The Elephant That Wasn’t There

I was talking to someone the other day who was telling me about a recent family visit (by the way, her telling of it reminded me of the type of story David Sedaris writes).

It was her older sister who was visiting and they were discussing the past. The older sister claimed that she used to go for rides on a pony that a neighbor had. The neighbor gave pony rides somewhere for money and would allow the sister to ride the pony home. However, the older sister also claimed that this pony owner also owned an elephant who would also sometimes follow along. The woman I was talking to didn’t believe her sister’s story about the elephant and so investigated by asking other family members and some old neighbors from the area. No one else remembered the elephant, but the older sister was absolutely certain about the elephant’s existence. It was real in her mind.

I find that amusing. None of us really knows how much of our memories are correct. Few of us are ever motivated or capable of fact-checking most of our memories. Stories we’ve encountered over our lifetimes (especially when young) can become incorporated into our own personal story. I mean it’s logical that where there is a pony there might be an elephant. Science has proven that we literally re-member every time we recall something. The more often we recall something the less reliable the memory becomes. We don’t remember the thing itself. We remember our own retellings.

We all live in our own private fantasy worlds. I’ve been drawn to this idea. I think I first encountered it with Robert Anton Wilson’s writings about reality tunnels. It’s not just individuals but whole societies that get caught up in reality tunnels. In the case of personal memories, another person who knows us can offer a reality check. A collective reality tunnel is different because everyone within the society will reinforce the shared view of reality. Our collective retellings are rituals that remake the world in the way the Australian Aborigines remake the world by retracing the pathways of the gods. What if there is some truth to this? Maybe scientific laws and evolution are simply forms of collective memory.

This avenue of thought is explored in great detail by Philip K. Dick and by those influenced/inspired by PKD (for example: Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon and Ursula K. Leguin’s The Lathe of Heaven). I just finished reading PKD’s Eye in the Sky. I was mostly reading that novel while at work which led me to contemplate the world around me. I work late at night and staring into the concrete interior of a parking ramp (where I work) offers an interesting opportunity for contemplation.

My job at the parking ramp is cashier. In the large picture, it’s kind of a pointless job. With developing technology, it’s almost obsolete for all practical purposes. I sometimes envision myself working there in the future after the robots have taken over the job and my only purpose will be to wave and smile at the customers as they drive out. My job is merely representative of most of the pointless work humans occupy themselves with… but is it really pointless? Or is there some purpose being served that is less than obvious? Work is a ritual that sustains our society, the reality tunnel of our culture, of our entire civilization. From a practical perspective, most jobs could be eliminated and many things would run more smoothly and effectively without all the wasted effort of keeping people employed. But if all the pointless jobs were eliminated, there would be chaos with the masses of unemployed. Employing the mindless masses keeps them out of trouble and keeps them from revolting. Make them think their life actually has purpose. Still, a purpose is being served even if it’s simply maintaining social order. My point is that social order is merely the external facet of any given collective reality tunnel.

In PKD’s stories, the protagonist is often faced with a true reality that is hidden behind an apparent reality. This true reality isn’t somewhere else but is instead all around us. This is a gnostic vision of the kingdom on earth. PKD had a few spiritual visions which inspired his theologizing and his fiction writing. I too have had some visions that have made me question the status quo of normal reality.

In enacting our social rituals and retelling our social myths, what kind of reality are we collectively creating? When I look upon a structure like an ugly parking ramp, what kind of world am I looking upon? Why are we creating such a world? What is the motivation? If we stopped enacting these social rituals and stopped retelling these social myths, what would happen to this consensus reality of civilization we’ve created and what would replace it? Or what would be revealed?

“As long as we keep ourselves busy tilling the earth, there is no fear of any of us becoming wild.”
~  J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur

13 thoughts on “The Elephant That Wasn’t There

  1. I also have thought along those lines: collective reality tunnels. As for me, I have enough self-doubt to validate my memories by checking (but who says the other’s is any better). Mostly, I take others’ opinions seriously. Even if I refute it, I still determine to see how it could work. That’s me. I’m known as the double-edged sword at home cos I never give 100% percent support so in the end everyone goes away more enlightened about their good’s and bad’s. Everyone is guilty and not guilty even innocent.

    Now, those are some cataclysmic questions in your last paragraph. Nietszche will say succinctly what I want to say (from On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral sense):

    ‘And when it’s all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened’

    I’m astonished how something as worthy as Self-exploration could be in the offing and people are content to just ‘let it come to pass’, their development. That, at this age, the shadow comes, then the anima, then the… Waiting for the Self to come, which will never come if one continues to be so certain of oneself which is actually egoism, not Self-assurance.

    • I like the Nietzsche quote. I hadn’t previously read that essay, but I was just now reading parts of it. I’ve been thinking a lot about truth lately which I’ve been slowly forming into a post. I’ll have to read the essay more carefully because it’s very dense.

      I can see elements of Nietzsche’s thinking about the Apollonian and Dionysian. Those concepts influenced Jung greatly and, as I recall, had some impact on Jung’s development of the personality types.

      The Dyonysian is a particularly interesting concept. I was thinking about the connection to stories. To be enthralled by the Dionysian is to be possessed and lost in story, in myth, One becomes a character in a story that is greater than the individual

      There is a very dark bent and harsh judgment in Nietzsche’s views. It resonates with the pessimistic views of Thomas Ligotti.

  2. Hei, my second bro, what’s up!

    Have you seen Mr. Nobody? Awesome. The writer does similar movies to that one. You can read up on the description on wikipedia to see what I get at by ‘similar movies’ as well as the writers wiki which also does. I want more movies like that; I can make movies like that.

    • Nope. I have not seen Mr. Nobody. In fact, I don’t think I’ve previously heard of that movie. I just looked up about it. There were many positive reviews and a few negative ones. It seems that some of the negative reviewers were critical because of the ideas presented. But reading a synopsis it sounds interesting.

      Is the director also the writer? I didn’t notice a writer mentioned and so I assume it was the director, correct? I’m not familiar with the director.

      It’s not available on Netflix, neither as a streaming video nor as a DVD. It’s not available on Amazon streaming either. It’s not even available on YouTube like the last movie you told me about. I don’t think I’d want to buy a copy of the movie just to be able to watch it.. I don’t go to movie rental stores much these days, but the next time I’m in one I’ll try to remember this movie. I suppose the public library might have a copy… if I’m lucky.

      Since I can’t watch it right away, could you tell me more about it? What other movies are there that are like it?

  3. Guess I forgot about ya :-).

    I don’t think my illustration of it will be adequate. This is a complicated story. Let me try:

    It’s a story of a boy who thinks he must calculate everything before he chooses. A boy who knows once something is done, it can’t be undone; this fact of universe engulfs his mind – he’s always thinking about it. Besides, he has the gift of prescience, a very literal one, no symbology, nothing – he sees exactly what’s gonna happen.

    When his mum and dad decide to divorce, he faces a terrible choice. To surmount his problem, he goes through a prefiguring of his alternate lives should he choose either. He manipulates these lives like a combinations and permutations class though they always seemed to be based on he and three other girls, how he meets each in these alternates.

    The story is told by the boy as an old man who lives in a telomerized world so death by aging is obsolete and he’s the only non-telomerized one because as the movie says he doesn’t exist in that world. He reaches the big crunch (when gravity counters entropy and the arrow of time reverses) and rewinds. He and his world are also imagined by the boy. The old man and the boy seem to be the only real characters in the story. However, the old man seems to be both real and imagined – he’s real because he’s the only one who is conscious of the boy while he’s imagined cos he says so. It seems though that the bigger world is not changed by the boy so the march toward development and the ‘death of death’ aren’t affected by his manipulations. There seem to be a number constants and hence a certain line of progression subliminal to all his manipulation.

    You must see this movie yourself, it’s an order :-). Seriously, it’s a great movie. I must see it again

    The director is also the writer. I say given the other movies he’s done (available at his wiki), his name’s Jaco van Dormael, he’s an Ni person. I wonder how much of himself goes into his stories. This movie brought it back to mind that it’s the same thing I do and I have bad decision-making to boot. It seems I didn’t grow beyond 9 years old when I was traumatized. Intellectually, virtually psychologically, I have but really psych, I haven’t, in relation to life, I haven’t. All this may be PTSD with its corollaries, depression or either BPD. Trapped in Ni. Or, it’s just me and the way I am. Trapped in Ni. But, it seems suited to the artistic life which I realised was for me not too long ago. Maybe, it is my individuality and I’ve finally found it again.

    Let me float over the lands
    From jungle to sea to desert to concrete
    Kameleon, man of many colors
    The flavors of life savor my tongue
    An artist I am, create, create, create

    Currently, I’m listening to ‘Iridescent’ by Linkin Park and with this subject matter, it’s bringing me to tears.

    • Okey dokey. I promise I’ll watch it… eventually… when I find a copy of it. The title is easy to remember and so I’ll keep it in mind while perusing movies in the future. If I can’t find anywhere here in town, I suppose I’ll break down and buy a copy of it.

      I could see how trauma could lead to a child’s psyche being stunted in terms of decision-making, especially if the original trauma had to do with a situation where there was no easy or obvious choice that would solve the situation or where the long-term consequences were greater than the child could fully comprehend.

      I’ve never experienced in major traumas, I don’t think. But a lot of things can traumatize a child and be forgotten. I do, however, have issues with decision-making. The future seems very overwhelming to me. More simpleminded people have a simple sense of the future which I would imagine would be comforting, just to imagine the future as some simple set of actions that lead to predictably simple results.

      ‘Iridescent’ is a melancholy song.

      “An artist I am, create, create, create”

      Apparently so. I’ve noticed your prolific output recently. Are you feeling inspired? Or is there just a lot on your mind that needs expressed?

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