USE of the term “Holy Fool”, meaning blissfully distracted by devotion to God, began in fifth century Russia as a mostly female tradition of worship, the yurodivy. Ideas on what the word “God” means and what constitutes devotion have changed since then—Holiness needn’t mean Piousness anymore, Foolishness needn’t mean Comedy purely—and these days, the same term connotes an archetype in human psychology and artistic expression. Besides unnatural innocence and seeming invulnerability to most things, the Holy Fool is characterized by extreme dedication to an objective, real or not, and acting on his or her impulses without concern for laws or taste.
I’m not a member of any specific religious creed, and first encountered the term in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Franny tells her boyfriend, Lane Meyer, about a book she’s come across, written by a Russian mystic who claims to have mastered the art of constant prayer through deliberate repetition until it became autonmatic. Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a senile old man who believes he’s a knight embarks on a self-made crusade against dragons disguised as windmills, is another holy fool from literatrure. So is the nameless hero of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, an unsuccessful freelance writer who refuses to eat anything not paid for by sale of writing, starves and has hunger-induced hallucinations and states of epiphany, and, in the final scene, boards a ship bound for unknown ports in a miraculous last minute escape from his own failed experiment. So is Charles Bukowski’s fictional ambassador, Henry Chinaski, who’d rather stay happily drunk in solitude and bet on horses than play by others’ rules, and found a way to make that work by the time he died.
I was hosting a discussion group on the Holy Fool and someone left this comment on the event page: ”The true Holy Fool can’t exist in today’s zeitgeist because of the values of engagement with the world we have been brought to.” His comment stayed with me. Was there any room left for the holy fool in today’s zeitgeist? Or had the intermet made us all into holy fools by locking us in echo chambers of our own preferences?
Times have certainly changed. Hamsun’s Hunger is a burlesque of tragedy, playing on the reader’s acceptance that fame as a writer is a worthy pursuit, and the world as it is unwelcoming to art, with a hunger strike against God or fate as its central joke. Moderns might see it as tragedy only, thinking, “Why doesn’t he just get another job?” Because of the values we’ve been brought to.
Holy Fools can be positive or negative in effect and influence, both on themselves, and others.
A great Holy Fool from the rock’n’roll world is Jonathan Richman, who reached the precipice of rock star fame as a very young man with his band, the Modern Lovers—including future Cars and Talking Heads members—and decided to go in the other direction and write songs for children as his next step, evolving over the years into an able, nuanced musician with a dedicated following, including your laughing author. Surely people tried to talk him out of it. Jonathan, why are you so different? But he was following another lead, which ultimately led him to 2019’s “raga-inspired” release, SA.
More Holy fools from the musical world: jazz great Sun Ra was a Holy Fool whose music and stage presence were intended as instruction to the people of Earth from another dimension. Producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, who burned down his studio to banish evil spirits, and came up with lyrics by free associating to totem objects like comic book pages placed around the room he was recording in, is a Holy Fool.
I can’t claim art world knowledge, but Andy Warhol comes to mind as a Holy Fool, making art from soup cans and prints of colorized photographs. I hear Jackson Pollack was funded by the CIA to inculcate and promote his seemingly intutive unformulated style, which in itself might qualify as the act of a Holy Fool, depending on who’s doing the judging. We could even say the game of art itself is Holy Foolishness, just for wanting to “make something out of clay” aka more than what there is.
In politics, Donald Trump is a perfect example of today’s Holy Fool for overriding convention and turning the whole business into a giant reality show. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a sympathizer, just watching the whole game unfold.
The Holy Fool has appeared as an archetype in film since the very beginning, long before Charlie Chaolin’s “Little Tramp”.
Inspector Clouseau, played by Peter Sellers is characterized by an unnatural innocence and a seeming immunity to all the worst consequences of his folly. Sellers’ played another version of this archetype, Chance, the gardener, who walks away across a lake at the end of the movie since he doesn’t know he can’t in the film version of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There.
The Holy Fool is always an anti-hero because of this formal detachment from consensus.
In the Australian film, Bad Boy Bubby, parts of which mirror Hunger’s narrative, a grown man comes to terms with modern life and every major human existential theme – sex, love, the God-concept, and so on – after years of isolation.
In one scene, transfixed by the sound of organ music from a church he’s walking past, he steps inside, and is so moved, he comments, at the end, “Jesus can see everything I do. And he’s gonna beat me brainless,” from phrases he’s heard in the past, to express his sweet sorrow. The organist, a conflicted priest, tells him he’s right to take issue with God, to say, “Fuck you, God. I dare you to strike me down.”
Bubby walks through town repeating this phrase until, arguably, God does strike him down, in the form of a gang of women he accosts walking up the same narrow staircase they’re descending and saying, “Hello.” The women trample him and, in effect, batter his brains out in their rightful effort to flee his ill-conceived approach.
Perhaps R2D2 is the Holy Fool in Star Wars, never saying anything intelligible, and subject to saving the day with the hidden resources stored inside.
Despite the first Holy Fools having been mostly or entirely female, despite women having inspired the whole thing, female Holy Fools in modern art of any type are usually denied the same degree of implied forgiveness granted their male counterparts, their stories instead existing as moralistic lessons of how not to destroy oneself, or how to go out in a glorious blaze of bittersweetness.
In Lars von Triers’s Breaking the Waves, the heroine, Bess McNeil falls so deeply in love the compulsion drives her to her death. Her husband becomes paralyzed and asks her to seek out sexual connections as she can then relate them to him in place of having sex themselves. Bess is a Holy Fool, driven to an unpleasant end by addiction to passion for sake of love.
At the end of the film, Thelma and Louise, the two characters hold hands and drive off the edge of a cliff deliberately together, preferring death (full of possibility, because it’s unknown) to life (certainty).
Both scenarios bespeak the same dislocation, away from consensus.
Both types of female holy fools detailed above share a theme of willful diversion from linear thought, but the choice is made deliberately in the second case—making it a more hopeful example, potentially, but an object lesson requiring the sacrifice of its protagonist.
Unlike the nameless star of Hamsun’s Hunger—who sails off without a care at the end of his own failed experiment—or another lucky joker out of Hamsun, Johan Nilsen Nagel, from a book he wrote called Mysteries—an unknown madman appearing in a small town, who becomes involved intimately in the doings of several townspeople by virtue of their fascination with him, then diving into the sea “like a lightning bolt” in the final scene, leaving everything unresolved and nothing lacking.