Fools Have the Most Fun: Adrian Pietersz. van der Venne, 1661 (Groeninge Museum, Bruges)
The Banjo Man, standing at the bus stop, dyspeptic, sweet wine on his breath, growls and shakes his head from side to side, lamenting that his banjo has been stolen. "It was my means of livelihood man," he says, unsentimentally, "it was more or less like when my mother died," and shrugs his shoulders, the rancid odor of sweet wine saturating the soft imprecations he breathes as he fumbles to roll a cigarette and the breeze keeps lifting up the dried tobacco flakes and carrying them off swirling away like the dead leaves in Dante, blowing down Shattuck. The Banjo Man just shakes his head and appears sad and foolish.
Don't worry/ Be happy: now there's an old standard we haven't heard for a while. The Fool on the Hill: now there's another. The happy fool concept. Does it still apply?
Fools walk these black and empty American mystery streets. One sees them passing, floating much as shadows float in dreams, down that Avenue of famous restaurants, some darkened now as the custom of the wealthy dissipates. The fools linger by the trash bins spare-changing. Lost, left behind, forgotten, and not on a hill. Then hours later the positions have changed slightly. A slow bedraggled parade of souls, moving without cause or purpose.
They move along that celebrity thoroughfare which is a rift, one side assigned the rich, the other the poor. The two sets of humans inhabit parallel worlds, neither appearing cognizant of the other, denizens of contradictory dimensions.
Then there are nights it seems madmen line this street. Loitering here and there they drift, and the voices come out, speaking through them. They do not seem quite persons to us, until we recall that the Latin for person or persona means to sound through, that each of us is effectively no more than the sock puppet of whatever it is blows through us, and there is no one of whom standing down wind is an uninterrupted pleasure.
There are beggars who may appear demented, why do they stand or kneel there on the hard pavement in the cold like that when only a fool would do such a thing? Yet they do not appear ashamed. But happy on a hill, hardly. They are the fools of their own narrowed circumstance, something unlikely to be wished away by not worrying. Rather the reverse actually is the rule, worry less suffer more.
There are the drinkers of sweet wine, waiting at the bus stop for nothing to come. They are not on a hill, nor do they appear happy. They appear irritable, they appear anxious. They wander in small circles muttering darkly to themselves, in languages indiscernible to one who at day's end lies his head elsewhere than on pavement.
They appear foolish in that their dignity has been forever compromised and they do not appear to understand why. One cannot forebear to observe that they are irascible. Their patience is worn thin; they are discontent, or suspicious, or possessed by some passion, or, as they bum a cigarette, are spoken through by voices.
They stand at odd angles in doorways and on corners. Lies are not told around them (who would bother), only truths. Through them these truths are spoken but not heard, for the traffic.
These are insecure times, and to be useless, or ridiculous, in them, is to risk further exposure. All would wish to diminish the pains of this world the way one would swat away harmless phantoms. Alas it is not so easy. Ask the fool.
The supposed freedom of being without fixed abode is a liberty he would resign in a minute given the power to dispose things. He would as well wish to secure peace as you or I. To never again lay his head down beneath the stars would be a price he would pay gladly.
The minds of others cannot be entered but one may project, one may assimilate, one is what one observes, a thin film of everything viewed over the years gradually accumulates upon one's vision, hardly refining it, obscuring it rather, but then the inner sight grows more acute in proportion, and one at last sees more, though it is well too late.
To acquiesce and to resign oneself and let the world glide before one's eyes as so much dust scattered in the path is the course philosophy would recommend. But philosophy is a blast that chills for a moment, then is gone. The thought of this or that, whatever it may be or have been, passes away into thin air forever as though it had not happened. This is the burden that the fool carries with him, the burden of a loss unconsidered by the world, just as anything he may ever have found would have gone unregarded.
The night air grows damp and sharp. At the corner the cars whoosh past and the light changes from red to green and back again to red. The grizzled and sleepless fool is still standing at the bus stop with his empty banjo case in vexation.