catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 23 :: 2003.12.05 — 2003.12.18


The emperor has only clothes

A naked king, invisible clothes, a brave child — these make the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Long has this story stood against the vanity of pride, warning of the humiliation that follows arrogance. But the story no longer works. Humanity has lost so much of its identity that invisible clothes would only terrify it.

The urge to live simply, to escape the chains of western success has risen screaming in the hearts of many Westerners. The suspicion that we cannot validate ourselves by the cut of our clothes, the size of our pay checks, or the relative power of our positions scratches like a rat at the walls of our minds. Lacking an identity anchored firmly in something beyond the cultural forms, contemporary westerners will never live simply.

We seek an identity — a settled sense of who we are. We seek an identity derived from something larger than ourselves, more stable than our passing whims. So into the forms prescribed by our culture — athlete, intellectual, professional, conservative, liberal, writer, artist, Christian, Muslim, homosexual, heterosexual, skeptic, etc. — we attempt to stuff our lives. The pressure to fit ourselves into the forms prescribed by western culture has deformed countless souls.

Why do we do this?

Western culture is old, and a large body of tradition has grown to clothe and give form to the institutions that make up our way of life. At first, the men and women who pursued professions and sports, artistic and intellectual interests bestowed upon these pursuits their nobility and appeal. The sobriety of the judge gave the law profession its dignity, the artist’s work gave art its validity, and the scholar’s thoughts earned the intellect its respect. Individual men and women defined the forms of this culture: they cut these ‘clothes’ to fit their own persons.

But we have seen a fundamental shift. Western man, having lost a settled understanding of himself and of his nature, uncertain of his own form has sought to fit himself into the molds pre-cut by other men. Originality has died. Even rebellion, cut off from a clear vision of the human soul, has run itself dry. We can predict the opinions, interests, pursuits, and clothing of the modern rebel as easily as we can predict the uniform of a friend joining the military.

I find it interesting that a tailored suit clothes a man as rarely as does a tailored profession, tailored leisure, or a tailored way-of-life. Not only have we abdicated the right to cut our clothes to fit our bodies, but we’ve also abdicated the right to cut our lives to fit the form of our individual souls.

Because our identity (and by extension our security) derives from the forms prescribed by our community, we can never live simply. For our identity is anchored to a fluctuating organism. We wear our culture with its professions, titles, honors, awards, all conferred by other people — like we wear clothes to cover our nakedness. But no longer do we cover our nakedness because we have a sacred self that deserves respect. Rather, we cover the nakedness of no-self. Western man cannot cover himself because he has no self. He is impotent to answer the questions: “Who are you?” “What are you?”

So he wraps around his vague, flabby, undefined being the garments of power, prestige, possession, and profession. Hoping to hide his vacant core, he piles his culture’s clothing into mounds large enough to hid his self-less self. Others will see and judge only the mound he has built. Thus, he takes his identity from the minds of other men and has validity only within the collective mind of his community. The contemporary westerner will never succumb to invisible clothes because the contemporary westerners trust nothing that others cannot see. His community cannot praise, validate, or authenticate invisible clothes, so he will not wear them.

Modern western man believes in his own identity only if others believe in it. He has only as much value as his peers allow him. He will keep his clothes as long as his community authenticates them. When his community changes, he will change. And if his community validates individuals according to their accumulation of stuff, he will relentlessly accumulate stuff. Without anchored identity, man can have no simplicity.

Were the fable of the Emperor told today, we would need to change it. No modern emperor would dare walk the streets in invisible clothes. He does not fear nakedness if stripped of his garments; he fears that, if stripped of his garments, he’ll cease to exist at all. It isn?t the clothes that are invisible; it’s the men.



Discussion topic: The emperor has only clothes

What do you make of the author’s theory that the modern western individual is “invisible” (lacking identity) beneath the fancy suit of clothes? Is this a problem for believers and non-believers alike? What remedies exist for this problem?

your comments

comments powered by Disqus