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).