Studious Deceptions – Ralph Lerner, Playing the Fool: Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times

George Orwell’s conviction that prose should be as clear as a window pane would have made no sense to many earlier political writers. So Ralph Lerner suggests in Playing the Fool: Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times. Several prominent authors of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries intentionally opted for opacity and complexity instead of clarity and ready accessibility. They did this because not all readers share Orwell’s formidable power of facing life’s unpleasantness, and some might want to smash the glass or else the wordsmiths responsible for making unwanted revelations. If not everyone can follow these writers who chose to “show and not show, tell and not tell,” then that’s as it should be, Lerner intimates. And if wry writers deliberately mislead, well, they have their reasons.

Despite his title, Lerner does not really examine writers playing the fool and countering pomposity, complacency and certainty with derisive laughter, corrosive wit and blatant mockery. Instead, he describes several he envisions slyly practicing studious deception and cunningly eschewing clear prose in favor of “dispersal by design.” He calls his chapter on Edward Gibbon “The Smile of the Philosophic Historian,” which better conveys his thesis than his book’s title. “For the most part,” Lerner says of the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “he keeps his sardonic and nasty side in check; he avoids letting any grating laughter carry across the room.” The same could be said for his other five subjects: Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Robert Burton, Pierre Bayle and Benjamin Franklin. Lerner believes this sneaky sextet encourages close reading, critical thinking and, paradoxically, moderation — not characteristics usually associated with clowns.

The trickery Lerner ascribes to Gibbon and the others is not that of characters from Chaucer, Rabelais or Shakespeare. He doesn’t write about wise fools puncturing the pomposity of the powerful. “Pretending to know little or nothing, the fool deploys his irony in shaming us worldly-wise people to recognize how little we understand,” Lerner writes. While his band of thinkers may pursue the same goal, this is not their method, as Lerner recognizes. Gibbon, for instance, “is uncommonly clever and not at all shy about making a show of that.” Bayle is also a “master — of erudition.” Indeed, none of the writers Lerner discusses pretend to know nothing, even if they all do, in their own ways, challenge orthodoxies or absolute certainty because of a shared perception that such certainty is dangerous. “Once an individual or sect or party or government is confident that it knows, absolutely, that such and such is the case, entry is effectively barred to any further evidence or reasoning.” Franklin, Burton, More and the others seek to shake such confidence, Lerner contends. They do this through insinuation and “games of verbal hide-and-seek” for reasons including self-preservation, a desire to reach certain readers but not others, and because all-out attacks might be unappealing to their audience: “efforts to make another see are of no avail unless there is a willingness to look.” Lerner doesn’t explicitly mention Orwell when untangling their artful indirection and when he alludes to him by calling Franklin “a master of newspeak,” he actually intends a compliment.

If Lerner focuses on smiling philosophers rather than literary jokers, he does address their writerly techniques. He identifies digressions as one key tactic. “A signature, perhaps the signature of Burton’s art, is his indulgence of digressions,” according to Lerner, who also finds them crucial for the “overall design” of Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary. Digressions contribute to the distance writers put between themselves and assertions of certainty; they indicate a willingness to consider and reconsider ideas from various angles as opposed to stabbing straight to a definite object. Lerner prefers rambling inventiveness that undermines certainty to open debate with zealots. He advocates irony, but irony of a subtle sort.

Repetition is another mode used by the writers Lerner analyzes in Playing the Fool, and it’s one he uses himself in order to stress key points. “Rather than settle matters involving religion, philosophy, and public policy,” he observes of More’s Utopia, “it invites us to rethink them.” Further, “More’s text repeatedly invites us to distance ourselves from every argument and alleged fact that it contains.” Similarly, in Anatomy of Melancholy, “Burton means to give us pause, not to settle us comfortably into the torpor of certitude.” He would have his readers “develop a capacity to step back for a moment from their preoccupations and to challenge their firm convictions from another perspective.” Bayle urges a “campaign against passive acceptance” and “devotes himself to habituating his readers to a more active and penetrating scrutiny of the world.” Lerner spies these same attitudes and intentions in works by Bacon, Franklin, and Gibbon.

Lerner comes closest to drawing explicit connections to these rhetorical strategies and early twenty-first century “troubled times” when considering Sir Francis Bacon’s Advertisements Touching a Holy War. “Standing apart and afar,” Lerner says, “a philosopher might be struck by the observation that each of the monotheistic religions finds room in its beliefs and practices for fighting the battles of the Lord.” One needn’t be a philosopher standing afar to notice this, of course, but having done so Bacon decided not to counter bloody-minded zeal with aggressive argumentation but by way of dissimulation in a dialogue that “flaunts it disproportions and abrupt turns” and might even seem unfinished. As his characters ponder justifications for waging war against infidels, they expose the zeal that “arises out of doctrine and sinks back into doctrine” and voice “the certainty that kills with a clear conscience.” Precisely because believers kill as a result of religious certainty, writing that encourages careful readers to follow hints and draw the implied conclusions has an advantage that more overt subversion lacks.

The elitist aspect to learned deception does not diminish its appeal for Lerner or his high-culture cadre. “The truth is not to all men welcome,” Lerner notices when explaining why historians tread especially carefully when entering the “vexatious field” of religious faith. “There are times that will not endure having the truth spoken; or, perhaps better said, there are always time that will not endure having some truth spoken.” In such situations, “a low profile is best.” Bayle “does not blame those who deceive the public for its own good.” Lerner sees Gibbon finding a model figure in Theodoric, who refrained from challenging cherished beliefs and follows a code that requires hypocrisy because “in some matters the public has to be deceived for the sake of its own good.”

In efforts to navigate divisive matters, Lerner counsels moderation, something he sees his serious fools as exemplifying. “The philosophic historian teaches moderation to a world all too prone to believe it knows not why or, failing that, knows not what to believe,” Lerner concludes. “[T]he wild, ungainly assemblage that constitutes the Dictionary is Bayle’s soberly meditated means of teaching moderation and good judgment to a broad public” … or at least the members of it able to follow his slight of hand.

The legerdemain Lerner lauds amounts to purposeful lack of candor that prompts readers to pay close attention. “While Bayle did not wear his heart on his sleeve, he wrote and argued in a manner that would draw at least some to ponder what might indeed lie in his heart of hearts,” Lerner explains. “This was a point not lost on competent readers of yesteryear,” he continues. Along the same lines, “Franklin’s peculiar strategies of presentation serve to cloak his fullest and deepest intentions.” He too encourages readers “to detect the message or messages that he may be conveying both by his assertions and by his silences.” For his part, Gibbon would teach his audience “to adopt a healthy skepticism toward the certainties of their own age and a wariness of political and religions panaceas of every kind.”

Lerner knows not all readers will accept these writers’ invitations and learn their lessons. The writers themselves expected as much and wrote in order to simultaneously attract and repel readers. Some will appreciate what they do (and why they do it the way they do), but “simpleminded literalists” will not. So be it. If people insensible to irony cannot grasp what the cleverly covert critics are up to, at least they won’t persecute these writers. Lerner’s so-call fools do not strive to replace one orthodoxy with another but to unsettle the sort of thinking that results in doctrines.  The zeal and certainty of religious believers especially bothers writers like Bacon and Gibbon, but Lerner implies it is best to keep a low profile when wandering in this minefield. Better to be crafty and permit those smart enough to do so to comprehend the implications hinted at than to enflame the real fools who lack self-awareness and skepticism.

While Lerner convincingly elucidates what the dissemblers at his staid carnival do and offers plausible reasons for their artful manipulations, he does not persuasively demonstrate the effectiveness of their elaborate efforts. If writers seek to weed out certain ill-equipped readers or to baffle the determinedly ignorant then it is not evident that their inexplicitness really upends dangerous certainty. Lerner describes writers who address a select few who already possess the outlook and intellectual abilities they (and he) prize. He implies that their approach has contemporary relevance, but how it would have greater subversive impact than the plain speaking that Orwell endorses remains ambiguous at best.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1