Mythic trickster narrative: Overcoming monologues of dominance

In response to a recent post in which I favorably argued that tricksters, the leud quasi-divine taboo breakers, are agents of social change, using wit rather than power to overcome and ameliorate the gravest social faults of society, Matt Martin noted that my account of trickster mythology was mis-representative of its treasured wisdom, apparently a concern deconstruction-like thinkers such as myself do not register. On the contrary, I take the accusation that I disregard trickster wisdom quite seriously. Martin’s particular annoyance is the way in which I cast a glowing light on the irreverent and idiotic horseplay of tricksters, noting that crafty subterfuge can have a “devastating impact” on society, thus highlighting the importance of moral rules and social boundaries to ensure a harmoniously functioning community. By valorizing the malicious and narcissistic behavior of mythic tricksters, in effect I endorse immoral solipsism and the inevitable disaster it brings about. While this may be an accurate though crude over-generalization of my position, an account that requires much more development on my part to be sure, I would like to briefly address the problem at hand concerning whether Native American trickster mythology in fact encourages boundary crossing in practice and to what extent.

According to Gerald Vizenor and a key point Martin alluded to, “The trickster arises in imagination and the trickster lives nowhere else but in imagination” (Gerald Vizenor, “Trickster Discourse: Comic and Tragic Themes in Native American Literature” in Lindquist and Zanger, eds., Buried Roots and Indestructible Seeds, p. 68). Tricksters belong in tribal stories, for instance in North American Indian literature, because they serve an important teaching role in the communities they are shared within. The lessons and wisdom to be learned indirectly from trickster discourse, commonly by negative examples of Trickster discovering the hard way, are used to train and motivate others how they ought to act and caution against certain actions (William G. Doty, “Native American Tricksters: Literary Figures of Community Transformers” in Reesman, ed., Trickster Lives, p. 11).

While tricksters certainly are social critics and rebel rousers, more often than not they function as models for society who reaffirm order and rules through instructive entertainment. Therefore, these stories are remembered and liturgically passed down from each generation for the purpose of forming the ethical imaginations of individuals, thus leading listeners to embody the kind of character the community has deemed honorable to inhabit. Mythic narratives also contain the added bonus of allowing us to experiment in our imaginations with the probable effects of acting on one set of convictions over another; testing to see whether we can turn things around for the better rather than make things worse. “In this respect, narratives offer us a relatively safe way to explore our ‘options’ without our first having to experiment with our own lives” (Michael Goldberg, Theology and Narrative, p. 234).

If it was not for these hermeneutically creative tales that offer different ways of imagining and transforming our circumstances we would be sublimated to the flat and stifling “monologues of dominance” (Vizenor, “Trickster Discourse”, p. 67). Literature therefore transgresses the presumed bounds that reason and speculation should remain in autonomous fields. In this way literature avoids a lot of the hang-ups of the Enlightenment insofar as imagination integrates the reflection and contemplation of reality (primary) with the bending and modification of it (secondary). So while human representations of literary tricksters may diminish tricksterdom in its textual purity, betraying the very essence of the trickster, the urgency required of social agents to reform historical consciousness reveals that there is no innocence in indecision either. Their hands are dirty either way. At the very least, convention disturbing bunglers play the part of Trickster when they preach disarmingly imaginative stories that trick their hearers and readers into thinking that which is unfamiliar or uncommon and into becoming tricksters of transformation themselves.

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