The Cleansing of the Elephants

Trumpeting, flapping, crying: a cultural history, from Ding Yunpeng to Gus Van Sant

In 1588 the Chinese artist Ding Yunpeng painted The Cleansing of the Elephant. It depicts two noble retainers carefully brushing a white elephant while the Buddha and his entourage look on. The painting is rich in detail, sensitively rendering a grassy knoll, the boughs of a tree, the Buddha's serenity, and the movement of the brushes over the animal's hide. Though neither Buddhas nor white elephants were common sights in 16th-century China (so rare and venerated were the latter that clever kings of nearby Siam would dispose of unwanted courtiers by making them a present of one so as to ruin them by the cost of its maintenance), the painting displays a distinct realism.

Previously, a rallying cry had risen among Buddhist artists of Yunpeng's circle: "Cleanse the image!"—a call to remove deadening layers of stylistic mannerism and worldliness. Yunpeng and his associates heard another cry rumbling behind it: "Cleanse the elephant!" This was not a strange thing to hear: The Chinese words for image and elephant are pronounced identically (xiang), and so, to the Chinese ear, every image concealed an elephant, and vice versa. Should it then be surprising that when Yunpeng went in search of an image to cleanse, one in which to transcend the merely material, he found an elephant at hand?

Shakespeare notes, in Troilus and Cressida, that "The Elephant hath ioynts, but none for curtesie." In Milton's lost paradise, after a day of gardening, Adam and Eve lie down while "About them frisking playd All Beasts of th' Earth," topped by "th' unwieldy Elephant," who, "To make them Mirth . . . wreath'd His Lithe Proboscis." Closer to our day, e.e. cummings has shown his affection for the beast, as have Richard Lair and Dave Soldier, whose Thai Elephant Orchestra is currently working on its second album.

In India, daily life remains influenced by the fear and love of elephants: Earlier this year, the people of Renudih relocated to the trees above their former home after a rampaging herd flattened their village. It was in such immediate and intense proximity that the art of the elephant was raised to its highest level. In Hindu theology, a single syllable is thought to carry the weight of divine presence—aum, the sound generated when the world first hummed into being. Its written symbol, when inverted, offers a perfect profile of the elephant's head. The Hindu god Ganesha bears just such a representative head. Its size represents the wisdom that emanates from it; its large ears are thought to hear all, and to sift the bad from the good; its trunk denotes discrimination. It has but one tusk: Asked to scribe the epic of Mahabharata for the sage Vyasa, Ganesha found all existing pens too humble for the task, and so broke off one of his tusks to write with.

Elephants are mighty and mystical, and it is not surprising that they are singled out for reverence and representation. But there are other reasons. Memory is the mother of the Muses, and perhaps it is the elephant's famous memory that so recommends it to artists. And elephants know sadness and death to a degree found nowhere else in the animal kingdom. (They know monogamy as well: 18th-century France often had elephants held up to it as models by the moralists of the day—to little effect.) Elephants also seem to know nostalgia, fighting with single-minded intensity to return to their loved ones and home. Trainers have reported that elephants, like artists, do not take mockery well. Sensitive to being laughed at, they will spray the offending party—as artists will also not infrequently do, if in their own way. Perhaps most important: Elephants cry.


This year, two much awaited works, Gus Van Sant's Columbine-inspired film and the White Stripes' fourth album, bear Elephant as their title. Given the animal's secrecy, perhaps it is appropriate that neither in watching the film nor in listening to the album is it clear why the title was chosen (in neither work is the word elephant ever said or directly alluded to).

The White Stripes may have had in mind the trumpet and rumble of chords, the number three, perhaps something else besides. The more intriguing naming is that of Van Sant's film. Midway through, we see, for an instant, a pencil drawing of an elephant tacked to the bedroom wall of one of the film's high-school-aged assassins. But the drawing doesn't seem to have played any role in the naming. Van Sant found his title in another Elephant—Alan Clarke's 1989 documentary of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Van Sant understandably thought that the title referred to the Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant—a group of them lay hands on an unknown Thing (an elephant), and each returns with a different false impression of what he has experienced (a tree, a rope, a snake, a spear, and so forth). But Van Sant had the wrong elephant. Clarke had another metaphor in mind: The violent problems in his film, he said, were as easy to ignore as an elephant in a living room. When Van Sant later learned this, he seemed pleased and saw no reason to alter his choice of title.

January 2, 1871: Victor Hugo writes in his diary: "They killed the elephant at the Jardin des Plantes. It cried. They're going to eat it." Charles Darwin—a more sensitive soul on the subject—and various naturalists, hunters, trainers, and psychoanalysts, have confronted the phenomenon that elephants do appear to cry. They are singularly sensitive to death. They do not have graveyards, but are reverential toward the bones of their kind. Like many other animals, elephants will shed tears under the pressure of sheer physical pain, but they seem alone in shedding tears of loss and sorrow.

The most touching thing in Elephant is its unexpected tears. Early on, one of its protagonists finds his way into a deserted classroom and begins to cry. A girl we have not yet seen gently asks him what's wrong. "Nothing," he answers softly. "I mean, you were crying," she says, and he answers again softly and unashamedly, "Yeah." "Is it something . . . bad?" He shrugs: "I don't know." And then she does the best thing in the world: She kisses him on the cheek, quickly and tenderly and trustingly. And goes to class. It is not clear why he cries: because his father is an alcoholic, because it is exceedingly strange to be an adolescent, because his school seems dissociated and dissociating, because he suffers from a pain as difficult to name as the one that will soon drive two of his classmates to kill the principal. It is hard to say.

Before they attack, elephants vigorously flap their ears. Elephant doesn't offer tips on how to recognize teen flapping. Van Sant claimed he "didn't want to explain anything." The problem posed by the Buddhist proverb that Van Sant thought lay at the heart of his title is not that of the folly of sending blind men on missions of zoological taxonomy. Like Christ, the Buddha had the habit of answering difficult questions with parables. When asked why some men held that the world was eternal, while others taught that it was finite in time and space, he answered with his elephant. He warned not only of the dangers of judgments based on partial information, but of the difficulty of offering any formulaic answer to the problems of life and its limits. Like Clarke's, Van Sant's Elephant reminds us of dangers so obvious they're almost invisible. Adolescence is too weird a time to inventory, and the violence in America's schools too vast a problem to solve with a recipe. Van Sant's Elephant trumpets the danger of parties who treat adolescents with little patience, and of those who furnish them with the means of their own destruction, but it also trumpets the danger of simplification—and the value of looking at the world with wide, intelligent eyes.

While this is the elephant of the film's content, with all its tears and rage, there is another equally important elephant to be found—one of form. At the start of his career, Van Sant worked on Madison Avenue for two years, learning the trade of the commercial and the lurid, of the heavily adorned and the rapidly paced; he employed this training to great effect in films about the dangers of youth (such as To Die For). In this film, however, he presents an image freed of adornment and haste—an elephant, like Ding Yunpeng's three centuries ago: massive, musing, mysterious.

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