Playing the Fool: Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times

The use of humour to disguise an intellectual challenge is an effective ruse, says Peter J. Smith

December 17, 2009

In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie identifies the poet's raison d'etre: to "name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep". Ralph Lerner claims, for what he terms the fool, this role as social irritant.

Playing the Fool: Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times considers six poet/fools in the light of their provocative challenges to the received wisdom of their political, philosophical, historical and especially religious contexts: Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Robert Burton, Pierre Bayle, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Gibbon. The prose of these so-called fools may be variously fractious, teasing, ironic, knowing or deft but, argues Lerner, it is always bravely idiosyncratic and creatively persuasive rather than bludgeoning or alienating, and he distinguishes the tone of these writers from the "all-out corrosive satire" typified by the more acerbic Swift or Voltaire. In this way, each fool's work is subversive rather than belligerent, and scrupulously conscious of a shared capacity for error or complacency from which the fool himself is in no way exempt. Faults, misplaced orthodoxies and ill-advised articles of faith are thus mocked from within rather than pilloried from without.

Designed to influence lawmakers, kings and other religious or political authorities, there is nothing populist about such interventions. Indeed, as Lerner points out, there exists not the slightest protestation that the objective of such dissident interference should be an increase in democratisation. These tracts are intended for an educated elite and never pretend otherwise: "It can come as no surprise that writers of such studied deception should leave simpleminded literalists in the dust, bamboozled and vexed, for it is not such folk that wise fools would address." Lerner cites the 2nd-century church father Clement of Alexandria, who insisted that knowledge neither does nor should belong to all and that, as Lerner swingeingly puts it: "In its unadulterated form ... truth is incomprehensible to the ignorant."

A common characteristic of such a stance is the disguise of authorial identity. One thinks of More, the character in Utopia, as well as More, its author. Burton's persona of Democritus Junior likewise playfully camouflages the presence of the (f)actual author and permits the adoption of various social roles: "A difference betwixt him that affects or acts a prince's, a philosopher's, a magistrate's, a fool's part, and him that is so indeed." Although Lerner does not mention him, perhaps the most mischievous master of alter-egos is Chaucer, who recasts himself as a tedious pilgrim as well as a nervously po-faced and recanting narrator. Clearly this polyvocality is a useful strategy of self-protection, although lamentably unsuccessful in More's case, when one is criticising the status quo.

Another shared feature is an impatience with religious extremism or as Lerner adroitly puts it, "the pathology of loving God both unwisely and too well". Bacon's An Advertisement Touching a Holy War condemns the idea of a holy or even a just war. Our focus, writes Lerner, "ought, rather, to be on questioning whether a proposed war is necessary or unnecessary" and he adds in chilling terms that religious certainty "is the certainty that kills with a clear conscience".

Occasionally, Lerner's own prose is a little too colloquial or sensational: Burton is "not one to hide his talent in a hanky"; Henry VIII "was incapable - in love as in politics - of taking no for an answer"; the author cannot "sit in a corner like Little Jack Horner singing his own praise". But in general, this is a compelling study that explores the ways in which, to quote Burton, "one may speak in jest, and yet speak truth".

Playing the Fool: Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times

By Ralph Lerner

University of Chicago Press

144pp, £22.50

ISBN 9780226473154

Published 29 November 2009

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