Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools, German woodcut, 1549

While sitting with friends the other day, I heard a woman describe her extended family as “all about issues.”  At holidays and picnics, arguments erupt over politics, gender, economics, and all the social concerns du jour – right-to-life vs. right-to-choose, and who can and should get married.  The woman shook her head and said, “I think I want to live a life without issues.”

That phrase really clicked with me, and the more I thought about it, the more it explained certain “issue oriented” posts that I started recently but never finished.  I’d wondered if it was summer laziness, or if I needed a break from blogging, but no – I saw it in a flash – I need a break from issues!  Not an ostrich move, but an issue fast.

A voice in my head objected – “But…but…but…now that the presidential race is really on, aren’t these issues more important than ever?  Doesn’t the future of the Republic and who knows what else hang in the balance?”  One thought led to another, and the phrase, “ship of fools” came to mind.   I found myself humming The Grateful Dead’s, “Ship of Fools.”  I cranked it up when I got home and logged in to explore the theme.  What follows is just a hint of the history of the image and its vast metaphoric possibilities.

And yes, there’s a nice Grateful Dead clip at the end of the post you can listen to while you read…

Hieronymus Bosh, “Ship of Fools,” c. 1490-1500, detail

Wikipedia says, “The ship of fools is an allegory that has long been a fixture in Western literature and art. The allegory depicts a vessel populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction.

It’s surprising that the Ship of Fools/Ship of State analogy has yet to be picked up this year, with its “deranged, frivolous, or oblivious passengers,” but there’s more than allegory bound up with the phrase.  The same Wikipedia entry details the origin of the image:

“Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then ‘knew’, had an affinity for each other. Thus, ‘Ship of Fools’ crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors.” – Jose Barchilon’s introduction to Madness and Civilization, by Michel Foucault.

On the literal level, this “delightful, yet horrible” custom is not entirely a thing of the past.  We can think of New York City in 2009, with it’s offer to homeless people of free one-way tickets to anywhere else.  The same thing happens here, when overworked neighboring social service agencies “dump” their homeless in Sacramento county.

As an imaginal image, The Fool still evokes powerful responses of fear and fascination in the Western psyche.  The Fool is the first card of the Major Arcana in the Tarot, evoking “beginner’s mind,” that mix of wisdom and naiveté with which we begin the spiritual path, or depending on your belief system, each new incarnation in the world (or both).

From his studies of Irish folklore, Yeats learned that among the fairies, the Queen and the Fool each share tremendous power.  A mortal may survive a “stroke” given by one of the other fairies, but nothing in heaven or earth can save you if you get on the wrong side of the Fool or the Queen.

While Europeans consigned them to ships, and later to institutions like Bedlam, some native American tribes considered their “fools” as sacred, for they had clearly been touched by the spirits.  I’m reminded of Theodore Roethke’s poem, In a Dark Time, when he says, “What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?”

The image of the Ship of Fools turns up in movies, music and books, most recently in Ship of Fools, 2009, by Fintan O’Toole, an Irish journalist who uses the metaphor to describe “the Irish political establishment and their self-deception regarding the economic situation in the country.”

This wanders into dangerous territory for someone on an issue-fast – it cuts too close to certain Americans seeking office – “deranged, frivolous, or oblivious passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction.”

So let’s adjourn to the Grateful Dead!  “Ship of Fools,” by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, was first performed in 1974.  Here is an excellent clip from the 1989 summer solstice show at Shoreline Amphitheater.  Enjoy!

Went to see the captain
strangest I could find
Laid my proposition down
Laid it on the line;
I won’t slave for beggar’s pay
likewise gold and jewels
but I would slave to learn the way
to sink your ship of fools.