By Christopher Ketcham
Once upon a time there was a handsome farmhand named Westley. Now Westley was like any other hired man who works farm duties; you know, he takes orders from the farmer and, you guessed it, also the proverbial farmer’s daughter. I can tell you some tales about farmers’ daughters…but I digress. You see this farmhand Westley was a polite young fellow. Whenever Buttercup—of course the farmer’s daughter—you never heard of a farmer’s daughter named Agnes or Tallulah or even Naomi, have you…well Buttercup had a habit of bullying poor Westley, ordering him about as a young farm lass who would be princess might her dolls and lesser servants. But of course Westley was in the same category as all the others with whom Buttercup must order about with impunity.
“As you wish” the hapless lad would always reply to the bossy lassie. “And this is about the most politest thing anyone could ever say,” you might hear that old plantation maven Scarlet O’Hara say in another timeworn classic Gone with the Wind. But wait a moment here. You and I know that crafty Scarlet would probably respond to an entreaty by ole Rhett himself, “Well fiddledeede, as you wish”…and you know then and there that this certainly isn’t the politest thing that anyone could ever say. So let’s return to the hapless farmhand again. What exactly did Westley mean by “as you wish?”
You’re So Vague
Ah, you say, the locus of the problem is that this vague response could be either a polite retort or a snide remark—or perhaps just about anything you or I could want to make it out to mean. And what about the listener, our lassie the farmer’s daughter Buttercup? She believed that when Westley rolled “as you wish” off his tongue, he was saying “I love you”.
I agree. But read the movie’s script. There’s nothing in there that prohibits “as you wish” to mean anything, anything at all. Are we at a crossroads here where throwaway lines and vague retorts can mean just about anything? Isn’t there a law against such a thing? Shall we consult our Little Big Grammar Book for admonition, prohibition, and rebuke for uttering such a damnable phrase as “as you wish?” It isn’t in our style books either. Why is that? Tell me, why is that?
The As You Wish Code
It isn’t in the code because “as you wish” has become a useful expression of the oppressed. It’s the phrase of choice of the farmhand, the genie who pops out of the lamp, the bully sent to detention, the indentured servant, and, of course, the hassled employee sent by a cruel boss on another dreadful task. It’s what the careworn doughboy mouths, slouched against the trench wall, soaked in sweat and mud as he waits for the sound of whistle to send him over the top and into the meat-grinder of no-man’s-land. It is not the deprecating, “My pleasure” that operators are taught when they transfer you to the high mucky-muck who can’t answer her own phone. No, “as you wish” is a statement of defiance. So, how did Buttercup get it so wrong?
Well, you see, she was to become a princess. Princesses by all accounts are basically clueless. Clueless that is to the conditions their household staff and farmhands like Westley. Buttercup could not possibly have heard the effrontery in Westley’s voice because she had never known anything but the lap of luxury. Princesses as well as other royals just don’t get it. They are so filled with self-righteous power they can’t see through their designer shades or hear through their ears lobed with diamonds—that they are being dissed all the time by the likes of our fair young lad Westley. Dissed—but she and he did hook up—but then he died. Then again the story would have gone much differently if he hadn’t.
But they, royals and princesses aren’t the only ones who don’t get the joke, or miss the deadline to cash in a lottery prize, or in a drunken stupor fall off the turnip truck into the foul smelling ditch. Anyone in power anywhere is equally clueless.
Take Your Brain Out of the Vat
You’re skeptical. I do understand. Let’s try a few thought experiments, the favorite fictions of philosophers who wish to dazzle the unwashed masses whom they think are equally clueless…
We are not amused, you say.
So let’s dispense with all that falderal and show up those in power with a few examples that come not from some philosopher’s brain in a vat but from you, me, and that person over there who has been staring blindly into space for the length of this paper so far.
First is the case of Hannibal the Horrible, as he’s known by his fellow classmates. Hannibal is the consummate bully. He jabs you with his pencil and trips you on the stairs. He steals balls from the little kids on the playground and throws the orbs into traffic. POP! Ha ha. As he’s hauled off for the eleventh time this month to a promised detention, he says to Mrs. Henderson with a wry grin, “As you wish”.
Next, the genie slumbers peacefully in that nether world inside the lamp. Then you come along, an overgrown bumbling oaf. You lost your last penny down a sewer drain and have been known to eat rocks to sooth hunger pains. But out of the bottle like the wisp of smoke he probably is (cannabis I think) he does the usual. You know, the three wishes thing. Your make your first inane wish for a double cheeseburger with fries. And the genie says….you guessed it, didn’t you. Not as dumb as I expected.
Argh, and before the mast we now are, mateys. Why? The lot of us were pressed into to service. That is, we took from the one legged man a free pint of beer just to find a king’s shilling at the bottom which we used to get horribly drunk. And then upon wakening in the rusty scuppers found ourselves in shackles and bound for parts unknown on His Majesty’s frigate. And whenever the first mate shouts his orders to ye laddies, whadday say…Of course. But he can’t hear you, nobody with the rank of first mate can hear the likes of you swabs especially when you say that bloody thing.
So, you see, it isn’t so farfetched that the delicate Buttercup would find wax so built up in her ears from years of disuse to mistake “as you wish” for “I love you”. But that isn’t all of it.
Of Grandpas and Grandsons
We must fast forward to the end of the story, that is, the story of the story—the whole premise of the movie, remember? The grandfather is reading The Princess Bride to his grandson. Remember that story? Certainly grumble back at me…and an “as you wish” I’ll say back to you. The child thinks that this story about princesses is going to be a real yawner. But after the tale is told he asks his grandfather to read it again the next night. And what do you think the grandfather says back? You got it. There, it isn’t so hard is it?
But how could this be, he’s the grandfather? You know this: grandsons always have absolute power over their grandfathers…You just walked into the trap, didn’t you? The roles have been reversed. The grandson has become the lord of the story and his grandfather the humble squire who’s tasked with reading it to him. Painful, isn’t it?
You see, it’s verifiably impossible for the person in power to say “as you wish” to the one she commands. Try it. I dare you. See how horrible it feels? It’s a downright inane thing to say, isn’t it?
First of all, you the all-powerful are the one who commands, not the servant who stands before you. When you give the order and respond back to his nod with, “as you wish” what do you think the poor dolt will think of that? He’ll figure that you have gone daft and just stare at you. Worse yet, he will come to despise you. He’ll even defy you and trundle off in a rage, desperate for a real master who’ll boss him around with impunity. He wants to be happy under your thumb not be mollified by some drivelish “as you wish” response. It breaks all the bonds of the oppressor to the oppressed when you the big boss respond to him, “as you wish.” And if you do it again, he’s likely to wander off. He’ll get lost first, then become homeless and later a heroin addict and end up cutting himself again and again with dull razorblades, and then he’ll die from a hot shot with a needle stuck in his arm. You want that, you really want that? Then come off it. Get with it and turn yourself around. Be curt, demanding, and even insulting but never as the boss say “as you wish”.
By Your Command
You want some theory, eh? Ok, let’s discriminate here first. If you recall in the television series Battlestar Gallactica, the centurions responded in their best analog voice, “by your command.” What makes that different from, “as you wish?” First of all, the commanders all can hear “by your command.” It’s the response they expect to hear. They have not wished it, they have commanded it and the proper response they expect to hear back is, “by your command”. But what about the theory of all of this? We’re getting to it.
You see, sociologists have known for years that there are some of us who are in power and some who are not…
Don’t patronize me
I hear you.
But would you believe that people who are the oppressed buy in some measure into the mythology that the oppressors are spinning? The oppressed hear that they are all dolts; they live for siestas; they can’t keep a job. Even if they don’t totally buy into it they question their own abilities. You know the drill of the oppressor: “Got to keep em down where they belong by explaining over and over again to em who they are.” But here’s the thing, while the oppressed may look like they’re buying into it they aren’t. That blank stare and the response, “as you wish” is about as far away from buying into it as you can get. But the trick is, and this is what we’ve been saying all along, the oppressor hears nothing of this, nada, zilch. They’re like the princess wallowing so deep in the mythology of her own power she hears nothing but what she expects to hear… “I love you…. Or, by your command.” Are the sociologists all wrong then; do the people on the bottom really buy into the crap they dish out at the top? What do you think?
That’s right. There is a grand conspiracy going on in the halls of power. The little people just aren’t buying it anymore. They have adopted tactics like, “as you wish” to defy their deaf overseers with suitable wit and wryness. However, and unfortunately in the end, this is a fool’s venture. Why? Remember the overseers can’t hear the irony in “as you wish.” It comes across as lips flapping and is heard in their power-soaked minds as “I love you” or “by your command.”
We are beyond hope then—hope for a better world? Hope to release the bonds of oppression and like phoenixes, rise from the ashes of our oppression? I’m afraid so. You see, subtlety is lost on the oppressor. They just don’t hear it; they can’t hear it. Buttercup couldn’t hear it and even the grandson who had just listened to the complete story of the Princess Bride didn’t hear his grandfather say, “as you wish.” What exactly he heard we don’t know because the movie ended.
It seems that we were built with this switch in our head. Even if we’ve been lucky enough to have risen from poverty and oppression and now become the oppressor we’ve lost that ability to understand, to hear, to even recognize the sly remark back to our urgent commands, the “as you wish.” We must perform experiments, you say to find out what switch in the brain triggers the loss of sensibility when one assumes the role as master, overseer, and yes oppressor. It’s a monstrously devilish problem to which we might even consider applying alien conspiracy theories to. Who put the power switch in our brains?
And yes, it goes both ways. The mighty sometimes fall and with it the switch goes back, resets, the current reverses and guess what comes out: “as you wish.” Ah, you say. I have an idea. What if we were to start a movement, a movement to ban, “as you wish” from the language, any language, even the dead ones (in case they rise again)? If there are no more people who will say, “as you wish” then there are no more people who are oppressed. But who will start this lobby to ban the hated phrase? Not the oppressed for it’s a salve to them. Not the oppressors because remember, they’ve never heard it. It’s up to you and me, the faithful fans of The Princess Bride.
Paper the House
So we scheme some more. What if we record our message on every cable channel so it plays more often than It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas. Will they hear it then; will they begin to get it? I’m afraid you have more faith in humanity than I do. I think not. Even if we tack on subliminal commercials that petition for the elimination of the phrase or hire credible film critics to introduce the show and explain the problem in a clear way—we run into the same problem. Switch on—don’t hear it; switch off, don’t want to stop saying it. But, you say it’s the cause of oppression–the fundamental cause of oppression. It must be stopped. And we can’t stop looking for a cure to this horrible malady. Stop the phrase…stop the phrase.
Paste this chapter on every billboard from Istanbul to Detroit—not Detroit, nobody lives there anymore—Minneapolis, then. Take it out as an editorial in the local paper, start blogs, hire hackers to create virus pop-ups to explain the problem. Switch on; switch off. Even with massive efforts the situation is futile. We can’t change what’s been wired into our brain.
Turn the Damn Switch Off
But you see now don’t you. You hear the phrase, “as you wish”. Guess what that makes you? You see how it is? How many times have you tried to speak truth to power and gotten squashed, fired, pushed aside, or lost your case against the smooth talking accuser’s lawyer? Switch off.
So you’re thinking drastic measures. You want to lock all the oppressors up and do to them what they’ve done to you. You want their switches off! But what does that do to the phrase, “as you wish”? It’ll be no fun to say it any more, will it? You really want that? Don’t you get at least some satisfaction from saying, “as you wish?” Aren’t you showing your distain for the big guy even though you’ve bought into the oppressor’s story just a bit? Come on, admit it? You have a little bit of loser in you simply because you don’t drive a Bentley. And if we don’t have the oppressor to boss us around we won’t do anything, right? The whole place will go to hell and society will crumble, all because we will no longer have any fun saying, “as you wish.” How are we to live with ourselves knowing what we now know, that no matter what we do we can’t ignore the importance of, “as you wish” and what it means to us?
And, of course, there’s the little matter of the switch in our brains. It won’t go away and as soon as someone starts getting a feeling that they can boss, shove, or push someone around they’ll do it. You won’t believe how quickly the world will slide back into its own oppressive ways again. Millions of switches will turn like dominos in a long line. Dum dum dum dum dum.
Can’t We Stop Them?
This is horrible, you say. And why then did they make The Princess Bride? To torture us, to make us slaves to the switch? You didn’t know that about the movie, did you? Packaged as a comedy, its sinister plot is to laugh at you, laugh at your ‘O I’m oppressed’ ways. The joke is on you and me, not in the story of The Princess Bride. The only line in the movie that matters to you and me now is, “as you wish.” Damn the directors, you say! It’s they that should be locked away, not the oppressors. We must ban the movie from ever being shown again. We must stop this evil conspiracy. We must petition the studios, the White House, even the Pope to prevent another remake of The Princess Bride!
From their embattled studio where hundreds of pickets daily gather to protest the remake of The Princess Bride I can hear the director saying, “as you wish.”