The Ship of Fools

Hieronymus Bosch, The Ship of Fools, oil on wood, 58 cm x 33 cm, 1503-1504.


A The anti-asylum struggle must be seen as a kind of anchor to prevent all humans from getting lost in the routes of exclusion, adrift

In Brazil, on May 18, the National Anti-Asylum Fight Day was celebrated. No wonder the fight should be celebrated. After all, madness, exclusion and freedom from time immemorial constitute an agonistic relationship. The permanent battlefield is portrayed in various ways by literature, painting and plastic arts. From this perspective, art has the unique meaning of saying what is hidden in the interstices of social reality. This is the particular case of the composition The Ship of Fools (1503-1504) by Hieronymus Bosch.

Very little is known about the life of this Dutchman who lived between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, the author of paintings as magnificent as they are enigmatic in their disordered profusion of symbols, colors and dreamlike shapes. Interestingly, even today there is no consensus among the scholars who feed his critical fortune as to the senses and meanings expressed in the work. In addition, there is some confusion in the precise dating of the paintings, as only a few were signed by the painter. Written documents reveal his participation in the Confraternity of Our Lady. However, due to the fact that his painting is almost always immersed in the construction of a little evident symbolism, such references, indicative of a practicing Catholicism, give rise to readings that indicate his approximation with the imaginary originating from pagan sects.

Bosch's work gave rise to a series of extremely valuable interpretations, provoking the unfolding of his understanding. One of his outstanding readings was present in the History of Madness by Michel Foucault (Perspectiva, 2019). Foucault's book inscribes one of the painter's paintings, the Crazy Ship, in the structural dynamics of a historical period marked by the repeated presence of artistic expressions interested in registering the moral deviation of behavior. One of them would be the satirical poem The Ship of Fools, published in Basel in 1494 by Sebastian Brandt, a German author who lived between the years 1457 and 1521. In a moralizing critical tone, human folly is denounced at all social levels. The nobility, the common people, the clergy and university members did not escape.

A crazy ship it became an allegory of those who travel or navigate the sea adrift, oblivious to the fate of their vessels. As Foucault points out inThe History of Madness, the ship of the excluded, wandering endlessly through rivers and seas, takes unwanted subjects away from the city. This imprecise journey also represents a rite of passage and purification in which the only truth and the only homeland for these passengers “is this sterile expanse between two lands that cannot belong to them”.

According to art historian Ernst Gombrich (the history of art. LTC, 1999), the emphasis given to the Dutch painter is due, among other things, to his unparalleled quality that allowed, based on the traditions and achievements of painting of his time, the construction of an inverted image of the world, composed of a “an equally plausible set of figures that no human eye has ever seen”. Still according to Gombrich, "Bosch was famous for his frightening depictions of the forces of evil." The inverted image of the world, with an emphasis on the presence of ghosts from hell immersed in dreamlike landscapes, has the power to give representation to the fears that populated the minds of society as a whole. The oneiric figures represented by Bosch, all kinds of demons incarnated in half-human, half-animal, half-machine figures, acquire a function of supplementing reality, materializing and giving form to the dread that crossed the minds of subjects in the Middle Ages.

The permanent exile of madness gains significant strength in the artistic universe inhabited by the painter as it reveals a strange space of death and purification. In Bosch's paintings, madness is present on the reverse side of beings, as if revealing the incompleteness inherent in all spirits. As in the poem by Sebastian Brant, in the work The Ship of Fools no one escapes the procession of fools: members of the clergy drunk and steeped in vices of all kinds, half-naked bodies clinging to the boat and a tree serving as the ship's mast – as Foucault suggests, this would be the tree of knowledge. Above the chaotic movement of the fools, a man in madman's clothes calmly floats. In this composition by Bosch, foolishness plays an infernal game of inversions of values ​​and meanings, ironically conferring a point of stability on the portrayed landscape.

Bosch's demonic perspective masterfully unveils the spiritual geography of an era. The ship of fools exalts the inverted face of men. According to Foucault, a device of knowledge-power destined to silence its dark part had not yet been developed. Life was revealed in a tragic spectacle, a veritable dead end. Insane forms, animated by deviations in moral and/or religious conduct, inhabited the place of exclusion, an inevitable destination of suffering and damnation. In this context, the insane were portrayed as outcasts thrown into the abyss of their own fate.

Regarding the very expressive record of this marginalization procedure, where the “other” is shown in the crudity of its radical separation from the “same”, it is important to note that not only the relations that underlie a certain structure of this “game of exclusion” were maintained with the over the years. According to Foucault, absolute exclusion, the compulsory expulsion beyond city walls, a space of absolute, inhumane indifference previously occupied by lepers, was a “privilege” enjoyed by individuals deprived of a minimum condition of citizenship in medieval European cities. There are also historical records of homemade solutions, such as the construction of special homes for those considered “crazy at home”.

In Bosch's painting, the water that sustains the vessel enjoys ambiguous values. It is a domain that is both uncertain and mobile, but also capable of a therapeutic role (it is worth remembering, with Foucault, the “hydrotherapy of madness” operated by nascent psychiatry in the XNUMXth century). Its imprecise aspect played an important role in the construction of an imaginary of madness in the West, as opposed to the firm and rocky ground of reason. Foucault says:

In the Western imagination, reason has long belonged on the mainland. Island or continent, it repels water with massive obstinacy: it only gives it its sand. Unreason, itself, was aquatic, from the beginning of time and until a very close date. And, more precisely, oceanic: infinite, uncertain space; moving figures, soon erased, leave only a thin trail and foam behind them; storms or dull weather; pathless roads. Madness is the liquid, gushing exterior of rocky reason. It is, perhaps, to this essential liquidity of madness in our old imaginary landscapes that we owe a certain number of important themes: drunkenness, a brief and provisional model of madness; the vapors, light, diffuse, misty madness, in the process of condensation in a very hot body and a burning soul; melancholy, black and calm water, funereal lake, mirror in tears; the furious dementia of sexual paroxysm and its fusion.

In the demonic assault against a world that is only apparently ordered according to the hardened rules of religious asceticism, Bosch never fails to throw into the undefined space of the waters the nobility of the time and the members of the clergy. Even the tree of knowledge sails on the boat. In the making of a depraved universe, populated by gluttony, greed, avarice and lust, among other cardinal sins, everything must be purified. Only the figure of the madman, this one calmly disposed in his habitat natural, is not surprised by the wanderings and uncertainty of the waters.

By portraying the oppressed face and the meanings of the pain of the excluded, the artist exposes the logic that underlies exclusion. It is necessary to know how to ask the work what the dynamics of its colors and strokes mean. The gesture that consists of throwing the other (or throwing oneself) into the indeterminacy of the waters of the river or the sea, a gesture that leads to a radical separation/exclusion of this other from a set of community determinations – be they geographical, cultural, political or economic – responds to a social function of a pharmacological nature. This assumption is based on a crucial anthropological thesis for understanding the relationship between culture and violence, according to which every human community has, as a first and fundamental institution, sacrificial rituals of purification. Sacrifice has always been a social act par excellence, a mechanism that produces the sacred and, in one of the senses that interest us here, separation.

According to René Girard in his book Violence and the Sacred (Paz e Terra, 2008), the need for these rites, identified in all stages of human history, from its most archaic records, is due to an inevitable accumulation of tensions and violence generated in the daily interaction between subjects inside the body Social. The tension arising from a growing rivalry between the members of a given culture – a state of affairs named by Girard as “mimetic rivalry” – threatens the survival of its constitutive ties. The ritual of sacrifice aims at a kind of purification of violence, a homeostatic equilibrium of the social body. True givers of salvation, the victims are sacrificed with the aim of unloading the accumulated tension within the community. The “scapegoats” are always chosen among those individuals or groups with a certain differentiating character, be it a cultural, religious trait or even deviant “natural” traits. The “monstrous” nature determines the condition of marginality.

Girard's thesis gains strength when we think of the systems of exclusion present within modern states. The radical and paradigmatic case, in view of its operational rationality and discursive explicitness, is the eugenics experiment of the Nazi government known as T-4. The execution order – euthanasia – of Germans considered by the Nazi regime as “unworthy of living” (people with physical or mental disabilities) was given at the end of 1939, shortly before the start of the Second World War, and was officially in force until the end of 24. August 1941, XNUMX. The pressure that arose within German society, taken over by church authorities, put an end, at least officially, to the deadly arrangement that took place between the military, doctors and nurses. However, Hitler's plan to promote a "pure race" expanded and gained monumental proportions in the concentration camps.

Returning to the analyzes carried out in the History of Madness, the rituals and obscure places occupied by leprosy in the Middle Ages were destined to unreason, which became an insistent and quite feared threat. For Foucault, Bosch's painting foreshadows a movement that resulted in the constitution of psychiatry and its regimes of exclusion from the XNUMXth century onwards. Until the moment arrived when the tragic experience of madness was completely silenced by the constitution of psychiatric knowledge, the record of a clearly demarcated structural duality was maintained, a “rigorous sharing” meaning at the same time social exclusion and spiritual reintegration. Freeing the madman to his own madness, throwing him into the indeterminacy of the waters, meant the possibility of a double salvation: for the victim and for the executioner.

Violence, social control and stigma surrounding people who suffer from mental disorders are not reduced to an issue limited only to the body of madness. On the contrary, in the battle waged through this body, the fundamental forms that determine a certain “human condition” are fundamentally at stake. Throughout history, it was verified that the siege and actions aimed at demarcating the space of madness guaranteed stability, contours and the status of reason and normality. We are all irremediably involved in this battle.

The commemorative date of the anti-asylum struggle in Brazil emerged as a result of the Psychiatric Reform Movement born in the 1970s. A movement led by mental health workers aligned with the redemocratization process that left as a legacy, in addition to the commemorative date, achievements related to the people in psychic suffering and mental health care free of any violence and discrimination. The first article of the Paulo Delgado Law of April 06, 2001 states: “The rights and protection of people suffering from mental disorders, dealt with in this Law, are ensured without any form of discrimination as to race, color, sex, orientation sex, religion, political option, nationality, age, family, economic resources and the degree of severity or time of evolution of your disorder, or any other”. For all these reasons, the anti-asylum struggle must be seen as a kind of anchor to prevent humans from getting lost in the routes of exclusion, adrift.

*Joao Paulo Ayub Fonseca, psychoanalyst, he holds a doctorate in social sciences from Unicamp. author of Introduction to Michel Foucault's analytics of power (Intermediates).


FOUCAULT, Michael. history of madness. São Paulo: Perspective, 2019.

Girard, R. Violence and the Sacred. Rio de Janeiro, Peace and Land, 2008.

GOMBRICH, EH the history of art. Rio de Janeiro: LTC, 1999.

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