The Tarot Cure

The Fool (v): Constant Craving

Don Birnam, a wannabe novelist, is sitting in Nat’s Bar, his local, on a Thursday afternoon getting drunk on the ten dollars he’s stolen from the sugar bowl in which his brother leaves some money to pay the cleaning lady. 

Birnam is trying to get the proprietor of the bar, Nat ,to join him in a drink. He knows the high he is seeking is  “a viscious circle”.  

“But let me have my little vicious circle,” he tells Nat who tries to wipe away the imprint of whiskey left by his customer’s shot glass on the counter. “The circle is the perfect geometric figure,” this Fool for drink explains. “No end, no beginning…” A perfectly intoxicated nought. 

DON: Come on, Nat. One little jigger of dreams.
NAT: Nope.
DON: You don’t approve of drinking?
NAT: Not the way you drink.
DON: It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys. Yes. But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo moulding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh, painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m a holdup man. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer. It’s the Nile. The Nile, Nat, and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra. Listen…

And we do listen as he begins to quote from Antony and Cleopatra, the language itself intoxicating:

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description.

We might take Don’s reasons for getting high as egotistical or narcissistic ones, that desire that we all carry within our primate souls, to be “above the ordinary”. Getting high within the primate hierarchy involves getting or going beyond our ordinariness, our nothingness in the grand scheme of things. We do this by elevating our natural as well as applied talents, hoping to become not only “competent”,  but supremely competent in terms of how we live our lives, especially in the eyes of others, or of our own metacognitive, self-perceiving selves. The high Don refers to here also hints at what psychologists might call “peak experience” which Abraham Maslow, the creator of the term, describes as an “experimental” as well as deeply “experiential”  state -nothing to do with thought- in which we find ourselves and the world to be  “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating; [an] experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, [which could also be described as] mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.” 

Who wouldn’t want a bit more of this in their lives? Is it any wonder then that we pursue our highs with such habitual ardour, even with a certain anarchic recklessness?

In this, the fifth and final of my Tarot Fool miniseries, this handful of tomfoolery that I am offering to you here before we move on to the next archetype, The Magician, I’d like to talk a little about getting high, and how it relates to the two fools we see in our Rider-Waite deck. These are: the Natural Fool or True Fool as I’m going to call them (aka the little white pooch we see a step ahead of the human animal by their side), as well as this more Fabricated Fool, this Misled or Misleading Fool, who for the most part happens to be You and Me. 

I say you and me, because current estimates place the number of people using alcohol at around 2.4 billion (roughly one third of the Earth’s population). If you factor in all the other substances we employ to get high, including those more immaterial facilitators that help us to get there (music, art, country walks, as well as intoxicating ideas and culture conveyed in podcasts?) then this You and Me turns out to be pretty much everyone. 

“Wherever you find people,” writes Edward Slingerland, whose book Drunk (published this year, 2021)  “you will find ridiculous amounts of time, wealth, and effort dedicated to the sole purpose of getting high.” 

In ancient Sumer, it is estimated that the production of beer, a cornerstone of ritual and everyday life, sucked up almost half of overall grain production. When it comes to market economies, contemporary households around the world officially report spending on alcohol and cigarettes at least a third of what they spend on food; in some countries (Ireland, the Czech Republic) this rises to a half or more.

Slingerland’s main thesis for why this is, supported by some quite astounding anthropological and archeological data, is that early hominids who walked the earth up to 3 million years ago, faced a set of sociocultural challenges that their (now our) biology hadn’t fully prepared us for. 

Finding shelter in caves rather than treetops, meant putting up with living conditions that were “crowded and full of strangers, non-relatives with whom we needed to somehow cooperate”. This required “both individual and collective creativity, intensive cooperation, a tolerance for strangers and crowds, and a degree of openness and trust that is entirely unmatched among our closest primate relatives.” Relative who are not especially known for being completely chilled and non-hierarchical it must be said.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist and primatologist, notes that if we were to pack a few hundred chimpanzees, one of our close primate cousins, into a cave, or its even more modern equivalent (an aeroplane) what you’d end up with on landing would be “a long metal tube full of blood and dismembered body parts”. 

Humans are powerful in groups, so powerful that we have come to dominate and manipulate every other living group on this planet, precisely because we are weak as individuals. This makes us intensely eager to connect with one another. How intensely? Well, let’s just try and wrap our heads around the idea that at the moment, half a million podcasts like this one are being circulating around the culture, or stagnating in little puddles near the cow troughs. Or what about the186 million Twitter users telling each other on a daily basis what to think, read, or care about. Or the almost 3 billion human animals interacting on Facebook. 

Perhaps this intense eagerness to connect stems partly from how utterly dependent we are on the group for survival. I didn’t source the electricity and bandwith that is allowing you to hear my words today, and you didn’t make those bluetooth headphones, or the mobile device you’re listening on, and yet we are both still of the belief that we are active agents, masters of our destiny (the I who made this, the you who listened to it), as opposed to interacting elements in a limitless transferral of energies we call life. 

The main demands imposed upon us by the crowded cave, plane, lecture hall or shopping mall, to which we have all adapted to, can be summed up with what Slingerland calls the Three Cs:  Creativity, Culture and Communication. 

Getting high helps with all three of these. Here’s an example from my own therapy practice. 


A client and I are working together one day on one of her burning questions. This particular question involves her relationship with cocaine. She has noticed that often when out on a Saturday night with friends and her boyfriend, there comes a point in the evening where some of her friends might be inclined to get some white powder into their nostrils, and even though she by this point has drunk enough and danced enough and chatted enough to call it a night, the enticement of the powdery white pick-me-up and the encouragement of those around her to partake in it, seems almost impossible to resist. 

The only downside is her inability to sleep when she finally gets home and then dealing with the double-whammy hangover the following day. The burning question she now asks herself in our session is one we all pose to our selves at one point or another, which is to say: “Why do I struggle to stay on the path of healthy moderation with regard to food, drink, drugs, and all the other addictive stimulants in my life, when I know how important it is for my physical and mental well-being to find a kind of balance?” 

I shuffle the deck, we’ve decided in this session to use some Tarot, and ask her to focus on her question whilst also starting to slowly deal the cards face down on the table in front of her. “Really focus now on your burning question,” I say. Put it out there as a kind of plea to the universe. Ask the question in whichever way feels most heartfelt, most earnest to you, in the hope for a response, which like a dream, or a poem, we might then be able to work with.” 

After a while, she tells me to stop dealing and I turn over the next card. The Fool is looking up at both of us. 

“Before we launch into any form of interpretation,” I say, “tell me the story of this card as it presents itself to you now in your imagination.”

“These two,” she says, pointing at the fool on his precipice and the little dog prancing at his side, “want to get high.”

“Why do they want to get high?” I ask. 

She looks at me as if I am posing the most blitheringly obvious question ever asked:

“They want to get high because this one (pointing at the young fool, who is perhaps the same age as her) works all week long for a Chartered Surveyors company and only gets to play on the weekend when he can escape to the countryside, or to a gathering of friends. Getting high is wherever he can finally get away from all those PDF-filled screens, from all that bloody report-writing about damp and asbestos, and woodworm, and dry rot, and subsidence, and Japanese knotweed, or the threat of neighbouring trees. Getting high connects him to something more expansive than all of that stuff, all those building and things.” 

“So getting high,” I say, “is an attempt to distance ourselves from what is experienced as the “grind” of daily life?” 


Why does the Fool struggle to find this kind of flow in their day-to-day, I ask.

“WhatsApp,” she replies. “WhatsApp and emails. Twitter, and Instagram, and Facebook. Zoom meetings, and needy boyfriends. City life.”

“What about the dog?”

“The dog doesn’t need anything to get high,” she tells me. “The dog is always high, high on life, high on Now. The dog is Eckhart Tolle with four legs and a cheerleading tail.”

“Why can’t the human animal get high on life too?” I wonder.

She shrugs, failing to find the words. 

“Maybe,” I say, “it goes like this: when we are experiencing some form of pain or discomfort in our bodies or minds, our awareness of that state, that metacognitive awareness of our suffering selves, gets framed by our minds as a kind of problem, as something we need to fix. Getting high is seen by our problem-solving minds as one of the solutions to that problem. Getting high, however we attempt to do this, is, as the metaphor suggests, adopting a perspective from which we might look down on our pain and so shift, from this new vantage point of awareness, to a place where the perceived pain is less pressing, less present. And why should that not present itself to us as a very good solution to the struggle of existence?”

“Going home tired at 1 am,” she says, “feels like a cop-out, like getting halfway up the hill only to head back to base camp, which is why this one (she points again to the fool, to herself when she inhabits the archetype) needs to push on ahead, even though he knows the drop will be a painful one tomorrow morning.”

That’s right, I say, recognising the Fool in her and in myself. 

At that moment, I think, clinging to that pleasurable, intoxicated awareness, elevated or detached in some way from the recognition of struggle or pain, is it any surprise that we don’t really want to spend too much time dwelling on the crumpled, crippled figure who has come back to earth with a painful jolt the day after. That part of us who pays for our foolishness, that future-now person, experiencing the painful after-effects of soaring so high, fuelled by drugs or booze or food or phones, whatever it is, only to come crashing down again, to feel ourselves at the place where we started from. Or worse.  

“I get all that,” she says. “But I guess I wonder why he has to be up there?” What’s so bad about going only halfway up the mountain. What’s so bad about moderation?

“Yes, but if we have experienced that view from the peak,” I say, “why wouldn’t we be driven over and over again to go back? Nobody wants to feel themselves as passive bystanders to their suffering souls, or to their one shot at life, this shot at life, we call here-and-now. Is not a lot of what we do in the psyche an attempt to state-shift, from one way of experiencing the world to another; emotional regulation we might call it, when using all the culturally sanctioned means of access. 

There seem to be two forces at work here. Something that is experienced as negative (painful) in the psyche, pushing us from below to climb higher and higher, as well as something, dare I say spiritual, freeing, joyful, beckoning us on from ahead. We might use words like fun or pleasurable, but these merge on an experiential level into one of our greatest aspirations as embodied psycho-spiritual beings: to attain transcendence of our sometimes leaden, all-too-material embodiment, and even more so our suffering minds. And in so doing, gain access to more of  the numinous, the nondualistic, to something consummate, flawless, and unblemished within ourselves and our world. 

Unfortunately the animal human world of work, family life, buying stuff, and watching the latest must-see TV series, doesn’t always induce these transcendent states we all desire. And sure there are other non-intoxicating ways to get there including extreme temperatures, starvation and fasting, sexual activity and orgasm, holotropic breathwork, sensory deprivation or overload, drumming and dancing, relaxation, meditation, hypnosis and biofeedback, these take work, and we primates would prefer to eat fruit and climb trees, so…maybe we all secretly find ways to access the numinous through the backdoor, whilst virtue-signalling whenever we do it via the gym or yoga mat. 

Intoxicants may even have been core to our 12,000 year history which we now refer to as civilisation. Indeed, the world’s oldest recipe (part of a Sumerian myth) is for beer not bread. Take a selfish, often warring, small-group of hunter gatherers who by all accounts had a far more diversified number of food sources than we currently have, but who might choose to live a more settled, and protected existence, also in order to create the “medicine” (beer, wine, and other intoxicants) that are so helpful to them when it comes to putting up with all the other complicated people they’re having to interact with on a daily basis.This bottom-up explanation (sometimes called the “beer before bread” hypothesis) also works top-down. 

“By causing humans to become, at least temporarily, more creative, cultural, and communal—to live like social insects, despite our [selfish, warring] ape nature—intoxicants provided the spark that allowed us to form truly large-scale groups, domesticate increasing numbers of plants and animals, accumulate new technologies, and thereby create the sprawling civilizations that have made us the dominant, as well as most destructive mega-fauna on this planet.”

Throw a bunch of rats into an overcrowded cage, and their physical as well as mental health will plummet. Even 12,000 years ago, villages in the Fertile Crescent contained 200 to 300 people, and already showed signs of private property, wealth inequality, and social stratification. Imagine the biopsychosocial strain on these animals (you and me), the effects this might have on our mental and physical health, unless we are able to find ways to deal with this often too-close proximity to others like us, who no matter how much we love and need them, also have the capacities, linguistic and otherwise, to drive us totally round the bend. 

Maybe dodgy cocaine, with no idea of its provenance, might not be the answer here, but getting high on something, as well as someone, seems to be inextricably built into our human animal experience. 

 “By enhancing creativity, dampening stress, facilitating social contact, enhancing trust and bonding, forging group identity, and reinforcing social roles and hierarchy,” writes Edward Slingerland, ”intoxicants have played a crucial role in allowing hunting and gathering humans to enter into the hive life of agricultural villages, towns, and cities. This process has gradually scaled up the scope of human cooperation, eventually creating modern civilization as we know it.”

“If your goal is to maximize implementable cultural innovation,” Slingerland explains, “your ideal person would be someone with the body of an adult but, for a brief period, the mind of a child. Someone with downregulated cognitive control [through their prefrontal cortex], heightened openness to experience, and a mind prone to wander off in unpredictable directions. In other words, a drunk, stoned, or tripping adult. Societies have come to associate intoxication with creativity, communication, and cutlure because chemical intoxication has been a crucial and widely used technology to effect this transition from adult to mental childhood in a relatively controlled manner.”

After this session on the pleasures and perils of coke, I take Mr Max for a walk in Stanmore. Mr Max  as I sometimes call him, also Maxie-jacks, Maxie-Pax, and a whole host of other silly names, has been in my life for the last six years. 

 Max I would say is on the extrovert spectrum, so although he tolerates my company, he is happiest, and highest when our duo becomes a trio, or more. Max is often high, even deliriously high, emitting a noise that sounds a lot like an extended chuckle or a guffaw when he is in this state. And if you don’t believe that non-human animals can laugh, please watch the affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp on YouTube tickling rats in his lab, those rats sure seem to be getting high on tickles I would say. Max’s “laughter” is one of the indicators that he loves us human animals, or at the very least enjoys our company. And we undoubtedly love and are thrilled by being around him, which is a curious paradox when you consider the respect and consideration we pay to our pets whilst also eating all the other pets on the planet, but that’s just how it goes. 

Max’s highs are not that dissimilar from how I get high. Walking on a path together through a natural setting is a good place to start, with Max trotting ahead, tail raised and bobbing from side to side like one of those tour guides in central London, leading their charges through a scrum of tourists. 

Max also enjoys running, chase, and dancing, with or without music. I feel like I am now writing a dating profile for him, maybe I am. He is also enlivened by almost all balls and obsessed with squirrels.

My highs are more manipulated or fabricated psychic events. Such as the high that comes from being captured by a song, a book, a film or television documentary, an idea, or a conversation: anything really within the realm of symbolic transfer, galvanizing those uplifting energies of curiosity, pleasure, wonder, awe.

 Perhaps it is language more than anything else I want to be high on. Even writing this sentence I am hoping to get high, and who knows something in its rhythm and flow might take me there. “I am not making a fool of myself / For you,” writes WS Graham in an almost admonitory tone in his poem called What is the language using us for. “What I am making,” he goes on to remind himself via us, his readers, is “a place for language in my life”:

Which I want to be a real place
Seeing I have to put up with it
Anyhow. What are Communication’s

Mistakes in the magic medium doing
To us? It matters only in
So far as we want to be telling

Each other alive about each other
Alive. I want to be able to speak
And sing and make my soul occur

In front of the best and be respected
For that and even be understood
By the ones I like who are dead.

I would like to speak in front
Of myself with all my ears alive
And find out what it is I want.

Being human animals though, we like to get high on all sorts of non-linguistic things, including Psychoactive substances like tea, coffee, sugar, alcohol in its various guises, and cannabis. Also delicious-tasting food, and sex, and pretty much anything else we can introduces to our various orifices and sensory organs. Watching planes taking off and landing, for some folk, gets them high. What does it for you?

A more florid word for this high is ecstasy. From the Greek ek-stasis, or literally “standing outside oneself.” A modern way of describing that metacognitive state is of course mindfulness, as in the famous Kabat Zinn definition of “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.” 

In order to do this, one aspect of consciousness needs to separate from another, and in so doing, take a reading of the other part, as you the human animal listening to this, might stands outside the me speaking here, “ecstatically” seeing and hearing aspects of my communication that I might not even be aware of. 

In placing these two words side by side, however,  ecstasy (to my ears) sounds sensual, and corporeal, an adventure, an experiment in living, whereas mindfulness descriptors often strike my ear as if they were devised by an engineer or scientist delivering a powerpoint slide in a draughty function room about The Meaning of Life, or How To Get High. Perhaps if we were to meet the historical buddha, he might have something of that vibe about him, who knows.

That’s Uma Thurman’s 80 year old father, Robert Thurman who sounds pretty ecstatic I think you’d agree expostulating on the four noble truths, so perhaps they aren’t as square as they sometimes come across. 

Maybe this is because in ecstasy, as opposed to mindfulness, the monitoring self, aka the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) which plans and forecasts, as well as moderates certain forms of behaviour and speech mainly functions in the key of NO. Being a recent evolutionary development, PFC Plod, works as an inhibitor, or brake, on our wayward animality, a curb, a restraint, a deterrent on enthusiasm and ecstasy. Of course you want to have that second vegan cornetto from the four-pack pack you bought from the supermarket, well I do, and maybe even a third or fourth, but unless you’re high, your PFC will probably caution you against overdoing it. 

Ecstasy pulls the plug on the nay-saying, parental-sounding PFC, so of course that’s why, we love the YES of Ecstasy, in the way that children and dogs love grandparents, or Daddy’s girlfriend who showers them with treats in a way that their more mindful self-protective begetters never do or did:   

“Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no,” writes William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the YES function in the human animal. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes us for the moment one with truth.”

I love that line “it brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core”. The votary being an often moral category, a monk or nun, adherent of a religion or cult. But in this phrase, I think James is expanding the category to include all of us. All who live in the chill peripheries of the mind with its concerns and gripes, its worries about this or that, who are brought even one step closer for even a brief period of time, to the radiant core of pure being. To ecstasy. 

For me the animal who speaks through the fabrications of language, and for Max the animal who speaks through embodied gestures, the yes of that high, often appears to us as the very reason we might want to non-judgementally pay attention, on purpose, in and to the present moment at all!  

I’ve always been strangely proud of the fact that I can give the Hungarian pronunciation for the following name, which when read as it is spelt, sounds something like: MI-HAY-LY CSICK-ZENT-MIHAL-YI. 

But of course this is not how you pronounce the name , or so I am told, which in Hungarian sounds more like: MEE-HIGH, CHEEK SENT ME HIGH. When pronounced correctly, as you can hear, it is a name that has more HIGHs in it than a stoner film. 

The only reason you would have to pronounce this Hungarian name correctly is if you wanted to talk about the concept of Flow, that ability we have to lose ourselves in a task, and in so doing achieve a state of well-being and focus which is not especially dissimilar to being high. 

The fools energy is flow. Even the word flow tells you what it’s about. A gathering of forces as lips and teeth make an F and an L, which then gets pushed out of the mouth like a sleigh being pushed down a snowy hill. 

Floow. Flooow. Floooooooooooow. 

Flow captures that delicious ontology of being both here and not here, both doing and not doing. It is a deeply non-binary state, and because it is so embodied, language struggles to get a hold on it. 

Instead listen to Jacob Collier playing on a tiny acoustic bass, that inimitable melodic line for Stevie Wonder’s Boogie Down Reggae Woman, watch the video of him playing it on YouTube too, if you like, to see flow in action. 

Halfway through composing the sentences above, a sentence which had visited me as an idea whilst I was bringing in the washing from the line, and which I quickly tried to capture before it left me, I sort of achieved a bit of flow. And shortly thereafter, sank back again into that state of entropy, of non-flow, the dark matter of our lives, wondering what to say next.

There are recipes online for how to achieve flow. The main ingredient is having an activity that has a clear goal and direction (such as: make a handful of podcasts about the fool archetype). Add to this clear and immediate feedbackm which might come from within, e.g. (“this paragraph seems to be going OK”) or without, which is a bit more tricky as it involves convincing other people to listen to you. And let us not forget that when cooking all of this up, we need to be relatively free from distraction, and able to bring a relatively high level of skill to the task, perceiving it as somewhat challenging, but not to the degree that it might overwhelm us. 

A few weeks ago, as I was trying one morning to write something for episode four of the fool, when I heard a kind of caterwauling coming from down the road, a man’s voice singing with that kind of tuneless urgency we predominantly hear from football fans at their various stations of the cross (the car park, the tube to Wembley, the pre-match singalong, and all the bawling that goes on through the game itself) often facilitated by booze. As the voice got closer, emerging from the mouth of a young guy with giant black headphones, delivering Pizza Hut leaflets to every door in my postcode, I vaguely recognised the lyrics: 

It’s a beautiful night, we’re looking for something dumb to do
Hey baby, I think I wanna marry you
Is it the look in your eyes or is it this dancing juice?
Who cares, baby, I think I wanna marry you

I presume he had the song on a loop. When I spotted him again, ten minutes later, a few blocks away whilst taking Max for a walk, he was still at it. As I looked over, he gave a slightly self-conscious look back but didn’t quieten down. Like someone sitting in a bar, ignoring everyone around him as he plows through shot after shot, or that dude doing a solitary retreat at the buddhist centre, who keeps away from the group in the main hall, the Leafletter seemed as if he really was in some kind of funky ineffable flow as he bopped from one door to the next. 

But maybe he was just high, which is often a form of flow, albeit a somewhat less targeted one. I wonder if perhaps the music itself was doing this. Mars has the ability to write some incredibly psychoactive, earworms – a number of which have grabbed hold of the default mode network of my brain recently. Was Leaflet Guy just playing this song on his DMN Jukebox again and again? 

Once the Default Mode Network is quietened down through some focused, embodied process (or psychoactive substances) we appear to have fewer internal mental-state processes going on, such as all that self-referential stuff that forms the basis for embarrassment or self-consciousness, but also interoception takes a hit (the ability to feel what’s going on inside us at a physical level), and autobiographical memory retrieval (i.e. thinking about the past), or dwelling on a may-never-arrive future. These are the benefits of being both high and/or in flow. 

Whatever the Bruno-Loving Leafletter was doing, I couldn’t begrudge the thing that kept him going as he carried out the thankless, poorly paid, and even somewhat unneighbourly task (literally pushing his unwanted drek into everyone else’s living space). Soldiers, abbatoir workers and others doing difficult, morally questionable work, have often been inclined or encouraged to get high, so as to tolerate their conditions. Maybe the leaflet delivery guy was hitting warp speed based solely on Mars’s union-focused track, keying into that Lovers archetype of coupling and merging in order to get him through his shift, or maybe he had just vaped or smoked some Super Silver Haze, and was now, for all intents and purposes, in a state of flow. 

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was another union in the early twentieth century that needed to rely on substances to get its social aims met: inviting ethnically diverse, mutually suspicious workers with different trades and backgrounds to put aside their narrow personal interests and present a unified front in high-stakes collective bargaining against capital owners. 

The degree to which this union relied upon heavy drinking, combined with music and singing, is reflected in the nickname by which they are best known, the Wobblies, most likely a reference to their manner of stumbling from saloon to saloon.   

These drunken, singing Wobblies, with their motto “an injury to one is an injury to all,” were relatively successful in bringing together up to 150,000 workers across a wide variety of industries and winning important concessions from employers.

Would they have been able to do this without alcohol we might ask, as we may ask lots of questions when we remove morality, and those idealised views of our selves, and how we arrive at virtue. Our species seems to struggle greatly with the vulnerability and risk of engaging in new social behaviours,  unless assisted by that special bonding liquid that comes out of a tap in your local pub, or can be bought from many aisles of liquor for sale at your local supermarket. 

In my 20s, the age of the Bruno Mars fan who I followed round the block, I mainly got high on writing, reading, teaching, running, and meditation. I was living in Rome at the time, enjoying my explorations of  the eternal city, but there was only so many times one could walk around the Colosseum, or lounge in the parks and gardens, reading a paperback, waiting for something to happen. There were no mobile phones to keep one elevated in the metaverse. It was all in retrospect, strangely analogue, having to work with whatever we might find in the here and now. 

So I joined a Zen Buddhist sitting group, who met in a studio space near Piazza Dante and tried to have my own peak experience by doing what they did. 

The studio was a wood-lined box in which we’d gather to sit together/alone. Flawlessly polished floors, a small changing room with a simple linen curtain to afford some privacy; ten people filing in every morning at 6 am, as well as two evenings a week (Tuesdays and Fridays) at 7pm.

After changing into our black robes, we would sit facing outwards, away from each other, eyes focused on the brick wall in front of us, or where the skirting board made contact with the floor, hands held in a special position (the Zen mudra) palms upward, fingers of bottom hand resting on the fingers of the top, tips of the thumbs just touching.

The group was led by an intense, bearded dude called Dario, who was only a few years older than me, but felt as if he might be decades more ancient with regard to maturity and general sorted-ness. 

Dario did such a good job of projecting that disciplined, ascetic, highly magisterial ethos of Zen, that I couldn’t even begin to imagine what he and his girlfriend Silvia, who also meditated with us, got up to when they were by themselves. Surely not the things that other couples in their mid-20s did, such as going to the cinema, holding hands, slobbing out in front of the telly, picnics, experimenting with sexual positions. Indeed, where did sex factor into their equation if everything was the equivalent of a philosophy symposium?

The other person in the group that i remember well was Massimo: middle-aged, balding, unassuming, not as ardently gung-ho about the practice as Dario, but no less committed. Massimo was to Dario’s lean mean meditating Buddha-machine a kind of Ananda I guess.

Ananda is the Buddha’s most famous disciple, his right-hand monk. In the Buddhist sutras, which work as combo how-to text with added mythologizing, Ananda and the Buddha have a similar relationship to Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Watson (Ananda) is the foil for Holmes’s (the Buddha’s) brilliance: a bright-enough but deferential student who hangs on the Master’s every word. Buddha and Ananda, Holmes and Watson: you can’t really have one without the other.

My most abiding memory of Massimo however is a conversation I had with him one day at the end of an evening’s sitting. The conversation probably lasted for all of a minute. But it is to this brief exchange that I have been returning to intermittently over the past 20 years.

Massimo had been showing us his dog drawings: hundreds of small, indian ink images of his “bastardo”: a Chihuahua/Jack Russell hybrid called Chivas. I had wondered if this might be Mario’s favourite tipple. Dario I assumed was a teetotaller.

At one point Massimo said that he had learnt more about the true spirit of Zen from Chivas (I presumed he was still talking about his dog at this point) than in all his years of daily meditation practice and week-long retreats. I wanted to ask him what he had learnt, but for some reason, I never did. 

Since that brief conversation, I’ve read, as maybe you might have too if you’re a fan of our domesticated wolves, one or two doggy memoirs. Most of them are somewhat dull I find, the doggy-human romance, perhaps like all romance, difficult to put into word. 

Maybe only poetry can capture the unconscious depths and heights of this inter-species love affair, in ways that prose can’t. Take Holy Amos’s poem We have no choice in the bodies that hold us (a wonderful FionaApple-esque title) which says more in 130 words than any doggy memoir I’ve ever read:

Thing of dirt and water and oxygen marked by thinking
and reacting and a couch
one may or may not be permitted
to sleep on. He may not permit me
to touch him or to take the bone
from his mouth, but he does, and that’s a choice
based on many factors, not the least of which
is his own desire to let me
do these things. How I could ever
think or feel myself more
deserving of a single thing than
this being, whom I call by a name the same way
my parents chose a name for me. The same way my genes
went expressing themselves to make my face exactly
my face. This isn’t special. Or this is special. But it’s one
answer, the same, for us both.

It is so hard to describe what this cross-species affinity is really about. What happens to us, and most importantly to our minds and hearts, and nervous systems when we live and interact on a daily basis with a non-human animal such as Max?

Perhaps he is a reminder to me, or anyone else who is interested in being reminded of this, that we too are made of human and animal material (the latter “material” being so metaphysical as to perhaps not really warrant any inclusion in the category of tangible or perceptible). Suffice to say though: Max reminds me again and again, that we are broadly speaking, human and animal, which perhaps through a kind of Jungian path of “individuation” and integration, we seek to unify in a way that might save not only ourselves but our world (although don’t hold your breath fellow human animal on that score). 

This is perhaps also the journey through the Tarot Major and Minor Arcanas that we’re taking here, with the fool’s journey being a kind of Enlightenment or Bust, no-holds barred, walking Serenity Prayer. Accepting the things we can’t change about ourselves and each other, interacting and playing with those phenomena we have some kind of access to, and hopefully with something like wisdom, knowing, and even more so, putting this skillful knowing into practice.  

In one of the so-so memoirs I’d read over the years, a certain idea really stuck with me. That of our predominantly “touchy” relationship to dogs. 

In order to appreciate how embedded dogs are in our outer and inner worlds, the writer asks us to (consensually, but also mindfully) to just go and put our hands on a dog, to call our doggy chums, our doggy life-partners over, and just have a bit of a cuddle with them. 

In doing this, the experiment, the practice might be to ask ourselves if this other living creature feels foreign or familiar to us. If we stay truly present to what’s going on in this exchange, it soon becomes self-evident that the experience of touching the body of a dog, feels incredibly natural to us, the most natural other-creature contact we might in fact have. 

If you have a dog to hand, try it. Feel the affinity of these two creatures who have evolved for tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands of years, with each other. Human animal (us) and animal human (the dog) co-domesticated by and for each other, so that on interaction, we might be aware, if we tune into this, that our affinity can be felt in every cell of our body, as a deep sense the “rightness” of all’s-well-with-the-worldness, when having or feeling a dog’s body close to ours. 

I would push the idea just a step further and say that the bond is so deep that maybe it might even transcend our envelopes of specieshood altogether. That’s how it feels when I give Max a cuddle, which might involve massaging him behind his ears, or scratching him under the chin, or around his neck, as well as rubbing both hands down either side of his body as if he were a golden, furry snowscape and my paws were somehow tobogganing over the once solid now melting, living quintessence of Max. 

What I’m talking about here is a special kind of connection, or love, some overflowing, overfeeling (but not in a bad way, for the most part) sense of affection and pleasure and care, transmitted through touch, my hands on his haunches, his tail transmitting a telegraphic communication through wigwag oscillations back to me. When I think of this love that we feel for one another, most of it expressed through touch, movement, and other embodied forms of play, I’m not sure if such an experience can even be replicated in words, so I won’t labour this point (he says, labouring the point). However it works, it feels to me as if a kind of living other-creature archetype has set up permanent residence inside of us. For so complete at times is our companionship, that there is really is nothing to separate the person from the dog, the animal human from the human animal. And that too is a kind of ecstasy. 

Here’s the poet WS Merwin, who wrote many an elegy for one of his beloved Chow dogs (Freud also fell in love with this breed), which I think describes something of this deep bond between these furry natural fools and our fabricated selves. 

I look for you my curl of sleep
my breathing wave on the night shore
my star in the fog of morning
I think you can always find me

I call to you under my breath
I whisper to you through the hours
all your names my ear of shadow
I think you can always hear me

I wait for you my promised day
my time again my homecoming
my being where you wait for me
I think always of you waiting

“The dog is the only species” he goes on to relate to Paul Holdengraber, “that has made us, and we have made the dog, we have a relation with dogs we don’t have with any other kind of animal, and we can understand things about animals through dogs that we probably can’t understand any other way. But the dog is not a completely wild animal, so there’s something we’re not going to learn, and the dog, also, the openness is not quite as open as it would be with one of the great cats, or with the wolves, or even with the foxes, you know, one of the only animals that is really fascinated by us.”

I’m not sure how Merwin discovered the foxe’s fascination with him, perhaps spying one evening from the window of his writing cabin two foxes, with binoculars, on the far side of his wild garden in Maui, watching his every move? Regardless. Perhaps only a dog companion can know the exquisite pleasure (the high!) of being with a dog, and the excruciating pain of losing that doggy companion. As perhaps only a poet can describe the interdependence of living with a dog in one’s life. One of us, the one I call The Fabricated Fool, seeking our highs, our flow, our ecstasy in whatever overt but often surreptitious ways that we can. The other, a pure fool, a holy fool, unadulterated by language and culture, this creature who knows nothing of that storied self, seizing life by the testicles whenever he can, and for this reason knowing everything that needs to known, and knowing nothing of that which doesn’t serve him.  

The Emperor Hadrian, is thought to have written only one poem in his entire life. It is said that it was written just before his death, and many consider this to be, in the words of its translator, W.S. Merwin, himself a magnificent poet, “it’s one of the most

perfect poems in Latin.” Who know how many perfect poems exist in Latin, but there you go, it’s one of the most perfect. And here’s how it goes in Merwin’s translation:

Little soul little stray
little drifter
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone
after the way
you used to make fun of things.

“I am not certain whose soul the poem addresses, writes Merwin, in Poetry Magazine, 2006. “And as far as I know no one else can be sure of that either, though of course there are rooted assumptions about it,” . A few years later, in a conversation with Paul Holdengraber at the New York Public Library, after that comment about Solid Gold Poetry Perfection, he also wonders how this Roman leader of state, no matter how much of a polymath he was thought to be, could come up with a poem this perfect. “There it is,” he relates, as if wearily shaking his head in disbelief: “did he throw away everything else? Did somebody else throw away everything else that he wrote and just save this one poem? We don’t know. We don’t know anything about it.” The last phrase he then repeats for a third time, as if the message weren’t perplexing enough to him with respect to the why’s and how’s of this poem: “We just don’t know.”

Unfortunately, fools that we human animals are, means that we often get trapped in our search for a high, for flow, for peak experience. The word we use for this is addiction, which I guess refers to the ab-use of our often useful substances, although so hard to draw the line where use and ab-use meet. 

Almost a hundred years ago, a formerly successful American investment banker and state senator for Rhode Island, named Rowland Hazard, travelled to Zurich to consult with one of the top psychiatrists of the era about his drinking problem. This world-renowned psychiatrist was of course Carl Jung, who worked with him for over a year until Hazard felt able to return to his former life. 

It took just a few weeks for Hazard -the name itself suggestive of existential peril- to relapse into destructive drinking patterns, and soon he was back in Zurich where this time Jung told him that there was unfortunately nothing more that therapy or psychiatric medicine could do for him. One route towards recovery however, was to surrender in some way to a type of religious conversion. 

“You see, alcohol in Latin is spiritus,” Jung wrote 30 years later to Bill Wilson, founder of Alcholics Anonymous. “We use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula here, he continued, is: spiritus contra spiritum.” Or as William James had put it inThe Varieties of Religious Experience “the only radical cure for dipsomania is religiomania.” 

These words made a strong impact on Rowland Hazard, who once again returned to the States: this time becoming an adherent of a non-demoninational organization called The Oxford Group who practiced both public and private confessions of their substance “sins”, from their headquarters at the Calvary Episcopal Church in New York. 

In order to escape from their substance-dominated selves, The Oxford Group set about surrendering completely to the the will of God, making restitution to those they had harmed, and practising the “four absolutes” of purity, honesty, love and unselfishness. 

Hazard then put his energies into rehabilitating others like him. One of these people was his buddy Bill Wilson, a former stockbroker, who like Hazard had been hospitalized a number of times for alcohol-related conditions. On his first visit to the Calvary Church where Hazard and his fellow Episcopalians met, Wilson was so drunk, that those at the meeting offered him coffee and a plate of beans to help sober him up. 

Wilson still had to experience though what in AA terminology is called “deflation at depth”: in other words hitting rock bottom in a way that no substance-led high might rescue us from. Although interestingly, getting sober is not necessarily about become substance-free: the high of one drug sometimes being used to counteract the high of another. In the 1930s for example, alcoholics admitted to hospital would be treated with belladonna, a substance that, in large doses, can be hallucinogenic,. 

Similarly, other psychedelics were being experimented with in the 1960s in order to help wean us off that liver-rotting elixir we refer to with a noun that is also a kind of imperative: “drink”. This was before the US government, mainly as a backlash against the counter-culture, made this research illegal. Although with an opioid crisis now on its hands, and a more tolerant attitude to certain substances such as marijuana, this research, particularly into therapeutic psychedelics, is being carried out once more.  

Bill Wilson wasn’t around in the 1930s to benefit from the psychedelic revolution, but here’s how he discovered his alternative “high” through his friend Rowland Hazard and The Cavalry Episcopall Church: 

“All at once I found myself crying out, “if there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!” Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in the minds eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in a new world, a new world of consciousness. All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence and I thought to myself, ” So this is the God of the preachers!” A great peace stole over me and I thought, “No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are still all right. Things are all right with God and Their world.” 

I find it interesting that the peace of mind that comes from this conversion still requires Wilson to maintain his high in some way, arriving at a substitute or surrogate ecstasy, an unbottled ecstasy on that mountain in his consciousness, where “a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing”.

This language of being high or getting high is also used by Jung when he responds to a letter from Wilson in 1961, just a few months before the grand old man of analytic psychology was to die. 

In this letter Jung recognises that our craving for substances, is equivalent to our spiritual thirst for wholeness, expressed in the medieval language he’d repurposed for his new notions about the psyche, as a “union with God”. Jung agreed with Wilson that “the only right and legitimate way to such an experience [is to] walk on a path which leads us to higher understanding.”

We get to this new high by either “an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through high education [that word again] of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism.”

This new way of getting high was of course systematized as a set of “steps” outlined by this mutual aid organization we now know as the AA, as well as in all the other organisations that followed. All stemming from the worthy intention of helping us unshackle from our most destructive compulsive behaviours as animal humans: Overeaters Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Marijuana Anononymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Gambler’s Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous. But there are also 12 step programmes for Co-Dependents, Obsessive Skin Pickers, Underearners, Racists, Clutterers, and Neurotics. Indeed, whoever you are, and whatever ails you, there is now a 12 step programme tailored just for you.

Step 1 is of course the refutation of the artificial high, whilst also admitting ourselves powerless to its habitual use: admitting we are no longer in control over whichever behaviour we have adopted in order to translate the pain of existence into a high, or at least a less agitated form of awareness. 

This then leads to the cultivation of a belief that a power greater than ourselves (which is perhaps also to say: higher than our high) could restore us to sanity, by making a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of this Higher Power as we understand it to be.

Is the Fool on the Tarot card someone who has done this? Or are they still working out what it might take to maintain their spiritual high without requiring the food, drink, sex, gambling, or some of the other chemical interventions they utilise to get there?

Maybe this is where the Fool needs the help of the Magician archetype to make this happen. This is something I’d like to start exploring when meeting this Archetype in the handful of episodes on this foolish stream. I hope you’ll join me on that journey. Until then, enjoy your foolish selves, and also, all the creatures who make up this foolish world in which we all appear to be thrown together, to live, to suffer, but also often: just to play. 

The Tarot Cure

The Tarot Fool (iv): To Life, To Life, L’chaim!

“The first cell felt no call to divide,” writes Sarah Lindsay in her poem Origin. Let me say that again:

The first cell felt no call to divide.
Fed on abundant salts and sun,
still thin, it simply spread,
rocking on water, clinging to stone,
a film of obliging strength.
Its endoplasmic reticulum
was a thing of incomparable curvaceous length;
its nucleus, Golgi apparatus, RNA
magnificent. With no incidence
of loneliness, inner conflict, or deceit,
no predator nor prey,
it had little to do but thrive,
draw back from any sharp heat
or bitterness, and change its pastel
colors in a kind of song.
We are descendants of the second cell.

To put this into the language and dialectic of Tarot, we might say that the first cell was Upright. As we imagine the Universe, or God, or Life to be: in and of itself complete. Upright and maybe something akin to“perfect”, to use that blameless and indefectible language of spirituality. The second cell however, brought a kind of Reversal into this world: a walking, talking, plotting, murdering, christmas shopping till we be dropping primate reversal, a very human animal reversal if you like.

The first cell, that ne plus ultra of singularity, might be seen as representing an externally expressed energy. When one adds another cell into the mix, we go within: manifesting as internalised energy, the two cells engaging with each other, cheek by jowl, in what we might call an inner “life”, which for us revolves mainly around our human psyches.

And with that inner engagement, we also get conflicts and reversals which all add up to what we now call “the whole”. Upright and Reversed co-existing in one organism: the inner and outer, the persona as well as its more expansive, more ductile “soul” or inner world.

Carl Jung’s favourite Greek philosopher was Heraclitus, who wrote in one of the few fragments we still have of his work:

What was cold soon warms, and warmth soon cools. So moisture dries, and dry things drown.

And in another fragment:

What was scattered gathers.

Is that not too a wonderful notion of a human soul. What was scattered (scattered thoughts, perceptions, conflicting attitudes) gathers, becomes some kind of “whole”. What was warm (with passion, or anger) will invariably cool, and vice-versa. How could it be otherwise?

It was from Heraclitus that Jung took the idea of enantiadromia, from the Greek enantios meaning “opposite” and dromos a racetrack. The first cell runs in only one direction (externally we might say, in the direction of seeing and perceiving, of consciousness), the second cell runs in another direction (internally, on tracks or those scattered, trackless paths we call the unconscious), but they invariably do meet, as Paul (McCartney) seemed destined to meet John (Lennon). Or Werner (Herzog), Klaus (Kinski).

“I use the term enantiodromia,” Jung writes in Psychological Types, “for the emergence of the unconscious opposites in the course of time. This phenomenon occurs when an extreme, onesided tendency dominates conscious life; [and thus] in time an equally powerful counterposition…breaks through.”

To put it simply: everything is in a state of flux and everything at some point turns into its opposite. Everything is eventually balanced or “compensated” for, in time, by its polar opposite, the inverse and the obverse settling some cosmic score, if you like. We see this happening on our planet at the moment with extreme weather events and plagues countering the devastation we have wreaked since we started extracting and burning fossil fuels and other resources as if we were deities rather than just a weird kind of hairless ape intent on shopping till we truly be dropping. I am recording this episode on Black Friday, a truly funereal day for humanity, even whilst Amazon tries to cash in on Black Lives Matter with marketing images for the day on its homepage of bourgeois black folk entering the paradise of white privelege through the eye not of a needle, but through the neverending, one might say hellish pit of waste and consumption spurred on by Amazon Prime ease of purchase.

In some fundamental way, opposites are engendered, in our human animal psyches right from the start. We are all hung out to dry on a cross built on pleasure as well as pain, insight as well as ignorance, kindness but also meanness. There is no keeping the one and dispensing with the other. For we are descendants of the second cell.

In this episode where I hope to explore the Upright versus Reversed Fool, I’m going to let you make that distinction yourself dear listener, or refrain from doing so, if you prefer. Benign fool, malign fool, something in between, you decide.


Our first fool. Zarmarus who lived around the time of Christ. Here is his story, as related by Judith Schalansky in her book An Inventory of Losses:

“It is reported that the gifts presented by the Indian delegation that Augustus once received on the island of Samos included not only a tiger and an armless youth who was able to use his feet as hands, but also a man named Zarmarus from the Brahmin caste who was intending to end his own life for the very reason that it had turned out the way he wanted. To make quite sure that no calamity could ever befall him, he leaped onto the pyre in Athens, naked, anointed, and with a smile, was burned alive, undoubtedly in excruciating pain, and in staging his self-determined death, went down in history, if only as a curious anecdote in one book of Cassius Dio’s once eighty-volume Roman History, the content of which happened to be passed down to us. In the end, all that remains is simply whatever is left.”

What impression is left in your mind after hearing about Zarmarus?

Here are some “upright” words often associated with the Fool archetype: beginnings, innocence, spontaneity, crossroads, journeys, ideas, happiness, laughter, trust, instinct, intoxication, creativity, potential, renewal, leaps of faith, carpe diem, living-in-the-moment, fearlessness, awe and curiosity, fresh perspectives.

Do these align with Zarmarus. Of course they do.

And here are the reversals, the antonyms where we see the archetype from another angle, maybe even from a 180 degree angle, as the shadow side of all this foolish ra-ra bubbles up from the depths of the unconscious: naivety, recklessness, entitlement, immaturity (but also a kind of stultifying maturity), vanity, apathy, anxiety, mania, spiritual materialism, hysteria and even delirium.

Zarmarus? Yes, him too.

Lame Deer, a North American Indian shaman, explains uprights and reversals as exemplified in our foolish selves like this:

[The ’sacred clown’, that contrarian, jester, and satirist, who speaks, moves and reacts in an opposite fashion to the people around them] in our language is called a heyoka. For they are often upside-down, backward-forward, yes-and-no, contrarywise. Everybody can be made into a fool, from one day to another, whether they like it or not. It is very simple to become a heyoka. All you have to do is dream about lightning and thunderbirds. You do this, and when you wake up in the morning you are a heyoka. There is nothing you can do about it.

There is nothing you can do about it. I think what this means is that there is a somewhat determined, fated, even fateful quality to the Fool’s path, as well as to all paths of folly. Which is a paradox, for the fool archetype might also represent to some extent the fantasy of Free Will In Action. Perhaps only as Fool can we throw ourselves into grand plans dreamed up on a whim in the bath. Into writing novels, or podcasts, or music albums, or fighting climate change, or slavery, or any foolish reversal of the status quo. Even though as Fools, we might not be best placed to carry out those plans, and may in fact screw things up on a small as well as grand scale.


Let’s stick with the Buddhists for now, and one of my favourites, the Zen monk Joshu who was born and lived in Northern China from around 778 to 897 AD.

The following two incidents come from Yoel Hoffman’s book Radical Zen: The Sayings of Joshu.

One of Joshu’s monks asks him, “To be holy—what is it like?”
Joshu replies, “What is it like? It is like dumping a mountain of shit on a clean plain.”
The monk is not sure what to say, but after some moments asks for further clarification.
Joshu replies, “Stop fucking with my head.”

Another monk asks, “Master Joshu, What is ‘holy’?”
Joshu replies: “Ordinary.”
The monk asks a follow-up question: “So what is ‘ordinary’?”
Joshu replies: “Not holy.”


Which is to say: human animals in various permutations flirting with each other. But in this case, in particular: heterosexual men hitting on women. Once again, I give you this fool, first heard at the end of episode two, who believes that because his waitress Linda is being friendly towards him, she might be angling for a boyfriend, or at the very least, to have his genital organs sliding around inside hers.

[Excerpt from Date Night (cf. audio in podcast)]

At the end of an incredibly illuminating discussion about feminism with Julie Bindel on her Honesty podcast, the journalist Bari Weiss asks Bindel to reflect on the animal at the core of this human animal, we call (small caps) man.

[Excerpt from Bari Weiss conversation with Julie Bindel (cf. audio in podcast)]


Whilst preparing this piece on the fool, I get a phonecall one morning from my mother to tell me that my brother has put his back out again. My brother has been struggling with lower back pain for almost a decade now. Every couple of years he’s consigned to bed for a few weeks, but he also spends a lot of time lying on the floor of editing suites (he makes TV programmes), or train stations, or airports, or the rooms of his house unable to stay upright without a great deal of discomfort. I have had my own brushes with lower back pain, but nothing compared to what my brother has gone through.

He has attempted self-cures with pilates, and pain-killers, and physio, but his work is sedentary and no doubt puts a good deal of strain on his spine (ten to fifteen hours a day leaning forwards in front of a computer screen). He has never been much of a fan of regular exercise, and is carrying a fair amount of extra weight. He also has two young children and is the main breadwinner for his family.

This week was the worst episode so far. Putting on his trousers, he felt and heard a ripping and a tearing in his lower back, and for the first time ever, not only yelped, but screamed in agony as he fell to the floor, all six foot two of him, crashing down. Unable to move, he pulled the duvet off the bed where his phone had been left and called for an ambulance. They wouldn’t come because they assessed him as not dying, and welcome everyone to the post-pandemic NHS, that once great, envied by all healthcare institution, which is now also lying flat on its back like a beached whale, slowly expiring. My elderly parents went over to see if they could help. When he tried to pee into a bottle his back suddenly went into spasms. He screamed again and again, grabbing hold of my father’s hand as if he were about to tear it off at the wrist. The pain excruciating. I cannot even imagine that pain. My mind shuts down as I try to imagine his pain.

After some hours, the paramedics arrive and it takes copious quantities of gas and morphine, and even more grinding physical pain to get him down the stairs and out of the house into a hospital, where the Kafkaesque shenanigans continue as he’s shunted between A&E (Accidents and Emergency) and ED (the Emergency Department), never making it into the hospital itself after an MRI reveals that his spine is bulging, but probably won’t cripple him in the next 24 hours. So nothing can be done for my brother by the once-great NHS, and in fact he must now leave, even though he can hardly walk or sit without vast amount of morphine, diazapam, codeine screening the body’s plight.

Throughout it all, certainly from the stance his wife takes towards him, I detect frustration that he has let this drag on for so long without “turning his life around”, losing weight, getting fit, making his work set-up more ergonomic. All that post-hoc self-recrimination and crepuscular blame from others that goes on when tragedy strikes and our minds tell us that if we’d only done this or that, our pain and suffering might have been avoided. And yet, whatever fool he has been, and will continue to be, this foolishness is something we all do. I didn’t go to the dentist for a decade after an unpleasant root canal treatment. Avoidance, procrastination, burying our heads in the sand and refusing to see or tackle what is self-evident to everyone else, this is our bread and butter foolishness as far as the human animal species is concerned. Which is what makes those who throw their stony little tweets at everyone else who has failed them or themselves on a daily basis, a deliciously sad and farcical affair. We’re all living in glass houses. And those glass houses are sometimes called “our bodies”. [crash]


That is to say: the film maker Werner Herzog, and his “muse”, for want of a better word, Klaus Kinski.

So I thought it might be fun to watch Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a film I have always known about, but never seen. And while I was at it, why not also download the Les Blank documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo called Burden of Dreams.

If you don’t know Klaus Kinski who plays the eponymous fool in Fitzcarraldo, imagine a skinnier even more demented version of Boris Johnson: Boris Johnson as creepy, sex-crazed leader of a millennial cult. In the role of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, known to the Peruvian natives as Fitzcarraldo, Klaus Kinski as Fitz has the cock-eyed plan of dragging a three-story, 320 ton steamboat up an incredibly steep hill in order to access a grove of rubber trees which might he hopes make his fortune. The film is based on the story of Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, a real life rubber baron who at the height of the Amazon Rubber boom (1879-1912), disassembled a boat and had it carried in pieces across an isthmus from one river to the next.

What drives Fitzcarraldo for the most part however is not what drives Johnson (sex, power, money – most likely in that order), but a more foolish kind of striving within the realm of “art”. For Fitz is obsessed with opera, and would like to use his rubber earnings to build an Opera House in Iquitos, a small city, East of the Andes, in the Amazon basin. In some way, although portrayed as a kind of get-rich-quick entrepreneur, he is also aligned with the the archetype of the artist or creative: the visionary fool who struggles to explain to those around them their need to manifest their life energies in this way. “There’s a thread you follow”, writes the poet, William Stafford, “It goes among / things that change. But it doesn’t change.”:

People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Attending a party hosted by Don Aquilino, the rubber baron who eventually sells him the steamboat with which he will attempt this seemingly impossible feat, Fitz is unamused, maybe even disgusted by the conspicuous consumption and grandstanding he witnesses, such as when Don Aquilino drops a handful of cash into his carp pond, to show how even the fish have developed a taste for filthy lucre. At one point in the proceedings, Fitz tries to win the assembled financiers and entrepreneurs over to his side by playing them a song from Meyerbeer’s 1865 opera, L’Africaine, itself a kind of veiled commentary on issues of race, religion, slavery, and colonialism. For the gathered imperialists, Fitz decides to treat them to a 1907 recording of Enrico Caruso singing O Paradiso, itself a kind of hymn to impossible possibilities; perhaps also a rallying cry for that god-given birthright of the white man to colonize and monetize as much of the earth as he can. Although thankfully we now have a much more equal opportunities, Benetton affair in place when it comes to the pillaging of natural resources, China and India now getting into the act, and no doubt in the next few decades perhaps taking over the white man’s achievement of being Chief Desecrator of All He Surveys.

O paradise, emerging from the sea, wails Caruso.
Flowering earth, brilliant sun,
You entrance me!
You belong to me!

This is perhaps one of the most touching as well as amusing scenes of the film. Kinski beaming in evangelical delight and self-satisfaction as the keening of Caruso struggles to to cut through the chatter of the partygoers, some looking over with a modicum of tolerance, others blatantly ignoring him; the whole matter treated as a kind of embarrassment, as opposed to a conversion practice. We see the Fool’s intensely vulnerable desire to have his obsession, his religion you might say, vouchsafed by the attention and admiration of others. Kinski embodies the fool in this film, but perhaps in all the Herzog/Kinski films, in their purest, most child-like state, painfully earnest and enthused by their desire to draw others into their obsessive pursuits.

In Burden of Dreams, the documentary made to honour the trials and tribulations that went into the making of Fitzcarraldo, we begin to see parallels between the story of Fitz and Werner Herzog’s own Sisyphean dream to capture on celluloid these event, as well as the many topsy-turvy setbacks he and his crew faced in filming this story, mirroring problems that his central character also has to grapple with: most notably the mechanics of dragging that 300-ton steamer up the hill, as well as the sometimes fraught dealings and negotiations with indigenous tribes of the region. Above all, the seemingly indomitable spirit of Herzog and his crew in keeping this messy invention afloat, translating it from a script (written in three days by Alan Greenberg from notes sent to him by Werner Herzog), into human animals and their natural world interacting in that play of light we call cinema.

It becomes clear watching the documentary that Herzog and Kinski are two sides of the Fool archetype. Put simply: the Pro-Social Fool, who for the most part is externally focused on the world and others, versus the Anti-Social fool, introspectively and introvertedly curdled from within. One of these (Herzog perhaps) pursues his dreams and obsessions with a certain kind of conscientiousness, a sort of ethical underpinning – as an Apollonian Fool, we might say, to use that Nietzchian distinction. While the other fool, Kinski, unless manifesting in ecstatic as well as narcissistic (all eyes on me) performativity of his life-force, is by and large the epitome of an impatient, restless, testy and testing, Dionysian anarchist.

There is something inherently noble about the Herzog-like Fool, who gets knocked down over and over, but still manages to get up again, to keep calm and carry on. Herzog is the quintessence of keep calm and carry on in almost every scene we witness, whereas Kinski is a paragon of turbulence and chaos. This is best captured when we see Werner Herzog speaking to camera about the devastating blow visited on the project after his initial lead actor, Jason Robards, was forced through dystentry contracted on set to bow out of further filming, even though 40% of Fitzcarraldo had already been shot by this point:

[cf audio in podcast for quote: HERZOG “I live my life, or I end my life with this project”]

Compare this with Robard’s replacement, Kinski, and his protracted disgruntlement about how boring he finds it consigned to a camp in the jungle with nothing nothing else to do but read, eat, drink, play and make films. Oh how the heart bleeds for his struggles!

[cf audio in podcast for quote: KINSKI: “This fucking thing”

In his autobiography, Kinski dubs Herzog as “a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep.”

He continues.

“His speech is clumsy, with a toad-like indolence, long-winded, pedantic, choppy… I’ve never met anybody so dull, humourless, uptight, inhibited, mindless, depressing, boring and swaggering.”

Herzog has always explained away this tirade by saying that the two had cooked up the offending passages together: “Kinski came to me and said that he had to write bad things about me, that is what his filthy readers wanted. I even supported him in finding even viler and fouler and baser expletives. I would come to his place with the dictionary and thesaurus and together we would take the page of invective and make it more colourful.”

This may be true, but I also find it interesting that Kinski assigns adjectives to Herzog that are far more applicable to KK himself. It is an illuminating example of projection. For does not all projection manifest as an extension of our shadowy selves, those parts of us that may be known to others but obscure to our own metacognition, or perhaps the blindness resides in both of us? Think about those unconscious perceptions which fester in our minds, irritating our complexes when we get even a whiff of them in others, thus causing us to attempt a kind of distancing, an excommunication, or even exorcism of this part of our own psyche, by transposing or painting it over someone else’s in our own “miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, and cowardly” way.

Herzog would also made a documentary about Kinski 18 years after the filming of Fitzcarraldo, and almost a decade after Kinski’s death in 1991. He called his ambivalent tribute My Best Fiend (get it?), and it goes into some depth about his troubled but persisting relationship with KK whose destiny was inextricably intertwined with his own through the making of five strenuous films and a thousand interpersonal clashes.

If one were in any doubt about the violent and often bloody outcome of Kinski’s volatile mental health, My Best Fiend crushes any romanticism we might wish to sustain around the myth of Klaus Kinski. The most shocking stories are of his barbarism, there isn’t really another word for it, towards the indigenous people who played the Extras in those films: the metaphorical and literal footsoldiers of Aguirre, and Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde. Herzog interviews some of those extras who had their heads caved in, or were attacked, even fired at at when Kinski got a little bit too carried away on and off set.

The documentary opens with a scene of high comedy, almost buffoonish comedy, the Fool seen at his most charmingly eccentric but also most deranged. Herzog and his camera crew visit the boarding house in Munich where he lived for three months at the age of 13 with his mother and older brother Tilbert. The broken down boarding house has in the intervening years become supremely gentrified, and is now a palatial flat owned by the Baron and Baroness von der Recke.

Herzog in the persona of genial, affable fool, upbeat fool, avuncular fool, the fool as kindly therapist with a twinkle in his eye, relates that it is in this boarding house that he first met his friend, his fiend, his hall-of-mirrors reversal: Kinski, this human animal who would become in time Herzog’s psychic shadow, his foul-mouthed, malevolent, avaricious, nasty, sadistic, cowardly, swaggering doppelganger for the next fifty years.

“The owner of the boarding house,” he patiently explains to the equally polite and expensively tailored Baron and Baroness, “was an elderly lady of 65 with wildly dyed orange hair called Klara Reith who, had a soft spot for starving artists as she herself had come from a family of artists. Kinski had been living nearby in an attic, without furniture just bare beams, and everything covered knee-high with dead leaves. He posed as a starving artist and walked around stark-naked.”

“Oh yes?” the Baron says in a tone of one who is possibly regretting at this moment his decision to allow himself and his elegantly attired wife to be participants in Herzog’s film about Kinski.

“Yes, goes on Herzog, almost gleefully. “And when the postman rang. Kinski rustled through his leaves, stark-naked, and signed.

“But he wore clothes when he lived here, I hope?” the blue-blooded Baron hesitantly enquires.

Herzog then explains that Kinski would lock himself in this bathroom for two days and two nights. In this time, in a maniacal fury, he would smash everything to smithereens. The bathtub, the toilet bowl – everything. “You could sift it all through a tennis racket,” he relates, as if describing the some feat of wonder performed by a highly intelligent ape.

Herzog continues to set he scene: “It was really incredible. I never thought it possible that someone could rave for 48 hours. They called the police in the end, but they left him in peace. And then one day, Kinski took a huge running start down the corridor while we were eating. I heard a strange noise and then in an explosion the door came off its hinges crashing into the room. He must have jumped against it at full speed, and now he stood there flailing wildly, completely hysterical, snow-white in the face. He was foaming at the mouth, and something came floating down  like leaves -they were his shirts his screams were incredibly shrill. He could actually break wine glasses with his voice. And three octaves too high he screamed, ‘Klara! You pig!’ The thing was, she hadn’t ironed his shirt collars neatly enough. Klara had him living here for free, fed him and did his laundry. But to no avail. One day a theatre critic had been invited for dinner. He hinted that having watched a play in which Kinski had a small role he had decided to mention him in his review as outstanding and extraordinary. At once, Kinski threw two hot potatoes and the cutlery into the critic’s face, jumping up and screaming: “l was not excellent! I was not extraordinary! I was monumental! I was epochal!” All this made a very deep impression on me then,” the 13 year old Herzog admits through the mouth of his 57 year old self.” And then, as if he can’t quite believe his own foolishness: “To think that I would work with him later and make five feature films!”

“You would never have thought,” the Baroness at this point pipes up from her manicured finery.

“No, that was never on my horizon at the time,” Herzog admits, still surprised even now as to what has passed in the collaborative interactions of these two fools. “It was beyond my wildest dreams.”

Something is being worked out at a psychic level no doubt in the five films that the upright fool made with his shadow. Each of them are in some way a commentary on Kinki’s not so unique, monumental or epochal animal human insanity. Aguirre, Wrath of God (1973) is a study of megalomania and domination by brutal, even sadistic force embodied in Kinski. In Nosferatu (1979) Kinski is a vampire who longs for acceptance from the people he terrorizes. In Woyzeck (1979) he plays another outsider, who is driven to abase himself for the love of his wife and child, but this love also suffers a profound reversal ending in tragedy. Three years later, he’s back for Fitzcarraldo, and in the final film they made together, Cobra Verde (1987) where he plays a slave-trader who descends into the by now, archetypal Kinski terrain of madness and self-destruction.

How might we understand the relationship between the reversed fool and his upright doppelganger? Perhaps the writer and psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist, gives us one of the best ways to make sense of this, by focusing on where some of this division undoubtedly stems from, our divided human animal brains.

“What I found was the differences [between the two hemispheres] was not to do with what they did in terms of reason, language etc. But how they approached everything. The differences were in the manner of approach. And that brought me to the question of attention, because attention is how we dispose. From an evolutionary point of view. The basis for this is an evoltuinary need to do two entirely different things at once. One is a narrow, detailed, highly focused. In order to get it. In order to get food, pick up a seed. To manipulate the environment for your own good, you need a certain. But if that’s the only attention you pay, the whole of the world. And that’s extremely danger. In order to survive, you need to pay two kind In a soundbite, I say the Left Hemisphere is designed to help us manipulate the world, the Right Hemisphere to understand it.”

In this distinction, Kinski (and perhaps all fools in their reversed states) is the Left Hemisphere, aka The Manipulator: who will stop at nothing to get our specific needs met in whatever way we see fit.

McGilchrist’s overarching theme in his books The Master and His Emissary and The Matter With Things is that the human species as a whole, especially in its Western, post-enlightenment iteration has become dominated by the Left Hemisphere’s focus of attention, resulting in the destruction of ourselves and our natural habitats, as well as in the maltreatment and desecration of other human animals to get our shiny electronic toys, fashion items, and other playthings produced.

And even more perhaps, in the holocaust we visit upon the non-human animal world each day to feed our desire for anthropocentric domination, as well as our love of salty flesh and blood. For is not our manipulative Left-Hemisphere Fool driven first and foremost in its object-seeking by what Freud termed our libidinal drives, the search for something to put in our gobs or to stimulate our erogenous zones? And how can we not in this pursuit render (which is to say objectify) almost everything we come into contact with as if they were just things, objects, placed here on this planet for our personal use and satisfaction. All the evidence you need for this assertion within the realm of sexuality can be found on pornhub, and by the very fact that porn rather than poetry drives technological innovation. But what about that other bodily need? Consider that yesterday, whichever yesterday you have in your awareness at the moment, we (us human animals) killed 826 917 cattle for our spaghetti bolognese and hamburgers.That’s almost a million non-human animals from just one species of cloven-hooved herbivores dispassionately slaughtered to satisfy our taste for flesh. And that was just yesterday.

Also, in the last 24 hours, 1 186 484 fish were clobbered or asphyxiated for a dish of paella, or good old fashioned fish and chips. And an almost equal number of sheep (1 496 150) for comfort food such as shepherd’s pie and lamb vindaloo.

The Jews, some of my family included, still to this day wear sackcloth and ashes for the six million killed in the last century by Hitler and his gang. The Jews do not wear sackcloth and ashes for the 4 106 589 pigs killed in just the last twenty four hours for bacon butties and BBQ pulled pork, some of which we too, especially in our secular manifestations, have eaten and enjoyed. We Jews would certainly not wash our hands with soap made from fat drained off incarcerated, gassed, and burnt bodies at Auschwitz or Birkenau, but we don’t say no to non-human animal products, do we? All we need are our rabbis and our Food Standards Agency (the FSA as it is known in the UK) to deem that this mass slaughter is hygeniec in terms of consuming the flesh of the dead, and hey presto as if by magic, all that pain and destruction gets hidden away so that we can go shopping and feed our faces. And even though we have plant substitutes now for all our comfort foods, we rampage on don’t we, Klaus-Kinski like, with a big fuck you to pretty much everyone and anyone who even dares raise an eyebrow at the aisles of dead flesh that make up our supermarkets. Instead, we respond to this cognitive dissonance, with clever and sophisticated self-serving language that emanates from our left-hemisphere dominated brains. Control, procure, manage, manipulate, dominate, punish, proliferate, accumulate, aggrandize, and in whatever way you can, in culture, or business, or politics, make a killing; this is how we roll as human animals. Welcome to world of the apex predator, homo sapiens sapiens, aka you and me dear listener. You and me.

Werner Herzog in this analogy perhaps represents more that fool on the hill of the Right Hemisphere, whose raison-d’etre is slightly more inclined towards integration, incorporation, individuation, and understanding rather than the more shadowy reversals of the butcher and the restaurant critic supping on plates of dead flesh with much smacking of lips and clever commentary. This Fool’s attention, the Right Hemisphere Fool, is somewhat more focused on relational connection, on not just the parts but the whole, on what is new rather than what is known, on possibility rather than certainty, on flux and change as opposed to fixity and stasis, on viewing phenomena from implicit, context-embedded perspectives rather than decontextualised, explicit dogma; on seeing things as they are pre-conceptually -fresh unique and embodied -rather than as representations (literally re-presentations) after the fact.

But perhaps most importantly: these two fools need each other, and also balance out each other in some way, as long as one doesn’t get the upper hand.

The first cell felt no call to divide. No call to kill, to dominate, to manipulate. But we are descendants of the second cell, and therein lies both our glory as well as our (possibly) gory end. L’chaim!

The Fool The Tarot Cure

The Fool (iii): Better to Burn Out Than Fade Away?

In the autumn of 1918, a seven movement orchestral suite written over a period of four years by the English composer Gustav

Holst, premiered at the Queen’s Hall in London. Holst’s The Planets is arranged, like Tarot as a journey of sorts, a musical arcana: beginning with Mars, The Bringer of War and ending with Neptune, The Mystic. Having spanned the first world war in its writing, Holst might be seen as channeling the collective unconscious in his music. The Planets was described at the time as “the most ferocious piece of music in existence”; its rhythms, played at a tempo much quicker than a march, with little ingress given to deeds of heroism and patriotism. Rather, Mars, Bringer of War foreshadowed the inhuman mechanical forces threatening to overturn the fragile balance of our animal human peaceful co-existence, “lurching forward relentless and unstoppable” (Short, 1990:123). John Williams took many elements of Holst’s Mars for his Imperial March composition which you may recognise from the soundtrack he wrote for Star Wars’, establishing that dark, shadowy, brooding palette for each appearance of Darth Vader and his Death Squadron.

Holst’s music was boundary-pushing in many ways, not least the manner in which it was brought to a close via a fade-out. This had never been done before in classical music, and certainly not in this way. The fade-out, which occurs at the end of the last movement (Neptune, The Mystic) involves a Female Chorus who join the orchestra in this manner from a description in the score:

“The chorus is to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed. This bar to is be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.”

Presumably, such was the era, that it was not thought possible that female singers might be able to handle a fade-out using the gradual lowering of their own voices. Or maybe it was a veiled commentary on how The Male Powers That Be shut off and shut out the more peaceful energies associated with female archetypes: the maiden, the mother, the mystic.

Perhaps this is not surprising if you consider that this was also a period where women in Britain were demanding equal rights from their male politicians, husbands, fathers and brothers. In the early 20th century until the outbreak of World War I, when Holst starting writing The Planet’s, approximately one thousand suffragettes were imprisoned in Britain, and some like Emily Davison lost their lives in the process of fighting for their right to vote, for equality and enfranchisement in domestic and work setttings.

Ironically the first fade-out in recorded popular music also involves doors in its set-up. “Open The Door Richard” was recorded by Dusty Fletcher in 1946 and begins its fade-out about five seconds before the end of this brief, 3 minute song.

Open The Door Richard was based on a vaudeville routine (well worth watching on YouTube) in which Fletcher plays a drunken or stoned fool (I’m high as a Georgia Pine, but there ain’t no use being too high though) attempting to get back into the living quarters he shares with a friend or maybe his partner, Richard. The knockabout comedy of the scene involves Fletcher drunkenly climbing and falling off a workmen’s ladder as he attempts to break into his own boarding house. The short film has the feel of an African-American waiting for Godot, twenty years before Beckett introduced us to his two Irish fools, albeit with Russian names, Estragon and Vladimir, and their lost, yearning absurdist plight.

ESTRAGON: Charming spot. (He turns, advances to front, halts facing auditorium.) Inspiring prospects. (He turns to Vladimir.) Let’s go.
VLADIMIR: We can’t.
ESTRAGON: Why not?
VLADIMIR: We’re waiting for Godot.
ESTRAGON: (despairingly). Ah! (Pause.) You’re sure it was here?
ESTRAGON: That we were to wait.
VLADIMIR: He said by the tree. (They look at the tree.) Do you see any others?
ESTRAGON: What is it?
VLADIMIR: I don’t know. A willow.
ESTRAGON: Where are the leaves?
VLADIMIR: It must be dead.
ESTRAGON: No more weeping.
VLADIMIR: Or perhaps it’s not the season.
ESTRAGON: Looks to me more like a bush.
VLADIMIR: A shrub.
VLADIMIR: A—. What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?
ESTRAGON: He should be here.
VLADIMIR: He didn’t say for sure he’d come.
ESTRAGON: And if he doesn’t come?
VLADIMIR: We’ll come back tomorrow.
ESTRAGON: And then the day after tomorrow.
VLADIMIR: Possibly.

What you might ask has any of this to do with the Tarot fool. Well, at a very simple level: gravity. We are creatures whose minds and bodies work according to gravitational forces. What goes up…scratch must come down. What fades in, must fade out. Or sometimes just stop. In music production, this sudden ending, the equivalent of an orgasm or a heart attack, is called a Cold End. Most classical and early popular music would end in this way (examples). But as soon as we had the technology to create fade-ins and fade-outs, it seems like we often preferred this ending to falling off the edge of a track like that cartoon coyote Wile E. Coyote, the roadrunner’s nemesis, plummeting to their potential death again and again. Listen to how this song which I used in my last episode comes to a cold-ends in its recorded version. And here’s my fade-out on the last chorus, trying to build into that sonic tapering off a sense of us closing the door, but not entirely, on this joyous musical and non-musical tomfoolery which we hope will continue for those involved long after we have exited or left them behind. The fade-out in this case I hope hints at continuity and the perpetuity of life’s riches, even when we are no longer there in body or ears to appreciate this. Perhaps another analogy is that of walking down a gentle, rolling hill after a long hike, walking back into the village where you started from, the body gratified by all it has seen and explored, and looking forward to a pint of Guinness and a packet of peanuts before taking the train home.

David Huron, who runs the School of Music and Center for Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Ohio State University, takes us into the metaphysical realms of gravity as it applies to music in his book Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. “With a fade-out,” he writes, “music manages to delay closure indefinitely.The ‘stop’ gesture is replaced by a gesture towards the ‘infinite.’ ”

A few years ago, some researchers at Hanover University had music students tap along to the beat of different versions of the same song. One song ended with a fade-out, another brought things to a halt with an exuberant flourish. Listening to the cold ending, people stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the music itself came to an end. Sensing the auditory precipice about to pull us into nullity, it is as if we almost give up on the song we’re currently listening to, on the life of the song, as well as giving up on our own pleasure before the piece is even over. As we sometimes hardly taste the food on our plate when finishing it off, we perhaps cheat ourselves out of potential experience, but is that not always the case. When listening to a fade-out however, the music students continued tapping a couple of seconds after the song’s end, supporting the idea that the fade-out allows the song to live on beyond its physical limits, as we human animals have always hoped the soul might do when biological functioning comes to its own cold-end. And even though we all apprehend that fundamental law of existence which states that everything, including us, lives in the dimension of transience, that no experience or situtation can endure permanently in a system predicated on entropy, metamorphosis and change, the idea, the fantasy of a neverending story is still a sweet one – in all sorts of domains, especially that of eros and ambition. I guess it also belies that romantic but also death-loving notion that it’s better to burn out than to die away, a phrase introduced to us in a Neil Young song from the 70s, but further glorified in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. Like really, Kurt? I think Dave Grohl has shown us all that it’s probably better to fade away, note to self.

This feels a little counterintuitive, for surely it might be expected to leave us frustrated, this denial of a final resounding chord, bringing everything to a conclusive end. “But because the fade-out has a slow, gradual trajectory, writes Phillip Ball in his book The Music Instinct, “we can anticipate its vanishing point rather as we can anticipate the resting place of a rolling ball, and so we have a kind of substitute expectation that is fulfilled, leaving us with a mixed emotion that might be described as contented yearning.”

Perhaps this phrase “contented yearning” is a truer approximation of what we sometimes refer to with words like happiness or fulfilment. I think here of Freud’s famous distinction in his Studies on Hysteria (1895) between neurotic dysfunctionality and ordinary human suffering: “that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming our hysterical misery into common unhappiness”. The latter notion (common unhappiness) perhaps closer to this idea of a fade-out, or a more gentle fall than the ups and downs of “hysterical misery”. Is not the the chorus, where the fade often occurs, not the most pleasurable, even addictive part of the song (filled as it is with all those melodic hooks) even as we hear it slide into abeyance. And is not the displeasure of this abeyance, this departure, this hedonic recession also a kind of bittersweet but meaningful farewell.

“The person who will not suffer pain fails to ‘suffer’ pleasure” writes the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion in his book Attention and Interpretation (1970). This denies us, he goes onto explain, the encouragement we might otherwise receive from accidental or intrinsic relief.” We seem inclined at times to cold-end our emotions or perceptions, rather than staying with them for the fade-out, the fall, however that occurs for us.

Fall. Fool. Even linguistically, the word fool seems just a short phonemic step or slide away from a nosedive, or is it a kind of take-off, (/fɔ:l/ => /fuːl/). Which comes first, the fall or the fool? Phonologically speaking, fool seems higher placed in the mouth than fall, like a phoenix emerging from the flames of suffering. Perhaps one can only be a fool if one has fallen many many times over one’s life and found, after being knocked down once more, a way to get up again.

And what of that modernist icon, the flower-proferring Fool as imagined by Patrician Coleman Smith for what is now considered by many to be our archetypal tarot deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith pack of 1909. This non-binary fool as I see them, is wearing a kind psychedelic frock that wouldn’t look out of place in Grayson Perry’s bright, even gaudy, trans wardrobe. They are frolicking through an alpine landscape with thir little dog (shades of Heidi or Tintin) carrying all their worldly goods in knapsack tied to a stick, which we also recognise as a repurposed wand.

I find it interesting that this image was created in the first decade of the last century where the world began to feel that it it might too fall disasterously into global war and chaos, which of course it did, and is set to do again no doubt with pandemics and climate catastrophes threatening our continuation as a species. Just in case you haven’t been keeping up with what’s going on out there: humanity is currently in the midst of a fade-out.

Recently a University in the UK asked 10,000 16-25 year olds what they thought our odds might be in terms of surviving the catastrophes we unwittingly, foolishly, oh what fools we are, brought upon ourselves. Eighty-three percent of the respondents believe that we haven’t taken adequate care of our planet. Three quarters of them see the future as frightening, and more than half believe that we are doomed as a species, doomed to extinction. And yet, of course, like everyone who agrees with them (I certainly do), the option now of cutting back on our hypercapitalist, consumer-driven lifestyle, a way of being in the world that we’ve all grown accustomed to, maintained by fossil fuels and non-recyclables, suggest that there really is no turning back now. Is it not plain for all to see, that this foolish, greedy, comfort-seeking animal species, is on the verge, if not already going over the edge, maybe even quite soon, perhaps even by the end of this century, as we continue stare fixedly into the sky, waiting for the great gods of Science and geopolitical collaboration to save us. I think it’s also pretty clear by now that the cavalry ain’t coming. Perhaps this generation and certainly future ones will experience some kind of painful asphyxiating fade-out rather than the here-today-gone-tomorrow cold-ends that we feared from nuclear war in the 20th century, or terrorism. Had covid been ten percent more transmissable (as future plagues are quite likely to be), our species would have been decimated in no time at all.

“What bulk can we ascribe to thoughts?” asks Jung in his collection of talks published as Man’s Search For A Soul: “Are they small, large, long, thin, heavy, fluid, straight, circular, or what? If we wished to form a vivid picture of a nonspatial being of the fourth dimension, we should do well to take thought, as a being, for our model.” Is not the fool, some version of a thought, a psychic phenomena acting with the world. And what is that world, that landscape. Jung goes on to delineate this landscape, its hills and valleys and mountains, as the unconscious, which he distinguishes from conscious experience thus:

“While consciousness is intensive and concentrated, it is transient and is directed upon the immediate present and the immediate field of attention; moreover, it has access only to material that represents one individual’s experience stretching over a few decades. A wider range of “memory” is artificially acquired and consists mostly of printed paper. But matters stand very differently with the unconscious. It is not concentrated and intensive, but shades off into obscurity; it is highly extensive and can juxtapose the most heterogeneous elements in the most paradoxical way. More than this, it contains, besides an indeterminable number of subliminal perceptions, an immense fund of accumulated inheritance-factors left by one generation of men after another, whose mere existence marks a step in the differentiation of the species.

He then goes on to personify this collective human being, a non-binary creature “combining the characteristics of both sexes, transcending youth and age, birth and death, and, from having at [their] command a human experience of one or two million years, almost immortal. If such a being existed,” which of course they do, as an archetype, that of the fool, I would argue, “[they] would be exalted above all temporal change; the present would mean neither more nor less to [them] than any year in the one hundredth century before Christ; [they] would be a dreamer of age-old dreams and, owing to [their] immeasurable experience, [they] would be an incomparable prognosticator. [They] would have lived countless times over the life of the individual, of the family, tribe and people, and [they] would possess the living sense of the rhythm of growth, flowering and decay.”

And this creature, who of course is all of us, connects with their landscape, their surroundings (the collective unconscious, which also lives through and in each of us) via a kind of creative engagement with our world that we sometimes call play, and at other times, dream:

“This being dreams. At least it seems to us as if the collective unconscious, which appears to us in dreams, had no consciousness of its own contents—though of course we cannot be sure of this, any more than we are in the case of insects. The collective unconscious, moreover, seems not to be a person, but thing like an unceasing stream or perhaps an ocean of images and figures which drift into consciousness in our dreams or in abnormal states of mind.”

When “awake” though this creature, our fool, lives wholly/holy in the Now, focused on the present and on presence, as if a slip of attention, might lead to a precipitous fall into the unconscious, primitive, animality of fight and flight:

Here is a human animal who “stands upon a peak, or at the very edge of the world, the abyss of the future before them, above them the heavens, and below the the whole of so-called mankind with a history that disappears in primeval mists.”

This creature is ““unhistorical” in the deepest sense and has estranged himself from the mass of men who live entirely within the bounds of tradition. Indeed, he is completely modern only when he has come to the very edge of the world, leaving behind him all that has been discarded and outgrown, and acknowledging that he stands before a void out of which all things may grow.

There is a zen parable that I have always loved. It relates to an incident of someone caught between two potential forces of annihilation. Maybe at a more metaphorical level you too might have experienced times when you felt yourself caught between a rock and a hard place, when the thought “Well I’m just screwed here, aren’t I?” confirms some crippling loss of agency for the self. Here is the parable rendered as a pithy poem by Chio Nakamura:


You’re having a bad day.
Chased by a tiger to the edge of a cliff,
you scramble over and grab hold of a vine.

But now there’s another one prowling below,
and two hungry mice heading for your lifeline.

You take a deep breath,
adjusting to how things are,
and notice some wild strawberries
growing nearby,
dotted with flowers
and tiny red fruit.

What else can you do now but reach for a berry?
What else can you do now?

Keep. Calm. And. Carry. On.

You may be aware of the story behind this resuscitated 1940s meme. How the British Ministry of Information came up with the stiff-upper-lip mantra, to orchestrate and strengthen public morale with the threat of war looming. You may have heard how the two and a half million posters never fully connected to the public imagination as [devotional?] images until one of these pieces of mild-mannered propaganda was hung up near the cash register of a second-hand bookshop in Northumberland, attracting enough interest to spur on a merchandising empire. Twenty years later, aided by the internet, replicas of the poster are now on sale from Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, but everywhere else too, printed onto a deluge of mugs, t-shirts, keyrings, vegan fruit flavour jelly sweets, stress balls, golf-balls, cushions, tote bags, and that’s only the first page of Amazon merch you can buy with this phrase stamped onto it. Eight-hundred and fourteen other options are also available for those keen to be reminded to kcaco on a daily basis.

I have always been somewhat repulsed by the injunction which has sounded in my ears as a sanctimonious piece of stiff-upper-lippery, intertwined with our fetishisation of royalty: each iteration of the epigram capped by the supposedly fortifying image of a Tudor Crown. As if Royal poise and composure so familiar to us from media images of that archetype extending a polite gloved hand to the hoi-poloi kneeling and fawning in grateful admiration before them, were a matter of personal virtue rather than a performance of priveleged exemption from most of the travails of life by dint of wealth and power.

A few months ago however, I saw a Keep Calm & Carry On Tree-shaped air-freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror of a beaten up Rover Mini Cooper and had my own mini awakening. For it struck me that this twofold injunction to self-regulate in moments of high stress (keep calm) plus a behavioural cue to bring one’s focus and energies to a meaningful task (and carry on), was as good an operating system for our current iteration of human animality as anything else.

It is also intrinsic to the wisdom of the fool who might see the winding spiritual paths that some feel inclined to climb, always promising to deliver us from our “lower”, instinctual nature to that of a “higher” spiritual essence as a false distinction, a form of spiritual materialism or spiritual bypassing, which is to say, “the tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks” in the words of John Welwood.

Spiritual materialism, like any form of non-spiritual materialism, sees peace or the serenity of enlightenment as something to be found at some point in the future through undertaking a hero’s journey of asceticism, meditation, and study rather than a here-and-now self-transcendence where peace and calm are sought and maybe even created for our minds in any moment rather than as a hoped-for spiritual end product.

“This [end-product] can only be and remain a dream, a fantasy,” writes the spiritual teacher and artist Lee Lozowick, “the pot of gold at the long end of the large and elusive rainbow…which is basically physically impossible.” What is possible however is to breathe in deeply, and then on the outbreath surrender completely to our conscious experience in every moment. Or perhaps to focus with curiosity and wonder on a wild flower or piece of fruit by the side of the road, or the one clasped in our hand, as in the Rider-Waite image of the Fool, even if this focus might result in a moment of looking away from our potentially threatening surroundings so as to experience a few seconds of peace from within. What else can we do now but reach for a berry?

But what if that continual reaching for the berry, for our phones, and all the other aspects of our life that require electricity, oil, coal, gas to power them?

We don’t like to fall, to fail, to be a fool (especially in the eyes of a another if it also involves some diminishment in status) and will do everything we can to avoid feeling this way even though we also understand as soon as we move from a crawling position and attempt to stand and walk, as we all do as infants, that falling, failing, and being foolish is hardwired into us and how we see ourselves and the world.

It’s certainly core to our language. Lakoff and Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By show how the psyche is structured according to certain orientational metaphors which are mainly to do with, being creatures who work in three dimensions, up-down, in-out, front-back, on-off, deep-shallow as well as central versus peripheral.

So for example, yesterday I was feeling down (I really was, bound to the earth, crawling along like a slug or a snake) whereas today I’m more “up” moodwise, more in that frolicking foolish space, you might say, as I try to communicate some of these ideas here. But why should happy necessarily be linked to up (as in phrases such as: one’s spirits being boosted, or rising, or in thinking about someone or something we like, our hearts are lifted) whereas sadness is always down (depressed, falling into depression, feeling low, spirits sinking). Health and and life are also up (Lazarus rising from the dead, being at the peak of your health, in top form) whereas sickness is down (you come down with the flu, your health is declining, sinking fast, and maybe finally, as in a physiological cold end, dropping dead).

There is a great deal of psychological coherence within these linguistic systems, mapping as they do onto our lived experiences. Having control is also about being up (to be on top of things, at the height of your power, to rank above someone else) whereas being subject to control is down (under someone’s thumb, declining powers, a social inferior). Status in genreal is an up-down game (rising to the top, climbing the ladder, upward mobility) versus being bottom of the social hierarchy. More is up (income rising, productivity increasing) less is down (you’re underage, can;t come in; turn the heat down on the thermostat). Good is up, bad is down. Virtue is up (to have high standards, be an upright citizen) whereas depravity is down (it’s beneath you, to be underhanded, I wouldn’t stoop to that). And this also maps over to the virtue of rationality which is experienced as up versus emotions which are experienced as down (the discussion fell to an emotional level, we say, but we raised it back up to a more level-headed plane; we try to rise above our emotions, keeping things in perspective often involves a sense of hovering over everything that is threatening to pull us down.

What I think I’m pointing to here is something that Barbara Tversky has spent the last 30 years researching, showing that the same neural foundations that serve spatial thought (neuroscientists refer to these as place and grid cells which are mainly to be found in the hippocampus) also represent ideas in conceptual spaces. Spatial thinking doesn’t just mirror abstract thinking but is in fact the foundation of our abstract thinking. Which is to say that the spatial dimensions of up, down, or whatever vector we feel our life is travelling on or towards at the moment, fundamentally configures our conscious experience of ourselves and others in foundational ways. With this in mind, we might see the icon of the fool, hovering on a precipice of experience, either about to fall into oblivion, or step over and onto a more gradual decline, a fade-out, as core to how our minds and bodies work. The very act of thinking, of being conscious, is an up-down affair, sometimes involving precipitous drops or escalations, and other times a more gradual process of realisation or participation.

“A successful fade-out is in reality quite hard to acheive” writes Timothy Warner in Pop Music Technology and Creativity: “it needs to start at a particular point (neither too early, nor too late), be over at a particular point, and usually follows a non-linear pattern of volume decrease (decreasing more quickly at the end).

When we reach the end (the end of a song, or a certain kind of thought stream, or an experience) it is as if the whole of that song/thought or life trajectory had been aspiring to this point. The fade-out, a non-binary alternative to the more off/on, up/down guillotine ending, acts as a goad to listen again, our attention being reincarnated once more, but also suggests that these repeated musical, perceptual, or speculative patterns, like all natural constellations (the flow of the tides, menstrual blood, the seasons) might be accepted as self-evident phenomena, something we can, like the fool, surrender to rather than fight against.

When we follow the fade-out into silence, it is as if in the world of that silence, the echo of the chorus still ringing in our ear, allows us to re-experience the lived actuality of the song, even though it has crossed over into imaginative recreation and so no longer exists. I think it is perhaps this foolish notion of an afterlife, of something beyond this moment of pain or pleasure, the hope or desire for continuity in a more peaceful realm, that presents us with the most convincing, or at least the most consoling version of human animal fulfilment we know of. To get to the Universe card at the end of the major arcana, or at least this universal aspiration, is to go on a fool’s journey. From my perspective, there is no other way to get there.

The Fool The Tarot Cure

The Tarot Fool (ii): What A Fool Believes

As true to life as the Sola Busca, bagpipe-playing fool appears to be, with their chunky calves and barrel-like chest, they may come across, pinned to this network of signifiers that we call the Tarot, like an illustration of an idea, or a concept, rather than an embodied, felt entity. It is hard to get a sense of the inner life of this 500 year old fool, to feel into the even more ancient archetype, stretching back to a point before we even thought of ourselves as human, but this is something I would like to do here as much as explicate the figure as is often done on Tarot websites.

To feel into the fool, we might look at the image of another human animal, one painted just a few decades after the Sola Busca pack came into being, and with it that other fool I explored in the first episode or track of my Foolish LP. LP, as in Long Player (if I can keep to it, this podcast may last a lifetime), but also perhaps denoting a Libertarian Project, a Lackadaisical Performance, or a Loose Pursuit.

The fool in this episode was drawn and painted by Hans Holbein The Younger. The original painting was destroyed in a fire in 1752, but we (or rather the Kunstmuseum in Basel) still hold some of the pencil studies that Holbein drew for his family portrait of Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of England.

The portrait commissioned on the occasion of More’s 50th birthday. Perhaps I feel drawn to, even obsessed by this image, because in June of this year I too racked up half a century, an age where one starts to plan for a Fool’s journey or project, an age where one is not quite old enough to be a senile old fool, where one can still listen to Silk Sonic and dance deliriously on a grey shagpile carpet, but also an age where one is almost (on a good day) emancipated from certain elements of youthful idiocy that might dog our heels like a yappy chihuahua.

In the drawing of Sir Thomas More’s family, everyone is looking away from us, as well as averting their eyes from each other, but one figure looks directly at the artist, and through him, through time and circumstance, to us the viewer with a calm, but also undaunted look on their face. As if to say: take what you want from me, I am as open as one of these many illustrious and heavy books in this learned man’s house.

We might even translate the expression on his face into modern psychological parlance as something like: I too, like you, am disturbed or discomforted at times by these shadowy, unprocessed elements of my psyche, but I try not shy away from them, from my inner world, that inner world of shadow, of soul, all held and configured in some way by the collective unconscious, which may be thought of even more simply as Our Culture (family, tribal, global), and how it manifests inside and around us in ways that shape our perceptions, experiences, ideas and even more painfully, those tyrannical ideals that we hold ourselves accountable to. Who or what we might become in the social milieu of Our Culture, what sort of role or persona we might wish to play or pursue, all of those yearned for mutations and transfigurations.

Who is this figure who looks out from that lost painting? It is nobody, like all of us. We are all nobodies, even when named and assigned a position in our social worlds. Which is to say: we are at all times unbodied selves, egos personalities, created out of language and narrative.

This nobody is called Henry Patenson and he is Thomas More’s fool, who perhaps because he is not shy at holding our gaze, seems to jump across time to meet us in a way that all the other fools in this painting can’t or won’t.

This is the special perogative of the fool I think, to consciously, meta-cognitively stand outside the frame of any given situation, ideological or epistemological, to stand to one side of our culture’s certainties and self-bolstering assumptions, and to express, like the child who called out when the naked emperor walked past “What the!?”.

Or even better, as the wise child Gary Coleman, in a beloved TV sitcom of my youth, would at some point in every episode say: “What you talking about Willis” What you talking about Boris? What you talking about you climate catastrophe deniers. What you talking about anti-vaxxers? What the [beep] are you talking about? And even more so: why?

Everyone else in this painting can be understood as inhabiting a persona: the word taken directly from the Latin by Carl Jung in the early years of the last century, as he grappled with his understanding of the animal human psyche, his own and that of others. It refers, as you may know, to masks worn by “actors in antiquity”. Our persona is how we present to the Outer World as Jung called it: all our interactions with others in the flesh or more likely nowadays, as avatars in the metaverse of social media. There is little felt, inner presence to this experience, we are absent somehow when we inhabit a persona, we fuse with and into its function and force.

“The persona is exclusively concerned with the relation to objects.” writes Jung in his 1921 book Psychological types. “The relation of the individual to the object must be sharply distinguished from the relation to the subject. By the “subject” I mean first of all those vague, dim stirrings, feelings, thoughts, and sensations which flow in on us not from any demonstrable continuity of conscious experience of the object, but well up like a disturbing, inhibiting, or at times helpful, influence from the dark inner depths, from the background and underground vaults of consciousness, and constitute, in their totality, our perception of the life of the unconscious.”

We see this being played out in the Holbein painting. For around this historical fool, Henry Patenson, we have Thomas More’s family all playing some version of themselves. For example: Margaret Roper, the chancellor’s oldest and brainiest daughter is, true to type, sitting with a book on her lap. Dame Alice, More’s second wife, is also reading a book behind her. Maybe More and/or the artist found women reading a turn-on or a signifier for virtue. If this was a modern portrait of the great and the good, they would probably be looking at their phones. It is only Henry Patenson, More’s fool who seems fully present, fully inhabiting his body, who looks at Holbein, Hans, Henry meeting the gaze of Hans the artist, also in the employ of Thomas More, as another subject rather than as an object.

It was not uncommon for the great and the good of that era to have such a figure in their employ. The fool’s role in domains of power, writes John Southworth in his book Fools and Jesters, “may be as old as kingship itself”.

The ‘trickster’ figure that anthropologists have identified in ancient myths and legends, the chaos-makers and sower of discord, who frighten the hell out of us, but also appeal in their vitality and creativity, might at some point become bound and contained in a mutually advantageous partnership with a tribal chieftain or king; advantageous to the ruler because they provide him with necessary recreation (fools could often play musical instruments, sing, tell stories and jokes) but also, because the fool possesses little social capital themselves, they are not vying for status like everyone else, they are nothing but that form in which they manifest moment to moment, having through circumstance or by conscious choice, stepped out of zero sum game of status and the being of a somebody which seems at times to be the only glue that holds the human animal species together. One’s personal fool might also bring to the ruler’s attention gossip and plots against their master overheard from other courtiers. We see this strikingly and incredibly movingly in Shakespeare’s King Lear and in Lear’s co-dependent relationship with his wise fool.

If you were a king, or in the case of More, the The Lord Chancellor of England, the rituals and obligations of your position would not necessarily make it easy to enjoy or benefit from the humour and companionship of another’s intimate inner world, the inner world of the human animal. For everyone around you would be a fleshy avatar of sorts, mainly inhabiting the performance of persona.

Only a fool might be able to relate to Sir Thomas More as another animal human, and also as someone who can always see beyond the masks we tend to wear in public and often in private. I first experienced what it felt like to inhabit this position as a fool when in my early 20s I taught one-to-one business English (I have no idea how this came about, I knew nothing of business having studied English Literature at university) to politicians and various other commercial bigwigs in Milan and Rome. These men (and they were unfortunately men for the most part) enjoyed being able to say things to me, to confide in me about their family or work struggles, in a foreign tongue which made their confessions seem somehow less real to them, and so maybe less shameful. You might say, as a psychotherapist, I am still playing this role thirty years on.

In our own age, intensely saturated with masks (social media is almost nothing but masks) the fool joins the ranks of certains kinds of therapists or healers, of comedians, as well as creatives of various hues, and yes even tarot card readers or anyone who still exists in that liminal space where a psychic messenger might be required carry some form of communication from the inner world to the surface, from esoteric to exoteric, from magical or mystical to the mundane, maybe giving voice something that we’re all thinking but dare not put our masks aside to utter.

In the last two years, we have all experienced how uncomfortable, claustrophobic and glasses-befogging it is to wear these outer masks all the time. I am practically blind in the winter when I walk around in my surgical blue polypropylene muzzle – imagine having to wear such a thing, in the shape of a persona all day long? Which of course is mostly how we experience ourselves and each other. As persona-lities. Hard to let go of our persona-lities, or get beyond someone else’s. At some level, maybe even impossible.

Henry Patenson, unlike his master Thomas More, didn’t leave any account of himself. But perhaps his spirit was captured by More’s friend, the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who would often shoot the breeze with Patenson when Erasmus was given permanent rooms in the Old Barge on the Thames side in Bucklersbury, More’s home for the first two decades of his married life.

It is here that the young Erasmus wrote his masterpiece In Praise of Folly. I’d never read the book, even though I’d often read of it whilst doing my term of renaissance studies at University. Recently I listened to In Praise of Folly as an audiobook, and I’m glad I did for it comes across, I kid you not, as an early Renaissance Netflix Comedy Special. If you’re a fan of Bill Hicks, or Nish Kumar, Frankie Boyle, Hannah Gadsby, Schumer, Wong, Silverman, anyone with a bit of bite, you will dig In Praise of Folly, although it does at times wear its 15th century misogyny on its sleeve like dried vomit on a denim jacket.

In Praise of Folly is the very best kind of stand-up, interrogating the fakery and hypocrisies of it day, with broad-brush satire, as well as a delicious childlike transparency, pointing as if often does to the emperors and politicians inner shadowy worlds, pointing out that they too, in the sanctum of their minds and hearts, are naked, vulnerable, flawed creatures covered with nothing but the apparel and attire, the modes and methods of language, this language here, which uses us even more than we pretend to use it.

Erasmus’s humour, perhaps modelled on Patenson himself, although Folly (cue the misogyny) is imagined as a woman rather than a man, is leavened by shrewd and sagacious insights, elegantly mirroring the folly of our own age and probably of every idiotic animal human age, reminding us once more why the fool, an uncounted, uncountable zero, a nobody, standing apart from the world by dint of class or circumstance, or just sheer bloody-minded otherness, is somehow able to see more deeply into our experience of being and of consciousness.

The curious double-act of king and fool, master and servant, self and shadow, may also be seen as a universal, symbolic expression of the antithesis lying at the heart of an autocratic state, or an autocratic psychic system, run as we now fully understand it to be configured according to libidinal drives, status-driven politicking, and even more so the business of feeling of control through social or financial assets. The fool on his tiny unicycle teeters between the forces of order and disorder, of structured authority and incipient anarchy, in which the conditional nature of the his status (‘so far but no further’) gives reassurance that ultimately order will always prevail.

Eternal underdog as he is, constrained as he is, he also continually threatens to break free of whatever structure he finds himself in, pushing that often phantasmagorical structure, created out of language and thought, to it limits, in order to arrive at whatever freedom he might find therein or outside of it. He is the the Dionysian trickster of myth in a historical strait-jacket from which he is forever struggling to escape. I can very much relate to this double bind, how about you?


The Fool The Tarot Cure

The Tarot Fool (i): In The Middle of The Road, There Was A Stone

A human animal in floppy blue boots, ten little piggy toes poking out the front of them, completely assailable to the elements, is walking through a blighted, ravaged landscape: one lone, blasted tree wobbling in the background against a bleached out sky; whilst underfoot lie various bruising or even piercing stones that would make it almost impossible to proceed without some painful orthopedic stress on their semi-clad body.

“In the middle of the road, there was a stone,” writes the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond De Andrade, speaking from a translation by Elizabeth Bishop: “there was a stone in the middle of the road
there was a stone
in the middle of the road there was a stone,” the poem cum koan continues to intone.

“Never should I forget this event
in the life of my fatigued retinas.
Never should I forget that in the middle of the road
there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

This creature who stands looking out at from a tarot card, in the middle of the road we might call Life seems robust, and fleshy enough, well-fed, even though divested of appropriate clothing for the setting. They are wearing a bright red off-the shoulder toga or smock which looks as if it had been sewn together in a fashion so elementary as to be almost coming apart at the seams. Almost. As we are almost coming apart at the seams, always.

They, I will use non-binary pronoun for this archetype wears a hat, which looks as if it is made of dried oak leaves and sassafras. They are also playing some rudimentary bagpipes, the bagpipes are coloured a dull plum or eggplant hue, just like the hat. Bagpipes, at this point in human animal history (circa 1490) are usually made from the skin of a dog or a goat that perhaps once kept our wandering minstrel, if that is how they would identify, company: the limbs of the dead companion cut off and its torso sewn up so as to create a fuzzy pouch to holds the breath of a human animal or animal human which is now blown into the inflatable bag, and released as a warbling series of drones across the desolate landscape, the kind of music that might attract a raspy songbird – for there is also a crow here or a raven perched on one of the bagpipe player’s bony shoulders, as if the feathered familiar was readying itself to join in with whatever weltschmertz is currently being played out through this practice or process.

Who owns those scrawny little feet? Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs? Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death.
Who owns these questionable brains? Death.
All this messy blood? Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes? Death.
This wicked little tongue? Death.

Oh the Weltschmertz, that lovely German expression, which translates as worldpain or world-weariness, arising more often than not from an acute awareness of the inadequacies and general unsatisfactory nature of our existence. For are we not, with a nod to everyone’s favourite Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, “thrown” into this domain of life, dropped as bombs sometimes drop from the sky into a potentially explosive family set-up, a socioeconomic rung on the ladder strethcing from poverty to privelege that was never chosen by us, or for us, even if ideas about karma might suggest some moral continuity between one form of existence and the next.

And while we’re doing etymologies, let us remind ourselves that the English word Fool, if that is what we are going to call this archetype, comes to us through the French fou, an evolution probably from the Vulgar Latin “follis” indicating a leather bag, or a blacksmith’s bellows, used to fan the flames so as to work some of the strongest metals known to us (aluminium and lithium alloys, copper, stainless, steel, manganese) so that Jeff Bezos might blast himself off into space in a giant white phallus, a giant cock of a spaceship, called blue origin. Within the word fool, there is always the sense of “windbag”, a podcaster if you like.

I have found one of the earliest examples of the Tarot in a deck of cards, created in Ferrara Italy in the late 15th Century. Today we refer to this deck as the Sola-Busca Tarot, and think of it as the first complete 78-card tarot deck, commissioned for a Venetian patrician by Duke Ercole d’Este (1431–1505) probably as part of some political or trade negotiations between the Ferrarese and The Venetians, Italy being a hotch-potch of disunited states in this period, and some would argue, still.

The conceptual forces ruling over this card according to Peter Mark Adams were provided by Duke Este’s court astrologer Pellegrino Prisciani who was influenced by Pagan Neoplatonism, and other non-Christian naughtiness. At the time, those interested in such things, rather than posting their theories on Reddit might have referred to themselves in hushed whispers as having a predilection for the “occult” (from the Latin occultus: hidden, concealed, secret). Nowadays we might study inherently occult processes as part of our social sciences education (psychology, economics, sociology) or even the natural sciences. Occult forces are often viewed by us so-called moderns as subconscious or unconscious processes, we are all occult urchins now. What is occult about this first card in the Tarot pack, this haunting image of a social misfit, or interloper, so at odds with the other more worldly characters, which we now refer to as the Major Arcana?

Just off to to one side of their head we can just about make out the letters MA and on the other side TO. MATO: crazy, insane, one sandwich short of a picnic. “Sei matto!” (you’re nuts!) we might exclaim in modern colloquial Italian at a friend who has just bought an oversized Kentia palm for their messy jungle of a flat, even though they have nowhere to put it. Matto, from the Latin Mattus, meaning drunk, which seems the only reasonable explanation for how this purchase was made. Between the semi-clothed fool and the blasted tree limb, the fifteenth century artist has also inscribed a non-digit, the placeholder zero, nought, or oh, a hovering globe of something denoting nothing.

Let us not forget that the Greeks, who to us current humans, are not-so-distant cousins, had no symbol for zero. How can nothing be something plagued their thinkers. As Charles Seife writes in Zero: The Biography of A Dangerous Idea, zero to the Greeks was an anathema. This is because it countered all philosophical orthodoxies of numbers, ratios and proportions put in place by Pythagoras.

Ratios (especially that of the golden ratio) controlled musical, physical and mathematical beauty and order. Understanding nature was as simple as understanding the mathematics of proportions. In the Greek universe, earth sat neatly at the centre of the universe, and the sun, moon, planets, and stars revolved around the earth, each pinned inside a sphere. The ratios of the sizes of the spheres were arranged in a comprehensible orderly way. Naturally they were, designed by God, and maybe even were further proof of this God, so as the spheres moved, they made music at different pitches, all together, the moving planets made a “harmony of the spheres,” and so the heavens and our place as human animals as witnesses to this, became beautiful mathematical orchestra which all beautifully added up. “All is number,” wrote Pythagoras, and zero wasn’t a number. Zero was a threat.

Geometric figures, us included, have width and height. But what figure might have the width of zero and the height of zero. In a universe governed by ratios, everything has to be rational. But as we know now, when a number is multiplied by zero it disappears into the void through which it was set against, rather than generating further, greater, better, even more whole and ratio-nal numbers. No wonder zero was seen by the Greeks as a threat to everything they intellectually stood for. And no wonder we Westerners as the progeny of so called Greek civilization still find forms of foolishness to be deeply, deeply disturbing. For they remind us that we are but fools, animals first, and humans a distant second, that we cling onto the rational, proportioned human in us tenuously, and often not at all.

To introduce zero into any system of divine order is to introduce the idea of the void and the infinite into the safe space a seemingly ordered Universe. Trigger warning: choppy seas ahead.

In infinite space as that tagline from Ridley Scott’s Alien would have it no one can hear you scream, which is what Western thinkers did for a couple of millennia whenever the concept of zero was raised. But if this 500 hundred year old tarot card could talk or sing, it would probably sound something like the high-pitched wheeze, the droning zero of bagpipes, rather than the articulated music of the spheres. Or it would sound like one of Shakespeare’s fools talking in riddles and koans, often closer to poetry than prose, alighting on a kind of irreducible sense (we might call this Reality) through a willingness to contain as well as express nonsense.

The fool, the so-called insane creature, just like that anxiety provoking number or anti-number zero is a kind of provocation to everything within our physical as well as mental realm, everything that appears to “add up”, suggesting that when we are all stumbling across a rock-strewn stage of life, upon which we are very much stumbling now, that there is no ultimate essence in our conscious experience onto which we might cling, no matter how vivid any of it feels or seems, only surface, only dream, a plight that for many has been and will continue to be maddening in various ways.

For to inhabit the world of the Fool, the zero card of the deck, we need to allow ourselves to become unfixed a little, unmoored in some way from a picture postcard understandings of ourselves which we vainly try to encapsulate in podcasts, and Facebook posts, or in tweets, denoting some certainty about our place in the world, some sense-making haven or heaven.

But if we do this, if we surrender for a moment to the fool, and everything this archetype represents for our species, if we allow ourselves to drop into our own inner wilderness of being, that wilderness of thought and signification, might our fatigued retinas find there some kind of “home”, a resting place in the unrest of being and becoming. Let us see, shall we?