Monday, June 3, 2013

Theodore Richards sees Lewis Hyde's "Trickster" as brilliantly subversive - and timely

 Lewis Hyde is an exceptionally gifted, original writer. Reviewing his Trickster Makes This World, religious philosopher Theodore Richards invites us to think about the challenging, fascinating power of the "boundary crosser", a striking archetype for anyone engaged in multi-cultural, inter-cultural or interfaith thinking and living - or anyone who values the creative, original and spontaneous over the timid, banal or conformist.

"The Trickster dances at the edge between the clean and the dirty."
There is an oft-repeated truism that while different religions may indeed be different they all are about the same god -“many paths to the same summit”, or something like that. But what if, one might ask, there is no single god? What if there are different summits and different truths, even contradictory ones? What if the interfaith movement is opening us up to the possibility not of a single answer but a web of paradoxical questions?

Lewis Hyde’s brilliant Trickster Makes This World reveals to the Modern reader that there is much that has been lost in the monotheistic project. Indeed, just when we think we’ve embraced a new paradigm through the interfaith axiom “many paths to the same summit”, the Trickster subverts even that paradigm, revealing to us a radically pluralistic world filled with paradox.

Most fundamentally, the Trickster is a boundary crosser. Culture functions through the construction of boundaries: we learn, through the stories of our religious traditions, what is sacred and profane, appropriate and inappropriate. There are good reasons for this, of course. Civilization provides some stability and order in a chaotic and wild world. A healthy fear of the wild is not such a bad thing. But too much rejection of the wilderness can lead to a rejection of our own wildness, the source of our creativity. The Trickster dances at the edge between the clean and the dirty. He shakes us up, calling upon us to question those categories.

Hyde quite accurately uses the example of American racial categories to demonstrate the absurdity of society’s categories and boundaries. Created during the early years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in North America, American racial categories arbitrarily divided Americans into two categories—black and white. In addition to serving the purpose of justifying slavery, these categories were fundamentally religious in nature, based upon the radical dualism of Calvinism. Whiteness was associated with purity and salvation; blackness was tainted, subhuman and damned, which is why the so-called “one-drop” theory—in which one “drop” of African blood defined a person as black, persists.

The Trickster can appear to be the fool. He is wildly inappropriate. He shows us the absurdity of the inertia of our well-worn paths. Similarly, the Trickster behaves like a child. His inappropriateness is not unlike the way a child might behave. And it is our child-like qualities—called “neotony” by biologists—that give us our most human of attributes: our desire to explore and create. These are the qualities that allowed us to become human, to venture out of the forests and into the unknown savannahs and beyond.

Lewis Hyde, whose Trickster "becomes the violator of limits".
Trickster has no place. Lacking the wisdom of other species, Raven and Coyote must figure out how to eat by their wits—just like the human. But it is this very lack of in-born wisdom that allows for the process of self-discovery, creativity, and world-building to occur.

In this way, the Trickster tale is also a Creation Story. The trickster makes this world by shaking things up, by unbalancing things. While most of the gods provide stability, the Trickster destabilizes. Just as we understand in modern science, too much stability is stagnancy, even death. The Trickster engages in the dance of predator and prey, allowing for Creation to occur again and again, for the universe to evolve and unfold.

In dualistic monotheism, the Trickster was turned into the devil. Religion, in such theologies, serves the purpose of separating saved and damned. Trickster becomes the violator of these limits. All this is not to say that the tendency of religions and cultures to make order of our world is not important and necessary. Of course it is, and I do not believe Hyde would disagree. But the Trickster reminds that we cannot become to attached to any order—even a good one. Even one that says “God is One.” All cultures require, paradoxically, the creative tension between creation and the undermining of boundaries. It is not that God is not one—rather, God is both one and many. The absurdity of this paradox lies at the heart of the healthy approach to interfaith that not only accepts but embraces the wild and paradoxical world in which we live.

Theodore Richards
Chicago-based Theodore Richards is a poet, writer, and religious philosopher whose most recent acclaimed book is Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto. Richards is the founder of The Chicago Wisdom Project and teaches world religions at The New Seminary, New York.

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