- Guest Editors’ Introduction
‘Qui vit sans folie n’est pas si sage qu’il croit’1
‘I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak’, writes Samuel Beckett in The Unnameable, ‘but also, which is even more interesting, but also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter’.2 Listening to the voice of folly can be like this: an endless flow of inconsistencies, of contradictions, sayings and unsayings; a tantalizing, mischievous mockery of speech–unable to go on, unable to end. And yet–as this volume shows–we are irresistibly drawn to folly, its promises, its whispers of ‘even more interesting’ things: of how we are split between conscious and unconscious, familiar and unfamiliar, same and other. For psychoanalysis, folly is not only a site of hidden truths; it is also, perhaps more importantly, a source of unconscious freedom, a momentary escape from our obsession with rules and order.3 According to Christopher Bollas, the unconscious self is like a fool who ‘raises potentially endless questions about diverse and disparate issues’ and thereby provides us with a ‘separate sense’, which opens us to others and to our own creative potential.4 As Rachel Bowlby elegantly puts it in ‘“Where Ignorance is Bliss”: The Folly of Origins in Gray and Hardy’, folly is a ‘soul-mole’, forever shovelling our secrets out into the light: ‘there’s no possible moment of release or resignation when the mole might stop vainly, interminably working away’ (p. 272). Folly’s subversive, creative soliloquies reveal to us a psychic ‘underground repertoire of secrets’; they challenge our established knowledge and invite us, as Bowlby shows, to endless, titillating games of ‘suppression and confession’ (p. 271). For Anne Duprat, this deep-seated playfulness explains folly’s close relation to fiction: as she explains in ‘Stultitia loquitur: Fiction and Folly in Early Modern Literature’, what makes them so alike is their ‘capacity of creating alternative representations of the world – and thus of re-figuring the world depicted by reason or history – [. . . ] but also their paradoxical structure, and hence the [End Page 115] instability of their speech acts, which deny, suspend, or do not seriously guarantee the truth of their statements’ (p. 141).
From a different point of view – that of Michel Foucault’s momentous Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique – folly is the excluded other, a being without a voice.5 If subject formation depends, as Foucault suggests, on the power of normalizing discourse, folly is what is excluded from the ‘imprisoning frame’ of subjectivity.6 Its condition of marginality, however, is an unlikely locus of resistance or transgression: as a meaningless spectre, déraison lacks the subversive powers of discursively constituted identity. As Judith Butler explains, ‘if we understand power as forming the subject [. . . ], as providing the very condition of its existence and the trajectory of its desire, then power is not simply what we oppose but also, in a strong sense, what we depend on for our existence and what we harbour and preserve in the beings that we are’.7 According to this theory, folly – the complete absence of discursive power – marks the ultimate boundaries of our existence. It is the ungraspable and irreducible other – defiant of every order of representation – which endlessly resists comprehension and assimilation.
How does literature capture folly’s voice – and how does it answer its silence? Isn’t the marginality of folly, its unassailable non-assimilability, precisely what gives literature its disruptive force? According to Foucault, modern art is inextricably linked to madness, not as a subject matter, but as a model for the artist’s absolute break with social convention. Duprat shows that folly was central to the development of early modern theories of fiction, with all the ambiguities that sustain its structure and endow it with a dangerous potential for heterodoxy, while in ‘Literature and the Politics of Madness: On the Twentieth-Century Reception of Friedrich Hölderlin in France and Germany’, Shane Weller explains that modern literature and philosophy’s fascination with folly – their concern with madness as the reiterated presence of an absence – is nowhere...