Tricksters and Archetypes in War Culture

Anthropomorphic Coyote trickster, from North American Indigenous mythology, canoeing up the river.  Curtis, Edward S. Indian Days of the Long Ago. Yonkers-on-Hudson: World Book Company, 1915. Page 84.

Anthropomorphic Coyote trickster, from North American Indigenous mythology, canoeing up the river. Curtis, Edward S. Indian Days of the Long Ago. Yonkers-on-Hudson: World Book Company, 1915. Page 84.

Archetypes are powerful and recurring symbols or images that convey models of behavior and bestow fundamental forms of thought and feeling.   Deeply embedded in culture, they typically operate on a people subconsciously, below the level of critical reflection.  They carry mythic force made manifest in metaphors, which function as myths in miniature.  “Archetypal metaphors in rhetoric,” in Michael Osborn’s terms (Quarterly Journal of Speech, 1967), infuse popular language with a stable architecture of preference.  God is conceived as a blindingly bright light and the devil as ominously dark.  Archetypes link experiences to motives with cultural authority.

The mythic trickster stands apart as the archetype of fluidity and ambivalence.  Trickster, who disrespects the authority of petrified archetypes, is an especially useful figure, Carl Jung observes (Four Archetypes), for provoking the conscious mind to free itself from a compulsive fascination with evil and its outward projection.  This shape-shifting, boundary-crossing figure of comic amorality is a clever escape artist.   Trickster’s mischief can disturb established truths, upset honored conventions, and confound categorical opposites to create new possibilities of thought and action in an imperfect world.  As William Hynes puts the matter (Mythical Trickster Figures), trickster “reminds us that every construct is constructed.”  Anything made—image, thought, or attitude—can be altered and even unmade.

Throughout the American experience, trickster-like figures have managed to slip the trap of the devil myth, even if only momentarily.  They accomplish this trick by means of a double gesture.  The first gesture is to elevate the image of chosen adversaries above the base level of sheer evil by attributing a degree of subjectivity to them.  The second gesture is to speak of oneself critically from the hypothetical perspective of the humanized enemy.  It is somewhat easier to speak indirectly and tentatively of one’s own shortcomings through the imagined voice of another than to condemn oneself straightaway.  This perspective-shifting maneuver momentarily elevates the image of the damned enough to lower the conceit of the self-righteous.

As Jung notes, trickster brings a person or, by extension, a people to consciousness in the midst of calamity and impending disaster.  Disruption creates ambiguity and ambivalence, which entails irony, perspective taking, and critical reflection.  These are the ways of trickster to destabilize deadly cultural orthodoxies in urgent moments of trial and tribulation.   Tricksters exploit cracks in the foundational myths of a people, even a people who consider themselves an exception to history and believe they have a special calling to right the world.

There is no guarantee that trickster’s twists and turns will yield a serious comic corrective in any given crisis, for war-making as an expression of national identity is easy compared to peace-building.   A presumption of war’s necessity exists to make violence regrettable but ostensibly reasonable—and oddly easier than bearing the heavy burden of dissenting from war:  “placing one’s self or loved ones in harm’s way seems less difficult and more reassuring than questioning the necessity, legitimacy, or sanity of war” (Ivie, Dissent from War).  This is the tyranny of war culture, but trickster’s opportunity turns up most readily when the trauma of projection drops like a brick directly on the head of the warmonger.



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