A Medley of Fools Heralds the Journey Within the Journey
The Way of the Fool: Part IV
A Series On the Inwardness of Becoming
“To strengthen what is right in a fool is a holy task.”
Tolstoy proposed that there are only two types of stories: a stranger comes to town, or someone leaves on a journey. In the case of the Boy, it is a matter of perspective because both are true. The Boy goes on a journey and he is also visited by a stranger, the Fool. But whether the Fool visits him first or whether the Fool’s visitation is already the beginning of the journey is impossible to tell. It is perhaps also not necessary as the calling and the response are one. They are but different perspectives on the same phenomenon as in the old parable of the Zen master and his student:
One day, the student sat next to the master as he gave instructions. At the end of the day, the student was quite distressed. He said to the master, “I am trying to trust in your teachings, but I am confused. Your teachings contradict each other from one moment to the next.” The master paused for thought before replying, “I am watching people on their path. This one is about to fall into the ditch on the right. I yell, ‘Go left!’ That one is walking into a field of dangerous bulls on the left. I yell, ‘Go right!’ The master watches the road and gives each student what is needed in the moment.”
In this vein, a dear friend of mine once remarked that when he had read all of Hermann Hesse’s novels, he realised that they were all the same archetypal story just with different characters: they were all about the process of becoming an individual; the archetypal, universal journey to the Self which is at the same time, necessarily, always also unique and personal.
Hesse combined the pursuit of the journey to the Self with the metaphor of life as a path or journey repeatedly in his work. In the prologue of his novel Demian, Hesse writes:
The life of every man is a way to himself, an attempt at a way, the suggestion of a path.
Towards the end of his novel Siddhartha, a work which Hesse described as the articulation of his personal faith, he has Siddhartha reflect on life’s twists and turns:
Is it not true, that slowly and through many deviations I changed from a man into a child? From a thinker into an ordinary person? And yet this path has been good and the bird in my breast has not died. But what a path it has been! I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. But it was right that should be so; my eyes and heart acclaim it. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace, to hear Om again, to sleep deeply again, and to awaken refreshed again. I had to become a fool again in order to find Atman in myself. I had to sin in order to live again. Whither will my path yet lead me? This path is stupid, it goes in spirals, perhaps circles, but whichever way it goes, I will follow it.
Siddhartha’s realisation that he had “to become a fool again in order to find Atman in myself” builds out our central themes of the Fool and his journey, of individuality and of the experience of unity.
Some characters like Siddhartha are intrinsically motivated to go on a journey and keep going whenever they experience signs of getting stuck. The Boy was reminded of the possibility of continuing his own path by Siddhartha who reached him from the pages of a closed book on a shelf, waking the Boy who had his head in a brown paper bag. The Boy decided to read the book instead of keeping his head in that bag. He realised that he did not want to extinguish himself. Quite the opposite was true, something in him was not alive and wanted to live. What he wanted to extinguish was his frustration, his anguish, his desire to be without pain. He wanted to experience again what Peter Handke so evocatively describes in the poem that opens Wim Wender’s film Wings of Desire:
When the child was a child
it walked with its arms swinging,
it wanted the stream to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.
When the child was a child
it did not know that it was a child.
Everything was ensouled,
and all souls were one.
When the child was a child
it had no opinions about anything,
it had no habits,
it sat cross-legged,
took off running,
had a cowlick in its hair
and didn’t make a face when it was photographed.
When the child was a child
it was a time of these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Isn’t life under the sun just a dream?
Isn’t what I see, hear and smell,
only the illusion of a world before the world?
Does evil actually exist,
and are there people who are really evil?
How can it be that I, who am I,
didn’t exist before I came to be,
and that someday the one I am
will no longer be the one I am?
The film moved the Boy in many ways. It reminded him of the infolded experience he had as a younger Boy of peace, wholeness, and unity which, at the same time, has a definite perspective, a voice, an observing I which is both one with the context and the separate whole experiencing it. The angel Damiel chooses to become mortal so that he can experience human sensory pleasures and love. In order to so, he must first fall to his life, i.e. give up immortality. This fall to life from a state of unfeeling and numbness was another connection for the Boy. Damiel, despite having existed for aeons, now experiences life for the first time: he bleeds, sees colours, tastes food and drinks coffee. Eventually, he meets the trapeze artist Marion whom he has fallen in love with at a bar during a concert, and she greets him and speaks about finally finding a love that is serious and can make her feel complete. The next day, Damiel considers how his time with Marion taught him to feel amazed, and how he has gained knowledge no angel is capable of achieving.
There is a parallel thread in the story of the angel Cassiel who decides to remain immortal, who at one point follows an old man named Homer who dreams of an “epic of peace”. The aged poet is lost in looking for a past and things which no longer exist: the Potsdamer Platz now is a no-man’s land right by a section of the Berlin Wall; his mortal audience; his sing-song voice; his being as angel of poetry:
If I give up now then mankind will lose its storyteller.
And if mankind once loses its storyteller then it will lose its childhood. […]
Where are my heroes? Where are you, my children?
Where are my own, the dull-witted, the curious ones,
the primeval, the original ones?
Name me, muse, the poor immortal singer who,
abandoned by his mortal audience, lost his voice.
He, who from angel of poetry that he was,
became the organ grinder, mocked and ignored,
outside, on the threshold to no-man’s land.
Wings of Desire is a parallel story of loss and rebirth. What the old man is looking for is also what Damiel is discovering. It takes a particular kind of childhood to hear the “epic of peace”. It is the possibility of this epic within to which the Boy is reconnected when he is awoken by Siddhartha from his thoughts of suicide:
But no one has so far succeeded in singing an epic of peace.
What is wrong with peace that its inspiration does not endure
and that it is almost untellable?
The Boy experienced here what Jospeh Brodksy described when he wrote that “the Word grants a stay of execution”:
…to God’s least creature is
given voice for speech, or
for song – a sign that it has
found a way;
to bind together, and
stretch life’s limits,
whether an hour or a day.
Earlier in his life, when the Boy was seven, the Fool spoke to him perhaps for the first time about such stretching of life’s limits; a clear sign that the Boy was well on his way. The Fool spoke through Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the hero of Richard Bach’s novel by the same name who “was no ordinary bird” and sets out on a journey when he discovers the possibility of perfect flight:
You will begin to touch heaven, Jonathan, in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there.
Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now.
Jonathan’s enquiry resonated deeply with the Boy and set a course for him in words that he would later recognise in the Tao Te Ching:
The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.
But the Boy also learned of the isolation and loneliness that come with the pursuit of one’s own path. In Jonathan’s case, his enquiry into the nature of flight is not acceptable to the Elders of the Council Flock and they banish him with the words:
…one day, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, you shall learn that irresponsibility does not pay. Life is the unknown and the unknowable, except that we are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long as we possibly can.
Who is more responsible than a gull who finds and follows a meaning, a higher purpose for life? For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have a reason to live – to learn, to discover, to be free!
The story continues:
Jonathan Seagull spent the rest of his days alone, but he flew way out beyond the Far Cliffs. His one sorrow was not solitude, it was that other gulls refused to believe the glory of flight that awaited them; they refused to open their eyes and see.
It is with this gift of seeing and the experience of both separateness and solitude that the Fool began to touch the Boy, and through these gifts the Boy felt the Fool come alive in his innumerable aspects as fresh encounters cast new light on him either through new works or the re-experience of a favourite. In this way, the Boy and the Fool began a the special kind of walk which is the Fool’s, a journey which as in Jonathan Livingston Seagull’s case is characterised by a parallel condition of greatest certainty of one kind and complete uncertainty of another.
Wendell Berry captures this condition of the Fool’s Journey beautifully:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
T.S. Eliot offers another perspective which hints at the all or nothing character of this type of journey towards the end of his last of the four quartets, Little Gidding:
A condition of complete simplicity
(costing not less than everything)
This perspective which is a narrowing of the path ahead to nothing but the simplest path possible, namely exactly yours and no one else’s, is also offered by Ursula LeGuin in her novel A Wizard of Earthsea:
You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower; until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do…
The finding of one’s path is an actualisation which necessarily requires all other paths to fall away. It is no longer about choice. It is a journey in which freedom is a matter of commitment to oneself, to one’s nature.
Such commitment is the simplest and hardest thing at the same time also because it is not powered by euphoria. Its feeling tone is perhaps best described as joypain or painjoy (or moods of future joys following the title of Alastair Humphrey’s book about his journey around the world by bike). The Boy realised that the road ahead was not only narrow but it also, at least at first, appeared to lead into darkness and pain, into what he had discarded.
Antonio Machado offers us yet another articulation of this particular journey:
Wanderer, your footprints are
the path, and nothing else;
wanderer, there is no path,
the path is made by walking.
Walking makes the path,
and on glancing back
one sees the path
that will never be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no path—
Just your wake in the sea.
With so much focus on the journey, one would be forgiven for thinking that there is indeed no destination or that it is not the essential aspect as indeed LeGuin puts it in her science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness:
It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.
Yet, even if we try to avoid it, Jean de la Fontaine predicts that there will be a meeting anyway:
You meet your destiny on the road you take to avoid it.
This may suggest, perhaps, that who we are and become is inevitably given by the path as it happens for each of us. That has to be true. There is indeed an element of que sera sera in Machado’s and de la Fontaine’s words.
Yet, might it be that there are different ways to travel the same path? Might it be that we are talking about different modes, different forms of awareness? And that when we travel the same path in a different way that we begin to make different choices about the journey itself? A journey within the journey, as it were? Maybe what is being suggested is that the secret is in our attitude. In the words of the Buddha:
Happiness is not the goal; it is the path.
Jalal al-Din Rumi most certainly knew of this state in which a person arrives in their nature. In his poem What Was Told That he found exquisite words for it: a state which in the ancient Chinese wisdom of the Tao Te-Ching is described as non-action or in the language of positive psychology of today is referred to as Flow.
In Rumi’s words:
What was said to the rose that made it open was said
to me here in my chest.
T.S. Eliot, just a little earlier in his poem Little Gidding quoted before, hints at the destination waiting for us if only we are able to open ourselves to it:
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The possibility of arriving in the same place but now with consciousness, knowing the place for the first time. How come, we don’t know it? Again, T.S. Eliot frames it beautifully:
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
This experience of being called by something in some way but which we are not looking for, will be familiar to most of us.
Rilke, like so many touched by the Fool, was an itinerant and restless soul yet so often at his writing desk, in his cave, trying to get away from any distraction, staring at the wall, at his notepad, his typewriter. He caught the flavour of the soul journeyer who does not leave the house in his poem The Man Watching, here in the touching translation by Robert Bly. While he is not concerned with walking a path, he describes how what we choose is so small, maybe irrelevant in contrast to what chooses us. The Boy took this to mean that there is the possibility of recognising his real journey, i.e. the Fool’s Journey, in what life was laying at his feet; or, put a different way, does the fish swim or does the water swim the fish? Does the bird fly or does the air fly the bird? Are we on a journey or does the path walk us?
The Tao Te Ching expresses it thus:
Only in being lived by the Tao
can you be truly yourself.
Where we strive to make it happen, we find we can only let it happen. In one of his letters to the young poet Mr Kappus, Rilke describes this process of becoming conscious:
[…] many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside.
Here are the key lines from Rilke’s The Man Watching:
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
The feeling of a shallow victory, the emptiness of winning in ways that have no weight in the bigger scheme of things. Rilke puts it so aptly:
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
Yet, it is not that we are excluded from what is extraordinary and eternal. But our attitude to it may exclude us. Rilke invokes a scene from the Book of Genesis where Jacob takes a rest from his day’s journey and finds himself wrestling with an angelic being through the night until daybreak. The fight leaves him limping on:
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
The purpose of this roadside encounter is that something about our shape is changed. The path shapes us. The Tao lives us. That change, that development, that (maybe) growth is the destination and purpose of the journey. Rilke again:
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
In his poem Steps, Hesse takes this spirit and turns it into a sublime description of the Fool’s Journey full of beginnings which contain the magic that protects us and helps us live.
Hesse’s poem is not easily translated. Already the German title Stufen suggests a combination of two words in English: steps and stages, capturing the never-ending journey on which step-by-step we are transformed in the stages of life. I have created a medley of translations here to get as close to the meaning as I experience it myself:
As every blossom fades
and all youth sinks into old age,
so every life’s design, each flower of wisdom,
attains its prime and cannot last forever.
The heart must submit itself courageously
to life’s call without a hint of grief.
There is magic in every beginning
which protects us and helps us live.
Joyously, we shall traverse every stage of life,
cleaving to none as to a home.
The world-spirit wishes not to fetter us
but raise us higher, step by step.
Scarce in some safe accustomed sphere of life
have we established a home, we grow lax;
only he who is ready to journey forth
can throw off old habits.
Maybe death’s hour too will send us forth, new-born,
towards undreamed lands,
maybe life’s call to us will never end:
Take courage my heart, fare thee well and prosper.
End of Part IV.
The Way of the Fool – Part V
The Quality of the Fool
To continue to part V click here:
The Quality of the Fool