Laughing at God and the Devil

Favorite books are like an old stuffed animal, always there when you need them for inspiration or just hugs. Re-exploring an old favorite, Trickster Makes this World, philosophizes about mistakes and the process of creativity through folklore and myth.

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by Hilary Jirka


Turning over, once again, Lewis Hyde’s marvelous book Trickster Makes This World, I recalled the huge furor over an absurdly simple student exhibit at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago more than ten years ago. A self-styled young communist placed a blank ledger on a podium for guests to write commentary in, just like at any formal party or funeral, with a small black and white photomontage on the wall over it providing the question: "What is the proper way to display the American flag?" One suggestion was there, on the floor in front of the podium. Feel free to step up and write your response in the book.

Between hordes of demonstrators threatening to run amok amid the Art Institute’s venerable paintings with knives and sly attempts to halt their entry with chalk flags scrawled on the front steps, the resulting Windy City shitstorm was such that everyone forgot to laugh.

The protestors hosed away the daunting pastel barrier, but the dripping chalk might as well have formed the words "Trickster Was Here." Trickster’s laughter, Hyde explains in absorbing depth and detail, is actually our own.

As an artist myself, long interested in mythology, this book has been unlike any other in my experience. It’s rare that a work of nonfiction keeps me up past my bedtime with the same sense of absorption as a fantasy epic (I was under the covers with a flashlight reading this great cultural criticism, not Mad Magazine). But here at last was the real magic of the gods, a philosophy of creativity and wonder -- the sort of coherent thesis I feel I’ve been moving toward since I outgrew Dungeons & Dragons in high school. Like Joseph Campbell, Hyde recasts folklore in a relevant light, flowering forth into a supple contemporary critique of myth and art. He proves these things to be indispensable to the orderings of human existence known as culture.

He offers the Greek term poroi, meaning passageway, to describe the pores and openings from bodily orifices to "a looseness in the weave." We also read that poroi, or one poros, are the linguistic ancestor of opportunity -- Brer Rabbit using the briar patch to trick the wolf, the child of immigrants seeing her parents with American eyes.

Tricksterism is the art of creating and exploiting the pores and cracks in culture, of swinging the poroi on their hinges, and "settling in the elbow-joints," as Hyde puts it. Doorways being a recurring visual motif in my own work, this juicy info caught me like a sucker-punch. The rules and boundaries of any cultural system, sacred, secular, or profane, remain a set of human perceptions imposed on reality. Anything not fitting into this order is disorder, according to Hyde "matter out of place," or dirt fallen through the cracks. Since order is "vulnerable to the return of what it sloughed off," the cunning and witty Trickster must be a master of the non-porous as well -- tricking the impenetrable wall into becoming a porous membrane. One example: The sacred American emblem taken from a horizontal to a vertical plane becomes a meaningful area rug. The shitstorm begins.

Hyde speaks the language of dirt -- earthbound yet supple and beautifully uncomplicated for all the fertile nourishment it brings. He effortlessly plays mythical adventure and cultural discourse off one another, telling tales with one hand and placing illuminating examples from history, philosophy, psychology, and biology with the other. A story of Jung’s boyhood fantasy of God on His throne dropping a giant turd on a sparkling cathedral is pellucidly linked to his minister father’s church, "purified to the point of sterility." Trickster, who changes his own skin in most tales, makes "a good politician, especially in a democracy, where many voters call for many faces."

Trickster’s forms are indeed legion -- he is Coyote, the clever scavenger of Native American folklore, the beast transcending his own appetite, his belly, long enough to invent the first fishnets, so that his prey traps itself for him while he rests on the riverbank. Like Prometheus, he thieves the sun as a gift to the cold world. He falls into his own traps as well, and even bungles, or has eaten away, his own penis, before wiggling out again. He is not afraid of being ridiculous.

He is Krishna in India; the unruly infant of creation who is too endearing to punish. He stuffs his baby mouth with stolen butter and reveals to his mother that he has the whole universe in there as well. In West Africa he is Eshu; slipping booze to the high gods of creation, accounting for cripples, albinos, and all other sorts of anomaly.

Neither god nor human can fully trust Trickster since he steals from both sides, and if his spoils are returned, they are unrecognizable. Just as there is no order without disorder, there is no design without accident. Trickster is the fallibility in creation, especially human creation, and if he didn’t laugh at himself and make us laugh he wouldn't be a god.

The book continuously reveals that fabulous messy "dirt" is subtly abundant, particularly in any situation where human beings are made dirt by default. In the end, humans embody Trickster to a degree when their own human condition defies the gods of society. Allen Ginsberg, homosexual and poet, writing "obscene" truth. Or Frederick Douglass, an educated free slave, born of white and black parents, straddling sharply defined worlds and revising his own history in three different autobiographies. Trickster the god may be eternally playful, but his culture-shaking and time-bound counterparts rarely have it easy or simple.

Hyde’s greatest strength may be using the ancient stories that recall a multitude of gods and forces acting in the universe, and their unreliability that calls forth in us the imagination to recast them. Coming across real truth in writing makes you feel like your head has been lifted up and spun around; you recognize what they are saying and it echoes back through your experience.

As a practicing artist wrestling with the creative process, one such moment came when Hyde tells of Eshu, who flees from death and escapes, by ascending to heaven, leaving behind a pile of rubbish to mark his transition. What better metaphor for finally crossing that threshold into real creative effort, leaving behind the dirt of fears, distractions, and preconceptions? The point is that creativity is the most hazardous and uncompromising of all pursuits in that it guarantees nothing except that you won’t end up with what you started. Trickster is the god of that leaping-off place, the crossroads. But he is also the god of oops. Even scientific discovery is more often than not the result of happy accident, and Hyde provides Louis Pasteur’s observation that "chance favors the prepared mind." And like scientific investigation, Trickster’s role is to call rules into question, to purposely contradict himself -- like Duchamp the French Dadaist, "to avoid conforming to my own taste."

In an age where too much choice is not enough, and the multitude of specializations makes each of these choices small and confining, Trickster reminds us that we are the creators, taking advantage of contingency and promoting lucky coincidence. Because we are human, we resist change even though it is the only consistent option. We’re meant to be beggars to the demise of our own contentment -- sour and unfulfilled if we fail to spend, and only temporarily satiated if we do. Commerce is the real opiate of the masses these days, as more people buy commodified art than produce or discuss it, and see it on museum walls as a be-all, end-all product rather than part of a ongoing process.

Hyde’s call to recognize that rules are made to be broken is not to be mistaken for adolescent rebellion or the depressive hand-wringing of existentialism. Recognizing absurdity and contradiction allows us to have a richer view of life. As Hyde says, it is "a tool … for avoiding the regret of living a life derived from unexamined tradition and habit. … As Carl Andre once said, 'Culture is something that is done to us. Art is something that is done to culture.'"

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