Con artists understand that most people operate in a symbolically patterned world, and that reality, whatever is really there, is hidden behind the symbols. We tend to accept the world as it appears at face value. We can't live without a certain minimum level of trust that things are in fact as they appear. Con artists know that because people are uncritically inclined to accept that the symbol represents truthfully what lies behind it that they can use the symbol as a kind of disguise. A sheep symbolizes passive docility; the wolf cunning and rapacious greed. The wolf knows that if he appears as its symbolic self, no one will trust him, so he hides his real nature and presents himself symbolically as a sheep. His effectiveness in the con depends on his effectiveness in appearing non-threatening and innocuous, someone who raises no alarms in those whom he seeks to prey upon.
The con artist knows that people don't see what's there; they see what they are habitually disposed to see. Did you ever wonder as a kid how Little Red Riding Hood could ever have mistaken the wolf for her grandmother? I think the story speaks to this kind of patterned perception. We are inclined to see (or hear) what we have been habitually conditioned see, what we are comfortable seeing. When running into someone on the street have you ever hear a "Good" to a "How are you?" that you didn't ask? The person wasn't listening to the actual verbal content or your greeting. He was simply enacting a symbolic or formal ritual where the content doesn't matter.
Con artists understand how to blend themselves into the patterns and symbolic rituals of our everyday life--one might be a wolf, but so long as he is tucked in bed like grandma and is wearing her nightgown and little night cap with the red ribbon, chances are that's all Little Red Riding Hood will notice. She sees big teeth but is not alarmed about them because she has been lulled into a mood of trust by the larger pattern of familiarity. In such a state of mind she minimizes the importance of what doesn't fit into the familiar pattern. She trusts that her world on that fateful day is the same as the world as it was the day before and the day before that. Big teeth, long snout? Minor aberrations. It's a story about how we are all more inclined to believe the symbolic version of reality rather than any evidence to the contrary.
Leonardo DiCaprio shows how it works in his role as Frank Abagnale in "Catch Me if You Can." He wasn't a wolf really; there was something rather innocent about his conning--he just wanted to be more than he was. But the key to his success was his uncanny ability to embody symbolic roles--airline pilot, lawyer, etc.--to become a symbol without having any of the substance to which the symbol points. Con artists play on that trust, and they have a talent for insinuating themselves into our symbolic landscape to appear the way we expect them to appear, to be what we want them to be. We tend to disregard whatever evidence doesn't fit into the familiar pattern.
It might be worth considering in a post at another time to what degree we live in a literal vs. a symbolic world. That's a big question, and there is no simple answer for it. My answer would pick up from what I was developing in the earlier post in which I talk about the hypertrophied eye and how it has led us to limit our consideration of what is real only to what we can see. For any of us who are religiously or spiritually inclined, what is real is not what we see. Rather the ground that provides the supporting matrix for what we see is far more real, even if it is something that enters our field of awareness mostly in subtle ways.
In a fallen world, except for the rare epiphany, because we are cut off from what is most real, we most intensely experience the husks of things--and symbols are the husks. And so what appears in our experience is real to the degree that is saturated with the living reality that grounds it and which gave it its shape, and it is unreal and dead to the degree that is has lost its connection to it.
Some symbols in our cultural life live (paternal/maternal love is one that comes to mind) and some are dead but live with a kind of zombie life. Especially during a decadent or transititonal cultural era like the one we're suffering through now, we live in a cultural world of dead or undead symbols. A con man can very easily inhabit a dead symbol because we don't really have that strong a sense of what the real thing is--we've forgotten or never known it. As a result, we're easily confused and easily fooled. It happens to the best of us.
The transcendent reality behind the appearances in a symbol that truly lives is unfathomably deep and multidimensional, and anybody who has had a glimpse knows the real from the false. And so if we as human beings are grounded only in what we see, if we believe only in what is given to us on the surface, then we can be easily manipulated by anyone who has the ability to appear as something other than what he is. The devil is quite capable of quoting scripture to persuade us that his perverse purposes are legitimate. It happens all the time.
Our practical day-to-day life requires that we learn to navigate effectively in a world of appearances and dead symbols, but the more important meta-task is to discern what lies behind them and to re-connect with what is true and life-giving and to reject what is false and undead. And very often what is acclaimed by the official reality as true is false and what is denounced as false is true. Our only protection is to develop a nose for what is rotting inside the whited sepulcher on the one hand, and on the other a nose that knows the sweet fragrance of that which lives. This is a cognitive skill best developed by the thinking heart.
Some years ago, when I was reading to my son before bed, we were working through a fantasy series based on Welsh myths. The stories had an interesting recurring feature in which an evil spirit was able to disguise itself as something beautiful--a bird, person, flower--and it was so beautiful that the unwary would be irresistibly drawn to it, and when the victim would get close enough, the evil spirit would appear in its true ugly form and bite its victim and cause him to become deathly ill. But as beautiful as the shapeshifter was in its disguise, it always had a minor flaw that distinguished it from the real thing--it had an extra toe or finger, the wrong colored eyes, a leaf pattern that wasn't quite right. If one was alert and discerning, he could recognize the con for what it was.
That's the thinking part, but in such encounters the heart also knows better, whether or not the head notices the extra toe. The heart has to be strong if it's not to be overwhelmed by unworthy desire which is also very strong in all of us and always will be. Unworthy desire or impulse cannot be extinguished; it can only be refused, and it's easier to refuse if another choice is presented as an alternative. The stronger our hearts, the clearer the alternative. So the task is on the one hand to be vigilant and alert, but on the other to develop a solar powered heart whose impulses are stronger than the instincts from below that otherwise drive our actions.
We are all of us wandering in a world of shapeshifters, a world where the shapes may or may not point to something true that lies behind them. Luckily, not all of what surrounds us intends us harm. And along these lines the official reality, as I spoke about it yesterday, is often innocuous enough. But there are times when the official reality is hiding horrors which, like Little Red Riding Hood, we are simply not conditioned to see because it doesn't fit into our pattern of expectations. Fear makes us stupid, but so does wide-eyed trust.