Six wise men go into a darkened room, and are told to describe what they find within;
The first claims that he has found a solid pillar, from floor to ceiling.
The second finds a long and sinewy rope.
The third feels the curve and texture of a tree branch.
The fourth swears blind that he is being cooled by a maiden with a hand fan.
The fifth believes that the others are playing a trick upon him, because he cannot enter further into the room, blocked, as he is, by a wall.
The sixth squeals and cries to be let out… there are men with spears in the room, he screams, and he fears for his life.But when the lanterns are lit, all six see that what they had found in the dark, the pillar, rope, branch, fan, wall and spear; all of these things were really just the one thing…
There is an elephant in the room, and what they really felt were its leg, its tail, its trunk, its ear, its body and its tusks.
I’ve always found this parable fascinating. It can be found repeated across several cultures, and has been interpreted in various ways, depending on the ideology of the storyteller sharing it. In some versions, the men are priests, in others they are wise old blind men. Some cultures use the story as a warning against the pride of the intellectual, others as a warmer call to be open minded to the various possible ways of interpreting the world around us. The Wikipedia entry gives lots of examples. Whichever culture, the elephant seems to be an invitation to look more closely at the things which seem so obvious to us, to not assume that we already have all the answers. To look at perception and interpretation, and play with them a little.
A further wrinkle to the story is the relatively recent emergence of the term “the elephant in the room” to describe a fact or issue so obvious, and yet so controversial or uncomfortable, that most people will choose to talk around it.
When Warren Ellis, author, comic writer and online uberlord, recently spoke on his website about the idea of “burst culture” (using the internet to create and consume short-short “bursts” of creativity), it triggered a series of synaptic brainspasms in my head… I’ve been frustrated for a while with the fact that it is relatively easy for visual artists to engage in collaborative and spontaneous online activities, such as adaptation memes and sketchboards, but for writers, there are fewer venues. There are some great collaborative websites for flash fiction (such as the awesome 365 Tomorrows), normally tied to a theme or genre, but to my mind there was nowhere that was dedicated to the same ideas of interpretation that the more visual media had access to.
Before long, the parable of the elephant in the room was pushing itself into my brainquake… and that’s how we ended up here.