Using the example of the religious − both historical and mythological (hagiographic-literal) − figure of the holy fool I’d like to show how foolishness can be a voluntary choice, and how it can involuntarily become a language of art and, furthermore, an instrument of communication and of transformation. This short analysis can be read in the key of history of performance but also as more general reflection on the role of performing artist.
A holy fool consciously decides to put on the masque of foolishness for the following, mostly spiritual reasons:
— to preserve the secret of his real (saintly) identity
— to separate himself from the affective and material bonds of this world
— to gain the freedom of someone who is “nobody”
— to be humiliated and to conquer his ego (the sin of superbia, pride and arrogance)
— to reach apatheia (the highest level of ascesis (01), Gk. impassability, being dead to the world)
Involuntarily, and at an unconscious level, while choosing the masque of foolishness, such a person leaps into the language of art (the language of foolishness becomes the language of art), for it seems to be the only possible way to follow his inner path, to communicate God in this world.
More pragmatically, the language of theatre becomes an instrument for:
— unmasking the hypocrisy of men
— revealing the false morality of Christian contemporaries
— converting the heretics and the infidels
Metaphysically, a holy fool’s performative language enters in the category of theatre as a tradition of initiation, and becomes an instrument of transformation − of the self and of the world.
The paper is divided in two parts. In the first one I shall introduce the historical figure of the fool for Christ’s sake, and in the second illustrate the main features of his life as an art experience.
2. A FOOL FOR CHRIST'S SAKE (A HISTORICAL FIGURE)
The phenomenon of holy folly is present in different cultures and different historical phases: as a historical figure (Islamic malamatiya); a ritual figure (a ritual clown in the American Indian culture); a mythological figure (a trickster); in Western Christianity (Francis of Assisi, d.1226, for example). However, the holy fool finds its major expressive richness in Eastern Orthodoxy, through the Byzantine salos and the Russian jurodivyj. The Byzantine phenomenon is present from the 4th to the 16th century, and the Russian from the 11th century on. Salos stands for “mad”, while jurodivyj derives from the ancient Russian form урод (urod), whose original meaning is “one who is born with an error”, whether physical or psychological.
At the end of the 3rd century, and even more in the 4th, after Christianity was declared the official religion of the Empire, there was a mass exodus to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. In this historical moment anachoresis (02), i.e. retirement to the desert, reaches its climax. Crowds of people in search of God hide themselves in the desert in order to practice askesis, the spiritual exercise, which consists essentially of isolation, prayer and fasting.
In the desert the monk has the role of “warrior saint”. The ascetic, in fact, passes all his days and nights in battle against demons, against what Evagrius Ponticus called logismoi (03), literally “evil thoughts”. The monk's praktike, that is, the spiritual method of purification of the passionate part of the soul, consists of the analysis of and the fight against these demons. In the Christian tradition “demons” and “diabolis” stand for what literally divides one from the other. Therefore, these thoughts against which the monk struggles become obstacles to the unity of man, to his unity with others, to his union with God: a hindrance to “the total man”.
The demon most difficult to conquer (from Gk., daimon, divine power) for a monk is the sin of pride, which brings into the hermitic life a strong feeling of competition and heroism. In this way, the sin of vainglory, in association with a constant striving for perfection, causes the invention of the most extreme forms of ascesis as the stylites or Pillar-Saints, boskoi or herbivores (ascetics living a savage kind of life, refusing to use fire and eating just spontaneous vegetation), dendrites (living on trees or in concavities in trees), or those who express their excess in self-mortification by burdening their body with chains, as well as the fools for Christ’s sake.
One of the major differences between Christian and other forms of holy foolery is that a Christian holy fool is not a fool regarding God in general, but Christ in particular. This is the exact reason why he is called the fool for Christ's sake or the fool in Christ. The motif, the aim, the example of his folly is the Crucified; his askesis, his way of approaching the God-man, is imitatio Christi.
The gospel of the holy fools, the principle on which their philosophy is based, or as we shall soon see, their theatre, is St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor 4,10-13; 1 Cor 1,18-21) which expresses, essentially, the concept of stultitia crucis and the power of the weak. The holy fool takes Paul's words literally: he feigns foolishness in order to be reviled and despised; he walks around the city naked, hungry and thirsty: he provokes in order to be buffeted, beaten and mistreated; he does everything to be annulled, reduced to nothing, to the “refuse of this world”, “the offscouring of all”. The world of the holy folly is an upside-down world where everything signifies its contrary, foolishness is wisdom, wisdom foolishness; foolishness is the way to be saved, wisdom is void. Paul invites to a total transformation of the mind (04), to a conversion, which is metanoia, a radical new way of conceiving reality.
Symeon of Emesa, Andrew of Constantinople, Isidora Barankis of Egypt are some of the saloi names, St. Procopius of Ustjug, St. Michail of Klopsko, Vasilij the Blessed, John the Hairy, Simon of Jur'evec, Ksenia of St. Petersburg are some of the jurodivye. As this paper provides no space to focus on any of these saints in particular, I shall try to give a short summary of the principal characteristics of the fool in Christ by illustrating an imaginary and exemplary prototype.
The first important passage of the holy fool is the abandonment of the desert. The holy fool abandons the solitary and ascetic life of the desert and leaves for the city, in order to live among other people, to practice the sacra stultitia in direct contact with others. The holy fool sets himself against the world by giving himself up to it. He lives in the city but keeps the desert inside himself. Symeon the Holy Fool said “No, I won't stay, I will go in the power of Christ, I will mock the world”, and this phrase can be considered as a kind of motto of the holy fool. Mocking the world by the holy fool is double and bidirectional.
On the one hand, while wandering about the streets, squares and markets of the city (Constantinople, Emesa, Amida in Byzantium, and later Ustjug, Novgorod, Pskov, Moscow, Saint Petersburg in Russia) he mocks those who are false and hypocritical. By doing what exactly? Disturbing the liturgy by throwing nuts at people, urinating and defecating in public, walking around naked, visiting the ladies' baths, eating meat on Friday, playing with prostitutes, behaving in a strange way, feigning foolishness.
On the other hand, he voluntarily looks for all possible ways to be humiliated and derided by others. The fool in Christ practices, in fact, a radical humiliation, he gives up all material goods, lives like a vagrant and denigrates himself physically and mentally.
The work of a holy fool is still much more complicated. Since he's often a contradictory and paradoxical figure, he is actually a joker, a prophet, a healer, a converter, and a visionary. He can present himself as an idiot, as a moralist or as a shaman able to fly.
3. HOLY FOOL AS A PERFORMER (AN ARTISTIC FIGURE)
Foolishness in Christ is an experience, a life choice, and a philosophy, which reveals itself through the language of performing arts. Therefore, by inserting the holy fool into a theatrical linguistic texture, we can, perhaps, discover him, again as vital and authentic. His artistic experience can be better understood through the following performative features, techniques and modalities:
— Feigning Foolishness (The Fiction)
The fiction enables a holy fool to approach reality and the truth, to ensure himself of a sort of freedom, to guarantee himself extreme humiliation. A holy fool such as Dionysus confuses the borders between fiction and reality, brusquely brings the other world down here to earth, estranges us from ourselves, disorients, introduces an imbalance in man, a loss of control. In society, a holy fool is and has the function of a stranger.
— Imitatio Christi
In the case of the holy fool, the imitatio Christi is not to be understood as a mimetic action in accordance with Aristotle (mimesis praxeos), but as the work of the actor on oneself in accordance with Stanislavski. From the moment in which, by gift or by choice, a man becomes a fool in Christ, this man dedicates all his life to the reviviscence (pereživanie) of his master's life. A fool in Christ, in fact, doesn't want to imitate but to become Christ.
— Via Negativa
The holy fool's motto could be concentrated in an ecstatic conception of selfhood borrowed by Novalis: “I am not insofar as I posit myself, rather insofar as I cancel myself” (05). Hence the subtraction, the cancellation. The paradox is that the more he suppresses himself, the more he expresses himself.
When Grotowski talks about “the poverty of the actor which can be transformed in one form of holiness” (06), it seems as if his words are referring to the fool in Christ: “if he does not exhibit his body, but annihilates it, burns it, frees it from every resistance to any psychic impulse, then he does not sell his body but sacrifices it; he repeats the act of redemption, he approaches the holiness”. (07)
The crucial paradox in the fool of Christ's experience is based on the fact that, in Eastern Orthodox spirituality, the same mortification is centred on “Easter joy”. This “Easter joy”, the fruit of the cross, is however inseparable from death. This is why the word mortification, which is really seldom used in the Orient, is in Symeon the New Theologian followed by a nice qualifying adjective: zoopoios nekroosis, “a mortification which creates life”. (08)
A holy fool as an ascetic lives in vertical tension, which coincides with an elevation of the spirit through practices of fasting and mortification. And yet before this ascending movement, there is an equal and opposite one of a descending nature.
The first movement is of lowering, a kenotic one (from kenosis which means Jesus, a God who became a Man). So: going down, lowering oneself, humiliating oneself, treading the “I am”. The spirituality of a holy fool is, above all, a descendant type of spirituality looking at the ground. The work of a holy fool is generated from the nostalgia of origins, and according to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard “any movement willing to explore the secrets of transformation starts with an involutional process [via negativa].” (09) A descent corresponds to a return, going back to the sources.
This movement brings a holy fool to the ground, to the humid earth, in movement (trembling). Here, in association with the etymon of the words salos and “fool” (the word salós in relation with a word sálos etymologically recalls agitation, rolling, sea waves and the word “fool”, folle, follis of the wind and of movement), we could compare this earth in movement to an earthquake and then to a seaquake, a state of insecuritas. In this ma(d)re-terra (mother-sea-earth) a holy fool experiences free boldness of creativity. It is from here that an ascent can start.
The second movement is an upward movement: to rise, to ascend, to disappear, to go into another world. Through a poietic renewal of life, this climbing movement can bring a radical transformation, which is transitory, a process of theosis (deification). Here, the holy fool evanishes.
— A State Of Insecuritas
The holy fool as an artist is a tragic artist because his whole life is dedicated to the search for the free interior relationship with God, his every act is a revelation of man's answer to God; and God, as the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev writes, accepts a free boldness of creativity from man: “The path to freedom is difficult and tragic, because in reality there is nothing more loaded with responsibility and more heroic and tormenting than this path” (10). Our hero chooses to live in this torment, in this tempest, by simply choosing to live. He lives by dying for himself every day, assuring the vitality of his own I in this way. One who lives is in a situation of insecuritas.
— Perennial Liminality
A holy fool is always on the edge. His liminality is perennial. His style is characterized by a continuous coming and going (Ernst Benz). He's a disturbed disturber, an agitated agitator. We could say he's a ritual figure outside the ritual. With his action he makes chaos break into the cosmos, disorder into the order. The Polish philosopher Cezary Wodzin´sky characterized the church courtyard very well as the ideal place of a holy fool: the limit between in and out, sacred and profane, ecclesiastic and pagan culture, night and day. At nights he disappears, nobody knows where he goes, probably he hides himself in order to pray peacefully. During the day he reappears and animates his theatre. His day is action and scene, a contact with society: theatre as performance (result, production). His night is prayer, a contact with oneself and with God: theatre as research (the process). The holy fool is always on the edge between being and not being. During the day he disappears in a fiction, in the ostentation of folly; he vanishes outside himself. At nights, he disappears in meditation, in prayer; he vanishes inside himself.
— Iconic Theatre
The fool in Christ operates in the collective imaginary on two levels, through action (gesture or word) and through an image (icon).
In the “action modality” a performer is active and a work is directed voluntarily towards the outside. He acts from close-up, in an intimate relation with the other (he says or does something unusual addressing a particular individual). He operates in the mental sphere of the spectator-participant, trying to open a cut in his vision of the world, a cut which should invite him to look at reality in a new and different way.
In the “image modality” a performer is passive and the work, prevalently interior, reaches the expression involuntarily. He acts from a distance. He presents himself as an image. The mute and suffering body of the holy fool is, in fact, a mysterious presence, a sort of living icon where the whole body of the saint can be contemplated as a face (lico), or better still as a divine representation (lik), according to the Russian philosopher Pavel Florenski. In the “image modality” a performer relates especially with the emotional and ontological sphere of a spectator-passer by.
We could call this aspect of holy folly theatre, connected essentially to the image, “iconic theatre”. In “iconic theatre” − similarly as in body art − a holy fool is both an object and a subject: an icon and a painter of the icon. His transfigured and deified body becomes what Antonin Artaud called a body-sign, or according to Florensky, the body of the holy fool, transfixed by a divine look, becomes itself this look (devine representation).
— A Witness
A holy fool as a saintly creature is a “visible witness of the invisible world” (11), a holy fool as an artist (a painter of icons or a painter of himself, the actor that is) is a “witness of witnesses”, in fact “painters of icons testify not just of their own art as icons, that not of themselves, but of the saintly witnesses of the Lord, and together with them of the Lord himself”. (12) Florensky affirms that whoever encounters a “witness of Christ's work” (13) can have the grace of “seeing with his own eyes, in this divine representation, at least a germ of the transfiguration of a face”(14). Jerzy Grotowski says something similar when he talks about the phenomenon of induction, which occurs in the spectator-witness watching the doer’s (15) work: he can experiment, on a reduced scale, the effects lived by the actor in the process.
4. AN IMAGE INSTEAD OF A CONCLUSION
It is interesting that some holy fools decided to hide their real identity as saints by acting as mimes or actors. In this way, since the category of performer was considered in Byzantium to belong to the lowest social range, they were sure that their secret would be maintained and that their ego, together with their body, would be radically mistreated and humiliated. There is so much that the practices of being on-stage, exhibiting oneself in front of an audience and a monk’s practice of humiliation, the battle against the demon of superbia, actually have in common.
The figure of holy fool can be pictured in the form of the medieval travelling actor Jof from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, or of the jester whose tongue was cut out, as punishment and as show, in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublëv. Both of these medieval performers practice their faith immersed in a life full of extreme vitality and radical humiliation. Their bodies become body-signs, divine representations for spectators of an iconic theatre.
01 Ascesis, from the Greek askesis, from askein, to exercise.
02 Anachoresis, from the Greek anachorein, to withdraw.
03 The eight logismoi are gluttony, lust, greed, sadness, acedia, anger, vainglory, and pride.
04 Rm 12,2: "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
05 Ich bin nicht inwiefern ich mich setze, sondern inwiefern ich mich aufhebe.
06 Grotowski, J., Il nuovo testamento del teatro, interview to Jerzy Grotowski by Eugenio Barba, in Grotowski, J., Per un teatro povero [Towards a Poor Theatre], Roma: Bulzoni, 1970, p. 42.
08 Spidlík, T., La spiritualità dell’Oriente cristiano. Manuale, San Paolo, Milano, 1995, p. 172.
09 Bachelard, G., La Terre et les rêveries du repos, Corti, Par¬is, 1948, p. 5; cit. in G. Durand, Le strutture antropologiche dell'immaginario. Introduzione all'archetipologia generale [Les structures anthropologiques de l'Imaginaire], Bari: Dedalo, 1972, p. 202.
10 Berdyaev, N., Il senso della storia [Smysl istorii], Jaca Book, 1971, pp. 158-159; 169-171; cit. in Lingua, G., La storia e le forme della fine [History and forms of the end], cit., p. 127.
11 Florenskij, P., Le porte regali [Ikonostas], Milano: Adelphi, 1977, p. 54.
12 Ivi., p. 64.
13 Ivi., p. 50.
15 Performer and doer are terms which Grotowski uses to replace the term actor, in the latest stage of his work (Art as vehicle), when he no longer talks about theatre, but instead, performing arts.