restricted access Stultitia loquitur: Fiction and Folly in Early Modern Literature
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Stultitia loquitur:
Fiction and Folly in Early Modern Literature

In the first edition of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, after the Greek title of the work, Encomion Morias, the European public of 1511 could find a brief designation of the character in charge of the speech: ‘Stultitia loquitur’–‘Folly speaks’. Halfway between the theatrical indication of the entrance of Folly as a dramatis persona and the rhetorical game of the orator opening a declamatio, and playfully showing his public the mask that the writer only pretends to assume, this phrase presents the reader with a particular problem: that of the special ability of ironic discourse to create fiction. This is a problem that, from the Renaissance to the early modern period, in France as in England, Italy or Spain, is linked to the development of a general theory of fiction, concerning representational as well as figurative forms of literature, whether narrative or dramatic. Folly does indeed share with fiction the capacity of creating alternative representations of the world–and thus of refiguring the world depicted by reason or history. But their discourses also share another feature, whose importance is best seen in such experimental forms of narration in the Renaissance as the Utopias of Giacopo Sannazaro and of Thomas More, the first novels of Rabelais in France or the Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes in Spain. This feature would be their paradoxical structure, and hence the instability of their speech acts, which deny, suspend, or do not seriously guarantee the truth of their statements.

The merging of folly and fiction in the creation of the literary fool by Cervantes, and the lasting influence of the Quijote’s imaginative or imaginary madness, for instance in the French seventeenth-century tradition of the ‘anti-roman’, lead these two different means of reformulating the world effectively to coincide; inventing and animating the character of the Fool nearly always brings out the heuristic and epistemological potentialities of this coincidence. Nevertheless, this extensive use of fictional or fictive folly, from the fury of Ariosto’s [End Page 141] Orlando to the Elizabethan and Jacobean real or pretended madmen and jesters–this use and abuse of fictional fools–may somehow have led to restraining the folly of fiction, insofar as the introduction of the fool as a character could have the effect of defusing the author’s speech of folly’s dangerous potential to undermine the credibility of her own statements–a credibility preserved in the case of fiction by the critical distance the author creates when he pictures himself as inventing the fool’s speech. This would confirm Foucault’s analysis of the decisive shift between the ‘tragic’ dimension of Folly which prevailed in the Renaissance towards the ‘critical’ dimension, which would be the key to the French classical discourse of Reason on Folly.

Evolving during the sixteenth century from the mad character (Orlando) through the mad author (Tasso) to the mad reader (Don Quixote),1 Folly seemed to invade the whole world; but was this only a world of books, specially created for her to invade, and designed to enclose its powers within the boundaries of a newly established realm of fiction? In order to determine to what extent this gradual fictionalization of the fool’s speech may have been related to the development of the poetics of fiction (insofar as the very notion of fiction becomes increasingly crucial to the definition of literature at the turn of the seventeenth century) and hence what literature can tell, in its own way, about the history of Folly, one needs to go back briefly to the rich but troublesome possibilities that the genre of paradoxical praise entailed for a theory of fiction throughout the early modern period.

At the very juncture between the rhetorical and poetical conceptions of literature, the genre embodies all the ambiguities of both. When Erasmus chooses to let Folly blow ‘her own trumpet’ and sing the praise ‘neither of Hercules nor Solon, but of [her] own dear self, that is to say, Folly’,2 the author obviously doubles up the capacities of paradoxical reversion of meaning already contained in the genre of praise at the beginning of the sixteenth...