A Pompous Man
**… Gingerly, the wizard opened the door. Outside stood a pompous man.
“Good Evening,” he said. “Wizard Prang? May I come in for a moment?”
The wizard did not feel like denying who he was, although he had all the arguments lined up to prove that he wasn’t.
“Who are you?” he asked the pompous man boldly.
Indeed, it took him a lot of courage to ask this question. So often the result was embarrassing. Last time the answer had been: “A policeman, Sir!” It was true. The caller was wearing a blue uniform and a helmet and was carrying a truncheon. Why the note of heavy sarcasm was not explained, and it had left the wizard uncomfortable. The time before that the reply had been: “I’m your brother, you old fool!” Undeniably, it was he.
“I am a Pompous Man,” replied the pompous man with an air of great satisfaction.
“Come in by all means,” said Wizard Prang amiably. “What can I do for you?”
The pompous man lowered himself into the visitor’s armchair.
“I have the honour to be the Chairman of the Education Committee in our little town,” he said. “As you know, education is the hope for mankind.”
Wizard Prang raised an eyebrow, but waited politely for his visitor to continue.
“It has come to my attention,” the pompous man said, “that you are the possessor of some very advanced knowledge. Our Committee has therefore passed a resolution Inviting you to give the School Prizes away on Speech Day this year and to give us a little address telling us all about it.”
Even as he spoke, the pompous man was wondering uneasily whether the wizard had any proper clothes. He tried to imagine him in an ordinary suit, and couldn’t. Come to think of it, what was this advanced knowledge? He looked round the room, which was littered with messed up spells of one kind or another, and shuddered. The wizard cleared his throat.
“In a hundred years or so, everyone now alive in the whole earth will be dead - is this not so?”
The pompous man was relieved. He could follow that. He nodded sagely.
“It would therefore be possible for the human race to run its affairs quite differently, in a wise and benevolent fashion, in a relatively short time.”
This way of looking at things appealed to the Chairman of the Education Committee. It had an optimistic ring, so different from the doom-laden pronouncements of most so-called clever people.
He leaned forward. “And so?” he asked encouragingly.
“The purpose of education,” said Wizard Prang, “is to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
The pompous man was thunderstruck.
“Look here, Sir,” he said, “please remember who I am. Not only do I have civic responsibilities - I am also a Pompous Man. You can’t say things like that, you know.”
The wizard was under the Impression that he just had said it, and looked around anxiously to see If anything was wrong. But things looked much as usual.
“Young people today are lazy and good-for-nothing,” declared the pompous man. He resounded. He was on familiar ground. “They sit around listening to pop music and taking drugs. What they have to do is learn more things, apply themselves.”
“No, that’s not correct,” the wizard explained, “they have to unlearn things.”
“How can that possibly be?” The pompous man was lost.
“Well,” said Wizard Prang, “we can teach only what we know. Now what we know is how to devastate the planet, kill its inhabitants, and starve two thirds of the rest. Seems a bit silly to teach people to do all that.”
“Ridiculous!” shouted the pompous man. “That is not the intention at all, and you know it.”
The wizard looked reflective. “The purpose of a system is what it does.”
He got up, and retrieved a bottle of white wine from a side table. It had been holding up part of an experiment, which promptly collapsed into a heap of tubes, wires and so forth.
No matter: the wizard had been trying to remember for weeks what the experiment was for, so that was one worry less.
“Please have a drink,” said the courteous host.
The visitor accepted less than graciously, and took the glass. Wizard Prang collected a bottle of mineral water from the other side of the room. Nothing fell down. The wizard stood still for a time wondering if anything was wrong. He mixed water with his wine - a trick he had learned from the ancient Greeks.
The pompous man had by this time emptied his wineglass, which the wizard promptly refilled. Somewhat mollified by these gestures, he made an Utterance. This Utterance was all about the noble aims of education. He always made it when he felt in need of reassurance, and it took some time to Utter.
While this was going on, Wizard Prang sat down, placing his glass on the only vacant surface in the room: a small wooden table that he had made himself.
“… lifting civilized man above the status of the savage … supporting the noblest aspirations,” the pompous man declaimed, “to which man can, er, aspire to.” He had forgotten the words, but hoped no-one would notice.
The wizard was ever so slightly mesmerized. He did not notice his glass was sliding across the table top, and it fell to the ground with a crash. It was a low table, and the glass did not break. He poured more wine and water for himself, and another glass for his guest.
The fact is that the wizard had been very pleased with his invention of the table. He had become fed up with having every surface in his room cluttered up with books and papers, experiments and messed up spells, old sandwiches, musical instruments, and so on. So he had invented this table. It had a slanting top. It worked. The surface was always clear.
Evidently, though, he would have to give it more attention: something was not quite right.
“What they have to do is learn more things,” finished the pompous man, as usual.
This time Wizard Prang was ready for him. “The only things on offer are the ones leading to the world we already have - and that doesn’t work,” he said. “Until we unlearn, we cannot recognize the world that our education has concealed from us. Let me demonstrate something to you.” He stood up.
Picking up his visitor’s newspaper, he led the way outside.
The pompous man surveyed the see-saw that the wizard had built in the field before his cottage for the children who loved to visit him. He was wary. “Take a good look,” he was instructed. He walked all round the see-saw. Two chunks of tree-trunk had been buried in the ground, and grooves had been cut in their tops. In the grooves was another piece of tree - a round piece of branch, held in place by two huge iron staples. The branch had been flattened in the middle, so that a long plank could be screwed to it. And that was it.
“Not a very - ah - sophisticated piece of equipment, I dare say,” said the pompous man in a condescending way and wearing a smirk.
He moved the plank up and down; it just about worked.
The wizard spread the newspaper over one end, and held the plank steady at the other.
“Please get on,” he asked.
Pomposity nearly overtook the pompous man. He looked around dubiously, but there was no-one around to observe him.
“Heaven knows what you are playing at,” he said as he got on.
“Yes, without doubt,” said the Wizard as he lowered the portly gentleman to the ground position.
Then he himself scrambled up to the other end of the plank. Nothing happened. The pompous man was portly. Moreover, he felt ridiculous squatting on the plank with his knees nearly under his chin. He expostulated.
“Please be quiet,” said Wizard Prang.
And his face gradually assumed an expressionless expression. That’s the only way to describe it, as some sort of benign contradiction. The portly gentleman was overawed, and said nothing more.
After a time, the plank gradually began to move.
Very, very slowly, the wizard’s end came down, while the pompous man rose slowly into the air. He hung on for dear life.
The wizard’s end touched the ground as gently as thistledown. His face did not change. There was silence. After nearly a minute, and with no movement made by either of them, the wizard’s end slowly began to rise. Eventually, the pompous man was on the ground again.
He got off in a bustle, making harumphing noises, and causing the wizard to hit the ground on his end with a thump.
No-one was going to make a fool of him.
“Well, how’s it done?” he demanded in controlled rage.
“You’ve seen everything for yourself,” the wizard said mildly. “Have another look. Make a thorough inspection!”
He went off down the path and back into his little house.
The pompous man stormed in after him.
“You don’t understand what happened,” the wizard said from his chair, “because you have learnt too many things. Now you have to unlearn them!”
“Rubbish.” The pompous man was not so much rude as completely rattled. “There is something new here and you must tell me what it is!”
“There’s nothing new,” said Wizard Prang, “in fact, it’s extremely old. But you have to unlearn things to take it in.”
“Try me,” said a strained, belligerent voice opposite.
The wizard sighed gently. “Oh, all right,” he said. “Making oneself light and making oneself heavy are two of the eight occult powers.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said the pompous man tetchily. “Now give me a proper explanation!”
“I just did!”
“Oh, come now. I mean an explanation In terms of physics!”
The wizard stroked his beard thoughtfully.
“In terms of physics”; he repeated it from a distance.
“Oh dear,” the wizard spoke almost to himself, because his demonstration had not had the right effect.
He filled the two glasses again, and absent-mindedly set down his own on the slanting table top again. He sat down, noticed the glass traveling over the edge, deftly caught it, and hoped that the pompous man had not noticed. He had.
“Well, let’s try,” said Wizard Prang.
“Weight is related to the specific gravity of any given body,” he said. “If the mass of that body Increases compared to the mass of the same volume of water, it gets heavier. And conversely,” he added.
“Schoolboy stuff,” said the pompous man. “What about it?”
“My body is mainly water, and water is mainly H20 - two atoms of hydrogen to one of oxygen,” the wizard went on. “Also schoolboy stuff; as is the fact that water has other components, such as heavy water - which is ten percent denser than ordinary water. So what happens if there is a molecular transformation, and the proportion of heavy water goes up - I get heavier. And that’s only an example!”
“But you haven’t any equipment to make ‘molecular transformations’ in that way,” the pompous man said flatly.
“Oh haven’t I?” said the wizard gently.
“Well, what could it be? - in terms of physics,” the visitor added hastily.
“Think some more schoolboy thoughts about the combining power of atoms in terms of hydrogen atoms,” Wizard Prang said sourly. “The word is valency.”
The pompous man tried to look profound.
“Ultimately, we’re only talking about charged particles,” said the wizard, “that makeup the atoms in the first place. And those particles are only little flecks in space/time. They just need … adjusting a bit.”
The wizard thought of adding that space/time itself is an illusion, but thought better of it. That isn’t schoolboy stuff. You have to go back to being a baby to perceive it. After that, education makes sure you get space/time systematically wrong. Knowledge is systematic ignorance.
Before Wizard Prang had time to say ‘Knowledge is systematic ignorance,’ which would have annoyed the Chairman of the Education Committee to the point of apoplexy, the pompous man delivered his judgement.
“Ridiculous,” he declared. “Absolute nonsense!”
He fixed the wizard with his eye.
“It couldn’t happen,” he said, although it just had.
“Oh, I see,” said the wizard.
There was a long pause after that. The wizard could hardly throw the pompous man out on his ear, and the pompous man could hardly storm out.
Tactfully, Wizard Prang refilled the glasses.
The pompous man coughed.
“There was something else on my mind,” he said.
“Oh, yes?” Wizard Prang spoke in the lowest possible key.
“Yes,” said the pompous man. “My oldest daughter has become involved in some kind of cult. They preach something called Metafarcism. I wonder if you could explain to me what it is!”
“Yes, I could,” said the wizard.
The pause this time was even longer.
Eventually, the pompous man asked: “Well then, would you?”
“No,” the wizard replied.
He was wearing what his friends called his computing face.
“It’s not worth it,” he said. “I would do the explaining, and you would have to listen. The combined effort would be considerable. Metafarcism, isn’t worth the combined effort!”
“Oh” - the questioner was flummoxed.
The wizard went into computational mode a second time.
“Got it,” he suddenly said, brightening noticeably. “We can get out of the combined effort,” he explained. “I shall give the explanation after you have gone home.”
“Oh, I see,” said the pompous man.
They got someone else for Speech Day. He told the boys and girls and their parents that it was no use sitting around listening to pop music - they had to work harder and learn more things because education is the hope of the world. The parents applauded loudly.
(by Stafford Beer)**