I used to teach a seminar on “Myth and Movies” to aspiring scriptwriters at CBS Studios in the late ’90s. A side gig for a Folklore and Mythology professor (Dan Brown take note) who knew little about scriptwriting but a whole lot about character and story. My message to these eager cineasts was simple: If you want to sell your script, forget action heroes, intergalactic star-warriors, rogue CIA agents… find your “hero” in a trickster.
My celluloid example: Mad Max, the amoral, post-apocalyptic Road Warrior (played by Mel Gibson who was simultaneously pulling a few of his own shit-kicking tricks on the PCH). Like many trickster heroes, Max operates in a world turned upside down. He kills whomever stands in the way of a gallon of gas. He then steals an oil tanker from a gang of transexual bikers thereby inadvertently saving what’s left of the human race, but splits from the grateful survivors with the vague understanding that — like Elijah, the Messiah, or the 12th Imam — he might show up again if they really, really need him.
Carl Jung, who knew a thing or two about myths, nailed this character-type as “Trickster” finding its origins in “the shadow,” that selfish, erotic, incorrigible part of our psychic apparatus that his mentor Sigmund Freud defined as “id.” Jung said it’s from this stew of unconscious impulses that our most ancient and ubiquitous mythic archetypes emerge: Gods and monsters without boundaries who yo-yo thru genres often comical (but never tragic: if trickster dies it’s only to be born again). Shape shifting, priapic, devious, shameless, Trickster operates beyond good and evil (cf. Nietzsche), embodying the boundless energy of the amoral Big Bang.
All the primal pantheons incorporate such divine beings. The West African Yoruba and their New World descendants in Cuba and Brazil have Eshu, Lord of Unpredictability, oldest and shrewdest of their divine orisha. The Hindus have phallic Shiva, deva of Destruction and Creation, and his elephant-headed son Ganesh, who lost his human head after Shiva caught him peep-toming his mom, Parvati. The wily Greeks celebrated many tricksters, human and divine, Polytropos Odysseus, the ‘Man of Many Ways;’ the always randy Hermes, patron of thieves; and the titan Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus–distracted as the old godfather was by his own priapic shape shifting (alas for Leda, Ganymede, Danaë, Europa… ad nauseum). Nor are the Islamo-Judaic-Christian sons of Abraham without their great trickster (whom they unconvincingly vilify as the Devil); I speak of “The Great Adversary” Satan (aka Shaitan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, etc) who, upon a closer reading, often acts as caporegime for Yahweh/Abba Father/Allah in their various holy books.
Once hipped to his dominant presence, my wanna-be scriptwriters found Trickster all over the culture of the ’90s. They turned into SNL and laughed at Eddie Murphy playing Mr. Robinson, a parody of the beloved Mister Rogers, teaching all the kids the fine points of breaking and entering. They watched in glee as the rainbow haired and mega-tatted Dennis Rodman, greatest rebounder in NBA history, announced he was bisexual and showed up at a press conference prepared to marry himself in a wedding dress. And then there was Bill, President Wily Coyote Clinton, whose torrid pizza parties in the Oval Office with the determined Ms. Lewinsky were recounted in lubricious detail by our own flesh and blood Elmer Fudd (aka Ken Starr).
I recall these glory days of Tricksterism twenty year later, sitting here in Mérida Mexico on a cold Mardi Gras night, where I learn via an uncertain internet connection that Donald J. Trump has just won the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary. Caligula’s horse must now make way for this preposterous horse’s ass who announced his candidacy riding down one of his hotel’s escalators, fulminating against Rosie O’Donnell and “Mexican rapists.” The pundits laughed but the angels sang. Why? Let me suggest a theological explanation: The Donald knows a thing or two about the allure of Divine Tricksters and the gullibility of electorates.
But before we slit our wrists in despair, like all righteous Romans should, let’s remember that amorality cuts both ways. Tricksters can open doors as well as collapse empires. Which brings us to Pope Francis who arrives in Mexico on February 12. Arguably the most popular religious leader in the world, Francis famously said, “Who am I to judge?” when asked whether gay sex is sinful. The same man who says there’s a place in heaven for atheists. Who chooses to live in a guest house rather than a palace. Who washes the feet of Muslim prisoners in jail. Who wanders the midnight streets of Rome in disguise, comforting the homeless and hopeless. Who chastises rampant capitalism, and calls for his own often iniquitous institution to become the church of the poor. Who knew a Trickster (let alone a Pope) could be so good?