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.


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