A friend and Professor of English introduced a very rough theory of Shakespeare’s tragedies in class today. He’s a careful teacher, and he made clear to the students that his theory just provided a framework by which to think about the tragedies. To make the theory fit all the tragedies, some facts might have to be altered. Along the way, he brought up Procrustes Bed—an idea I hadn’t run across in years.
In Greek mythology, Procrustes is an innkeeper. He feeds his guests, than measures them against his bed. Those too long have their legs chopped off until they fit the bed precisely. Those too short are stretched on the rack. Theseus puts an end to the horror by lopping off Procrustes head, when he proved too long for his own bed.
The bed may be looked on as a fixed standard and the guest’s size as something, somehow to be fit to the standard. My friend meant the bed to be the theory. The people, the evidence, are to be adapted to fit the theory. For example, we might hypothesize that government intervention is important in creating jobs in a time of high unemployment. Liberals might say yes: Conservatives no. We might argue about the available evidence—with both sides busily stretching the evidence to support their claims. Does that sound as wonderful to you as it does to me? We might actually be arguing about evidence. We could do research on each other’s claims and perhaps come to a rational conclusion.
Today, some have extended the idea of Procrustes bed, to make it nearly unrecognizable. We might, for example, have Palinsbed, where neither the theory not the evidence matters—provided only that the bed was made by hard-working American workers, working without job destroying regulations, in the solid, workaday, heartland of America. Glennbeckbed might have both the theory and the evidence made from whole cloth, as in—the three legged bed must be better as it was built by the founding fathers, as it clearly states in “The Book of the Founding Fathers,” by John Birch. Or perhaps, we might run across religiousbed, where the evidence doesn’t matter worth a damn, as the bed is sacred to Jesus or Mohammed or Moses or a prophet of your choice.
Give the exercise a try. What beds can you come up with?