Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

This is a story about trying to feel my way into a story, the pieces of which were never lost, but which was assumed to hold too many mistakes. It is a story about passing into and out of adolescence, into and out of mortification, into and out of something like foolishness, something like light. It is a story about a girl holding on to a book through many lives. The book is Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, published in 1511. The girl is me.

''Untitled'' — Lee Perlman Allen. Red thread and linen, 18'' x 23'' (2012)

The many other versions of this story that I’ve tripped over on the way to this one may yet see the light of day. There are poems, a play, archives, bad dreams, and a few many-thousand word essays. But this is the one for Erasmus, written across all these many years.

In the original sixteenth-century edition of The Praise of Folly, Hans Holbein illustrated Folly as a young academic woman—in a jester’s cap. In later, eighteenth-century editions, Folly became a middle-aged woman. Fitting, since I am now what they call middle-aged. The cover of my particular copy of The Praise of Folly is graced with Holbein’s young academic Folly. Which is appropriate, since I was in college when I bought the book, over twenty years ago, off the university bookstore secondhand shelves. And the cover is black, etched with orange, published by Princeton University Press. Which is appropriate, since I went to Princeton, home of the tigers, black and orange everywhere.

Erasmus was a man tussling with received Christianity, doctrinal rigidity, and radical change, and he used Folly like a genius to mouth his double-edged questioning. I was a young woman tussling with what some people called sin, and others called radical freedom. Regardless of the words, for me it was stained the colors of shame and confusion, and cloaked in secrecy. But inside the secrecy there were questions. Many questions and words.

So much resonance, so much appropriateness, after all these years!

Let us open the book now, and see what we find.

We have to look inside the book because even though I bought it and read it in college, and surely took copious notes (maybe even utilizing whiteout to keep them neat), just a few short months ago (before I realized I wanted to dig though my own archive of folly) I threw all my Princeton notes away. At the dumpster I ran into a neighbor who shares some of my intellectual interests, political passions, and spiritual inclinations, and he was incredulous that I would throw away my notebooks from philosophy with Cornel West, from history, literature, and anthropology courses under so many of Princeton’s rising and long-shining academic lights.

“I know, right?” I responded. “Hardly anyone knew Cornel West back then. These are like souvenirs. But…the thing is…I was really unhappy in college.”
He got quiet. We got quiet.
“Then throw them away,” he said.
And I did.

And now I kind of wish I had those notes on Renaissance Europe, not to remember what I learned about Renaissance Europe, but to remember, to discover, what was going on with me. But all we have is what I underlined, in bright red pen, at roughly age nineteen. That way, no context—just a dog-eared copy of Erasmus’ genius, and me.

Pages 7 and 16

I am she—the only she, I may say—whose divine influence makes gods and men rejoice. …what great orators elsewhere can hardly bring about in a long, carefully planned speech, I have done in a moment, with nothing but my looks. …I have no use for cosmetics. I do not feign one thing in my face while I hold something else in my heart.

Right from the get-go, from the first page of Folly’s Moriae Encomium—such confidence, such unabashed self-love! Such an honest and refreshing front—undercutting in form and figure all the conventional libel of women found elsewhere in the book. Ah, such women exist! I imagine (remember?) myself feeling. And so do the men who write them.

And Folly’s self-love was held in spite of, or perhaps because of, her birth from the illicit union of Death (Plutus) and Youth (And he did not procreate me out of his head, as Jupiter did that austere and homely Pallas—oh, woe to my childhood adoration of Athena), and her nursing at the breasts of Drunkenness and Ignorance. Here was a gate I could walk through. I was a young college woman, living hard by the bottle (or keg) three or four nights a week, blacking out regularly, waking up in unexpected places, struggling to understand my vivid experiences of sexual desire, adolescent confusion, and also my (choose an adjective—I can’t find one) experiences of rape1, numbness, intoxication, fear, secrecy, abortion.

And still I went on, a smile on my face, books under my arm as I walked across the leafy campus, Princeton logos on my clothes at the tailgates and parties, things buried deep inside my body, and only some of them removed. Folly.
But I survived. Perhaps here, in Folly, was a woman who would actually be proud of me. And who could teach me a thing or two. For

…what part of life is not sad, unpleasant, graceless, flat, and burdensome, unless you have pleasure added to it, that is, a seasoning of folly?

Pages 27 and 28

Truly, when I looked around, the ancient system into which I had passed seemed held together by folly. I wondered at the secret things held inside other campus bodies as I made my way through the days, sometimes hungover, sometimes bright with curiosity. And I also wondered at the people who had nothing hidden, who might actually be all cohesion, or all surface, and all okay. I longed to be like them, and I longed for the idea of them to exist. I gladly added folly to my friendships, to my daily, cheerful navigation through the world of stone and leaf and tiger and beer. How, Folly asked me, can the pleasure of friendship subsist for an hour…unless it is attended by ‘folly’ or ‘easy-going ways’? Flattery, jesting, pliableness, ignorance, dissimulation—

These things go on everywhere, and are laughed at, but, ridiculous as they are, they cement and bind together our agreeable social life. …In sum, no society, no union in life, could be either pleasant or lasting without me…

Two people, Folly told me, could not survive in relationship

except as they mutually or by turns are mistaken, on occasion flatter, on occasion wisely wink, and otherwise soothe themselves with the sweetness of folly.

Folly offered me a light sweet wine, easing my passage through ivied social life, or a dark sweet anesthesia, giving me permission to numb the emotions storming inside me.

Pages 28, 29 and 30

I ask you: will he who hates himself love anyone? Will he who does not get along with himself agree with another? Or will he who is disagreeable and irksome to himself bring pleasure to anyone? No one would say so, unless he were himself more foolish than Folly. But were you to bar me out, each man would be so incapable of getting along with any other that he would become a stench in his own nostrils, his possessions would be filthy rags, and he would be hateful to himself….

Really? Really. My journals from those years were scrawled with my own declamations: I hate myself! Or else they were scribbled with heartfelt hopes for redemption in some mystical, violent sense, a Catholicism struggling to adapt to the surreal. But Folly told me this was Folly. I had to shape up. My sense of my self was too heavy, too dark. It just wouldn’t do.

But she goes on:

…what is so foolish as to be satisfied with yourself? Or to admire yourself? Yet on the other hand, if you are displeased with yourself, what can you do that is pleasing or graceful or seemly?

…Without self-love,…you will appear…a sow instead of Minerva [oh, woe to Athena again], tongue-tied instead of eloquent….That is how necessary it is to capture your own fancy, and to appreciate your own value by a bit of self-applause, before you can be held in price by others. Finally, since the better part of happiness is to wish to be what you are, why certainly my Philautia reaches that end by a short cut; so that no one is ashamed of his own looks, no one regrets his own temperament, or feels shame for his race, his locality, his profession, or his fatherland….nature, who, in spite of such differences of condition, equalizes all things!

Reading these passages now, I am at a loss for words. They so perfectly capture what I remember of my confusion. I could churn out A papers on topics historical and literary, I could laugh and cheer and tip back a plastic cup at all the right social cues, but I just couldn’t seem to get my relationship to myself right. I was ashamed; I was displeased. So was I wise, or was I a fool? I was swirling, sinking, hoping no one would notice. I wore a mask, and carried the show.

Pages 36, 37 and 38

At least I was beginning to notice the masks. And not just the masks, but the deep carnival nature of everyday life, the suffering inside unexpected skins, the possible joy of eventual inversion, release. Without my own private darkness, I would not have felt this so deeply.

…all human affairs…have two aspects, each quite different from the other; even to the point that what at first blush (as the phrase goes) seems to be death may prove, if you look further into it, to be life. What at first sight is beautiful may really be ugly; the apparently wealthy may be poorest of all; the disgraceful, glorious; the learned, ignorant; the robust, feeble; the noble, base; the joyous, sad; the favorable, adverse; what is friendly, an enemy; and what is wholesome, poisonous. In brief, you find all things suddenly reversed….

But appearance, appearance was everywhere. Appearance was what mattered in the world I had come to inhabit. It is the paint and trappings that take the eyes of spectators….what else is the whole life of mortals but a sort of comedy…

And Folly, in her rollicking way, gave me a convincing portrait of the young intelligent people around me, doling out the liquor on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights, staring at me in open-jawed silence (or trilling with uncomfortable laughter) if I tried to broach the subject of unhappiness, pouring out the gates and flooding Wall Street with willing bodies.

As nothing is more foolish than wisdom out of place, so nothing is more imprudent that unseasonable prudence. And he is unseasonable, who does not accommodate himself to things as they are, who is ‘unwilling to follow the market,’ who does not keep in mind at least that rule of conviviality, ‘Either drink or get out’; who demands, in short, that the play should no longer be a play. The part of a truly prudent man, on the contrary, is (since we are mortal) not to aspire to wisdom beyond his station, and either, along with the rest of the crowd, pretend not to notice anything, or affably and companionably be deceived. But that, they tell us, is folly. Indeed, I shall not deny it; only let them, on their side, allow that it is also to play out the comedy of life.

Destroy the illusion and any play is ruined.

I knew quite well that Erasmus, through Folly, was daring me to destroy the illusion, to think and speak and live for myself. But I did not dare ruin the show. There was something in it for me, that I am still reaching for, trying to understand.

Thus all things are presented by shadows; yet this play is put on in no other way.

Pages 39 and 40

Reading page 39 today, my uterus (which has now birthed two healthy children, and has plans for no more) cramps inexplicably. It is a passage about the Stoics, heavily underlined. The Stoics, says Folly, take away from the wise man all perturbations of the soul, as so many diseases. They create a marble simulacrum of a man, a senseless block, completely alien to every human feeling

…who would not startle at such a man, as at an apparition or ghost, and shun him?

…Nothing gets by him; he never makes a mistake; …there is no thing he does not see; he measures everything with a standard rule; he forgives nothing; he alone is satisfied with himself alone, uniquely rich, uniquely sane, uniquely a king, uniquely a free man; in short, uniquely all things, but notably unique in his own judgment; he values no friend, himself the friend of none; he does not hesitate to bid the gods go hang themselves; he condemns as unwholesome whatever life may offer, and derides it….Who would not prefer just anyone from the middle ranks of human foolhood…?

In the early 1990s, did I fear this all-seeing, unforgiving, pleasure-denying man, or did I fear that I would become, or feel that I was becoming, such a numb and shunned apparition, a ghost? Today, did my body remember what my mind has forgotten? The cold, metal redness of the abortion room. The pain of removal. The shutting down. Curled in a back seat, hurtling down the freeway, surrounded by thin metal walls, to stay with a hard-partying, cavalier friend, trying to not feel what I was feeling. The shame of removal. Of silence. Do I get a chance to remember now? To feel now? To heal? Folly, do I?

Pages 41 and 42

The heading on page 41 is blunt: Folly Prevents Suicide. The words I underlined are these: ignorance, inadvertence, forgetfulness of evil, hope of good, a few honeyed delights. Folly asks her incredulous audience to

…mull over the question whether it is not better to lead this sort of honeyed life in folly than to look for a rafter, as the phrase goes, suitable for hanging. Besides, it makes no difference to my fools that such things may be held disgraceful by the crowd, since fools do not feel disgrace, or, if they feel it, they can easily pass it off.

Was I a fool, or not?

Pages 43 through 63

I am now getting dizzy from the inconsistencies, the contradictions. Is it good or bad to be divided in yourself? To feel, or be, deluded? Is it happiness, or madness, to fall in with the common lot of all? Yes, both, Folly seems to say. Erasmus, put down the mask of Folly. Give me an answer, now! I need to turn to the Introduction, by one Hoyt Hopewell Hudson, for relief. “Not even the figure of Folly is consistently or clearly imagined,” he tells me, and “One has an uneasy consciousness, to be sure, that she is breaking the rules.”

The book is not about getting things right. It is filled with “gusto, abandon, and joyous release.” We must consider not just the argument but the “the impact of energies.” There is “something electric” in it. Yes, Professor Hudson, I knew that. That’s why it has lived on my shelf for over twenty years.

Such is the obscurity and variety of human affairs, says Folly, that nothing can be clearly known.

“Above all,” says Professor Hudson, “there is a beautiful orderliness and a rising movement quite inconsistent with mere deviation into sense.”

Is it so bad to feel a glimpse from the inside of what Yeats put in the mouth of his persona Crazy Jane?

Though like a road
That men pass over
My body makes no moan
But sings on;
All things remain in God.

If I had read that poem at age nineteen, it would have gone right into my journal.

Page 65

In a telephone conversation with one of my Zen teachers, he let drop this quote from Erasmus: “Given a choice between a folly and a sacrament, one should always choose the folly—because we know a sacrament will not bring us closer to God and there’s always the chance that a folly will.” It felt like an electric current ran through my mind and I couldn’t concentrate on the next few sentences he uttered. I remembered that quote. I remembered Erasmus. When I got off the phone, I felt like I had drunk three cups of coffee. I rushed out to my office, found the book at the bottom of an unshelved stack, gathering dust, and opened to these (underlined) words:

I fill the mind with a sort of perpetual drunkenness.

I leaned back on my heels and laughed, and laughed, and—inexplicably—made the sign of the cross in gratitude. When I walked back to my house along the wooded path I felt like I was walking across my own body. When a flock of starlings lifted across an intersection on my way to pick up my children from school, they flew through me.

Twenty-five years I have been trying to reach back and find a way to hold that time in my mind, my heart, my body. Folly was with me all the way.

A few nights later I dreamt I was a passenger in a car sliding through the night, when a large bird came flapping through the window, behind my head, my back. It was an owl (finally, my beloved Athena), and it landed on my right wrist. It disappeared without my noticing, and left torn skin and blood. The unknown driver and I found a school, and wandered the hallways trying to find a place to wash and bandage the wound. During the search I sucked on the wound, and a vague wondering passed through my mind: Will this make me sick?

Pages 99 through 119

I skipped a big chunk of the end of the book. No red lines. I was in college, after all, and hungover a lot of the time. It happens to be the part of the book where Folly lauds her intimate relationship with forgiveness, and engages the madness at the heart of Christianity itself. If I had read it, would I have found some solace in Erasmus’ radical church? Was it a mistake to miss those parts?


A few days ago, on the first day of summer vacation, my eight-year-old daughter climbed in bed with me in the morning, reached across my half-awake body, almost spilled my water, and pulled a book of koans off my bedside table. She began rifling through, reading me poems, passages, koans wherever she landed. She stopped here:

Zhaozhou asked Nanyuan, “What is the Way?”
Nanyuan said, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”
“Should I turn toward it or not?”
“If you turn toward it you turn away from it.”
Zhaozhou asked, “How can I know the Way if I don’t turn toward it?”
Nanyuan said, “The Way is not about knowing or not knowing. When you know something you are deluded, and when you don’t know, you are just empty-headed. When you reach the Way beyond doubt, it is as vast and infinite as space. You can’t say it’s right or wrong.” With these words, Zhaozhou had sudden understanding.

For years I have been vacillating between right and wrong; indignation and sorrow; turn towards, turn against; erase, restore; aikido, lean in. But now I am tilting slant towards that time in my life, through Erasmus, and koans, and dreams, with eyes half-closed, as if in meditation. Who was this person, with the red pen? Why is she any more real than what’s flowing through me right now, right here? The light dusting of rain on the skylights. My husband’s glasses folded on the table. Our children turning and mumbling in bed.

I survived. And with Folly’s robes falling around me, I finally feel able to speak.

In the middle of pain, Folly loaned me a shawl to wear around my experience. She gave me a boat to ride through the confusion. She offered a mask of self-love to wear to the feast. In her figure Folly fused the mythology I loved with the religion I was questioning (and the questioning itself). She may even have prevented my suicide. But she did not set me free. She merely let me loose into the unknown thickets of my very own life. She still is.
And so I shall give her the very last word:

…’tis Folly, and a woman, that has spoken….I see that you are expecting a peroration, but you are just too foolish if you suppose that after I have poured out a hodgepodge of words like this I can recall anything that I have said.

  • What happened to you when you read that word—rape? Did it open a wide, blank space in your mind, or was the space immediately crowded with assumptions, images, stories? Can you let go long enough to stay with these words, this life? Can you be in both the silence and the sound?

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