Mullah Nasruddin, the 13th century Turkish stand-up who is wisely considered a populist philosopher, would apparently stand in the marketplace and wait for passers-by to give him money. When people offered him a handful of coins, he would always choose the smallest one. One day, a helpful old man advised Nasruddin to take the largest coin. Chuckling, the wit replied that if he did accept the biggest denomination, people would no longer be convinced that he was a crazy fool, and he would quickly become penniless.
The garb of foolishness is the fool’s haute couture. For the fool knows that not having a good sense — not to mention not having the good sense — can work to his advantage. He survives by dodging being defined, and yet by being predictably and unwaveringly foolish. He is a person who is likely to start laughing hysterically, seeing men and women in the height of their hipness or power. The fool will insist on reading out the weather forecast aloud each day before he leaves home for work. Or before choosing not to leave at all.
What he needs are people, self-styled experts who are ultimately accepted as experts, to ‘explain’ his behaviour, an explanation along the lines of ‘The fool is addicted to his self-worth and to acting up in front of people. In that, he’s as enervating as a child and should be reminded from time to time of the tolerance of his audience’. And in this respect, the explainer (explainator?) isn’t wrong. The fool cannot survive in isolation, without playing to the galleries. Without an audience, he is just another loud man.
By virtue of his quirkiness, the fool can get away with proverbial murder. But where he differs from the hero, another extraordinary member of society, is that he is not expected to work wonders and, therefore, cannot be easily taken seriously. Exploiting this lack of ‘face value’, the fool has at his disposal an enviable number of masks to put on: of the blasphemous critic, of the prankster, of the anarchic rogue, of the self-righteous prophet hurling stones from inside his windows-shattered house, and of the rude teller of inappropriate ‘truths’.
“The first fool,” according to George Speaight, author of Punch and Judy: A History, “was the village idiot whose drivelling inanities sometimes seemed to conceal wisdom and prophesy. It was a pleasing mark of primitive society that the lunatic was revered as one ‘possessed by God’.” The fool Buhlul at the court of Harun-al-Rashid in 9th Century Iraq and Mac-da-Cherda in 7th Century Ireland were representatives of this brand of fools. This ‘village idiot’ sits in the same bus stop as the ‘village mystic’.
The professional or ‘artificial’ fool is more a master performance artist. He is more officially sanctioned — and, therefore, less dangerous — carrying a contractual licence to conduct his foolery. When Shakespeare’s senile Lear will listen to only what he wants to listen, it is only the Fool who tells him the truth. That is his job description. But there is a lakshman rekha for this brand of fool to ply his tradecraft within. The last official French Royal Fool, L’Angely, standing behind Louis the 14th at the table, terrified courtiers with his sarcasm. Until he was finally banished for impertinence.
But whether ‘artificial’ or ‘natural’, the figure of the fool — as opposed to the jester — elicits some amount of nervousness in onlookers, his demise bringing some amount of relief. In the truest sense, and regardless of the ideology he espouses, the fool is counter-cultural, if not downright anti-social, an irony considering his very existence depends on the culture and the society he lives in.
The lack of seriousness, unlike the lack of sight or hearing, is not a failing, but a strength to him. Frivolous things take on a serious air after he’s attended to them, while serious things are turned frivolous. The fool is the antidote to strained seriousness. Recognising the need for such a safety valve, masters at Zen monasteries in Japan disappear once a year and students are allowed to drink, ‘act shamelessly’ and become temporary fools.
At one point, Shakespeare has Lear tell one of his trusted earls to see the corruption and dishonesty all around them by listening to a judge in the distance berating and trying a thief. “...change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?” If you interchange the judge and the thief, Lear asks, could you tell the difference between the two? And momentarily, to the understandable consternation of the nation, the king has become the fool, and the Fool the King.
Views expressed by the author are personal