Procrustes is alive and well!
Story: Feeding his Clothes
One day, Nasruddin saw a procession of well dressed people entering the grounds of the Sultan’s palace, and from the delicious smell of cooking that pervaded the atmosphere, he guessed that all these rich people were attending some sort of open air banquet. Nasruddin was very hungry, and the exotic aromas made his stomach rumble and his mouth water. ‘I’ll try to sneak inside,’ he thought. ‘Perhaps no one will notice that I haven’t got an invitation if I look nonchalant.’ But when the guards saw his tatty clothes, and his unkempt appearance, they knew at once that Nasruddin was a gate-crasher, and they barred his entry. ‘This banquet is for the Sultan’s special guests,’ said one burly guard in a threatening tone. ‘It’s not for beggars like you!’
Nasruddin went to the house of a rich friend, and explained what had just happened. ‘May I borrow a good suit of clothes?’ he asked. His friend gave him some beautiful silken robes, and a fine turban. ‘They’re a little old fashioned, and I don’t use them any more,’ said his friend. ‘You can keep them if you like.’
Dressed in his new costume, Nasruddin presented himself once more at the Sultan’s palace, but, since he looked like a rich man, the guards fell over themselves to be gracious to him. They didn’t ask to see his invitation, and one of them escorted him to the very top of the table, where all the dignitaries were sitting. No sooner had Nasruddin sat down, than plates of the most delicious food and flagons of fine wine were placed before him. But he didn’t eat any of it. He took some of the curry and smeared it on the sleeves of his robe; then he poured some wine over his turban, and stuffed vegetables into his pockets. ‘What on earth are you doing?’ asked Nasruddin’s bewildered neighbour. ‘Why are you rubbing food into your beautiful clothes?’
‘It’s these clothes that brought me all this fine food. It’s only right that they should be fed first!’ Nasruddin replied.
When I came to Dublin in 1996 I inherited the ‘children’s story’ section of the service. It had been the tradition here to have a special slot for a children’s item, but in Wakefield, where I had been minister, it was never customary. Principally, no doubt, because there were rarely any children present. So, I inherited a custom which was quite onerous, and regularly the children’s story would give me more trouble to prepare than the sermon.
However, over the years I came to realise that this element of the service was among the most important; not only did it make the children feel that they were a part of things, but it also provided an opportunity to tell some of the most profound and meaningful spiritual stories, some of which have application way beyond childhood. What’s more, since these stories could be found in all the traditions telling them was a very easy way of teaching us all that insight is found throughout the world and throughout history.
One of the most important stories, I think, is the story of Procrustes, which comes from Greek mythology. I have told it to the children, but it’s not that easy to make either humorous or exciting, and it is a little too bloodthirsty for a Sunday morning, so I generally choose something else, as I did today. But I can remind you of it. Procrustes, whose name means ‘the stretcher’, was a blacksmith who invited travellers to spend the night in his special bed. And he had a way of ensuring that everyone fitted the bed exactly. If his guests were too short, he would stretch them; if they were too tall, and their limbs extended beyond the bed, he would go to work with his axe and chop off any protruding bits. Eventually he came to grief when he was fitted to his own bed by the Greek hero Theseus.
Just another piece of charming and primitive Greek mythology, you might think. But there’s more to it than that. As the 20th century mythologist Joseph Campbell said, the people who inhabit the great myths are walking around today. These stories are relevant because they tell us something very important about what it means to be a human being, something that hasn’t altered in the thousands of years we humans have been around. Theseus may have killed the mythological Procrustes of old, but the spirit of the tyrant lives wherever we try to fit people into an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is required. And that is just about everywhere.
We saw a trivial but pertinent example of it in our reading from John Betjeman this morning. We send Christmas cards, he says, because people send cards to us:
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know –
They’d sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back.
There you have it. A simple procrustean obligation: this is what you do; this is how you celebrate Christmas; these things are expected of you. Fit in, or you’ll suffer for it. Indeed, much of what passes for Christmas preparation and celebration is just conforming to some inherited arbitrary standard of behaviour. And it’s so widespread and so predictable that statisticians have been able to determine our collective behaviour patterns; they told us last week, for example, that the first argument of Christmas Day occurs – on average, of course – at 9.58 a.m. Children get their first telling off at 11.07, and parents sip their first alcoholic drink at 11.49. I have to admit a kind of sneaking regard for those people – men usually – who defy convention by playing ‘Christmas Chicken’ – waiting to buy all their presents on Christmas Eve and seeing how late the very last purchase can be made! Although, it’s been talked about so much that it is no doubt becoming something of a custom in itself. I also heard last week that as we all count the days to Christmas, we should remember that the only other group of people who count days so feverishly are prisoners! Are we prisoners of Christmas? If so, then the spirit of Procrustes is indeed alive and well.
There’s another area of modern life over which he reigns – the curious desire we all seem to have to fit our bodies into an arbitrary pattern of someone else’s making. Stretching and chopping parts of our anatomy so that we can be considered conventionally attractive is almost a perfect example of procrustean activity. Your breasts aren’t big enough? Have them expanded by surgery. Your tummy is too big? Have it reduced by liposuction. The whole of the cosmetics and diet industries – worth billions and billions of dollars world-wide – is testimony to the feverish desire we all have to obey the instructions of the advertisers and the fashion gurus who present to us ridiculously untypical models for us to envy and to emulate. But what is even more sinister, we choose to undergo the cutting and the stretching ourselves; we volunteer to have our bodies pumped and prodded, and even pay money for the privilege. At least Procrustes had to tie his victims down, or drug them.
But there are other, more serious ways, or at least, more dangerous ways, in which we feel his malign influence. The political world, both historically and currently, furnishes countless examples. The most notorious example is, of course, Adolf Hitler. His agenda was entirely procrustean. He wanted to eliminate every group of people he found troublesome. Jewish people, he thought, were responsible for all the world’s financial problems and the simplest way to deal with them was to kill them all. Similarly with homosexuals, Gypsies, people suffering from mental illness, people of limited mental development or of impaired physical development. Get rid of them all, so that you can produce a super race of blond haired, blue eyed supermen and superwomen. It is ironic, of course, that Hitler himself hardly fitted into this category, nor did any of his closest henchmen, but consistency and logic are not to be expected from people who think like he did. ‘Ethnic cleansing’, which we’ve heard so much about in the past few years, is as old as the human race, is a contemporary manifestation of the same idea, and we have witnessed its horrors in the last decade in Bosnia
Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung all believed that the best way to deal with your problems is to eliminate them. Between them, these men were responsible for the deaths of countless millions of people, all in the name of some twisted ideology or another. According to a new biography of Trotsky, Stalin ordered Trotsky’s assassination because, he said, ‘No person, no problem’. It was Stalin, too, who is said to have remarked, ‘One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is just a statistic.’ Anyone who doesn’t fit into your neat little political or economic scheme is best eliminated. Criminals, too, say some, should simply be disposed of. Why bother with rehabilitation, with trying to understand them, or trying to correct the disadvantages which have undoubtedly been responsible for their anti-social behaviour? Hang them all. It’s simple; it’s efficient; it’s effective; it’s cheap.
I’m no expert in political affairs, but I sometimes feel that the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being conducted, partly at least, in an attempt to impose the western idea of democracy on people for whom it is alien. What right do we have to oblige others to govern themselves as we do? The stretching and cutting involved is costing thousands of innocent lives, and is destined to continue until the attempt is ultimately perceived as forlorn.
Procrustes lives in the field of religion. I’ve just been reading the biography of John Charles McQuaid, the notorious archbishop of Dublin whose procrustean agenda was behind his attempt to make all the citizens of Ireland conform to the social and moral teachings of the Catholic Church. I was astonished to read that the Irish Constitution, drafted under McQuaid’s influence, begins:
In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and states, must be referred. We the people of Eire, humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial..
( John Charles McQaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland, by John Cooney. (1999) The O’Brien Press, Dublin.)
I would be interested to find out what the people worshipping in this church in 1937 thought of the Constitution’s Trinitarian invocation, but if the Unitarians felt themselves to be excluded, how much more so would the non-believers, the humanists and the Jews? Last Thursday night, the Humanist speaker in the series on The Search for the Divine told us of his disquiet concerning the Constitution, and how he felt excluded by it. But this exclusion is not just theoretical. The bans on contraception and divorce, which caused untold misery for thousands of people were part of a scheme whereby everyone, Catholic or not, was forced to live their lives according to a narrow interpretation of the Catholic teaching on the function and purpose of sexuality. Fit into it or suffer; fit into it or leave; fit into it or be punished for all eternity. Reading this biography, I found myself, for the very first time, feeling some kind of fleeting sympathy for Ian Paisley and his cronies, although I have no doubt that he had a procrustean agenda of his own.
Religious notions about sexuality have influenced – and are still influencing – our attitudes to homosexuality. When the pope tells us that according to ‘natural law’ homosexual acts are sinful, he is assuming that the primary function of sexuality is procreation, and since homosexual acts are by their very nature incapable of procreation they are ‘inherently disordered’. The Anglican Church is experiencing problems because of this quite arbitrary assumption. Meanwhile, millions of people who find that their sexuality does not fit in with this conjecture are condemned to live even in liberal regimes as second class citizens; in less tolerant countries, they live in fear for their lives.
What lies behind all these manifestations of the spirit of Procrustes is an unwillingness to accept what is genuinely a ‘natural law’: namely, that people are different. It is the plainest, most obvious law of the human species. We are various; male and female; short and tall; heavy and light; black, yellow, white, brown; intelligent and dim; heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual; Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, and the rest. And this variety is not to be deplored but to be celebrated. A world in which we all looked, thought, and acted the same – an homogenised world – would be an appalling place.
Even the Bible – which has been and still is the source of much procrustean thinking – contains celebrations of diversity. The concept of the twelve tribes of Israel is, I believe, a metaphor, for human variety rather than a historical reality. Each tribe has its separate function; each its own history; each has its individual characteristics. And the Bible is clear that the elimination of any one of these groups would be disastrous to the whole. At the end of the Book of Judges, the tribe of Benjamin is in danger of being wiped out until plans are devised to reincorporate it. ‘O Lord, the God of Israel,’ they cried, ‘why has this happened to Israel? Why should one tribe be missing from Israel this day? (Judges 21:3)
Procrustes lives. Theseus may have dealt with the mythological figure, but his spirit persists. So here’s a suggestion for a New Year’s Resolution: in 2010, try to identify the continuing work of Procrustes. Whenever you feel yourself obliged to conform in ways that you find uncongenial, recognise that Procrustes is stretching and cutting you. But, more importantly, try to identify his operation in your own psyche, because, make no mistake, no matter how liberal and tolerant you think you are, he’s living in you; he’s there whenever you find yourself suggesting facile solutions to complex problems; whenever you want to stretch or compress others to fit your own narrow view of the world; whenever you find yourself judging others on the basis of trivial externals – like the guards in the story I told the children earlier.
Antony de Mello tells the story of woman who founded a religion whose only adherents were herself and her housemaid, Mary. ‘Do you mean to say that only you and Mary will get to heaven?’ asked a curious newspaper reporter. ‘Well, I’m not too sure about Mary,’ replied the woman. Whenever you think like this – and we all do – you are manifesting the spirit of Procrustes. When you find yourself doing it, call upon your inner Theseus and subdue him. You can do it by saying to yourself what ordinary people have said to themselves throughout the ages, but which philosophers, religious leaders, politicians and sociologists often seem to forget: ‘It wouldn’t do for us all to be the same’, ‘live and let live’, ‘It takes all kinds to make a world’. These sentiments struck Ludwig Wittgenstein as ‘most beautiful and kindly’. Such beautiful, kindly and simple sentiments can help put Procrustes in his place.
December 6th 2009