03 May 2016

On Elephants

There was a cartoon in the New Yorker months ago. In it, an obviously class-comfortable couple sit, one in a comfy chair and the other on a cushioned couch, at a 45 degree angle to each other. He reads the newspaper and she seems engaged in what appears to be a hard-cover book. Between them is a round side table on which rests a dial telephone. An elephant stands behind the table and speaks into the telephone held to its ear: the cartoon caption reads, “No, this is the elephant.”
     I’ve been thinking a great deal about that elephant in the room. And how convoluted conversation and life becomes as it attempts to ignore that elephant, to talk around, over and under that elephant, or even to talk at the elephant pretending it is not the elephant in the room. Or not to talk at all. The energy required to engage in this deception perhaps exceeds the value of this practice of duplicity and certainly affects the nature of the relationships involved.
     Lately, however, I have been considering that the elephant does not lie about the room passively but acts as a bully, demanding behaviors that conform to its presence but that continue to accept (even insist upon) its invisibility. That is, the elephant knows that it is an elephant, knows that it is in the middle of the living room, knows that its presence controls the space and the behaviors of those who inhabit that space, and yet continues to act as if it were not visible or unobtrusive. Hence, in the cartoon the elephant comfortably answers the phone while the man and woman--domestic partners at the least--relinquish to the elephant their voices. The elephant assumes presence and takes the place of the people. As the elephant answers the phone, the couple do not attend to the elephant answering the phone: indeed, they allow the elephant to answer the phone for them! And I do not expect that in a subsequent frame the elephant will turn the phone over to one of the two adults: probably the elephant will simply hang up.
     There is politics and there is duplicity—if sometimes they are not the same thing. But it is somehow fear that permits the elephant to control the room and determine talk and behavior. The elephant doesn’t hold secrets but demands them.
     This is merely a personal rant.


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