A brief inquiry into the manners and customs of fools

I have been thinking about the fools, those anti-heroes of proverb and byword. A whole fool is half a prophet, they say, and A fool is his own informer. Which half of the future does he see – the half without hope, or the half without informers?

The fool is prolific: he grows without rain, they say. He takes liberties. He puts on airs. The fool’s world is a paradise, but better hell with a wise man than the heaven of fools. Don’t they sound jealous, these anonymous pimps for wisdom?

The fool tries patience, proves the rule. You can tell an ass by his long ears, a fool by his long tongue. His laughter resembles the crackling of thorns under a pot, they say: a loud and useless fuel, soon spent. And they say there’s no fool like an old fool, so it seems the elderly must be held in high esteem in the fools’ country. A dead man is mourned for seven days, a fool for a lifetime. What a wise custom, to mourn people while they are alive, so they may appreciate the tributes! For seventy years we learn wisdom – and die fools.

The language of fools – Folly – must be among the hardest to master, because it so easily masquerades as ordinary speech. Answer not a fool according to his folly, says the Book of Proverbs, lest you become like him. But Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he become wise in his own conceit. No foolish consistency at work there!

Clearly, not all proverbs are creations of the wise, though it’s hard to tell which are which. For example: In the country of the fools, a proverb walks with a limp. So what? Balance is where you find it. And why shouldn’t a dog return to his vomit? It’s the only way to discover what really happened! Everyone agrees that God looks after fools, so why should we shun their company?

Proverbs are prickly things, full of acid and the taste of deja vu. Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction shall drive it from him, says the Book of Proverbs. What dangerous folly! But aren’t proverbs in general a little like fools? For a fool cannot be questioned or explained, as the Yiddish proverb has it.

If we can’t trust proverbs, what do we really know about these strange people, the fools? Like most tribes, their own name for themselves is doubtless much less derogatory – in fact, it probably means something like “the people.” But given the difficulty of finding reliable informants, this is sheer conjecture. That fools are fond of sweets is an invention of the wise.

One hears about holy fools, though not of late. Fools used to have their own pope, too, chosen by popular acclaim – and vox populi, vox dei, as they say. I don’t think the Pope of Fools did much beyond carrying around a shepherd’s crook with no sheep in sight and issuing bull. But when the festival was over, he went wisely home to his wife.

Some say the fools have a tortoise for a king; we know all about his contest with the too-clever hare. The Yoruba call him Ijapa, and quote his proverbs for laughs – the only safe way to wax proverbial, I suspect. One morsel for the mouth, one morsel for the pocket – the word of Ijapa. What the world calls corruption the corrupt call being prudent. If you’re going to question authority, be sure to ask permission first – the word of Ijapa. Aren’t the best revolutionaries always like the good soldier Schweik?

I think I have identified one authentic saying of fools in the Bible: It rains on the just and the unjust alike. Who but a fool would believe such seditious nonsense? As Ijapa arrived at his in-laws’ house he exposed his penis, saying, “Nobody knows who might like to have a look.”

Sources: Yiddish Proverbs, edited and translated by Hanan J. Ayalti (Schocken, 1949); Holy Bible; A Treasury of African Folklore, by Harold Courlander (Marlowe, 1996).

9 Replies to “A brief inquiry into the manners and customs of fools”

  1. Good post, Dave. ‘As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.’ I’ve always liked this curious but acute observation on folly from Proverbs.

    Schweik as quick-witted fool is a favourite too, followed closely by Brecht’s own creation Azdak.

  2. Zhoen – Right on. I decided to steer clear of Far East traditions in this post – fish, barrel, you know. Besides, I’ve written plenty about Zhuangzi, which is I think where that “crazy wisdom” business all got started.

    Dick -Thanks. I probably shouldn’t admit this – you may never read me again – but I’ve never read Brecht.

    Don’t we all return to our vomit? I know I do.

  3. My favorite on this theme is Blake’s “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise. ” Which would explain one would return to one’s own vomit.

  4. Lots of wise words there about fools! The one place you lost me is on “It rains on the just and unjust alike.”

    I mean – it really does. It might seem to rain more on the just, but the unjust get sick and die too. If it seems like “only the good die young,” as the song says, I think it’s selective perception more than reality.

    However, it may depend on the source of rain. Certainly it’s the unjust who dump on the just and not the other way around…

  5. Darius and Alexandra – Thanks for the comments, and welcome to Via Negativa!

    We’re all fools in our own way, don’t you think?
    That’s one of the ideas I was trying to lead towards here, yes. Obviously some of the proverbs I quote already point in that direction, such as the “seventy years” one.

    The one place you lost me is on “It rains on the just and unjust alike.”
    Irony. The over-all tendency of Bliblical dogma, like so much of what passes for religious belief in the world, is to reinforce the notion that good is rewarded and evil is punished in ways that are transparent to ordinary human perceptions. (Job and Ecclesiastes both question this strongly, but they are the exceptions.) So this apparently innocuous verse about rain falling everywhere regardless of who deserves it must be a saying of “fools” – people who fail to properly appreciate received wisdom.

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