“We only own something because everybody agrees that we do.”
By Maria Popova
Oliver Jeffers is one of the most talented and thoughtful children’s book authors and artists of our time. Whether he is exploring love and loss in his unusual stories for young readers or the facts and fictions of memory in his fine art, undergirding his work is a deep fascination with duality and paradox.
In the foreword to the magnificent monograph Neither Here Nor There: The Art of Oliver Jeffers, Richard Seabrook remarks on this recurring theme, “the concept that something can mean one thing to one person, and something entirely different to another.” Nowhere does this come more vibrantly alive than in Jeffers’s This Moose Belongs to Me (public library) — a disarming story about a boy who believes he owns his pet moose Marcel, only to discover that so do other people, who call him by different names, while the moose himself doesn’t quite get the concept of being owned and is thus oblivious to the boy’s list of rules for being a good pet.
What emerges is an allegory for our rather human tendency to dig in our heels when things don’t go our way, forgetting Henry Miller’s timeless taunt — “And your way, is it really your way?” — and snapping into self-righteousness. When the moose doesn’t obey the rules of being a pet, the boy storms off “embarrassed and enraged” — another curious psychoemotional duality the richness of which Jeffers captures with great economy of words.
Sometimes the moose wasn’t a very good pet. He generally ignored Rule 7: going whichever way Wilfred wanted to go.
But the story is, above all, a parable about the nature of ownership as a mutually agreed upon figment and the comical sense of entitlement it engenders. What makes it especially enchanting is the conceptual meta-message — for the backgrounds of his illustrated vignettes, Jeffers reapporpriates classical landscape paintings by a mid-century Slovakian painter named Alexander Dzigurski, rendering the project a sort of posthumous collaboration and a creative mashup of which Montaigne would have approved.
Jeffers’s message is subtle but resounding: In art — as in science, as in all of human culture — the ideas we call our own are but the combinatorial product of countless borrowings from the intellectual “property” of others. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best in his supportive letter to Helen Keller when she was accused of plagiarism: “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”
With another delightfully thoughtful touch, Jeffers reminds us that these borrowings can come not only from others but from ourselves — in one of the scenes, the lumberjack-bear protagonist of his previous book, The Great Paper Caper, makes a cameo against the backdrop of a borrowed landscape painting.
In his wholly wonderful Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman, Jeffers tells the story of this moosely mashup and how he tracked down the grandson of the Slovakian painter for permissions, then reflects on the deeper elements of duality in his body of work. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:
I was reading, at that time, a history of Manhattan and I read about the sale of Manhattan to the Dutch. And the natives who were on the land were like, “Yeah, sure, you can buy it!” But nobody really owns land anyway, so they had to leave — and that was to the great confusion of the Dutch… There was an element of truth in that… We only own something because everybody agrees that we do.
I just thought this was a really interesting concept and applied it to owning a pet…
And then, when I was sketching the drawings … I knew that I wanted to use oil paintings… and I’d started off making all those oil paintings… At that point, I glanced over my studio and there were all of these old landscape paintings lined up for another project. And I’m thinking about this story, and the rules of how to be a good pet, and the moose doesn’t really get that he’s supposed to be a pet — and two things connected to each other. And I thought, “Well, if it is about ownership, then I should probably just reappropriate these paintings into this book… It seems conceptually a fit.”
The book ended up mostly being a collaboration between me and this long-ago dead guy.
On the roots of his obsession with duality and its particular manifestation in a collaboration with a doctor of quantum physics around the famed fact that light can appear to be both a particle and a wave, depending on how the question is asked and how the answer is measured:
There was a sense of duality I grew up with — [Belfast] was a split city, really. There was a lot of violence, but there was also a lot of happiness. And really, that being the backbone of the culture and the existence in which I grew up, and choosing to get past, I think it leaves its marks way down there.
But then, I fell in with this project with Professor Quantum Physics, and through that I discovered the actual theory of duality, which looks at light in particular — light when measured in particles becomes a particle and light when measured in waves becomes a wave. What I took from that was that it’s up to us, then, how we define it — we choose the equipment with which we measure, so therefore it’s up to us… That was what fascinated me — that we have the ability to look at anything and make it anything we want, to some degree.
That’s why I started making art about that sense of, “Can we look at things logically and emotionally, all at the same time?”
Subscribe to Design Matters here. For more of Jeffers’s magic, see Once Upon an Alphabet, which was among the best children’s books of 2014, and The Heart and the Bottle, a tender illustrated fable about what happens when we deny our difficult emotions.