Trickster Makes This World

Mischief, Myth, and Art

Hyde exceeds the terrain of “creative nonfiction” (a term I always find slightly disparaging) to write academic tomes that feel alive, unlike the usual ivory tower fare. Trickster shows how our most playful, devious stories are also (perhaps not surprisingly) our most revealing.

Reading notes

Sacred

In discussing the Robert Mapplethorpe obscenity trial, Hyde demonstrates how the jurors reactions (“I don’t understand it, but if people say it’s art, then I have to go along with it”) demonstrate a clear, if unsatisfying, definition of art:

In short, the work is art because it appeared in an art gallery and because experts can talk about it in art language, a conclusion that may not be as silly as it first seems if we are in fact witnessing some sort of ritual event and if we remember that ritual and belief often have a tautological core: we draw the tenemos, the sacred precinct, and what enters it becomes, willy-nilly, sacred; we create spaces for art and educate curators to watch the gates, and, willy-nilly, what gets in is art.

Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, page 195

The in-group

Hyde’s analysis of trickster tales leads him to an image of tricksters as characters who cross over cultural boundaries—often those which exist to impose an inequality. Their methods may be perverse or ethically questionable, but without those tricks, they’d never break through:

[Communities of gift exchange] are very fine if you are part of the in-group. But what if you’re an outsider, or what if you’re inside but the customary commerce always leaves you beneath your “betters”? All the wonderful gift exchange in tribe A is little help if you’ve had a crop failure and belong to tribe B. The small business club down the street may have a fine program for start-up capital, but what if it’s for white folks only? What if all the male scientists swap data and you happen to be a woman? What if students at your high school always get scholarships to trade schools, never to elite universities? In cases such as these, you may have to resort to some form of subterfuge to get ahead; if others won’t give, you may have to steal.

Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, page 204

More importantly, the trickster’s boundary crossing often leaves a path for others to follow. Hyde also compellingly (and almost unbelievably) compares Frederick Douglass to the trickster myths, identifying Douglass’ theft of his own body as a boundary crossing. Sadly, Douglass continued to feel like an outsider even after gaining his freedom, never able to fully join the white community that helped him escape. I’m reminded of Meeker’s writing in The Comedy of Survival: unlike tragic characters (whose heads are often carried off stage absent their bodies), comic characters survive until the end of the play. Alas, survival does not guarantee happiness.