At this time of year, the word "trickster" brings to mind images of children traveling from door to door dressed as ghosts and witches or toilet papering trees; in other words, children participating in relatively harmless, conventional modes of trickery. Lewis Hyde's conception of the trickster is something altogether different: a character in mythology or in real life who violates conventions by his thoughts, actions, or both. In his lecture "Trickster's Art," delivered Tuesday night in King, Hyde described this type of character and addressed the essential role of the trickster in society, particularly in the arts.
Hyde, currently the Henry Luce Professor of Art and Politics at Kenyon College, brings a wide range of experience and knowledge to his work on trickster characters. He has studied both mythology and modern writers, and he draws heavily on both the ancient and the contemporary in his own works. Along with a book of poetry, This Error Is the Sign of Love, Hyde has published two major scholarly works, The Gift and Trickster Makes this World, the latter of which formed the basis for his lecture.
In the lecture, Hyde explored the mythological portrayal of tricksters. In many polytheistic belief systems, while the vast majority of the deities devoted themselves to the creation of perfection, a single trickster god-Hermes in Greece, Eshu in Africa, Loki in Norse mythology-took it upon himself to stir up his surroundings. Hyde focused on Hermes who, according to the Homeric hymn, "happened upon a turtle, and got himself an endless source of luck," turning its shell into the first lyre. It is this sort of resourcefulness that characterizes Hyde's trickster.
Of course, such craftiness is not always put to respectable artistic ends. Hermes not only deceptively seduced the turtle to its untimely death (in an amusing passage which Hyde read from the Homeric hymn), he also used his lyre to charm Apollo out of a herd of cattle. Hyde argued that the thought processes behind artistic inventiveness and criminal craftiness are very much the same.
Many 20th century artists serve as good examples of the necessity of seeing beyond what is given, and doing so in clever and creative ways. Hyde cited Picasso and modern composer John Cage among those artists whose creative processes were not bounded by traditional patterns. Picasso's bull sculpture, made out of the seat and handlebars of a bicycle, seemed a particularly clear example of the trickster's special insight. Picasso spotted the bicycle parts lying in a junk pile, but his mind was able to take them out of context and conceive of them as an artwork. Hyde referred to a statement of Picasso's which seems to sum up the way that a trickster-artist views the world: "I do not seek, I find."
The question of what exactly compromises the artist's object occupied a large and interesting portion of Hyde's talk. Precisely what sort of significance does the trickster draw from chance situations and observations? Hyde proposed three answers to this question.
First, the trickster may discover hidden elements of a grand design or divine plan by accident. Conversely, chance occurrences may be taken to show that conceptions of a higher order are false. Lastly, observations based on chance may give insight into the mind of the trickster himself. Quoting Pasteur in support of this last argument, Hyde offered, "Chance favors the prepared mind."
If Pasteur is right, then Hyde must be one of chance's darlings. In both his lecture and the subsequent question-and-answer session, he displayed an admirable ability to synthesize his knowledge of many and varied disciplines. At the same time, his manner was remarkably unpretentious, verging on self-effacing. When asked how he himself fits into the trickster paradigm, Hyde responded candidly that he is more the sort of person who shuts himself into his study and writes thick books than the sort who aggravates a situation or tussles with convention.
In his own academic way, though, Hyde certainly has a capacity for observing the world and picking up on concealed associations much as a trickster does. As Margaret Atwood wrote in a review of Trickster Makes this World, Hyde has a way of "making connections that seem both absolutely true and absolutely obvious once [he] has made them but which we've somehow never noticed before."
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 8, November 6, 1998
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