The Emperor Has No Clothes is a parable unknown to very few – if any. Its usefulness as an idiom is only paralleled in its referential precision by the phrase and the tale “The Elephant in the Room” where their idiomatic use have become an indelible part of our casual and contemporary lexicon. None more so, or more aptly so than in our dismaying 2016 through 2024 political discourse.
These references are drawn from wisdom going back to the very beginning of wisdom itself. And today we are met with conflict and morality that go far outside what either of these tales sought to resolve. Even at their earliest, these morally instructive fables and the earlier tales they were drawn from, were based on an assumption that today no longer prevails. We use them without the moral imperatives that are their legacy and once enduring instruction.
In the final installment of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 publication of Fairy Tales Told for Children – The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Little Mermaid made lesson-bearing story-telling a household practice. But that is not where they began. Andersen’s story of the emperor was drawn from The Book of Count Lucanor and Patronio or (Book of the Examples) of Count Lucanor and Patronio, written by Don Juan Manuel around 1335. The King in Andersen’s tale was hoodwinked into believing only intelligent people could see the finery of his royal garments, and Manuel’s that only those of noble blood could see. Similar and representative of their values in their respective times, they carried the same imperative; to see and think for one’s self with an allegiance to the truth if only for one’s own clarity. Andersen drew his version from Don Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena and a prolific writer. His were drawn on fables by Aesop – a greek slave mid 500 BCE and even earlier Arabic and Indian origins. The redeeming element is found within the lineage. The value of these didactic stories handed down held the same pertinence and relevance for a prince as they did a slave – literally.
It’s useful to know that The Elephant in the Room came from a story written by fabulist Ivan Krylov The Inquisitive Man, about a man that attends a museum and gives interest to a great many small items while failing to notice there is an elephant in the room. This began its journey of the proverbial reference we know today by Dostoevsky’s attribution of it to Krylov in his novel Demons.
So what is the importance in knowing how far back these fables, fairy tales and proverbs go and through whom they followed their succession? Because it illustrates the timelessness and universality without regard to prominence, preeminence, rank, position or acclaim. Prince or slave, they not only held the same value but they were attested to through and by them – no matter their station or time.
Why does the Emperor having no clothes fall silent to the ears that hear it as we wait for a political party to come to its senses? And equally for its elected to yield ambition and allegiance to the elevation of the offices to which its occupants are solemnly sworn?
Why do fingers pointed toward an elephant in the room garner no response and bring no rational thought to a narrative assembled from lies?
Why do we shake our heads in dismay as the values that Solomon, Aesop, Andersen, Krylov, Pilpay, Rumi, Mandela and others wrote about fall on deafness, whether their authors embodied them or not.
The Answer Is: The Presumption. Every one of these fables, proverbs and tales has a morality upon which their utility and abiding certainty depends. A presumption that virtue matters to one and to all. In the absence of the pursuit of a definitive morality, there is no story because there is no conscience – no place for a moral to land.
Today – when political figures become heretics to democracy and refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room we keep pointing to- it is because they put the elephant there. They are the elephant. It is we who have been unwilling to see. When it coms to the emperor having no clothes, it is not these reprobate insurgents that are the imposters that lied to the king – they are the cohorts of the king and his lies. The King knows he has no clothes, but he does not want you to know he knows and neither do his soul-selling generals. Further and deeper still, is the audience for whom the story and its moral are written and told. They too know there is no morality. They know the work they are doing. They are lining up to do it and can finally say so aloud. They’ve been in excruciating wait just to be able to say so. They are not merely on board with the lie – they are the substance and bona fides of the lie. They revere and embody the lie, and gleefully so. They depend upon the lie for a life they long for. A life a faction of America was once sure would be delivered as a simple matter of course. They have traded a feigned morality for the amorality it always was. One that covers and obscures the sum of their imagined white fears.
The moral of THIS story is that there is no moral. And the pretense that one exists is proof of its absence. A tactical fable of its own, to run out the clock on a bill of goods sold to those who believe a moral universally existed. It is not the emperor that has no clothes – it is a political party and base that have no morals. And that is the elephant in the room that the rest of us have labored not to see. Many not seeing yet still.