Trickster Makes this World: How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture
June 17, 2011 § 17 Comments
In Trickster Makes This World: How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture, Lewis Hyde examines the trickster archetype, focusing specifically on the stories of Hermes, Coyote, and Krishna. A creature of the threshold –“sometimes drawing the line, sometimes crossing it, sometimes erasing or moving it” (8)– trickster is “the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox” (7). He is amoral (10), driven by appetite, and shameless (153); he’s held captive by desire, is wildly self-indulgent and is drawn to that which is dirty or censured (176; 185-190). tl;dr, he really doesn’t give a shit. He’s also playful and creative, inventing lies to invent the truth; at the very least, trickster calls into question what is in fact true, thus imbuing his duplicity with polysemic pregnancy (72-75). In short, trickster possesses –and/or has the potential to conjure– the keys for locks which do not yet exist. As a result, Hyde argues, trickster has the uncanny ability to “see into the heart of things” (283), making him as prophetic as he can be unruly and destructive. But not traditionally so, since trickster spends very little time actively reflecting on his own behaviors. And yet, he –at the very least, his behavior– reveals.
As evidence, Hyde tells a story about the Indian god Krishna. A particularly mischievous young god, Krishna is quick to develop a taste for women. He’s a god, after all, and can have what he wants. One night, he takes a walk into the woods and begins playing a magical flute. All the women who hear Krishna’s song are mesmerized and follow its call into the forest, where they begin to dance. In the name of efficiency (among other things), Krishna multiplies himself by sixteen thousand and presents himself to each woman—then disappears with the sunrise. According to Hyde, this moment captures the “negating strain” (287) inherent to trickster’s behavior. He rejects laws of propriety, but doesn’t attempt to replace these laws with some other set. As Hyde maintains, “[trickster] is not the declarative speaker of traditional prophecy, but an erasing angel who cancels what humans have so carefully built, then cancels himself” (287). Trickster doesn’t tell us what to make of his actions. That’s not his job. He acts, he leaves, and suddenly there is nothing, forcing those left in trickster’s wake to “spin out endlessly their sense of what has happened” (288). Tricksters are prophetic, then, because they refuse to prophesize; in so (not) doing, they “point towards what is actually happening: the muddiness, the ambiguity, the noise” (300).
If feeder question: In his preface, Hyde speculates as to whether or not there are any uniquely American tricksters. He rejects the idea that slippery politicians are tricksters, since tricksters are by definition marginalized and peripheral. He suggests that various confidence men of film and literature might qualify, since the con man embodies certain aspects of American culture that are true but rarely spoken aloud—for example, that capitalism courts greed and theft and doesn’t merely justify but actually requires unethical behavior (11-13, whole section important). Because their behaviors unearth similar truths, I could argue that trolls function like (if not “as”) trickster. Trolls might not be culture-heroes in the purest sense; they might not create or sustain the universe. But by rejecting the majority’s rules (see section on psychopathy on 159), by refusing to contain themselves, trolls reveal precisely those cracks, precisely those hypocrisies, that the self-proclaimed moral authority refuses to acknowledge. That they don’t provide answers doesn’t (shouldn’t) take away from what they do provide, namely insight into the world as it is, not the world as we might wish it to be. Heed marginalia, there is much left to mine.
If stand-alone question: Could be pretty cool, actually; after acknowledging that taboo/transgressive humor can indeed reify existing systems, I could frame “bad” humor in terms of Hyde’s formulation of trickster figures, since the complexities [this humor] unearths and the conversations it generates are important, even critical. Per Hyde: As opposed to crystallizing moral certainty, the erasure of trickster figures in favor of uncomplicated binaries merely buries that which is inherently true. “We may well hope our actions carry no moral ambiguity,” Hyde writes, “but pretending that is the case when it isn’t does not lead to greater clarity about right and wrong; it more likely leads to unconscious cruelty masked as inflated righteousness” (10-11). Similarly, taboo humor reminds us that the word isn’t a simple or fair or even sometimes entirely sensical place. Simply condemning/eradicating its traces in humor actually does nothing, in fact might court something even worse (274). Yeah that’s actually sort of badass, I like it! Oh and also, consider the (possible) conservatism in “dirt-rituals,” hugely relevant in discussions of transgressive behaviors (188-198).