Review: Trickster Makes This World, by Lewis Hyde

tmtwTrickster Makes This World, by Lewis Hyde. Published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998. Republished with a new introduction by Michael Chabon, 2010.

This rich, multi-layered book demands close attention and some perseverance, but its rewards are many; while I have read it only once so far, I am quite sure that repeat readings will uncover even more depth.

Hyde’s goal here is to explore and explain the nature of the Trickster, whether gods (Hermes, Loki, Eshu, Coyote, among others) or humans (Allen Ginsberg, Frederick Douglass, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, also among others.)

Buy Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art here.

Tricksters are usually thought of as entities to be approached with caution, if they are to be approached at all. The Tricksters are a subversive lot, always breaking the rules and making a mockery of convention. There is some truth in this perception, but Hyde shows at great length that the actions of the Trickster are almost always geared toward a greater purpose.

Hyde makes little distinction between divine and human Tricksters, moving from one to the other fluidly. Frederick Douglass and Hermes, Eshu and Allen Ginsberg, Duchamp and Coyote, all mingle through the pages along thematic lines.

The kind of art that Hyde is primarily concerned with is what many people find difficult to comprehend, from Picasso’s cubism to Pollock’s splatters and John Cage’s composition of silence “4’33.” As an example of his thought, he explains that Cage’s piece was not actually about silence at all.

Although it is accurately described as four minutes and 33 seconds of a pianist sitting on a stage and not playing a single note, the “music” of the piece comes from another place. The inspiration for the piece apparently came from Cage’s visit to a soundproof chamber at Harvard University, a place so devoid of external sound that he could hear the flow of his blood. The experience showed, Hyde explains, that there is no such thing as silence. There is only sound we intend to make and sound we don’t intend.

“4’33”,” then, was not intended to be silence; it was intended to make people aware of the unintended sound that cannot be avoided. Hyde quotes Cage describing the audience’s misunderstanding at the premiere of the piece.

“What they thought was silence … was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began patterning the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

The book will leave its readers with a much deeper understanding of the figure of the Trickster in myth and pagan religion (ancient and modern alike), and also a new appreciation for how the Trickster dynamic affects our thinking and, often, leads to large scale social change.

In addition, I drew the title for this blog from a passage in this book.

Hermes … is neither the god of the door leading out nor the god of the door leading in–he is the god of the hinge.

Creativity is the engine that moves thought and motivation through the door. The god isn’t pointing to one side or another. He is facilitating the journey.