Saturday, August 08, 2009

TRICKSTER: Notes from Lewis Hyde

“TRICKSTER MAKES THIS WORLD: Mischiefs, Myths and Art”

This classic book by Lewis Hyde (@1998) is one of the underpinnings of “Turning Trickster,” an account of the doin’s of Tim Barrus. Its argument is also the thru-line of my own life, from high school dramatics, college theatre, Blackfeet reservation, marriage to Bob Scriver, animal control, UU ministry, City of Portland bureaucracy, to my present decades of daily writing. I’m taking notes as I reread this seminal work.


Begins with the story about “throwing eyes.” There are many versions, but all begin with coyote taking out his eyes and throwing them. In some versions the animals loan him their eyes, some tiny and some huge. In a feminist version a woman loans him “flower eyes.” The point is that with different eyes he sees things “differently” and he sees different things. To Hyde, this is how the artist can lead us to renewal.

The next trope introduced is the traveler, going to new places, seeing things from a different angle and at a different speed. He says when he travels it as though the “warp threads” on the loom are separated for the shuttle to go through.

A trickster is a creature of the doorway, always coming or going. The shaman has a hut and stays. The name of Hermes, the Greek Trickster, once meant “he of the stone heap”, the cairn, the altar for “spaces of heightened uncertainty and to the intelligence needed to negotiate them.” The Trickster might convey someone to or from death, but also can liberate and bring “qualities” like fire or forgiveness. He also illuminates internal boundaries of social behavior, what “should” be done, esp. in the face of our stubborn polarities like sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old.

Trickster is a boundary-crosser and sometimes he finds them by crossing them and suffering the consequences. “Where someone’s sense of honorable behavior has left him unable to act, Trickster will appear to suggest an amoral action, something beyond right/wrong that will get life going again.” Sometimes Trickster creates the boundary -- it was he who caused the gods to be removed to high in the sky, so it is only fair that he have to shuttle messages up and down.

He is the wise fool, the creative idiot, the gray-haired baby, the cross-dresser, the speaker of sacred profanities. But trickster is not usually a woman, partly because trickster does not give birth. Trickster is not supposed to be lustful, though Napi, the Blackfeet trickster, is ALWAYS in a state of arousal. (In other books about NA thinking, it is said that the shaman -- who is commonly considered to be bi-form, both male and female, must not have sex with another shaman. Nothing was said about fertility.) Trickster is the figure who escorts Persephone back from death to Demeter.

Hermes is the god of “techne,” the technical means of making things.

The formal statement of Hyde’s thesis is on page 9: “I want to argue a paradox that the myth asserts: that the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and therefore disrupt the very things that cultures are based on. I hope to give some sense of how this can be, how social life can depend on treating antisocial characters as part of the sacred."

Hyde says that the Devil cannot be conflated with Trickster because Trickster is a polytheistic figure. Nevertheless, missionaries have confused the issue by teaching this conflation. He says Trickster is Amoral, not IMmoral and quotes Radin:

“Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself . . . He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social . . . yet through his actions all values come into being.”

I suggest this explains why women can’t be Tricksters unless they are barren, because women are commonly the carriers of the culture and teach the patterns to the children. In our drug-addled society, the children know no patterns.

So where is Trickster in modern life, asks Hyde. “If trickster stirs to life on the open road, if he embodies ambiguity, if he “steals fire” to invent new technologies, if he plays with all the boundaries both inner and outer, and so on --then he must still be among us, for none of these have disappeared from the world. His functions, like the bones of Osiris, may have been scattered, but they have not been destroyed. The problem is to find where his gathered body might come back to life, to where it might already have done so.”

He suggests the con man. These sentences sting: “We enjoy it when he comes to town, even if a few people get their bank accounts drained, because he embodies things that are actually true about America but cannot be openly declared (as, for example, the degree to which capitalism lets us steal from our neighbors, or the degree to which institutions like the stock market require the same kind of confidence that criminal con men need).”

He suggests that now we are ALL tricksters, that “’America’ is his apotheosis: he’s pandemic.” (My comment: probably a Republican hiding in a public restroom stall.) Native peoples watching whites arrive often called them “Napikwan,” tricksters. And that’s what they were. But sometimes the Native peoples were even trickier and they survived. They were polytheists.

Hyde comes back to that: “lacking that [polytheism], he needs at least a relationship to other powers, to people and institutions and traditions that can manage the odd double attitude of both insisting that their boundaries be respected and recognizing that in the long run their liveliness depends on having those boundaries regularly disturbed.”

He goes on: “Most of the travelers, liars, thieves, and shameless personalities of the twentieth century are not tricksters at all, then. Their disruptions are not subtle enough or pitched at a high enough level. Trickster isn’t a run-of-the-mill liar and thief.”

Then he quotes Picasso: “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” This is what the attackers of Nasdijj never understood.

1 comment:

Lance M. Foster said...

I think you might enjoy seeing my painting of Trickster teasing his friend Vincent Van Gogh: