Monday, September 27, 2010

What You See Is Not Always Golden*

"When psychologists don the cloak of expert in areas in which they have no more authority than the average man--that is, when they invade religion, ethics, and politics--they will often be be wearing very little, and sometimes nothing at all." --The Emperor's New Clothes by W.K. Kilpatrick 

In the story of The Emperor's New Clothes originally as written by Hans Christian Anderson, naturally enough, is about an Emperor, a proud man, although sometimes prone to insecurity about how his subjects regard him, who values their esteem and respect above everything. Like many of his kind, he is very susceptible to flattery, as well as wanting to be able to prove his superiority over his subjects.

One day, two con men arrive in the country and realise they can exploit these weaknesses of the Emperor to their financial advantage. Disguising themselves as fashion designers, they gain access to the Emperor and tell him they are the most talented craftsmen in the land, able to create the most fashionable clothes from the finest material. The Emperor is terribly impressed by their sales pitch and immediately commissions them to create the most extravagant ceremonial robes for him to wear at the next royal procession. An event where he would be sure to be seen and admired by all his subjects.

Of course, the con men have a ruse that they know will both confound the emperor and make them rich without any real effort at all. So, when they start to "make" the fabulous robes, they invite the emperor to choose the fabric, and ingeniously show him a roll of material, apparently so fine, it is invisible to all but the most discerning clients. Now, the Emperor could not see this marvellous cloth for the simple reason that it did not exist, but could he admit it? Well, he could not, not even to himself.

Neither could the Emperors courtiers; they could see no cloth, but they were not about to admit it; if the Emperor could 'see' it, then indeed it must exist. Anyway, no one wanted to acknowledge that they lacked the discernment to be able to see such finery. The con men finish the "robes," receive their payment and sensibly disappear, never to be seen again in that part of the world. In the days leading up to the royal procession, the city was abuzz with rumours about the wondrous outfit the emperor was to wear. Expectations could not have been higher.

The Emperor, himself, was even more convinced of the reality of his robes; even though he sensed himself to be a fraud, so lacking discernment as he did, whatever uneasiness he felt was more than compensated by the high praise the robes received from all those around him. "Such fine stitching", "so beautifully cut", "what lovely colours" they chorused. The day of the procession arrived, and with full pomp and ceremony. The emperor paraded through the city - well - stark naked. The citizens, though, were not about to admit that what they could see or not, as it happened, cheered and roared their approval of the emperor and his new 'suit of clothes.' This happy, if a little undignified delusion would have continued unhindered, except for one thing, or rather one quite small child.

The child, one of the many spectators, was waiting expectantly to see the emperor and the much heralded robes, but what did he see? A naked emperor; unable to stay silent, he shouted out, "He's completely naked". Of course, those around him laughed at his 'stupidity' and told him to shut his mouth. The child insisted, "But he is, he is...". Well, to bring this tale to an end, eventually the crowd became restive; uncertain whispering broke out, as did the occasional guffaw of laughter. Then, like a punctured balloon, the pomp began to deflate as spectators, courtiers and Emperor alike realized that what the child was saying was indeed true. I don't have to describe the subsequent humiliation and deflation that followed.

It also carries another equally powerful message. After all, it is only the child who sees through the charade. The story of the Emperor's new clothes tells us that overweening pomposity and grandeur usually gets its come-uppance, and sometimes from the most unlikely source. For after all, how could a small, ordinary child be a threat to the highest authority in the land?" version by:

In the Land of Oz, there lives a fairy godmother
, a wicked witch , an innocent young girl and a small, tremulous man hiding behind a curtain, so as to seem to be something else. That is, until he's uncovered. In his book, The Zen of Oz, Joey Green writes, "Oz is actually governed by the Tao." Does The Wizard of Oz "touch a spiritual chord in each one of us because it has a certain Zen to it?"

Dorothy while searching for her place in the world experiences a series of mis-adventures in which at one point, in a cyclone, she is knocked unconscious. She then, we learn, enters into a mysterious, dream-like world. Starting off on a path called the Yellow Brick Road, the tale's author, Frank Lyman Baum, recounts to us, that she, along with her dog, Toto, and others encountered along the way go to find The Wizard of Oz. "The Wizard while claiming to be beneficent, rules Oz through fear and manipulation-- from behind a curtain.

He extols himself, like the Emperor in the previous story as "great and munificent," writes Green of the discovery of the Oz castles, and the little man otherwise known, but the unseen, Wizard of Oz. It is like in the previous tale again, a small, harmless creature, this time a tiny dog rather than a child who runs towards the Wizard behind the curtain, pulls it back to reveal the truth about  Oz. The Wizard, now humiliated, makes amends to Dorothy and her party by promising his help to return her home.

The theme of these stories, it may be said is that one should not insult the real with the unreal. For if you do, you too will at once revel in your own nakedness.

*This article appeared here on January 14, 2010

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