Recent theoretical explorations of the boundary – particularly the boundary line – have led me to the topic of the ‘Trickster’. Although probably best known now from Native American traditional stories – particularly the Winnebago ‘Coyote’ stories – tricksters of one kind or another are features of all human societies. Hermes, Mercury, Raven, Sun Wukong (the Chinese monkey king), Ananse, the devil at the crossroads and hundreds of others, whilst very diverse, have a few things in common. Most importantly (from my perspective anyway) they are all creatures that both inhabit and embody boundaries. These are not necessarily territorial boundaries (though were used as such in Ancient Greek ‘Herma’), but include the boundaries between heaven and hell, life and death, man and woman, man and nature, man and animal and so on. The trickster is both a creature of the boundary, but also a boundary transgressor – to manage his (or occasionally her) mischief – trickster must be able to pass easily between states of being – to slip between worlds, dimensions, genders, to go where we mere mortals, the victims of the tricks, cannot go.
There is a substantial literature on the trickster, though largely confined to anthropology, religious studies and/or psychology. A common theme in much of it is uncertainty over who or what trickster might be in contemporary capitalist societies. Lewis Hyde, whose fantastic book ‘Trickster Makes this World’ found it in contemporary artists and writers – the likes of Pablo Picasso or Marcel Duchamp – who knowingly and deliberately sought to blur social distinction (in both art and life) and to skillfully and often mischievously, challenge convention.
Whilst I share Hyde’s interest in and admiration for these people, I’m not convinced that Trickster can be a ‘real’ person – Trickster needs its mythic character to be able fully to occupy the borderlands. Somehow the prospect of Trickster making a living from his mischief diminishes the force of his being. There are also plenty of literary and cinematic Tricksters (novelists such as Neil Gaiman – ‘American Gods’, ‘Ananse Boys’ – and especially Michael Chabon – ‘The Yiddish Policeman’s Union’, ‘Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’) but fabulous though many are, they are depictions. For the Winnebago and for all other Trickster cultures historically, Trickster is real – a representation may remind us of the importance of Trickster, but it’s just not the ‘real thing’.
So where is the contemporary Trickster? My own initial thoughts were to point the fingers at the bankers – those slippery and cynical characters that seems to manage to currently be immune to any form of control or regulation – who seem to mock our attempts to curtail their excesses by skipping off across the border to the xenospace of offshore. However, appointing them as Trickster seems too easy, too flattering to them, and in any case to suffer from the same limitation as Hyde’s candidates above. They are real – Trickster is only really real insofar as s/he is mythic.
This thought led me to money itself. Is there any contemporary myth more powerful than that of the ‘reality’ of money? Occasionally itself depicted as the stuff of the devil, money in contemporary western culture occupies a similar boundary-crossing role to the Trickster. Money carries value (real and fictional) over time and space, it catalyses our social and economic lives, it intermediates between utterly different states of being and materiality, it is, as Georg Simmel put it,
“…the adequate expression of the relationship of man to the world, which can only be grasped in single and concrete instances, yet only really conceived when the singular becomes the embodiment of the living mental process which interweaves all singularities and, in this fashion, creates reality.” (Philosophy of Money: p.129).
Which is as good as description of the Trickster as I’ve found anywhere.