Where Have All the Tricksters Gone?

On October 15, 2005, Seattle artist Steven Miller married a pile of dirt.

Stephen Miller. Dirt Wedding, 2005. Photo by Susan Robb.

Stephen Miller. Dirt Wedding, 2005. Photo by Susan Robb.

A photographer whose work often explores issues of homosexuality and taboo, Miller’s “Dirt Wedding” is achingly ironic.  Forbidden by law to marry another man, he instead puckers up for a scatalogical lump.  From his statement for this project:

Mythologies around the world include stories where a trickster figure interacts with dirt – usually to the amusement and disgust of the trickster’s audience. These characters – Raven, Coyote, Legba, and Krishna – all use dirt to expose that culture’s particular taboos and ultimately breaks new ground for what is acceptable. Unable to marry another man, I instead married a pile of dirt in front of 60 people and re-enacted the trickster ritual of presenting something disgusting as acceptable.

Viewed through the lens of the recent and painful passage of California’s Prop 8, this work has taken on a new immediacy.  But the symbolic power of Miller’s act transcends the current political moment.  He nails it in his statement: he is channeling the Trickster, that eternal figure that plays an essential role in basically every mythology in human history.

Except our own. What gives?

The answer may be traced in no small part to the rigid dualism at the heart of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Unlike the adherents of those fragmented polytheistic religions—who have always considered “God” to be too rich and fluid a concept to be effectively captured in one mythic personality—we in the West are the heir to a dominant theology that pits an angry, jealous, and decidedly heteronormative sky god against  basically everyone and everything else.  Unsurprisingly, this is the kind of mythology that lends itself to conquering large portions of the world and—until very recently—canonizing an unchallenged, self-serving version of its own history.

But what monotheistic cultures have gained in “civilization” and concentration of power they have all too often lost in depth of psychological reflection and spiritual insight.  Ours is a frail framework that sets up a God-In-Our-Image as both the almighty master of the universe and sole arbiter of good and evil.   In mythologies that celebrate and explore the subtle relationships between opposing social and psychological archetypes, this kind of egoistic hubris would be precisely where a trickster would enter the scene.  Tricksters instill humility by undermining everything we think we know for certain, and we’re invariably better off for it—mortals and deities alike.

Stephen Miller. A Fruitful Union. C-Print, 2005

Stephen Miller. "A Fruitful Union." C-Print, 2005

Sure, there are places in Judeo-Christian lore where the Trickster surfaces. (Isn’t that him already there In the Beginning, teaching those ex nihilo adolescents the ecstatic wisdom that can only be found by breaking Daddy’s rules?)  But Satan’s sly subversion does not earn him a position in the Christian pantheon—on the contrary, it earns him wholesale condemnation as the ultimate manifestation of evil!

Satan is what happens when the traditional trickster figure needs to be accommodated within the framework of a monotheistic and authoritarian religion. He has all the hallmarks of a traditional trickster figure – he’s a deceiver, a joker, a tempter. Like Prometheus, he rebels against divine authority from pride, and is cast down and punished. But unlike pretty much every other Clown or Trickster, his rebellion against authority is unmitigated evil.   –Balbulican, via StageLeft.

Today, many Westerners have broken ties with traditional religions in favor of a new mythology that places empirical science on the throne of God and all forms of non-scientific ways of knowing in the accursed “everyone else” pile. This is dangerous insofar as it carries a risk of an equal and opposite fundamentalism. Yes, we’ve  correctly identified the dominant religious tradition as deeply pathological and yes, now we know about nuclear fission and Viagra and all sorts of other badass shit, but science is also only as useful as its willingness to say “I don’t know.” Good scientists must devote themselves to the building of an endless structure that is constantly being renovated, humbly accepting the destruction of their own orthodoxies when warranted. (The best scientists are typically the ones doing the destroying.)

Photo by Susan Robb.

Photo by Susan Robb.

I believe that we as a culture can only ever hope to be as good as our openness to ongoing self-reflection. As long as we quite literally demonize the Trickster for showing us the cracks in our Temple of Hubristic Certainty we fail to see that good and evil, creation and destruction are as inseparable as they are inherent.

We need richness in our inner mythology so that the soul, or psyche, doesn’t get caught in stereotypes and miss the deeper archetypal presences. We need plural images and textured stories because the soul is plural, and many images can capture its multiple transformations and metamorphoses. Rather than blazing goodness facing off against unspeakable evil, we need flawed heroes and complex villians worthy of redemption.

–Dr. Stephen Larsen, The Fundamentalist Mind, 2007. pp. 84-85.

Steven Miller is represented by Davidson Galleries in Seattle (indeed, the same place where I schlepp antique prints.)

~ by emilypothast on December 18, 2008.

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