Prejudices of the Time

When my daughter was in middle and high school, I made an effort to read every book she was assigned for her English classes.  This gave us something to talk about during the years when many teens grow laconic and uncommunicative.  Some of the books I’d read before, but one frightened me off.  Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest pressed the wrong buttons.  You have to understand that I saw the movie for a class in college.  It disturbed me.  Even before encountering H. P. Lovecraft, one of my deepest phobias was insanity.  Children of alcoholics sometimes fear those who are out of control, and mental patients had become, in my head, associated with the non-rational behavior of my father that frightened me so.  During a clown ministry event we visited the local state hospital for mental patients.  I trembled for about a week after we left.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is in many ways a sixties novel.  One reflection of that is the fact that the religious imagery in the novel is presented in the form of punishment.  Everyone knows the narrative of R. P. McMurphy’s battle of the wills against Nurse Ratched.  The latter uses electroshock therapy as punishment and she tries to wear McMurphy down by using it repeatedly after the fight in the shower.  The electroshock table is described as a cross.  The metal headset is a crown of thorns.  Indeed, one of the patients is described as being crucified to the wall of the ward where he hangs throughout the novel.  The sixties frequently saw religion—especially the staid, conservative evangelicalism of the 1950s—as a form of punishment.  That’s pretty clear here.

Although the novel celebrates the freedom of the sixties, it also reflects the prejudices of the times.  The African-American attendees on the ward aren’t portrayed sympathetically.  The women—nurses and prostitutes alike—are there for the pleasure of the male patients’ gaze, exemplified in the leering laugh of McMurphy.  Still, there’s a kind of catharsis to this tale.  The Chief, from whose point-of-view the story’s told, is arguably cured by the antics and special attention McMurphy shows him.  Beneath the callous, self-serving conman there is a human decency that “the system” fails to find.  Indeed, McMurphy is a kind of Christ figure.  A fallen savior, no doubt, but a liberator nonetheless.  This was a difficult novel to read.  I couldn’t make myself pick it up half-a-decade ago, but I suspect somewhere beneath the surface I’m glad I’ve finally read it.  It didn’t cure any of my phobias but it made me think.

Such a Happy Place

I fear anyone named Ronald. Being named’s something a kid can’t help, I know, but associations run deep and irrational fears are the flavor of the day. When a friend sent me a link to the original Ronald McDonald clown concept, I had to look. Now, I’m not one of those people who’s afraid of clowns. I know that perhaps puts me in the minority. In college I was introduced to, and even rebooted a club for, Christian clowns. Back in the days of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, many were exegeting Paul’s phrase “fool for Christ” in a new way—the way of the clown. I’ve never been a particularly smiley guy, but I do research things before getting involved. Not only did I read about Christian clowns, I read about the history of clowning itself. It helped that this was before people started dressing up like clowns to assault others in imitation of cheap horror.

Clowns, it should come as no surprise, were originally peasants. The name itself means “rustic,” or “laborer,” even in classical languages, just as it does in English. The affluent have, it seems, always liked to laugh at the poor. The clods could be expected to goof up time and again and their brainless antics would humor the bored, but entitled classes. Buffoons becoming missionaries took a somewhat tortured path through a culture that cast religion in a rather stern, harsh tone. Children of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were trying to say “lighten up,” laugh about your beliefs. Isn’t that what Paul said? Tertullian wrote, “prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est”—believe by all means because it’s absurd— didn’t he?

In my greasepaint and mismatched clothes I joined a troop of unspeaking clowns, acting out stories of kindness and good will. We were, after all, made from dirt (the laborer tills the soil, and the word clown comes from the same root at “clod”). We like to think things might’ve evolved since then, but when we turn on the news we see that although it’s no longer Ronald, the antics of the plutocrats haven’t changed since my college days. What d’ya think of that Star Wars defense initiative? After all, we call “Mutually Assured Destruction” a doctrine, and doctrines have their origins in church councils. Ronald McDonald is recognized by his painted face. Beneath the makeup, however, he’s just a man. A clown has no business being leader of the free world. And yes, I’ll take fries with that. Supersize it, will ya?

Fears of a Clown

A few weeks back, over on EsoterX, I was reading about circus oddities. Perceptive as always, EsoterX notes that the carnival or circus used to be disturbing. Before being commercialized and sanitized, otherwise civilized folk crept out of town to gaze at the bizarre and troubling aspects so effectively hidden from 9 to 5. Among the most disconcerting of the carnies was the clown. Horror writers and film makers have long focused on the ambiguity of the clown—faces are our clues to the intentions of another person. A face painted is opaque and we feel as vulnerable as in the presence of the false evangelical smile that hides a spiritual deadness in hardened eyes. You are about to be victimized. It is no wonder that small children—and not a few adults—are freaked out by clowns. At times they make us laugh, but mostly they make us tremble.

ClownThose who know or read me may have a difficult time believing that I once was a clown. Not a professional one, of course—it is even more difficult to believe I’ve ever been a profession anything—but part of a campus clown ministry. Beyond simple titillation, I state this fact because, like most things in my life, I researched clowning before I became a part of it. Those books are, of course, packed away with other forgotten bits of personal marginalia but I remember bits and pieces. The origins of the clown are religious. In fact, in the most ancient of societies clowns were most often played by priests. Their early bungling, which may go back to the third millennium BCE, was perhaps a way to indicate that even the somber role of the cleric could be taken too seriously. Like modern concepts such as Mardi Gras or Carnival, that which is sacred builds such pressure that normal people become a little unhinged. We erupt into frivolity while the divine turns a blind eye. Or secretly smiles.

Clowns for Christ was a Grove City College organization that I revived in my Junior year, serving as president and acquiring a campus charter. Based on 1 Corinthians 4.10, we declared ourselves “fools for Christ,” reprising, unknowingly, an ancient pagan custom. We visited nursing homes and mental hospitals and other campus events, bringing the good news in the form of silent skits. The clown traditionally does not talk. Even today when I hear a clown in makeup speak I give him or her a glare—clowning is physical, not audible. As I left college I left behind my childish ways (at least some of them). And the years since have taught me to be afraid of clowns, as any reasonable person should be.