The Joker (Part 1)

One of Alan’s most popular lecture series, and for good reason—in The Joker, listeners will find out why every society needs fools in order to remind itself not to take life so damn seriously.

In ancient times all kings had at their courts a court fool. And sometimes it probably was true that the fool was a crazy person who had a peculiar capacity for making inappropriate remarks. And there’s something about inappropriate remarks that can be very funny. I remember, as a child, we used to play a game in which we had, first of all, a booklet with a story in it, but every now and then a word was left blank. And then you were given a pile of cards that were shuffled ’round the players, and in turn, as the story was read by one person, the players turned up whatever card they had and said the word. And the most extraordinary things happened. And in this way, of course, the person who could make inappropriate remarks at the right moment can sometimes bring the house down.


But actually, as time went on, the function of the fool became more sophisticated than that, and he became a person whose function was not simply to make jokes and to be a funny man, but to remind the monarch of his humanity so that he would never, never get too stuffy. You’ll remember, perhaps, the lines in Richard II, where the king says:

Within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his watch and there the antic sits,

—the antic being the court fool—

…and there the antic sits,

Scoffing at his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a little time,

To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,

And then at the last comes death, and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!


See, that was, in a way, the function of the fool. He was reminding you of your finitude; of your mortality; and death, at the end—in somewhat the same way as monks used to keep, on the desks in their cells, a grinning skull. And all this is, of course, nowadays thought very morbid, because today we repress death very, very strongly. And the whole function and role of the mortician in our culture is to pretend in some way that death doesn’t happen. He’s a husher-upper. He sweeps you under the carpet at considerable expense.


Now then, I tried to think whether there isn’t any institution in modern society that really corresponds to the court fool. And there isn’t. There is, of course, the political cartoonist, there is the satirist, there is the commentator, but he doesn’t sit in the President’s office. And the President can ignore him altogether if he so chooses. We don’t like, nowadays, anyone to suggest that our social institutions are not altogether serious. We can’t stand it because we are much too insecure. And this is a very dangerous state of affairs. And so it is really high time that, in many ways, the institution of the fool was reintroduced.


I want to point out a parallel to this. In some ways, the fool (or the joker) and the monk have a parallel function. The monk is a person who abandons society. He is an outlaw, only he’s an outlaw on the upper side instead of on the lower side. As the ordinary criminal is, as it were, below caste, the outlaw in the sense of the monk is above caste. And in the Buddhist religion, at its inception, the followers of the Buddha wore those dark yellow robes because those were the garments of criminals. It’s just as if, today, we were to take the kind of blue jeans they wear over in San Quentin and go around in those, or the old fashioned striped things that were put on jail birds. And so they took on the garments and external appearance of the lower outcaste, but they were in fact respected as upper outcastes.


But in modern society it is very, very difficult to be in that position. For example, in such a true republic as France, every monk and priest is subject to military service. That is not true in the United States, nor is it true in England. They are not quite so republican as the French. But in this kind of modern society, more and more, you must belong. As Thoreau said, “Wherever you may go, men will seek you out and compel you to belong to their desperate company of oddfellows.” And the monks that exist today—Catholic monks and Anglican monks—are really a little bit of a freak in our society. They represent, in other words, the opinions and the discipline of a particular sect. They have no actual official and social recognition. Because, you see, our society cannot stand non-participation. It cannot stand, really, fundamental criticism. And so it’s in a very, very weak state.


I remember, as a boy in London, going off into Hyde Park Corner and listening to people orate against anything they wanted to orate against. They could criticize and vilify, even, the most sacred institutions, and the police would stand by and pay no attention. Sort of lean against the lamppost and let it all go on. And that’s because the people, as a whole, in those days, had a tremendous sense of security. They knew they were right, and therefore there was no point stopping anybody from criticizing them. But when you’re not sure you’re right, you have to stifle criticism completely. And the worst kind of criticism is the person who pokes fun. Non-participation of the monk isn’t so bad. But the person who somehow suggests that society occasionally is something that needs to be giggled at—see, this is the whole position. The joker doesn’t outrightly deride things. He’s not a slapstick comedian. He gives people the giggles about things that they thought were terribly sacred. And that is extremely demoralizing.


So in our day and age, you see, you must belong. And we need to relax on this and allow for non-participation under certain conditions, and these are the ancient conditions. But the person who does not participate in society cannot call upon society for certain things. He cannot call upon the protection of the police or of the army. He cannot call upon education for his children; he’s not supposed to have any children. He may—I suppose, in this day and age—make what arrangements he chooses about his love life, but he mustn’t be the head of a family and he mustn’t feel entitled to the protection and support of the community. If the community respects him and wants to support him just out of its own free will, then that’s their affair. So that’s the way of the monk.


But the fool is in a different class from the monk. And to understand his role fully we have to go into a number of preliminary things, the most important of which is to understand the nature of a social institution. Because, you see, the standpoint of the fool is that all social institutions are games. He sees the whole world as game-playing, and that’s why—when people take their games seriously and put on stern and pious expressions—the fool gets the giggles: because he knows it’s all a game. Now, when I say that he sees everything as a game, this does not mean mere game. Hamlet, although it’s a play, is not mere entertainment. Or when you go to listen to a great orchestra, it is playing music indeed, but you are not seeing something purely frivolous.


The idea of game, basically, is this: that the nature of the world is musical. That is to say, it is doing all these forms of trees and stars and people and all their complexities just to do them. It has no purpose beyond doing it. And in exactly the same way, in music: music has no destination. It isn’t aimed at the future. It does travel in time; that is true. But it doesn’t aim at a goal in time. The point of music is every phrase as it unfolds itself, and as you perceive the relationship of those phrases to earlier and later phrases. But music itself is dance. It’s dancing with sound. And likewise, in the art of dancing, you are not traveling, you are not aiming at a particular place. You are dancing to dance.


And so, what you might call the musical or game theory of the world is that everything that is happening is its own point. It’s true that things do develop. For example, the seed develops into the tree. And you might say, from one point of view, then, that the point of the seed is the tree; that’s the purpose of the seed. But that doesn’t really hold up, because then the tree goes and has seeds again. And so you might say, then, that the purpose of the tree is the seed. Which is which? The whole thing is one process, you see? They really aren’t parts. The seed isn’t one event and the tree another. It’s all one long, continuous event, going on and on just for the sake of going on and on.


Now, of course, you can read purpose in it in another way. That is to say, that a tree is only possible in a certain kind of environment. There have to be—for there to be trees—there has to be a certain kind of temperature, a certain kind of atmosphere, and there have to be insects, and there have to be bacteria in the soil, and there have to be weeds, there have to be birds. All kinds of things are necessary if trees are to live. So you could say this is symbiosis: that the tree lives to look after the birds and provide them with perches, that the birds live to eat the worms which might destroy the roots of the tree, and so everybody lives to support everybody else.


Well, the word “to”—or “in order to”—is not quite correct. It’s a little clumsy. What we should see rather than that is that the whole relationship of trees and birds and worms and bees and so on is a network. And every aspect of the network—you might say every part of it—depends for its existence on every other part. That means, you see, that the network as a whole is a single organism. Just as, in your own physical body (and you call yourselves a single organism), there are billions of creatures of very different kinds, and they’re all running around inside your blood stream and doing their stuff. They’re having battles, love affairs, all kinds of things. And this huge variety of stuff going on constitutes your life as an individual. And so, in turn, you are some kind of a little wiggle in some other sort of a stream which constitutes a larger organism yet.


But, really and truly, this tremendous network doesn’t have any separate parts. It’s not like a machine. A machine is a lot of separate parts that are put together, whereas this is different. The parts of this network don’t come into it from outside. I mean, when you drive your car up to the shop and you want a new carburetor or something, they pull the old one out and they take another one off the shelf and jam it in. So it comes off the shelf into the car. But in this network of life that we live in things don’t come in from outside. Everything that comes into it comes from inside—which is a giveaway that the whole thing is really one process, and it’s all a game. Because… in the sense that it has no other object than doing what it’s doing. That’s the fun of it. But it plays, you see, parts. It varies itself. And in playing—playing always involves a certain element of make-believe, that is to say, illusion. And the word “illusion” is from the Latin ludere: “to play.” It involves the illusion of the parts being separate.


And so, then, there are these variety of games: the tree game, the beetle game, the butterfly game, the bird game, the cat game, the people game, the human game. And if you will look on all these things as differentiated in the same way as chess and backgammon and football and hockey and polo are, as rhumba, waltz, twist, minuet, or again as concerto, partita, fugue, sonata, you will begin to see that it’s a perfectly reasonable attitude to look at the world as a game system. Now, you see, we’ve been looking at the fundamental games of what we call physical and biological entities or events. But over and above those we have the social institutions: the subdivisions of the human game.


Now, then, the social institution is of many kinds. It’s not simply things like marriage and the family, the various forms of government, the institutions of the government (like the public health department). It’s not just things like hospitals, and banks, and business corporations. It’s not even money—only, that’s a social institution. So are all our weights and measures, our systems of timing; our clocks. And, you see, what makes these things social institutions is that they are, in another sense, conventions: things that we agree upon. From the Latin convenere: to come together. We come together in agreement about where the equator is and where longitude zero is. And by agreeing about these things we can order our lives, order our communal intercourse.


I have sometimes mentioned the Buddhist and—well, they’re mainly Buddhist—divinities who you see guarding temple gates. And they’re called the heavenly kings, and they’re always very fierce, and they carry weapons. And they are the guardians of the ten directions. In Buddhist philosophy there are ten directions: the eight points of the compass and up and down. And it’s terribly important to keep the ten directions clear, because if I’m not clear about it I could never meet you at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. So I wouldn’t meet you at all, I could never have a date, without knowing the ten directions. And so these dharma kings are the cosmic traffic cops, and they’re keeping everything straight so that everybody can know where they are. So these are the guardians of the social institutions. The agreements we have to make about money, and language, and law. And also about certain values.


Some of these values vary startlingly, but they are still social institutions. Did you realize pain is a social institution? In some cultures, like ours, it’s very unpleasant to go to the dentist. But there are cultures in which dentistry is no problem at all, but on the other hand, they have extreme pain when their fingernails are cut or their hair is cut. We are very largely talked into pain in extreme childhood. And it varies enormously as to what may be considered painful, and I think it’s not only human beings who do this, but animals do. Experimentation with hypnosis shows that pain is an extremely relative thing. Maybe you have to have some pain, but where you have it is very, very variable.


Also, we know, too, that social institutions govern what we notice. An American male pays relatively little attention to the back of a girl’s neck. And it’s perfectly okay for her to grow her hair down long and cover it. But to a Japanese, the back of a girl’s neck is the most exciting sexual feature. And so, when you see a well-dressed Japanese girl, her kimono hangs a little bit down the back, like this, exposing her neck. They pay no attention, though, to breasts—which seem to so fascinate the American male. It just doesn’t seem to appear. And the way that a traditional Japanese woman clothes herself is exposing the neck but looking very flat in front and not at all showing the hips. She is willowy. She doesn’t look very willowy underneath, as a rule, but she does when dressed in a kimono.


So you see, it isn’t just that nature has built into the human organism certain attractive features about other people. It’s the social institution of what is to be attractive. And, of course, this comes out very, very strongly in the vagaries of fashion, and how to do one’s hair, paint one’s face, et cetera, et cetera.


But now, social institutions go a great deal deeper than anything we’ve mentioned. And the most important kind of social institution is that which has to do with role-playing: who you are. Now, when we ask the question “Who are you?” people think of this question in two different ways. One person, when asked “Who are you?” will answer, “I’m a doctor.” Another person will fall silent because he realizes how profound the question is. He realizes that he’s been asked what is ego is. But a lot of people don’t realize that when they are asked, “Who are you?” I noticed just a little bit of difficulty in my investigations of discussing identity with people; that they fix on their role and use that to describe their identity: their name, their family, their place in society, what they do, what their hobbies are, and so on—all these are roles.


And then, also, there is the role of character-playing. All people are more or less taught to act. We’re all hams from the beginning. And we were schooled in acting in our childhood, although it wasn’t called that. It was called education, it was called upbringing. But a great deal of it is schooling in acting. And you very soon learn, as a child—from your peers and from your parents—what acts are appropriate and what are not. It is the concern of all parents that their child learns a role in life and has an identity by which the child can be recognized. It would be extraordinarily disconcerting, wouldn’t it, if a child had one personality one day and another the next. But children can do that. Don’t you remember, as a child, that you were many different personalities depending on your environment? That you were one person at home with your parents, you were quite a different person out alone with other children. Then, when you went to visit your uncle and aunt, you were somebody else altogether. And so on. And finally, the whole trend of education is to shake all this down and make you more or less constant in every sort of social environment that you enter so that everybody knows who you are. Otherwise it’s disconcerting, you see?


So we are made to believe that we have a real self—that is to say, somebody who we really are, and whom we have to find. To find yourself, to settle down, to grow up, you see, means to fit into a role. And there are a lot of people, you see, who are troubled in our society, and who seem to be misfits and are terribly unhappy, because they just can’t find the role that they’re supposed to fit. They don’t know who they are. There is an inner pandemonium and conflict. But it’s obvious—isn’t it?—that the role you play is a social institution. Because you can’t be an object to your own consciousness—at least not in the ordinary way. You are a subject, from your own point of view. And you can only become an object to the extent that you adopt the attitudes that other people take towards you.


Other people, from the beginning of life, are mirrors. And by the way they respond to you, you begin to learn what they think of you, and therefore, who you are. We all tell each other who we are. And so the role we play, the identity that we have in that sense, is a social institution.


But going further, there is the ego itself. There is this feeling that, inside us, there is an I-center which receives experience and directs action. And this is the inmost myself. And we have all, of course, been taught in this day and age that if this is not our soul, it is a function of our body; it is a chemical efflorescence of the brain—the feeling of “I.”


Now, as I have told many of you before in various ways, this sensation of being a separate “I” cut off from all other “I”s is an illusion. It’s a pure hallucination, because that is not the way we are functioning physically. We are functioning physically not as separate entities, but as beings that live in such a close relationship with everything else that there really is no way of dividing us from it. And so, you see, the mystic in all times and places discovers the illusory nature of this ego, and realizes with a glorious shock that the true “I, myself”—the thing that one really is, fundamentally—is the entire game; the works. Some people call it God, or Brahman, or the Tao, or whatever you want. The name doesn’t make the slightest difference. Fundamentally, what you are is the which than which there is no whicher.


And so, relax! Don’t worry! Because, you see, this doesn’t ordinarily come into consciousness in just the same way that the structure of your brain doesn’t ordinarily come into consciousness. It’s very much there, but you don’t see it directly and you have no memory of it. So, in the same way, you have no memory of being the which than which there is no whicher. But there’s no need to have a memory of that! Because the thing doesn’t need a memory. Memories are only necessary for creatures that have to defend themselves and creatures that have problems; they need memories. But the perfectly, gloriously happy person wouldn’t remember anything, because every experience would be completely satisfactory. All memory is really a form of regurgitation of undigested experience. But, you see, don’t forget (as we all know): memory can be fun. And so can burping. But memory isn’t necessary for the whole thing, except in certain brief forms of memory, where the continuance of anything at all—you see, of any particular form—is a sort of memory in the sense that it’s a repeated gyration of certain physical vibrations.


But it’s possible, you see, to wake up and realize that your ego is a game, and that what we call the necessity for survival is also a game. But society is playing a very, very weird game, the first rule of which is: this game is not a game. This game is serious. And so the great, great social institutions that we inherit from the past, like the church, are places to be serious. I don’t think there ever was a jester in church. Of course, the church formed itself around a particular jester who couldn’t be stood and so had to be crucified; he was just too much. But the whole attitude, you see, of the church is that you are standing in the presence of the most serious God the Father, who really is in earnest and no fooling, you see? And everybody has to keep a straight face.


And so, also, in the court of law. In our excessively serious society I was giving evidence not so long ago, and the two defendants were smiling at each other. And the judge suddenly rapped his gavel and said, “You young men ought to realize that you’re on trial for a very serious crime, and it’s no joking matter. And I want to see proper behavior and conduct in this court.” And the attorney stood up and said, “Your honor, this is the first time they’ve ever been on trial and they’re not used to these things.” And he said, “Well, it’s about time they learned!”


So, you see, the thing is that the game—there’s always the fear, the underlying fear, that the game may be given away. Now, that fear isn’t altogether unreasonable. Because part of the fascination of games is that it’s to get involved and, in a way, to forget that they are games. The actor on the stage does his damnedest to persuade you that he is moving in the real world. And children love to get completely absorbed in their games and get the actual thrill of adventure in playing at war and so on. And, you see, one reason why people don’t really want to know the future—why a really expert fortune teller gives most people a little bit of trepidation—is that, if you know what the future’s going to be, it is less worthwhile going ahead towards it. If you know the outcome, why bother?


See, this is one of the ways we’re trying to stop war. The Rand Corporation is trying to make computer systems that, at any immediate future date, can predict the outcome of a war so that it won’t be necessary to fight it. “If we did fight, this would happen.” So the winner claims the diplomatic advantage, and we go on. So this is the reason, you see, why we don’t want to know that the game is only a game.


Now, if we can make believe that the game is real—whatever that means; we’re not very clear about that—but somehow we know what it means in our bones, if we don’t know very well in our heads what is for real. And we’re always testing things out. What is for real? But when the whole world game becomes too real and people become too earnest, it’s highly necessary to play a new game, which is the game of game against non-game. How far can you get away with giving the show away about the game? Nobody really wants to go the whole hog until you’re ready for final nirvāṇa. You know? Then you give the show away so far as you’re concerned, and that’s it. But in the meantime, the fascination of seeing how to put together knowing it’s a game and still playing it.


And doing this is what, in Mahayana Buddhism, is called being a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a person who doesn’t give his show away completely. He doesn’t simply release his consciousness from playing the human game. He is released and yet still in it. He knows the human game is the game, but he goes on playing it with considerable gusto. And his gusto derives in a great deal from the fact of knowing it’s a game. You see, you can do that, and it’s one of the peculiar properties of self-consciousness: to be able to know it’s a game and yet enjoy doing it. It’s like being happy and knowing you’re happy.


Now, a lot of people are afraid of that. They feel that, if the moment they say, “Well, I’m happy,” that it’ll somehow stop. That it’ll be like being too conscious of digesting your food. There is a point there where enjoying dinner very slowly merges into disgust. But it needn’t be like that. The real gourmet never gets into that bind. And so, in the same way, doing something—being happy and knowing that you’re happy—has about it a certain quality of what I would call resonance. For example, if I talk in a room which is completely soundproofed, it’s terrible. I can’t stand it. There’s no resonance. No little tiny echo. I feel I’m talking into the proverbial wet blanket. But if there’s a little resonance, if there’s a feedback, you see, that makes the thing vibrate a bit more than it ordinarily would. So one gets feedback from an audience. And it’s much easier to talk to an audience than it is to a microphone. Because there’s feedback. And so consciousness is feedback. So, for that reason, your voice sounds better when you’re singing in the bathtub than it does when you’re singing out in an open room: because you get resonance. And so we put resonators—say, a guitar or a violin has a sounding box in it. That’s a resonator, to make it echo a bit. And so great churches at one time—or still are—built by acoustic experts, and so are concert halls, to give them the proper resonance.


But when resonance gets too much, you know, it starts chattering. It gets a system of echoes set up. And some of the old cathedrals which weren’t built with acoustical knowledge, you can hear the echoes of a choir going on for ever and ever and ever. It sounds very marvelous from a certain point of view, but it’s not from a musical point of view. It’s a kind of a… it’s more sentimental. And we used to, even, be taught to sing in church with an echo technique in the voice. So that, even if you weren’t in a great cathedral with its echoes, you’d slightly sound as if you were. Isn’t that trickery for you? That’s real showbiz!


So to play the game and to know it’s a game can be quite fascinating. And not really giving the show away, but giving it away enough, somehow. And that, you see, is the joker’s function. So what he’s doing, then, is: he is in a point of view where he sees all that is going on as a game. He doesn’t take anything seriously. But don’t forget that that doesn’t mean that he is simply shallow and frivolous. Because, for example, if somebody were to say to me, “I love you,” and I turned to them and said, “Are you serious?” she might say, “No. I’m sincere.” Because love isn’t necessarily serious. You see, we use the word “serious” very frequently where we should be using the word “sincere.” And the lack of proper delineation between these two words causes a great deal of confusion. It’s like the confusion about the word “must.” “You must do this.” Whether it’s a commandment or whether it’s a condition, a state of affairs that simply is so. And so, in the same way, we need a clarification of “must” and we need a clarification of “serious.” And it can be divided down into serious on the one hand, or sincere on the other.


What is sincerity? Sincerity is being integrated, being all of a piece. Now, you see, we often think that the person who doesn’t take life seriously isn’t all of a piece. That is to say, his heart’s not really in it. He is out here living, you see, and going along, and talking to people. But the feeling is, of an insincere person, there’s something in the back of his mind that isn’t participating. That’s what worries people about actors. Are they acting in real life? Are they still playing the part? Is this person I’m introduced to as Charlie Chaplin the same man as or different from the funny little man with the Derby hat? And so, actors occasionally bother and bug people. And people may be apt to say, “Well, they’re always on the stage. They’re never really genuine.” And we have a feeling, you know, when you know when somebody is being genuine. See? But mark it: when you know somebody is being genuine, they are not necessarily being serious. They’re not necessarily being grave or solemn.


What I want to give the idea of is sincere laughter. And also sincere play. There is a perfectly sincere laughter. And it may be—ideally, I mean, the sincere laughter expresses a spirit of irrepressible gaiety. And it is not, in other words, a defense mechanism. Laughter is often a defense mechanism—what we call a nervous laugh. Or laughing someone to scorn can very often be a forced laugh that isn’t really funny at all. But the real laugh is, of course, the resolution of anxiety. See, anxiety is serious. And anxiety is a state of palpitation; of the trembles. Anxiety comes upon us when we cannot decide which way to go or which way things are going to go. And so we tremble between alternatives. Because, of course, we tremble between alternatives because we are under the illusion that it matters very much which of these two things happens.


Now, once one has seen the nature of the game, you realize that it matters superficially which of these two things happens, but it doesn’t fundamentally matter because all negative things pair with positives. There is no positive without negative, and there is no negative without positive. I heard a very amusing story which kind of goes with these rugs. The question is, is a zebra a yellow horse with black stripes or a black horse with yellow stripes? The answer is: it is an invisible horse which has been striped yellow and black so that people won’t bump into it. Now, in a similar way, reality is an invisible state of affairs beyond all description and thought, but it has been striped black and white so as to be seen. And this is life and death, up and down, sound and silence—the whole vibratory character of being. And the fundamental game that the universe is playing is to forget that this is so. You see, what you might say in theological language: the invisibility of God is his self-forgetfulness. And the visibility of the world is the game being played.


Now, the nature of the game—I think I’ve told some of you this before, but I see some I haven’t—the nature of the game is: let us pretend that the positive and the negative are not really identical. You see, they’re explicitly different but implicitly the same, because they always go around together. And that reveals a hidden, implicit conspiracy between black and white, and the truth is you can’t have one without the other. But if we can pretend that they don’t go together, that they are actually enemies, then we can have all sorts of games. The first game of which is: oh dear, black might win! The next game is: but white must win! And from that position you can develop all the games you want. And it’s interesting, isn’t it, how so many of our table games—like chess and dominoes and checkers and so on—use the black and white pieces. And you can find, in the conventions of chess—one could discuss all this problem in terms of chess.


When I bring up the joker, of course, we’re in a way discussing in term of a game of cards, because the joker is the card beyond role. The card that’s wild, that can be any card in the pack. In other words, it’s delivered from being a particular someone and can be an anyone. And it pops up here, and it pops up there, and it pops up here. And you never know: where is the joker? Who is the joker? You see? The thing that we have to understand, really, is that all the roles are the joker playing them. And the joker is looking at you out of all pairs of eyes. There he is. Only, he’s pretending very often that he’s not the joker at all. Oh no! It’s just me. I’m not the joker. Where is the joker?

Well, let’s have an intermission.

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