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ship of fools

Jeroen Bosch - Ship of Fools

Jeroen Bosch' famous 'Ship of Fools', the medieval allegory of humans wasting their lives in idle pleasures.

Less widely known is that the custom of putting the insane on boats really existed in Western Europe. Foucault describes their function, both practical and highly symbolical, in his 'Madness and Civilization'.

On the one hand, we must not minimize its incontestable practical effectiveness: to hand a madman over to sailors was to be permanently sure he would not be prowling beneath the city walls; it made sure he would go far away; it made him a prisoner of his own departure. But water adds to this the dark mass of its own values; it carries off, but it does more: it purifies. Navigation delivers man to the uncertainty of fate; on water, each of us is in the hands of his own destiny; every embarkation is, potentially, the last. It is for the other world that the madman sets sail in his fools' boat; it is from the other world that he comes when he disembarks.

...symbol of knowledge, the tree (the forbidden tree, the tree of promised immortality and of sin), once planted in the heart of the earthly paradise, has been uprooted and now forms the mast of the Ship of Fools. [It] sails through a landscape of delights, where all is offered to desire, a sort of renewed paradise, since here man no longer knows either suffering or need, and yet he has not recovered his innocence.
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