Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there’s an extended sequence in which Huck and Jim fall in with a pair of hack con-men calling themselves The Duke and The King. In one of their swindles, the men put up a three-night performance of an enigmatic show titled “The King’s Cameleopard, or The Royal Nonesuch”–which turns out to be nothing more than three minutes of anticipation-building prologue followed by a naked man prancing around onstage in paint.
When the crowd realizes they’ve been had, they’re ready to tear the men apart, until one of the audience members steps up and addresses the room thusly:
“Hold on! Just a word, gentlemen.” They stopped to listen. “We are sold – mighty badly sold. But we don’t want to be the laughing stock of this whole town, I reckon, and never hear the last of this thing as long as we live. No. What we want is to go out of here quiet, and talk this show up, and sell the rest of the town! Then we’ll all be in the same boat. Ain’t that sensible?” (“You bet it is! – the jedge is right!” everybody sings out.) “All right, then – not a word about any sell. Go along home, and advise everybody to come and see the tragedy.”
This is a powerful, relevant, and true observation about the human condition, and I do believe Twain saw this as distinctly American. Sometimes it’s not that the marks refuse to believe they’ve been fooled. Sometimes they know for a fact that they’ve been fooled, and the only way they can think of to reclaim their self-respect is to pull everybody else down to their misery.