History, mythology, and folktales are filled with stories of people punished for saying the truth. Only the Fool, exempt from society's rules, is allowed to speak with complete freedom. —Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Washed Lions and April Fish
If there is any fool I suffer gladly, it is not an April fool. Though I did admit to being “sempre un idiota,” and being delighted by the idea of being a country or city bumpkin, I must confess that in fact having others make me believe something that isn’t true, or play a prank that makes me feel foolish, has always unsettled (and upset) me. I like knowing where I am, being on solid ground. Being able to guard my position, with my feet firmly planted and my back to the wall.
And there’s apparently good reason, too, to desire a wall at one’s back. I just read that in France (where All Fools Day is thought to have originated, back in the 16th Century), Italy, Belgium, and French-speaking areas of Switzerland and Canada, “the 1 April tradition is often known as ‘April fish’ (poisson d'avril in French or pesce d'aprile in Italian). This includes attempting to attach a paper fish to the victim's back without being noticed.”
In Scotland, it seems, “April Fools' Day was traditionally called Hunt-the-Gowk Day (‘gowk’ is Scots for a cuckoo or a foolish person), although this name has fallen into disuse.”
Precursors of April Fools' Day include the Roman festival of Hilaria, held 25 March, and the Medieval Feast of Fools, held 28 December, “still a day on which pranks are played in Spanish-speaking countries.” The words hilarity and hilarious come from that Roman festival (now said to be known as Roman Laughing Day), and this degree of jocularity involves unease as well—it’s not a kindly kind of laughter, typically. Malicious may be overdoing it, but that is one of the possible interpretations. Similar, perhaps, to “trick or treat”?
The pranks often involve some kind of disappointment, or having the lovely Turkish rug pulled out from under one. On 1 April 1698, the story goes, several people were tricked into going to the Tower of London to "see the Lions washed." And the lions were not being washed. There were likely no lions to be washed. I would have been sad, I’m sure, to have been among those fooled and foolish people and to learn that the promise of lions being washed was not, after all, going to be kept.
Let us celebrate foolery in a different, more kindly way. Let us see the fool as a kind of sage, an idiot savant as it were, the blessed truth teller (and not one of the makers-up of untrue but societally acceptable tales) of Jane Hirshfield’s quote—
Let’s let the fools have their own day, to celebrate as they will. With truths, if they prefer (and that association is fascinating), instead of discombobulating stories.
image: April 1, Confessions of a Pen Thief