Fools Rush In
In the first essay of his collection The Ecstasy of Being, “The Jubilee of Content and Form,” Joseph Campbell writes that after fairy tales and folklore were shoved to the wayside in favor of “modern, scientifically-grounded disbelief” that “the great problem of the artist became that of coping significantly with the materials of the world of common day.” (16) Campbell then highlights the job of the collective subconscious in giving mythological visions relationships to these contemporary materials:
Mythology, in other words, is not an outmoded quaintness of the past, but a living complex of archetypal, dynamic images, native to, and eloquent of, some constant, fundamental stratum of the human psyche… While our educated, modern waking-consciousness has been going forward on the wings and wheels of progress, this recalcitrant, dream-creating, wish-creating under-consciousness has been holding to its primeval companions all the time, the demons and the gods. (18)
Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven (now also an HBO Max series of the same name) shows the work of both load-bearing archetypes and industrious artists under extreme duress. The post-apocalyptic story centers on the bravest survivors of a devastating pandemic: The Traveling Symphony, a group of Shakespearean actors and classical musicians making their life on the road.
Why Shakespeare? “People want what was best about the world,” an actor explains in the novel. (Station Eleven 38) In the series, a line echoes across various characters’ voiceover monologues, before and after the plague: I remember damage.
Kirsten Raymonde is eight years old the night the pandemic reaches Toronto. The airborne, flu-like illness kills rapidly— within 24 hours—and indiscriminately. Kirsten is performing a bit part in a production of King Lear, which features a famous film actor in the titular role who drops dead on stage mid-madness.
Twenty years after disease decimates the world’s population, we rejoin Kirsten. She’s with The Traveling Symphony, running lines from Lear with another actor, preparing for a performance.
The Symphony moves through a dystopian landscape, stopping in the various settlements that pass for towns on and near Lake Michigan and completing a full tour of the area once a year. At a time when most survivors are attempting to send their roots deep into the rocky ground to claim some normalcy, the Symphony stops only for a night or two before moving their show to the next outpost.
The roads are dangerous: the troupe navigates fire and bandits, landmines and cultists. While towns can be fortified, the Symphony’s horse-drawn caravans are a constant potential target. A line from the series captures the tension in an exchange between Kirsten and Katrina, an older woman settled fairly comfortably at what was once a country club, when the latter makes an awed comment about the Symphony’s apparent lack of fear.
“We’re artists,” responds Kirsten. “We’re terrified.”
It’s a great line, and to my added delight it’s in the episode called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Aren’t Dead.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Fools of Hamlet who offer goofball fodder but don’t survive Act V, make a similarly treacherous voyage to reach Elsinore Castle. Tom Stoppard shows us their trek in his absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966). Stoppard shifts full focus to the clowns and finds, amid the comedy, a font of surprisingly heady philosophical questions, most which are presented without any attempted answer, curiosities unto themselves. The two characters have many encounters but, like the Symphony, are only passing through. They only engage each other, two halves of the same ghost.
Terror and treachery. So why do it, then? Why rush into danger? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on a ship at the end of the play, themselves and the narrative now abandoned by Hamlet. They realize their voyage has become pointless, but do not yet know that the letter they’ve been tasked with delivering orders their own execution. The Fools reflect:
GUILDENSTERN: We’ve traveled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.
ROSENCRANTZ: Be happy—if you’re not even happy what’s so good about surviving? We’ll be alright. I suppose we just go on.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Act III
The Symphony is also prepared for this question, and answers more pithily with a line from episode 122 of Star Trek: Voyager they’ve adopted as their official motto: “Because survival is insufficient.” Campbell writes,
From the earliest times, the dancer has been the human symbol of life-indestructible. The Dionysos-dance of annihilation is at the same time the dance of the fire of creation: […] It is a basic principle of aesthetics that art is produced not out of fear, or out of hope, but out of an experience transcending the two, holding the two in balance[…].
The Ecstasy of Being (5)
Archetypally, The Fool is the soft wax tablet waiting for experience to be imprinted upon it. And to call someone a fool is to say they’re inexperienced at best, dangerously naive at worst.
But what Campbell is pointing out in the quote above is quite the opposite: the Fool-ish artist has not only experienced damage, but remembers it, accesses it, and holds both hope and pain in permanent tension, a tightrope that requires constant balance and focus. The Fool knows that effective art comes from the presence of this tension, not the lack of it. The Fool may be hopeful, but they are not naive. The Fool may be terrified, but they are not paralyzed. The Fool remembers damage, knows to anticipate more, and still keeps moving forward.