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Staying in the suffering - Michael Leunig

Cartoonist, philosopher, artist and Living National Treasure, Michael Leunig, finds modern meaning in the Easter story.

Michael Leunig's latest book is a collection of his art called Holy Fool. His title recalls the rich imagery associated with the holy fool in religious history. In all religious traditions, people who dedicated their lives to holiness were often branded as mad, living their lives on the fringes of society.

Many of the prophets were counted as such, as was Jesus himself. His actions often confused and angered onlookers, particularly some of the religious authorities of his day. As Paul put it: ' It was God's own pleasure to save believers through the folly of the gospel … we preach a crucified Christ: to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the gentiles foolishness … God's folly is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:21-25).

In Holy Fool, Michael Leunig notes how the figure of the holy fool appears throughout his work:

'A corny cartoon character. A nature-loving fool. A sensitive soul. A free spirit. A joyous innocent. A shabby wanderer. A dawdling playful simpleton … a humble being who stands in sharp contrast to the common aspirations of contemporary urban humanity.'

We all carry a part of that fool within us, Leunig says, and it is often recognised in the creative effort of the artist—'an intuitive attempt to recover the capacity for wonder, spontaneity, playfulness, mindfulness and access to raw beauty, qualities so natural and easy in childhood: a search for connection to one's lost little fool.'

Many of the human characters who appear in his cartoons, and his art, present different aspects of the holy fool. The image on the front cover sums it up: a joyous free spirit sharing the space of the picture with flowers and birds. His image of the 'Pilgrim' (p. 153) echoes this joy, and another traveller, in 'Laughing at God's Little Joke' (p. 171) joins the whole of creation in the joke.

Throughout the book, so many of his images express delight in life, joy in the natural world, highlighted by the rainbow colours and expressive, dancing lines and shapes. It is a beautiful collection from one of our most creative artists.

And at the heart of artistic creativity, Leunig says, is the experience of failure and redemption. In an interview last Easter on ABC local radio he talked of this:

'The creative act is also in a small way a suffering act. We start out with our ego, this hope of making this thing, whatever it be, but so often it eludes us and it collapses and we kind of regress into this mental suffering, we can't find what we're looking for. But by staying in that suffering and not being too afraid, we find that new thing.' And it is this, he says, that gives meaning to suffering.

This experience, he said, lies at the heart of his understanding of the events of Easter:

'What is Christ-like in us shall be crucified and broken and that which is Christ-like within us shall rise to love and create.

'That's how I have always interpreted the Easter story, and that Christ is not Christ out-there—it's what is within … It's as if we shall be persecuted, it comes to us all, there will be some form of crucifixion, whether it's from the injustices in our life or just the very fact of dying eventually, there's some suffering for us all. The Easter story teaches us about that.

'One of the things it's taught me is that quite explicitly it is the outspoken one, the one who speaks a personal truth, who is theologically at odds with his culture, who asserts that the divine is found within ... he becomes offensive to his people, and is brought down and is tortured to death.

'There's a lesson in there for all who would speak the truth. That's a dire version of it, but there's cost to those who would speak the truth. But there's a suggestion in the story that there is redemption also.'

Which brings us back to his figure of the holy fool, a figure that we can see as Michael Leunig himself.

[Holy Fool: Artworks, Michael Leunig, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2013, rrp $49.99. ABC North & West SA interview with Michael Leunig by Annette Marner, Easter 2013.)