The Meaning of April Fools’ Day

In my town April Fool’s Day has usually been a day of snow and sleet. After a few weeks of fruit trees blossoming and birds in full-throated warble, spring appears to fizzle out in damp whites and greys, as if early spring were just a prank on our expectations. This year above all, April Fool’s Day has fizzled in another way — overshadowed by the clownish chicanery of national politics: all possible pranks pale beside the Great Big Prank that was pulled on everyone in the 2016 election. What could surpass the prank of putting in the White House the very epitome of male stupidity, bigotry, ignorance, greed, and violent obstinacy, together with his gang of crooks and buffoons who all hate each other’s guts? April Fool’s Day has swollen into April Fool’s Four-Year Term. Part of the joke is that those who elected these baboons in effect pranked themselves. On the other hand, April Fool’s Day has proved to be the only day in the year when people are intelligently skeptical of what they see in news posts; this too is part of the exquisite joke.

   What is the deep meaning of April Fool’s Day? From the prankster’s point of view, it is our one occasion to celebrate that bedrock of the human spirit, Spite. All other celebrations ooze humbug and saccharine pretence; only April Fools’ Day permits honest laughter not only at other people’s discomfiture but at our own snortling ingenuity at devising their discomfiture. In Vadim Shalamov’s great book about living in Stalin’s most terrible gulag, the Kolyma Tales, we discover that when a human being has been reduced to the barest trace of humanity the last emotion to go is spite. It may be the fundamental emotion we most ignore in ourselves, because it makes us appear smaller than we’d like. On April Fools’ Day we get to acknowledge and indulge it — within the bounds of propriety, of course.

   But spite takes two to play: it requires a victim, and here is where the Fool comes in. The true genius of April Fool’s Day is that when we think about how we both prank and are pranked, we are all fools. It is a day for the Remembrance of Fools. I don’t mean anything grand and mythic, such as Holy Fools, Crazy Wisdom, Wise Fools, or Dostoievskian Idiots. I mean actual, all-too-human fools, in our deadly recklessness, unconscious hurtfulness, unawareness of others and resistance to thinking, all our self-sabotaging and self-destructiveness, and our terrifying lack of remorse. I recall all the things I do every day because I think I want to, all the ways I fail to hear and understand the people I am supposedly close to, all the things I say and do that end up causing turmoil for myself and those I claim to love. I barge and blunder into my own life, stepping on my own and everyone’s toes. When I am shown video footage of myself doing even ordinary things like walking, I grimace — am I really so unaware of my own body? When I read things I wrote only ten years ago, I usually laugh or wince at my own clumsiness and incomprehension. From this I can infer that at any given point in my life I probably act for the most part like a fool, and will discover it later — often because someone tells me. For that reason, it is very beneficial to have many enemies. 

   If I imagine a vantage point from which I can look down on all my mistakes and misapprehensions, and clearly see my stumbling, fumbling attempts to maintain the appearance of dignity, I will find that from that vantage point I will look the way Mr.Bean looks from my current vantage point. I will laugh in the pain of my self-discovery, and find myself hopeless. In theological terms I have run smack into the consciousness of Original Sin and my Fallen Nature: inveterate stupidity, propelled by a mean heart. April Fool’s Day can thus serve as a sobering meditation on why we need an all-powerful being to save us from ourselves. 

   From yet another point of view, however, Mr.Bean is perfect, and we wouldn’t want him any other way. Folly is a great cause of delight; we derive inordinate amounts of entertainment from other people’s follies, so why should they not from our own? It is a great thing to give other people so much pleasure. If we were more reasonable and clear-sighted, we would be tediously admirable, effecting everything with well-planned caution. No one would ever launch into grand, dangerous adventures or fall in love;  no one, for that matter,  would get married or have children. As Nietzsche pointed out, We need a certain amount of stupidity to live. In all great matters, there comes a point when we find ourselves blind and have to jump. The problem is that in small matters too we are quite blind, and are often so blind that we cannot even tell the difference between small matters and great matters. Hence our folly makes us ridiculous, but it also occasionally opens a small door to wisdom and beauty. 

   For all these reasons it is wonderful that for one day in the year we get to be fools consciously, for this frees us temporarily from being mere fools. Out of our blind blundering comes the new, the creative, the things we could not have thought of before. Perhaps it is appropriate then that April Fool’s Day happens on this cold, wet day, because when the snow melts, our flowers and trees will burst unhindered into their mindless abundance.