Friday, August 14, 2009


The last time I worked with Lewis Hyde’s ideas was in 1982 when I was working on the thesis about the structure of worship that was supposed to earn me a D.Min. degree. I left without it because I couldn’t stand being away from Montana any longer. Now, so many years later, the ideas fit the life of Tim Barrus in a very useful way. Consider.

Lewis identifies carnival as one of those cathartic reversal blowouts that relieves the pressure of conformity, as Victor Turner analyzes in “The Ritual Process.” (Carnival reversals are as fascinating as “cargo cults” but I don’t know whether anyone has found a connection.) Connected to transitions from one season to another and often at a specific point on the calendar, they encourage the Dionysian side of life as well as Hermes. Lewis points out that the root of carnival is “carne” as in both “chili con carne” and “incarnation.” Those who speak Latin-based languages will recognize that carne means meat. This is a meat-eater’s festival. The Blackfeet would recognize the concept.

Lewis doesn’t specifically describe the agricultural phenomenon of the county and state fair, which often has a midway with a carnival aspect, but which is actually NOT a carnival but rather a competition that reinforces the standing hierarchy: the sorting out of good, better and best, the celebration of conformity. At one point in the US (no one wants to remember) the identifying of the best garden truck and domestic livestock was accompanied by a competition for the genetically “best” people, who tended to be tall and blonde.

Tim gets impatient and even indignant with my questions about his family tree, but he did volunteer that on the Barrus side of his origins his grandfather and great-aunt traveled with a carnival when they were young. Probably with one of those “test-your-skill” booths as in “Ride the High Country.” Maybe with a side skill of fixing the thrill rides. But the Stegenga side of the family loved the ag fair, the celebration of order and the endorsement of hard work as well as the arts. Fairs are Apollonian and carnivals are Dionysian, excessive and rude.

But the trickster is really about Hermes, the tricky one, and his relationship to both Apollo, his brother, and Zeus, his father who had his way with Hermes’ mother in the depths of a cave, hidden from the rays of Apollo’s sun-chariot. Much of what Hermes does is motivated by his desire to be part of the Olympian pantheon, recognized as legitimate even if he has to achieve his goal in tricky ways. He says, “If you don’t give me what I want, I will steal it.” Tim has yearned for recognition, but more than that for a trustworthy father/son relationship. He has “stolen” (gathered into Cinematheque) “other men’s sons,” from men who were unidentified or uncaring, and HE fathers them.

European village fairytales often begin “once upon a time” but trickster stories begin “coyote was going along . . .” because they are a road show. Trickster stories are the original picaresque, millenia-old and world-wide long before “The Pow-Wow Highway” connected them to American Indians. This ever-moving quality, characteristic of a carnival, takes Trickster to one walled and guarded community after another. His song-poems get him through the gate to ruck up the locals with news of the outside world. (Think “Picnic.” Lot of them this harvest time of year.) He’s the harrower bringing new seed, maybe human, bringing along his electric guitar. (One of Tim’s favorite devices is to integrate the lyrics of pop songs into his stories.)

Today the Tricksters are likely come into our lives through the glass screen-gate of television and computer, always accompanied with music. (The Cinematheque boys must master the math of timing the music they choose to the editing of their overlaid images.) Images that can be interpreted several ways are characteristic of their videos and also of Trickster ambiguity, which means to point to spiritual qualities (I know it sounds pretentious but it IS pretentious) and to offer translation between generations and places in a fragmented world. The lives of these kids can be unintelligible even to Tim.

A whole chapter in Hyde’s book, entitled “Trickster Arts and Works of Artus,” is about joints. As I write, Tim is struggling with a shoulder joint transplant and preparing for transplant surgery on the other arm. The first part of this chapter is entitled “Go for the Joints.” The idea is that gods and heroes are always most vulnerable at their joints: knees, elbows, and possibly Achilles’ heels can be counted. He cites several stories of invulnerability that have become locked-up preventers of change. The Trickster comes along and breaks them open at the joints, even kills them through joint wounds.

Loving word-play and roots, Hyde reminds us that “articulus” means both “a joint in the body and a turning point in the solar year." I’ll close this post with straightforward quoting from p. 254: “There are two words that can mean ‘joint.’ The first is ‘arthron.’ ‘The arthron connecting the hand and arm is the wrist,” says Aristotle. An arthron can also be a connecting word in language, an ‘and’ or a ‘but’ for example, as if the flow of speech required its own little wrists and elbows to become intelligible. [Consider the many joints necessary for keyboarding.] The second word ‘harmos,’ [harm?] also means a joint in the body (especially the shoulder joint), but more commonly it denotes the joints made by artisans: the mason [sic] building a wall, the shipwright fitting planks, the metal worker soldering a seam, the carpenter fastening a door -- all these craftsmen are making ‘harmoi.’ [Harmony]

“The two related nouns in Latin are ars and artus.” The roots give us artisan, artifice, arthritis, and articulate. It was “articulation” that interested me, the joints between the elements of the worship (song, prayer, sermon) and the articulation (speaking) of images.

There are two kinds of joints: the stiff and unyielding joining of things (so they won't buckle or leak) and the joining that allows movement. One might say that the first belongs to the traditional dogmatic sequence of liturgy with its prescribed words and the second belongs to a fluid, creative, improvisational mode of worship -- yet still carefully planned and joined. It’s interesting that Tim was a dancer he didn’t like ballet with its stylized version of French court dancing, but dearly loved jazz dance, esp. that from innovator Bob Fosse, an American form depending on loose joints and related to the break dancing of the streets -- the kind of thing that Conor is so good at in videos. It is one of those savage jokes of the gods that Tim should be “punished” or “challenged” by joint deterioration. But without his bone death, he might have just started a dance company instead of the multi-artus Cinematheque for stolen boys.


Lance Michael Foster said...

Joints are points
of entry, of liminality
like Trickster
neither hither nor yon
twixt and between
Joints are boundaries
between arm and trunk
between calf and thigh
Not this nor that
"Thin places"
where things happen
where things CAN happen

Lance Michael Foster said...

because joints
are places of change
in movement
in angle
in aspect
of movement
tipping points
are joints