April, wrote TS Eliot in “The Waste Land”, is the cruellest month and (while I realise this was not exactly what he was getting at) for a month to start with a day officially dedicated to cruelly pranking one another, I’m inclined to agree. What on earth is it all about?
APRIL FOOL’S DAY
It seems there is no consensus as to the origin of April Fool’s Day. Parts of Europe have been celebrating the first of April since the 1500s, though here it was often referred to as April Fish Day, a reference, perhaps, to the abundance of fish in French streams at around this time of year, which made them easy to catch. Ah, foolish fish! This at least provides one plausible reason why chocolate fish are still given as gifts in some parts of Europe and paper fish can get attached to someone’s back as a playful trick (not exactly LOL territory admittedly). Mind you, there are worse things to have pinned to you, as anyone who has ever watched The Simpsons will know. Oh Bart, you prankster: every day is April Fool’s for you.
And it’s not just Bart Simpson who enjoys a good prank. Who among you hasn’t been sucked in to watching TV’s Impractical Jokers even though, on an intellectual level, the premise of the programme is simply awful?
THE GREAT JOKERS IN LITERATURE
Pranks and pranksters litter literature too, driving stories for centuries, as any Google search at this time of year will show you. Take Shakespeare’s Puck in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”: a wonderfully mischievous fairy who delights in pranking mortals. He manages to transform the character of Bottom so that the poor man unknowingly sports the head of a donkey for much of the play. Scratching at his cheeks Bottom innocently declares: “I must to the barber’s monsieur; for methinks I am marvellous hairy about the face; and I am such a tender ass, if my hair do but tickle me, I must scratch.” This was about the only quote I learned from that play and it has stayed with me ever since for its sheer comedic value. Not that you will be able to crib it for an exam, I am merely proving that I did actually read it!
Pranksters in more modern literature include such memorable characters as the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter books and the spirited Alaska Young in John Green’s “Looking for Alaska”. (Any prank that involves inviting a male stripper to your school is worth a read, if you ask me.) And let’s not forget those hateful teen pranksters in Stephen King’s 1974 novel “Carrie”, throwing tampons at the misfit Carrie White or dumping a bucket of pig’s blood over her at the school prom. There’s nothing remotely funny about their relentless and cruel bullying but at least as Carrie develops her telekinetic powers, she is able to exact her revenge upon them and they do indeed get their just desserts, which in this (rather extreme) case is death! Perhaps the moral here is: if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.
Given that most of us don’t possess Carrie’s supernatural powers, pay-back is often not so sweet, which may be one of many reasons why I am not a fan of the practical joke. So let us shift our gaze away from the joker and back to the more traditional fool.
FOOLS THROUGH THE AGES
The fool as a jester or a comic dates back to Egyptian times when they were employed to entertain the pharaohs. The ancient Romans too were fond of their jesters and these roguish story-tellers can be found throughout history ‘rushing in’ to many a royal English court, lampooning the wealthy and noble patrons there, yesteryear’s stand-up comedian in fact. As well as performing songs, slapstick and satire, these ‘licenced fools’ often got away with saying and doing things that others would never have dared, all in the name of a good laugh.
Shakespeare’s fools often voiced the truth when no one else could see it and were sometimes wiser than their masters. Take King Lear’s companion, ‘Fool’, for instance. He always had his master’s best interest at heart and was there to protect him once Cordelia (the good daughter) was rather stupidly banished from the kingdom by her increasingly stupid dad, leaving him to the mercy of the (not-so-good) other daughters, Regan and Goneril. Ironically, it is The Fool who highlights the King’s own foolish behaviour, but the King fails to see the folly in his ways, not least because he pokes his own eye out with a stick so has trouble seeing anything! And this leads me to enjoy another great, but absolutely useless, quote: “Out vile jelly, where is thy lustre now?” (No wonder I didn’t do better at A’Level Lit!)
So there’s more to being a fool than just being an idiot. Ray Bradbury’s character Clemens says in the short story “No Particular Night or Morning” from The Illustrated Man collection: “We are all fools all the time. It’s just we’re a different kind each day”. And it’s okay to be a bit foolish every now and then. As Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (author of the 1944 novella Gigi) said: “You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.” (TV’s The Science of Stupid anybody?) It’s good to remember we can all fall flat on our faces every once in a while. The important thing is to get back up again.
THIS PERFECT WORLD OF OURS
And maybe that’s the trouble. In this angst-ridden age of perfectly curated instagram images, it’s easy to believe that everyone else on this ‘great stage of fools’ (to quote Shakespeare again) is perfect or at the very least so much better than us–richer, more successful, better-connected, more beautiful and there’s nothing like believing this to stymie your own sense of risk and adventure.
As any Mindfulness practitioner will tell you, it’s imperative to be kind to yourself and forgive your own shortcomings. Allow yourself the space to be less than perfect, to get something wrong, to try and fail. That doesn’t make you a fool. That makes you someone who is growing all of the time, not living in fear. Remember, Ray Bradbury had it right and it’s the same for all of us. We as human beings are far from perfect, despite what some of those social media images would have you believe.
But if you are afraid to put yourself out there, to stretch yourself once in a while, to risk looking foolish, then you are worse than a fool: you’re an idiot only living half your life. So I say: be brave. Embrace your inner fool. It is the month after all.
What risks have you taken of late?