Hanga Treasure Chest: Print #8

So just how much detail can we cram into one of these little prints? I don't know about you, but I definitely need my reading glasses to look at this one!

In my small collection of prints and books is a colour woodblock album, made in the Meiji-period, containing reproductions of works by Hanabusa Itcho, who lived in the late 17th to early 18th century. It was issued by a publisher in Niigata Prefecture in Meiji 21 (1888), and is rather clumsily produced, with little of the elegance that we find in many Meiji printed books. The album contains quite a random collection of images, many of which seem to be illustrations of scenes from novels of his day. The origin of this particular scene though, goes back quite a bit farther. This well-known fable apparently had its beginning in early Buddhist writings more than 2,200 years ago, and by some 1,000 years after that had spread to the west and the far east.

During the time that I was working on this print, I discussed the fable with a few people, and was a bit surprised by some of their impressions of it; I think that perhaps the 'meaning' of the story is frequently misinterpreted!

I'm sure you know the basic story - the group of blind men inspect an elephant and then report their wildly varying impressions: "It's like a rope! It's like a tree! ..." I suppose if we don't give it much thought, the story does seem like a simplistic view of how easy it is to 'fool' somebody who can't see as well as we can. But of course, the story isn't about blind people at all; it's about you and me. About how any of us, no matter how broad-minded we might think we are, frequently fail to see things as other people see them, and fail to recognize that another way of doing things may have equal validity with our own.

And now, more than 2,000 years after the story was first told, our newspapers every day show us the results of our failure to understand it.

(By the way, do you think elephants really have such eyelashes? I suppose Itcho never actually had a chance to see one ...)


Monday, May 9, 2005