The King's Jester: Modern Style
The King's Jester: Modern Style
Harper's
March, 1928

In the old days, before the king business went into practical liquidation, the court jester was an established institution. This functionary's job required him not only to be' entertaining, but also realistic; in fact, his success at entertainment was pretty strictly conditioned by his sense of reality. All the other court functionaries cooked up the king's facts for him before delivery; the jester delivered them raw. This was the curious convention of the time. The jester was the only person permitted to tell the king the plain, unupholstered truth about things as he saw them, even about royalty itself and the most intimate matters pertaining to royalty; and he was not only permitted but expected to do this. The jester criticized State policies in a full-mouthed way that would have insured anybody else a life sojourn in the Bastille; and he got praise and favor for it. He could tell the king that his favorite mistress was a mercenary old rip who should be thrown to the sharks and, as our phrase goes, he could get away with it, and be applauded for it, which no one else could do, either in the court or in the kingdom at large.

Historically, I believe, nobody knows how this peculiar institution grew up, or where it came from. It may have arisen out of the fundamental need of human nature for an occasional contact with fact and truth. A king was a vertebrated animal, like anyone else; and as such be could not live by pretense alone. Once in a while, probably, he had to brace up on a little refreshing go at fact and truth. But he could not approach fact and truth seriously because of their highly explosive quality. They might go off at any moment, and blow the political edifice into the air. His official or serious contacts could be only with pretense, because pretense was the foundation of the whole regime of absolutism. The institution of the jester, therefore, enabled royalty to have its fling, upon the strict conventional understanding that it should not "count," that the experience should be merely exhilarating, and not translatable into purpose and action.

In another respect, too, the jester was exempt from the regular rules of court etiquette. It seems from old accounts that he could mix around promiscuously with everybody, high, low, rich, and poor. He was at home everywhere, in palace or hovel, and everybody made much of him in ways that must have helped him out a good deal in the discharge of his function. Nobody ever put up a front with the jester; he always saw people as pretty much their natural selves. Thus he gravitated into the confidence of the general run of folks and learned what they were thinking about. This was likely to make him— and often did make him—a good interpreter of the popular mind. He spoke with the people's voice and in the tone of popular opinion and judgment.

In a republic the people are sovereign, nominally and perhaps really. But as far as the republican principle has &S yet been worked out, it has mostly taken over and recostumed the main essentials of the old order and put them at work again quite in the old way. The French and American Revolutions made absolutism step aside only long enough to change its clothes in decent privacy, before resuming its place at the old stand. Make-believe remains as the foundation and chief working asset of the new political system, as it was of the old. Under these circumstances it is highly interesting to observe that the many-headed sovereign seems to show the same old need for occasional contact with fact and truth that the single-headed sovereign used to show, and that the republican system has set up a device whereby he can make it on the same old teens. This device, exactly like that of the king's jester, embodies a strict convention. It enables the many-headed monarch to make his contact with fact and truth on the clear and careful undertaking that it shall not count, that he shall not take the experience seriously as something translatable into purpose and action.

This republican counterpart of the king's jester is the newspaper-paragrapher and paragrapher-cartoonist. His development, and the privileged character of his position in our system, constitute one of the most impressive curiosities of modern journalism. No more exact parallel to the primitive institution could be devised. The paragrapher has inherited all the jester's privileges, neither more nor fewer, and exactly the same set of expectations are put upon him. The freer his speech to the sovereign lord, the closer and shrewder his approach to the plain natural truth of things, the more he is appreciated and applauded. The wider his experience of human nature and the closer his interpretations come to the residual common sense of mankind, the more firmly, by common consent, he is fixed in his job. The more profound and subversive his implications, the stronger his position at the republican sovereign's court. Moreover, there is no one to contest or to share his privileges; he is a unique figure in a unique function. If the prophet, the publicist, the professor, lecturer, or so-called public servant undertook to assume his liberties and prerogatives he would at once come to grief in an avalanche of general disapproval.

II

It has amused me for some time to keep more or less consecutive track of our paragraphers and to weigh their utterances critically. I began this practice during the War. Being in Europe a good deal at the time, and in a position which made it desirable for me to have accurate knowledge of what was really going on, I began to pay great and increasing heed to the paragraphers; with such good results that I suppose I can say I am the only observer of that period who put practically his whole dependence on the comic papers. In all countries, long before I waded through statesmen's speeches and publicists' deliverances, I assembled all the comic papers I could get my hands on, and studied them prayerfully. I may say, too (for it is in praise of my authorities and not of myself) that I know of no observer who came out right oftener than I did, whether in an estimate of the present or a forecast of the future. Since then I have kept up the practice and got big dividends out of it. When I wish an interpretation or an illumination of the day's news I turn to the paragraphers for it, not to the editorial writers. After all, this is quite in the tradition. If the oldtime king had let the jester take the measure of things for him and acted on it he would have mostly come out better than he did, because the jester was the most experienced and disinterested person he had about him, and—most important of all--entirely unanswerable to the general conventions of the court.

It is not generally realized, I believe, that the paragrapher has so significant a position among us at the present timed indeed, without a rather attentive analysis of his work, it could probably not be realized. Yet the realization is useful, if only to reveal to ourselves the lengths we unconsciously go in our subscription to pretense and make- believe; and the best way to get it is by free discussion of some examples.

Among the extracts from the press that I have lately potted I find the following:

You can't expect a professional politician to make up his bed and then lie on it. He's more likely to make up his bunk and then lie out of it.

This is a perfect example of the jester's license, exercised at the expense of his fellow-courtiers; it is the product of a shrewd, experienced, realistic mind. Its implications are profound and subversive and, put in this way, or rather, under these privileged conditions, they are wholly acceptable to the many- headed sovereign. In them he feels the welcome contact with fact and truth. But he cannot take his experience seriously because the whole array of protective convention thrown over our political system forbids it. If there were any question of his taking it seriously, indeed, he would rise up in royal indignation and declare that he had never had any such experience, but on the contrary was much annoyed by the jester's presumption, and would go promptly after his scalp.

A little imagination will show the truth of this. The implications of this paragraph are that politicians, of whatever stripe, school, or party, are lying, swindling fellows, untrustworthy and inconsiderable, and out for their own purposes. Exactly the same implications appear in another paragraph, which I put beside it:

The crookedest politics is always measured by the plum line.

Utterances like these, subversive as they are, never attract the royal disapproval; they never lose the paper that prints them a single subscriber. In fact, if they are frequent enough and pungent enough, they are in good circulation-getter. But now imagine any newspaper taking their implications seriously and molding its news-policy and editorial policy upon them! Suppose, say, that the Baltimore Sun should decide to go before the sovereign public in a perfectly realistic attitude towards politics and politicians of all parties which is exactly the attitude appearing in these two paragraphs! I do not mean that the paper should inveigh against politics in every issue, or be always calling politicians liars and swindlers, but simply that it consistently give its entire treatment of politics, both in news and editorial form, the precise "slant" of those two paragraphs. What would be the consequence? Practically every one of those who now accept the jester's implications, who know that the jester has quite perfectly hit off their own convictions and made himself the echo of their own consciousness, even reflecting back to them their own tone and temper, would get into a great state of indignation and resentment over the republican equivalent of lese-majesty, and would stop their subscription

An effective paragrapher in one of our most prominent newspapers makes this observation on the course of American imperialism:

An American syndicate is bidding for a concession to extract the salts from the Dead Sea. Which suggests the difficulty of landing marines near this inland sea for the purpose of protecting American lives and property.

Another paper of almost equal prominence has the following on the the general topic:

RICH GOLD STRIKE MADE IN PHILIPPINES
Nature seems determined not to have those islands independent.

Now, what newspaper can safely reproduce upon its news policy and editorial policy the implications of these remarks? One thinks at once of the late Frank A. Munsey moving about among his editorial writers, saying, "Now, no opinions! Remember—no opinions!" Yet everyone is aware--everyone who has enough intelligence to be aware of anything—that these paragraphs imply the plain natural truth about the dinosaurian progress of the imperialism begun under Mr. Jefferson in the Louisiana tract, and continued in the Floridas and the various Indian territories, in Texas, the Northwest, the Coast, Hawaii, the Philippines, and latterly in the Caribbean. The many-headed sovereign thus has his refreshing and relieving approach to fact and truth, but he cannot for a moment take it seriously; the consequences would be ruinous. His serious approach to the topic of imperialism in the case of the Philippines, for example, must be made with reverential regard to convention, by way of such guarded writing as I saw lately in an editorial on the subject, or such as anyone can see in any editorial—it is stereotyped--about the necessity of holding the Filipinos in leash indefinitely for their own good, and in order to instruct them "how to develop their natural resources in an orderly and profitable manner."

When an election comes on we all know how convention presides over any avenue of serious approach to the subject. The volume and character of news-writing, editorial-writing, feature-writing, personality sketches, the broadcasting of speeches, and so on, conspire to represent this event as something of enormous moment. The "issues of the campaign" are conventionally scrutinized, and a strictly conventional attitude maintained towards the pledges and promises of the several candidates or parties. The other day I noticed the work of a paragrapher-cartoonist, entitled, "Another Gas War Looming." It showed a voter in a Ford car, pulled up in the midst of half a dozen filling-stations labelled, "High Test Promises," "Economy Promises," "More Miles per Taxes," and such like, with a vociferous candidate standing beside each one, imploring patronage. The voter's soliloquy was, " Well, I oughtn't to have any trouble getting 'filled up' with all these filling-stations around." Here the American sovereign gets the realistic rather than the conventional line of approach to the national event. It falls in precisely with his intuitive sense of the plain natural truth of things, but he dare not admit that it does, even to himself. His appreciation of the experience is strictly within the limits set by convention; and herein once more he is precisely on a level footing with the kings of old.

Concerning the specific character of partisan political claims and promises, a Mid-Western paragrapher dryly observed that:

Probably the funniest thing that has developed in our national politics lately is the horrified fear of the residue of the Ohio Crowd lest Tammany get hold of the Government and corrupt it.

Probably it is. But the sense of fact and reality conveyed by this observation is not by way of disparagement of either the Ohio Crowd or Tammany, but of both together equally. The many-headed American sovereign at once gets the implication, by no means new to his consciousness, that political parties, whatever their conventional designation, really divide themselves only into the Ins and the Outs. The Ins are in and wish to stay in, while the Outs are out and wish to get in; and both the Ins and the Outs will cheerfully authorize any sacrifice whatever of collective or personal integrity, or both, to attain their ends. Another paragrapher conveys the . - me implication a little more delicately, thus:

Of course, we don't aim to be mean about it, but we can't help noticing that all this Mississippi water got loose under a Republican Administration.

Some of us are old enough to remember the hurricane of obloquy that came down on poor old General Hancock for saying that the tariff is a local issue. Here was a capital instance of a courtier invading the jester's bailiwick and encroaching on his privileges; for General Hancock was a candidate for the Presidency, and the many-headed sovereign was keeping close watch on his attitude towards the established conventions. The conventional, official, correct approach to the tariff was by way of showing that it was necessary only for the revenue, as the Democrats said, or, as the Republicans contended, for the protection of labor's right to work, or to keep the dinner-pail full, or to keep the blight of European pauper-labor competition off our infant industries. No one dared remotely hint that the tariff was a device for swindling the domestic consumer out of the difference between the competitive price and the price as augmented by the amount of the tariff-duty. No one, that is, except the Court Jester; he could make as free as he liked with this idea, and the sovereign and the boys would wink at one another, and have a jolly laugh all round. But General Hancock had no such privilege. His remark carried the most serious implications of lese-majesty, and it got him out of royal favor in no time at all.

If the question of the tariff is revived, as we see some prospect that it will be, a distinct set of conventions will be devised for the approach to it—the serious and official approach. Such are the traditions of absolutism. We cannot yet be sure what the conventional lines of approach will be, but we can be sure that any mention of the fundamental fact of pilferage committed upon the consumer will remain outlawed from court etiquette. Any hint that the tariff is a mere delegation of the taxing power into the hands of court favorites—in effect exactly what the old royal method of tax-farming used to be will put the offender into outer darkness, to keep company with the puzzled shade of General Hancock. The jester, however, while all this is going on, will regale and refresh his mighty sovereign with such observations as this:

Florida fruit-growers want a protective tariff now. Their democracy ends at oranges and bananas.

Or this:

Well, the French action on tariffs ought to call our attention again to the great truth that an infant industry thirteen feet tall looks peculiar in rompers.

Or the following comment on a tendency that we all perfectly well under stand, but can by no manner of means seriously discuss:

What the French seem unable to understand about our elastic tariff is why it always stretches upwards.

The relations between the United States and England have long been the object of a very distinct court etiquette, and they may not be approached realistically, except at risk of the usual pains and penalties. We have all noticed this particularly in the reports of our various institutes and schools for the study of international affairs, as well as in the day-to-day editorial comment on our foreign policy. Realistic treatment of the late irruption of the Mayor of Chicago, for instance, is not permissible. To be strictly loyal to our sovereign's code, probably we should not even permit ourselves to think realistically about it; yet just that is what everyone does, the sovereign himself necessarily included. Hence the sovereign gets back a pleasing echo of his inmost thoughts from the paragrapher's observation that—

Big Bill Thompson says he is going to make a bonfire of all the books that have pro-British propaganda in them. But how will he find them, unless maybe the bankers out there are easier than ours, and make a practice of letting the Ma, or have access to their ledgers?

Well, the United States has immense power and an immense deal of money; and what Government situated as England's is, and with the Heaven-sent help of language-monopoly, would not strain every nerve to keep on the blind side of so much money and power? If there is not pro-British propaganda at practically every crossroads in the United States, then it would seem that the City and the British Foreign Office, with all their innumerable satellites in journalism and statecraft, stand convicted of sheer lunacy. Just so long as the United States teas a lot of money and power, so long it will be infested with the vermin of British propaganda, French propaganda, Fascist propaganda, and every other kind that thinks it has any faint chance of drawing blood.

Far above and beyond court etiquette, there are of course always certain distinctions of taste involved in a creditor's attitude towards a debtor. Observance of these distinctions, however, is by no means inconsistent with reservations in petto which make up a vivid regret at having been misled into a bad investment; and this is what we discern in the paragrapher's mournful observation that—

Every day, in every way, Europe gets nearer and dearer to the United States.

—and also in his remark that--

Secretary Hoover advises caution in making loans to Europe. It is excellent advice, and only about $11,000,000,000 late.

Perhaps the most rigid and sensitive conventions in our whole court etiquette are those that surround the American conception of success. America was always a land of opportunity in a double sense. It afforded a great opportunity for production, and hence a great demand for labor at a high wage. It also afforded a great opportunity to exploit production through certain forms of legalized monopoly, and through what we know under the euphemism of "financial operations." This latter form of opportunity was, obviously, not the one to be talked about; and the more the other form was glorified and kept to the front, the easier it w as for the latter to escape undue attention. So we have always heard a great deal of the "gospel of work and thrift," and, naturally, those who had profited most by the exploitation of production were the most forward in promoting this doctrine; the most notable living example, no doubt, being Mr. John D. Rockefeller.

Circumstances have lately taken a good deal of emphasis off America as the land of opportunity for the rewards of work and thrift, though it is probably as much so at the moment as it ever was. But our court etiquette is still quite stringently against a realistic intellectual acceptance of certain notable American codes and practices as so many devices for the looting of production. Yet in regard to this, which I repeat is probably the most sensitive of our court conventions, the jester's privilege remains free, open, and acceptable to his squeamish sovereign. A paragrapher lately remarked that—

As a result of the recent rise in the stock of the New York National Bank, George F. Baker is reputed to be $7,500,000 richer than he was ten days ago. This shows what hard work will do for a man.

Another extremely sensitive set of conventions are those surrounding our general organization of influence upon public opinion through advertising and press-agentry. It is so sensitive, indeed, and its authority is so far-reaching and effective, that anyone who makes the faintest motion towards a serious infringement upon it will instantly find every avenue of public expression closed to him. Yet even here the jester remains free to bring out the most subversive implications regarding these practices, as when he says:

There are cigarettes now that will stop coughs, help the singing voice, and make one feel happy and contented, but we are not going to rest satisfied until some manufacturer puts one on the market that will stop hair from falling out.

Or again more subtly, as when he says:

Our private opinion is that no one is really as competent as Herbert Hoover is supposed to be.

Not only is the jester freely privileged to bring out these implications against the objects sheltered by our conventions; he brings out implications that are still more subversive against the whole code of etiquette itself—one may say, against the convention of erecting a convention:

The same kind of people who think a subsidy is merely a little subvention, and that imperialism is benevolent assimilation, think a lobbyist is a legislative superintendent.

The conventional line of approach to the question of disarmament and international peace leads through Geneva and the headquarters of the League of Nations. Loyal courtiers of the many-headed sovereign must keep up the fiction of following that line, and the more preposterous the fiction becomes, the more doggedly and mechanically they must stick to it. The jester is under no such necessity. A paragrapher lately set off the conventional view and the realistic view side by side in the same paragraph, thus:

Commander Savage, of the American Legion, said in Paris: "It is a splendid sight to see Europe at peace." It isn't, but it would be.

Another paragrapher brings out the plain and natural but officially inadmissible truth of the situation, thus:

Nations aren't likely to beat their swords into ploughshares while beating their rivals into oil-fields.

Still another sums up the recent discussions of disarmament in a similar vein of realism:

The big idea is that it is a fine thing to have plenty of armament, so long as it is not being used in a warlike manner.

Similarly, the official and serious line of approach to the American Legion's recent junket in France is by way of Lafayette, the Unknown Soldier, and the great ideal of Liberty and Democracy. There are absolute considerations of taste and manners, quite apart from the arbitrary code of our court etiquette, which suggest circumspection in dealing with the idea that there was collaterally, at least, a more realistic motive behind France's spectacular hospitality towards the Legion. Nevertheless, that idea is not absent from the sovereign's mind, and he finds his own shrewd suspicions reflected from the coincidence brought to his attention thus:

"Paris Delighted over Convention's Success," says one headline. "Legion spends $15,000,000," says another. And putting the two together...

III

If one were drawing the regular conclusion from all that has been set forth, it would perhaps be in the vein of faultfinding with the persistent human preference for pretense and make- believe over fact and truth, the persistent dislike and avoidance of realism. Yet the larger one's experience of men and things becomes, the more difficult and inappropriate this complaint seems. "What a Bedlamite is man!" said Thomas Jefferson in his old age, after years spent in observing this inveterate aversion to realism. There is no possible doubt of it. He also said, as others after him have said, how likely it is that the other planets use this one for a lunatic asylum. Yet he did not say these things despondingly, for, true as this view of our mundane affairs undoubtedly is, one cannot become indignant about it. In the present state of human development nothing else seems possible, or if it were possible—here is the great point—nothing else seems really very desirable.

One can conceive of a world of perfect consistency, a world governed absolutely by realism, that would be highly interesting to live in—much more interesting than our present world—if it were peopled exclusively by spirits like Thomas Jefferson. But unfortunately there is not enough of that kind of population available at present to go around in such a world; and, considering the kind of population that is available, such a world, if one could bring it into existence overnight, would be very dull.

Think of a world governed by common sense, reason, and justice, but actually inhabited by human beings who had not yet outgrown the ordinary predilections that we know and see exhibited on every hand—who would wish to live in it? The old materialistic conception of Heaven, even, had to postulate an entire population of transformed and improved beings to inhabit it, for any other kind would have found it intolerable.

Considerations like these effectively check the rise of indignation in the radical devotee of reason and realism. They checked it in Thomas Jefferson, in Socrates, in Marcus Aurelius, in Jesus, in all who have had a wide experience of human affairs and made a proper use of their experience. These spirits took a large and lucid view of human inconsistency, never giving themselves over to it, but never on the other hand letting it overbear their reason and judgment, or derange their temper. Marcus Aurelius praised his predecessor, Antoninus Pius, as not having in him "anything, one may say, carried to the sweating point," and this was great praise. But as radicalism is commonly understood—and indeed as it commonly takes shape in the social bearing of its professors— one sees profound penetration in the paragrapher who lately remarked that—

The true radical is a man that thinks you are against him if you can't get as excited as he does.

But a man who has the sense of time as a factor in education, and the sense of the amount of development necessary to create a world governed by realism, or even to make oneself at home in such a world, cannot get excited. He quietly takes his stand with the king's jester, shares his realistic view, and does what can be done to further it by a method analogous to his. For it is the only method that is effective. One of our paragraphers says most profoundly that—

Another thing we have noticed in our journey through this old vale of tears, etc., is that anything that has to be protected from being laughed at, deserves to be.

Just so. We all know that our pretense is protective. Our diligent pretense about politics, statesmanship, the tariff, the American standard of success, the League of Nations, and so on-all this, as in Hans Christian Andersen's fable of the king's new clothes, is a protective device to keep a laughable thing from being laughed at. But the method of crusading against pretense, arguing against it, inveighing against it, is relatively ineffectual. It is a method inevitably handicapped by the personality and temper of those who use it. On the other hand, men like our paragraphers, as has been well said, mightily help along the cause of truth "without encumbering it with themselves." Their method is impersonal, unevangelical, persuasive, and disarming; all their shrewdness, their radicalism, their experienced, realistic sense of the plain natural truth of things, find free play. They arouse no animosities, alarm no pride of opinion, nor do they seek to beat a person off his chosen ground—under their influence his ground imperceptibly changes with him. One must be aware that in respect of pretense and make-believe, as in other respects, human perfectibility has a long way to go. We may well believe it will go the full distance, and in that assurance we may well wish to help all we can in the process. The only question is, how best to do it; and here it would seem that the function of the king's jester and his modern counterpart affords a very profitable and interesting study in method.


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