The Emperor’s New Clothes

1.

“It’s my great pleasure to inform you…” was as far as Walter Low had got when his usual fit of hiccups overpowered him.  Not that it mattered; this little snippet told him all there was of real importance in the email he had at last received from the International Spleen Society.  He was in; he’d made it.  A mere two months had passed since his doctoral inauguration and here he was, an accepted lecturer at The 103rd Annual Septimus Spleen Conference that was to take place in Paris in June.  The time and place only made the victory the greater, as every Spleen scholar was naturally dying to spend a few days in that wonderful city at that time of the year.

Walter always got the hiccups when he was excited, and he did his best to get over these fits by thinking of something really mundane.  The smell of garlic that was lingering in the air due to the Italian restaurant downstairs was trivial enough to sufficiently calm him and go on reading the email.  It was good to occupy his mind with mere details of the event because at this point he did not even want to think about how he would tackle the hiccup problem when called on to speak at the conference—the very thought threatened with a renewed fit.  Then again, he could always fix his eyes on a buttonhole or a coffee cup or something.

It did not take him by surprise to see every single hotshot of the Spleen industry on the list of participants, nor was it unusual that the hottest of them all had been appointed as keynote speakers.  The great Tyler Trump was to deliver a lecture entitled “Unpalatable Subsistence and Spiritual Fruitlessness in Spleen’s ‘The Raging Maggot.’”  The inimitable Ezra Tease chose to speak of “Spleenism and Post-Modernism: Focusing on ‘Seablue Balls.’”  Mr. Langston Curry—the most knowledgeable Spleen expert of the century according to some—had prepared a lecture called “Counterfactual Narrative Poetry versus Incarnational Symbolism in Spleen’s ‘Lost Marbles.’”

Walter knew very well that a scholar was bound to come up with something new; that he should have a catchy title; that he should be diplomatic enough to stud his paper with flattering references to his brother scholars.  But Walter was as honest as he was enthusiastic, and he knew it was terribly hard for him to keep his peace when he came across some highfaluting nonsense masquerading as academic excellence, or when he was face to face with a person whose opinion he did not value.

Of course he had read tons of balderdash during all those years of scholarly research, but when it came to the live performance of the intellectual demigods of his field his hopes were high and his naivety boundless.  He readily forgave them their necessarily overcomplicated titles and took it for granted that their lectures would be like pearls and diamonds scattered with a generous hand.

2.

His hotel had been recommended by the Society because it was situated only a few blocks away from the venue, namely the venerable Universite Samedi Dimanche.  Walter, after having been shown up to the glorified shoebox that was to be his room, and having been minutely informed that it was forbidden to eat, to drink, to smoke, to make noise, to throw anything in the lavatory, to hang anything out to dry, to bring pets, or entertain any guests not staying at the hotel, hurried out to have a bite to eat before the registration for the conference commenced.

The assistant at the boulangerie was so friendly that Walter was taken aback; wasn’t it common knowledge that the French—and especially the Parisians—were rude?  By the time Walter got to the end of his long baguette, the assistant had cured him of his surprise by telling him her life story; Walter’s execrable pronunciation had given him away and she switched to English and admitted to being a Francophile kiwi studying at the Universite Samedi Dimanche.  Oh, he was about to participate in a conference there, eh?  Crikey dick!   Crash hot, for sure!  And he gotta rattle his dags?  Well, cheerio then!

The university porter was also very friendly and also turned out to be non-French as soon as he had opened his mouth; speaking with a heavy Jamaican accent, he directed Walter to the first floor where the registration was to take place.  Yes, it had already started, but there was no need to worry; the participants were partaking of refreshments at the moment.

The first thing Walter beheld was Tyler Trump talking in a frenzy and brandishing a glass of wine while his timid interlocutor, a miniscule Asian lady, was doing her best to save herself from eventual wine stains.  Walter had never met the great Trump before, but he had seen recordings of a few Trump lectures on YouTube.  The man had decidedly something leonine about him; he was large and red and loud.  Walter also spotted Ezra Tease and Joan Darcy, who stood very close to each other and talked very low—Mr. Tease, with his customary silk scarf artistically wound round his chicken-like neck, fixed his eyes on Miss Darcy’s cleavage and seemed to talk down her blouse, while that lady kept looking around and occasionally emitting a gurgling laugh.

Walter was too shy to join any group or couple that he saw standing around and so after he had done with the registration, he went and sat in the room where the first panel was to start soon.  He chose a chair well in the back and occupied himself with making a mental list of trivialities with which to fend off hiccup attacks.

3.

The first few minutes of the first keynote had sufficed to completely confuse Walter; Langston Curry’s mellifluous voice was a delight to hear, his respectable snow-white hair and whiskers were a joy to behold, but his beautiful string of words seemed to be devoid of meaning.  Walter had been concentrating so hard that sweat-beads had formed on his forehead and his mouth had become dry.  What was wrong with him?  Was he the only one who had not a single clue as to what Curry was talking about?

He looked around furtively.  Trump was sitting in the first row, with his head erect, his mane like a scarlet halo, and, as far as Walter could see from where he sat, with eyes fixed on the speaker and never blinking. A certain Seymour Bunce—a scriptwriter currently engaged in completing his magnum opus, Spleen on the Screen—was busy with his notes, scribbling away occasionally, at other times chewing the end of his pen and looking at Curry.  The fair Joan was sitting next to Mr. Tease, nodding her charming head frequently and sometimes whispering a few words in her companion’s ear.  Ezra was still mesmerized by Miss Darcy’s décolletage, which, in theory, did not obstruct his hearing even if it occupied his visual organ.

As soon as Curry had finished, a tremendous applause shook the four walls, and bravos and encores mingled with the noise of clapping hands and stamping feet.  Then came the “Q and A” bit and Walter’s surreal feeling not only did not disappear, but became stronger.  Had he listened to the same lecture as these cheering individuals?  Did these erudite questions and pithy comments really refer to what he had just heard?  All he could do was to assure himself that he was a novice and insight probably followed on the heels of experience.  For the moment he would remain quiet and try to look intelligent.  Maybe act as if he was taking down a couple of important ideas in his notebook.

4.

The second keynote speaker was Tyler Trump, who scoffed at the offer of a microphone and instantly began bellowing and booming and beating the table with his right fist.  Walter, bewildered, thought of Mrs. Moore and the uncanny booming sound of the caves.[1]  He kept his seat, however, and was still determined to unravel Trump’s mystery.  He was soon rewarded with shreds of intelligible sentences; these were, alas, times when the speaker began a jogtrot “from platitude to truism, and from truism to platitude,”[2] probably intent on offering his interlocutors’ minds a bit of rest after one and before another furious intellectual gallop.

All in all, this second keynote left Walter even more frustrated, but he was still reverent and expectant enough to chase away the creeping suspicion that it was not his intellect that was at fault.

The panels in general were tolerably interesting, but—luckily?—not so good as to intimidate him; he was becoming confident that his paper would create quite a sensation among so much mediocrity.  Yes, it was a fortunate thing not to have to worry about the possibility of being outshined by other unknown celestial bodies in the lit-crit-firmament; it kept hiccups at bay.

5.

Regiments of impaled cheese-cubes had been consumed and gallons of red wine had washed them down the distinguished gullets of Spleen experts—the conference had reached its climax with the second keynote and was soon to come to a glorious close with the third and last keynote, the lecture of Ezra Tease.

Walter had got through the Herculean task of delivering his paper without hiccups, which had been largely facilitated by the size of the audience; two people besides the two other panel speakers could not be regarded as disconcerting even by Walter.  If anything, it had allayed his fears and almost emboldened him.  In this frame of mind he was ready for the third keynote speech.  Let Ezra come and try to mystify him, he would make himself heard.

Mr. Tease’s flutelike voice required a microphone, but even the proper volume did not make it any easier to make head or tail of his lecture.  Instead of punching the table with his fist, Tease performed the most elaborate flourishes with his right hand; Walter sat mesmerized, his eyes closely following the long white fingers.

The sirens of an ambulance passing by under the window broke the strange spell and Walter tore himself away from Tease’s dancing fingers.  From the corner of his eyes, he shot stealthy glances at his neighbors and saw Trump’s unblinking stare—was the man actually asleep?  Bunce’s busy pen—could it be true?  Was he really drawing flowers and geometric designs? Joan Darcy’s rhythmically nodding head—was it at all connected with what the speaker was saying?  If so, why did she nod sometimes when Tease stopped to clear his throat or asked a person to be so kind as to shut the window?

When the eagerly awaited phrase “In conclusion, I would like to say…” was heard at last, Walter had not as yet made up his mind how to react to what he had patiently listened to without comprehending anything beyond “ands, buts, ifs, and howevers.”  He sat there, in the midst of apparently admiring colleagues, more and more certain that the Emperor was butt naked and he was the child who would say it out loud.   But weren’t they all at the same time emperors and weavers and also the beholders afraid to reveal their incompetence to see the wondrous garment?   And if so, who would thank him for the revelation?

Spleen might!  Shouldn’t he, Walter, the disciple, show his devotion by trying to help the divine poet stop revolving in his grave?   But before he could make a remark, or before a hiccup attack prevented him, something else happened that put an end to his dilemma, his resolution, and the whole conference, in fact.

6.

Langston Curry, whom Walter had observed fingering something in his bulging pocket while Tease had been speaking, suddenly jumped up with a screech.  Miss Darcy, who had been sitting on his right, did the same, but her screech conveyed an important message to the rest of the participants; “Sweet Jesus, his pants are on fire!”

There were some who thought it was a joke, others started panicking and ran towards the emergency exit.   More cool-headed and solution-oriented individuals gave orders to find the fire extinguisher and spray the flaming scholar, while others were of the opinion that he should “just take it off, for Christ’s sake!”  Curry did all the above; he panicked, he cried for an extinguisher, and he began ripping off his trousers.  The mischief-making lighter fell on the floor with a rattling sound.

As to Walter, he remained seated and continued observing the spectacle.  Although he felt both relieved and disappointed at not having had his say, he was first and foremost impressed; Spleen ex machina.  The divine poet had taken the thing in his own hands and all there was left for Walter to do was to applaud.



[1] See E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

[2] From Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage.

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