The Clown: An Archetypal Self-Journey

By Michael Bala

What is a clown? According to the International Clown Hall of Fame, A Brief History of Clowning, “Clowns are comic performers, characterized by colored wigs, makeup, outlandish costumes and usually oversized shoes whose purpose is to induce hearty laughter.” This definition may be fine as a statement about circus clowns. Yet it feels too narrow in focus when we reflect on the Clown from a psychological perspective, for the Clown can also be considered an expression of the Trickster who provides form for disruptive and integrative archetypal energies for the individual and the collective. As Jung posits, “The trickster is a collective shadow figure, a summation of all the inferior traits of character in individuals” (1954/1968, CW 9i, ¶484).

Clowns have been traced as far back as Egypt’s Old Kingdom Fifth Dynasty, some 4,500 years ago. Nearly 4,000 years ago one of China’s rulers filled his court with clowns. Many of his successors continued the tradition. YuSze was a jester in the Chi- nese Imperial Court in 300 BCE and is remembered as saving thousands of lives when he teased the Emperor out of having the “other” side of the Great Wall whitewashed, thus preventing the death of multitudes (International Clown Hall of Fame).

In addition to these clown figures who served in ancient royal courts, organized clown societies have served socio-religious functions for their communities. Lucille Hoerr Charles identifies four such societies known to have existed: “. . . the Mimes of early Greece; the Joyous Societies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in France and the Commedia dell’Arte of the same period in Italy; and the Pueblo Indian clown soci- eties” (1945, 30). These clown societies were stable institutions fulfilling a cultural psy- chological need (30).

The Navaho, Pueblo, Hopi, and Zuni peoples all had ritual clowns who served an essential role in social and sacred ceremonies through both crossing and maintaining boundaries. In doing so, the clowns anchored the ceremonies in the immediate today experience of the people (30). Charles presents an example of a Zuni clown perfor- mance observed in the early 1900s:

Each man endeavors to excel his fellows in buffoonery and in eating repulsive things, such as bits of old blanket or splinters of wood. They bite off the heads of living mice and chew them, tear dogs from limb to limb, eat the intestines and fight over the liver like hungry wolves. . . . The one who swallows the largest amount of filth with the great- est gusto is most commended by the fraternity and onlookers. A large bowl of urine is handed by a Koyemshi, who receives it from a woman on the housetop, to a man in the fraternity, who, after drinking a portion, pours the remainder over himself by turning the bowl over his head. Women run to the edge of the roof and empty urine over the Newekwe and Koyemshi. (30)

Across cultures, clowns have served their communities in various ways. The Bali- nese puppet theater has a prominent clown figure (Charles 1945, 27), as do traditional Javanese puppet theater and contemporary Javanese performances (Handelman 1987, 549). In Siberia, the Ostyak people have clowns who make fun of the ruling author- ities (Charles 1945, 27). The Ashanti people of Africa tell stories with passages that poke fun at their gods, ancestors, and the community’s sexual taboos (Charles 1945, 29; Winding 2007, 3). Zen Masters use koans to invite reflection on absurdity (Hyers 1970, 3). In a more contemporary American vein, there are Howdy Doody, Clarabelle, and Ronald McDonald. Two recent television clown characters, Homey the Clown from In Living Color and Krusty the Klown from The Simpsons, have each uttered uncom- fortable truths from behind their clown veneers of mean-spiritedness (Heimann 2002, 12). Whether selling burgers, challenging religious truths, saving lives, or seemingly just entertaining us, the clown has performed many functions for his2culture.

My approach to the clown is a motley one. Befitting the clown, this word of unknown origin is defined as “diversified in colour; variegated; particoloured; che- quered,” “a fool’s dress,” “composed of elements of diverse or varied character,” “ varying in character or mood; changeable in form,” and “an incongruous mixture.”3 Garbed in his motley, the clown signals that something out of the ordinary is at hand. Might we allow ourselves to take in—and be taken in—by the clown? We would also be wise also to keep an eye on the Clown: as a near relative to the Fool, the Jester, and the Trickster, this motley character has light and dark aspects. As we keep an eye upon him, let us also keep our collective nose at the ready to sniff out what resides in and emanates from the Clown’s realms—humor and play, order and disorder, the sacred and the profane.

Humor and Play as Carriers of Transcendence

In his 1927 paper entitled “Humour,” Freud tells us there is dignity in humor. “Humor fends off the possibility of suffering . . . ,” which, he says, “. . . places it among the great series of methods which the human mind has constructed in order to evade the compulsion to suffer” (1927/1950, 163). Humor “. . . is a rare and precious gift . . .” (166). Freud views humor as a defense mechanism, in which the superego functions in a “friendlier” manner, a process of gaining mastery of one’s imperfections through a lighter touch. Of imperfection, Jung writes in Answer to Job, “imperfectum carries with it the seeds of its own improvement” (1952/1958, CW 11, ¶620).

In her Introduction to Jung on Active Imagination, Joan Chodorow explores the interaction between play and imagination:

The great joy of play, fantasy and the imagination is that for a time we are utterly spon- taneous, free to imagine anything. In such a state of pure being, no thought is “unthinkable.” Nothing is “unimaginable.” That is why play and imagination tends to put us in touch with material that is ordinarily repressed. In the spontaneous dramatic play of childhood, upsetting life experiences are enacted symbolically, but this time the child is in control. (1997, 5)

Chodorow tells the story of Jung’s finding a way to cope with and survive the internal confusion and suffering he experienced after his break from Freud, not through hu- mor but through a form of play that he termed active imagination. Jung recalled his childhood play and began to translate his emotions into images and to give those im- ages symbolic expression through dialogues with emergent figures, as well as through painting and other forms of artistic expression. Virtually all of Jung’s ideas and the concepts that comprise analytical psychology emerged from these active imagination experiences.

Perhaps it was this experience that prompted Jung to write, fifty years before Winnicott explored the essential nature of play,

Every good idea and all creative work are the offspring of the imagination, and have their source in what one is pleased to call infantile fantasy. Not the artist alone, but every cre- ative individual whatsoever owes all that is greatest in his life to fantasy. The dynamic principle of fantasy is play, a characteristic also of the child, and as such it appears incon- sistent with the principle of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incal- culable. (1921/1971, CW 6, ¶93)

I wonder why Jung wrote so little about humor. In contrast to Freud, was he drawn by a more serious form of play, that of a psyche seeking wholeness, based on his own experiences of his soul’s deep suffering? Jung notes the importance of humor for when “. . . people lack the necessary humour, or else it fails them . . . they are seized by a sort of pathos, everything seems pregnant with meaning and all effective self-criticism is checked” (1928/1969, CW 7, ¶262). Jung highlights the importance of humor when he considers the effect of its absence. However, might the dearth of attention to humor in Jungian scholarship suggest it has been undervalued, even suspect or shadowy, for Jungians? It has certainly been shadowy for me. I had a dream that presents a particu- lar variety of humor to be some of my shadow material: am in the second-floor master bedroom suite of my solidly built home. I hear noises down- stairs. As I approach the open door to the hallway, I hear sounds of footsteps, of someone bounding up the stairs. Standing there watching, I see a black figure, like someone in a full- body stocking. Yet I can make out every one of his features. As he runs past the doorway, he looks in and our eyes meet for a split second. Smiling at me, he runs right out the sidewall of the house and is gone. I know in that instant who he is. He is Joyful Abandon!

While humor may function defensively, it can also be a function of the Self that embraces suffering and transforms it. Where Freud saw humor in service of the ego, Jungians might view some forms of humor as expressions of an ego moved by the Self: “. . . ego stands to the self as moved to the mover” (Jung 1942/1954/1958, CW 11, ¶391). Whether moved or unmoved, we do well to remember not all humor is experi- enced as playful and not all play can be called humorous.4 How might the suffering ego use humor and play to face and transform suffering in service of individuation?

The Clown, by evoking laughter, can serve as a bridge uniting neglected, enshad- owed, and unconscious elements with prevailing conscious attitudes through the vehi- cle of his antics, his dress, and his personality. In “The Clown’s Function,” Lucile Hoerr Charles describes laughter as being “one of the purest and most spontaneous expres- sions of the sudden happiness of release, of rebirth into consciousness and acceptance of an element needed for personal balance and progress” (1945, 32).

Ladson Hinton, in “Humor and the Transcendent Function,” relates humor “to the creative activity of the Self, the transcendent function . . .” (1978, 22). Humor as a vehicle for the transcendent function seeks to hold conflict and tension long enough to allow the emergence of an unexpected resolution—usually accompanied by a release of locked up energies. Hinton also notes that “in the Jungian tradition, the Winne- bago trickster myth is about the only context in which laughter and humor are prom- inent” (27). However, in The Trickster, Paul Radin maintains, “Laughter, humour and irony permeate everything trickster does. The reaction of his audience in aboriginal societies to both him and his exploits is prevailingly one of laughter tempered by awe” (1956, x). Rather than toward the outright laughter of the Winnebagos’ to the trick- ster’s antics, Jung’s attention is drawn more to “the alchemical figure of Mercurius . . . [with] his fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks . . .” (1954/1968, CW 9i ¶456; Radin 1956, 195). Trickster energy is expansive enough to take many different forms and one form is the Clown.

Mario Jacoby, in his book Individuation and Narcissism: The Psychology of Self in Jung and Kohut (1990), posits that humor and creativity, along with empathy and wisdom, are archetypal patterns that lie dormant in our psyches awaiting develop- ment. Jacoby views the development of humor as an essential and necessary quality for healthy human experience. Jacoby points to the figure of the Fool as a key image for humor. It is the Fool who plays around the edges, risking embarrassment and humil- iation when striving for wholeness or completeness—or, we might say, in the service of individuation. Extending Jacoby’s ideas, I suggest that conscious humor, as in con- scious clowning, serves the individual’s and the culture’s need to face, survive, and to throw off what can feel like the deadening cloak of our existential feelings of humilia- tion because of our many human imperfections.

In The Witch and the Clown: Two Archetypes of Human Sexuality (1987), Ann and Barry Ulanov focus on a set of men who operate in unconsciously defensive, clownish ways. Nevertheless, their clowning may be redemptive by allowing an improved rela- tionship with the anima—the feminine in man seeking expression, perhaps through the arts. The Kleinian “good-breast,” the Winnicottian “good-enough holding envi- ronment,” or the Bionian “container/contained,” when not adequately experienced in life, may be found in what the Ulanovs call “the holding arts”—arts that encourage ambivalence and polyvalence. Multiple meanings emerging from previously undevel- oped aspects of one’s personality can then be discovered and integrated. The Ulanovs explore this animating function of the holding arts: “. . . instead of being identified with all those parts in a persona compulsion, the clown-man knows in his own ego, however small, free access to his great gallery of parts” (1987, 263). When the ego allows itself to note this and to note that and in turn begins to feel this and then to feel that, a sym- bolic, enriching anima experience begins to develop that mediates the clown-man’s rig- idly avoidant behavior.

For me, the holding art was clowning. Through a conscious clowning, I played with my distress and allowed it movement, so that some transformation in my psyche might occur. The Ulanovs cite William Makepeace Thackeray, “. . . clowning is a part not an evasion of parts, a thread of color that lights up and gives defining texture to the whole fabric of identity” (1987, 286). Donald Winnicott believes that “it is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (1971, 54). Without good-enough ego-relatedness developed through play, the infant/child may be unable to operate from a “true-self.” From a Jungian per- spective, creative play may then be understood as a form of Ego-Self dialogue promot- ing individuation.

“Clowns Work as well as Aspirin, but Twice as Fast”5

Our bodies and our psyches respond positively to humor and play. The ancients knew that humor healed; for instance, one proverb from the Old Testament is “A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs (Prov.) 17:226). Somewhat more recently, in 1979, Norman Cousins described in Anatomy of An Illness as Perceived by the Patient how he believed he cured himself of a debilitating illness by laughing aloud while watching old Marx Brothers movies—an impressive statement—and an even more impressive accomplishment. Even contemporary neuroscience has gotten in on the act! Laughter decreases stress, and stress stimulates the production of cortisol, an adrenal hormone (Nauert 2008). To have a sense of what cortisol does, think of your body’s fight or flight response to either real or perceived danger. Also, in response to laughter, our bodies produce pain- relieving endorphins, returning the body to a more relaxed state. A full belly laugh increases the production of T-cells and interferon, a protein in the body that may pro- tect us from viruses, parasites, and cancer (Purcell 2006). Even the anticipation of laughter raises betaendorphins and human growth hormone, as well as significantly decreases cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) (Nauert 2008). Recent research pub- lished in The Journal of Neuroscience reports that laughter is contagious (Nauert 2006). Our brains respond by priming us to smile and to laugh by mirroring the behavior of others. From a neuroscience perspective, we learn that humor and laughter promote a healthier body as well as enriched emotional functioning.

Maybe laughter is the best medicine after all—for the individual and for the cul- ture at large. In fact, an Israeli university is taking the notion that laughter is the best medicine seriously. Inspired by the movie Patch Adams, which told the story of a phy- sician who believed humor needed to play a greater role in patient care, the University of Haifa has set up a Bachelor of Arts degree in medical clowning (Malaysian Medi- cal Resources)!

The capacity of trained clowns to communicate emotion nonverbally has also been used to train nurses to better understand the experience of children in pediatric units. A cadre of “teaching” clowns from the Big Apple Circus was brought in to New York University, College of Nursing. What the clowns taught and the nurses sought to learn was how to better read their audience, in a sense how to take the emotional pulse of people who do not or cannot speak (Haberman 2008).

The Fool and the Jester

Two of the clown’s ancestors are the Fool and the Jester. An early incarnation of the Fool is as the Fool card in tarot. The Fool card is unnumbered and as such holds an ambiguous place in tarot as either the lowest or the highest aspect (Little 1999)—the alpha or the omega (Kaminski). The Fool is usually depicted as dressed in a color- ful or clownish fashion, his possessions tied in a bag at the end of a walking stick he carries over his shoulder, often with a dog as his companion (Kaminski). He might be a traveler, an entertainer of children, a simple-minded or uncompli- cated person without money, status, power, or intellect. Yet, the Fool can be the one who, being an outsider and having little power, presents the unseen possibility or expresses the unthinkable thoughts; the Fool “speaks” of profound truth sometimes clearly and plainly, sometimes in mythic or poetic fashion, and sometimes in language that at first seems to be nonsense. The Fool represents “the every person” who is on a journey of self-discovery (Kaminski). He is the innocent standing at a precipice either about to fall in or ready to take a leap of faith (Wikipedia contributors). He has within him an “inner sage,” with an intuition he can follow when he attunes to the inner workings of the world—to meaning (Kaminski). While other cards in tarot might represent aspects of the questioner or sit- uations in the world, the Fool card is said to always represent the questioner’s core emer- gent self, often in a very embodied or lived way (Aeclectic Tarot).

Enid Welsford in her oft-cited 1935 book, The Fool: His Social and Literary His- tory, writes,

The Fool or clown is the Comic man, but his is not necessarily the hero of comedy, the central figure about whom the story is told, nor is he a mere figure of poetic imagination whom the final drop-curtain consigns to oblivion . . . As a dramatic character he usually stands apart from the main action of the play, having a tendency not to focus but to dissolve events, and so to act as an intermediary . . . As an historical figure he does not confine his activities to the theater but makes everyday life comic on the spot. The Fool, in fact, is an amphibian, equally at home in the world of reality and the world of imagination. (3)

Shakespeare, in King Lear, provides us with a Fool who acts as an intermediary. According to James Kirsch, the “theme of King Lear is transformation and redemp- tion” (1961, 27). The aged Lear abdicates his throne with a plan to divide his realm among his three daughters. One daughter, Cordelia, neither accepts this plan nor does she flatter Lear as do her sisters. In turn, Lear breaks with Cordelia. The Fool’s role is to point out to Lear how unconscious he has been. The Fool shows Lear

aspects which the King has not considered or has overlooked altogether. The King begins to realize the unfortunate situation he has created with his abdication. The Fool, like a knife, opens up the Unconscious and starts the healing process in Lear—healing in the sense of making whole. (Kirsch 1961, 32)

In King Lear, Shakespeare employs the Fool judiciously as a speaker of profound truth. The Fool exerts much authority by expressing the other side of things. In the fol- lowing bit of dramatic dialogue at the end of Act I, the Fool forcefully challenges Lear’s lack of comprehension:

Fool: Canst tell me how an oyster makes his shell?

Lear: No . . .

Fool: Nor I neither; but I can tell you why a snail has a house. Lear: “Why?”

Fool: Why, to put his head in; not to give it away to his daughters, and leave his horns without a case.

.. .

Fool: If thou wert my Fool nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time . . . Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.

(Scene V, lines 25–32, 42–43)

“In Shakespeare, the role of the fool is crucial as a countervailing force against king or rich man, or against power or convention in almost any form” (Ulanov and Ulanov 1980, 7). Therefore, Lear’s Fool provides the ruling force or dominant personality with a redressing for not being wise, for being so unconscious.

The Fool is the enemy of boundaries. William Willeford cites Karl Kerenyi, who “describes the trickster, a special form of the Fool (with attributes of the Promethean culture hero) as the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries”(1969, 185). According to Kerenyi, the trickster’s “function in an archaic society, or rather the function of his mythol- ogy . . . is to add disorder to what is order and so make a whole, to render possible, within the fixed bounds of what is permitted, an experience of what is not permitted” (132–133).

Clowns and the Sacred

The clown serves many functions: the political as in King Lear, the psychological as Jung and Radin note, and the cultural as expressed in contemporary media. The Clown also serves religious functions.

According to Andrew Samuels and his colleagues in A Critical Dictionary of Jun- gian Analysis, Jung viewed

religion as an attitude of the mind, a careful consideration and observation in relation to certain “powers”; spirits, demons, gods, laws ideals—or, indeed an attitude toward what- ever impressed a person sufficiently so that he is moved to worship, obedience, reverence and love. (1986, 130)

Edward Edinger traces Jung’s use of the words “religion” and “religious” back to two root words. Religare means to tie or bind back to some earlier state of being. The other root word, religere, has a much older usage and means to take into careful account. I pose that the Clown archetype carries a religious function in that it both relates back to an earlier chaotic state of being and takes into careful account the foi- bles of mankind (1996, 35).

In “On the Psychology of the Trickster-Figure,” Jung traces the development of the god of the Old Testament—a tricksterish, daemonic character, who indulged

in the unpredictable behavior of the trickster, of his senseless orgies of destruction and self- imposed sufferings, together with the same gradual development into a savior and his simul- taneous humanity. It is just this transformation of the meaningless into the meaningful that reveals the trickster’s compensatory relation to the “saint.” (1954/1968, CW 9i, ¶458)

The Clown, through his ribald antics, expresses the Trickster’s compensatory and trans- formational functions for saintly propriety.

David Miller, in Christs: Meditations on Archetypal Images in Christian Theology (1981), traces a lineage of Christ as a holy fool from the mythologies of Dionysus, Pan, Hermes, Silenos, and Polyphemos and up through more modern characters from writ- ers such as Joyce, Genet, Vonnegut, and Greene. Miller presents Christ, in part, as rep- resenting the imperfect man needing to be sacrificed as a higher calling toward greater consciousness. He sees the Clown in Christ and Christ in the Clown. In looking at Christology and linking this study to the earlier myths, Miller brings our attention to Christ as Shepherd and the shepherding clown as a manifestation of this Christ:

The clown shepherds our sense of imperfection with his humor, a humor never lacking in the strife known to warring brothers, in the feel of the monstrous and grotesque, in a comic vision that sees through tragic blindness, and in a down-to-earth physical sensu- ality. (1981, 48)

Miller’s nose is on the scent of something. In his nosing about, he points us to the clown’s red nose smack dab in the middle of a stark white face. Alchemy is in the mix. Red noses have been blackened as the tramp clown figure emerged in the twenti- eth century with Emmett Kelly and became more “naturalistic” with W. C. Fields and Jimmy Durante. The red of the rubedo, the black of the nigredo, and the white of the albedo speak to old alchemical processes, ancient clown faces, as well as Christian imag- ery. There is something in the air and the Clown’s task is to rub our noses in it!

Midori Snyder, in the Journal of Mythic Arts (2007), traces the history of the clown from ancient Greek theater to the not-quite-contemporary Groucho Marx. Snyder describes the clown’s religious function, connecting us to a power greater than our self:

The chorus of clowns rips apart polite society and in that act exposes our true feelings. In his joyful disorder, we remember primal emotions: we lust, we become envious and jeal- ous, we are starved for affection and fame, and we long for an illusive trouble-free hap- piness. We would rather sleep than work; we are clever and undeniably foolish at times. We are complicated, conflicted and no single character can carry the weight of so many inconsistencies. We need a chorus of clowns to speak for us. Despite their secular natures, clowns are mythic . . . Humor is an old response to fear of the unknown and contempt for the familiar. For 3000 years, somewhere a chorus of clowns has misbehaved, and in their audacity, called down the gods, heroes, and legends for a face-to-face meeting with humanity, offering laughter as a form of reverence. (2007, 5)

The clown is always concerned with something that is embarrassing, shocking, and astonishing. He maintains an intimate relationship to the improper, to the personally and culturally taboo. Many Native American tribes have sacred clown figures who serve an important role in promoting the community’s wellbeing. The Pueblo Indi- ans call him a “delight-maker,” for his role is to disrupt ceremonies, thereby lightening the seriousness of the event; paradoxically his opposition highlights the important cultural values being expressed (Charles 1945, 32). These figures teach a tolerance through disruption and mocking of serious sacred ritual. They remind the community that the world came into being from chaos and that disorder can occur at any time in the form of illness, lack of rain, disappearance of the herds, or the arrival of other more powerful peoples.

The Clown and the Lord of Disorder

Lest we fall too much in love with the endearing comic clown, we must also consider how he is associated with the Lord of Disorder. The clown is at heart a misfit. He is a social outcast who dresses in disreputable attire. The clown’s motley dress does not just reflect economic injustice or deprivation. Rather, it is carefully chosen deliberately to challenge convention, debunking status and order by standing outside convention.

The clown breaks taboos and receives both praise and punishment for doing so. He offers himself for the hostility of the audience as his art becomes greater when he gives up his dignity. The clown’s marginality, his accepting rejection and rejecting acceptance, finds its roots in religious foundations. The clown stands outside of human order. He is in the service of the power that is the declared enemy of well-behaved and organized society. The clown stands outside of decorum, propriety, and society’s censure. His guiding force is the Lord of Disorder, as the devil was called in medi- eval times. Yet, through his antics, with his masked face, the clown points out, even if his point remains unrecognized, that there is no separate Lord of Disorder. Rather, it is through ridiculing the presumptuous attitudes of humankind that the Clown, as advocatus diaboli, points to the ultimately uncontestable majesty of God—as both the Lord of Disorder and the Lord of Order are coexisting mythic personifications of deep archetypal energies.

The Passing of the Clown?

Generally, the clown silently expresses himself through irrational play. However, when he does speak, his speech is often so exaggerated that he mockingly turns language in- side out. In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1954), the character Lucky voices ex- aggerated and formalistic speech that is directed against language itself. Lucky is finally reduced by an unseen force so that he reverts to beast-like speechlessness (Zucker 1967). In a similar vein, Eva Metman puts forth that

Lucky deserves his name because he has a master who, however cruelly, organizes his life for him. Once, we are told, Lucky could, by dancing and thinking, amuse and inspire Pozzo; but his spark of spontaneity has died; of his original dancing nothing is left but a slouch and a totter, and his thinking has deteriorated into the endless repetition of mean- ingless words . . . (1960, 46).

Through the figure of the clown, Jung presents us with his understanding of the Trickster’s continuing relevance because the figure continues to receive energy “from sources in the unconsciousness which are not yet exhausted.” Yet Jung also speaks of the Trickster’s decline: “the trickster obviously represents a vanishing level of consciousness which increasingly lacks the power to take [sic.] express and assert itself ”(1954/1968, CW 9i, ¶474). I wonder if the Trickster, as Clown, might be undergoing some trans- formation in our contemporary experience.

Who are our Fools, our jesters, and today’s chorus of clowns? They are the standup comedians, comic actors, and late-night talk show hosts. Although these personalities serve a powerful cultural role, they express a forced artificiality. They have devolved from the embodied Fool/Jester/Clown functions, turning instead to cerebral word- play that is so much in keeping with our collective flirting with depth, which is ironi- cally an avoidance of a deep inner world.

In “The Death of the Clown: A Loss of Wits in the Postmodern Moment” (1975), David L. Miller informs us the clown is dead. He posits that with the coming of the age of reason by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—the so-called age of enlighten- ment—came a profound split in culture and in our psyches when we lost our wits. In the twelfth century, man was understood to have five wits: “(1) phantasy or common sense, (2) imagination, (3) imaginative or cognitive virtue, (4) estimative ability, and (5) memoria and reminiscence” (1975, 75). By the sixteenth century, these wits trans- formed into the more rational five senses. In the seventeenth century, our wits became the singular—wit.

It (wit) became defined as reason (reason rather than sensation, intelligibility rather than sensibility, thinking without embodiment). Further, wit came to be viewed as an inferior form of reason and intellect, hence finally unnecessary and undesirable, except at parties. Wits became wit, and then wit became mere cleverness. (1975, 76)

We all may have had such an understanding, whether professionally or personally, that an excess of intellect and reason can be deadly. What is often needed is anima’s multiplicity of feeling, especially some good humor.

Don’t Shoot the Clowns!

Not everyone loves the clown. With their masked faces, strange clothing, and unpre- dictable behavior, clowns have instilled fear in many. In fact, the term coulrophobia is defined as a persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of clowns. The phobia-inducing experience may have come about through childhood trauma related to mass media images of clowns: Clarabelle from the Hoody Doody Show or the Town Clown on the Captain Kangaroo Show, or through movie depictions of evil clowns as in the movie Poltergeist, or even through the gyrations of birthday party clowns played by bad- breathed middle-aged adults (Durwin 2004; wiseGEEK).

A recent study conducted by the University of Sheffield in England found that clown images were scary to many children aged four to sixteen. The children found clowns to be frightening and unknowable. Commenting on this research, Patricia Doorbar, a Welsh child psychologist, reflects that clowns come from a different era, resulting in children’s unfamiliarity with them (BBC News 2008).

Is the Clown dead? Rather than considering the Clown dead, for archetypal images can lose their vitality over time as consciousness emerges, perhaps the Clown has resub- merged into the collective unconscious for a future rebirth. Or maybe he is starting to make his ordering and disordering energies felt in new, more personal ways.

As I was writing this article, I came across a powerful book entitled, Don’t Shoot the Clowns: Taking a Circus to the Children of Iraq (2006). The author, Jo Wilding, tells of her experiences in bringing clowning to children in the midst of war:

A tank blocked the way ahead and no-one dared sneak past its twitching gun. An ambu- lance behind screamed in the mire, emergency having lost all meaning in the encompass- ing trauma.

A skinny, ragged child moved between the cars, offering newspapers, chewing gum, sweets, toilet paper, growing old as the minutes passed. Suddenly his sunken eyes swiveled back, new life amid the lethargy, to confirm what they thought they had seen. The man in the car took another ping-pong ball from his mouth. And another. The boy started to smile, to giggle, to laugh out loud. He called to other children, who abandoned their col- umns of cars to come and look. Another man in the car took a cloth from his pocket and made it vanish. A woman began pulling improbable faces and the children, a small crowd of them now, reciprocated. (2006, 11)

Whenever I forget that playfulness and humor can activate libido, I hope I recall this passage as it speaks so poignantly of the power of play and clowning.

Clowning Around

What in my personal experience led me to clowning around? Simply stated, it was a deeply felt need to play. It was a deeply repressed need to play. Repressed material retains great potency, as “. . . repressed contents are the very ones that have the best chance at sur- vival, as we know from experience that nothing is corrected in the unconscious” (Jung 1954/1968, CW 9i, ¶474). I needed, in a Winnicottian-childlike way, to learn to use both my body and my mind creatively. Such a free exploration was unavailable to me from childhood onward. My internal defenses were firmly in place as anything more than a modicum of independence in thought and especially in behavior were experienced in my family as threats. I developed a false self—a persona presentation as somewhat accom- plished and successful even as my inner imaginal life remained limp and withered.

Thought had become a maintainer of boundaries. I had to act, and action in the form of play was absolutely necessary. One day while searching for something to do that might add some life to my life I came across a notice for something called “The Clown School.” On this notice was a clown face whose expression was ambiguous. I intuitively knew I had found something my soul needed.

I entered into a study of clowning. During this period of study—which I have come to understand as being one of a multi-year active imagination—I developed, discarded, modified, assembled, disassembled, and reassembled various clown personalities until a particular character emerged. His name is Buster-Bag-O-Wind. For a while, he was Buster Bag-O-Nuts. However, my clown colleagues convinced me to change his name, as “Bag-O-Nuts” seemed too sexually provocative. Yet the name made little difference: In The Fool and His Scepter, William Willeford notes the English word “fool” comes from the Latin follies, meaning “bellows or windbag,” and “buffoon” comes from the Italian buffare, which means “to blow” as well as meaning “scrotum,” “balls,” and “silly pretension” (1969, 20–21). Our term “clown” comes from sixteenth-century English, meaning “clod,” “clot,” and “lump.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion Handelman writes,

Put together, clown, clod, and clot connote an entity that is unfinished or incomplete in its internal organization: one that hangs together in a loose and clumsy way. The clown is lumpish in its imperfect—but congealing and adhering—fusion of attributes. (1987, 547)

Therefore, despite a seeming acquiescence to the collective demand, Buster, in true subversive clown fashion, remained faithful to an important aspect of his personality: knowing that a bag of wind is a related variation of a bag of nuts, and all of that could also be cloddish and lumpen.

While that young boy in Iraq sold toilet paper to survive (Wilding 2006), Buster discovered toilet paper to be an enchanted object. Not unlike a two-year old child who dis- covers and takes such pleasure in unrolling toilet paper from its dispenser, Buster found that toilet paper, as a newly discovered object, could have a mind of its own. As with the enchantment of brooms by the curious but unconscious apprentice portrayed in The Sor- cerer’s Apprentice segment of the Disney film Fantasia (1940), Buster found toilet paper could move about on its own. When Buster picked up this new thing, a seemingly inert object, it took flight, soaring through the air with ease. Playfully flying from Buster’s hands and alternately rolling around on the ground, toilet paper explored space and place to Buster’s engaged amazement. Yet, as always, the inevitable happened. Toilet paper expe- rienced the impingements of friction and gravity and the constrictions of being pursued and grabbed at. Then it suddenly and demonically changed its nature. It began to wrap itself around his body as a boa constrictor might. In this first magically charged meeting with toilet paper, Buster had an experience filled with wonder, awe, joy, and delight, fol- lowed by awareness of things having gone awry, becoming filled with terror, and finally the success of freeing himself through his own strength and ingenuity. Buster came to experi- ence the all-too-human emotions of joy and fear—of emerging consciousness.

Through clowning as active imagination, I came into relationship with other aspects of myself. The parts were immature, ill-equipped for a direct confrontation with the internalized and entrenched forces of propriety. I came to play with and then understand that psyche has many, many parts. Not every part is desirable. Some are ugly, oafish, lumpen, and stupid. These are the very aspects of myself that rushed for- ward once the invitation was made. Having Buster to enact, in play, enabled me to integrate some of what I had not been able to live or to accept. Through this active imagination, my ego stepped aside so that it could participate with the material emerg- ing from the unconscious. The ego did more than observe: it began to structure the material, providing cohesion, lest it all be vaporous silliness that did not transform but merely entertained in a very temporary manner.

Through Buster, I have come into contact with the oh-so-human archetypal pat- tern of the Trickster as Clown. I have come to view Buster as an emergent Self-figure of personal psychological growth and development. I offer Buster—or rather Buster offers himself—as an example for the collective, which seems so much in need of buf- foonery—buffoonery that seeks to communicate something about humankind’s inher- ent experience of the ongoing tension and conflict between order and disorder.


1. In the text, there are instances when the words “clown,” “fool,” “jester,” and “trickster” are capitalized and there are instances when the words are not. When the word refers to an archetype or is the name of a character, it is capitalized. When the word is used in an ordi- nary sense, it is not capitalized.

2. Although both female and feminine clowns are found in a broad range of cultures, here I pres- ent the clown primarily as masculine, albeit ambiguously masculine. Often, the energies expressed through the clown archetype are before and beyond gender identifications.

3. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Ed., s.v. motley.

4. I do not view all play as humorous. Absorbing play, as in active imagination, for example, is frequently solitary and often has a serious tone when one is engaged in a deeply personal process. Silly play, which tends to evoke laughter, usually requires another to witness and respond, as when a clown performs. Competitive play, as with physical games or multiper- son verbal exchanges, may employ humor although it may not involve mutual laughter.

5. Groucho Marx as quoted in Balick (2003, 90) and Heimann (2002, 129). 6. Biblical quotations are from The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Edition.


References to The Collected Works of C. G. Jung are cited in the text as CW, volume number, and paragraph number. The Collected Works are published in English by Routledge (UK) and Princeton University Press (USA).


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michael bala is a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) with a private psychotherapy practice in San Francisco treating children, adolescents, and adults, employing sandtray, dream work, and expressive arts. He is a candidate in analytic training at the C. G. Jung Institute of San Francisco and is an assistant editor of the Jung Journal. Correspondence: 4326 Eighteenth Street, San Francisco, CA 94114, email:


The clown is a historical character with transcultural and transpersonal significance. The clown’s costume, make-up, and antics can be viewed as expressions from a deep archetypal space. As an archetype, the Clown, as an expression of the Trickster, carries and expresses bipolar energies of silliness/seriousness, play/work, hidden/known, creating/destroying, and order/disorder. Culturally and personally the clown serves many functions. One of his functions is as a carrier of the transcendent function facilitating an Ego-Self axis.
key words active imagination, archetype, Clown, Ego-Self axis, the Fool, Freud, humor, Jester, C. G. Jung, King Lear, laughter, play, Self, Shakespeare, tarot, transcendent function, Trickster

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