Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Circus and the Temple


Mystery. Reverence. Fear. The jungle, the savannah, the circus, the temple.

Ganesha on one end, Salt and Sauce on the other. An elephant is a god, a killer, a child’s toy, a sideshow freak.

I spent my 30th birthday at the Elephant Odyssey in San Diego. What profound joy. What masters of meditative curiosity they are. Pulling, touching, probing, checking everything with their tender trunks.

Ganesha, the Elephant-headed god, Lord of Obstacles, is in charge of both removing obstacles and placing them in the way of those who need to be slowed. He is also the God of Letters, who loves the intellect. I would have expected his chakra to be the head. I was wrong: he resides in the base, #1 chakra, which is at the root of the spine. The place where I, and most women I know, hold our tension. Also our wisdom?

How can something so large be so cute? It’s one of the great complexities of the elephant.

One can read colloquial history of circus and zoo elephants who kill their keepers. They have been known to go into rages when in captivity. On their own, even when the males fight for mating rights, they rarely hurt each other. It’s more like a game of wits they play.

In the wild, as adults, they have no true predators or prey. This gives them time to become idiosyncratic and individual. Even the elephants at San Diego Zoo all have little habits and preferences that set them apart. They are preoccupied by food and family, like Italians. They make friends, and grieve when their friends die by crying, standing very, very still, refusing to eat.

Elephant pregnancy is its own oddity. They go through a 22-month gestation period, the longest of any mammal. Still, when babies are born, they don’t have a lot of instincts. They

need to be taught. All the elephants in the herd gather around the baby and touch it, caressing with their trunks. The very first thing it experiences is the touch of its family’s vulnerable and informative body.

An elephant’s trunk is precise enough to pick up something tiny but strong enough to throw you. They look like all they can do is lumber around on those huge chunk-feet, but they’re great swimmers.

They hear in their feet. They pick up vibrations. Their communication is largely underground. Trumpeting is just one way to talk. When they seem like they aren’t “doing anything,” they are often sending messages underneath the noise of daily life.

Elephants aren’t a universal symbol for any one concept, although they are a reliable cultural fascination and can be expected to symbolize something, to nearly everyone.. In India, they have been revered since before they were rare. In America, they have been exoticized nearly

to monstrosity. It’s this kind of layered cultural-historical meaning that fascinates me. An elephant is a text.

It’s an erotic delight to uncover meaning. Stripping clothes is stripping pretense, stripping away the over-simplified, obvious, calculated. When we do this uncovering with a text, an object, a space, the same fascination comes. The erotic is always about the process of peeling layers to find the next. And this is why India can eroticize an elephant, eroticize death, eroticize sitting very still: it isn’t the predictable form of sexiness (curve of hip, slant of eye) that brings us to love or ecstasy, it is the infinitesimal moments of discovery, revealing, uncovering. Milan Kundera writes, in The Curtain, that the job of a novelist (or any artist) is to rip through our “pre-interpreted” world to show what is hiding. It’s a sort of violence, to do this, as it destroys inevitably what was once accepted as

reality. Many people never do acid (replace with: seek intimacy with another person, write in a journal, travel, get more education, pay attention to their government, and on and on) precisely because they are afraid of what might be revealed to them. But again, I claim this process, in its violence, to be also the real process of creativity and therefore the real life of the erotic mind-body. It is also the process by which social change is made.

There are always layers to uncover in our affinities. When an elephant loses its last set of teeth, it is time to die. Dreams about losing teeth are one of the top ten most common, and most disturbing for us. A poetic coincidence can lead to meaning, if we are brave enough. And that is why it is never acceptable to have a conversation in which you assert that you “just like” or “just don’t like” something. Complacency of that sort keeps current power institutions

in power, keeps paradigms firmly in place, keeps the elephants safely understandable based on what we “know.”

But did you know that they purr?

Get your mind blown on a broadband connection at Ashes and Snow.

Meet my friends at the Elephant Odyssey.


  1. They PURR? Whaaaatttt?

    Oh, and I dream about losing my teeth a lot. Damn it.

  2. Connections I see:
    "In the wild, as adults, they have no true predators or prey. This gives them time to become idiosyncratic and individual." - this is how we would be if we did not have the prison industrial complex preying on our poor and people of color

    "All the elephants in the herd gather around the baby and touch it, caressing with their trunks." -- I believe this is apocryphal data supplied by your highest fantasy

    "Their communication is largely underground." - like my favorite rebels and rappers

    "They have been known to go into rages when in captivity." --like you. Quite amenable, but try to train her and she'll trample you.

  3. I love the story of Ganesha!
    I love that at the moment of his death (due to an act of senseless and selfish violence), it was an elephant that sacrificed itself to save his life.
    I love that an elephant is devoted to the core and will not abandon a loved one in trouble, even in the face of danger.
    I love the elephant.

  4. I want to reprint this essay, bind it with images from Ashes and Snow, and carry it around like I have Blake (everywhere). There's a Rimbaud line, 'When strong, who retreats?" always ringing in my head. Elephants are the example for retreating never. I love them now. I love the elephants, Ness. You've taught me to love the elephants and I'm really happy happy oh my friend that the conversation of that zoo tiki night is here to explore more.