Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down

When I read William Shakespeare’s King Lear two years ago, I was struck by the fool, “the joker” in Douglas’ terms or “the clown” in Turner’s. Our teacher asked how we might define the fool during class and although my classmates used the words stupid, a waste of life, and useless, the fool remained my favorite character. After a few answers along these lines, our teacher said, some people have said that Jesus Christ was the biggest fool. We were all quite shocked, because according to the answers, we just called Jesus a waste of life! But then he explained. Regardless of what anyone believes, Jesus, according to the literature written about Him, sacrificed His life in order that humanity might have eternal life. How does that make Him a fool? Well, He didn’t exactly know who would chose eternal life, since He also gave us free will (as the story goes). Christ decided, I suppose, that He loved mankind so much that we were all worth the risk. We all could laugh in His face, do what we want and live as if nothing ever happened, but in His eyes, the sacrifice was worth the risk. The fool, just like Christ, risks a whole heck of a lot in order to do or say what he deems right.

Naturally, after I had this experience with King Lear’s fool, I was drawn to the writings about Douglas’ “joker” and Turner’s “clown,” and particularly drawn to their assertions of his purpose; Douglas, for instance, writes,

“[The joker] appears to be a privileged person who can say certain things in a certain way which confers immunity… Perhaps the joker should be classed as a kind of minor mystic. Though only a mundane and borderline type, he is one of those people who pass beyond the bounds of reason and society to give glimpses of a truth which escapes through the mesh of structured concepts” (Douglas 158-159).

The “privilege of immunity” Douglas speaks of refers to the risk involved in foolishness. What is at stake for the fool is others’ perceptions of him. He is immune to social consciousness not because of who he is but because of the “certain things” he does and the “certain way” he speaks. Douglas goes so far as to call the fool a “mundane and borderline type of minor mystic,” emphasizing the divine presence of “truth” in what the fool has to offer. Like Christ or Shakespeare’s fool, “the joker” chooses to “pass beyond the bounds of reason and society” to challenge others to see what may be hard to see.

Turner writes about this same concept in the rituals he studies through the lens of anthropology; he writes, “The clown is obviously a symbolic type, and hence timeless. He is partly the voice of the cosmology which frames his action, condemning the foibles of the time, casting down the mighty, and at the same time representing… ‘the people’s second world’” (Turner 260). Because the fool transcends the “bounds of reason and society’s mesh of structured concepts” as Douglas claims, his “truth” is “timeless” and universal. He speaks to the specifics of his context, just as Shakespeare’s fool challenges King Lear in his decision, but his wisdom, according to Turner, “represents ‘the people’s second world,’” in other words the human condition at large. In literature the characters of the fool, clown and joker are used to give a specific narrative larger, more universal meanings.

So, what about Jesus and serious, universal truths are funny? Humor can be used as means to the same end. In class yesterday we took a look at a spoof on School House Rock, used to critique humanity over time. Maybe it was funny, maybe it wasn’t, but regardless of personal preference, humor was employed to make a major timeless statement, applying one message to current times, ancient times, every time in between and possibly even human nature. By its presentation similar to that of the fool’s, the message could be laughed off or it could be challenging. Humor has the “privilege” to say things that may be hard to hear, truths that are hard to face, or opinions with violent consequences, but presented within the guise of laughter, joy and smiles, such messages can be much easier to swallow. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down and I suppose a spoonful of humor helps the truth be told.

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