This World Makes Trickster
      On Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde
Review by Thomas Christensen

homeward bound


In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde, author of the admired The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983), looks at the trickster figure in folklore and mythology, extrapolates a sort of universal trickster impulse, and considers expressions of that impulse in modern art and literature.

The Trap of Appetite
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            "What is a sermon that surpasses the teaching of the Buddha and the Patriarchs?" Yün-men was asked.
            "Cake!" he replied.

Hyde divides his analysis into four parts, beginning with the "Trap of Nature" and ending with the "Trap of Culture"--an organization that reflects the basic movement of his argument from natural to cultural history. Viewing the trickster as an inevitable cultural outgrowth of natural law, Hyde portrays Trickster as a basic response to inescapable traps of the human condition. The first and most basic of these traps is the "trap of appetite," from which "the trickster myth derives creative intelligence." "Trickster starts out hungry, but before long he is master of the kind of creative deception that, according to a long tradition, is a prerequisite of art." Hyde thinks that "trickster stories ... preserve a set of images from the days when what mattered above all else was hunting." He sees, in other words, the trickster impulse as a throwback to our most ancient conditions, a sort of vestigial tale that we wag behind us even as we evolve more sophisticated cultural forms.

Hyde, who has a marked propensity for generalizing and universalizing, takes a sort of fractal approach, drawing sweeping conclusions from minute details. In fact (in one of the more peculiar parts of his argument), he takes us all the way back to the protazoan Trypanosoma brucei, the "predatory" microbe that causes sleeping sickness. The microbe changes its outer protein coat, Hyde tells us, to escape human antibodies: it "is like a con man at a masquerade."

So Hyde proposes a biological basis for shiftiness, which eventually finds expression in trickster stories--Trickster represents an essential striving, a basic life force like that posited by Freud. Advancing from the microbial level, Hyde explicitly relates trickster to natural evolution, citing several examples from the animal world where predators and their prey evolve new tricks to outwit each other in the eternal game of appetite. What Hyde seems to be getting at in his discussion of appetite is that tricks or lies are a basic survival mechanism, and that they become more sophisticated as one ascends the evolutionary ladder from primitive to complex and from prey to predator--indeed trickery is what propels such evolution: "The mythology of trickster figures is, by one reading, the story of intelligence arising from appetite."

Hyde concludes this part of his argument with a few paragraphs on Melville's The Confidence Man, suggesting that this book, in which "a confidence man appears in a series of masks and roles, never as himself," is in some sense an outgrowth of the evolutionary dodginess he has detailed. If the microbe was "like a con man," then the con man must be like the microbe. It is a prodigious and perhaps unprecedented leap from the microbial to the literarya leap that is fascinating to watch, but one we might hesitate to follow. Hyde's commentary does not help us to better understand either Trypanosoma brucei or The Confidence-Man. Before considering to what extent it helps us to better understand Trickster, let us look at the rest of Hyde's argument.

A Net to Catch Contingency
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            "Chance is the fool's name for fate."
                        --Fred Astaire, in
The Gay Divorcée

Hyde continues his evolutionary approach to the trickster phenomenon in a discussion of accident and chance. "Theories of evolution have shown us," he says, "that, even though it is difficult at first to imagine how a process that depends on chance can be creative, nevertheless it is by such a process that creation itself has come to be." Trickster is a figure of the doorway, the byway, the crossroads--one who wanders or who waits for the opportune accident, who capitalizes on the flukes of chance. One of the ways that trickster "makes this world" is by taking us out of established patterns and following unexpected pathways. "Accident is needed for certain kinds of change," Hyde notes. "Chance operations can change the mind because they circumvent intention." Being open to this kind of mental change is the key to trickster's creativity: "The ability to create or work with contingency I take to be a mark of trickster's intelligence."

Hyde looks at Hermes (god, among other things, of roads), the Norse mischief maker Loki, the Yoruba trickster Eshu, and other folk and mythic figures, noting that often a chance meeting or an unexpected incident proves the vehicle for opportunistic creativity. Although Hyde does not discuss it, there is an affinity between trickster stories and the picaresque in literature, both in its narrow definition as an early Renaissance Spanish literary genre and in its wider common usage. Perhaps this is because of this element of chance that appears in many trickster stories: the pícaro, like Trickster, is swept from incident to incident and from master to master, always surviving by tricks and pranks. But Hyde moves from the mythic (and the classical) to the modern without considering intervening literary history.

As modern expressions of this tendency of trickster to capitalize on chance, Hyde rounds up the usual suspects, focusing mostly on Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. In his commentary on Cage, Hyde (who tends to be wordy) expresses his viewpoint with unusual eloquence when he observes that Cage:

was not blind to the fact that cultures and selves guard and replicate their ideals, their beauties, their masterpieces, but he did not cast his lot with durable structures, he cast it with perturbation. He turned toward chance to relieve the mind of its protective garment of received ideas so that it might better attend to the quietly stirring wind of the rain patterning the roof. He made an art that was a net to catch contingency. He cocked his ear for noise, not the old harmonies, sensing that noise can lead to something so remarkable as this world, and believing that, in a civilization as complex and shifting as ours has become, a readiness to let the mind change as contingency demands may be one prerequisite of a happy life.

Chance, in culture as in nature, is a force for evolution and for change. Cage, like a trickster, stirs things up, refusing to submit to the established order.

Playing in the Dirt
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            "Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one."
                  --Mikhail Bakhtin,
Rabelais and His World

Hyde calls the third section of his book "Dirt Work," but I prefer in my subhead to emphasize the play element in trickster's bawdy and excremental exploits--what Hyde would call his "shameful" behavior. Throughout his analysis, Hyde ignores the comic element in trickster tales (it is partly for this reason that he tracks the trickster spirit in such unexpected figures such as Frederick Douglass, whose many virtues do not include a strong element of humor). In traditional storytelling, trickster tales are often greeted with laughter. Certainly, behind the laughter there is a serious side to the tales, but this only recalls Johann Huizinga's dictum that "the child plays in deadly earnest"--that is, that play can be a serious business.

Trickster's long lineage includes the fool and the clown, both in performance and in literature. In carnival, the Commedia dell'Arte, the pantomime, and slapstick we find a modern expression of the trickster impulse. Even Paul Radin, whose work is the lodestone of trickster studies (and whom Hyde quotes often), noted that "Many of trickster's traits were perpetuated in the figure of the medieval jester, and have survived right up to the present day in the Punch-and-Judy plays and in the clown."

Farce (which, fitting Hyde's theories of appetite, was originally a cooking term) and laughter are ways of "breaking the frame," of opening closed systems to allow new forms to evolve. Like trickster, the clown and the fool stir things up; they overturn the established order. The clown crashes through the boundaries of the stage and rushes and somersaults through the audience, bringing the periphery, at least for the moment, to the center and turning convention on its head. It is a pity that Hyde does not pursue this line of study.

In "Dirt Work," Hyde considers the transgressive quality of trickster's activities, his use of obscene, licentious, and offensive materials. He does not spend much time here on traditional trickster tales, preferring instead to look at modern manifestations of the trickster principle in works by Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, Alan Ginsberg, Andres Serrano, and Robert Mapplethorpe--but it does not take much to document this aspect of trickster. As Hyde says, "Trickster's freedom with dirt means he can operate where fastidious high gods cannot and as a result heaven's fertility and riches enter this world."

That Trickster is transgressive is well established, but Hyde's argument takes a highly unusual turn when he focuses on the "shame" such trangression entails. Ordinarily one views Trickster as shameless, and indeed Hyde himself says "They're all the same, these tricksters; they have no shame and so they have no silence. Hermes should bite his tongue when he's hauled before the assembly of the gods, but instead he wiggles his ears and tells a boldface lie, wearing--his mother says--'the cloak of shamelessness.' Loki once had his lips sewn shut by an irritated dwarf, but Loki ripped the thongs out and went right on talking." Yet Hyde goes on to consider shame as a major element in the work of Kingston, Rodriguez, and Ginsberg.

I have some trouble following this part of Hyde's argument, but I think that he is shifting his focus to a psychological/social level in order to consider the dilemma of contemporary writers who have not been ordained as representatives of the sacred and so are shamed when their work is transgressive. But because transgression is necessary to open up the closed social system in which they live, such writers take upon themselves the shamelessness of trickster (as Kingston adopted the East Asian trickster Monkey as her psychic ally in writing The Woman Warrior) in order to find voice for their shameful visions. While the mythological Trickster lives in a world of gods, where shamelessness is allowed him, these writers are caught between the ordinary social world and the mythic world of their art; thus they are caught between shame, which causes one to be silent, and shamelessness, which encourages one to speak. "A kind of collective magic activates a shame threshold," Hyde writes. "The group marks a boundary and those who try to cross it, if they feel the communal Argus eyes upon them, will suffer shame's physical seizure, the flushed skin, the bound tongue." By taking this stance, Hyde finds more to say about these authors than others he has considered, but he also broadens his subject so greatly that it seems to encompass everything and nothing. (David Foster Wallace says, in a blurb blazoned on the promotional band that wraps around the book, "This book ends up being about ... well, everything.")

In one of the best commentaries in the book, Hyde looks at Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" as an attempt at revitalizing faith and considers how it fell afoul of political attack. "The old wisdom would say that this debasing of the god is a necessary part of his periodic renewal," Hyde explains. Serrano intervenes "to save the divine form from its own too elevated purity. But we currently have no collective form, no agreed-upon narrative, to guide us in such operation." Here Hyde speaks personally and genuinely about his reaction to the work he is considering and produces one of the more refreshing moments in his book. Still, I'm not sure that merely transgressing social boundaries or taboos makes Serrano any kind of trickster. His work most recalls the performances of Zuñi clowns described by Jerrold E. Levy: "At the height of public performances, these clowns will eat excrement, throw bowls of urine on each other, eat the heads of living mice and the intestines of living dogs torn limb from limb. their sexual antics were of an indescribable lewdness." If Hyde had considered the tradition of clowning, we would have another context for viewing Andres Serrano's work.

The Trap of Culture
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            "The clown, the early counterpart of the trickster, would have in ritual the role of
            evoking the violation of taboo, hypostasized in myth. These two imaginary figures would thus
            share a common origin in the experience of society, in the transgressive activities of magicians engaged in prohibited
            i.e., operations and manipulations to gain magical power."
                  --Laura Makarius, "Ritual Clowns"

By evoking the shamelessness of the mythic trickster, the creative artist overcomes shame and breaks through the shackles of social constraint. In so doing, the artist highlights and calls into question the constraints themselves, so that the social system as a whole evolves and develops, just as the individuals within it do. Trickster remakes the world, and remakes it again, and again.

He does this, says Hyde, through "artus-work"--Hyde traces back the roots of the word art to relate it to the word for joint. He has shown that the trickster, driven by appetite, strives for the pores or joints in a network of restraint. He concludes:

I would like to suggest that we think of trickster artists as artus-workers, joint-workers. Not that they are much involved with making the firm and well-set joints that lead to classical harmony, of course. What tricksters like is the flexible or movable joint. If a joint comes apart, or if it moves from one place to another, or if it simply loosens up where it had begun to stiffen, some trickster has probably been involved. In several different ways, tricksters are joint-disturbers.

Hyde begins literally, by relating trickster stories to origin myths of meat carving and sacrifice. But his real subject is the way that trickster figures can reconfigure their worlds. By questioning and confronting the established order, they cause a revision in that order--a new configuration (or perhaps articulation would be a better word)of its joints, the web of meaning that makes the net of culture. This is wonderful, but hardly new. In his essay "Liminality and Communitas," V. Turner called such figures "threshold people" and noted that their attributes "are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elide or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space." Hyde, however, prefers his own articulation, working directly from the traditional and modern texts and mostly ignoring the existing body of theory and criticism.

What Hyde does not much remark on is that while trickster plays a trick on culture by attacking and reconfiguring its joints, the culture plays a similar trick on trickster by wrapping him within its net of signification. That is, by institutionalizing trickster and the artist who reflects his spirit, it internalizes and contains the questioning spirit. In his study of The Fool and His Sceptre, William Willeford observed that

If the fool is "the spirit of disorder," he is necessarily "the enemy of boundaries." but since the disorder of which he is the spirit is largely contained in his show, he serves the boundary of which he is the enemy; and in doing this, he sometimes even demonstrates an authority proper to the central figure of an established order (such as the king, the president, the chief, the boss).

Nonetheless, despite this limitation on the scope of trickster's activities (Hermes will always be a fringe figure; he will never depose Zeus--or if he does, he will cease to be Hermes), "when human culture turns against human beings themselves the trickster appears as a kind of savior," according to Hyde. "When we have forgotten that we participate in the shaping of this world and become enslaved to shapings left us by the dead, then a cunning artus-worker may appear, sometimes erasing the old boundaries so fully that only no-way remains and creation must start as if from scratch, and sometimes just loosening up the old divisions, greasing the joints so they may shift in respect to one another, or opening them so commerce will spring up where 'the rules' forbid it. In short, when the shape of culture itself becomes a trap, the spirit of the trickster will lead us into deep shape-shifting to wake the possibility of playing with the joints of creation, the possibility of art."

Who Is Trickster?
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            "Then are we in order when we are most out of order."
                  --Henry VI

Hyde's book is provocative and in some respects innovative. It is overlong, but simply devoting sustained attention to Trickster's cultural function is itself of value. Among Hyde's strengths are his detailed knowledge of texts and contexts, and an ability to explicate them. He also brings a courageous willingness to follow his subject farther down some of its sidepaths than others have donehe is not afraid to move from the tales of native peoples to the autobiography of Frederick Douglass to the art of Andres Serrano (although he seems to me at times to get lost along these winding paths).

In moving from the particular to the extremely general, Hyde's knowledge dresses up but cannot conceal a basic imprecision in his arguments. The first and most frustrating of these is his failure to clearly define what he is analyzing. He is writing, he says, about Trickster. But what is a trickster? It is a figure with a trickster's qualities. What then are the qualities of a trickster? They are the qualities that a trickster has. In this maddeningly circular way, Hyde fails ever to satisfactorily define his subject, and the reader will find it impossible to pin down precisely what he is talking about. Nor is it altogether clear what Hyde is attempting in his analysis of the work of modern artists. He is certainly not just pointing at them and calling them tricksters, which would be pointless, and Hyde's work is not pointless. Instead he seems to be trying to extrapolate a universal trickster quality or attitude, which he considers a key component of all culture, or all healthy culture.

Is Hyde writing about tricksters (nominative) or tricking (active)? When he talks about what he is doing, he speaks in the nominative mode--what Trickster is--but the analysis he actually performs is in the verbal mode--what Trickster does. This confusion clouds his argument. Look at one of the first examples Hyde gives us of what he considers a trickster tale. This is a Native American story, in which Buffalo Bull gives Coyote a magic cow. Buffalo Bull tells Coyote:

"Never kill this cow, Coyote. When you are hungry, cut off a little of her fat with your flint knife. Rub ashes on the wound. The cut will heal. This way, you will have meat forever."

Coyote promised this is what he would do. He took the buffalo cow with him back over the mountains. Whenever he was hungry he would cut away a little fat and then heal the wound with ashes as Buffalo Bull had said. But after a while he got tired of the fat. He wanted to taste the bone marrow and some fresh liver. By this time he had crossed the plains and was back in his own country. "What Buffalo Bull said is only good over in his country," Coyote said to himself. "I am chief here. Buffalo Bull's words mean nothing. He will never know."

Coyote took the young cow down to the edge of the creek. "You look a little sore-footed," he told her. "Stay here and rest and feed for a while."

Coyote killed her suddenly while she was feeding. When he pulled off her hide crows and magpies came. When Coyote tried to chase them off, more came. Even more came, until they had eaten all the meat....

Is there a trick in this story? Coyote has, it is true, disobeyed Buffalo Bull's injunction not to kill the cow, and he has hidden his intention to kill the cow from his victim. Coyote has been given a gift with a stipulation attached to it; he ignores the stipulation, and he is punished. The story would seem to fall into the category of "disobedience punished," like the stories of Adam or Orpheus or Pandora. Exactly how are these trickster figures?

Hyde figures that Coyote is a trickster, so therefore a story about Coyote is a trickster story. In fact, he judges this a "typical" trickster story: "The trickster," he explains, "is given something valuable with a condition set on its use, time passes, and before long a trickster's hunger leads him to violate the condition. As a consequence the plenitude of things is inexorably diminished. Such is one common plot in the mythology of trickster."

A common plot in mythology, certainly. It might even be a common plot in the mythology of the trickster, but I do not think that Hyde has demonstrated this. When I think about such stories I recall the work of the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp, who showed that the action of the story is more significant than the identities of its characters. (This insight of Propp's underlies the analyses of Lévi-Strauss, who lifts the masks of character names to expose the underlying story framework.) In other words, the same story could have been told with, say, Bear rather than Coyote playing the role of the fool who is punished for his folly. If the main character was not a figure generally regarded as a trickster, would we still consider this a trickster story? Possibly we might, but by assuming at the outset that it is a trickster story, Hyde draws from it unwarranted or unproven conclusions.

Fools and Folly, Clowns and Clowning, Tricks and Tricksters
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            "This fellow's wise enough to play the fool."
Twelfth Night

Suppose that our subject were not "the trickster" but "trickery" or "tricking"--that is, that we were interested in action rather than in subject, in the verbal rather than the nominative. The closest thing in the action of this story to trickery is Coyote outsmarting himself. We could define tricking so broadly as to include every foolish or unwise action for which one pays a cost, but this would seem to profit us little. Instead, I propose that we might look at Coyote in this story more as a fool than as a trickster. The clown and the fool share many of the same characteristics as Trickster; indeed, the same figure can variously play the fool, the clown, and the trickster, as Coyote, who so often plays the part of the ttrickster, takes on the part of the fool in this story.

There is an extensive literature about folly and clowning. One thinks of books such as Enid Welsford's The Fool: His Social and Literary History, Willeford's The Fool and His Sceptre, Conrad Hyers on the comic in Zen and the Eastern tradition, and, closer to the present subject, the numerous studies of Native American clowns and clowning, such as Matilda Coxe Stevenson's work on Zuñi clowning, Frank Bock and Jerrold Levi on Hopi Clowns, or E.T. Kirby on the shamanistic origins of clowning, to name but a few examples. None of these authors appear in Hyde's bibliography, because he has decided in advance that his subject is "the trickster," and so he has been limited to the narrow body of writing that follows from this definition (although he then applies his conclusions quite broadly).

Hyde seems to sense that he has artificially limited his subject, because he glosses quickly over the question in a short footnote in which he writes, "Many, myself included, find the connotations of `trickster' too limited for the scope of activities ascribed to this character," and he notes as "partly true" the argument that "the general term `trickster' is an invention of nineteenth-century anthropology and not well fitted to its indigenous objects." He then lists three examples of figures whose names are said to translate well as "trickster," and concludes "Trickery appeared long before anthropology." Granted, there are countless figures who have been termed tricksters. But the mere existence of such figures hardly seems a satisfactory foundation for so far-ranging a discussion as Hyde's, in which so much depends on this initial definition.

Hyde mines a rich vein when he considers the social function of trickery, but his conclusions would be more useful if his methodology and terminology were more precise. He might begin by distinguishing tricksters, clowns, and fools and then look for an overarching principle by which all of these figures cause social systems to be questioned, challenged, and modified. He might also spend more time looking at how the systems responds by incorporating, co-opting, and internalizing their challenge. Because his work perches on a wobbly foundation, its value is limited. Nonetheless, as an impressionistic and intuitive interpretation of the trickster figure and the impulses that motivate him and some of those who share his spirit, Trickster Makes This World is a suggestive study, rich in detail and filled with many useful insights.

            --Thomas Christensen




The Trap of Appetite

 A Net to Catch Contingency 

Playing in the Dirt  

The Trap of Culture  

Who Is Trickster?  

Fools and Folly, Clowns and Clowning, Tricks and Tricksters

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