A Praise Of Folly – By @augustine_cerf
By Augustine Cerf
A Praise Of Folly
On Monday, Marc showed us a Ted talk that touched on the value of not knowing, of throwing oneself out of the comfort zone of assumed knowledge through the difficult, yet all-important, admission that one cannot know everything.
Later this week, I asked Ian Wharton how, since our brains are acculturated into hardwired rationality, we could fight this to step into the irrational, where creativity happens. His answer: a healthy dose of ignorance and a healthy dose of indifference. But Ian is not alone in his celebration of ignorance. In fact, pretty much all the greatest thinkers at one point or another have discovered their greatest wisdom through an espousal to folly.
I’ve been reading a lot of Geoff Dyers recently. You should too. He writes hysterically astute travel essays that flirt between the lines of autobiography and fiction, travel writing and essay. In Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, he is continually abandoning guide books and maps in favour of ignorance, which he calls his “investigative weapon” of choice. Allowing himself to visit places without the burden of knowledge, his visceral observations are the starting point for philosophical flights of fancy that will make you laugh, sigh and think, all at once. Ignorance can be the starting point for real thought; thought that steps outside of all the culturally imposed assumptions we carry around on our backs like mules, day in, day out, parroting an inherited doctrine we are incapable of challenging since we can’t see the proverbial wood for the trees.
The fool has long been the figure, in literature as in life, that pokes and interrupts from the outside, releasing energies that had before been repressed by a socially sanctioned way of seeing or living. Pete identified with this. He always said (I here speak in the past tense for he is departed, may he rest in peace) that he was like the fool in The Emperor’s New Clothes – the fool is the only one able to say, from outside of the ‘knowledge’ of society, that the emperor is naked. He’s able to grasp the truth since, paradoxically, he isn’t bound by a shared knowledge. Since, paradoxically, he isn’t bound by a will-to-truth. Nonsense is an affair of genius.
Let’s jump back a couple hundred years to Rabelais, a French Renaissance writer, who was in the habit of sending up the processes by which we arrive at truth through learning. For him, what differentiated man from beast was laughter. Laughter is an activity that humans share with no other creature. Human beings, unlike other animals, are not at ease with their condition, which they find comic. We are the only animals who find our sexuality or bodily functions (which we consistently hide) laughable. When we laugh, it throws us outside of our sense of rationally. It defies our comfortable belief that we have a hold over ourselves and the world through knowledge, for to laugh at sex is not rational. We can’t explain it. We do not and can never know why we laugh. It opens up a glaring knowledge gap. Rabelais’ books revolve around the impossibility of knowing oneself and the wisdom that such an admission ushers in. His texts use laughter to unlock and disrupt discourses that engage in a will-to-truth through the rational, which is what good advertising could also do, if it wanted to.
By admitting that you cannot really know anything, that you are a fool, that you can be wise in your folly, you can uproot the established from the outside. Erasmus, another Renaissance humanist, wrote The Praise of Folly. It’s a satirical attack on the traditions of society and on the church, but you don’t need to know that. What you should know (and this is why you should read it) is that it celebrates the fool as the occupant of an outsider’s position. As J.M. Coetzee writes about Erasmus’ second definition of folly, it is “a state in which truth is known (and spoken) from a position that does not know itself to be the position of truth.” A position, in other words, that places itself outside of the main political or dominant discourses. To get outside of the dominant discourses and to see them for what they are is they key to being a great creative. To sit and observe impartially through ignorance, to get out of a received rationality into folly, into laughter. Let’s use the interruptive power of Rabelaisian laughter to throw ourselves outside of ourselves, to stand in a position that doesn’t know itself to be a position of truth, that doesn’t will itself to be a position of truth. As creatives, we ought to be the wisest of fools.
We must go just outside of the socially sanctioned ‘truths’ that we are fed. We must stand just beyond the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable, tow that line and dance along that line, to uproot the established through creativity. Through ignorance and folly, we can change the world. We, at least, have a duty to try.