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1st clown: I wish I were two puppies.
2nd clown: Why?
1st clown: So I could play together.

The court fool or jester of medieval and Renaissance Europe carried around a bauble—a stick capped with a soft-sculpture replica of himself. The fool would give the bauble a voice, usually someone who epitomizes authority and righteousness. With his own voice and in his own image, this bauble humiliates the fool just like it happens in real life: with stick in hand, he uses the bauble to hit himself in the head. Through the bauble, the fool gets to be both oppressed and oppressor and comes to know both of those power positions within himself. Unlike real life, however, now, the fool can get revenge and make a fool of the bauble. Occasionally, he uses the bauble to beat on others mercilessly and to play unexpected tricks, some quite aggressive and obscene. In this replay of aggression, it is often the authoritarian figure who appears absurd, expressing his power in uncontrollable convulsions of rage and fear.

The Great Dictator
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We get to see this fine line between dictator and clown in the cinema when Charlie Chaplin plays Hitler in the movie The Dictator. Chaplin juggles a huge balloon representing the world with a perversely infantile tyranny. He mimics madness until his naivety and playfullness slip into uncontrollable ugliness. He becomes the mask of dictator while simultaneously relaying the actor beneath convulsing in the seduction of power. In his book On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist, Norman Manea [1992] reminds us that children alone recognized how Hitler approximated the clown, how "the children laughed at the tyrant and couldn't understand why all the adults around them let him gain so much power over them...." (39)

Most of us carry in our minds an image of ourselves with whom we speak and fight. We often pass time in verbal battle with this complex character on a stick. While the contention is difficult, what is worse is to be without one's bauble. Without it, we run the risk of forgetting ourselves as a contrived composite of disproportions and incongruities, of well managed ideals and fantasies. We run the risk of assuming that our identities are our own and slipping hopelessly into the turmoil of deluded self-propriety.


External References [links open in new window]

Fooling around the World: The History of the Jester
Beatrice K. Otto at Fathom

Charlie Chaplin's speach against fascism from The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin's FBI File

J. Edgar Hoover recruited Harpo Marx as a secret agent
Australian Herald Sun,5481,5726824,00.html

Foolish Clothing: Depictions of Jesters and Fools in Medieval and Renaissance Art
annotated links by Karen Larsdatter

image of Jester's Bauble
from Chamber's Dictionary, 1901 edition