Coyote, the Fox, Anansi
Tribal Tricksters Around the World
The trickster gets around. Sometimes male and sometimes female, usually in animal form, this universal character has been spun by storytellers for centuries. In Native American tales, the trickster is often embodied by Raven or Coyote. In Asia and South America, she’s the Fox. In Africa, he’s called Anansi, Legba, or Spider.
Shape-shifting, mischief-making, and often scandalously gender-bending, the trickster likes sex and food–a lot. In one Karuk story from Northern California, Coyote turns himself into driftwood so two girls he sees on the side of a river will pick him up; both girls get pregnant. The trickster is the master of ingenious pranks, too. While his cleverness often helps people, his foolishness creates chaos. The trickster is what Native American writer Joseph Bruchac calls both “Promethean and pathetic.”
Take a story about Wakdjunkaga, for example. One summer, this Winnebago trickster makes some new friends. When winter comes, they have no place to live and no food. Wakdjunkaga has heard that a local chief’s son wants to marry, so he fashions a vulva out of an elk liver and breasts out of elk kidneys, puts on a dress, and transforms himself into a very pretty woman. After getting married, and providing shelter and food for his friends, he gives birth to three sons. But then, by accident, his secret is found out. Everyone is ashamed, and Wakdjunkaga’s friends run away.
Sometimes playful tricksters end up as tragic figures. Early Scandinavians told the story of Loki, who, like Prometheus, stole fire from the gods for humans, bringing them out of the darkness. After Loki was caught, he was chained to a mountain–again like Prometheus
–and spent eternity paying for his trick. Today, the trickster lives on in the great Roadrunner cartoons. Ever the hungry prankster, Wile E. Coyote does everything he can to trick the roadrunner. And though Coyote fails and dies–repeatedly–in each episode, he always comes back, bringing more tricks, more laughter, and more life.
Lily Tomlin’s Bag Lady for the Ages
When actress-comedian Lily Tomlin and her longtime partner, Jane Wagner, revived Wagner’s play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe on Broadway in 2000–with Tomlin playing all the roles, as in the original 1985 production–certain parts of the show had aged a bit, like the references to Shirley Chisholm and bataca bats. But one character re-mained timeless, a woman in touch with aliens from beyond our space-time continuum: Trudy the bag lady is the perfect hostess to her ‘space chums,’ showing them around New York and allowing her cerebral cortex to be enriched by their cosmic perspective. “My space chums think my unique hookup with humanity could be evolution’s awkward attempt to jump-start itself up again,” she says. “They’re thinking just maybe, going crazy could be the evolutionary process trying to hurry up mind expansion.”
Trudy may be a sanitized schizophrenic–there’s no evidence that any anguish comes with her space voices–or a consummate crazy-wisdom philosopher. She is a bold, unself-conscious unsettler of our deepest-dyed habits of thinking, and her not-so-secret agenda is to return us to a fertile place beyond our conventional wisdom. “[My space chums] say, ‘Trudy, we see now, intelligence is just the tip of the iceberg. The more you know, the less knowing the meaning of things means. So forget the meaning of life.’ I didn’t tell them, of course, I had.”
Trudy and her extraterrestrial buddies are trying to nudge us toward a wisdom beyond wisdom, a holy awe before the universe, and an acceptance of everything, including our failures to understand. “If life is meaningless,” she exults, “this is the greatest mystery of all!”
Happy with Hopelessness
Fourteen floors above New York City, on an apartment terrace, Andrew Boyd leaned out and suddenly everything seemed to give way. He felt himself falling, felt himself dead, felt as if all his life till that point had been a lie, felt he was being summoned to “embrace the terrifying Otherness,” as he puts it, and to open himself up to loving all things selflessly. Quite an experience for an atheist, but it wasn’t the only time Boyd, a political activist, had felt close to something Other–a presence and a truth he came to call the Void.
Boyd–or Brother Void, as he has dubbed himself–distilled the reading and reflecting he’s done since that life-changing experience into a concise, darkly humorous book, Daily Afflictions: The agony of Being Connected to Everything in the Universe (Norton, 2001). Disguised as a self-help guide, Daily Afflictions testifies to Boyd’s faith (“I am One with a God I do not believe in”) as it joyfully confronts things we love to look away from: mortality, doubt, suffering, and playing the hands we’re dealt instead of dreaming of impossible improvements. (“The future is full of possibilities that I must shoot in the head,” Boyd declares.) A veteran of solidarity work in Nicaragua, anti-nuke civil disobedience, and guerrilla theater–he’s the instigator of the troupe Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)–Boyd examines work, politics, religion, and “the uses of obsession,” not to mention psychological struggles. Of relationships, he avows, “I will find that special person who is wrong for me in just the right way.”
Yet this “dark truth-telling,” as Boyd calls it, paradoxically encourages not only awareness, but also curiosity, humor, fearlessness, and responsible action. “I’m not insane, but parts of me are,” he writes. “I dedicate myself to an impossible cause.” And what’s the upside of impossibility? “When failing is my goal I cannot fail,” writes Brother Void.
For more info about the book and Boyd’s other projects: www.dailyafflictions.com.
Jesting Is No Laughing Matter
The fool in a medieval court was intended to be the king’s conscience and alter ego, his many-peaked cap a soft-sculpture parody of the crown. As Joy Thompson points out in a recent article in Parabola (Aug. 2001), court fools’ foolery often opened a space for wisdom in royal deliberations. They were important members of the royal entourage, attending councils and, when policy was discussed, offering criticism in witty asides and jokes. Often the fool was authorized to express the king’s own reservations about a plan or a policy, allowing the royal personage to remain above the debate. The fool carried a parody of the king’s scepter called a ‘bauble,’ a stick topped with a miniature fool’s head. He spoke as if through the mouth of this puppet, and when the king became angry (for real or for effect), he might shout “Off with his head!”–and the bauble, not the fool, would be decapitated with due solemnity.
Mullah Nasreddin Hodja
Wise fool and fall guy, Mullah Nasreddin Hodja–an elderly Muslim village cleric who rides a patient, long-eared donkey (sometimes sitting backwards) and responds to life in a decidedly offbeat way–is one of the great characters of world folklore. He tosses yeast into a lake, hoping to make a whole lot of yogurt. His wife gives birth to triplets, and he blows out the lamp in her lying-in room. Why? “Everybody who sees that light wants to come out,” he explains. Another time he declares solemnly, “A philosopher once told me that mankind has two good qualities. He forgot the first one, but he told me the second. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten that.”
Mullah Nasreddin stories first appeared in a 15th-century Turkish collection, presented as the adventures of a real man–a clergyman and judge who supposedly lived in the 13th century. Whether a flesh-and-blood Nasreddin ever existed–and opinions on this vary–his lore became wildly popular throughout the Islamic world, and even in Greece and Eastern Europe. Punch lines to the stories have become proverbs in many languages.
The mullah is another classic trickster who sometimes plays the fool and sometimes is wily and wise. And his observations run the gamut from acerbic wit to gentle humor to koanlike depth:
The mullah walks into a shop, and the clerk comes forward to serve him. “Just a minute,” the mullah says. “Did you see me come into your shop?”
“Of course I did,” says the clerk.
“Have you ever seen me before?”
“Then how did you know it was me?”
Predictably, the real-life mullahs of the 1979 Iranian revolution banned Nasreddin storybooks–no one was going to laugh at Muslim clerics on their watch. But satirist Ibrahim Nabavi was able to bring out a collection two years ago, having taken the precaution of removing the word mullah from all the tales.
Yes as a Way of Life
Yoko Ono is far more than the dragon lady who broke up the Beatles. The truth is that she’s been one of the most consistently innovative artists of the past half-century. But her crazy-wisdom style–too hip for the mass market, too idealistic for the hipsters–obscured her achievement.
Born into the top rung of the Japanese bourgeoisie (her mother was heiress to Japan’s fourth-largest industrial empire), Ono bolted from the life of a debutante and joined the avant-garde art scenes in Tokyo and New York in the 1950s. Early works included “paintings to be constructed in your head,” bare canvases that bore tiny inscriptions like “Drill two holes into a canvas. Hang it where you can see the sky” and “Go on transforming a square canvas in your head until it becomes a circle.”
Ono was anticipating, by almost a decade, the influential movement called conceptual art, in which the material work be-comes a mere pretext for an idea. But while conceptualism was fearsomely theoretical, Ono’s pieces, and her subsequent work in sculpture, filmmaking, performance, and music, showed a spirited lightness and an acknowledgment of the imaginative freedom of those who encountered her art. Like a warm-blooded intruder in the oh-so-cool house of art, Ono dared to celebrate love, magic, and hope in restrained and unsentimental ways.
A symbol of her approach is Ceiling Painting (1966): A ladder sits under a framed piece of paper, and a magnifying glass hangs down from the frame. So far it’s a fairly typical avant-garde found-object piece. But there’s something written on the paper, something too tiny to see. You climb the ladder, use the magnifier. The word is YES.
When Ceiling Painting was first exhibited in London, one visitor was John Lennon. “That ‘YES’ made me stay,” he later wrote. He stayed to become Mr. Yoko Ono
Sex as Spiritual Salvation
This Tibetan monk and teacher, who lived from 1455 to 1520, embodies the dangerous side of crazy wisdom. A master of tantra, a spiritual tradition in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism that embraces occult wisdom and sexual union as means to enlightenment, Kunley was a drinker and sexual athlete who called his penis his “divine thunderbolt of wisdom.” He wandered from town to town in Tibet and Bhutan, denouncing religious hypocrisy in earthy language, drinking his fill of Tibetan barley beer, and initiating female disciples into the delights of love and wisdom.
In the Tibetan and Bhutanese tradition, he’s seen not as a sexual predator but as a genuine saint, whose high level of attainment and genuine compassion transformed sexual encounters into spiritual experiences. Tantra claims that no part of the human body, and no human activity, is impure if it is approached in the right frame of mind.
His example has provided some less-evolved gurus with a bad precedent. Franklin Jones, a.k.a. Bubba Free John and Adi Da, was fond of invoking Drukpa Kunley’s name during a period in the mid-1970s when he promoted wife-swapping and pornographic filmmaking in his cult.
Whatever we may think of Drukpa Kunley’s sexual antics, his earthiness and inclusiveness are hard to resist. The story is told that he once entered a village in which everybody was painstakingly devout. Monks and laymen were prostrating themselves to the proper deities and intoning their orthodox prayers. Drukpa Kunley sang out in a loud voice:
“I bow to fornicators discontented with their wives;
I bow to crooked speech and lying talk;
I bow to ungrateful children;
I bow to clergy who break their vows;
I bow to professors attached to their words;
I bow to tramps who reject a home.”
For this crazy-wisdom bearer, the Buddha’s call to universal compassion was no joke: It meant everybody.
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre
Sleeping in the Streets for Jesus
One of the most difficult forms of crazy wisdom for most of us to appreciate today is the radical imitatio Christi–the imitation of Christ’s suffering as a form of penance and self-mortification. We’re likely to dismiss the pursuit of major physical discomfort on the spiritual path (with the possible exception of leg pain on zazen cushions) as religious mania or sublimated sadomasochism.
Yet Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-83) chose a life of poverty, homelessness, and destitution on the mean streets of 18th-century Rome quite deliberately. Rejected from four different monasteries, Labre–born in a prosperous French middle-class family–armed himself with a pair of rosaries, a New Testament, Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, and a breviary and spent the remainder of his short life as a pilgrim and a vagabond. He traveled–on foot–to pilgrimage sites from Spain to Switzerland, and slept in the street, scrounging food from garbage bins and enduring the laughter and taunts of children.
His self-chosen outcast status notwithstanding, Labre’s unfailing sweetness of temper and spiritual seriousness drew many to him, and he became an informal spiritual adviser to Romans of all classes. Within three months of his death, there were 136 claims of miraculous cures brought about by prayers directed to him, and by 1881 he had become a saint of the Catholic Church.
Russian Martyr to Nonsense
Many writers have contributed to the crazy-wisdom tradition by constructing fictional worlds in which the events of the story violate ordinary reality in order to underline states of mind or soul–Nikolai Gogol’s tales of noses and overcoats with minds of their own, for example. An even more radical option is to make the very voice that tells the tale into a trickster.
That’s the dizzying method of a less well known Russian, Daniil Kharms. Reading his short stories, many written for children, makes you feel as if you’re riding an endless merry-go-round. A character is introduced just long enough for the reader to start visualizing him, then–wham–we’re taken elsewhere to another person, totally unrelated. Another character is described by what he’s not until nothing’s left of him at all. Townspeople are discovered in the midst of a terrible drunken brawl, whose origin is never explained. “Thus began a beautiful summer day,” the tale concludes.
The effect is disconcerting, yet the stories linger in memory and illuminate strange moments that we actually live: the weird power of the phone that refuses to ring when we’re longing for a certain call; the dead person who’s alive in memory; the way our heads conjure catastrophes that never happen.
Kharms’ life was a very real catastrophe. Born Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov in 1905, Kharms became involved as a young man with avant-garde writers in Leningrad. The hijinks and unconventional theater of their ‘Association of Real Art’ aroused the displeasure of the Bolshevik authorities. Kharms then began writing for children, but his brand of nonsense had no place under the grim illogic of Stalinism. He was arrested in 1931 and exiled briefly. Arrested again in 1941, Kharms died of starvation in prison six months later.
The West first learned of him thanks to George Gibian’s Russia’s Lost Literature of the Absurd (Cornell University Press, 1971). More recently he’s been rediscovered in Russia, and his works have been published more widely abroad. And now Kharms is more alive than ever, his childlike, wise, wide-open eyes still helping us see. “The sun and the grass are beautiful,” he wrote. “Grass and stone, and water, a bird, a beetle, a fly, and a human being (a kitten and a key, a comb).”