May 18, 2022

The Holy Fool: Editor’s Note

By Eden Pearlstein

Avraham Abulafia, a page from Light of the Intellect, 1285, Vat. ebr. 597 leaf 113 recto

We must occasionally find pleasure in our folly, or we cannot continue to find pleasure in our wisdom.  
—Friedrich Nietzsche1

Only in the pursuit of failure can a person really be free. Losers may be the avant-garde of the modern age.
—Sheila Heti2

Who is wise? [asks the Fool.]
One who learns from everyone [says the Sage].
Pirkei Avot3

Nobody wants to be made a fool. From a young age we learn to fear failure, embarrassment, being mistaken or told we’re wrong. And yet, across time, space, and culture, the figure of the Fool appears irrepressibly—not as a mirror of our shortcomings, but as an archetype of unlikely epiphany. In such instances, a new, or deeper, reality is revealed beneath the veneer of our habitual assumptions: the child is a prophet, the beggar is a king, the king is a clown, the snake is the moshiach. Through humor, play, paradox, and wild hope, the Fool helps us see others, and in turn ourselves, more clearly, critically, and expansively.

To achieve this shift, the Fool functions as a master of inversion—unceremoniously turning normative perceptions upside-down and inside-out: sin becomes sacrament, failure becomes success, ignorance becomes wisdom, work becomes play, and play is revealed to be what it truly is—the stone which the builders refused.4  

Such Fools come in all capes and guises. Costumes, masks, wigs, props, plants, and practical jokes are to be expected. Not every Fool is foolish in the same way or for the same reason. But all Fools, if we are not too foolish to notice, have an unexpected gift to offer us:

The Wise Men of Chelm, a veritable village of fools, declaring that stealing “is no longer a crime, except if one steals from a thief”;5 Eliyahu ha-Navi, believed to be the forerunner of the moshiach, appearing, always unexpectedly, as a beggar, a simpleton, or a madman on the street; the revered rabbis in the Talmud juggling fire and turning cartwheels at the yearly water-pouring ceremony of Sukkot;6 King David dancing rapturously in the streets before the Ark of the Covenant;7 a shepherd boy blowing his flute at the height of communal prayers on Yom Kippur.8 Such characters are adept at effortlessly and artfully upsetting authority and expectation.

From the vantage point of rulers, bosses, and enforcers, the ethos and aesthetics of the Fool are anathema. It should therefore come as no surprise that philosophers and religious leaders alike have long denigrated and excommunicated the one they find most foolish: the poet. For the poet, practitioner of today’s least lucrative art form, has often been a straw man for the figure of the Fool: loosely principled, overly affective, unrealistically dreamy, intolerably nonsensical, annoyingly insightful, and dangerously prone to passionate possession—making them unreasonable citizens and unreliable toe-ers of the party line. Poets and fools are comrades in that other Marxism that states: I don’t want to belong to any club that’ll accept me as a member.9

Or, as William James, the great American “pragmatist,” put it: “Only your mystic, your dreamer, or your insolvent tramp or loafer, can afford so sympathetic an occupation, an occupation which will change the usual standards of human value in the twinkling of an eye, giving to foolishness a place ahead of power, and laying low in a minute the distinctions which it takes a hard-working conventional man a lifetime to build up.”10

It is towards these ecstatic, exuberant, even esoteric qualities and characters that we invite you, dear reader, to open your heart throughout the “pages” of Ayin Two | The Holy Fool. For we are living through unbearably self-serious times—our perspectives have become trenches, our stories have become weaponized; we are all too eager to laugh at others, but are in imminent danger of losing the ability to laugh at ourselves. That is not to say that things are not totally fucked. They most certainly are! There are so many reasons, too numerous to count, to feel the world demands our seriousness, our sharpness, our fierceness. But what if by devaluing the foolish, the accidental, the absurd, and the playful, we are inadvertently building up what we think we’re tearing down? 

Thankfully—whether in the form of a poet, performer, mystic, or lunatic—the Holy Fools of this world are here to remind us: we do not (and cannot) know it all, we still (and always will) have so much to learn, and we can never be absolutely sure when, where, how, and from whom such irreverent epiphanies will appear.  

Footnotes

  1.  Friedrich Nietzsche, “Our Ultimate Gratitude to Art,” in The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 163. Full quote: “We must occasionally find pleasure in our folly, or we cannot continue to find pleasure in our wisdom. Precisely because we are at bottom grave and serious human beings—really more weights than human beings—nothing does us as much good as a fool’s cap: we need it in relation to ourselves—we need all exuberant, floating, dancing, mocking, childish, and blissful art lest we lose the freedom above things that our ideal demands of us . . . How then could we possibly dispense with art—and with the fool?” 
  2. Sheila Heti, Motherhood (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 113.
  3.  Pirkei Avot 4:1, playfully adapted. 
  4.  Psalms 118:22. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”
  5.  Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Fools of Chelm and Their History, trans. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elizabeth Shub, illus. Uri Shulevitz (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), 45.
  6.  Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a.
  7.  II Samuel 6:5. 
  8.  S.Y. Agnon, Yamim Noraʾim (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1937), as referenced in Dr. Menachem Katz, “The Baal Shem Tov and the Boy who Played Flute on Yom Kippur,” TheGemara.com, 2017. 
  9. Groucho Marx.
  10. William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1899), 247.

Eden Pearlstein is the cofounder of Ayin Press.