The Elephant in the Room

As the first movement of his choral and orchestral work titled Creation/Creator, Christopher Theofanidis used for the libretto a poem by the famous Sufi mystic Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks):

Elephant in the Dark

Some Hindus have an elephant to show.
No one here has ever seen an elephant.
They bring it at night to a dark room.
One by one, we go in the dark and come out
saying how we experience the animal.
One of us happens to touch the trunk.
A water-pipe kind of creature.
Another, the ear. A very strong, always moving
back and forth, fan-animal. Another, the leg.
I find it still, like a column on a temple.
Another touches the curved back.
A leathery throne. Another the cleverest,
feels the tusk. A rounded sword made of porcelain.
He is proud of his description.
Each of us touches one place
and understands the whole that way.
The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark
are how the senses explore the reality of the elephant.
If each of us held a candle there,
and if we went in together, we could see it.
This poem offers a wonderfully different and fresh perspective on the classic parable of the elephant and the blind men. I have long felt that the view articulated in it is an important clue to how to find a third way, one that leads out from the apparent impasse between Enlightenment modernism’s overconfident claims to knowledge and extreme postmodernism’s insistence that we cannot know for certain.
I can’t recall who put it this way, but someone has said that “Just because we all have biases, that doesn’t mean that all we have are biases.” What we see together despite our biases, through our different lenses, and from our different vantage points, has a greater chance of being correct than anything one individual or even one group may perceive or conclude.
Some call it “critical realism.” But it seems to me to me that it deserves a more inspiring name than either that or “collective elephant perceptionism.”
Theofanidis’ piece Creation/Creator incorporates a wide array of texts about creation, ranging from the Rig Veda to St. Augustine to Sefer Yetzirah to a retelling of Genesis by poet James Weldon Johnson.

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  • jekylldoc

    Excellent. Just finished Daniel Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” making a case for AI and for materialism in the form of “algorithmic” mechanisms to make up a well-functioning flexible process. It’s a good set of ideas, though tiresome in a number of ways. What I was most struck by is that he seemed not to have considered how minds actually work. Creating an inner representation of the functioning of the world is how you create a mind.

    So reading this take on how to understand mystical issues and ultimate things really brought that back and underlined it.

    “What we see together despite our biases, through our different lenses, and from our different vantage points, has
    a greater chance of being correct than anything one individual or even one group may perceive or conclude.”
    Of course correctness of understanding is a means, not the end, but yes, there is light to be had by sharing perspectives.