David Caute

These foolish things

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The Encyclopaedia of Stupidity

Matthijs van Boxsel

Reaktion Books, pp. 205, £

Perhaps this strange volume is a bang on the nose for political correctness, but one cannot be sure. It could have been written in the 18th century by a deranged sage determined to scotch the more famous Encyclopaedia of the Enlightenment and its absurd faith in progress and human perfectibility. Published on April Fool's Day, it may have been a hoax of the dwarf variety, like the peas I have been stupidly planting in spring sunshine, observed by their ultimate beneficiaries circling in smug silence overhead. The author is said to be an Amsterdamer, a man of letters who has been researching stupidity for over 20 years, but he may be one of those crows.

In a bid to gain entry into van Boxsel's litany of human folly, I must tell the story of my new 'designer' wheelbarrow - compact, light to lift, and generally a darling at £19.99. Too late did I realise that its nifty single handle is placed so close to the barrow itself that you knock your shins every step; in short, the little fellow is a delight when empty. I claim that this example of stupidity is every bit as helpful as van Boxsel's lugubrious tales about woodcutters who saw off the branches on which they are sitting or builders who construct high towers without staircases. Real fools like myself are more interesting than the folkloric variety.

A section about the English garden and the French garden attaches the word 'foolishness' to both, becomes playful about the difference between the English 'ha ha' and the Versailles 'ah ah', but disappointingly ignores my allotment in Bishop's Park and my attempts to frighten off the birds with shiny CDs dangling from string (Schubert mainly). The author's forays into political science offer further paradoxes; one gathers that democracy is stupidity incarnate and the worst form of government except all the others. This brings us to the Baron Bathybius Bottom, inventor of the claque (if you follow). Gravitas and facetiousness sit astride the same donkey through this pot-pourri of erudite nonsense. The donkey's name is Non Sequitur.

We are told that post factum stultus cognoscit - the fool is wise after the event. But is he? What do we call people who fail to be wise after the event? In apparent contradiction, van Boxsel claims that stupidity is an essential condition of human intelligence, i.e. we learn from our mistakes; in other words, if we never made mistakes we would be 100 per cent 'fools, dullards, simpletons'. Wise Kierkegaard is here quoted: 'Life can only be grasped by looking backwards, but must be lived forwards' - a severe example of the now prevalent premature ejaculation of the word 'only'.

I tried reading the book in ten-second bursts but still suffered lapses of concentration, perhaps insensitive to Gothamic jest, Swabian pranks, Kampen jokes and other variants of double-Dutch humour. The book carries some nice prints and woodcuts, plus one sentence of enduring clarity concerning the etymology of stupidity: 'The Middle Dutch domp or domb rubs shoulders with the Middle High German tump, tumb, tum, the Gothic dumbs