Friday, January 30, 1998

Q&A Lewis Hyde: Trickster's World, or Gods Fart Too

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.

The high gods set guard dogs around  their sacred meadows. If there is to be a change,  its agent will have to  hypnotize those dogs and slip in from the shadows, like an embarrassing impulse, a cunning pathogen, a love affair, a shameless thief taking a chance.

        "Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art " (1998)

HB: How do the ancient myths you discuss in "Trickster" take hold in modern urban societies?

LH: The figure of the boundary crosser can operate in any number of contexts. The earliest stories are from hunting and gathering societies, so the cunning is the cunning of the hunt. When the boundary crosser gets placed in an emerging commercial society, the cunning has to do with money and language.

HB: You say that in the stories, coyote, a trickster figure par excellence,  has no nature. He's not defined by a set of given properties; he's a process of invention

LH: There are a lot of stories in which other animals are fishing or hunting, and coyote tries to imitate them and fails. The bear or the kingfisher will say, that's my way; it's not your way. He can imitate but he doesn't have a way of his own. The stories imply an animal that has lost its instinctual knowledge and has to find some other way.

HB: They imply a human being, then, doesn't they?

LH: I think they imply human beings. We are the animal that has no way. Or you might say we have a way but it takes two or three thousand years to figure it out, then seventy years for each individual. Our way is quite subtle, whereas other animals are born knowing how to act.

HB: Tony Hillerman has a lot of coyote in his novels. But, according to him, the Navaho hate coyote. And he says that's only natural; if you raise sheep, as the Navajo do, coyote is your enemy.

LH: Sure, and if you care about fair trade, you hate Hermes the Thief. But the Navaho also have a set of stories in which coyote is a sacred figure, and the stories are used in healing ceremonies.

HB: Hillerman acknowledges coyote as a mythological figure -- a mythological representing filth and death.

LH: That's part of the problem "Trickster Makes This World" addresses. Why have a character who is conversant with dirt and full of filth, and who was the creator of death, as coyote is viewed in a lot of Native American stories; why incorporate him into the sacred? Sure, you would prefer to be clean and have your rituals purify your life, but it turns out you need some contact with the rest of the stuff. Mythologically, the trickster figure assures you of its presence even as you are disgusted by it.

Another way of saying it is the trickster embodies ambiguity. Whenever you have distinctions like purity and filth, it isn't quite right to say the trickster is about filth. He's about a space in which the polarity collapses and has to be remade. You lose your bearings. Your sense that this is purity, this is filth, this is clean, this is dirty, is momentarily suspended. You have to remake the categories.

HB: Made me think of the Yeats lines: 

     But love has pitched its mansion in
     the place of excrement;
     For nothing can be sole or whole 
     That has not been rent.
LH: Exactly. "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop." That's precisely the turf.

HB: All your talk about boundary crossing would seem to make the trickster figure well-represented in contemporary society, what with traditional values melting away and different groups thrown into encounter with each other. Trickster would seem to be in demand today.

LH: It's the question of plurality. If your nation is having a debate about pluralism and multiculturalism, these old stories get illuminated by it and they illuminate it. When you have a nation made of different communities trying both to live together and to insist on their separate identifies, you're constantly looking for the intersections. Somebody who does ethnic humor situates himself on that boundary. He gets the juice flowing about the fact that there is both separation and connection.

The canonical line on tricksters is that they are boundary crossers. Whenever there's a division of some kind -- locks, closed doors -- the trickster will breach the line. But I slowly became convinced that the opposite is also the case. Where there is insufficient boundary, insufficient articulation, where things that could be separated have been inappropriately put together, the trickster shows up and remakes the division. He wants the boundary to be there; if it's not, he'll create it. And then he'll to play with it.

So you could say that in a multi-culturalist situation the impulse to overcome plurality might be undermined by trickster consciousness. As soon as we start thinking we're all one nation, you'll get the a figure who says, no, no, you're two nations, forcing you to mark the differences you're trying to pretend aren't there.

HB: It makes me think of Nietzsche's distinction between Dionysus and the Apollo. Apollo is the god of structure, hierarchy, form, and Dionysus the god of meltdown and leveling; he's the undertow pulling at separateness and integrity. Would you say that Dionysus and trickster overlap?

LH: It would be fun to put Hermes in here to say we need a triad, so that there's the Dionysian, the Hermetic, the Apollonian. The Dionysian is about erasing all boundaries, blending things together in a way that is sexy and destructive. It's about wild passion. But Hermes is interested in creating separations, then playing with them, and that distinguishes him from Dionysus.

In the Homeric Hymns to the Greek deities, it turns out the one to Hermes is the last written. So one scholar asks, why is Hermes the last born, the last to come into this scene? Her idea is that before he comes each of the other gods, Apollo, Zeus, Hera and so forth, have their sphere of action cut out for them. There's an articulated cosmos with chieftains in each of several different areas. What's missing is a connective principle, something to move among the different spheres. Hermes moves among them without destroying the distinctions among them. The Dionysian impulse would be, everything melts down, you're back to chaos.

HB: It's interesting that the Hymn to Hermes is last of the Homeric Hymns. In Santeria, the Yoruban based religion that developed in Cuba, Elegba, the trickster figure, is invoked first. In ceremonies, the chanting and drumming for Elegba has to come first because he is the way to the others.

LH: He is the gatekeeper. In Legba stories, he's involved with the separation of heaven and earth. Heaven used to be down here, at ground level, but after Legba did his mischief, there was a real separation. At that point, he becomes the agent, the go-between between humans and the gods.

In Santeria or Vodun we're now in present time, where the separation from the spiritual world is a serious problem, so the first thing to do is invoke, Legba, the messenger of the gods, to get the doorways open.

HB: In William Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy, the Haitian deities, the Loa, are settling in cyberspace. The first to get there is Legba, the trickster figure.

LH: Sure, he's the god of cyberspace partly because he is disembodied. Some of the early trickster characters have a lot of trouble with their bodies. Think of Hermes with wings on his feet. It's as if you become less and less embodied and more and more mental, whatever mental means. It includes the swift electrical connection in the human body and the brain, and to the degree that we've externalized that in these devices that connect us with one another, trickster stands for the connection

Each of the other gods has a sort of ego position, a kind of turf. The Hermes character is able to move because he has no ego position. He can't be located; he's located only in motion.

The same is true of the translator. Both Hermes and Legba are translators. They have no mother tongue, only the ability to speak many tongues, so you can't locate them in a language. You can only locate them in translation. Somehow, that feels like cyberspace.

HB: Henry Louis Gates Jr. uses Elegba/Eshu as the god of hermeneutics, the god of interpretation.

LH: Gates tries to find a language of interpretation indigenous to African-American writing, so that rather than take Greek or European systems of reading, he goes back to the West African trickster and uses figures of speech that come from that tradition.

HB: The question I come back to is, how do these figures continue to operate? Where are they?

LH: Every culture has external and internal boundaries. And to the degree that we have an identity, we have a sense of where it ends. It's based on certain kinds of distinction. I'm a man not a woman, a white guy not a black guy, an intellectual not a guy who works on the subway.

The trickster is about the kind of imagination that disturbs all those distinctions. The problem in the book was to find examples of moderns who embody a piece of this myth, whose work is illuminated by the old stories

HB: I especially liked your working with Duchamp in that context. Duchamp is not so much an artist who produces work, the way, say, Brancusi did. He's an artist who links to all sorts of possibilities for art. You describe him as a door swinging open.

LH: A hinge maker.

HB: In the language of computer science, he's less an object than a pointer to other objects.

HB: One of the ways Duchamp made a living was to buy a lot of Brancusi early on and then sell it slowly over the years. The trickster figure relies on there being other people around who make objects he can then buy and sell. You could say Duchamp is parasitic on Brancusi.

Duchamp's whole project was to find the edge of what people thought was art and introduce something outside the category. Then one is befuddled because it seems it could be inside the category.

HB: You talk about Allen Ginsberg similarly. In what way does Ginsberg fit the trickster mold?

LH: I knew Ginsberg a bit, I edited a book of responses to his poetry, and there are a couple of places where he comes up in the book. One is around the matter of shame. The trickster figures are imagined to be shameless. The mythology is a kind of fantasy of what it would be like to continue speaking when shame would normally bind your tongue.

There are distinctions, in our world, between spheres of silence and spheres of speech. There are things you don't talk about or don't talk about in certain places. Shame is an internalized sense of what you can't speak about, and when you can't speak. I think there is a group of modern artists whose work is not exactly to be shameless but to change the boundaries. Ginsberg, for example, felt his government should be ashamed of itself a lot of the time; he was a moralist. But in his own work he manages to speak where he had been enjoined to silence.

HB: You make similar points in your discussion of Mapplethorpe and Andre Serrano.

LH: Artists who do not just rearticulate received categories but get you to think about how to draw the lines anew.

HB: Do you belong to trickster? Is writing a book about trickster a trickster thing to do?

LH: There's a line from Italo Calvino at the beginning of the book in which he says he is a Saturn dreaming of Mercury, which is to say, he is more a craftsman than a mercurial writer, but he's nevertheless attracted to speed. I'm not a Duchamp or a Picasso type. I'm the other type, the one attracted to those types. One works sometimes by compensation. There's a longing to be speedier.

HB: It took ten years, the time involved in writing "Trickster", to express that longing for speed.

LH: And I still haven't got it down. I need to be more playful and humorous.

HB: Isn't there a danger of treating coyote all too seriously, forgetting the guy may be more like Daffy Duck than a Greek God?

LH: You know those perfume strips they put in magazines? There should have been a fart strip every ten pages in the book to undercut my heavy analysis. Clearly the stories are fun to tell, funny to listen to. Then the questions arise, what is humor and why are you laughing at this? Why is it important to bring the coyote to his turds, and for us to imagine that?

I think it's the same reason psychoanalysts are interested in the garbage heap; there's valuable material there. If we succeeded in finally separating filth from purity, the world would go dead. We need off-color jokes that both help maintain the separation and help us enjoy the fact that these things can't always be kept apart.

It's interesting to read the trickster stories against the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is more concerned with separating good and evil. The trickster is an amoral and ambivalent character. Good and evil are mushed together in him, and you can't pick them apart.

In the Christian tradition, you have an all-powerful god, all-beneficent. And then you have the great theological problem of how there could evil in this world. In societies that have this trickster figure, the debate would never start. You would shrug your shoulders and say Legba is part of creation, coyote is always there, so if you thought the world was all good, you've made a basic mistake about how things are arranged. That's one reason why the title of the book is, "Trickster Makes This World." What with death, disease, malformed babies, accidents that kill our loved ones -- this is trickster's world.

HB: The Judeao-Christian tradition is notably absent from your book.

LH: Because it is our dominant culture, it's easier not to work with it, at least for me. It's like Christians in the Middle Ages finding themselves interested in Greek lore. Stepping outside your dominant narrative helps you think differently. So I don't try to find the tricksters in the Bible.

HB: Is it also that you feel the Judeao-Christian tradition doesn't deal with this material as adeptly as the various traditions you deal with?

LH: I do feel that. The stories I deal with all come from polytheistic traditions, and those are the ones that encompass this figure and interest me. I don't get into the argument between monotheism and polytheism but there is one that lies behind the book, certainly.

HB: Do you have someone you regard as your teacher with regard to mythology?

LH: When I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota in the early sixties, there were a bunch of poets around but the most interesting was Robert Bly. Bly has a fertile imagination and has been useful for me. Then, though I have quarrels with the Jungians, that tradition nurtured this kind of thinking. What I used to like to read out of that tradition was not so much about archetypal ideas; I'd like to read a kind of book which would move from an idea to a personal anecdote to a dream to a psychological situation to another idea to history. It would have this kind of polyglot range where an old story would illuminate a dream. Marie Louis van Franz has books like that or James Hillman.

My prose comes more out of poetry than out of social science. I'm interested in surrealist juxtaposition, in putting things together that have come together only in my own mind, in the hopes that as I watch for things that illuminate my own thinking. it will not be just about me; the reader will also find these juxtapositions of interest.

HB: You said you had a problem with Jungians. Can you elaborate?

LH: There's actually an opposite term to archetype, which is ectype as in particular and local, as opposed to universal, situations. Any time somebody says there's an archetypal figure here, I feel a little bristly and want to say no, no, if you look at the particular situation it's going to be more complicated than the archetype. Conversely, if somebody says a historical situation can only be illuminated by looking at the particular, I want to say no no, there are general things which are of interest. To the degree that Jungians become attached to their archetypes, I want to quarrel with them. But to the degree that somebody thinks there are no archetypes, I want to quarrel with them.

HB: You'll be blessed with many quarrels.

LH: Exactly. Ideally, you want to play. When people think everything has to be read historically, you want to play with them and make them see there is transhistorical material. When people think everything is archetypal, you want to play with them, get them to look at a few turds. 

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