What is the Language Using Us For? #4

I am not making a fool of myself
For you.

This sentence in the poem could also be shaped as a question: “Am I making a fool of myself?” It’s question that governs a lot of our behaviour. Maybe necessarily so. If we were all making fools of ourselves, all the time, who would run the hospitals, give sermons, recycle our waste?

What does it mean to make a fool of oneself? If you trace back the etymology of the word, it leads us to three besmirched associations: 1) “You’re unhinged” [Old French fol: mad person] 2) “You’re stupid” [Latin follis empty-headed], or 3) “You’re digressively boring, or consternatingly loose-lipped [2nd meaning of follis: bellows – from flare: to blow].

So in order not to make fools of ourselves we “play by the rules” (or whatever we believe the rules to be). And in doing so potentially trammel something “alive” in ourselves that may sound foolish because it is new or uncomfortable.

This paradox emerges from the poem itself. I don’t want to make a fool of myself, but “I would like to speak in front/Of myself with all my ears alive/And find out what it is I want”, and once I’ve found this out, it would be great if I could share it with you, so that for a moment we might be:


Each other alive about each other

But most of the time we’re policing this desire to tell each other about what is most alive in us by worrying we might be making fools of ourselves. Especially “in front of the best”. It seems to worry us less if we think we’re doing it in front of “the worst”. So maybe this is more about vanity than anything else.

How does one make the right amount of a fool of oneself, if fool seems (as Graham suggests) to be linked in some way to “aliveness”?

A passage from an essay by Alison MacLeod on ‘Writing and Risk-Taking’ comes to mind, where Alison literally embodies the topic by allowing the reader to remain with her whilst she takes a bath. After describing the private musings of the bather, she writes:

These are things I shouldn’t be telling you. We’re strangers. If ever we meet, I’d rather the image of me in the bath didn’t flash up before your eyes – and I’m sure you feel the same. But I’ll risk it because that’s what writers need to do. …On paper, they have to be real.

Graham also talks about wanting the place of language in his life to be a “real place” (“Seeing I have to put up with it anyhow,” he adds wryly). But where is the line between the real and the madness, the doltish, the dull?

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