Alms for Oblivion


“The Walking Lesson” by Jacek Yerka

Back in my teaching days, I’d sometimes ask my students what they considered the worst invention in the history of mankind. Typical answers included gunpowder, nuclear weaponry, Whoopie cushions, etc.

I’d do my ol’ slow shake of sage educator’s head routine and admit that those contraptions were indeed pernicious but that the worst invention in mankind’s horrid history was the clock, which was a by-product of womankind’s worst discovery, agriculture.[1]


I’d go on and invite them to imagine a world without clocks, a world of delicious imprecision governed by states of light rather than the ticking of mechanical hands or the silent progression of illuminated digits.

Now that most of us have placed ourselves under house arrest, we can experience for a time an existence not governed by sixtieths – seconds, minutes, hours – especially if we don’t have children involved in distance learning.

Here’s a snippet from a Facebook post written by a former student of mine who suffers from an auto-immune disorder:

Oddly, as the next week took shape, with the kids out of school and the shutdown picking up steam, my anxiety eased. It wasn’t because I was less concerned about the virus and my potential exposure, but because so many other self-imposed stressors were instantly out of my life. Just like the pollution in Venetian canals seemingly cleared up after a short period of decreased activity, my mind seemed to clear up when we couldn’t race from work, to after school activities, sports practices, piano lessons, social commitments, and whatever else had previously cluttered my schedule. We couldn’t grab dinner on the go, and stopping in at the grocery store 3-4 times a week no longer made sense. We went on more walks and bike rides the week of March 16th than the previous six months. We watched the sunset each night from our back porch instead of driving 45 minutes to volleyball practice. We’ve had family meals almost every night. We’ve had family movie nights, and we haven’t missed a church service because our church quickly got online. We’ve reached out to friends over Facetime, text, or calls that we’ve not found time to connect with before. And we see others doing the same. In short order, despite a deadly threat, I was more relaxed than I’d been in a long time.

Yes, the world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending, and as Ulysses points out to Achilles in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, “Time hath, me Lord, a wallet at his back/Wherein he puts alms for oblivion.”

No telling what will follow this pestilence — recession, depression, repression, armed insurrection?  I dunno.  What I do know is that my coffee cup is empty and that there’s a bottle of Jameson’s on the kitchen counter.  I think I’ll have another cup sweetened by another dollop and enjoy this beautiful mid-April morning while the getting’s good.


[1] Most anthropologists posit that pre-agrarian female gatherers put two and two together regarding seeds and soil, which would explain the Pandora and Eden myths. Hunting’s fun. Plowing desert soil not so much. It’s all her fault.


Me, Myself, and Sigh

Ah, get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift.

                                                    Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”


Vladimir Nabokov begins his memoir Speak Memory with an arresting sentence: “The cradle rocks above the abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”  He adds, “Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).

To me, it’s not surprising that we don’t fret over our pre-natal non-sentience, and it certainly makes sense that relatively happy people typically dread their post-mortem non-existence. The problem lies in that we perceive life as linear, a journey — tick tock, tick tock — a pilgrimage — tick tock, tick tock.  But there’s a real problem in perceiving our existence in this manner, because the payoff of a journey or pilgrimage is reaching the final destination – Emerald City or Canterbury Cathedral – and, of course, when we reach the end of our life’s journey/pilgrimage, we’re no longer we but something to be disposed of, to be burned or buried.

detail from All Our Yesterdays by Michael Bilotta

Alan Watts:

And then you wake up one day, about 40 years old and you say “My God! I’ve arrived.” ”I’m there.” And you don’t feel very different from what you always felt.  And there is a slight letdown because you feel is a hoax And there was a hoax. A dreadful hoax They made you miss everything. We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end and the thing was to get to that end. Success or whatever it is, maybe heaven, after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.

Ulysses to Achilles in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,

Wherein he puts alms for oblivion.

Yet, we keep wishing away the present, for the workday to end, for the workweek to end, for football season to begin or the holidays to arrive or for retirement.

Cindy Streit Mazzaferro: Sometimes Broadway, Sometimes the Catskills

But who are they – the they Watts accuses of making us “miss everything?”

Well, as Porfiry Petrovich said famously to Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment  when the latter asked him who had killed the old pawnbroker and her sister:

“What do you mean, who killed?” [Porfiry Petrovivh] asked as if he couldn’t believe his own ears.  “Why, Rodion Romanovich, you killed!  You committed the murders, yes.”

The they are we.  We possess free will, BF Skinner be damned.  How many sages have walked upon the earth extolling us to consider the lilies of the fields or that it is better to travel well than arrive?

Those sages say we must murder that conception-of-self psychologists call the ego, abandon the self-delusion that a homunculus somewhere inside our brain is the sum total of who we are, to realize that we and the lilies of the fields and the clouds in the sky and the birdcall are one.

Easier said than done.  Droughts can decimate fields, and although form is emptiness, the swirling subatomic particles of an axe can do real damage.  Food and shelter demand, unless you’re a Trump or Kennedy, labor, and most of us labor under the supervision of someone more powerful, whether it be a foreman or the always-right customer.  And, in truth, a very few people own and control almost everything, but we do ostensibly have autonomy over our thinking, how we behave.


Joseph Pennel: End of Work Day, Gatun Lock


Last night my wife Caroline said she thought that happiness ultimately lies in work, and I agree. It’s crucial to find employment that we love and to train our minds to concentrate on the bits and pieces of that employment, whether it be whisking an egg, laying a brick, or constructing a math test, in other words, to enjoy the music of the moment rather than racing forward in our minds to the final cymbal crash of the coda.

It’s hard to do, especially with all of the distractions, the mechanical slicing of time into periods, shifts, breaks, etc. – but we certainly don’t want to end up like John Marcher in Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle”:

He had justified his fear and achieved his fate; he had failed, with the last exactitude, of all he was to fail of; and a moan now rose to his lips as he remembered she had prayed he mightn’t know. This horror of waking–THIS was knowledge, knowledge under the breath of which the very tears in his eyes seemed to freeze. Through them, none the less, he tried to fix it and hold it; he kept it there before him so that he might feel the pain. That at least, belated and bitter, had something of the taste of life. But the bitterness suddenly sickened him, and it was as if, horribly, he saw, in the truth, in the cruelty of his image, what had been appointed and done. He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him. His eyes darkened–it was close; and, instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb.

So, ladies and gents, let’s don our dancing shoes before it’s too late.

Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack, 1976


The Gestures of Jesters

Holy fools subvert prevailing orthodoxy and orthopraxis in order to point to the truth which (sic) lies beyond immediate conformity. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions

“Our nation demands the scrutiny of a completely disengaged observer like your Working Boy, and I already have in my files a rather formidable collection of notes and jottings that evaluate and lend a perspective to the contemporary scene.”   Ignatius P Reilly, A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy  O’Toole

In the literary landscape of the West, from the plains of ancient Troy to the streets of contemporary New Orleans, Wise Fools have thumbed their bulbous noses at decorum and provided contrarian views against the cultural status quo of their respective milieus.  Armed with wit, not weapons, these outsiders can see beyond entrenched hierarchies and customs, and historically, in the employ of a king or queen, court jesters (or licensed fools as they were sometimes called) could in frankness utter truths that a higher individual dared not.

On the literary side of the ledger, let’s look at Thersites from The Iliad, that bandy-legged malcontent, “a menial, a nonentity among dynastic aristocrats,” according to C.R. Beye.

But wait. What are these “dynastic aristocrats” up to? Waging a ten-year war to avenge someone’s wife running off with someone else’s husband. And ultimately, it’s the gods’ fault anyway, the Judgment of Paris and all that jazz. With the hindsight of a couple of millennia, waging a decade-long war because of elitist adultery seems even more foolish than the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq.

When the Iliad begins, the siege is at a stalemate because King Agamemnon, the alpha male of the Achaeans, has usurped Achilles’ war spoil Briseis. Even though Achilles is his best warrior, his LeBron James, Agamemnon gets dibs on (forgive me) Achilles’ booty because he’s higher on the totem pole. Achilles retreats to this tent to pout (the equivalent of LeBron benching himself) while swords clash and “night descends upon the eyes” of warrior after warrior slain in the service of trying to retrieve runaway Helen, whose face (aided and abetted by other body parts) “launched a thousand ships /And burnt the topless towers of Ilium.”

Thersites recognizes the absurdity of the war and the unfairness of Agamemnon’s receiving “the lion’s share of the spoil” while “Achilleus (sic) does the lion’s share of the fighting.” [1]

Although despised by the soldiers, Thersites wisely advises them to abandon the war, to return to their homelands, to their own wives and children, so they can teach Agamemnon a lesson.

He confronts Agamemnon directly:

Your shelters are bulging

With bronze, and whenever we sack a city you always

Get the choicest booty, including whole bevies

Of beautiful women.  Can it be you still want gold,

The ransom some horse-trading Trojan brings out of Troy

To pay for his captured son whom I or some other

Achaean bound and led away?  Or would you

Prefer a ripe young lady to sleep with and keep

Shut up somewhere for yourself?  Truly, it hardly

Becomes their commander to burden with so many troubles

The sons of Achaeans.

Translated by Ennis Reese[2]

Perhaps because his physical hideousness has alienated him from the heroic slaughterers who surround him, Thersites recognizes the absurdity and unfairness of the heroic ideal.


Thersites also appears in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, one of the so-called problem plays. Like his ancestor in Homer, the 17th Century Thersites is hideously ugly but much wittier than his counterpart in The Iliad.  He’s a king of vituperation who out-Don-Rickles Don Rickles. Here he is suggesting that old, supposedly wise, Nestor’s mind has seen better days:

There’s Ulysses and old Nestor, whose wit was mouldy
ere your grandsires had nails on their toes.

When Ajax threatens to cut his tongue out, Thersites replies, “’Tis no matter! I shall speak as much as thou afterwards.”

And what a rich source of insults: loathsome scab, sodden-witted, scurvy-ass, idol of idiot worshippers, full dish of fool, idle immaterial skein of sleave milk, green sarcenet
flap for a sore eye, tassel of a prodigal’s purse, waterfly.  

Agamemnonhe says, has “not as much brains as earwax.”

Of course, the wisest of all of Shakespeare’s wise fools is employed by Lear.  Unlike the two Thersites, Lear’s Fool’s wit, though sharp and biting, is noble-minded. He loves the king and speaks frankly to him, trying to point out to Lear his own foolishness.

Fool: That lord that counsell’d thee
To give away thy land,
Come place him here by me-
Do thou for him stand.
The sweet and bitter fool
Will presently appear;
The one in motley here,
The other found out there.

 Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?

Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast
born with.

Shakespeare, of course, did not invent the court jester, or licensed fool, as they were sometimes called.

Here’s a brief history from the blog Under the Tudor Rose:

In ancient times, courts employed fools and by the Middle Ages the jester was a familiar figure. In Renaissance times, aristocratic households in Britain employed licensed fools or jesters, who sometimes dressed as other servants were dressed, but generally wore a motley (of mixed colours or materials) coat, hood with ass’s ears or a red-flannel coxcomb and bells. Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticize their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. Excessive behaviour, however, could lead to a fool being whipped, as Lear threatens to whip his fool.

His is not an enviable position in that most dysfunctional of households.

Fool: FooI [i.e. Lear] marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They’ll have me 705
whipp’d for speaking true; thou’lt have me whipp’d for lying;
and sometimes I am whipp’d for holding my peace. I had rather be
any kind o’ thing than a fool! And yet I would not be thee,
nuncle. Thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides and left nothing
i’ th’ middle. Here comes one o’ the parings.710

The most famous of these fools was Will Somers, Henry VIII’s court jester.  Perhaps because of their unequal social status or that fact that Somers didn’t try to capitalize on his relationship with the king, Somers and Henry developed a genuinely deep friendship, though the most often quoted anecdote is that Henry threatened to kill Somers with his bare hands after Somers called Anne Boleyn a “ribald” and princess Elizabeth “a bastard.”

Family of Henry VIII, c. 1545. Will Somer is depicted in the right doorway, and Anne Parr’s fool, Jane Foole, appears in the left doorway.

After Henry’s death, Somers was reduced as a sort of a comical sidekick to Queen Mary.  His last public performance was at Elizabeth’s coronation.

The idea of a ruler employing a wise fool to leaven the ruler’s ego seems like a good idea to me.  Obama and Chris Rock would have made a dynamic duo, and how wonderful would it be to have Louie CK try to deflate his fellow vulgarian Donald J Trump’s gaseous ego.

Louis CK as the Fool and Trump as the King in the Hoodoo Productions dream staging of The Tragedy of King Lear


Although by far not the grandest, my favorite wise fool is Yeats’ Crazy Jane.  Yeats based her on a local character called Cracked Jane who wandered around County Galway when he lived in his tower, Thoor Ballylee, near Gort.  The great great great granddaughter of the Wife of Bath, Crazy Jane has nothing to fear from middle class censure so when a bishop chides her for her licentiousness, she provides him a little lesson on bodily matters:

I met the Bishop on the road

And much said he and I.

`Those breasts are flat and fallen now

Those veins must soon be dry;

Live in a heavenly mansion,

Not in some foul sty.’

`Fair and foul are near of kin,

And fair needs foul,’ I cried.

‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth

Nor grave nor bed denied,

Learned in bodily lowliness

And in the heart’s pride.

`A woman can be proud and stiff

When on love intent;

But Love has pitched his mansion in

The place of excrement;

For nothing can be sole or whole

That has not been rent.’

So let’s raise a glass to the dispossessed, those unworthies who wear white after Labor Day, who don polka-dotted blouses with plaid skirts, who, to paraphrase my favorite line from Apocalypse Now, are beyond our lying, timid moralities, who are willing to call a king or bishop or president a jackass to his face.   

[1]From “Thersites in then ‘Iliad’” by N Postlewhaite published in Greece and Rome, 35.2, October 1988.

[2]The best poetry teacher I ever had.