Friday, December 30, 2011

The Inner Elephant

Because of its size, the elephant has become a metaphor of ironic exaggeration.  The irony comes from the ease with which a topic of elephantine size can be ignored with what amounts to convenience.

As such a metaphor, elephants lurk everywhere, showing a particular fondness for living rooms, which puts the bite of irony in place with exactitude.  The living room is a metaphor in its own right, a place where the family gathers, in some cases to share convivial intimacy or, to use yet another metaphor, to hang out.  Forget that electronic and telephonic devices have invaded the living room, in a sense overshadowing such earlier aspects of hanging out as conversation, playing or listening to music, or entertaining friends.  Remember instead the meaning of the metaphor.

The elephant in the living room represents some awareness or knowledge that becomes ignored, overlooked, talked around. The elephant is a family secret or a societal secret, a fact or group of facts everyone in the living room knows to exist.  It is also the one thing no one in the living room will refer to in a direct manner.  Uncle Fred is hitting the sauce again, well, you know he has always loved his martinis and it seems such a shame to limit him.  Aunt Louise is getting it on with the gardener?  Poor woman, she so needs the company of a man ever since Uncle Leo ran off with his secretary.  And who are we to judge?

As metaphors are wont to do, elephants come in various sizes, by which reference you mean that some are gifts from a particular culture or race or gender while others still get their start in families, regions, even continents, all of which produces the double whammy of an individual’s ability to see someone or some behavior in terms of the unspoken elephant.

On a cultural level, you might argue for the elephant in the living room being a polite step up from the more earthy metaphor arrived at when someone has mistaken the punch bowl at a lavish gala for a chamber pot, thus the turd in the punch bowl as the proletariat elephant in the living room.

 Thus euphemism, an inventive way of making a fact seem less polite and considerate than it is.  You might start with such euphemisms as “crossing over” or “passing away” as euphemisms for death, then allowing your memory to fiddle with the number of euphemisms you have used during the course of a day.

Questions arise, as they must.

Is intimacy impacted by too much or too little euphemism?  Surely elephants in the living room take up some of the space that could be better occupied by intimacy.

When was the last time you used a euphemism?  And since we’re on the subject, are there any elephants in your living room which, although of a comfortable size, has scant room for the books you bring in nor the paintings you have considered buying, much less places for even one elephant to spend its time?  Are Buddhist monks and nuns paradigms of elephant-free living rooms?  Do, in fact, elephants in living rooms require pairing with another elephant to keep it company.

Part of why you write is to do search and destroy missions on the metaphorical elephants in your life, which makes it begin to appear that a) you will need more writing of discovery and b) have precious little time left to lead your elephant-free life.  It might even mean a manner of ironic comparison between you and the protagonist of Flaubert’s remarkable short story, “A Simple Soul,” in which the protagonist, a devout, religious person, sees God coming to fetcher at the moment of her death, and in complete harmony with the rest of the story, God appears as this simple soul’s dearest possession, a parrot.  This is not to infer that your last earthly vision will be of an elephant, nor indeed the much less elegant vision of the fecal matter in the punch bowl, but rather the last-moment realization that you had not yet achieved complete transparency and openness, that there were still a few baby elephants traipsing about in your psyche, leaving you with the open, heartfelt, but nonetheless crude valedictory, “Oh, fuck, I missed that.”

But perhaps that is the essential openness of the lifelong writer, the “oh, fuck” recognition of missed things, metaphorically right under your nose.  

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