On Tricksters and Humour:
From "Mythical Trickster Figures" ed. by Hynes & Doty (Tuscaloosa, 1993)
"Why and how and at what people laugh is perhaps the most revealing of human actions." Oscar Wilde's remark about taking ourselves too seriously as the "world's original sin" ought not to be passed over too quickly, since much of American religiosity (whether pop or formal) has trouble with both the comic and the deceitful. Trickster figures graph ways of operating that go against the Western grain. Despite Augustine's dictum that good can come from evil, we are taught to reject almost automatically the suggestion that a deceitful figure - by the definitions of our society, morally bad - can bring about good.
We, who find the trickster's antics amusing, laugh not just at the underhandedness of the tricks, but precisely at their unpretentious straightforwardness. The trickster is sneaky, but overtly skillful about his trickery: if we approve only grudgingly, it is because we lack the respect for the trickster often found in cultures where there is great praise given to the combination of vital survival skill and hunting. For example Luckert suggests that for the Navajo the divine trickster was originally a "shrewd exemplary model for human tricksters" who hunted to survive. Likewise we tend to forget that even earlier, hunting was not a matter of leisure-time sport but of the raw trickery, focused attention, and creativity that is necessary for individual and societal survival, or that for the Greeks, skill in trickery was part of the ideal for masculine success in warfare, love affairs, and commerce.
Our own more recent repugnance toward cleverness and jesting stems from an ideology long regnant in the West. In The Comic Vision, Conrad Hyers cites, as typical of many other moralists, the eighteenth-century German philosopher Georg Friedrich Meier: "We are never to jest on or with things which, on account of their importance or weight, claim our utmost seriousness. There are things ... so great and important in themselves, as never to be thought of and mentioned but with much sedateness and solemnity. Laughter on such occasions is criminal and indecent.... For instance, all jests on religion, philosophy, and the like important subjects". While it is echoed in many familiar moralistic pronouncements, Meier's position represents a strongly contrasting mentality to the tales of trickster figures, who profane precisely the most sacred dimensions.
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