We spend a life time cultivating likes and dislikes, points of view and threads of arguments, grooming how we appear to ourselves and to others. We are able to put up with habits and attitudes in ourselves that we would disdain or qualify in others. And yet, in moments of silence and meditation, when the noise and chatter abates, when nothing intrudes or disposes itself, we even forget who is there and wonder why any of this bundle of contingencies should matter more than any other bundle.
It used to be said that the ultimate philosophical question is “What would you do if you had 24 hours left to live?” This is the execution view of life, the invitation to put on a good party, say your farewells, and strap in. It begs the “eat, drink, and be merry” answer. But it is the wrong question. Because we always have death before us. That is not the issue. Stephen Batchelor phrases it more appropriately as something like this: “Because death is certain, and because the time of death is not certain, what are we to do?” It is as certain as is our birth, an inexhorable passage from one point to another. But it is not a matter of 24 hours or even 24 years but just a matter of life itself, of living itself. How do we choose, prioritize, assign value? How do we interpret, pursue, find a path? What are we to do with this consciousness we have? These are the questions that should occur to us as the ultimate philosophical questions.
Is it not the fate of hermits to fail in worldy standards of authority and persuasion? Their authority and their persuasiveness are only in their example, and cannot be transferred into the so-called “real” world. Like a sage, the good hermit expresses his virtues in daily life itself, silently, anonymously, without fanfare.
Ponder the fate of the eleventh-century hermit Pietro di Murrone, who took his name after his favorite place of seclusion in native Italy. There he thrived as a kind of John the Baptist, austere, roughly clad and fasting regularly. Inevitably he attracted followers, founded hermitages for them and called his followers Celestines. This apparent success and popularity attracted unscrupulous clerical factions. Given the political and ecclesiastical turmoil of the time, they managed to get Pietro elected pope (he was 79 years old) under the name of Celestine V. They created an order for themselves, also called Celestines, much to the confusion of historians. But Pietro despised the world, especially the world of ecclesiastical politics, and spent most of his time in reclusion. In contradiction, of course, to his administrative responsibilities. The new Celestines took advantage of him, as did the Holy Roman Emperor. For five months, chaos reigned, until a highly-placed cardinal persuaded Pietro to retire — not altruistically, because the same cardinal then declared himself Pope Boniface VIII and had Pietro imprisoned for the rest of his life.
Rouault’s portrait of a clown is a self-portrait and yet a portrait of all of us. As Rouault himself said of the painting, “The clown?… but thatís me … thatís you … almost all of us.” The sadness looking out on the world, the ironic laughter dissolving into melancholy, the clown as different, outsider, stranger, solitary. Rouault is not depicting a fool, though the clown must play the fool to entertain others. He must play the fool and become complicitous with people, with society. Like the Italian pagliacci figure, he is on the brink of tears, not of self-pity or of loneliness and estrangement but over the cruelty and ignorance of others. The fool of the tarot is not conscious of what he ventures into, but the clown is painfully conscious of the role he must play in society. That is what makes him like “almost all of us.”