Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Fool's Cross (I)

“For he has the territory of harmonicas, the acres of flutes, the domain of violins. And God says, Why did they put you in prison? What did you do to the people? ‘I made them dance and they put me in prison. The soot people hopped; and to twinkle lke sparks on a chimney-back and I made 80 francs every dimanche, and beer and wine, and to eat well. Maitenant…c’est fini…Et toute suite’ (gesture of cutting himself in two) ‘la tete.’ And He says: O you who put the jerk into joys, come up hither. There’s a man up here called Christ who likes the violin.”

The Enormous Room by ee Cummings


The tarot is a world flipped, a pun within a pun. The play of symbols in the cards is always interjected with riddles of the Fool, where the wisdom of certainty is disemboweled into joyous carnival code. Where all that takes place in the name of the jokester: clowns juggle balls toward infinity; a pair of giggling dwarfs spin the roulette of chance; the most chaste of the town’s maidens is lovingly entwined with a lion. Her hand is deep inside its throat. The bishop brays and grunts and howls at the moon, the queen quakes with pangs of desire. Under the trees where fruit hang like heavy like scrotum, the emperor guffaws at all of it until tears stream down his cheeks. Fools themselves, the party doesn’t notice how their central Trickster has slipped into the periphery. Compulsively- almost hysterically- he has somersaulted right out of town, to the very edge of the frame. No matter, the fire is prepared, the castle beyond the carnival preciously collapses. The stack of cards tumbles, the Trumps laugh in unison and the revelry continues, an orgy of stumbling color, like the slow greening of light in the morning. And yet we all know that holiday must end, and so the cards begin to recede into the dusking and somber tones of reality. Suddenly the cards are so orderly - stacked up as the sprawl of the holiday narrows and narrows. They shuffle home in single file. You would never guess that a joke still persists.

Meanwhile, the ‘real’ Fool has flip flopped his way right out of the ranks; slipped away from the rest of the pack. One expects that he might just keep laughing himself into hysterics, deny the hierarchies that must return, fall into incoherence, collapse onto the ground or back-flip right off the edge of reality. Except the tarot card shows the fool miraculously balanced upright. He, like the code of carnival contradictoriness, spins and then gains himself –at the last moment- in gently perpendicular pose. Right when we assume the power of his logic can be found laterally, in his aerial gymnastics, the Fool seeks inspiration in the soil. Emptied of his neighbors, the Fool has hidden the secret language of the carnival and transported its comedy into reality. For all that the Fool has carried in art and literature, in the Tarot it begins with the flip: the fool bodying forth the double essence of pure festivity. Logos is renewed with pathos. And there they are, held together by this trickster- sense and nonsense- so deftly, so slyly married.

The role of the fool and the effects of his twisted logic can be traced to very inception of the European deck and its relation to Medieval and Renaissance practices of play, festivities and celebrations. In this investigation of tricksterdom, Mikail Baktin’s seminal work in Renaissance studies, Rabelais and His World, will help to situate, however complexly, the fool in the context of the Tarot carnival. For Bakhtin, the carnival is a social and literary phenomenon.[1] Images of the fool’s comedic reversals twist through many folklore traditions, celebrating the poor fool who becomes king and condemns the powerful to ruin. Because the figure of the fool so closely resembles a deformed prophet or a deity, Bakhtin’s formulation of carnival seems to indicate laughter and the carnivalesque folk humor did not lose their contact with the holy, sacred, or traditional aspects of religious processions. The Fool consecrates this inchoate holiness only by walking the edges of the Profane; he is the excessiveness of both extremes. It is with his divine madness that the solidity of the Tarot becomes alight.

Most tarot historians seem to agree that the invention of the trumps in Tarot seem to coincide with that of trumps in card games. [2] It is widely assumed among that circa 1425 the standard pack of 52-cards was brought to Europe from the east, most likely by Crusaders returning from Palestine Playing cards developed independently of the trump cards, or the Major Arcana, and were added to standard deck, commonly used for betting or gambling. The four suits of the 52 Islamic “pip cards” were translated and ranked according to four estates evident in European society: in the medieval and Renaissance decks, swords represent nobility; cups correspond to clergy, with the chalice being that of the Catholic mass; coins obviously embody merchants, townsmen, and burghers; and wands stand in for peasants and servants.[i] The court cards represent the noble court according to increasing power: Page, Knight, Queen, and King. In contrast to the vertical ordering of the traditional card deck, the Trumps seemed to have been developed to stand in for theological or philosophical virtues (Strength, Temperance, Justice, Faith, Alchemy, etc.) and for natural and cosmological elements (Star, Moon, Sun, the Last Judgment)[ii].

The addition of the Major Arcana to the standard deck allowed for new games to played. All tarot games revolve around “taking tricks,” where players must follow suit or play a trump card.[iii] Whoever played the highest card takes the “trick.” The fool or trickster is the only card with a special effect, also called ‘l’excuse’.[3] The word ‘trump’ originates in Roman triumphal processions, which were essentially parades for returning victorious Roman leaders. Triumph soon came to mean any political or religious procession involving images of deities, sacred masks, chariots, temple dancers, or priests and priestesses, concluding with a dummy resembling a king, which was to be burned at the end of the procession. After the “fool king” had passed, celebrants raised the cry of Triumpe, announcing the immanence of the divine spirit in all the things presented in the parade. Trump literally came to mean “that which is divine.”[iv]

Bakhtin points out in his introduction that historically the triumphal processions in which the Tarot trumps originate equally tended to collapse the distinction between the defamation and celebration of the victor.[v] However, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, social and class structure was consolidated to the point where the comic and the solemn could not exist equally in tandem, and the comic was relegated to the non-official festivals in which folk-culture took the form of carnival.[vi]

The context of “the trump” in literature, however, has drifted far from the limits of state sanctioned and orderly parade, though the cards still have one foot, so to speak, in this Roman parade of solemnity. The inversion or coupling of high and the low, the base and the pure is at the heart of the fool. The poles are locked together; any sanctioned period of rest/holiday/feast is always, Bakhtin points out, imbued with philosophical content- nothing is entirely festive per se- something must be added from the spiritual or ideological dimensions. Holidays are made possible not just by the social but by the realm of ideal or eternal forms.[vii] Without this spiritual sanction, festivity is just debauchery.

In another sense, the carnival was neither a safety valve for the transgressive impulse, nor was it a bare negation of ideological hierarchy. Instead the fool ‘s puns and gross jokes express a pointed (and highly rational inversion) of moral and logical expectations, thus making materially possible a creative regeneration of words and reason.[viii] Following Bakhtin through the poetry of Gertrude Stein and the theology of Simone Weil, I argue that the Fool reverses the ordering of high/low in an effort to preserve the distance between them: what is truly sacred in the carnival is not the disappearance of one pole or the other but their fragile relation to each other.

The Fool or Ass makes apparent the material intemperance and baseness of holiness and divinity.[4] Like in the Feast of Fools, a bygone celebration in the medieval Catholic tradition, the asinine extravagance of the Church’s penchant for the profane is a sacred sanction. The Fool, in this vein, irrupts in the pun- semiotic relationship between the savior and the ass, between the holy blood of Christ as a substitute for the sacrificial blood of the lowly beast of the Old Testament. At the end of mass during the festum asinarum, the Word Amen is substituted with a brute and nonsensical utterance: the guttural bray of a donkey. [ix] The holy word is made strange by the vocal and kinetic texture of a bodily sound. The sacred and profane are collapsed into the material otherness of expression. The Fool may gesture toward an immemorial and sacred past, he always blasphemes against it. It becomes clear that this blasphemy is always all ready to be reinscribed into the symbolic as sacred.

And yet the fool of the carnivalesque is not a selfsame archetype, so much embedded within an always sacred before. Instead, he is much more a ritualized interruption in the sacredness of the past, an eschatological break in the consistency of the tradition and the archaic. Whereas sanctioned feasts and holidays, like Christmas or Lent, involve a reinforcement of the existing stable patterns of time marking the triumph of the past as an immutable truth already established in time, the ideals that correspond to carnival images of are those of “making fun” of crises or breaks in the cosmological or biological cycles: feasting, joking, violence, vulgarity and "the material lower bodily stratum."[x] The interruptions of the holy fool dismiss prevailing truths and the collective laughter of the people debunks all transcendental signifiers and submits all official values to satiric parody. Profanity, puns and the disfigurement of “lofty” expression rampage flippantly through the byways and marketplaces of folk culture. In carnival, the unity of the holy word is brought down from on high into the orgy of riddling and sideways expression of the streets and markets.[xi] Where the form of expression was once valued, the material substance of language takes the stage.

These interplays of the comedic are at the root of collective laughter of the carnival. Though joke-telling is a “low” and often obscene form of expression and laughter is often tickled by nonsense, the fool reminds that joke or pun is most successful when it is ultimately rational, especially on two or more contradictory levels. Laughter is born of those methods of knowing which create and belie the transparency of the symbolic, it erupts from the tensions within any matrix of signs and is itself a defense against that which is utterly nonsensical or pointless. Each element of carnival topsy-turvyness yields a comic form- emphasis on the libininal and digestive lower body produces dirty or obscene jokes; the aggression towards hierarchy finds itself in slander and put-downs; the incongruousness of corporeal borders and limits expresses itself in puns and riddles; and the sanctification of the “inhuman” or beastly reveals itself as laughter at giants, dwarfs, clowns, trained animals. Oftentimes these forms reside in one another. Yet they should not be mistaken for nonsense. A joke may employ nonsensical sounds or word, but in the end it always attempts to make rational something apparently non-rational or absurd. The internal rules of jokes and puns respond to paradoxes in logic and language. Though nonsense and jokes are both forms of play, the distinction comes from the fact that laughter at nonsense results from the impossibility of resolving meaning but the joke has a point, a fulcrum around which reason turns.

The pun is perhaps at the height of the fool’s power; he plays tricks with words and sound, often creating a semantic confusion in the sound of a word and also a contradiction in meaning. In a pun, the sensory way a word simply looks or sounds is the base of its complexity- contradictory reasoning and reversal are concretized into a single mark.[5] Take for example the irreverent pun in the joke: ‘How do you get holy water? Boil the hell out of it.’ The materially vocal and kinetic rhythm of the utterance, rather than the concept behind the sign, becomes the source of its logic. Many of the greatest authors, notably Shakespeare, have employed the pun as a form of the highest art form; for example in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio remarks that “dreamers often lie.”[xii] The word lie plays with the double meaning that dreamers often deceive, but also quite literally that they recline in bed. A single manifest word or sound signals at least to differing conceptual functions. Oftentimes a joke will hold up not just the doubleness of the pun, but a sense of hilarity or tragedy which might ensue from misrecognizing the semantic ambivalence of the sign. Take for example the quotation from Joyce: “Come forth Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job.”[xiii] Accordingly, the pun shows itself to be more rational than its listener.

For Bakhtin, such reversals of sense express the creative energy of "a carnival sense of the world." Laughter works philosophical changes upon life and society. It may erupt from the collective body, but its most important function is internal; it defends the creative freedom of thought. In carnival, laughter and excess push aside the seriousness and reverse the vertical hierarchies of "official" life.[xiv] The elevation of baseness through parody shakes up the authoritative version of language and values, making room for an assortment of voices and meanings in the world. And so while the jokes of the carnival are often base, dirty, profane or beastly, the jokes told by the Fool and the laughter of his audiences fundamentally set human beings apart from their animal or vegetable kin. Once we accept that we possess two faculties that set us apart from other creatures – the symbolic and laughter – it becomes clear that both the laughter and the need to laugh can only be by virtue of symbolic logic and its tendency to turn upside down and inside out.

[1] In this book, Bakhtin argues that Rabelais' 16th-century novel Gargantua and Pantagruel is based on, and can only be understood through, late medieval-early Renaissance "popular-festive forms." Rabelais and His World describes an elaborate aesthetics of medieval peasant culture, referred to alternately as "the people," "the folk," "the second world," "the unofficial world," and "popular-festive culture," defined against the "official world" of civil and religious duty.religious authority. Bakhtin insists that readers can apprehend the true philosophical importance of Rabelais' book only by listening with the ears of the 16th century, which were finely tuned to the aesthetics of the grotesque.

[2] The Tarot trumps themselves date with certainty from 1392, when Charles VI of France made in the court accounts an entry referring to the payment to Jaquemin Gringonneur for the purchase of three sets of the trump cards. (Polack, 25).

[4] In the medieval celebration the younger clergy chose from among their own number a mock pope, archbishop, bishop, or abbot to reign as Lord of Misrule. Participants would then "consecrate" him with many ridiculous ceremonies in the chief church of the place, giving names such as Archbishop of Dolts, Abbot of Unreason, or Pope of Fools. The protagonist could be a boy bishop or sub deacon. The parody tipped dangerously towards the profane and was condemned by the late twelfth century. The ceremonies often mocked the performance of the highest offices of the church, while other persons, dressed in different kinds of masks and disguises, engaged in songs, dances and revelry within the church building. (Thurston)

[5] The duality of puns often manifests itself in parody. The rationality of the fool’s topsy-turvy punniness is fairly evident in this modern play with puns: “lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that- electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed, dry cleaners depressed, bed makers debunked, baseball players debased, teachers declassified, bulldozer operators degraded, organ donors delivered, software engineers detested, underwear makers debriefed, and musical composers decomposed? On a more positive note, though, perhaps we can hope that politicians will be devoted.” (source unknown)


[i] Nichols, 42.

[i] Pollack, 25

[ii] Butler, 17

[iii] The Fédération Française de Tarot, official rules

[iv] Encyclo- 180

[v] Bakhtin, 6

[vi] Ibid, 7

[vii] Ibid, 9

[viii] Ibid, 16

[ix] “Feast of Fools,” Thurston

[x] Bakhtin, 9

[xi] Bakhtin, 17

[xii] Shakespeare, 16

[xiii] Joyce, 105

[xiv] Bakhtin, 15; 25

The Fool's Cross (II)


The fool rejoices in flux and mutability, the dynamic and unstable; in his jokes all absolute values are ridiculed and relativised- the word and the world are made strange by their very materiality. Rigid oppositions are joyfully dismantled and confused. The womb and the tomb, the king and fool, body and mind, sense and sound, wisdom and folly, the anal and the angelic are all turned on their heads, disrupting the contradiction of opposites. The punning of the Fool, which holds up the materiality of the word as something devious, is testament to the tricks he plays on the hierarchies of high and low. "One of the main attributes of the medieval clown was precisely the transfer of every high ceremonial gesture or ritual to the material sphere” Bakhtin points out.[i] Thus, the corporeal core of carnival exemplifies this turning all verticals onn their head- this is why all that is “bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable, triumphant.”[ii] The comedy of the fool is where wittiness meets the libidinal- carnival humor evokes all the laughter of gross jokes.[1] It is uproarious, childlike, low-brow and in bad taste.

In the pun, the elevated meaning of a word is turned around by the emphasis on the very body of the word itself. Language of jokes takes on a polymorphous life of its own, generating excitement as it becomes a thing to be enjoyed in itself. “Low” humor and punning have been sanctified in modern poetics as literary strategies themselves. Take for example, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Stein’s poems are not descriptions of things in words, but of words as things themselves, with the same palpability as our own bodies. The aim of her poetic language is to turn the problem of this relation between body and word into an enabling passage, tracing in it the possibility of a transformative practice that opens up the speaking subject to the truths couched the stubborn corporeality of language, those moments of interruptions where we discover the pun of the Fool. Our interest is not just in the work as an example of puns, but also, since puns involve an excess of meaning or ideas, the way in which Stein takes what is low, or base, and uses it to reveal a series of ideas about the sacrificial nature of culture.

Carnival reversal implies a change from principles of stability and closure to constant possibility. The fool embodies for us the contradiction of the ideal completed, atomized being against the collective corporeality of all life. This latter grotesque collective Body is a glut of heterogeneity- always open to the world by one orifice or another. Bakhtin takes the idea of the collective body in carnival from its agricultural and Christian origins as a promise of new growth, and expands it to represent "a feast for all the world," "a feast of becoming".[iii] The cosmic banquet features the collective carnival body, constituted entirely of openings, apertures, and orifices. In images of the grotesque mouths are always open, eating and drinking, laughing, joking, shouting: they take in and commune with the outer world into which they themselves are extended. The carnival body is a grotesque body which

is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits... The body discloses its essence as a principle of growth which exceeds its own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking, or defecation.[iv]

It is no wonder that an entire third of Stein’s volume is devoted to food- brimming with allusions to reproduction, eating, excrement and death. However, the pieces themselves do not, as in Rabelais, merely present the image of the grotesque body. Rather, the “bodies” of the words themselves- the puns which occur through the sound of cadences and printed shape- mimic the passing of matter through the body. Her experimentation with the fragmented and openness of lexical meaning turns language inside out and reveals expression as an extension of the one’s body into the corporeal world of vegetables, animals, and inert objects. The “rooms” in which she speaks embody the kind of indeterminacy and overabundance of Bakhtin’s formulation of carnival, where language is lowered into digestive, sexual, and excretory rituals in an effort to materialize what is eternal, holy, and good.

The riddling structure of each of Stein’s short prose-poems in Tender Buttons has this same simple, idiomatic nature of proverbs and vulgar jokes in the types of the carnival speech discussed in Rabelais and His World. They are as punning and witty more than they are nonsensical, each fragment presenting itself as something that one should chew on for a bit. They involve the more base pleasures of the mouth as well as the discriminating taste of the listening ear. Through its rich sound cadences, material textures, and capacity to tolerate nonsense and discontinuity, language is couched in the corporeal. Our words are marinated in a libidinal perversity even before we reach for them.

Bakhtin pushes the point that degradation and the lowering of ideals into the belly, intestines, reproductive organs, and buttocks involves a vertical flip, but to push an object, word or idea into the lower body is not to destroy it, but to “hurl it down into the lower reproductive stratum, the zone in which…a new birth takes place…it is always conceiving”.[v] In this light, the simple and inert topics in Tender Buttons (Milk, Purse, Egg, A Hankerchief, Cream, etc.) are seen in a new light, as forms that are fertile and mobile. The bodies of carnival are never closed nor complete; the material bodily principle is always in a state of becoming, of emptying and filling itself with what is found outside of itself.

These puns often come off as dirty jokes, alluding to a double meaning which is erotic or excretory- each poem encounters the material and heterogeneous excess of the body “out there” in the objects, food, and rooms of the world. As such, the pieces seem to be hiding something decidedly erotic or lewd. Take for example the poem called ‘A Brown’: “A brown which is not liquid not more so relaxed and yet there is a change, a news is pressing”.[vi] The poem, alluding to feces, muscular relaxation, and the transformation of food to waste culminates in a double pun- “a-nus is pressing.” Yet the change to which Stein refers is linked to the very digestive aspect of carnival materialism and the inversions of the fool- where what has been traditionally elevated is not annihilated or negated but transformed or dissolved by the incorporations and appropriations of the body. Here, creation is linked with excrement, death, or defilement; what is “pressed” is also “new.”

The grotesque is an image of the eternal triumph of transformation; it expresses hope for the future, of always another chaotic beginning. This sense of time is quite different from a model which starts with an origin and moves in a procession, one which Bakhtin identifies with the "official" preoccupation with the past that renders life hierarchically pre-determined and unchangeable. For the carnival, the origin is obverted, contradicted, and doubled within itself. This beginning, though pre-symbolic and pre-egoistic, presents itself not just as a primordial past but the disruptive possibility of its return as something indestructible.[2] Thus to debase something, to eat and digest it, is to sacrifice it to the eternalpossibility of regeneration.

Images of becoming link the celebration of the body and the material world with the folk philosophical concept of time. By paying close attention to the punning relationships of objects (mouths, anuses, food, excrement), Stein and Bakhtin both reveal the relationships a hidden network of values. Extravagant feasting and excreting, either of food or words, herald the pleasures of carnival creativity, representing "the pathos of change and renewal".[vii] In a similar vein, the ontological relation between the digestive and the divine and permeates Tender Buttons, sharing with the Fool a predilection for punning, a play with the flexibility of the value of "becoming," and its double sense of excretion and Creation:

Pain soup, suppose it is a question, suppose it is butter, real is, real is only, only excreate, only excreate a no since.

A no, a no since, a no since when, a no since when since, a no since when since a no since when since, a no since, a no since when since, a no since, a no, a no since a no since, a no since, a no since. [viii]

To “excreate a no since” is to undo the meaningless of nonsense (no-since), perhaps to uncover innocence (a-no-since). The piece is named Orange In, a pun of a title with multiple internal discordances. Orange In is also perhaps origin or arrange in. When the musical otherness of this “no since” becomes vocalized, it begins to sound “no sense,” or the Fool’s “nuisance.” The collection of sounds in a “a no, a no since” seems to metamorphose into material excess- infantile babbling or the musical cadence of a lover’s moans. Stein here seems to be playing with a reversal of the axis of a pre-symbolic beginning– “a no since when.” The carnival tricks of the fool concretize the past in the body by means of this “ex-creation.”

Debasing something to the lower body is central to the fools trickery in the “ex-creation” pun, a word which disintegrates the words “create” and “excrete” from their normal lexicon. To create something new through destruction is to ex-create, but it is also to excrete, to reformulate food into something fertile for the soil. The resemblance of excrement to the creativity of the carnival can be found again the question about the “since when,” the very first bit of matter. Degrading the idealism of the vertically ‘high’ face and mind to the bowels, belly and reproductive organs is not to eradicate it as the extreme limit or horizon. Pushing the good, the pure, or the divine to its lowest parts of the body dutifully preserves its potential to be materially felt and regenerated. The Fool’s excreatory wordplay uses language for “high” means- thinking and philosophizing, but also for the immediate bodily gratification in saying something that feels good in the mouth, by tearing words from their contexts and subjecting them to digestive change.

Excreation, if understood in its double sense, involves a sacrifice, an act that debases and dissolves for the sake of resurrection. Where mystics find holiness in taste of Christ’s body, the punning brilliance of the carnival fool - so fantastically preserved in the language play of Tender Buttons - seems to excreate innocence, or excrete a new kind of rapture. To create and then ex-create preserves the taut and witty reversals of a riddling, punning Fool and the surprise and sensuousness of his carnival outlook on the world. The excreation of time in the carnival is itself a pun, one which crosses the vertical opposition of holy and fleshly with the horizontal affiliation of the purely spiritual with the immutably carnal, where “to the pure, all things are pure.” In this crossing, we find that “in emptying ourselves, we expose ourselves to the pressures of the surrounding universe.”[ix]

[1] The “material bodily principle” of the figure of the fool extends beyond the Western scope of the carnival. Even primitive myths about the figure of the trickster or clown reveal something indestructible about his bodily excessiveness. The American anthropologist Paul Radin published an in depth study of the myth of the trickster, considering the Winnebago story cycles in which the character ‘Trickster’ goes through a series of misadventures. In the early cycles, Trickster attempts to butcher a slain buffalo and his left and right hand begin fighting one another over the possession of the carcass. Before it is over, Trickster has injured himself. Or another in which he goes to sleep after appointing his anus to guard some roasting meat. When a group of foxes approaches, the anus attempts to drive them off by flatulating, but to no avail. When Trickster awakens, he is so angry with his anus that he burns it with a brand from the fire. Then, as he walks along, he sees delicious pieces of cooked fat on the trail, which he eats. He discovers, much to his surprise, that these pieces of meat are fragments of his own burned intestines. In the next, Trickster wakes up to find a flag flying above him, but he soon discovers that the "flag" is his blanket and the pole is his phallus. He reels his penis in, carries it in a box, and attempts to have sex with a princess he encounters. No one can dislodge his enormous penis from her until an old wise woman tells them it is Trickster trying to have sex. There is another in which Trickster attempts to impersonate a woman until his fake vagina falls out and another in which he eats so many laxatives that he creates a mound of excrement into which he falls. He is so covered with excrement that he cannot see, so trees tell him where he can find water to clean himself. In these story cycles we re-discover the fundamental pattern of the Trickster: material excess, laughter, contradiction and above all the ability to disturb signs. The semiotic function of the Fool occurs where comedy is inverted, meaning collapses in its own excrement, and the borders of inside/outside are no longer sacrosanct.

[2] Julia Kristeva, a feminist theorist who drew heavily from the work of Bakhtin, claimed that laughter came from a crisis of the body with the symbolic matrix of signification. In Revolutions in Poetic Language, she refers to the site of this crisis as laughter. What concerns Kristeva is the logocentric bias which has taken hold on Western thought, compelling us to reduce psychic processes to linguistic ones and to posit the “Word” at the beginning of meaning. Kristeva opposes this tradition with the ‘extra-linguistic’ semiotic, and tries articulates a place of beginning before the Word, an originary phase dominated by the negative space of the mother's body, a “rhythmic space, which has no thesis and no position.” Kristeva articulates this space of negativity and bodily drive as the semiotic chora drawing from Plato's Timaeus. Similar to stories of the Fool, the chora’s “nonexpressive totality” is by its nature almost impossible to articulate. It is the material origin from which the subject is both produced and threatened with annihilation. It is intersection of sense and non-sense, both spatially as the originary interior of the mother’s body, and temporally, as the beginning before the Beginning. So the chora is contradictorily both moment and receptacle, though “as rupture and articulations (rhythm), [it] precedes evidence, verisimilitude, spatiality, and temporality” In this sense the chora is not simply the redemption of forgotten past (whose status, Kristeva warns us, is that of a theoretical fiction), but is the force of its movement in the body that perpetually and repetitively destabilizes the subject and frustrates any effort to impose the Word as the origin of being. Of course, the Fool’s laughter erupts also from a heightened awareness of logos and rationality, not just its non-signifying intersections in the body. Nevertheless, the palpability of puns in poetic are related to this chora in the sense that they are reproductive or fertile. (Kristeva, 26-30)

[i] Ibid, 20

[ii] Ibid, 19

[iii] Ibid, 10

[iv] Ibid, 26

[v] Bakhtin, 21

[vi] Stein, 14

[vii] Ibid, 11

[viii] Stein, 38

[ix] Weil, 144

The Fool's Cross (III)


“We are fools for Christ’s sake.”

In the lowness of the base, we find the heights of heaven reflected; in their reciprocity there is a kind of ex-creation. The fool’s sensitivity to the carnivalesque springs from the theological tradition that his puns and jokes seems to subvert. The figure of the fool in the tarot deck thus, becomes a holy fool. How can we make sense of this relation?

Every card in the Tarot deck is repeated and inverted by another card. For the card of the fool, this is card twelve The Hanged Man- a card which pictures a Christlike figure hanging off of a wooden cross by his feet. His head, which dangles close to the ground, is enveloped by a radiant halo. Where the Fool represents laughter and possibility, the Hanged Man is a card of suspension and paradox, a figure that seems to be at a moment of absolute surrender and penitence. The bawdiness and excretory joking that we have encountered in the fool has undecidedly developed as a figure contradictorily transfused with holiness, and one who suffers for our own folly and holds it up to us as if in a mirror.

It might help to reiterate that carnival, as a distorted form of liturgy or public worship, is that form where rigid tyrannical hierarchies are distorted, reflected, and overthrown- albeit only temporarily. The figure of the fool stands in for that last bit of carnival that cannot be destroyed, the irreducible remainder who carries the carnival spirit, and suffers these reveling pressures of the finite world for us, even when its time has ended. The fool possesses, like in cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Wiley Coyote, a quality of resilience that means that even when he is beaten it does not seem to injure him. It is a resilience of the spirit that might complement the physical litheness often associated with the jester. He never seems particularly perturbed by an anvil descending on his head, never stopping to consider the cruelty of his punishment or beg for mercy: Like the comic characters in cartoons who may be cut to shreds, smashed flat, riddled with holes, or stretched into a thin line, yet which suddenly spring back into their original form, the Fool always, wretchedly, seems to persist.

If the carnival occurs as a crisis in cosmological time, then the fool is the savior of this possibility, the possibility of the beginning of the end, the opening in history where light pours in. Though the grotesque body of the fool has often been thought of in terms of darkness, night, and shadow, Bakhtin reminds us that in the pure folk sense of carnival, the feasting and excreting body is associated with lightness, dawn, and luminescence.[1] The holy fool then becomes a Christ-like figure, an icon who lowers and empties himself for the highest ends, one whose humiliation becomes humility and whose jokes and puns are translated into proverb, whose bodily pangs of hunger and desire are testaments to the irreducible pressure of grace. After having discussed the foolishness of carnival and its relation to poetic language and the body, we will turn finally, through the theosophical writing of Simone Weil and figure of Surplice in ee Cummings’ novel The Enormous Room, towards this figure of the Holy Fool, the Grotesque Christ.

“Purity is the power to contemplate defilement,” writes Weil, a philosopher known for her mystic relationship to the affliction of reality and its relation to God’s distance.[i] Though her asceticism may seem to be the farthest degree away from the sensuous excessiveness of Bakhtin’s carnival fool, both seem to share an attention to the extreme limits of the being human in the world- the self-canceling and emptying at work in carnival laughter and the naked, vegetative egoism that is for Weil, the utmost sanctification of one’s vertical distance from the heights of grace. Each mode of reading the world is “work in which the body is a part.”[ii] Both are bound to earthliness and the humility of the flesh, by the gravity of matter, by the patient acceptance of contradiction, incompatibility of truth. In the card of the Hanged Man, where the fool is himself turned upside down, is an image of awakened attention to the impotency at the heart of reality’s struggle with itself, the cross is a way to give space to incomprehensibility.

Cummings’ novel The Enormous Room is a semi-autobiographical account on time spent in French prison camps during the first war, which describes the prison as world turned upside down where dirty and degraded men are joyous and holy. At the margins of this reversed utopia a heartbreakingly pathetic Christ figure whose repulsiveness and piety seem to bridge the expulsive lowness of the body (Bakhtin) and the descent of divinity in (Weil). Surplice is described as disgusting, filthy animal covered in excrement- but he is also a transient beast, untouchable in his venerability: “Take this animal. You hear him, you are afraid of him, you smell and you see him and you know him- but you do not touch him.” He is childlike in his naiveté and oblivious to dirt, as if he were a three year old still picking up anything he finds on the floor or paddling about in feces.

And now take him in dawn’s soft squareness, gently stooping to pick chewed cigarettes from the spitty floor…watch him scratching his back (exactly like a bear) on the wall…speaking to no one, sunning his soul

Poor Surplice is a fool without a carnival, transplanted into the concrete walls of imprisonment. His sole usefulness exists in volunteering to carry buckets of excrement to the sewer every day. He is the one who is always silent, forgotten, ignored in the background, responding with wide-eyed astonishment whenever anyone speaks to him. He carries around a childish toy, a harmonica, as one last relic of the festiveness Surplice internalizes. And despite his lowliness, his “unobstreperous affinity for excrement, ” Surplice is also a figure of divine innocence: “religious with a terrible and exceedingly beautiful and absurd intensity.” Surplice is exalted to saintliness; both befouled and blessed, he resembles the absolute baseness of spiritual affliction, the figure of Christ as the lowest common denominator of the flesh.

Christ on the cross is for Weil the most humble, human, low part of his mission: “the sweat of his blood…the sense of being abandoned by God.”[iii] I argue that the self-emptying of God on the cross, which we will explore in further detail, is not far from the excretory ex-creation of the fool in carnival. Weil refers to the carnal attraction of the material world and its lateral forces as gravity. Gravity draws us away from holiness, it preserves the distance between God and the created world- the truth of God for her is experienced as absolute alterity. Grace is the only force that opposes this gravity, a nourishment that comes from the opposite direction, from the heights of heaven. In short, Weil calls for a kind of self-emptying, like Stein’s excreation- “May God grant me to become nothing.” Creation was for God, not a means of establishing his power, but a means of distancing himself, emptying his love into the matter of the world so that humanity could be.[2] God thus establishes his presence and his absence simultaneously, creating a metaphysical pun whereby God annihilated his closeness to creation so that we could be- where I am, He is not. The incarnation of Christ doubles this divine distancing- for Weil, the Cross is the very substance of the world. God has poured himself into the suffering of the crucifixion so that the mystery of His love can only be found in moments of crisis and contradiction- the “cruciform nature of the world.” The cross is essence of ex-creation, or de-creation as Weil refers to it.

Decreation is a matter of turning the world upside down and apprehending the absolute goodness that can come from this reversal. For Simone Weil, the first person pronoun I is an index of our ontological distance from our creator. Where we find ourselves reduced to mere creatures by the gravity of matter, de-creation is the process by which this distance between the beast and the deity is crossed. Just as Christ eliminated himself on the cross and we eliminate what materially fills us in the act of excretion, de-creation involves an elimination of the I, where the limits of the self are ecstatically breached and excrement, the irreducible remainder of our creature-hood is released from the body. If we are to continue to understand excrement as the remainder and undoing of creating/eating, it is also what makes our bodies immortal in the fertility of the earth.

If this is so, then Christ as the material sacrifice of God is also like a piece of excrement, the excreation of God is the contradiction of a love that is materialized only through the humiliation of his son. In this sense, assertion of ones baseness and gravity becomes a revival of its reciprocal relationship to grace.[3] According to the Christian tradition, out of his love, God emptied himself on the cross. He effaced himself for the sake of human freedom. He gave us the world in exchange for his company.

Bakhtin points out that carnival laughter “asserts and denies, buries and revives,” just as the crucifixion was both an assertion of divine love and the denial of God’s power, both the burial of a deity and the death of sin, an eschatological promise of revival and resurrection. The carnival laughter is the spontaneity of laughter at the entire world, and thus is directed even at the one who laughs- it is a self canceling laughter, a joyousness where one laughs at the distance between the poles of the self and of faith: the rational ego drops from the body like a piece of ripe fruit.

Why would Simone Weil say that Grace is a descending movement, when we also know that gravity is the cause of excreation/ excretion’s descent? Because God’s erasure of himself on earth was a descending movement. To efface one’s self if “to come down by a movement in which gravity plays no part.”[iv] Love is cast downward. The fool in his divine folly seems to de-create reason, instead of destroying or annihilating the boundaries and demarcations of order in the external world, he lets them pass through his body and descend into the lowly and un-created, the purely unformed and excretory place of pure paradox.

The fool figure seemed to appeal to Weil, regardless of whether she was consciously aware of his theological significance in the context with which we are working. Two weeks before Simone Weil died in a sanatorium in 1943, she wrote a letter to her parents after having seen a production of King Lear, wondering about the “unbearably tragic” quality of foolishness with which she felt her own paradoxical methods of telling the truth were kindred:

There is a class of people in the world who fall into the lowest degree of humiliation…who are deprived not only of all social consideration but also, in everybody’s opinion of the specific human dignity, reason itself- and these are the people who, in fact, are able to tell the truth. All the others lie…Because no one [in King Lear] is aware that [the fool’s] sayings deserve the slightest attention…since they are fools- their expression of the truth is not listened to. Everybody is unaware that what they say is true. And not satirically or humorously but simply the truth. Pure unadulterated truth- luminous, profound and essential. [v]

The fool’s degradation, similar to Christ being laughed at on the cross and forsaken by God, is evidently a necessary condition of knowing the truth and speaking it, but also of not being heard. The paradox of speaking the truth and not being heard is at the heart of the cross; Weil abides by a kind of logic where every truth contains a lie, and to speak the very paradox at the heart of the world is humiliating. Every pun and paradox demands that one must suffer to speak it.

Surplice, in The Enormous Room, is a heartbreaking character because he embodies not only the filthy excess of the body and the kaleidoscopic madness of pun and paradox but also absurdity of loneliness. The fool is a forlorn mark of the laughing madness of solitude, one who must carry around the unbearable secret of the sacred essence of profanity. He preserves the eternal and private carnival because it is his duty.

Inasmuch as Surplice, being unspeakably lonely, enjoyed any and all insults for the simple reason that they constituted or at least implied a recognition of his existence…His duty was to amuse; amusement is indeed, peculiarly essential to suffering; in proportion as we are able to be amused we are able to suffer; I, Surplice, am a very necessary creature after all. [vi]

To bear the weight of telling the truth even when no one listens is enormous- because the fool must suffer in his divine innocence for the sake of all other’s amusement. Because he must allow his “luminous and essential” truth to become the butt of everyone’s jokes, degradation comes to be seen as the supreme act of selfless love. In this passage, we find that Surplice’s suffering is part of necessity, the need to feel the truth of our common humanity and materiality and neediness. The fool incarnates this truth through self sacrifice and love. But since that whole truth- that only suffering can fully open us to this amusement and joy- since that whole truth is the reverse of wisdom in the world, it becomes true by definition for Simone Weil that only fools can ever speak it fully.

What Simone Weil calls decreation, which according to her is similar to digestive sense in which Stein calls for a lowering of language, could perhaps be thought of at these two forces of humiliation and amusement turning toward each other, intersecting with each other, the self relinquishing its monopoly of the life instinct, ceasing to absorb only the positive energy of laughter, but also orienting it across that deathly, negative, apocalyptic instinct of the carnival. There is room here to read Weil in terms of the linguistic and social materialism of Stein and Bakhtin. Decreation involves turning the world on its head, a “reversal of the positive and negative,” where the fool empties his subject hood so that he can become the fulcrum of humiliation and love.

May that which is high in us go downward so that which is low can go upward. For we are wrong side upward. We are born thus. To reestablish order is to undo the creature in us.

Reversal of the objective and objective.

Similarly, reversal of the positive and negative.[vii]

The materialization of the divine within the body de-neutralizes the punning contradictions of truth and language- and then renews them. Like the seed that must be buried to sprout forth, like the clearest and cleanest of truths that is found only in the throbbing bloody guts of the world; words must flop in the mud before they can come to life.

To de-create as the fool does, through love of language or of thought, is to make innocent what is offensive, erotic, or vulgar. We must accept the topsy-turvy movement of the carnival within us- this involves giving ourselves back to holiness, to the universe, to the very matter that forms us and our words. As has been mentioned, Weil’s God is not ever-present but entirely absent; in creating us he decreated himself and withdrew at an infinite distance.[4] Like Surplice, the sensitive body feels his love in the luxurious surplus of life, but cannot know his truth: “And now take Surplice, whom I see and hear and smell and touch and even taste, and whom I do not know.”[viii] The wisdom of the fool is the naked truth at fulcrum of the cross; the object that is so paradoxical that the mind cannot touch it; it can only wait to be penetrated by it.

Thus decreation, excretion and excreation are all a matter of holding up the bestial and vegetative creature-ness of human existence as marks of God’s absence and his love.

In her paradoxical language, Weil makes this clear when she says that “there is every degree of distance between the creature and God…Matter, plants, animals. Here evil is so complete that it destroys itself; there is no longer and evil: mirror of divine innocence.”[ix] To reverse the distance involves bringing God back to the lowly baseness from which he withdrew in order to pour his love into it. “We are at the point where love is just possible…the love which unites is in proportion to the distance.”[x]

The finite solidity of the world which the carnival is submerged in is precisely the desert of God’s absence, where the distance between the sacred and profane is preserved as laughter, as the compulsive bodily excess of creature-hood. Enervated by the discontinuous texture of the external world passing through the body, the fool turns the world upside down, inverting it point by point as if it were a mirror, reflecting the presence of a divine unity through the folly of its absence. In the moment of subtracting oneself through laughter and making oneself vulnerable only to that which is surrounding us, the Fool attains the empty place where, seized by impersonal powers, we are lifted up to place where we make thought exist through us. In the creation of the world, humanity was lifted up. Why? Because “The point of leverage is the cross. There can be no other. It has to be at the intersection of this world and that which is not the world. The cross is this intersection.”[xi]

We began with the fool as a testament to the weightedness of the carnival spirit. Now, the Fool, whose element is air, is also a body at the mercy of the immaterial.[5] He is given over to the diaphanous texture of light and grace, caught in a wafting surge of weightlessness. The subtle filminess of his body corresponds to every particle’s secret wish for softness. The distance between the heights of the good and the lowness of laughter creates enough room in the universe for all matter to dissolve and escape the spirit of gravity. Strung out on the cross, he incarnates a loving tolerance for the absence of God and a patience in suffering the recklessness of contradiction: “the care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong. There care with which there is a terrific sacrifice and plenty of breathing.”[xii] Like the deck which is always shuffled anew, the Fool empties and fills himself eternally. He is the laughing exuberance of empty space.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1965.

The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. 1 Cor. 4-10. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Butler, Bill. The Dictionary of the Tarot. New York: Schocken Books, 1987.

Cummings, E E. "Surplice." The Enormous Room. New York: Modern Library, 1922. 254-268.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage Books, 1934. 105.

“Feast of Fools.” Thurston, Herbert. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York

Kristeva, Julia. Revolutions in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Milton, John. "Paradise Lost." John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merrit Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003. 173-454.

Pollack, Rachel. Tarot: Complete Illustrated Guide. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Element, 2002.

Radin, Paul. The Trickster: a Study in American Indian Mythology. 4th ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.

"Reglement." Federation De Francais De Tarot. Federation De Francais De Tarot. 15 Feb. 2008 .

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Mineola: Dover Books, 1993. 16.

Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1914

Weil, Simone; Miles, Siân. "Introduction." Simone Weil: an Anthology. New York: Grove P, 1986. 1-49.

Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. Lincoln: Bison Books, 1947.

[1] Another topological inversion of high/low in the carnival of the fool complicates the relationship of lowness to grace and grotesque to holiness. John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a Christian epic poem about Creation and the temptation of Eve makes clear the vertical poles of Christian theology. The vertical dimension of Milton’s cosmos is not only physical, but is also a scale of the good, of moral worth. The higher a body is in the Miltonian hierarchy, the closer he is to God, both in substance (i.e. the ethereal airy spirit of angels) and proximity. Light is also proportionate to height and to goodness. Hell is completely darkened by inky shadows; the world is moderately lit by the secondary light referred by the sun and moon. Heaven is intensely radiant, and God is light itself. The rank of the substance of bodies is analogous too: The fallen angels have degenerated into shapes gross and bulky. Man’s spirit is lighter. Angels are made of some subtle airy substance. The Son of God is presumably the purest of all beings. Goodness is the same thing as ascendancy, also as radiance, and also as subtlety or delicacy. Evil is spatial lowness, shadiness, bulkiness. It is clear that the rarity of substance, position, and luminosity are precisely ordered according to a vertical scale of rightness, or truth. (After the consumption of the mysterious fruit, what Adam and Eve lose is the orientation of their spatial senses, respectively: on one hand, an immediately vertical attachment to God, and on the other, an immediately lateral attachment to home.) Because the carnival is so related to light, it represents the inversion of these traditional vertical attachments, aligning the lowness and lumpishness of carnival with the height of the good.

[2] In book 7 of Paradise Lost, Adam appeals for Raphael to explain Genesis to him- in this sense he is calling forth his own origin or beginning, perhaps to extend his Reason beyond the Garden, where the distance between his being and God’s was not yet so great. But at the same time, there is something interesting going on with the work of separation and division- in the sense that thru out the entire poem, there is a repetition of various divisions and separations. An obvious example of course, is Satan’s separation and repeated fall.

God’s creation of the earth is one of dissociation and division, where he separates the various essences that comprise Chaos:

“Again, God said, let there be Firmament

Amid the Waters, and let it divide

The Waters from the Waters: and God made

The Firmament, expanse of liquid, pure,

Transparent, Elemental Air, diffus’d

In circuit to the uttermost convex

Of this great Round: partition firm and sure,

The waters underneath from those above,

Dividing… (VII, 261-9)

And later:

“Be gathered now ye waters under Heav’n

Into one place, and let dry land appear.” (283-4)

He continues to multiply the world with various discrete geographical elements, vegetation and animals by extracting division among them. The creation of man is the highest distillation of his efforts- God literally creates vertical space between Adam and the animals by designing him upright. Creation here, at a base level, is primarily the act of setting apart elements like earth and air and drawing distances among them. The pattern of the division of matter here rhymes somewhat with the topographical estrangement of heaven and hell.

[3] Even in creating the universe as a mark of love, Milton’s God seems to have anticipated his distance from humanity as a precondition for salvation. His is a universe in which falling creates form and hierarchy: Satan falling from the gates of heaven, the solidities of the chaotic swarm falling into place, Adam falling to his knees, the Fall from Paradise, and of course the Fallen state from which we must interpret this poem. This seems especially interesting given the fact that God’s will is to create space between things- Heaven and Earth, Firmament and Air, Man and Beast- here are interstices in which various falls are facilitated.

God’s work in Paradise Lost is that of deliberate differentiation- his will enacts itself through attraction and repulsion. As soon as he creates Adam, he proceeds to multiply the distance between them. Adam’s consciousness begins with sensing the space surrounding him, feels a deep loving connection with a creator. He turns to nature, thinking it might be God, and calls out to it, receiving no reply. God doesn’t demand obedience or praise from Adam, it wells up in him as the first sensation. In a few moments, he comes to experience a self and the movement granted by his bounded form in the place surrounding- “Here had new begun my wand’ring” (VII 300-1). God presents himself as a shape, but not so that Adam can bind himself to Him, only to tell him to go even further: “thy mansion wants thee” (296). With strange detachment, God pronounces his “stern interdiction” (VII 332) and demands that Adam perform his own brand of creating difference by naming all the creature of the earth. Sensing his solitary singularity and the vacuity surrounding him in this lonely though plentiful place, he calls out for a companion: “I found not what methought I wanted still” (355). By conferring Adam free will and by creating therefore the requested Eve, God proliferates the dividing expanses further by showing generosity enough to confer upon Adam another object of desire to obey, one who is not Him. Adding the proverbial insult to injury, even the creation of Eve carves out distance and vacuity in Adam’s own interiority, for what else could replace the missing rib but space?

[4] After the fall, death becomes the numb guardian of time, and the laws of the vertical (light=height=purity=good) are transposed by the attractions of the horizontal (nostalgia, home, death, desire). Humankind is drawn closer to baseness than to ethereality; in our fallen wickedness we are prone to horizontal attractions, not vertical ones. Eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil conferred not rational knowledge of evil, but experiential knowledge of evil: “they came to know good only through evil.” Resigned to death, Adam and Eve are more obedient to the stubborn solidity of matter than God’s divine distances of space. Simone Weil pronounced that “evil is the shadow of the good,” an incompatible though inescapable corollary. Being fallen, we can only ascertain good and evil in terms of their contradiction on earth. We are blind to the higher good that usurps the moral/material inconsistency of the world and unifies it on God’s level- this unity is not accessible by way of human experience. Milton’s expressive combination of weight and lightness, mass and fluidity, shade and radiance creates a structural interposition of shadows and light. The use of a vivid chiaroscuro as the setting for the poem carries a material/moral message: we read shadows here as signs of the moral failure of light in the steadiness of matter.

[5] For the Case deck, he is the breath of the beasts in the fields; for the Crowley deck, he is the subtlety of the “original impulse.” In the Grimauld, thoughtlessness and carelessness; for the knight deck he is the innocence of chaos. In the Buddhist deck, the Fool corresponds to all possibilities of movement, for the Douglas deck he is the limitless light prior to all creation. The Sadhu decks view him as an arrow in direct but wavering light; for Rider-Waite he is the spirit in search of experience and the sensitive life of the flesh. (Butler,113).

[i] Weil, 176

[ii] Weil, 200

[iii] Weil, 100

[iv] Weil, 48

[v] Quoted in Anthology, 3

[vi] Cummings, 262

[vii] Weil, 81

[viii] Cummings, 255

[ix] Weil, 130

[x] Weil, 130

[xi] Weil, 146

[xii] Stein, 52