Sunday 1 April 2012: Fool's Road
For April Fools' Day, I rode my bike all over Woodlands Cemetery in the afternoon. There has been a major advance on the grounds keeping in the past few years, and I saw some graves that had been hidden by the overgrowth, even on my last visit. The 19th century brick paths like this one are being cleared of their grassy shrouds and presented to the patrons again. That's great to see.
The theme of "Fools" got me thinking, and I took pictures of flowering trees, and snuck a few foolish-looking images of my foolish cats. I tried to find a fool-related cartoon from R. Crumb's Zap Comix that I remember, but without luck.
Then I remembered the short story "Gimpel The Fool" by Isaac Bashevis Singer, which I was assigned to read in college around thirty years ago. It made a heavy impression on me (without religious connotation) and still does now as I read it again. I think of it as a gold standard of good writing. The following scene from the tale starts with Gimpel talking to the Devil in a dream, and then his deceased wife. Then there's a scene in his bakery that redefines the man and sends him wandering the world as a story-telling fool for the rest of his life. When I first read it I thought that no one on earth could have predicted the scene within the story. It was a pure surprise, such as a half-wise, half-crazed, enchanted fool would give to his listeners. Here's the passage:
One night, when the period of mourning was done, as I lay dreaming on the flour sacks, there came the Spirit of Evil himself and said to me, "Gimpel, why do you sleep?"
I said, "What should I be doing? Eating kreplach?"
"The whole world deceives you," he said, "and you ought to deceive the world in your turn."
"How can I deceive the world?" I asked him.
He answered, "You might accumulate a bucket of urine every day and at night pour it into the dough. Let the sages of Frampol eat filth."
"What about the judgment in the world to come?" I said.
"There is no world to come," he said. "They've sold you a bill of goods and talked you into believing you carried a cat in your belly. What nonsense!"
"Well then," I said, "and is there a God?"
He answered, 'There is no God either."
"What," I said, "is there, then?"
"A thick mire."
He stood before my eyes with a goatish beard and horn, long-toothed, and with a tail. Hearing such words, I wanted to snatch him by the tail, but I tumbled for the flour sacks and nearly broke a rib. Then it happened that I had to answer the call of nature, and, passing, I saw the risen dough, which seemed to say to me, "Do it!" In brief, I let myself be persuaded.
At dawn the apprentice came. We kneaded the bread, scattered caraway seeds on it, and set it to bake. Then the apprentice went away, and I was left sitting in the little trench by the oven, on a pile of rags. Well, Gimpel, I thought, you've revenged yourself on them for all the shame they've put on you. Outside the frost glittered, but it was warm beside the oven. The flames heated my face. I bent my head and fell into a doze.
I saw in a dream, at once, Elka in her shroud. She called to me, "What have you done, Gimpel?"
I said to her, "It's all your fault," and started to cry.
"You fool!" she said. "You fool! Because I was false is everything false too? I never deceived anyone but myself. I'm paying for it all, Gimpel. They spare you nothing here."
I looked at her face. It was black; I was startled and waked, and remained sitting dumb. I sensed that everything hung in the balance. A false step now and I'd lose Eternal Life. But God gave me His help. I seized the long shovel and took out the loaves, carried them into the yard, and started to dig a hole in the frozen earth.
My apprentice came back as I was doing it. "What are you doing, boss?" he said, and grew pale as a corpse.
The story in its entirety is here.