The Recovery of Simplicity: Notes from the Land of Birds and Frogs

by Conrad Hyers

Dr. Hyers is professor of comparative mythology and the history of religions at Gustavux Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 7, 1974, pp. 768-771. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


We are all children and clowns and fools, even in our most serious, sublime and frenzied moments — perhaps especially then — and most certainly when we pretend that we are not.

How wondrous this, how marvelous!

I carry fuel, I draw water!

So said a wise old bird named P’ang in eighth century China. It is possible, of course, that Master P’ang had suffered a severe blow on the head the week before, and ever since had been confusing categories like marvelous and ordinary, wondrous and commonplace. But it is also possible that he had touched on the delicate inner secret of carrying fuel and drawing water, a secret that is the special wisdom of small children and great sages, and also of clowns and fools.

It is a secret that an age like ours -- an age of great sophistication, vast achievement and jaded sensibilities -- has some difficulty in grasping. We search after the wondrous and marvelous everywhere but in the simple acts of carrying fuel and drawing water. For us the ecstatic moment, toward which in so many ways we so earnestly strive, is to be found where the term itself literally suggests it is to be found: in ecstasis, standing outside, going beyond, being beside oneself.

Ecstasy has become the overpowering Quest of our time, the "Holy Grail" of both our sublimest aspiration and our most subliminal abandon. That which is Real, that which makes life worth living or at least endurable, is to be found up there or down there, back there or out there, on some far perimeter of existence, beyond the dull, trivial, boring, repetitive commonplaces of life, like carrying fuel and drawing water. Herbert Read’s description of one of the impulses of fantasy in modern art is thus more a restatement of our problem than a solution: "The inner world of the imagination becomes more and more significant, as if to compensate for the poverty and drabness of everyday life" (Art Now [Pitman, 1960]).

In a sense, it makes little difference whether this quest for the magical-mystical-mysterious-monstrous is imaged in terms of soaring flight (Eagles and Seagulls) or subterranean descent (Serpents and Frogs). And it makes little difference whether the imagined goal is structured in terms of scientific discovery, space adventures and technological wonders, or of market coups, military victories and sexual exploits, or of revolutionary utopias, otherworldly mysticisms and psychedelic fancies. The myth and spirit and expectation are much the same. Vitality, Completeness, Fulfillment -- these are not to be found among the immediate commonplaces of life, but in transcending them, or escaping from them, or in that peculiar form of excess: exceeding them. And the end result is also much the same: instead of being revitalized, the world of the commonplace is rendered even more commonplace.

Between Sacred and Profane

Just as disturbingly, our understanding of the sacred has tended to match our understanding of the ecstatic. That which is sacred is that which is "set apart," which exceeds or transcends or stands over against the profane sphere. It is that which "confronts," "breaks into" and "intersects" an otherwise secular space and time which are lacking in meaning, value and mystery. Mircea Eliade, in volume after volume, has reiterated that "the first possible definition of the sacred is that it is the opposite of the profane." The sacred is the "manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world" (The Sacred and the Profane [Harcourt, Brace, 1968]).

But if the distinction between sacred and profane is the first principle of religion, there is also a second principle. And it is the reverse, or reversing, of the first: the overcoming of the distinction between sacred and profane, the return to the "ordinary" world in renewed fascination with simple things and commonplace events. This countermovement brings with it a perception of the ambiguity of the sacred. For while the sacred may be seen as that which gives meaning and value to the profane sphere, at the same time it may by its separateness and elevation tend to empty the profane sphere of significance and worth. We are confronted by the paradox that the sacred creates the profane. Offering itself as the ultimate basis of reality and salvation, the sacred may either arouse a defiant emptying of the heavens and a repudiation of all sacrality in favor of secularity in a death of the gods, or become the place of evasion and retreat, a refuge from life rather than a response to it.

There is, therefore, a twofold rhythm in the history of religion: ecstasis and enstasis -- the moments in which we stand outside, are called outside or thrown outside, of the realm of everyday experience; and the moments in which we stand more deeply within, and are called to reaffirm and reappreciate the realm of everyday experience itself. Thus, to take a Buddhist example, when the Japanese master Bankei was challenged by a zealous Shinshu priest to authenticate his teaching by performing the kind of miracle attributed to the founder of the Shin (True) sect, Bankei replied simply: "Perhaps your fox can perform that trick; but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink!" What could be more wondrous and marvelous than this -- except that our sensitivities have been dulled to the mystery?

Child, Sage and Clown

It is in this "re-ecstasizing" of the commonplace that the peculiar coincidence of the wisdom of the child, the sage and the clown comes into play. For the child is one who exists in that realm which is prior to the distinction between sacred and profane, sublime and ordinary, significant and trivial. The sage is one who has gone beyond the distinction. And the clown is one who mediates between the two by garbling the distinction, or in the form of the fool by being unable to make the proper distinction. The clown performs the unusual religious function of profaning holy things in order that the holiness of profane things may be revealed. The precious jewel is treated like a common pebble, while the common pebble is fondled like a priceless gem.

Harvey Cox has argued, in his Feast of Fools (Harper & Row. 1971), that the clown is the appropriate religious symbol for our time, as "the personification of festivity and fantasy." And as the essential ingredients of this feast of fools Cox has identified "conscious excess," "celebrative affirmation"’ and "juxtaposition" (i.e., of that which is "noticeably different from ‘everyday life’ "). But though the clown in his frivolity and garish attire is certainly a party to, and even an officiant in, festivity and fantasy, one must be careful to note the special character of his revelry and celebration. For the clown is a most ambiguous figure, and in his very ambiguity a most appropriate symbol for the ambiguity of the sacred and for the double-rhythm which this ambiguity requires. The clown not only stands outside and over against the sphere of ordinary existence; he revalues it and refreshes it by standing at the same time most deeply within it. His is not just what Tolkien calls a "Secondary World" of fantasy.

It is the clown, in fact, who juxtaposes the sacred and the profane, the sublime and the commonplace, as a mock prelude to collapsing the distinction. Thus Chaplin wore the top hat, vest and coat of gentility, but the baggy pants and shabby shoes of the tramp. In his person, the exalted was humbled and the humble exalted; and all devaluing discriminations were symbolically transcended. Chaplin debunked both the lofty and the base by parodying the excesses of both order and chaos, as in the hilarious Apollonian and Dionysian extremes of Easy Street. He mediated between the potential insanities on either side. He reaffirmed the joy and wonder of the simplest of things by devoutly dissecting beans as though they were filet mignon (The Immigrant). And he restored to the most timid kiss the thrill which the grossest sensualism was incapable of achieving (City Lights). Chaplin’s very extraordinariness of behavior and dress was a radical defense of the ordinary.

Europe’s master clown Grock, in his autobiography Life’s a Lark (Blom, 1931), says that the special genius of his occupation is that of "transforming the little, everyday annoyances, not only overcoming, but actually transforming them into something strange and terrific." The clown is able "to extract mirth for millions out of nothing and less than nothing: a wig, a stick of grease paint, a child’s fiddle, a chair without a seat." And this is the special power and genius that is most needed in our time. For that ecstatic moment for which we, in our several ways, so avidly search -- or having once gained, try constantly to recapture -- is in fact to be found in the simplest, most ordinary and "trivial" events and objects of our everyday lives. The clown’s capacity for effecting this realization presupposes that in the most insignificant situations and taken-for-granted moments there is already something strange and terrific which we, for all our sophistication, have missed.

In this perception lies an ancient wisdom -- a wisdom of fools -- that reasserts itself again and again in the odyssey of man. Thus, alongside the lofty and otherworldly flights of Indian mysticism, stands the Zen emphasis upon "nothing special" and "everyday-mindedness" and "just being ordinary," as in Yun-men’s spiritual path described as "pulling a plough in the morning, and carrying a rake home in the evening," or in Pao-fu’s response to the question, "What is the language of the Buddha?": "Come, let us have a cup of tea!" Similarly, alongside the supernaturalism of various forms of Western piety stands Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "every common bush afire with God," or Walt Whitman’s "Miracles":

. . . I know of nothing else but miracles,

Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,

Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses

toward the sky,

Or wade with naked feet along the beach

just in the edge of the water,

Or stand under trees in the woods .

This counterpoint has not been without its instances on today’s scene. It is apparent in an art which is capable of turning even Campbell soup-cans into objects of artistic representation (Warhol), or in a music which discovers aesthetic value in common noises and in listening to silence (Cage), or in a photography which captures the beauty of doorknobs and cracked walls, driftwood and wrinkled faces. It is apparent in those recent secular gospels and death-of-god theologies which insist on reaffirming the integrity of the "profane." And it is apparent in the recurrent themes of returning to the natural, to the soil, to simpler forms of life, and to the elemental experiences of common people, that manifest themselves in folk music, communes, handicrafting, and classes in organic gardening. But the movement is scattered, indecisive, and often inconsistent. And its expressions are frequently involved in a surfacing of the problem at some other point. A clear sense of the rhythm of ecstasis and enstasis is missing.

Beyond Apollo and Dionysius

David L. Miller, recently reviewing my book The Chickadees in The Christian Century (May 22), has suggested that, as in ancient Greece, "there are two paths in our time, alternative mythologies for a period of crisis: up and out (the rational, heroic, masculine way), and down and in (the mad, mystical, feminine way)." As a report on the fantasies and ecstasies of the day, his statement is certainly correct. It can hardly be disputed that the extraordinary, in whatever form, is the great preoccupation of our time.

We have been spirited away by high-flying birds, low-flying pornography, occult phenomena, charismatic intoxication, ideological fervor, and pharmaceutical rhapsodies -- not to mention yogic powers and divine light and the mesmerism of incessant chantings. We have been accosted by sorcerers apprentices, demons needing an exorcist, witchcraft revivals, flying ghosts and flying saucers, chariots from the gods, whirling astronauts and other visitants from outer space. We have been spurred on by dreams of greatness and number-oneness, new frontiers, new worlds to conquer, and the sundry ladders of success; while visions of supermen, superstars and supersalesmen have danced before us.

But the truly heroic person in our midst is no longer the hero. We have been bombarded by the most incredible variety of heroes and counterheroes imaginable. We have been stampeded back and forth between the "up and out" and the "down and in," as if herded into the to-and-fro of an accelerated Hegelian dialectic. The real hero of our time is the nonhero, the common man, the little Charlie Chaplin, the Dustin Hoffman, who may be buffeted and bewildered and often caught in the struggle between Eagles and Serpents, Seagulls and Frogs, but who somehow through it all manages to remain relatively sane, simple, ordinary and human. Or he is the comic hero, like Ferdinand the Bull, who is content to sit under his cork tree and sniff flowers. Though he may be stimulated by the sting of some bumblebee to heroic display and frenzied abandon, he will return to the simple wonder of sniffing daisies under his marvelous cork tree.

The truth is that both the boisterous abandon of Dionysius and the Apollonian passion for order and perfection are the forms of our ecstasis, not just the wild, mad surfacings of subterranean excess. The elaboration of ritual and the intricacies of ceremonial pomp, the compulsion of the meticulous man, the relentless drive for possession, the ambition of comprehending or conquering the world, the restless quest for progress, the perennial fabrication of new utopias -- all this is also ecstasis, the excess of constantly exceeding and succeeding. It is the ecstasis and excess of the "up and out."

This is not to dismiss either form of ecstasy. We need our visions, our fantasies, our grand imaginings, our impossible dreams, our revelries and our moments of escape. These are a part of both the greatness and the foolishness of our existence. But their function is not simply to carry us outside ourselves, and in that act to devalue or empty the present moment and our common life of intrinsic power and mystery, but to revitalize and revalue the Here and the Now. We stand outside in order to stand more deeply within.

Even heroes must spend most of their time, like the rest of us, in the valley that lies between mountain heights and ocean depths. The essential human problem is to come to terms with that valley, with its own marvels and miracles, not just to invent more and more ingenious methods of escape. Learning the true wonder of "carrying fuel and drawing water" is the first and last principle of our being.

The Middle Way

Yes, we have run frantically back and forth between the gods of the "up and out" and the "down and in," like Hagar searching desperately for water among the hills of Mecca, even as the infant Ishmael’s kicking heels opened the clear-flowing spring of Zamzam in the sands of the valley. But there is a third way, a middle way. It is a way that is symbolized neither by Eagles and Seagulls nor by Serpents and Frogs, but by the playful, darting form of Chickadees and other low-flying birds. Its path is close to the earth, yet not subterranean; it is a way, of utter simplicity, of ordinary pleasures and commonplace delights. It is the way of the child, the clown and the sage.

Such a path is not reached by suppression or repression of either side of our being, but by rediscovering the light touch of the child within us, and recapturing the clown’s, sense of humor and perspective about ourselves. For we are all children and clowns and fools, even in our most serious, sublime and frenzied moments -- perhaps especially then -- and most certainly when we pretend that we are not. The major task of the comic hero, therefore, as Nathan Scott insists, "is to remind us of how deeply rooted we are in all the tangible things of this world. . . . The motions of comedy, to be sure, finally lead to joy; but it is a joy that we win only after we have consented to journey through this familiar, actual world of earth which is our home" (The Broken Center [Yale University Press, 1966]).

In this journey lies a renewal of the wonder and sanctity of everyday experience, a recovery of that miraculous, uncommon commonplaceness of things, and a return to the simple basics of life. Such is the peculiar salvation which the comic hero brings. For it is he who "grapples with the thickness and the density of the concrete world of human experience, delighting in all its smells, sounds, sights, and tactilities. The comedian is not generally an aviator: he does not journey away from this familiar world of earth; he refuses the experiment of angelism; he will not forget that we are made out of dust" (Scott).

Above may be the Apollonian heights, and below the Dionysian deeps. And there we wander now and then in our fantasies, our festivities, and our foolishness. But our real home, the true center of our being, is not to be found in either place. It is here, now, everywhere before us at all times -- "a condition of complete simplicity" (T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets).