“I do not think that word means what you think it means.” I quote here Inigo Montoya here, talking to Vizzini about “inconceivable”. (see The Princess Bride for details)
Humbug isn’t a word we use anymore. It became forever immortalized on the lips of one Ebeneezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s too bad – humbug is a good word that describes very well a practice that many of us buy in to. It may even describe some of the people we may know.
P.T. Barnum (of Barnum & Bailey circus) referred to himself as The Prince of Humbugs (see the image above). He’s the fine fellow that is credited with “A sucker is born every minute.” He was a proud humbug. He sold deception to the public, but it was willing deception. The people paid to see what Barnum had to show them. They bought his humbug.
According to Dictionary.com, humbug means:
- something intended to delude or deceive.
- the quality of falseness or deception.
- a person who is not what he or she claims or pretends to be; impostor.
How often do we turn on one of our many screens to escape from life for a while? Or open a book to see things that might be, but aren’t? To fly on wings of fancy is to buy into the P.T. Barnum version of humbug.
Oscar Diggs, a young ventriloquist, who would become known as the Wizard of Oz, experienced this type of humbug while working for a circus. In The Witch Queens, Oscar relates this story to Glinda:
“Adventure is life.” Oscar responded, smiling helpfully. “I worked for a man who could hold audiences enthralled, right in the palm of his hand—like they were sitting right there. Right there in his hand, he could have fed them dry bread crumbs and they would have licked his fingers. Simple little acts, he did. He sold an entire crowd on a flea circus. Can you believe that, a flea circus? Tiny little tent and acts—trapeze, high wire, rolling balance ball. They were little models. Nothing else, just the models. But oh, how he could make that story dance. Everyone would peer in to see the fleas performing. And you know what? Just about every one of them did. He was the prince of humbugs. He was wonderful. He gave the people what they wanted—a show, an adventure. The people didn’t care that it was all in their head, inside their imagination. They would pay to see the fleas dance and perform…even though they weren’t really there.
“You see, Glinda, the trick is recognizing that quite often what you want is already in front of you. Sometimes you just need to squint a little to see it.”
Glinda squeezed Oscar’s hand. “Wizards don’t need tricks. They already have the power.”
“It’s like the flea circus. A wizard is what he needs to be to get the job done.”
– The Witch Queens, chapter 15, “The Secret of the Elders”
We believe in humbug because we want the fleas to be real. We want to believe because it is fun to make-believe for a while. Interesting term, make-believe. We make ourselves believe in something that isn’t real. Hmm.
So we find ourselves willing participants in humbug. Oscar started out as a humbug. In fact, he is the quintessential humbug hero. When Dorothy and her friends confronted the man behind the curtain in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, they had this exchange:
“No, you are all wrong,” said the little man meekly. “I have been making believe.”
“Making believe!” cried Dorothy. “Are you not a Great Wizard?”
“Hush, my dear,” he said. “Don’t speak so loud, or you will be overheard–and I should be ruined. I’m supposed to be a Great Wizard.”
“And aren’t you?” she asked.
“Not a bit of it, my dear; I’m just a common man.”
“You’re more than that,” said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; “you’re a humbug.”
“Exactly so!” declared the little man, rubbing his hands together as if it pleased him. “I am a humbug.”
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, chapter 15, “The Discovery of Oz, the Terrible”
Oscar – the Wizard – was pleased to be called a humbug. What was it that Oscar did that made the title of humbug so pleasing to him? What curtains did this man keep around his inner shadows?
That, my friends, is one of the mysteries that drives me to explore the Hidden History of Oz. You can read about Oscar’s initial adventures in Book One: The Witch Queens, available on Amazon, in Kindle and paperback versions. Book Two is coming soon.
To wrap up, here is a question for discussion: if the audience knows it is not real, but they believe in it enough to pay for the entertainment, is the deception a lie?