Trickster Makes This World

MYTH | THEFT | LYING | HUNGER | OBSCENITY | PROPHECY | ART

MYTH

We often think of myths as serious stories meant to praise our heroes and our gods, but myths have their subversive side as well. A vein of mischief runs through both heaven and earth, and no set of mythic tales ignores it, not even our own. Americans remember the pilgrims and their "city on a hill," but we're also intrigued by tales of confidence men, the ones who come to town and lift our spirits even as they lift the mayor's wallet or steal the heart of some proud lady (think of "The Music Man," or of Robert Redford in "The Sting," and think of their popularity).

Almost every world mythology contains a trickster figure, a shameless fellow who lies, cheats, and steals with charming and divine aplomb. The Greek Hermes rustles the cattle of the gods; the North American Coyote tries to sleep with his daughter; the Norse Loki gives his fellow gods gray hair by stealing the Apples of Immortality. In West Africa, a trickster named Eshu got the creator drunk at the beginning of time, which is one reason this world is not such an ideal place (and why Lewis Hyde's book is called Trickster Makes This World; other gods tried to perfect things, but trickster messed them up, and this is the world we have).

Since the beginning of time these cosmic mischief-makers have been a great bother to have around, but that is not the end of it: tricksters turn out to be indispensable culture heroes as well. Hermes the Thief invented the art of sacrifice, the trick of making fire, and even language itself. Coyote taught the race how to dress, sing, and shoot arrows. Eshu taught men and women a way to know what the gods are thinking.

Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes This World explores these intriguing tales, then holds them up against the life and work of more recent creators (Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others). Hyde is out to describe and then defend disruptive creativity. He makes it clear why, no matter how settled our world may become, we must never suppress the imagination's mischief.

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THEFT

Frederick Douglass, the American slave, stole two big things when he was young. He stole himself out of slavery, and he stole his literacy. Forbidden all access to books, the young Douglass acquired his A B C's from white boys on the streets of Baltimore and from the pages of a Bible he found in the trash.

In the old myths, when a trickster steals something, his theft changes the shape of this world. In fact, most of the good things of this world--fire, water, light, and the art of agriculture, for example--originally came to us because some trickster stole them from the gods. We wouldn't have the world we now have were it not for these master-thieves who appeared at the beginning of time.

As the Frederick Douglass example makes clear, such dramas have not come to an end. Where cultural patterns are fixed, and the well-behaved know clearly what they can and cannot take at will, only those who are not well behaved will discover how to remake this world.

Frederick Douglass was one of those. When he stole literacy it was as if he took all the books in the Western canon and moved them from the Big House into the slave quarters, where they immediately took on new meanings. Slave owners used the Bible to justify slavery, but Douglass used it to attack slavery, and his reading changed our culture forever. It took an impudent thief to get that change going.

Tricksters always appear where cultures are tying to guard their eternal truths, their sacred cows. New cultures spring up whenever some trickster gets past the guard dogs and steals those cows.

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LYING

In India, when the god Krishna is a baby, he is known for stealing butter, then lying about what he's done. Whenever his mother leaves the house she tells her son to stay out of the larder where the butter urns are stored. Later she always finds him sitting on the larder floor, the white butter smeared over his dark and smiling face. "I didn't steal the butter, Ma," he says when she scolds him, sometimes adding, "besides, doesn't everything in the house belong to us?"

In the Hindu stories, Krishna has come to earth to remind the human race that everything belongs to god. His mother does not know that yet, but her child's mundane lies point her toward the higher truth. All tricksters do this: they lie in a way that upsets our very sense of what is true and what is false, and therefore help us reimagine this world.

A long tradition locates human creativity in the same shady area. "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," said Picasso. Aristotle describes the beginnings of Western literature in similar words: "Homer," he says, "taught us the art of framing lies the right way." Homer creates lies so real that Odysseus walks among us to this day, more substantial than the perishable women and men we know in fact. From Homer to Picasso, a long line of artists have set up shop in the shadow-land where tricksters operate. There they forge the elaborate lies that, if they are charming enough, become the truths we live by.

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HUNGER

Trickster figures are ridden by their appetites. It is hunger that drives their cunning and their endless wandering. These culture heroes have given the race a long line of useful gifts, but earliest among them were devices to feed the belly. In North America, Coyote invented the fish trap; in Norse legend, Loki invented the fish net; in Greece, the earliest recorded "trick" is the baited hook.

But trickster's cunning often backfires on him. Loki does dream up the fish net, but no sooner has he done so than the other gods use it to catch him. Coyote's wily ways make a fool of him as often as they snare his dinner. By turns the trapper and the trapped, trickster must keep wising up, especially about how to know the difference between a baited trap and an edible meal. Hidden fishhooks mean that hungry beasts had better learn to read beneath the surface of things.

Thus the trickster myth begins with the belly and ends with the imagination. It begins with a being whose main concern is getting fed, and it ends with the same being grown mentally swift, adept at creating and unmasking deceit, proficient at hiding his tracks and at seeing through the devices used by others to hide theirs. The Greeks imagined that Hermes invented language, but that is late in his story; earlier we find him stealing cattle because he's hungry for meat. The myth, however, makes it clear that these two are two pages from the same book. In this world, the stories say, the blood that lights the mind first got its sugars from the gut. And it still does.

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OBSCENITY

Dirty movies, dirty books, dirty photographs, and sacrilegious acts often become the focus of public debate in America, especially when someone claims for them the privilege of artistic space. In 1989, Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs--including graphic images of homosexual and sadomasochistic sex--appeared in the gallery of Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center. The next day, sheriff's deputies raided the show and got a grand jury to indict the gallery on obscenity charges.

If we want to understand such conflicts over dirty art, Lewis Hyde suggests we first decide what we mean by "dirt," offering as a point of departure the old saying, "Dirt is matter out of place." That is to say, we know something is dirty not so much by its nature as by its location. Egg on a child's face is dirty, but egg on her plate is food. More pointedly, a farmer in Iowa will wash the cow-manure from his hands before he leaves the barn, but in India a nobleman who feels polluted will purify himself with a cow-manure bath, for cows are gods and even their dung can cleanse a mortal.

Seen in this way, "dirt" can be understood as a by-product of creating order. Where there is dirt there is always a system of some kind, and an argument about dirt is an argument about that system, and whether or not it should change. If a culture is to be flexible enough to change when change is needed, it must reserve a place for those who are willing to start those arguments. It must allow space for thinking dirty thoughts and imagining dirty deeds.

In the old stories, trickster is the character who is happy to work this way. In modern times, the same function often falls to those artists who have a touch of the trickster about them. In this line, Hyde argues that modern obscenity trials have become the ritual dirt-work of America. When such trials end by releasing the work of art--as happened with Mapplethorpe's photographs, or earlier with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.--we witness the allowed return of what an earlier social order took to be "matter out of place."

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PROPHECY

Clever at deceit, tricksters are equally clever at seeing through deceit, and therefore at revealing things hidden beneath the surface. In Chinese legend, for example, only the trickster Monkey can see through the disguises of evil monsters who hope to eat him and his friends. With his "fiery eyes and diamond pupils," Monkey is "the one who has perception."

In many traditions this kind of deep sight belongs to the prophet, for prophets are those who can perceive the spiritual world beneath the veil of the mundane. Tricksters have similar powers, Lewis Hyde argues, and thus they too have a prophetic role to play, though theirs is prophecy with a difference: no traditional prophet lies and steals to deliver his message.

Traditional prophets disrupt the mundane to point toward eternal truths, but the prophetic trickster disrupts the "eternals" themselves, and in so doing points toward the plenitude of this world, the fullness it has when not obscured by all our ideas, structures, and rules for living. Traditional prophets point toward things that time cannot touch, but the prophetic trickster points toward time itself, toward the changing noise of this world, not the constant harmony of distant spheres.

The Hindu god Krishna makes a good example. As soon as Krishna has grown up, he stops stealing butter and starts stealing love. On moonlit nights he plays his flute, letting its charming melody drift over the garden walls until the faithful women of the town abandon their marriage beds and come dance with him in the forest. Krishna is a thief of hearts, but not because hearts are scarce. Dancing in the woods, he multiplies himself a thousand times so as to appear fully to each of the women, and gratify each one's desire to be his lover.

But if there is no scarcity, why be a thief in the first place? Because the abundance that Krishna wants (and symbolizes) is available only when ordinary moral structure has been removed. In the Hindu culture from which this story comes, marriage does not express private desire so much as the social setting of family alliances, property, land and inheritance. In some parts of India, in fact, they say that love should never be the basis of marriage, since to introduce desire into the realm of structure would confuse and weaken it.

But in the trickster myth, desire becomes prophetic precisely because it can reveal the fullness that lies beyond the walls of convention. Stolen love opens windows onto that larger world. Society needs its designs if it is to endure, but trickster's mischief regularly shows that no design can encompass creation's great abundance. Trickster is the prophet whose actions reveal the uncontainable plenitude of this world.

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ART

Our word "art" comes from an ancient root that means "to join" and "to make." Many other modern words come from the same root, all of them having to do with joints in one sense or another. "Arthritis" is a disease of the joints; an "arthropod" is an insect with jointed legs. "Articulate" usually denotes clarity of speech, but one can also "articulate" a skeleton, which is to say, assemble it joint by joint.

Even when used to describe speech, "articulate" can mean "jointed": ancient script used to be written in one long line of letters; when writers began to break it into words, sentences, paragraphs, and so forth, they were "articulating" it, marking the logical joints in the flow of letters. In the same way we can speak of society as being "well articulated" when its joints are clear to everyone, which is to say, when everyone knows his or her place, and where the limits lie.

Tricksters are usually thought of as boundary crossers, characters who find the limits and violate them, or keep them lively. Lewis Hyde reimagines this function, saying that tricksters are "joint-workers." They seek out the joints of this world--sometimes to disrupt them, sometimes to move them, and sometimes just to keep them limber.

There is a trickster figure from the mountains of southern Russia, for example, who is known for having reversed the fortunes of the Sun God by attacking his knee joints. "If you want to wound an immortal, go for the joints," is the lesson, and all tricksters know it. Frederick Douglass knew it; his first book attacked the "joints" by which plantation culture articulated itself--especially the "joint" between black and white--and in so doing helped bring an end to the planters' world.

Most tricksters are less direct than that; they like to toy with the joints of creation, and shift them around. A modern artist like Marcel Duchamp is a clear heir to this tradition. He liked best to settle, smiling, into the cracks of the art world's self-image. When that world was in love with oil paint, he made his art from sheets of glass and ideas; when it sought to distinguish art work from manufactured goods, he pronounced the latter "readymade" art, and got some of it into museums; when it insisted that great art was an expression of an artist's high intentions, he courted chance and self-forgetfulness.

Tricksters sometimes attack the joints of creation, and sometimes simply oil the joints with humor, keeping them flexible. All those who do so are artists in the most ancient sense, and their creations, no matter how unsettling, are the works of art that make this world what it is.

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