Friday, June 13, 2014

Flimsy Screens

"But, I don't understand," said Dorothy, in bewilderment. "How was it that you appeared to me as a great Head?"

"That was one of my tricks," answered Oz. "Step this way, please, and I will tell you all about it."

He led the way to a small chamber in the rear of the Throne Room, and they all followed him. He pointed to one corner, in which lay the great Head, made out of many thicknesses of paper, and with a carefully painted face.

"This I hung from the ceiling by a wire," said Oz. "I stood behind the screen and pulled a thread, to make the eyes move and the mouth open."

"But how about the voice?" she inquired.

"Oh, I am a ventriloquist," said the little man. "I can throw the sound of my voice wherever I wish, so that you thought it was coming out of the Head. Here are the other things I used to deceive you." He showed the Scarecrow the dress and the mask he had worn when he seemed to be the lovely Lady. And the Tin Woodman saw that his terrible Beast was nothing but a lot of skins, sewn together, with slats to keep their sides out. As for the Ball of Fire, the false Wizard had hung that also from the ceiling. It was really a ball of cotton, but when oil was poured upon it the ball burned fiercely.

"Really," said the Scarecrow, "you ought to be ashamed of yourself for being such a humbug."

"I am - I certainly am," answered the little man sorrowfully; "but it was the only thing I could do."

And so it goes.

When I read this story again as an adult, which would have been in my late 20s, I saw something more in the above passage than the appalling behaviour that everyone sees in the Wizard.  I was told to read the book by a prof I had, Dr. Janos Svilpis, about whom I can find only one reference online, as J.E. Svilpis.  Ah, the days before the internet.  Dr. Svilpis, who also believed brilliantly that the Three Stooges were representatives of Russian Communism (Lenin, Trotsky & Stalin), used to buy his favourite students beer at a local tavern, where shelled peanuts were free and where the shells were simply swept off onto the floor, where they would be swept away at closing time.  The Highlander is gone now; but I shall always remember loud arguments with a paid-for beer in my hand, in a room that smelled of peanut shells, with the most gonzo prof I ever had.  Poor Svilpis.  He did not fare well when student evaluations became the norm.  He was far too 'out there' for students concerned about what jobs their degrees would buy.

Svilpis did not think the Wizard of Oz was a children's book, and as I remember he called me an 'idiot' for thinking that it was.  Well, he was buying the beer.  So I read the book and found that he was right.  Not simply because the poppy field is about heroin, though that's what everyone who reads the unexpurgated text discovers, but because there is a great deal about the idiocy of human behaviour to be found in L. Frank Baum's text.  In the scene above it is not just that the Wizard is a very poor person - it is also surprising that Dorothy and her friends were taken in by such pathetic ruses.

A dress and a mask?  A burning cotton ball?  A beast made of skins sewn together?  Are you kidding me?

The film production of the book recognized that there was an elaborate failure in the Wizard's design - but rather than exemplifying the book, the film set out to 'fix' it . . . so generations of people fail to understand that the Wizard is not hiding behind a curtain, but a mere 'screen.'  A screen so flimsy that a little dog could tip it over.  Here's the passage: "The Lion thought it might be as well to frighten the Wizard, so he gave a large, loud roar, which was so fierce and dreadful that Toto jumped away from him in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a corner. As it fell with a crash they looked that way, and the next moment all of them were filled with wonder."

Yes, Baum IS telling a tale about how charlatans set out to fool perfectly ordinary people, but he is also expressing the utter, blatant ease with which dumb, heartless and cowardly people are fooled.  Because it is pathetically simple.  So simple that people cannot tell the difference between human skin and many thicknesses of paper.

We shouldn't wonder that so many of the things we find and see in the world turn out to be garbage.  We shouldn't wonder when we are taken on a tour, only to find the trip isn't worth the money we've paid.  We should expect that the materials we've bought turn out to be mere reproductions of other materials, that were themselves reproductions.  We are so desperately in need of something new, we're ready to fool ourselves in buying anything . . . and then convincing ourselves for years after the fact that what we have is the real thing.  We're willing to saddle up, head out West and face witches, that belief is so strong in us.

What morons we are.

I was working on a passage last night about work - the work that it takes to make a world, and the work that it takes for that world to be something amazing.  Afterwards I thought about the passage, and chuckled, because I know that the last thing most anyone wants to do is work to make a world.  So I think, "What am I doing here?"

Perhaps the wisest thing I could do would be to build a flimsier screen.  When I have people tell me that the game is 'only' this or that, then clearly what is called for is the making of a flimsier screen.  It would be so easy to start another blog, upon another email address, and simply preach exactly what the hix in the stix want to hear - and then sell them sewn together skins and paper-mache heads.  I could build myself up by attacking day and night that 'tao fucker guy,' building up a sweet following that would buy my derivative crap. Because that's how it is with people.  Tell them what they want to hear, and let them walk themselves right into a witches' castle.

Dr. Svilpis must have messed me up though, because here I am writing a book telling people that they're going to have to work, and probably fail for a long time, if they want to have the thing they want.  That's no way to get rich.

1 comment:

John MacKenzie said...

Hi Alexis,

Noticed this post has no comments. It's a shame because I found this post absolutely brilliant. Of course, there is nothing useful I can add to it, which may be why there are no comments, but it makes me wish I'd met your professor.

John MacKenzie