Do you like clowns? Have you ever liked clowns? If so, why?
My earliest memory of clowns is this: I can distinctly remember being surprised, and filled with doubt, when an adult explained to me that they were humans in disguise. I had assumed, based on the evidence, that they were some separate species — like aliens, or some particularly bizarre-looking animal. Hey, I was a little kid. Until somebody told me they were people, I saw no reason to think so.
I wouldn’t say I have a complex about clowns, but I’ve never really warmed up to them, even after learning they were just people. And I find myself wondering how this clowning thing got started, and who it was who decided that they were a nonthreatening form of entertainment for children — something that seems highly unlikely.
A piece in The Guardian today gives a little history:
Nobody laughs at clowns anymore.
Maybe antiquated proto-clowns did make people smile. But the legendary Chinese jester Yu Sze and the imperial Roman stupidus would be unrecognizable to us today.
The first clown who fits our description – painted face, frilly collar – was Joseph Grimaldi, who entertained Londoners in the 19th century but had a decidedly dark side. “I am Grim-all-day,” he told people.
A young Charles Dickens ghost-wrote Grimaldi’s memoirs, a saga of abuse, addiction and agony. “A tale of unmitigated suffering, even when that suffering be mental, possesses but few attractions for the reader; but when, as in this case, a large portion of it is physical,” Dickens wrote, it “grows absolutely distasteful”.
Dickens recognized, even with the very first modern clown, that what fascinates us is not the exaggerated painted face, or the dull face of a man underneath. It’s the tension between the two. The dissonance between what is and what appears to be.
That conflict plucks at some ancient strand of human genetic code….
That’s in a piece that starts with the recent sightings in the Greenville area of threatening clowns.
It’s all very well and good for a newspaper in London to be bemused by these sightings — they’ve got a whole ocean between them and the threat.
Not that I’m worried, you understand. But I am kind of creeped out…