The Irving Sandler Essay Series
Edited by Alexander Nagel
This essay series, generously supported by Scott Lynn, is named in honor of the art historian and critic Irving Sandler, whose broad spirit was epitomized in the question we would ask, with searching eyes, whenever he met someone or saw someone again: what are you thinking about? A space apart from the press of current events, the Sandler Essay invites artists and writers to reflect on what matters to them now, whether it is current or not, giving a chance for an “oblique contemporary” to come in view.
When did you last make a fool of yourself? When did someone make a fool out of you? Can you act a fool on purpose, or do foolishness and self-consciousness cancel one another out? If what they say is true—that everybody plays the fool sometime—then who or what are you a fool for?
It’s been years since I began to fret about my relationship to foolishness, the relationship between foolishness and art. As a student, I began to seriously study the writing and scholarship of Dr. Huey P. Newton. In Revolutionary Suicide, the Black Panther Party activist and scholar argues that pretending to thrive in the face of oppression is a form of suicide. The short lives and premature deaths of the oppressed are a form of murder at the hands of the state, he says, and submitting to oppression is not living, but is in fact allowing yourself to be killed, slowly or quickly, of a heart attack or an infection or poverty or poor health or accident or homicide, dramatically or in a manner that is barely registered at all—all of these are allowing yourself to be murdered at the hands of the oppressor. He suggests that instead of dying in vain, Black Americans should instead dedicate their lives and their deaths to that cause that might “lead to change in those social and political conditions that are literally killing them.”
Newton wrote, “There is an old African saying, ‘I am we.’ If you met an African in ancient times and asked him who he was, he would reply, ‘I am we.’
He wrote: “This is revolutionary suicide: I, we, all of us are the one and the multitude.”
He wrote: “By hoping and desiring, the revolutionary suicide chooses life; he is, in the words of Nietzsche, ‘an arrow of longing for another shore.’”
He wrote that “the revolutionary suicide is a ‘fool,’ a fool for the revolution in the way that Paul meant when he spoke of being ‘a fool for Christ.’ That foolishness can move the mountain of oppression; it is our great leap and our commitment to the dead and the unborn.”1
A fool for the revolution—so reckless, so romantic! It was as if he grabbed my hand and tugged me toward the edge of a cliff.
What did I know of foolishness before Newton? Growing up, when my little brother strutted around the house barking “I pity the fool!”, I knew better than to get in his way. Pop songs like “Everybody Plays the Fool” (Aaron Neville’s huge biceps, his tender contradictions) and the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” (summoning the holy trilogy: reason, faith, and foolishness) suggested that foolishness is benign rather than revolutionary. Meanwhile, my father sometimes described people on TV, especially from the other political parties, as foolish. I understood that fools might be good people who made poor, albeit optimistic, choices: to get in the ring with Mr. T as though you had a chance to win, to stay tethered to someone who clearly does not love you back, to prioritize the wrong interests, to confuse what is necessary with what is good. Fools were not warriors; more often, they were the ones who got beat.
Now, Newton offered a revision: we’re all getting beat, he argued, whether we know it or not. That’s what happens when the system is rigged; we’re puppets, getting played. Foolishness is not a hopeful error, but rather a tool that can be intentionally deployed toward specifically political ends. But what kind of tool is foolishness? Is it a role that one can learn, or perhaps a role to unlearn? An orientation or attitude? Something you feel, rather than think?
I began to wonder, then worry: is there enough political feeling in me? Have I been thinking too hard? Even worse: trying too hard? Is foolishness something I can work at, or does one have to ease into it, unwind into it? Should I be looking for protest as ease rather than effort? If you’re unwinding, unlearning, are you already too late, ruined for foolishness, the way that innocence lost can never be regained? If I am ruined, how will I know? Or is all this talk of foolishness a trap, an easy way out of the hard work of getting and staying smart?
The word fool emerges from roots that mean “wind” and “bag,” concepts linked through a specific object: the blacksmith’s bellows, a device that was independently invented around the world to continuously push air into a fire. In the beginning, this air was supplied by human lungs; child apprentices were forced to literally blow air from their bodies to preserve the temperature (high) and consistency (stable) of the flame. Which means that foolishness is deeply linked to speech via the figure of the windbag, the person who talks meaninglessly, endlessly.
The bellows points us to another dimension of the word “fool”: the curious way that foolishness is tied to automation and animation. Imagine being employed to emit air, continuously, in proximity to a fire. To be a literal converter or transformer sacrificing breath for heat. To be an actual human ventilator. In this way, the idea of foolishness points to the reflexive, the automatic dimensions of human life. Perhaps that explains why the fool, as figure, is often described as natural and simple, yet exuberant and excessive. That excess is machinic, machinic in the sense of being uncontrollable (to be a “fool for love,” to be a “dancing fool”), continuous, never-ending.
I test the words, try them out: I am a bag of blood, a sack of flesh, a wind machine, a drone, a droid, a bellows, a valve, a compression, an expansion, a continuous draft, not clever enough, immoderate, unreasonable, foolish. I am a fool?
* * *
Lorraine Hansberry, playwright and Black liberation activist, kept a photograph of Michelangelo’s David, an image of Einstein, and a picture of Paul Robeson near her desk to inspire the highest possible aesthetic ideals in her own work. But in a self-portrait, the androgynous figure is not standing but slumping, not serious but smiling (almost smirking!), her top shaded in the unmistakable diamond pattern of the Harlequin, the theatrical garment of the clown since at least 1600. The first Black woman to author a Broadway play, the woman who challenged Robert F. Kennedy and parried with Studs Terkel, the Marxist and pacifist activist, a jester? In the introduction to her posthumous autobiography, Hansberry’s ex-husband Robert B. Nemiroff explained:
She surrounded herself with clowns. Clown knickknacks, figurines, doo-dads and comic ‘get well quick’ cards. Clown motif pillows, the clowns of Picasso’s blue period, her own oil painting of a clown. Clowns and the comic ‘little folk,’ grotesques, trolls, nebishes and shmoos that so tickled her. She considered herself one of these, the little people, the odd-balls, the hapless funny ones.2
Nemiroff suggests that perhaps Hansberry’s interest in clown figures emerged as counterpoint to the high expectations she placed upon herself, a reminder “of her own ultimate insignificance in the cosmos.” But when I saw the image, I thought immediately of the way that Black vernacular culture often frames foolishness in a kind of dialectical relation to formal learning.
Now you take these young folks, that goes to high school
They sometimes really do act the fool.
—Scrapper Blackwell, “Be-Da-Da-Bum,” 19293
The clown is a reminder, not of your cosmic insignificance, but rather of the powerful (affirmative) significance of knowledge that has nothing to do with Michelangelo or Einstein, the learning that doesn’t come from books. In my family, “clowning” and “fooling” have different valences (fooling can be sexual, for example, whereas clowning usually is not), but the two are related. Because you can be educated but not have no sense. Because you can think you smart, but still make foolish decisions. And because wisdom, true wisdom, comes from humility.
I am thinking of Paul the Christian, Newton’s Paul, the Paul who wrote “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Paul wrote: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
He wrote: “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
To be a fool: to reject “plausible words” in favor of “demonstration,” to reject fancy rhetoric in favor of simple gesture (and Paul may have meant “demonstration” literally; this passage is often used as Biblical justification for theater and pantomime in church service).
To be a fool: because wisdom is the domain of the earth and foolishness is the domain of the spirit.
I am thinking, now, of Hansberry’s famous speech at New York City’s Town Hall in 1964, published as “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash.”4 The issue that prompted the event was a proposed civil rights “stall-in”—an intentional traffic jam—but Hansberry used the occasion to defend all political protests that interrupt life as usual, including protests that create chaos, armed protests, maybe even riots. “It isn’t as if we got up today and said, you know, ‘what can we do to irritate America?’” she said. “It’s because that since 1619, Negroes have tried every method of communication, of transformation of their situation from petition to the vote, everything. We’ve tried it all. There isn’t anything that hasn’t been exhausted.”
Maybe riots can demonstrate where rhetoric can merely describe. Maybe foolishness, the consistent and persistent expulsion of breath, is something like a long, long sigh, a form of exhaust.
Hansberry’s self-portrait echoes or is echoed by an image that contemporary painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye has returned to again and again: an enigmatic Black man in an exaggerated collar. The works have titles like Siskin (2012), Bird of Reason (2009), Skylark (2010), Wren (2011), Blackcap (2015), and First Flight (2015). The collars, called ruffs, were common at the turn of the seventeenth century; today, we commonly associate them with clowns. To ruff is to trump, to triumph in a game, to mock, to turn around, to act the fool. I think of clowns as bumbling, heavy, close to the ground. But the men in the paintings are birdlike, elegant, ethereal. A ruff is, after all, a type of frill resembling feathers.
The more I look, the more critical foolishness I find: in the writing of Percival Everett (“‘Fool, where I be right now?’ she ax.”) and the clowns of Atlanta’s UniverSoul Circus. In the poems of Langston Hughes (“I am the fool of the whole world. … Only in song and laughter / I rise again—a black clown”) and the novels of Richard Wright (“Had his will to believe in a new picture of the world made him act a fool and thoughtlessly pile horror upon horror?”). In the songs of Jay-Z (“Motherfuckers say that I’m foolish, I only talk about jewels (Bling-bling) / Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it? / See, I’m influenced by the ghetto you ruined”) and Frank Ocean (“But when I’m drunk I act a fool / Talking ’bout, do they sew wings on tailored suits?”)
I try the words on for size: I stall, I gunk things up, I make exhaust, I try it all, I frill, I ruff, I triumph, we’ve tried it all, there isn’t anything that hasn’t been exhausted, I run on fumes, I produce exhaust. I am a fool?
* * *
“This music! How can you resist it?” the white woman says with a wild look in her eye, staring at Alwina (Josephine Baker) as if casting a spell, except that she is also staring as if Alwina represents the key to her own liberation, as if she is already bewitched. Dance, the woman says. It will be just like it was the other night. Dance. Dance, dance, dance! And Alwina pulls off her tiara as if possessed and leaps onto the stage. She throws her heels into the audience, tears off her own sequined dress, and, liberated, begins to gyrate and hop and shake. The cuts are rapid, disorienting, all elbows and angles. She throws her head to the left. She throws it to the right. She throws it back. It is as if she is gesturing: Yes. No. Yes.
In Princess Tam Tam (1935), directed by Edmond T. Gréville, Josephine Baker performs as a dancing fool, a paradox, simultaneously easily manipulated and impossible to control. “Fool,” here, doesn’t refer to skill or lack thereof, but simply devotion.
Of Baker, they said: “Was she horrible, delicious? Black, white? … Woman, other? … Dancer, fugitive?”5
They said “walking backwards on hands and feet, legs and arms stiff … a creature neither infrahuman nor superhuman but somehow both: a mysterious unkillable Something, equally non-primitive and uncivilized, or beyond time in the sense that emotion is beyond arithmetic.”6
I have begun to think about the way that to “get played” is to be a fool: a puppet, not pulling your own strings. There is a way in which being pulled is negative—being a puppet, being vacant, being controlled by another soul—and there is another way in which being pulled might actually be understood as positive. It is a kind of radical limberness or flexibility or openness. Indeed, the word flexibility has become important to the way I think about foolishness as a tool.
In an eerily contemporary essay from 1810, German writer Heinrich von Kleist suggests that puppets move in a manner truer than any human. Since Adam, he argues, humans have been cursed by self-consciousness, which prevents natural expression. Evoking marionette dancers, Kleist suggests that grace “appears most purely in that form of the human body that has either absolutely none, or infinite consciousness; that is to say, either in the form of a manikin, or a god.”
The way we use the word “play” to describe the experience of controlling and being controlled. Don’t play with me. She played him. I got played. Play on, playa.
The way that “to play” also means “to act,” as in: to allow your body to be the body for another soul.
The way gunshots fragment the whole body into parts. (Ross Gay’s poem “Marionette” evokes the final moments of the life of Amadou Diallo, a student shot forty-one times by four police officers: “The few strings snap and pull / the doll’s flimsy limbs for his last / ballet.”)
The way Josephine Baker started as a “funny girl;” the way that her body was later described as “legs going every which way” and “part child, part simian, part puppet on neurotic strings; then she retreated.”
The fact that she retreated; the way that she retreated; the feeling of retreat.
To run. To exhaust. To stop running. To stall. To ventilate. To blow. To exhaust. To retreat. To exhaust. To bellow. To keep the light. To keep the heat. To exhaust.
* * *
Ain’t no light a-burnin’ ev’ry night for me;
I’m like a bird that’s flyin’ free.
I’m just breezin’ along with the breeze,
Exhaustion’s opposite and sweet relief: rest. I read that “rest” was originally a measure of distance, like a mile or a league or an ocean; more specifically, a rest was once the distance from one sleep to another. One dictionary says that the origin of the word “rest” is unknown; perhaps, the writer speculates, it dates to the nomadic period.
If rest is a length or a span from one sleep to another, how would I define my own? Start with the length of a breath, the volume of my lungs, the stretch of my stretched body, but also the length of my step when I tiptoe. What is the distance I can travel on a single tank? It could be the span I can travel in a day, or in a week, or in a month, or in my lifetime, because this is the length of travel since I rested, until I rest.
I am afflicted with the disease of restlessness and I believe there is no cure. (Perhaps all dis-ease is a kind of restlessness.) I am unwreckable; I am reckless. Restlessness as state; foolishness as methodology.
“I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I performed, I just want them to be to pieces. I want to go in that den of those elegant people with their old ideas, smugness, and just drive them insane.” Nina Simone said. To drive elegant people “to pieces”: this is a kind of recklessness that is a fragmenting—no, an undoing—no, a de-doing, a reversal, what they call in my dance classes a retrograde or unwinding. A release.
I dream of a radical retrograde, a radical reversal, a radical unwinding and I wonder how to get there, to recklessness for the revolution. Can you unwind on purpose, I ask again, or do you have to let yourself fall out of it?
Nina said, “I talk a lot, and I don’t give a damn.”8 I talk a lot. I am still talking. I am a wind bag. Like a machine, I exhaust. I don’t give a damn. I don’t give anything at all. I reserve. I am a fool.
- Huey P. Newton, “I am we,” in Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2009.)
- Lorraine Hansberry, Robert Nemiroff, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, (New York: Vintage Books, 1995.)
- Francis Hillman “Scrapper” Blackwell, “Be-Da-Da-Bum.” https://genius.com/Scrapper-blackwell-be-da-da-bum-lyrics
- Lorraine Hansberry, “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash." Forum at Town Hall sponsored by The Association of Artists for Freedom. New York City. June 15, 1964. Published in: Say It Loud!: Great Speeches on Civil Rights and African American Identity. Catherine Ellis, Stephen Drury Smith. (The New Press, 2010).
- Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
- E.E. Cummings "Vive la Folie!" in E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. (New York: October House Inc., 1965. Originally published in Vanity Fair, 1926)
- Josephine Baker, “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze.” https://genius.com/Josephine-baker-breezin-along-with-the-breeze-lyrics
- Nina Simone, Nina Simone: Live at Montreux 1976 (Eagle Rock Entertainment, September 19, 2006). Quoted in Christopher Freeburg, Black Aesthetics and the Interior Life. (University of Virginia Press, 2017).