Invisible Threads

Art historian Ernest Gombrich wrote a seminal work on the psychology of perception that drew on his experience monitoring overseas radio broadcasts for the BBC during World War II. Gombrich had been an Austrian refugee from the Nazis and presumably was put to work transcribing German-language transmissions, although he never actually acknowledged as much beyond characterizing them as the broadcasts of “friend and foe.” He noted that many of the transmissions were barely audible, and it took considerable skill to make any sense of them. You had to know what might be said in order to hear what was actually said. But at the same time you had to be careful not to get carried away by your own expectations. “Expectation created illusion,” he wrote — a phenomenon long employed by magicians to hoodwink their audiences. Gombrich commented, ”Anyone who can handle a needle convincingly can make us see a thread which is not there.”

One is reminded of Hans Christian Anderson’s version of a classic tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” — a story that literally hangs by invisible threads. The emperor was snookered into parading about in his birthday suit by a pair of swindlers who presented him with clothes that were supposedly invisible to anyone who was unfit for office or otherwise a fool. Under the circumstances, neither the emperor nor any of his retainers was prepared to admit they could not see the outfit these supposed tailors had made from the finest silks. The swindle was only laid bare, if you will, when a small child watching the emperor parade down the street cried out, “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

The addition of the small child was Anderson’s contribution to the story, which was adapted from a 14th-century Spanish tale. The child may have been based on Anderson’s own childhood experience. He had been taken to a parade where he saw Denmark’s King Frederick VI for the first time. Notwithstanding all the pomp and ceremony, the boy was astonished to discover that His Royal Highness was not some god but just an ordinary human being.

The swindlers realized that getting the emperor and his retainers to buy in to their ruse started with invisible thread. If their sewing gestures were convincing enough, their victims could be made to see the thread that wasn’t there to stitch together a nonexistent garment. Every conjurer knows just the right words and gestures to use to put one over on the audience. The expectation creates the illusion.

The kicker to “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is that the swindlers essentially beat the emperor at his own racket. To succeed at his game, the emperor had to persuade people that he was a grand personage deserving of royal treatment (albeit a rather gullible one), not just some schmo off the street. The key moment came after the child had exposed the deception. What did the emperor do then? Why, he kept right on marching down the street, just as proud as you please, with his retinue behind him. To do otherwise would be to acknowledge that the emperor had no clothes — not just an empty suit but no suit at all.

A bit of hocus-pocus goes with the job — not only for emperors but for every occupation that involves standing on ceremony: judges, magistrates, bishops and the like. Often this entails dressing up in ornate costumes to stand out from the crowd. These costumes are distinct from the uniforms worn by soldiers, cops and firemen, which are designed for functionality. The ceremonial kind are woven from their own sort of invisible thread meant to evoke a higher authority, whether church or state. Often this is done by adopting styles that were fashionable long ago, like the powdered wigs worn by modern-day English jurists.

The robes worn by clergy are an instructive case study in this phenomenon. Their clothing is modeled after the finery of Roman aristocrats. Before the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the established religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, Christians were a persecuted minority. Certainly, it did not pay to stand out. From the beginning, in fact, Jesus had actively discouraged sartorial excess. He spoke with approval of the attire worn by John the Baptist, who dressed in animal skins. “What did you go out in the wilderness to behold?” Jesus asked the crowds.· “To see a man clothed in soft raiment?· Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses.”· Jesus warned of religious authorities “who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places.”· He sent his own disciples out without food or money or even a change of clothes.

Clerics wear fancy clothes not just to evoke a higher authority but the highest authority: they are men (or women) of God. Without the fancy duds, how would we know? Jesus, of course, never bothered with any of that. But then, he could could walk on water and raise people from the dead, so his authority was never in doubt. Clerics perform rituals rather than demonstrate the power of God. They hope that by word and gesture — and the proper attire — they can conjure up some semblance of the real thing. What would God himself have to say about all this? Based on the biblical creation story, we know that the man he made in his own image — who was given dominion over everything — came into the world without wearing a stitch.

E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation
Matthew 11:7-8
Mark 12:38

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