The story of the blind men and the elephant regularly comes up in news analysis, such as when the author or presenter is claiming that someone’s perspective is too narrow. Few people know the end of the story as it seems it was originally told. I brought it up in a passage I wrote for a suspense novel set in 1983.
In this excerpt, David Gardner, a blind young high school teacher and the novel’s hero, wishes to speak to a Transit Police unit about an unexplained death on the New York subway. The unit is located on an obscure street in downtown Manhattan, and one of his readers, Henry, offers to drive him there. A well-heeled man in his fifties, Henry is a former investment banker and now director on several for-profit and non-profit boards. Reading a few hours a week for David satisfies his desire to do good work and take pleasure in his own voice.
Henry unlocked the passenger door of his Mercedes-Benz for David and walked around to the driver’s side.
David ran his hand down the vertical windshield frame. A Mercedes had such a perpendicularity about it.
Across the car’s roof, Henry said, “300SD. Nice machine, if I do say so myself.”
David lifted the safety belt and lowered himself into the bucket seat. They steered out of the parking lot and accelerated.
“Let me ask you something,” Henry said. “How do you see something when you touch it, if you know what I’m saying?”
“I suppose I translate into visual images. I don’t know about people who’ve never seen.”
“Interesting. I guess that upends the fable about the blind men and the elephant.”
“You mean the one where one man touches the elephant’s side and says it’s a great wall, another touches its trunk and says it’s a giant snake?”
“That’s the one.”
“Their knowledge limited by what’s right in front of them.”
“Do I detect a note of sarcasm?”
“Majority rules, even when it comes to perception.”
“But there has to be a consensus about perception for us to have any hope of understanding what the hell we’re all talking about, don’t you think?”
David’s remark had been flippant, but Henry had taken him seriously and he went with it. “The fable goes on to say that the men who checked out the elephant were all young. Later a wise old blind man examines the entire elephant and concludes their judgments had been too hasty.”
“I didn’t realize there was more to the story.”
“What everyone knows is the part that stigmatizes touch.”
“Touch doesn’t give a panoramic view, and it doesn’t let you perceive very tiny things. So—”
“On the other hand,” Henry interrupted, “it’s more immediate and direct. Anything you touch, you affect.”
“Right, but that’s where stigma comes in. We fear being touched more than being seen.”
“All very awkward. But if you’re right, there’s a positive. Where there’s fear, there’s power.”
“That’s good,” David said. “Of course sight has power as well—one of your raised eyebrow gestures, for example.”
“Raised eyebrows? How do you know whereof you speak?”
“Ah, the mysterious sixth sense of the blind!”
“Majority and minority perception,” Henry mused. “Interesting concept. When I think about it, great artists see things differently from the way most people do. I guess that makes them minority perceivers.”
“But they’re great artists,” David said, “so there’s no stigma.”
“There’s no stigma once the world deems them great. Till then, they’re Bohemian deadbeats, except to those in the know.”
“At least people laugh at them.”
“What do you mean, ‘laugh at them’?”
“Don’t you laugh when someone fills up a bath tub with mud and calls it art? Being laughed at means people are taking notice. It’s one thing when a person without an obvious problem does something unusual, but it’s another when the person’s disabled. Say you walked into your next board meeting and discovered you’d put on one black shoe and one brown shoe.”
“I’d die on the spot.”
“Everyone would find it funny, right, because it was you. But if I wore mismatched shoes, they’d pretend not to notice.”
“I’d say something. I wouldn’t wish to be associated with a yuppie who doesn’t have the class to wear matching shoes.”
“I’m sure. I guess that puts you with the people in the know in your great artist example.”
“Hail to me, O great one.”
When Seventh Avenue turned into Varick, Henry said, “Vestry must be somewhere below Canal.” It wasn’t. He wasted no time, however, before crossing over to Hudson and driving back uptown. “Nasty here,” he said. “All warehouses and New Jersey traffic.” He had to circle around, avoiding approach lanes to the Holland Tunnel artery out of Manhattan. At last they arrived in front of District 2.
As he braked, Henry said, “The entrance is up a few steps directly to our left.”
Getting out and leaning into the open passenger window, David rapped on the car’s roof. “Funny thing about your elephant. The trunk is in the rear. I thought it was supposed to be at the front, or is that my limited perception playing tricks on me?”
Chortling, he stepped back as the Mercedes eased toward Hudson Street.