Ship of Fools
Listening to Chris Finlayson at the weekend describing the many headed hydra of the left and to Steven Joyce pondering what is the question if the hydra is the answer caused Adam to remember this morning the old allegory of the Ship of Fools. The picture is from the Bosch painting
The allegory depicts a vessel populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction. This concept makes up the framework of the 15th century book Ship of Fools (1494) by Sebastian Brant, which served as the inspiration for Bosch’s famous painting, Ship of Fools: a ship—an entire fleet at first—sets off from Basel to the paradise of fools. In literary and artistic compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries, the cultural motif of the ship of fools also served to parody the ‘ark of salvation’ as the Catholic Church was styled.
In our current world we can visualise the hydra as being, with their hangers on, the passengers on the Ship of Fools. The allegory being especially apt in that the ship is pilotless and nobody on boards knows the direction they are moving in. Then of course we can liken the Labour Party to the Catholic Church, which in past times, was parodied as the ark of salvation, whilst tyrannising the populace with the Inquisition and the relentless pursuit of the Cathars, rather like the present Labour Party pursuit of those members who preofess free trade and/or pro business sentiment.
Michel Foucault, who wrote Madness and Civilization, saw in the ship of fools a symbol of the consciousness of sin and evil alive in the medieval mindset and imaginative landscapes of the Renaissance. Though this critical angle conflates myth, allegory and history, scholars such as Jose Barchilion have found Foucault’s words on the subject very insightful. In his introduction to Madness and Civilization, Barchilon writes of the Ship of Fools as if it were an example of actual societal practice:
“Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then ‘knew’, had an affinity for each other. Thus, ‘Ship of Fools’ crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors.”
In many ways Barchilion’s imagery is very appealing when you consider the likely passengers on our modern day NZ Ship of Fools.