The Emperor's New Clothes

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When I was a child, I found the story "The Emperor's New Clothes" terribly compelling and compellingly terrible. I had the Disney illustrated version of it, and I would read the book fairly regularly. I had a feeling that something more complex was taking place that I was not grasping, and I wanted to see whatever was hiding in the words. (At the age of seven, I didn't yet know what an allegory was).

If you are unfamiliar with Hans Christian Andersen's story, here is the plot synopsis from Wikipedia, which is nearly as long as the story itself:

Many years ago there lived an emperor who cared only about his clothes and about showing them off. One day he heard from two swindlers that they could make the finest suit of clothes from the most beautiful cloth. This cloth, they said, also had the special capability that it was invisible to anyone who was either stupid or not fit for his position.

Being a bit nervous about whether he himself would be able to see the cloth, the emperor first sent two of his trusted men to see it. Of course, neither would admit that they could not see the cloth and so praised it. All the townspeople had also heard of the cloth and were interested to learn how stupid their neighbors were.

The emperor then allowed himself to be dressed in the clothes for a procession through town, never admitting that he was too unfit and stupid to see what he was wearing. For he was afraid that the other people would think that he was stupid.

Of course, all the townspeople wildly praised the magnificent clothes of the emperor, afraid to admit that they could not see them, until a small child said:

"But he has nothing on"!

This was whispered from person to person until everyone in the crowd was shouting that the emperor had nothing on. The emperor heard it and felt that they were correct, but held his head high and finished the procession.

Until I was in high school, I was under the impression that the reader was to put herself in the shoes of the emperor. This left me with an entirely different impression of the story from what I later found out others had of it. Coming at the story from the emperor's viewpoint, it was in part about self-deception in the name of justifying the ego and the resulting disconnect from reality.

I felt so much shame for the emperor, and each time I read the story, I would wish that it could have another ending, one in which he not only became aware of his public nakedness but also experienced shame at his own ineptitude, and then recovered his dignity through the attainment of a higher level of self-knowledge. The emperor's absolute belief in the face of conflicting and obvious facts and his adherence to his course of action despite revelation of the truth was mortifying in its flagrant public display. Everyone knew but him, and then once he did know, he did nothing to rectify the situation.

It struck me with the fear that that was how my own life was, that it was obvious to everyone that my motivating premise had no base, that I was not as independent and creative and intelligent as I attempted to pretend. (My childhood years were not brimming with self-confidence).

In high school, a friend and I were discussing about "The Emperor's New Clothes", and she was surprised at how I looked at it, because she had always assumed that we, the readers, were lumped in with the crowd watching the emperor, and she sympathized with the boy who pointed out the emperor's foible. We were supposed to be one with the crowd in seeing the truth for what it was. It was a relief to me to look at the story from that angle; it put me in a position of courage and power to uncover the truth about the world around me.

I used to wish that I had never put myself in the emperor's shoes during my first years reading that story. It introduced me to the idea of the separation of my internal sense of self from my external self in the world at an age when I was too young to sort out the split. I was plagued with a vague horror at knowing I might not be who I experienced myself to be, at the possibility that I might not know myself at all.

Now, I am glad that the knowledge of that split found me early. I prefer to put myself in the emperor's shoes (or lack thereof) these days. It is often a comfort to know that I may not be solely what I think I am. It makes room for both more and less to be possible. I know that I may not appear as the person I perceive myself to be, but it is nothing to fall to pieces over, because that is the window of possibility.

I might be capable of more than I am aware of: I might possess more courage, more creativity, more insight, more of anything than I believe I do. I might also have less of these things, but the possibility remains: I may be greater than the sum of my perceived parts, even if I am completely (and blissfully) unaware at the moment that I am parading naked through the streets.

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