|by Jay Kinney|
Robert Graves tells the story of the time King Philip II of Spain decided to heighten his persecution of the Jews. He decreed that every Spaniard with Jewish blood would have to wear a hat of a certain shape.
That evening, King Philip's fool showed up in court bearing three of these particular hats. When the monarch asked whom the hats were for, the fool replied, "One for me, nuncle, one for thee, and one for the Grand Inquisitor." Taking the point, King Philip rescinded his decree.
There are times in the lives of both nations and individuals when the truth is not popular, in fact is actively suppressed. Of course those are the very times when it's most needed. So it shoves itself before our noses in the most unlikely forms - in the guise of humor, paradox, or in what C.G. Jung called "the mischievousness of the object." And when we reinforce our self-deception with pride and arrogance, truth, mirroring our hypocrisy, will appear before us with a mocking leer on its face.
Hence the Trickster. As with so many ideas current in the Western spiritual traditions, we owe much of our perspective on this figure to Jung, who sowed the seeds for the many discussions of the Trickster archetype in a brief but rather opaque 1954 essay entitled "The Psychology of the Trickster-Figure."
Like much of Jung's writing, this article is more richly endowed with erudition than with lucidity, but he seems to be saying that the Trickster represents earlier, primitive levels of being, is "God, man, and animal at once." The rich lore associated with the Trickster, depicting him alternately as klutz, genius, troublemaker, and savior, reflects our nostalgia for these "good old days" and keeps us aware of our primitive impulses so they can remain (mostly) in our control.
But as the articles in this issue show, the Trickster is not just a figure from the remote past. And although he's linked to the vitality of field and forest, that's not his only function. The Trickster comes forth in the heart of our aseptic modern lives as well, and I think he'd do so whether we were cut off from nature or not. For the need for him comes from an even deeper fact about the human psyche.
Boris Mouravieff, the mysterious Russian sage whose superb book on esoteric Christianity is reviewed on page 56 of this issue, states the matter bluntly. The personality as we know it, he says, the "I" that takes us through life and stands in for us at work, in relationships, and in private and public life, is based on lies. We lie constantly, sometimes to save face, sometimes to spare feelings (especially our own), sometimes out of sheer habit. And Mouravieff stresses that while it's impossible for someone in the beginning stages of esoteric work to stop lying completely, it's extremely important for us to stop lying to ourselves.
So where does the Trickster come in? As Jung tells us, he's not just our own memories (alternately idealized and contemptuous) of some remote age when people lived on acorns; he's also linked to the shadow, that strange and unpleasant complex of traits that we possess but don't like to think we possess. In other words, the shadow is created by the lies we tell ourselves. We can deny our shadows as much as we like - and many do for their entire lives - but that won't make them go away. Just when we think we've clamped the lid down on the dark elements of our own being, they surface again, sporting a sinister grin, like the devil who appeared to Ivan Karamazov in the guise of a seedy gentleman.
As long as we lie to ourselves, the Trickster will be with us. He'll show up just when we least want him, to embarrass us on a first date, to prove us fools in front of the learned company we're trying to impress, to make us miss a power breakfast with that all-important business contact. Yes, he'll leave at our bidding, but he always comes back with a vengeance. The only way to get rid of him is to listen to his message - and to admit the truth about ourselves in all its beauty and ugliness.
It's often bruited about today that the function of the spiritual teacher is to serve as a trickster for us, to mirror our worst impulses until we acknowledge them and consciously decide how to deal with them. And these days we'll often hear obstreperous, difficult, or nasty spiritual teachers spoken of as "trickster figures."
It's true enough, of course, that the spiritual teacher will often help us see our worst traits so we can go past them. All the same it's gotten to the point where I'm very leery when I hear of a "trickster guru." How many students must a guru seduce, how many disciples must he swindle, how many tax laws must he dodge before we can finally stop considering him a "trickster" and acknowledge him as a charlatan? Yes, it's true that a teacher must occasionally use unorthodox methods to wake up a student; nonetheless, there do seem to be such things as pathology, sadism, and abuse among so-called "masters." Very tricksterish, to make the false so cleverly resemble the true!
So it's the function of the Trickster - whether he takes the form of a teacher, a friend or acquaintance, or the simple "psychopathology of everyday life" - to point up the lies we tell ourselves, and to nudge us, sometimes gently, sometimes roughly, into self-awareness - a lifetime's work, if we choose to take it on. But I don't believe even this exhausts the lessons the Trickster has to teach.
In Greek mythology, the classic Greek trickster figure is Hermes, the swift-footed messenger of the gods, the deity of speech, communication, and writing, whose first act as a baby was to swipe some cattle from Apollo. So the Trickster, the thief, is also the god of communication - an association that the Greeks were not the only ones to make; the god Eshu/Legba fulfills much the same function in the West African pantheon (as we learn from Erik Davis's article in this issue).
It is an odd association, thievery and communication, and on the face of it, it doesn't make sense. Why should communication and language, which have to do with conveying information swiftly and accurately (a function Hermes does fulfill), also be linked to trickery and deceit? I think the answer lies in the very nature of perception as we ordinarily experience it.
You don't have to have studied much esoterica to be familiar with the teaching that the world we see is in some sense illusory. A lot of people have trouble with this concept. A famous story about the British philosopher G.E. Moore, for example, has him "proving" that there really is an external world by holding out his hand and saying, "Here is a hand." To him the common-sense view of things was self-evident.
But the question isn't so simple. How do we know what a hand is anyway? Well, we've seen lots of hands before. After a while we get to be pretty expert in picking them out from feet, heads, or whatever. And this usually works well enough. It helps us sort out things that are good for us (like food and drink) from things that aren't so good for us (like poison or fire). We could scarcely survive without some sort of pattern recognition; even very primitive organisms can distinguish what they can eat from what can eat them.
Unfortunately this marvelous capacity of pattern recognition, which enables us to live in this hard-edged world, has its limitations too. The patterns we impose on things are artificial constructs. In a sense what we're seeing when we "see" a hand is not that specific thing (which is after all unique in the universe), but our concept of a hand built on images and recollections of hands we've seen before. As A Course in Miracles reminds us, "I see only the past." And of course there's nothing objective about this view; seen from the perspective of science, after all, a hand is not a hand, but, as Democritus would say, is really "atoms and the void."
So this faculty of pattern recognition could well be characterized as a Trickster. While it's not limited to humans, humans have taken the whole process a step further than any other species: We've developed language.
It's no accident that Hermes, the god of pattern recognition, the god that communicates what he sees to us, is also the god of language and speech. Language is an extremely complex and sophisticated form of categorization, and it's so powerful that it in itself conditions what and how we see and think. On the one hand, we all know just how inadequate language is as a tool for conveying experience; we've all been in that frustrating position of not being able to express ourselves, simply because there aren't words for what we're feeling. On the other hand, language forces our minds even deeper into the straitjacket of categorization.
Jorge Luis Borges expressed the truth of this situation in his story "Funes the Memorious." The title character is a sort of idiot savant who can remember literally everything he's ever experienced. As a result, language ceases to have meaning for him:
Locke, in the seventeenth century, postulated (and rejected) an impossible language in which each individual thing, each stone, each bird and each branch, would have its own name; Funes once projected an analogous language, but discarded it because it seemed too general to him, too ambiguous. In fact, Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree of every wood, but also every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it. . . . Not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front). His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him every time he saw them.1
In the story Funes seems for the most part pitiable, yet his world has a freshness, a vividness, that ours lacks. In our ordinary lives we forget the eerie uniqueness of ordinary things; because language provides the quickest shortcut not only for speaking but for thinking, we trust too much in it. We push our own experience into channels where it can be spoken about more easily and then convince ourselves that this is what's really going on. Here too Hermes shows himself to be a trickster.
Everything deceives us, then, as we wander in darkness. Is there any way we can keep from falling into the Trickster's trap? Many spiritual traditions agree that there is: to avoid "seeing the past" all around us, to relinquish the hold our conceptual mind has on us, and instead simply to see what's there. This means stopping the mental chatter and focusing on what's happening now.
To the extent that I've practiced this, on the one hand I've found that awareness of the present moment does "open up" experience beyond the conceptual and categorical, transforming the world I see from a stale collection of furniture into something more dynamic and vivid. On the other hand I've found this awareness very hard to maintain. There's something about our minds that wants to continue in its ordinary discursive chatter; the sorting machine wants to keep on running even when we tell it to stop. So powerful is this mental inertia that sages have called it "sleep" or "illusion" or "hypnosis." But maybe it's only the force of habit.
Those who have stepped beyond the categorizing, classifying mind seem to confirm this view, saying, for example, that mystical experience is "ineffable." Why would it be, if what they were experiencing were just another thing in a world of things? Language is perfectly suited to that sort of description. But if mystical experience were to take us past the categorizing, cognitive part of our minds entirely, to stop us from sorting out one "thing" from another, the experience it brings could well be called "ineffable." And since our categorizations are not only arbitrary but false, to go past them and discover things as they really are would give us an experience of truth, would show us that beforehand we had indeed been seeing "through a glass darkly."
The ultimate Trickster, then, is our own mind. We've assigned it certain functions - to generalize, to see patterns, to make words - but, as if through the work of some malign demiurge, we've forgotten that we've made up these properties and instead take them for reality. In that sense, the Trickster is the ultimate teacher too. Each time he trips us up, each time he presents us with one thing in the guise of the other, he forces us to remember that we inhabit a forest of dreams. And he'll continue to play his games on us until we wake up.
1. Jorge Luis Borges, "Funes the Memorious," in Labyrinths (New York: New Directions, 1962), p. 65.
(c) copyright 1991 by Jay Kinney