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Mischief, Myth, and Act

by Lewis Hyde

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-374-27928-4
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A model of rangy, creative, but not far-fetched interpretation, in this case of a common mythological archetype, the shifty trickster.

With often inspired readings of a variety of myths, including the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, North American tales of Raven and Coyote, myths of the Yoruba god Eshu and the Norse god Loki, Hyde (Art and Politics/Kenyon Coll.; The Gift, 1983) delineates some of their common themes: voracious appetite, ingenious theft, deceit, opportunism, and shamelessness. Through such themes trickster tales dramatize a mythic consciousness of accident and contingency (supplementing fate), moral ambiguity, foolishness, and transgression--in other words, the world as it is, rather than the way it may originally have been intended by the more senior gods. While careful to note that tricksters are heroes in a symbolic, imagined world and fixtures of wider polytheistic moral orders, Hyde ultimately identifies the trickster's crucial role as boundary-crosser with the provoking one often taken up by the artist in modern times. Without ever being heavy-handed about universal archetypes, Hyde uses such examples as Marcel Duchamp, Allen Ginsberg, and Maxine Hong Kingston, vividly illustrating the "trickster consciousness'' as a vital component of human imagination. His choice of the fiery 19th-century African-American orator Frederick Douglass may at first seem puzzling in this regard. But in light of the real-life gravity of the "boudaries'' Douglass crossed, and the ingenuity with which he did so, Hyde's example makes sense. Indeed, with his clever interpretive skills and his eye for the meaning-rich detail, Hyde brightly illuminates the ways in which his examples struggled to subvert such seemingly intractable elements as the defintion of art or slavery and segregation.

Eclectic and cunning in its own connections, Hyde's wandering journey through cultures shows him to be nearly as versatile and ingenious as that master trickster, Odysseus.