Emperor Norton I and the Slippery Idea of Self
This well-crafted new biographical summary of Emperor Norton appeared today. The concluding three paragraphs are especially worth pondering.
Emperor Norton...embodies an idea...that lies, hoaxes, and fiction (“myths,” in other words) can have actual effects on the external world, erasing the line that separates reality and fantasy. Norton decreed changes in his nation that were considered mad at the time, but many have become realities since his death. He was no prophet foreseeing these eventualities, but rather their orchestrator, causing them with his will and proclamations alone.
But most important...was his ability to create a persona and fully become it. By declaring himself Emperor and compelling the acknowledgement of his peers, he points out the fallibility of belief in a central Self. His actions argue that we are not the sum of our experiences, nor the products of history, but are whatever we choose to be.
This is similar to the argument made by many Existentialists, who say that there is no essential quality of being, rendering the universe meaningless. But unlike their gloomy interpretation of these findings, Norton’s story illuminates the freedom inherent in this situation. If existence is meaningless, then we have the opportunity to create meaning in this vacuum and decide what universe we will live in. Joshua Norton has become an example of our own potentiality, and has given us all the chance to claim the title of Emperor, ourselves.
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