Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art

April 3, 2008

The trickster is a well-known figure in folklore. Best known are Coyote, Hare and Raven. Paul Radin's classic The Trickster (1956) presents the most famous of these Native American tales. Lewis Hyde aims to turn this minor mythological figure into the one who "creates this world".

A trickster, who can be a god or a human as well as an animal, outsmarts others to get what he wants, which most often is food or sex. Sometimes humans also benefit. Most tricksters are male, but Hyde belabours the issue of female tricksters.

Humans cannot be tricksters, he informs us, but then offers the examples of Odysseus and the American "confidence man". If he knew more, he would cite Sisyphus, who is sometimes deemed the father of Odysseus and thereby the source of his son's trickster-like cunning. If Hyde were more reflective, he would ask why in North America the trickster is an animal but in ancient Greece is either a human or a god, notably Hermes and Prometheus.

Hyde finds tricksters everywhere. He reasons as follows: (1) All tricksters "create this world". (2) Figure X "created this world". (3) Therefore figure X is a trickster. He thereby commits the fallacy of affirming the consequent.

Tricksters create this world either by introducing elements to the world, such as Prometheus's theft of fire from the gods, or by overcoming oppositions in the world, such as that between heaven and earth. For example, "where someone's sense of honourable behaviour has left him unable to act, the trickster will appear to suggest an amoral action, something right/wrong". But the amorality of tricksters is well known. Hyde adds only the odd equation of amorality with both right and wrong rather than with neither.

He tells us that in writing his book, published ten years ago in the US and now unchanged in the UK, he came to realise that the trickster can "create" as well as cross boundaries. But this characteristic is well known: to quote Radin, as quoted by Hyde, "Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer."

Yet few tricksters create the world itself. Rather, they operate within it. Any changes they bring are to the existing world. If Hermes and Prometheus were the creators of the world, they would emerge far earlier in the pantheon and would be the chief gods.

Hyde grants that not all religions have tricksters, but it is hard to fathom how figures so purportedly important can be missing from any religion. The snake in Eden might seem a likely candidate, for he deludes Eve and seeks to efface the line between humans and gods. But in mainstream Christianity the snake is evil and thus represents only one side of the opposition. In Gnosticism he is an all-good saviour.

As modern tricksters, Hyde cites artists such as Marcel Duchamp, who bridged the gap between non-art and art, and cultural heroes such as Frederick Douglass, the freed American slave who bridged the gap between black and white. But it does not follow that all who cross boundaries are tricksters. As Hyde acknowledges, Douglass was hardly amoral, although he was duplicitous about his roots.

Even if all those who overcome oppositions can be called tricksters, what of figures celebrated for only one side of the divide? Was Lincoln, popularly viewed as saintly, less influential in creating this world than Douglass? Is the creator God in Genesis 1 and 2 less important than the builders of the Tower of Babel, who seek to make humans gods?

One boundary not crossed by this amazingly disorganised and repetitive book is that between the obvious and the original.

Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art

By Lewis Hyde
Canongate
432pp
£16.99
ISBN 9781847672247
Published 7 February 2008

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