Adrian Russell had, for days now, been staring at Cecil Collins’ “The Fool” in his daily inspirational trips to the Tate. There was something germinating in his mind in between listening to The Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill” and perhaps being fool enough himself to overpay for a one-day workshop in the medium of commedia dell’arte at London’s City Academy. And yet, he couldn’t resist. His obsession with this notion of the fool had solidified ever since he had first seen Jean-Louis Barrault immortalize the miming sadness and innocence of Jean-Gaspard Deburau–the ultimate caricature of Pierrot–in Marcel Carné’s tragic Les Enfants du Paradis.
Deburau’s unfortunate and unwavering love for the beautiful but often indisposed with others Garance is what always struck Adrian the most when he first viewed the film in his early twenties, a time when he felt his passion was only just beginning to flower, but that, for most, was the zenith of their ardor–both for love of another person and artistic pursuits. At that time, he was still living in Manchester, dreaming of the day when he could come to London to pursue his latent dream of becoming a performer, a modern mime to show the world that the fool was very much still alive and well in more ways than just metaphor.
Holding his heart in one hand and an owl in the other, Cecil Collins’ rendering of the fool isn’t as overtly as tragic as a conventional Pierrot, but, as Adrian quickly learned, the symbolism of each emblem is clear: the heart is what the fool offers to anyone–particularly the object of his affection–as it is in his fatally trusting nature to do so. The bird represents the freedom of the fool, the fact that, while others with “their heads on their shoulders” look upon him with either mocking or piteous stares, he is the one who is truly able to experience liberty. A purity of spirit and lack of concern with other people’s opinions is what enables him to experience self-rule in a way that no one else can. Alas, it is rarely all roses given to his beloved for the fool. Because it is he who suffers most of all for his naïveté, in many ways the noblest quality a person can have for being authentic in substance.
To go with his visual explorations of the fool, Collins also released a short book in 1947 called The Vision of the Fool, a manifesto, of sorts, regarding the fool’s heartbreaking but necessary role in society. Naturally, when Adrian discovered this in his intent study of Collins’ paintings and drawings, he picked up a copy at a bookstore in Camden Town. Devouring the work on the bus to The Piazza in Covent Garden to help get in the mindset for his third attempt at a street performance, he found himself almost tearing up after coming across a certain line. As Collins puts it aptly in his essay, “Modern society has succeeded very well in rendering poetic imagination, Art and Religion, the three magical representatives of life, an heresy; and the living symbol of that heresy is the Fool. The Fool is the poetic imagination of life, as inexplicable as the essence of life itself.”
A girl in her mid-20s, Victoria (as she would tell him her name was later on), that he hadn’t noticed sitting nearby touched him on the shoulder and asked, “You all right then?” She had a brazenness about her that seemed to emanate off the curls of her brown hair, an energy Adrian noticed at once. He was touched by the concern she expressed for his heartache, even if it was masked by a hardened intonation.
“I’m great,” he said smiling. And he genuinely meant it. He knew that he was an anomaly in a society that valued business–the amassing of money and things–but that he would be all right and could endure in that aloneness. It was his destiny as one of the last fools.
“Why you cryin’ then? Bit odd, innit? To be feelin’ ‘great’ but cryin’.”
“It’s not so odd. Joy and sadness are intertwined, you’ll see.”
She rolled her eyes. “Right then.” She turned back in her seat and resumed reading from her book, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Fitting he thought, as it’s always the hardest of shells with the softest of spots.
Before his stop, he mustered the courage to tap her on the shoulder and ask her, “Would you like to get together sometime?”
She glared at him, saying nothing.
“You seem like an intelligent bird, you know. I’d just like to see you again, that’s all. It can be completely platonic.”
Her eyes unclenched as the bus came to a pause to let out its next batch of passengers.
Adrian urged, “Well anyway, I’ve got to get off here now, but I’m at the Tate most days by the Cecil Collins.”
With that, he disembarked, taking a chance on squeezing her shoulder with affection as he did so.
He performed in the role of Pierrot that day with marked devotion, as though in committing to the character, he was also committing to Victoria. That through Pierrot, he was communicating with her from afar.
Every day after he met her, he made sure to be at the Tate by the Cecil Collins, always hoping she would arrive. He searched for her in the bus, on the streets–constantly hoping against hope that he would happen upon her just once more. And it seemed that the longer he went without encountering her again, the more intense his street performances became, gradually drawing in crowds in what could actually be described as droves.
It was April 1st, the notorious April Fools’ Day, that he at last saw Victoria, immediately noticing her face amid the sea of others watching him pantomime a scene expressing loss and confusion over being unable to find a bouquet of flowers for his beloved. Usually, Adrian liked to keep the ruse going for a while, but he didn’t want to risk losing sight of Victoria, never to find her after this moment. So he pulled a single pink rose from his bouquet, approached Victoria, who was snickering at him with her quartet of friends–only one of whom was female–and presented it to her fondly.
He searched in her gaze for some form of recognition on her part, but there was no trace. She saw him as nothing more than a bemusement at best and an oddity of London street culture at worst. She would not take the flower from him, and it went slightly limp before her, rather like his heart as well. She and her friends tittered some more at him prior to sauntering away. In permitting him to see her for a second time, the universe had anon given him that simultaneous joyousness and sadness he had spoken of to Victoria. But he had been wrong. She would never know what these coinciding feelings meant. She was not a fool, or an artist. And he almost envied her for that, even more than he loved her for her arcane charisma and beauty.