The following essay, by Deon Van Zyl of South Africa, initiates a new
feature of our web site. This section will present offerings (essays,
papers, etc.) from Jungian analysts on various subjects. We welcome further
“The clown archetype: Reflections on the age-old wisdom within the fool’s humor.”
By Deon van Zyl, Ph.D. Unpublished essay.
Deon van Zyl, Ph.D. is a former Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Pretoria, where he worked for 13 years. He is past chairperson of the South African Institute for Clinical Psychology. For the last 20 years he has been in private practice as a clinical psychologist, management consultant, mediator and group facilitator. He is a member of the International Association for Jungian Studies and the International Association for the Study of Dreams. He has delivered numerous papers at conferences in South Africa, the U.S.A. and Japan. He explores the interface between psychology and spiritual practices.
“If the fool would persist in his folly
he would become wise.”
A wise and teaching clown image appeared to me once during an Active Imagination and Authentic Movement session. During the session I was working on the contrasting images of an old hobo and the new man, Adam. The old hobo came through as derelict and aimless, while Adam was unsullied and new, but also aimless. I discovered that although they seemed to be worlds apart, they actually were very similar, and even the same in one very important aspect: they both lived with little future orientation, in the moment of now. As symbolic images, a slight but huge difference between them is that the hobo is an aimless wanderer living from day to day, while Adam is an aimless wonderer in the beautiful paradise of the present. Their similarity however is the awareness of, and focus on, the now.
After these opposite but similar figures appeared during the Authentic Movement session, two other images came that also seemed worlds apart, yet were closely linked in similarity: the “Eternal Sower”, the provider, the giver of life and sustenance, and the “Eternal Beggar”, the taker, the one who only wants for himself. It was only a very slight physical motion that separated the sower from the beggar. Other than that there was giving in taking, and taking in giving, a complementary and inextricable link between the two.
The simultaneous similarity and difference between the “wanderer” and the “wonderer”, between the “sower” and the “beggar”, was so absurd and difficult to grasp, that I started to laugh. I hadn’t laughed like that in years. A spontaneous but deeply felt silliness overcame me, and my body responded by doing outrageously funny things, that induced further fits of laughter, wave after wave. I became a performing clown. Every new movement was so idiosyncratic and perfect that it stimulated more joyful laughter and fun.
The more I laughed through the clown, the more I seemed to combine and transcend the strange opposites of Adam/Hobo and Sower/Beggar. Through the clown it all made sense. I looked at it from above, and the ascended position united the extremes. At that moment I was a united extreme myself: ascended yet earthly, a new man and an old drunkard, a provider and a beggar. The clown had mediated the opposites. Humor and laughter united the extremes. The clown brought unity, wholeness and even transcendence. During this session, the fool image was indeed what Jung would refer to as a “new third” that manifested from the opposites, a Transcendent Function.
And so, this was my personal introduction to the clown archetype or the sacred fool. The biggest revelation at the nucleus of this experience was an embrace of the extremes, a containment of contrasts. Deep clowning, I believe, always evokes awareness of the contrast and unity of opposite aspects of our selves. Clowning allows us to embrace both sides and be “elevated” to a “higher” viewpoint. My clown is the embodiment of paradoxes and polarities.
If we look closer into any clown act, we will discover multiple polarities that he/she plays with. The clown is a master of contrast, a genius at playing with extremes and uniting opposites. Where there is order, the clown creates disorder. Where there is something enormous to be accomplished, the clown minimizes it. Where there is something small to do, the clown expends gigantic efforts in the process. Above all, an inflated ego will definitely be brought down to earth, and the deflated will somehow be elevated! Doing all of this in a loving and funny way, the clown brings the extremes together.
As the audience, we experience these extremes in ourselves. We might even briefly re-live similar incidents from our own lives. Actually, on close inspection, these polar themes are also very serious issues in life. But then the clown makes us laugh, and through our release and acceptance during laughter, we neutralize the hurt and change the negativity. The clown helps us to embrace seemingly irreconcilable differences in ourselves and others. Ultimately we end up with a more extended understanding of ourselves and others. Laughter brings perspective and restores balance. By integrating the opposites in and through him/herself, the clown assists us to transcend polarity. The clown is a magician, a transformer of the inner world, an elevator of the human spirit. But who is this person that can integrate opposites in and through himself, and who does it for the sake of others? Doesn’t that take a tremendous amount of wisdom and compassion?
Look closely and you will see it takes sure-footedness, centered awareness and great care, to be able to stumble properly. The clumsy clod is in actual fact a master practitioner. You have to be extremely well co-coordinated in order to blunder correctly. You have to have precision timing in order to play with the brink of disaster. The fool is indeed no simpleton, as Cervantes once suggested (in Watts 1963: 31). You have to be very accomplished and clever to play stupid.
Many cultures all over the world have the clown as a central part of their traditions, and often sacred traditions. The Heyoka, a sacred clown figure in the Sioux Native American tradition, is sometimes called a Contrary. He is a clear example of the clown who plays with polarities and paradoxes. As Lame Deer says, “A clown in our language is called a Heyoka. He is upside-down, backward-forward, yes-and-no man, a contrarywise” (quoted in Parabola: 1979).
The sacredness of the clown comes through in his/her play with polarities, in the spacious embrace of contrast and opposites, as well as in the shape-shifting loss of a fixed ego identity that makes room for flow, transformation, novelty and creativity, a much more expanded “self”.
The sacred clown does not want anything to be too permanent, especially our ego identities. The Fool in the Tarot pack is not numbered, or of zero value, while the other cards are numbered from 1 to 21. The Joker in a standard pack of cards can take on the identity of any of the other cards. With this zero identity or no-self, it can disguise and shape-shift into anything. By doing this the Fool-Joker mirrors the Creator, who is without form, but can take on any form or shape.
In the Zen Buddhist tradition we find the well-known figure of Pu-tai (Hotei, d. A.D. 916), the pot-bellied “Laughing Buddha”. Pu-tai is a friendly, opulent-looking figure with a laughing and joyful demeanor. Pu-tai shuns hierarchy and established patterns. “(He)…refuses to enter a monastery on any basis suggestive of permanence, and instead wanders freely without attachment even to the securities of cloistered walls and the forms of monkish discipline.” (Hyers 1987: 50). If ever there was an “aimless wanderer” AND an “aimless wonderer”, Pu-tai is one.
In the Japanese Sóto Zen tradition there is the so-called “Great Fool”, Ryókwan (1757-1831). Evidently in one game of hide-and-seek with children he hid himself so well under a haystack that he was not discovered until the next morning by a farmer! (Hyers 1987: 51). Hide and seek is one of the classic children’s games that play with the dialectic between presence and absence. However, in the end we always find each other, so presence prevails. It can only take a wise fool to let the game end with absence, the opposite of the usual, just for a change!
It is in this area that the clowns play, and where wisdom and true wholeness are found. As Jung (CW 12: pa. 24) said, “Without the experience of the opposites there is no experience of wholeness…” The clown brings wholeness through the full experience of opposites.
We see this central theme throughout all cultures. In late Medieval French culture we find the so-called “Feast of Fools”, where opposites were portrayed through human and animal masks, roles were reversed with lower clergy clowning as bishops, and traditional symbols were inverted like elevating the Ass to the main role, and as the central focus, instead of the flesh and blood of the Savior.
Till Eulenspiegel, the eccentric German fourteenth-century jester and folk-hero, wanted to wake us up to multi-sidedness. He played a wide variety of contrasting roles, from an actor, thief, liar, prankster and devil on the one hand, to a saint, philanthropist and philosopher on the other. From his birth to his death, his life was characterized by contrast, opposites and eccentricity.
Nasreddin Hodja, Turkey’s best-known comic sage from the thirteenth century, was frequently seen riding backwards on his donkey. About 350 stories and anecdotes have been attributed to Nasreddin. They are filled with witty contrasts, pattern breaks, teaching lessons and wisdom.
The clown is a container of extremes, a keeper of opposites and polarities, and above all a “no-self” that will appear anywhere where one-sided attachment is the prevailing pattern.
And so, I argue here that it is the archetypal function of the fool to empty himself and lose his fixed adherence to his own ego identity. He is prepared to adapt, to change and be flexible, for the sake of a larger cause. The fool or the clown sacrifices self to gain Self, one of the central challenges of the individuation process according to Jung. Extremes don’t intimidate a sacred clown, as his aim is rectification of imbalance. When our circumstances are very much out of balance, then it takes excessive and opposite measures to correct them. Sometimes shock is what it takes to jolt us out of one-sided denial. One-sidedness breeds unconsciousness. The role of the sacred fool is to pierce deception, to wake us up to a fuller attentiveness. Awareness of all sides is the goal of the sacred fool, and often at any cost, but mostly through humor and laughter.
The word “silly” comes from the Old English word “saelig”, meaning blessed or holy. So allow your fool to show you the way. Give yourself the opportunity to play with and shape-shift identity, to appreciate the clown who appears betwixt, between and around our manifest dualities, and who for brief moments of time, allows us to be empty and full in the sacred circle of this ever-wandering circus called life.
“Let no person deceive himself.
If any among you seemeth to be wise in this world,
let him/her become a fool that he may be wise.”
(I Corinthians 3:8-21)
1. Watts, A. (1963). Two Hands of God—An exploration of the underlying unity of all things, London: Century.
2. Parabola: Myth and the Quest for Meaning (1979) Vol. 4, No. 1, 48.
3. Hyers, C. (1987). ‘The Smile of Truth’, Parabola, Vol. 12, No. 4, 50.
4. Hyers, C. (1987). ‘The Smile of Truth’, Parabola, Vol. 12, No. 4, 51.
5. Jung, C. G. Collected Works Vol. 12 (1953). Psychology and Alchemy, translated by Hull, R. F. C. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.