Tuesday, December 04, 2012


Combination of an old post of mine, from 2010 - one I particularly enjoyed preparing, followed by a few notes on more recent portrayals of our still afloat and recognisable Ship of Fools:

The term "ship of fools", as an allegory, harks back to medieval times when it was the custom to rid society of "undesirables": the mentally ill and other outcasts, by gathering them into a boat or cart and having them taken away. The origin of the descriptive phrase appears to be a book by Sebastian Brandt, 15th century German humanist and satirist. His allegorical poem/story "Das Narrenschiff" criticises the state of the church, as well as what he saw as the weaknesses and vices of his time. 15th century painter Hieronymus Bosch gave us his version of Ship of Fools, in a painting (shown below). This was originally part of a triptych, a linked 3-panel piece of artwork.

500+ years later we can still relate to humanity as a Ship of Fools....no need to go into detail here, passing readers will recognise the indications, which are many and various!

So then, if this painting presents an allegory of humanity's weaknesses, it must also represent the weaknesses, or shadow sides, of the 12 signs of the zodiac, which together make up human nature. Conveniently, coincidentally (or not), there are 12 figures in Bosch's painting - too good a chance for me to miss!

First a brief explanation of the "props" in the painting. The round object hanging between the central group is a suspended pancake. As a game the characters try to take bites from it. Traditionally all eggs and milk were eaten before lent, but the fools choose to consume them in wasteful luxury. The pitcher upside down on a pole behind a nun, and some stored barrels behind the monk symbolise consumption of alcohol. The trees used as masts are symbols of the tree of life. The figure reaching up to a roasted fowl tied to the tree represents the gluttony of the times. (The idea comes from a medieval custom of attaching a roasted fowl or ham to the top of a greasy pole so peasants could try their skills to retrieve it.) The long banner flag with the crescent moon on it as a representation of Islam. In the tree top, an owl, usually symbol of wisdom, here representing heresy, as a bird that hunts at night - dark and spiritually unenlightened - symbolic of evil and superstition in general.

Here goes then - looking for a representation of weaker sides/shadow sides of the zodiac signs NB zodiac signs in general NOT a person's Sun sign!: Some are better representations than others; some could be interchangeable. Bosch didn't consciously have astrology in mind when he painted this.

Aries (Self-seeking, arrogant) - Figure climbing mast to reach the chicken

Taurus (Totalitarian, self-aggrandising) - figure with arm in the air - at the back

Gemini (Lies, unreliable) - figure with mouth open to right of Taurus

Cancer (Self pity, fear) - figure lying down far left

Leo (Irritable & frustrated when not in spotlight) - figure dressed as Fool, sitting alone, at right

Virgo (Judgmental, vengeful) - Nun figure holding jug, to right of Cancer

Libra (Lascivious, indecisive) - Nun figure playing mandolin

Scorpio(Scheming, paranoid) - Monk figure at table

Sagittarius (Silly, greedy, overbearing) -figure directly behind the pancake on a string

Capricorn (Capitalistic, social climber) figure in water with bowl

Aquarius (Trying too hard to be different, poseur) - figure in water on right

Pisces (Addictive, lazy) - figure hanging over side of boat vomiting -at right.

(Alternative interpretations/allocations of the figures are very welcome - via comments.)

A book by Katherine Anne Porter, first published in 1962, titled Ship of Fools, was inspired by a voyage taken by the author in 1931, from Mexico to Germany. Some of the passengers she met were the models for characters in her novel, begun in 1941 it became the work of 20 years. She observed that the title of her novel symbolizes "the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity."

Passengers in the novel, and in the movie adapted from it, include a Spanish noblewoman, a drunken German lawyer, an American divorcee, a pair of Mexican Catholic priests: a crucible of intense experience, passion, and treachery, with themes of nationalism, cultural and ethnic pride, and basic human frailty, all as relevant in 2012.

I saw the movie adaptation of Ship of Fools, directed by Stanley Kramer, long ago and loved it, especially the performance of the late Oskar Werner as ship's doctor. Others within the "cross section of humanity" included Simone Signoret as a Spanish political activist, cynical dwarf called Glocken played by Michael Dunn, Vivien Leigh as an aging coquette, Lee Marvin as an hedonistic baseball player, a philosophical Jew Heinz Ruhmann, along with some of pro- and anti-Hitler passengers, Jose Ferrer playing the nastiest of them, and young lovers George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley, not forgetting hundreds of indigent Cuban deportees who are being returned to Spain against their wishes.

Whether the book or movie characters would slip into our zodiac as easily as the characters in the famous painting isn't clear. I shall watch the movie again - used VHS tape is on order. DVDs of the two and a half hour long movie, at Amazon, are ridiculously expensive for some reason....it must have become rare.

Would a re-make of Ship of Fools be a good thing? Mini-series perhaps? I'm torn on this. There could never be a better cast talent-wise - never. But to reach today's cinema and TV audiences it might help to modify, improve a few ideas and lines of dialogue that have, over intervening years, become clichéd. In the right hands I think a re-make of some kind wouldn't be a bad thing. I enjoyed, and in many ways preferred the TV mini-series of A Town Like Alice, also the mini-series of From Here to Eternity notwithstanding the loss of Sinatra! When the basic material is good, it will easily stand and benefit from updating and modern technique.


mike said...

Here's some voyage music for us:

World Party's classic, "Ship of Fools"
(skip the ad at the beginning)

I don't think I packed enough formal wear for this cruise. Where's the captain?

Twilight said...

mike ~~ Hadn't heard that one before - thanks for the link - enjoyed it, and the video too - it was very well done!

I doubt formal wear will be needed, Mike. A more likely ship scenario for the likes of us will be akin to the galley scene in Ben Hur


"Your eyes are full of hate, 41"


mike (again) said...

I didn't have time earlier to look-up the words...now that I have, it seems even more apropos to your post. Here are the words to "Ship of Fools":


We're setting sail
To the place on the map from which no one has ever returned
Drawn by the promise of the joker and the fool
By the light of the crosses that burn
Drawn by the promise of the women and the lace
And the gold and the cotton and pearls
It's the place where they keep all the darkness you need
You sail away from the light of the world on this trip baby
Pay, you will pay tomorrow
You're gonna pay tomorrow
You will pay tomorrow
Save me, save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools, no no
Oh, save me, save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools, no no
I want to run and hide
Right now
Avarice and greed are gonna drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
Drowning in the oceans of history
Travellin' the world, you're in search of no good
But I'm sure you'll build your Sodom like I knew you would
Using all the good people for your galley slaves
As your little boat struggles through the the warning waves
But you will pay, you will pay tomorrow
You're gonna pay tomorrow
You gonna pay tomorrow
Save me, save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools, no
Oh, save me, save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools, no
Where's it comin' from or where's it goin' to?
It's just a, it's just a ship of fools
All aboard

Wisewebwoman said...

I loved that movie, T, and the book it was loosely based on.

For some reason put me in mind of "Separate Tables" I think DAvid Niven and Deborah Kerr starred, didn't do a google will later.

Lovely post.


Chomp said...

Interesting indeed... Isn’t it that this world is a sort of Ship o’ Fools, “Stultifera Navis” ...

Twilight said...

mike ~~ Ooo-er!! WOW! Great lyrics very apt - and coincidentally, and a wee bit spookily, they even contain a reference to galley slaves (as in the scene I mentioned from Ben Hur)

But I'm sure you'll build your Sodom like I knew you would
Using all the good people for your galley slaves

Twilight said...

Wisewebwoman Thanks, WWW. If I've seen Separate Tables I can't remember anything about it - will watch for a VHS or DVD of it.

Twilight said...

Chomp ~~~ Yes, it truly is!!! We're all passengers.