When I was at LSU I was obsessed with getting a better understanding of human nature. I used up my elective credits taking philosophy, religion, and literature courses. I would perch between the stacks in Middleton library during my free time, searching for some direction to a core truth. It brought me all the way to XMAN. No, Stan Lee is not the end-all, beat-all of understanding what it means to be human (though I do think the writers of Marvel have done more to approach that understanding than many philosophers). The novel I'm referring to leaned so deeply into nihilism it didn't even use paragraphs or chapter breaks. It had as many clues about our nature as humans as it did indentations.
More recently I have been returning to classics intended to find our core humanness. I read J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians recently. In it the sedentary, white magistrate presides over his outpost. When central authority comes to commit genocide, effectively ridding the countryside of the "barbarians," we get a juxtaposition of the different types of human oppression: out-and-out destruction or a slow, self-indulgent colonization. At the end we are left questioning if we, the colonizers, are the real barbarians. It's a good exploration into our western civilization, to be sure. What I realized as I read it, though, is that I have changed. I kept getting frustrated because I didn't care what the magistrate thought. I wanted to know about the barbarians. But Coetzee never allowed them to speak. That is except for the exoticized, crippled prisoner of the magistrate. And even then, it's all passed through his consciousness. He continued to ask: what does this woman mean to me?
Could my frustration with this be Coetzee's intention? If so, bravo. But if it wasn't, I have to ask why we didn't we hear from them. Why wasn't someone writing their voice? The easy answer, of course, is this is the product of oppression. If we didn't make room for their voice then they could not speak. But what if we had made room? Would they have then told us? I starting believe the answer is not always yes. Because I think that's something else that gets stuck in our heads...that we deserve to know. But that does not mean we will. Knowing is not something we can take. I believe it is something to be earned through by respecting the silences and trusting the storytellers.
This idea, that I will never get the whole truth, brings me back to the parable of the three blind ones and the elephant. When they happened upon the creature the first grabbed the trunk and said, "It's a snake." The second grabbed the leg and said "It's a tree." The last grabbed the tail and said "It's a brush." The parable is meant to illustrate how we come to understand big things. But it focuses more on the elephant than the interpretation. The idea that there is a centralized truth does not diminish the truth and experience of the three blind ones. They each bring a wisdom of the part. And it is because they don't trust each other that they never come to understand the elephant.
I'm not sure I believe in human nature any more. But being human seems to answer so many questions. People don't always tell you their truths, but trying to glimpse what life would be like for them allows us to begin perceiving. I've come to understand so much more about the world once I tried to look through eyes not my own. As I watch others read the classics I rarely hear them question who is telling the story and how the story might be different if someone else told it. They don't look for the silences that are just as telling as the as the pages of text. Only when can be comfortable with the little bits of evidence this life is willing to give us about meaning can we talk about the elephant in the room.