What I love about working with myth is that it always offers insights, not just into the patterns of our individual lives, but into the larger patterns which underlie the times we’re living in. We are mythic animals, and so in some sense we’re always living in mythic times – but sometimes those underlying patterns really start to stand out and become impossible to ignore. Right now, we’re living in Trickster Times. Because when civilisations start to become moribund; when social, economic and political systems stagnate, and empires become degenerate and unresponsive to the needs of the people, in walks Trickster to shake it all up. Trickster is the catalyst, the disruptor who sparks off the tearing down of the old order. In the story we’re living through today, Trickster is the one who undermines the élitist establishment which refuses to be held accountable to the people it’s supposed to serve. Lewis Hyde, in his wonderful book Trickster Makes the World, argued that Trickster is the archetypal disruptive intelligence which all cultures need if they are to remain lively, flexible, and open to change. But that change is always an alarming process, and one in which there are no guarantees: what follows might not be better.
What follows depends on many things – among them, the specific qualities of the Trickster who happens along in the story you’re living through right now. Because here’s the problem: you don’t always get the Trickster you think you want. (Though mostly, you get the Trickster you deserve.) It gets even more complicated when more than one Trickster shows up. Let’s take as an example this week’s ‘Brexit’ referendum in the UK. You’d maybe think the Trickster character in this particular story was Boris Johnson. Boris as Coyote: bumbling, often foolish, usually harmless, and above all a prankster. It’s hard not to love Coyote Tricksters, even when they’re driving you mad. But Trickster isn’t always a clown, there in the story to make us laugh; and neither is he always the clever one, like Brer Rabbit in the African-American tradition, outwitting his oppressors. There are Tricksters who are noble, and those who are ignoble. Think of Loki, the amoral, often malevolent Trickster of Norse mythology, who wants nothing less than Ragnarök, the downfall of the gods and the end of the world as we know it. Think then of Nigel Farrage, all hail-fellow-well-met joviality, a message of hate lurking behind the painted-on benign grin and the promise of victory for ‘ordinary, decent people’.
Mostly, we get the Trickster we deserve; this time, we got two of them for the price of one.
I believe that the Trickster we get is often, in Jungian terms, a reflection of the cultural Shadow. ‘The shadow is anything we are sure we are not; it is part of us we do not know, sometimes do not want to know, most times do not want to know. We can hardly bear to look.’ So writes Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, in a collection of her reflections called Coming Home to Myself. But look at what she goes on to say next: ‘Look. It may carry the best of the life we have not lived.’ The Shadow doesn’t just represent the dark side of our unconscious, all that we do not want to face: it represents opportunity as well. Facing and integrating the Shadow is a necessary part of what Jung called individuation: the lifelong process of psychological integration, as the individual strives to become whole.
As for the person, so for the culture. Identify the contemporary Trickster(s), and you’ll discover the nature of the contemporary cultural Shadow. It’s anger, hate, alienation, xenophobia, a retreat into insularity, a buttressing of the barricades. We all see it, and we all fear it. The state of affairs faced now by the people of the UK (and also in the USA, with the emergence of Trickster Trump) is a consequence of generations of politicians refusing to listen to and respond to the concerns of the people they’re supposed to represent. What isn’t acknowledged goes underground, becomes Shadow. But here’s the thing about the Shadow, and it’s critical to understand this if you want what follows to be better than what came before: it’s no good berating the Shadow, shouting it down, calling it names, telling it it’s bad. The cultural Shadow is part of who we are, and we all have to take responsibility for it. You can’t do moral high ground with the Shadow. The Shadow is ourselves. Refuse the Shadow, and you’ll never be whole. The beginning of the long, hard work of integrating the Shadow is listening to it, not abusing it. Lash out at the Shadow, as waves of so-called ‘progressives’ are now doing throughout the UK; refuse its right to have a voice – and it will turn round and bite you in the throat. You can’t kill the Shadow. The Shadow is you.
We might not have chosen these particular Tricksters, but now we have them. What follows from their particular brand of disruption might not be better than what came before – but it might be. It’s all down to us. It’s all down to the way we respond to and integrate that cultural Shadow.