Entry 49: Old Fool- Just as we need our outlaws, we need our fools. How else could we avoid
despair at being the scrapings of the barrel, the lowest of the rungs and the humblest of doormats? In our efforts to avoid relegation to the bottom we may, of course, have missed our apotheosis. So, then, who are our fools? Let’s start early, before memory, before humanity- a long distance in the past. Let us meet the Ediacarans. They arose 600 million years ago, ruling the earth; like us, multicellular entities that lived by absorbing nutrients from their surroundings.
They prospered in their Garden of Ediacara for untold eons, in their fool’s paradise until…well, until the Cambrian explosion- a 25-million-year event that saw the arrival of most of the modern animal families: vertebrates, molluscs, arthropods, sponges and jellyfish. All that remains of the Ediacarans are delicate imprints of their fossilised shapes preserved in sand or ash that look, in miniature, like spinning galaxies, far off in interstellar space. Our fools, in evolutionary terms, then, are those fossilised images which remind us of the spiral galaxies turning relentlessly in the unreachable universe beyond.
What rendered them mere remnants was the arrival of entities that did not just passively attach themselves to a rock and suck life from the surrounding environment. Things that could move independently and sustain themselves by eating other organisms began to roam around the Garden of Ediacara. The rest is history, as they say. Some say we are within a few generations of joining the Ediacarans because of the rise of intelligent machines.
A.I. is the sexiest new frontier according to some, and our worst nightmare, according to others. But, in the interregnum, I would like to celebrate humanity and its combination of wisdom and folly, laughter and grief. The Bible has quite a lot to tell us about wisdom and folly: Proverbs 16:16 reminds us, How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver! So, then, what choices have you made? If that is awkward, how about what Proverbs 18:7 has to say, a fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul. Listening, shock jocks? Of course not! Too much gold and silver on offer!
Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipp’d out, when Lady the brach may stand by th’ fire and stink. Oh, yes. Shakespeare, as usual, puts it best. The Fool in King Lear is one of the glories of world literature,
Have more than thou showest,/ Speak less than thou knowest,/ Lend less than thou owest,/ Ride more than thou goest,/ Learn more than thou trowest,/Set less than thou throwest.
This is not folly, but wise advice. A faithful servant of the beleaguered king, the Fool knows that the old ways are under threat and says, I would fain learn to lie. King Lear, using the royal we, replies, An you lie, sirrah, we’ll have you whipp’d. The fool, seeing more clearly than any of those around him retorts,
I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They’ll have me whipp’d for speaking true; thou’lt have me whipp’d for lying; and sometimes I am whipp’d for holding my peace. I had rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool! And yet I would not be thee, nuncle.
Indeed, who would want to be Lear as he faced the destruction of everything he had known and believed. Fools, and other damaged individuals, have licence to speak the unspeakable truth to the mightiest in the land, even though they may face whipping or worse. Flannery O’Connor’s short story, Revelation, set, initially, in a doctor’s waiting room features Mrs Ruby Turpin, who is a complacent and pious hypocrite, certain of her own rightness and assured of her throne among the celestial throng.
As she converses with others in the waiting room she is somewhat disconcerted by the intensity with which a young female student, who is prone to psychotic episodes, looks at her. Then, without warning, she throws a book at Mrs Turpin, hitting her over the eye; she then launches herself at the corpulent woman attempting to strangle her. She is subdued by the doctor and nurse and injected with a sedative. The stunned Mrs Turpin approaches the supine girl:
There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, know her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. “What you got to say to me?” she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation. The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin’s. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” she whispered.
The words resonate in her with prophetic force and she has a vision that evening on her property at sunset where she sees a vast procession of those she considered beneath her leaping and shouting as they made their way up to heaven-ahead of the likes of Mrs Turpin.