Tag Archives: clowns

The Circus

carnaval-de-veniseI’ve been struggling lately to write three different essays. One about court jesters, one about masks, and a third about the circus. It occurred to me that the problem is that I’m trying to create distinctions where really there are none.

While not interchangeable, the concepts encompassed by jesters, masks, and circuses overlap, and it is in the overlap where I find the most exciting moments. All three are liminal ‘spaces’ wherein the rules of social interaction, personal space, body and facial cues for behavior, and normative relationships just don’t apply.

Court jesters’ most distinctive characteristics are their brash honesty, their impunity, their fearlessness in the face of truths others do not want to speak. It is in fact the job description of a court jester that he – almost always he – address the nakedness of the emperor, and preferably that he be either outlandishly dressed himself or somehow otherwise observably ‘outside’ the norm: bodily disabled, excessively short, exceedingly ugly. These extra-ordinary elements act as armor against the wrath of all who are unlucky enough to stand in the crosshairs, and the jester is allowed a freedom that others can only envy; emulation is certain death.

Masks, as objects, perform a function that is intimately connected with this freedom to speak; when one dons a mask, all emotion, all reaction becomes simply reflection. Encounters with masked persons are discomfiting. They are Immovable, unable to transmit cues to how we should act, and so we end up reacting but only to ourselves; masks reflect exactly – and solely – what we think they do. The truth is harder to find, perhaps, than when an absurdly dressed grotesque announces it, and it does not arrive neatly packaged or easily interpreted. Often it is in our own discomfort in the face of unmoving non-expression that we realize what our truths are.

And the circus. The home of cavorting animals, shocking feats of anti-gravity and twists of appendages, it is suffused with the absurd, the unbelievable, the physics-ly impossible. We sit on the bleachers under the big top and forget that what we see is not what is, and that what we think exists is only illusion. The circus is an anti-mask, offering extraordinarily fraught moments that catch our breath, and entail, as they unfold, all we need in order to react. They tell us lies, and yet….

Truth is not absent here, it is brazenly obvious.

The liminal has become infused with the real, and we expect the unexpected. Our masks have fallen through the peanut-covered bleachers to the dim spaces beneath us and they lie helter-skelter in the shadows, their hollow eyes staring at nothing as the crowd roars.

What you see IS what you get.

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Clowns / Monsters

Recently, lack of sleep conspired with a late night editing project and I read the word ‘clowns’ instead of ‘clones’ in an essay about the monstrousness of hermaphroditic clones, and all was lost. I began reading ‘clowns’ throughout, and by the end of the essay was convinced, indeed, of the monstrousness of clowns.A row of sideshow carnival game clowns with mouths open.  Focus to middle clown. Stock Photo - 13605862

It wasn’t what the author intended, of course, but it did set me on a path I can’t seem to step off of, and I can’t stop thinking about clowns. And as it turns out, they’re relatively monstrous, indeed.

Clowns, and their cousins the court jesters (the subject, soon, of another musing), fools, and those unfortunates who found themselves on display in Freak Shows (yet another upcoming post), have been an essential part of society for centuries. Their history extends back more than 4500 years, and they have danced, somersaulted, ridden, fallen… clowned their way through time. (It’s tempting to believe that fear of clowns is just as time-honored but it seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. That fact won’t deter me, however, and for the record, the fear of clowns has a name: Coulrophobia).

One thing is certain. Clowns in any guise function in ways that are layered, nuanced, and ultimately… dare I say it… unnerving.

On the surface, clowns are silly. Yet their exaggerated features – big red nose, huge floppy feet, oversized clothing, big hair, painted-on expressions – make us uncomfortable. We encounter them in liminal spaces – a circus, a tent – and, out of our element, they force us to respond. With their foolish actions and funny clothes, they taunt us, they disarm us, they make us laugh, and we forget that their true function is to undermine the seriousness of what we (think we) know and believe.

Unnerved. Uncomfortable. Self-reflective. In fact, what makes clowns so monstrous is their ability to make us feel these things, and our own inability to know how to respond. And when they invite us to join them in their antics, they tap into an even deeper fear – that of appearing to be a fool… which is full circle, really. For the fact is that we ARE the fools. Clowns are simply reflecting back to each of us our own sense of uncertainty.

Monsters as a whole tend to stay outside the boundaries of our neat little worlds; they intrude only when invited, or when the edges between us and them blur just enough to allow them entry during times of social upheaval, general ennui, or looming change. Generally we fight them back, and they disappear into the shadows leaving us free to forget their warnings until they burst upon us again.

But clowns are different. As monsters dressed in polka-dotted trousers and animated ties, they force us to engage, to step outside ourselves. To come face to face with not just our fears, but the overdrawn, brightly-colored smiles – or frowns – that, like our own, like our lives, might mean nothing at all.

Besides, they’re just creepy. I wonder if there’s a club around here for coulrophobics…?