In 1494 in Basel, Sebastian Brant published Ship of Fools (Das Narrenschiff). It is a satirical poem divided into 112 chapters, containing some beautiful woodcuts attributed to Albrecht Dürer.
The image of a boat whose crew is composed entirely of insane men was already widespread in Europe at the time, from Holland to Austria, and it appeared in several poems starting from the XIII Century. Brant used it with humorous and moralistic purposes, devoting each chapter to one foolish passenger, and making a compilation of human sins, faults and vices.
Each character becomes the expression of a specific human “folly” – greed, gambling, gluttony, adultery, gossip, useless studies, usury, sensual pleasure, ingratitude, foul language, etc. There are chapters for those who disobey their physician’s orders, for the arrogants who constantly correct others, for those who willingly put themselves at risk, for those who feel superior, for those who cannot keep a secret, for men who marry old women for inheritance, for those who go out at night singing and playing instuments when it’s time to rest.
Brant’s vision is fierce, even if partly mitigated by a carnivalesque style; in fact the ship of fools is clearly related to the Carnival – which could take its name from the carrus navalis (“ship-like cart”), a festive processional wagon built in shape of a boat.
The Carnival was the time of year where the “sacred” reversal took place, when every excess was allowed, and high priests and powerful noblemen could be openly mocked through pantomimes and wild travesties: these “ships on wheels”, loaded with masks and grotesque characters, effectively brought some kind of madness into the streets. But these celebrations were accepted only because they were limited to a narrow timeframe, a permitted transgression which actually reinforced the overall equilibrium.
Foucault, who wrote about the ship of fools in his History of Madness, interprets it as the symbol of one of the two great non-programmatic strategies used throughout the centuries in order to fight the perils of epidemics (and, generically speaking, the danger of Evil lurking within society).
On one hand there is the concept of the Stultifera Navis, the ship of fools, consisting in the marginalization of anything that’s considered unhealable. The boats full of misfits, lunatics and ne’er-do-wells perhaps really existed: as P. Barbetta wrote, “crazy persons were expelled from the cities, boarded on ships to be abandoned elsewhere, but the captain often threw them in the water or left them on desolate islands, where they died. Many drowned.“
The lunatic and the leper were exiled outside the city walls by the community, during a sort of grand purification ritual:
The violent act through which they are removed from the life of the polis retroactively defines the immunitary nature of the Community of normal people. The lunatic is in fact considered taboo, a foreign body that needs to be purged, rejected, excluded. Sailors then beome their keepers: to be stowed inside the Stultifera navis and abandoned in the water signifies the need for a symbolic purifying ritual but also an emprisonment with no hope of redention. The apparent freedom of sailing without a course is, in reality, a kind of slavery from which it is impossible to escape.
(M. Recalcati, Scacco alla ragione, Repubblica, 29-05-16)
On the other hand, Foucault pinpoints a second ancient model which resurfaced starting from the end of the XVII Century, in conjunction with the ravages of the plague: the model of the inclusion of plague victims.
Here society does not instinctively banish a part of the citizens, but instead plans a minute web of control, to establish who is sick and who is healthy.
Literature and theater have often described plague epidemics as a moment when all rules explode, and chaos reigns; on the contrary, Foucault sees in the plague the moment when a new kind of political power is established, a “thorough, obstacle-free power, a power entirely transparent to its object; a power that is fully exercised” (from Abnormal).
The instrument of quarantine is implemented; daily patrols are organized, citizens are controlled district after district, house after house, even window after window; the population is submitted to a census and divided to its minimum terms, and those who do not show up at the headcount are excluded from their social status in a “surgical” manner.
This is why this second model shows the sadeian traits of absolute control: a plagued society is the delight of those who dream of a military society.
A real integration of madness and deviance was never considered.
Still today, the truly scandalous figures (as Baudrillard pointed out in Simulachra and Simulation) are the mad, the child and the animal – scandalous, because they do not speak. And if they don’t talk, if they exist outside of the logos, they are dangerous: they need to be denied, or at least not considered, in order to avoid the risk of jeopardising the boundaries of culture.
Therefore children are not deemed capable of discernment, are not considered fully entitled individuals and obviously do not have a voice in important decisions; animals, with their mysterious eyes and their unforgivable mutism, need to be always subjugated; the mad, eventually, are relegated abord their ship bound to get lost among the waves.
We could perhaps add to Baudrillard’s triad of “scandals” one more problematic category, the Foreigner – who speaks a language but it’s not our language, and who since time immemorial was seen alternatively as a bringer of innovation or of danger, as a “freak of nature” (and thus included in bestiaries and accounts of exotic marvels) or as a monstrum which was incompatible with an advanced society.
The opposition between the city/terra firma, intended as the Norm, and the maritime exhile of the deviant never really disappeared.
But getting back to Brant’s satire, that Narrenschiff which established the ship allegory in the collective unconscious: we could try to interpret it in a less reactionary or conformist way.
In fact taking a better look at the crowd of misfits, madmen and fools, it is difficult not to identify at least partially with some of the ship’s passengers. It’s not by chance that in the penultimate chapter the author included himself within the senseless riffraff.
That’s why we could start to doubt: what if the intent of the book wasn’t to simply ridicule human vices, but rather to build a desperate metaphore of our existential condition? What if those grotesque, greedy and petulant faces were our own, and dry land didn’t really exist?
If that’s the case – if we are the mad ones –, what caused our madness?
There is a fifth, last kind of “scandalous-because-silent” interlocutors, with which we have much, too much in common: they are the corpses.
And within the memento mori narrative, laughing skeletons are functional characters as much as Brant’s floating lunatics. In the danse macabre, each of the skeletons represents his own specific vanity, each one exhibits his own pathetic mundane pride, his aristocratic origin, firmly convinced of being a prince or a beggar.
Despite all the ruses to turn it into a symbol, to give it some meaning, death still brings down the house of cards. The corpse is the real unhealable obscene, because it does not communicate, it does not work or produce, and it does not behave properly.
From this perspective the ship of fools, much larger than previously thought, doesn’t just carry vicious sinners but the whole humanity: it represents the absurdity of existence which is deprived of its meaning by death. When faced with this reality, there are no more strangers, no more deviants.
What made us lose our minds was a premonition: that of the inevitable shipwreck.
The loss of reason comes with realizing that our belief that we can separate ourselves from nature, was a sublime illusion. “Mankind – in Brecht’s words – is kept alive by bestial acts“. And with a bestial act, we die.
The ancient mariner‘s glittering eye has had a glimpse of the truth: he discovered just how fragile the boundary is between our supposed rationality and all the monsters, ghosts, damnation, bestiality, and he is condemned to forever tell his tale.
The humanity, maddened by the vision of death, is the one we see in the wretches embarked on the raft of the Medusa; and Géricault‘s great intuition, in order to study the palette of dead flesh, was to obtain and bring to his workshop some real severed limbs and human heads – reduction of man to a cut of meat in a slaughterhouse.
Even if in the finished painting the horror is mitigated by hope (the redeeming vessel spotted on the horizon), hope certainly wasn’t what sparked the artist’s interest, or gave rise to the following controversies. The focus here is on the obscene flesh, the cannibalism, the bestial act, the Panic that besieges and conquers, the shipwreck as an orgy where all order collpases.
“Water, water everywhere“: mad are those who believe they are sane and reasonable, but maddened are those who realize the lack of meaning, the world’s transience… In this unsolvable dilemma lies the tragedy of man since the Ecclesiastes, in the impossibility of making a rational choice
We cannot be cured from this madness, we cannot disembark from this ship.
All we can do is, perhaps, embrace the absurd, enjoy the adventurous journey, and marvel at those ancient stars in the sky.
Brant’s Das Narrenschiff di Brant si available online in its original German edition, or in a 1874 English translation in two volumes (1 & 2), or on Amazon.