Guru Clown

For approximately 30 yrs now I have preserved a portrait of myself drawn on rather poor quality art paper created by Celoius, a recluse artist and self-proclaimed psychic, who lived on Magnolia Ridge four miles off the continental divide in the Colorado Rockies. It is a picture of a solemm, ethereal, androgynous, cross-legged being staring directly forward, expressionless and meditative, adorned from head to toe in traditional clown regalia. When it was first presented to me, I was not pleased: it struck me as grostesque back then in 1970; all I saw was an outlandish fool in ill-fitting and splashy costume, a misfit, a joke. Living as a culturaI outlaw in the repellent late Nixon era, the image was unsettling: did my hip activism render me such a flagrant oaf? Were my attempts at transgression reducible to a simplistic spectacle of inappropriateness? The activities and political stances I had taken theretofore as dead serious, suddenly presented itself to me as mockery and humiliation.

I quickly rejected this unromantic clod, this lump of absurdity that would only provide others with amusement and detached contempt. I could not perceive the buffoonish, the jest, as anything but a negation of the sacred, the serious. But in spite of my shame, the image was gripping. I cherished it, albeit in some unspeakable place, for it invoked a self that was part of me but did not belong to me. A character who shamelessly crossed purposes with the hero. I liked it.

And so with great ambivalence I laminated the image on a half inch board and kept it.

But this was not my first intimate encounter with the joke. I grew up in a family of frustrated Borscht-belt stand-up comics. Consequently, I suffer a joke-phobia; I am stuck in my inability to deal with jokes meaningfully. Should someone innocently but publicly declare, "Wanna hear a joke?," I freeze before a word is uttered, terrified that I will miss the seemingly obvious moment of recognition and laughter, that I won't get it, that someone will undoubtedly turn to me and ask me to explain the joke's essence, that I will be disgraced by my ignorance and naivete. In my phobia, I am the potential brunt of every joke I hear.

Outside of my phobia, what captivates me in the face of a joke is that something nonsensical is brought to my attention but yet never fully disclosed. There is always that bit of sense one cannot get at. That is masked. (The word "mask" comes from the Arabic word maskharat, meaning clown or buffoon.) Through the joke we awaken to the sense of having been taken once again—that is, taken by the facade, the trick of rational thought. Non-sense reveals common-sense to be dubious, flawed by what it refuses to reveal. This awakening stretches us outside the actions of our lives with the tendency to dissolve circumstance, to make circumstance irrelevant and structure (or apparatus) momentous.

I want to understand the nature of a joke, the strategy that a joke implies. The joke seems to tell a truth that everyday common logic cannot. Common logic thrives upon dualities that cannot be resolved while simultaneously privileging congruity over incongruity. The joke, on the other hand, provides room for contradictions. It doesn't ask for us to chose between opposities, it refuses the very notion of dualities. My early relationship to jokes, painful as it may have been, initiated a love of paradox and incongruity which years later provided me, ironically, with the most sensible approach to oppositional politics—a kind of non-oppositional, indirect form of resistance. It wouldn't be until thirty years after my joke-phobic childhood and 20 years after the making of the 'guru clown,' that I would find myself a very serious joker—a Boalian joker.


External References [links open in new window]

"What the heck is the Borscht Belt?"