Forget Easter, Christmas and even Halloween. My brother's favorite holiday is April Fools' Day. By age ten, he was so spectacularly successful at devising credible jokes that he managed to send our grandmother on the same fool's errand three years in a row! She went into town to fetch her friend's prescriptions, and delivered them -- to her friend's great surprise! To her credit, my grandmother laughed at herself as much as she laughed with us.
April Fools' affirms our sense of humanity and community. In overturning hierarchy and authority, April Fools' makes elders look childish and children seem cunning beyond their years; we are all equally foolish.
April Fools' jokes aren't just pranks. They are an art form and a genre: they have a time, place and social context, and need to conform to expected rules and regulations. Rule number one: you can't play an April Fools' joke on April 2! April Fools' jokes break with and affirm conventions: We turn the world upside down for a day, acknowledging in playful overthrow the rules that bind our society.April Fools' honors those rules in their breach.
April Fools' jokes are as much a surprise as they are a ritual. We consent to the surprising pleasures of repetition. Everybody knows to be careful on April 1, and yet we rise to the challenge of overriding our own or other people's better judgment. The day thrills us with a sense of the utterly expected, and the completely novel. We do this every year, and yet, we never cease to be surprised and delighted. The chief importance of April Fools' is its annual repetition.
These days, we don't often value repetition. We say with a sneer that something is repetitive. That's a marked departure from our earlier habits. In the eighteenth century, repetition was a highly valued form of pedagogy, seen as vital to character formation and civic society. Students learned to become writers by imitating good writing. Sure, schoolboys balked at the drudgery of writing in the style of the Latin poets. But Benjamin Franklin -- a consummate trickster and American original -- validated imitation in his autobiography. He gave readers instructions for becoming accomplished writers when he explained his own practice of reading a piece of excellent writing, committing it to memory, and then rewriting it in its exact form days later. He attributed his success as a writer to this practice of imitation. In keeping with his times, he viewed originality as the product of repetition, not its antithesis.
Today, we still value repetition more than meets the eye. We never expect Sam to play something new; we always ask him to "play it again, Sam." As Franklin advised, our culture thrives on retellings. Take last week's two largest grossing movies: a retelling of the stories penned by Frank Baum and elevated to movie fame by the 1939 Wizard of Oz and a retelling of Jack and the Bean Stalk. Not only are both retellings -- they acknowledge repetition and its relation to pleasure. They also place fools, if not April Fools', at their center: they present us with seemingly weak characters who reveal the makings and mechanisms of power, and succeed in tricking us even though we know all along that they are tricksters.
Whether we think these movies succeed or fall flat, they remind us of the importance that the fantastic, the humorous, the tricky and yes, the repetitive have in our lives .
April Fools' Day shows us how power works in our society because, for a day, we get to make fun of each other. There are of course jokes that aren't funny, rituals that repeat the worst in our society, pranks that come at someone's cost. But the fact that we set aside a day on which we sanction jokes speaks to the value that we attach to our relationships with one another, and to the pleasure we find in the commonplace and the repetitive. Originality is overrated; here's to another April Fools' Day.