For The Guardian:
The long-running German satirical show Extra 3 recently featured a sketch with the following voiceover: “From the people who brought you The Crown – the epic saga of the Queen – now comes the ridiculous story of this guy, a notorious buffoon at the head of a country … The Clown.”
The word “clown” has often been used in a flippant or dismissive way with regard to Boris Johnson. But the underlying paradox is that it is only as a clown – a fool in the oldest and deepest sense of the word – that his character can truly be understood. What happens when you make the clown king is what we in the UK have been witnessing in real time. With the success of the vaccine, though, a new question emerges: can one archetype transform into the other? Can Johnson creep away from his clownish past altogether?
Clowns, of course, are very serious and important people. At their simplest, they remind us of the silliness of things: that the world we have created is ridiculous. They reassure us in this observation by appealing to our innate understanding of the absurd. They relieve the endless tension and trauma of reality.
At a deeper level, the clown is the mirror image of the priest. Both represent two ancient sides of our nature. Both elucidate what it means to be human. The priest summons, celebrates and interrogates the sacred; the clown does the same with the profane. The one is concerned with the eschatological, the other with the scatological. The priest propounds abstinence and fasting; the clown gluttony and indulgence. The one solemnifies sex, the other carnalises. As David Bridel, founder of the Clown School in Los Angeles, says, clowns are often roundly welcomed because they “remind us that we are as practised in falling over, shitting and humping, as we are in prayer and purification”.
Would-be biographers of Johnson might do worse than to read Paul Bouissac, the leading scholar on the semiotics of clowning. Clowns are “transgressors”, he writes, cultural subversives who enact rituals and dramatic tableaux that “ignore the tacit rules of social games to indulge in symbolic actions that … toy with these norms as if they were arbitrary, dispensable convention.” Clowns “undermine the ground upon which our language and our society rest by revealing their fragility”. They “foreground the tension” between “instinct” and “constraint”. Bouissac could be writing directly of Johnson when he adds: “Their performing identities transcend the rules of propriety.” They are, he says, “improper by essence”.
Observe classic Johnson closely as he arrives at an event…