The lessons of three elephants.

In the Chinese and Japanese writing systems, the character 象 (in Mandarin, xiàng) represents an elephant. The trunk and head are at the top, legs on the left, tail at the bottom. [1]

Curiously enough, this character also represents representation. To steal some examples from the 象 Wiktionary page:

意象 (yìxiàng) is a mental impression or conception: a thought-representation.
血象 (xuèxiàng) is a hemogram: a blood-representation.
象形 (xiàngxíng) is a pictogram: a representation-shape.

The character (also pronounced xiàng), which is the elephant crammed together with a lopsided man (人), means a picture or image, or (as a verb) to resemble.

How did a squiggle of an elephant come to represent representation? Wiktionary quotes the 3rd century BC philosopher Han Fei, who hypothesized:

Men rarely see living elephants. As they come by the skeleton of a dead elephant, they imagine its living form according to its features. Therefore it comes to pass that whatever people use for imagining the real is called 象 .

This page about the Da Xiang (大象 – a famous commentary on the I Ching) proposes a less fanciful theory:

The meaning “symbolism” for 象 is sometimes said in traditional Chinese lexicography to be an extension from this primary meaning [of “elephant”], relating to the carving of ivory.

In other words, the mental process may have been elephantivoryivory sculpturesculpture in generalrepresentation in general.

But most likely, the character for “elephant” was simply borrowed for a similar-sounding word meaning “image”. Many Chinese characters originated that way.

Suppose that we English-speakers had never inherited our alphabet from the Romans. Instead, like the Chinese, we had evolved a writing system out of basic pictograms. For our word “elephant” we might now have a character like:

But way in the past, some scribe noticed that we needed a character for “elegant”, and after messing around for a while with stickmen wearing bow-ties he figured, screw it, I’ll just use the “elephant” character, and let readers figure out from context which I’m referring to.

No doubt after a few hundred years, when the origins of the characters were lost in the mist, our equivalent of Han Fei would come up with a story about how, since elephants were the most dapper and refined of creatures, it made perfect sense for them to share a character with the word “elegant”.

And foreigners would wonder why, whenever an elephant appeared in an English-language cartoon, he always had a posh accent and wore a monocle.

***

In Robert Graves’ 1938 historical novel Count Belisarius, the narrator (the eunuch slave Eugenius) mentions a certain landmark in ancient Constantinople – the elephant of Severus.

Graves learned of this elephant from the Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai, an 8th century guide to the sights of the Byzantine capital. It is, as its modern-day editors have described it, “a confused and often inaccurate survey of some classical monuments and statues” that had survived from the pagan era to awe and befuddle later generations of Christians.

According to the Parastaseis, in a colonnade near the Basilica (a civic building located opposite the “Great Church”, i.e. the Hagia Sophia) there stood a huge statue of an elephant, erected in days of yore by the pagan emperor Severus:

For in the same golden-roofed Basilica they say the elephant lived, an extraordinary spectacle. … And they say that in the same place as the elephant lived Carcinelus, a silversmith who used rigged scales. They say he threatened the elephant’s keeper because his house was being damaged, and he frequently vowed that he would kill the keeper if he did not keep the animal in check. But the keeper would not consent to control the elephant with reins. The user of rigged scales killed him and offered him to the elephant as fodder, but the animal, being wild, killed him too. And when Severus heard this he offered many sacrifices to the beast, and they were at once commemorated in statues in that place.

The editors add that,

Severus honours the elephant for its innate wisdom in thus punishing the hot-headed money-lender. The story turns out to have a moral: statues, if old and with pagan connections (here imported by the mention of Severus), or even if simply not understood in a conventional Christian context, nearly always [in the Parastaseis] have a hidden meaning[.]

Recognizing in this muddle the bones of a good story, Graves tidies it up, upgrading the elephant from savage beast to deliberating avenger:

The elephant of Severus is commemorated by a statue close to the Royal Porch, nearly opposite the main entrance to the Hippodrome. It had waited twenty years to catch a certain money-changer on whose evidence its master had been committed to a debtor’s prison, where he had died. At last, while taking part in a procession, it had recognized the money-changer in the crowd lining the street and had seized him with its trunk and trampled him to death. Investigations proved clearly that the money-changer had been a thief and a perjurer, so the elephant was honoured with this statue, which represents it with its master seated upon its neck. The motto is: “It will be avenged at last.” Many who labour under private and public injustice comfort themselves with the elephant’s message.

Later, when Graves’ narrator plans a conspiracy for the overthrow of an old enemy, he arranges his initial rendezvous by the elephant statue.

***

In Graves’ telling, the elephant of Severus represents not only justice, but patience – it waited twenty years to take its revenge.

On the floor of the Cathedral of St. Front in Périgueux, France, there is a mosaic celebrating patientia and its allied virtue, fortitudo. This mosaic once caught the eye of Hilaire Belloc, who, when recalling it years later in an essay called “On Fortitude”, described it rather inaccurately, exaggerating its size, placing it “on a side altar of the northern transept”, and erasing the reference to patientia. [2]

elephant mosaic périgueux cathedral

Belloc’s elephant in Périgueux Cathedral.
Source: The Girl Who Went To Paris.

If the mosaic had celebrated another attribute customarily associated with elephants – memoria – Belloc’s faulty description would have been ironically apt. But perhaps it’s for the best that he was unable to verify his facts with a quick Google search. The elephant as he misremembered it, with its “quiet eye” and “immovable expression” and one-word motto, set off a “whole train of contemplation” which might have gone off the rails if he’d consulted a photo of the real thing.

Fortitude (and her elephant) were here set up in a Christian church because fortitude is entitled one of the great virtues. Now what is fortitude? It is primarily Endurance: that character which we need the most in the dark business of life. But if fortitude be endurance, it is also creative endurance, and at the same time it involves some memory of better times and some expectation of their return. It involves, therefore, fidelity and hope; and, without those two, fortitude would be of little use: but above all fortitude is endurance.

Fortitude is the virtue of the menaced, of the beleaguered. It is the virtue of those of them that man the wall, or that are called upon to last out. This thing, Fortitude, is the converse to and the opposite of aggressive flamboyant courage, yet it is the greater of the two, though often it lacks action. Fortitude wears armour and holds a sword, but it stands ready rather than thrusts forward. It demands no supplement; it is nourished not from without but from within. It is replenished of its own substance. Fortitude does not envisage new things; rather does it tenaciously preserve things known and tried. It builds, but builds unwittingly, not following an inspired plan nor a mere vision, but of necessity; and from stone to stone of daily conservative achievement.

Sometimes fortitude will earn fame, but not often. Always, however, it will earn reward; for even when the defensive fails at the end, if it has been of an efficient sort it makes an air and a name surrounding and enshrining itself. So have the great sieges of history done. So will our time of trial today, if we use it aright.

Belloc’s time of trial was, of course, World War II. Happily, our time of trial is far less all-consumingly urgent. Indeed, it’s possible for intelligent people of all political stripes to wonder whether today’s emergencies are emergencies at all, or mere smokescreens fanned by our enemies to distract our attention while they divide, demoralize, and fleece us.

With that uncertainty in mind, all three of today’s elephants have virtues to teach us:

The elephant of Périgueux advises fortitude and patience, which are essential in any age.

The elephant of Severus illustrates the virtue of a long memory, to help us put our problems in the proper historical perspective.

And the elephant of Han Fei reminds us that our knowledge of the world consists of a bare skeleton of second-hand reports, and that the picture we build up from that skeleton is unlikely to be as marvelous and strange as the real thing.

M.

1. Take everything I say concerning Chinese language and culture with a grain of salt. Not only am I not an expert, I’m barely a dabbler.

2. I came across “On Fortitude” in Hilaire Belloc’s Selected Essays, but it appeared originally in a 1941 collection called The Silence of the Seawitheringly dismissed by Vladimir Nabokov in the New York Times Book Review.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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