warthogs, reindeer, and wapiti that jut off the walls in lifelike, heroic poses, their glass eyes frequently dusted to keep the glint, are not Harvard graduates. Otherwise, the stuffed head and shoulders of the old Rough Rider himself would be similarly mounted. But there is a relationship in the juxtaposition of the famous portraits & the animals. What might it be?  

In a word, dominance. Superiority. These mounted heads are the remnants of animals whose grace, strength, speed, intuition, intelligence, and sometime ferocity were no match for a Harvard man with a gun. They remind us who is still pecking at the top of the order. They also suggest that the greatest ambition of a moose with an enormous rack would be a place on these walls. How else would it attain a permanent place in the Harvard Club except by submitting to the violent will of the superior species? This, then, is a great animal's best use --- to exalt the prowess of the hunter from Cambridge. In a curious way, by juxtaposing portraits with trophies, each portrait subject, in addition to his elite credentials, becomes a great white hunter. Each claims with equal confidence that these great animals have no right to their own lives. Their destinies are props for human ego. Each portrait claims that an animal's beauty is better appreciated dead than alive, better owned than free. 

A mounted trophy represents about a quarter of the original animal. Its head and neck protrude vigorously from the wall as though the remaining bulk is suspended somewhere out of sight and still engaged in flight or maybe a last ditch charge. Abdomen, heart, muscles, lungs, thighs, sexual organs, tail, hooves, blood --- all on the other side, so to speak. We see and are asked to admire the amputated part. And one wonders, why not scalps? Why not, nailed to these walls, the scalps of all the subjugated species and races that have given their lives for the magnification of the wealth embodied here?  

In one sense, both the portraits and the trophies elude death. Painted or stuffed, they are immortalized --- the humans for their individual achievements, the animals for the representative, but defeated, strength of their species. The one canonizes ego and fame, the other generalizes a primal attribute. The portrait asks forever to be admired for his accomplishments, the animal forever admits his subjugation. The human heightens his sense of vitality and strength by draining the animal's. In this context, this blood rite, crimson becomes symbolic, symbolic of a civilized barbarity, a well-mannered ruthlessness. The animals are victims of Manifest Destiny, of a superior species and its self proclaimed ethical right to their land and lives. 

I know that the trophies are an anachronism. Few contemporary people --- except, maybe, members of a hunting lodge --- would stuff and mount an animal. Many members of the Harvard Club must feel the objectionable nature of this display --- at least be embarrassed by it. So why are the trophies still here? Does tradition trump ethics? In fact, Mary Saunders, the curator of the Harvard Club collection, told me that if it was up to her, the animal parts would all be gone. The board of the Harvard Club has often considered that in order to attract new young members they should take down the trophies. Repeatedly that suggestion has been nixed. Maybe the club doesn't want to recruit the kind of members who would object to the animal heads.  

The most astounding of the mounts is in the great room, Harvard Hall. The Harvard Club website says this: "Many architectural observers consider Harvard Hall to be the finest clubroom in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world. With its three-story-high ceiling and rich, dark paneling, it is truly a special place." That's true. But not the half of it. It's a huge rectangular box --- 40 feet high, 100 long, 38 feet wide. Just below its massive dark beams hang early 18th Century Flemish tapestries, depicting the life of Alexander the Great, as fine as in any museum. And at ground level, all the way around, are the greatest of the portraits. Near the ceiling on the south end is the bust of an adult elephant, ears and trunk extended, as though in the act of trumpeting. One imagines that even her warning trumpet blast could not fill this space. Surely, no one below wants to hear it. Mary Saunders told me that it was William Sewall who over 100 years ago shot Babar's mother and donated her and nine other animal heads to the club. But as surely as some members of the Harvard Club feel enhanced, more powerful and confident, by the presence of this dead and still subjugated elephant, they are, in fact, diminished. Perhaps for them she trumpets, no matter what liberal ideas they may profess, a comforting Republicanism, a defense of the status quo. For if this space trumpets any message it is the continuity of power, privilege, and status quo --- that tradition, no matter how morally objectionable, is good. 

The appropriate action for the club would be to return the trophies to their countries of origin  --- Kenya, Tanzania, Quebec --- and bury them with apology. Or, perhaps, each Harvard Club member should be required to text 500 times on his Blackberry to all his powerful friends Walt Whitman's dictum: "This is what you shall do: Love the earth, the sun, and the animals." ( wlt witmun: "ths is wat u gona do: luv the urth, sun, n anmals.") 

The next evening, three blocks away on Broadway, we watched a performance of The Lion King, which celebrates the glories of animal spirit, teaches us that we are all equal and all necessary in the circle of life and death. It awes us with the extravagant beauty and imagination of animal and plant forms. It shows us that the greatest good is the triumph of community, not the triumph of self. It makes clear that the person who would kill another --- human or animal --- to attain power is the enemy of all.  

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly [send him email] is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth."

Please visit The Americans Who Tell the Truth project's website, where posters of Howard Zinn, Rachel Carson, Edward Snowden, and scores of others are now available.

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