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Mythic trickster narrative: Articulating the ‘truth’

Tricksters are known for telling great lies that contain a good deal of truth, but to understand their craft we must get past easy opposites that would differentiate falsity from veracity in the simple sense of contradicting truth. For what the trickster accomplishes in a “lie” is the subtle disruption of boundary markers erected to mark off the line between what passes as reason and fantasy. Rather than simply transgressing truth boundaries trickster artists call into question “assumptions about how the world is divided up” and skillfully remake “truth” on their own flexible terms (Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, p. 72).

Take the confidence man for instance, the covert American “reborn trickster” hero who gains the trust of others only to con them. Even though he violates the legal order he also “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)” (Ibid., p. 11).

Tricksters thus are a cut-above the common thief and liar; while they might appear to be foolish or clownish they certainly are not bereft of intelligence. This is because trickster is of two minds, at home in a neutral state of things, in contrast to criminals who merely violate previously decided rules (Ibid., p. 70). As a result of challenging culturally biased assumptions surrounding modern binaries and patriarchal mechanisms of sacrifice, for example, tricksters extricate themselves and others from some cultural traps, shed a crack of light on the ambivalent limbo of reality and create a few alternatives.

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.

Prometheus: god of in-between

At the heart of a cluster of manifest characteristics that constitute the trickster personality, one singularly stands out: they are gods of in-between. That is, tricksters easily slip back and forth across formerly impassable boundaries with ease, particularly between sacred and profane registers of existence. They are the out-of-bounds outlaws of this world, subverting social conventions in unrestrained and unthinkable ways. They are trick-players and shape-shifters, but by undergoing ridicule themselves they ameliorate the social faults of humanity and transform culture in unfamiliar ways.

A fine example of this leud taboo breaker, a god that straddles the finite and supernatural realms, is the Olympian rebel Prometheus who was securely fastened to a rock by Zeus’s edict for stealing “the flowery splendor of all-fashioning fire” and giving it to humanity. I should say, more accurately, he was nailed, wedged, fettered, shackled, harnessed and tortuously clamped in a solitary ravine for hunting out the source of fire and, having stolen it, presented it as a gift to the god-neglected and wretched humans. Bound and crucified, Prometheus paid the ultimate price for kicking against the goad of the status quo among the gods. Indeed, Prometheus found trouble for himself by his own cunning.

In this sense, Prometheus’s status among the gods is eminently unstable. He does not belong to the realm of humans, but at the same time he is banished from mount Olympus, a double outcast if there ever was one. Like some of the more bellicose philosophers, Prometheus inverted the pre-established priorities among the gods and valorized the lowly.

There is not ‘too much’ for this figure. No order is too rooted, no taboo too sacred, no god too high, no profanity too scatological that it cannot be broached or inverted. What prevails is toppled, what is bottom becomes top, what is outside turns inside (Mythical Trickster Figures, p. 37)

The asocial character of the taboo violation explains how the trickster, represented as the friend of humans, he who struggles with gods in order to ameliorate the human lot, may also be represented as an asocial being, he who ends up being banished from the community. Because he takes upon himself the gravest of social faults – breaking the rules upon which the social order depends – the trickster incarnates embryonically the expiatory being who will take upon himself the sins of humanity and set humans free, by virtue of the familiar process of redemption (p. 83)

The diametrically opposed characters of Prometheus and, say, Hephaestus, the one who regretfully carries out Zeus’s order to bind Prometheus, is analogously represented in the distinction between shamans and tricksters in North American Indian culture. According to this distinction, the shaman acts in good faith as a devout follower of the spirits he revers and is in return accepted by that other world, the supernatural. For the shaman, the spiritual experience is serious business. The supernatural spirits are to be worshiped, not mocked. The trickster-thief on the other hand seeks no divine aid or approval. Trickster is an outsider to superhuman powers, relying on his or her own wit rather than divine power.

It is true that both the shaman and the trickster-thief go into another world, and both engage in combat with spiritual beings. Nevertheless, there is a difference, a very significant one, I believe, between the shaman’s journey and that of the fire-bringer: the former goes with the aid and companionship of his tutelary spirit or spirits, while the trickster goes alone or is accompanied by companions who are as unendowed with supernatural powers as he. Moreover, the trickster rarely fights with the beings he encounters on his journeys: most typically he outwits them with a trick (pp. 103-4)

Doubtless, Prometheus outwitted the Olympian gods, namely Zeus, in absconding fire and delivering it to the aid of humans. It was not by power, that is, that Prometheus acquired fire, but by struggling with the social order of the gods by tricks. The outcome was not entirely successful, however, on his end. As most trickster narratives end, the trickster him- or herself must in the end pay the ultimate price in death, usually in one way or another falling prey to his or her own tricks. The trickster figure imaginatively has far-reaching political implications in resisting the underlying symbolic structure of society, but one is never guaranteed calculated success. As Prometheus discovered, considered dissent often ends tragically. That does not necessarily mean, however, that socio-political apathy wins the day. One must, at least, be aware of the costs.