Saturday, March 31, 2007

"The cultural construction of folly, of course, is dependent upon a society's ideas about what constitutes earnestness, seriousness, responsibility, and dignity. To reverse these traits is to create folly - the work of the fool....Wherever humans have wandered, the fool, a perennial transcultural type, is found performing, an entertaining oddity to her audience. The fool's appearance sets up a social tension of ambivalence; the boundaries of propriety blur, fantasy and reality oscillate, and one's cognitive control over the environment recedes. As Welsford notes, 'The Fool by his mere presence dissolves events, evades issues, and throws doubt on the finality of fact.'"

- from William Mitchell, Clowning as Critical Practice:
Performance Humor in the South Pacific
(p. 15)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

What's in a Title?

Kurt's post on Chinese jester names and Luke's subsequent observation concerning negative connotations got me thinking a bit about the titles given to fools cross-culturally. In the West it certainly seems that The Fool and his related characters (there does also seem to be a gender bias in the archetype, doesn't there?) are labeled negatively. Fools, idiots, tricksters, clowns, etc. don't seem to have many positive linguistic associations, even if the role they play is itself valued. The jester, for instance, served an important function of being able to criticize the powers that be, while enjoying the relative protections of those same powers. Nevertheless, are jesters given names of esteem? Ummm. Not really.

In Russia, there is the Holy Fool or yurodivy. Surely some saw these people insane or vagrants. From the point of view of language, however, thirty-six yurodivy were elevated to Saints in the Russian Orthodox Church and many were referred to as Blazhenny or "blessed."

Upon poking around the wondrous Interweb a little more, I stumbled upon Nasreddin, a fool/trickster figure in Middle Eastern literature. Like Saint Basil in Russia, Nasreddin was an actual historical figure. He lived in the 13th century in Eastern Persia (maybe - Wikipedia states that he is claimed as a native son by Afghans, Persians, Turks, Uzbeks, and Arabs) and is regarded as "populist philosopher."

Nasreddin's fool-ness is evident visually (he is often pictured riding backwards on a donkey) and in the folklore texts themselves. In a series of short stories he is a central figure who's internally logical, but distinctively idiosyncratic way of looking at the world humorously points out the foibles of everyday life. By way of a super-brief example, "Two Sides of a River":

Nasreddin sat on a river bank when someone shouted to him from the opposite side:
- "Hey! how do I get across?"
- "You are across!" Nasreddin shouted back. The man on the other side sat puzzled.

For some reason, this kind of misunderstanding due to perspective reminds me of Edith Bunker. That's neither here nor there. The point is that, from the Western point of view, this person might be labeled an idiot. Yet, in Middle East, Nasreddin is often given honorifics reserved for sages and rulers. Titles such as effendi and mullah are bestowed upon him. His name even means "Victory of the Faith."

How this contrast could be translated visually into the show is unclear to me at the moment, but certainly the fact that one culture's fool is an idiot, while another's fool is a philosopher is a telling gauge of how societies make sense of people who embody violations of accepted and ingrained logic and mores.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Chinese to English

A List of ancient Chinese jesters (or youren, paiyou, lingren), and their cool-sounding English translation names, often sounding like second rate superheroes...

Fitting New Bridle (An Peixin)
Truly Assisting Uprightness (Cheng Fuduan)
Balding Chunyu (Chunyu Kun)
Ever Upright (Heng Zhi)
In Full Streamer (Huang Fanchuo)
Scorching Virtue (Jiao De)
Newly Polished Mirror (Jing Xinmo)
Gradually Stretching Taller (Shen Jiangao)
Moving Bucket (Shi Dongtong)
Wild Pig (Shi Yezhu)
Many Grandsons (Sunzi Duo)
Openly Flawless Jade (Wang Gongjin)
Jester Don't (You Mo)
Jester Twisty Pole (You Zhan)
Going Round In Circles (Zhou Za)
Upright Fellow Wish (Zhu Hunzhen)

I wonder what it must have been like to have a dude named "Wild Pig" yammering in your ear all day about what you've been doing wrong.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Fool's Tools redux

As I mentioned in a comment, I was trying to save that last post as a draft so it is woefully incomplete.

I left off thinking of the tramp as one of our modern day fools. And just as the medieval fool costume was a comment on those in power, so too is the tramp's wardrobe... a shoddy, ill-fitting suit. Chaplin's flexi-cane too seems like a sight gag based on a prop usually used to communicate respectability...

And then I lost my train of thought... but I thought about this:

And wondered: who is the fool in this scenario?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Fool's Tools

I was wondering where those cap n' bells came from on court jesters and learned that it is a sort of upgrade from a full-on donkey/ass costume... the three pointed hat standing in for the two ears and tail. And then I remembered the fool's... what? Wand? Cane? Scepter? I wasn't sure and then found it described as a marotte, or mock scepter. This of course standing in ludicrous contrast to the king's actual scepter.

In the absence of feudalism and kings, we have tramps

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Holy Fool's Laughter is a reflection: the holy fool becomes a mirror for those who mock poverty and impotence, and as such he mocks poverty and impotence. The laughter of the holy fool is the laughter of a world which is horrified by its own reflections in the mirror.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


The book I'm currently working with, Fools Are Everywhere, by Beatrice K. Otto, has a great chapter in it called "Overstepping the Mark." This chapter stands out because there is an emphasis on physical detail (of the court jester, mostly), describing incidents in history where a court fool will go a bit too far with h/er criticisms of the master, finding h/erself on a chopping block, in a noose, or at least in shackles, because "Telling a joke is more interesting when you can be put in jail for it."

Here's a good quote, with references to the cartoon-y nature of fools:

"There is in the jester a quality of resilience that means that even when he is beaten it does not seem to injure him. It is a resilience of the spirit that might either complement the physical litheness often associated with the jester or offer a contrast to a deformity. He never seems particularly perturbed by a whip decending on him, never inveighing against the injustice or cruelty of his punishment or begging for mercy: 'Like the comic characters in the film cartoons who may be cut to shreds, smashed flat, riddled with holes, or stretched into a thin line, yet which suddenly spring back into their original form or are miraculously put back together, the clown always seems to survive.'" (pg. 135)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A fool can refer to:

A foolish person
A court jester or clown
Motley Fool, a commercial website about stocks, investing, and personal finance
A fruit fool, a dish made with cooked fruit
The Fool, a 1960s design collective
The Fool (Zero), the only numberless major arcana card of the tarot
Fools (play), a 1981 play by Neil Simon
"Foolish", a song by R&B singer Ashanti
"Fool," a song from the 2003 Cat Power album You Are Free
"Fools", a song by Deep Purple from their 1971 album Fireball
"Fool", a song by Roxette from their 2001 album Room Service
Fool, in Mexican American speech, a friend or buddy, e.g. "Hey fool, what up?"
"Fool", a song by Shakira
"I pity the fool" the catchphrase of Mr.T's character "Clubber Lang" from Rocky III
"Foolish Games", a song by Jewel

Friday, March 09, 2007

I have found many references that have brought me back to the strange concept of "returning to a chair" The original play I did in Too Much Light, where this title comes from was called: While the Wind Breathes in an Endless Sea of Hearts the Fool Returns to His Chair. I sat in a chair with a noose around my neck, a ball rolls on, I pick it up and toss it back to the person who rolls it on, they walk off, I return to the chair, a woman walks by and drops her handkerchief I give it back, bow, and by the time I bend back up she is gone, as I return to my chair a man stands behind the chair, I nod my head, he nods his head. I sit and he half points the gun at me (the gesture is ambiguous, he neither points nor offers the gun, it is just a gesture of putting ones arm out and having an object that is a gun sitting in that hand), I reach for my wallet, he takes it and hands me the gun, he leaves, I sit back down and the ball rolls back on. It is an endless cycle of distant encounters with objects of death increasing each time the fool returns to his chair.

So, all and all a pretty pathos filled short scene. But with it I bring into this prime time show a sense of an alienated Fool, compassionate but out of touch. And the Sea, water, has returned many times in my studies. A journey back, or forward to where the Fool already stands. And I also seem to have a fascination of dunking my head in water and then being slapped silly, I'm sure that will creep up in the show.

I'll end this with a line I found in an essay that debates the relations between an American Holy Idiot and the Russian Holy Fool:

"In the American Idiot there exists something that is innocent and destructive, sacred and dangerous. The idiot is one in whom opposite forces join together, in whom contrary forces come home to rest." - Dana Heller

John Pierson

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Concerning the beginning of a fool's career (italics added)...

"Claus Nar (Fool), one of Germany's most famous and long-serving jesters, was tending geese when he was recruited.... One day when the first of his patrons, Elector Ernst, was traveling through Ranstadt with a lot of horses and wagons, Claus became curious about all the commotion and went to see what was happening. Worried that his geese would be stolen, he secured the goslings by putting their necks through his belt [ultimately strangling them] while he carried the older geese in his arms. When Ernst saw him he laughed at his simplicity and decided he was a born jester."

The book pictures a deranged and smiling Claus with six geese throttled by a belt around his waist and wringing two more by the neck with a clenched fist. In effect, he resembles a kind of particolored suicide-bomber.


"...Jamie Fleeman, the Scottish jester...complemented his jesting duties with those of cowherd and goose guardian, and when he one day grew irritated by the geese wandering willy-nilly, he twisted some straw rope around their necks and started walking home, unaware that they were being throttled one by one. By the time he realized it was too late, and since it was a rare breed of geese, he would have been in big trouble. So he dragged the corpses into the poultry yard and stuffed their throats with food. When asked whether the geese were safe and sound, he replied cheerfully, "Safe! they're gobble, gobble, gobblin' as if they had nae seen meat for a twalmonth! Safe! Ise warran' they're safe [enough], if they hae nae choked themsells."