WINGS AT HIS HEELS, the Trickster scoots around the world in the form of Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Mercury is the Trickster of the Western tradition, and you can glimpse him in modern media messengers, such as the Mercury newspaper of Tasmania, Durban, or Portland. Other newspapers doff their caps to his role as herald, from the Sydney Morning Herald to the Herald Tribune.
Mercurial, the Trickster is a volatile opportunist, man of the moment; his attributes are some of the best qualities of the media (think “news flash”). A neither/ nor character whose favorite hours are dusk and dawn (the evening papers and the morning news), the Trickster facilitates commerce of all kinds, as does the media. Motivated, like the Trickster, by powerful appetite, the winged media swoops on the odd, glinting incidental. This is the oldest adage in journalism: “Dog bites man is not news. Man bites dog — that’s news!”
The media has — like any Trickster — an enormous capacity to deceive and to be deceived. The Yes Men, web-activists and Tricksters of magnificence, pretended to be representatives of the World Trade Organization, and then famously duped the international media into reporting that the WTO was closing itself down for ethical reasons. Describing their superb heist, the Yes Men called themselves Robin Hoods, stealing the truth, to broadcast the vicious effects of WTO policy on the world’s poorest people. Although it was itself the victim of the dupe, the media forgave the Yes Men, as if recognizing deep down that they shared the Trickster nature, for the media adores those characteristics whenever it finds them.
Some thirty years ago, and celebrated in the 2008 film Man On Wire, French tightrope walker Philippe Petit set up a line between the Twin Towers and crossed eight times, teasing the police. The Trickster is a boundary-crosser (newspapers are a fixture at every travel node, station, or border), and Petit crossed the line of the actual tightrope and the line of legality, for the act was illegal even though he had snatched, with very Tricksterish panache, something that belonged to no one. It was a heist of utter ephemeral beauty, and at one point he knelt and saluted the sky itself, conjuring theater out of thin air in a space that is so doubly absent now.
Coming down to Earth, he was the subject of a police incident: the charge sheet read “man on wire.” But it was also a media incident, and his fragile defiant act lit up front pages around the world. The media knew him for one of theirs: in good duping fashion, Petit had pretended to be a journalist in order to gain access to the Twin Towers.
Never a grand god, the Trickster is always little, and Philippe Petit was “Little” in name and slight in figure, walking in the bendy, comic footsteps of Les Funambules, the funny-walkers, the juggling, clowning acrobats who in the French theatrical tradition were regarded as small fry by Le Grand Théâtre, which performed the classics of grandeur. But the boulevard of public life needs both Les Funambules and Le Grand Théâtre, needs what in Latin is called altus, a word meaning both high and low: high as a man on wire, and also low, profound, deep as the spirit under the land. Likewise, the Trickster figure needs the whole pantheon of deeper gods and wiser goddesses for his very meaning. The Tricksterish media needs to be heard against a background of the older, slower voices of the pantheon: storytellers, artists, shamans, call them the poets for short — those who attend the deep pulses of the body politic.
You can’t look to the Trickster for profound truths — it’s not in the job description. And in any case we the public, strolling along the boulevard, will always prick up our ears at the sound of a tin whistle and thrill to the high-wire act. The difficulty is that the steady state, from which these things stand out as eccentric, is easily ignored: the income gaps and engineered poverty, and more than anything the devastation of nature.
Focusing on the incident — the man on wire or the lone gunman killing a child — the mass media ignores a system of corporate peonage which imprisons and executes a million childhoods. The barker on the boulevard of ordinary life is shouting out, “Extra! Extra!” — pointing to the Extra!ordinary and ignoring the ordinary. The media gives a false proximity to the incidental, but a false distance to systemic wrongs. Dangerously, it implies that the system needs little remark: witness the lethal length of time it took for the issue of climate change to finally make it big in the press. It was telling that when the Yes Men pulled off their heist, they created an incident and the media focused (of course) on the dupe itself more than on the systematic behavior of the WTO that the trick alluded to.
In the widest sense, this is about how society tells truths to itself and the sources of truths, which include history, the land, the academy, the poets, and the media. Modern Euro-American society deprives itself of most of these sources. The academy is terrified of taking up a moral position as if that would undermine its authority, although arguably this abnegation is a corruption of its authority. This is an age which forges its history, silences the voices of the land, and ignores the poets, leaving the public susceptible to being duped by the Trickster-media, who might (or might not) tell the truth (or a bit of it) from time to time.
The contemporary media has too much power — so much power, in fact, that it really should be elected. It has the power to decide what to publicize and what to hide, what to commend by remembering and what to condemn by forgetting. In Greek, truth is alethia where lethe means forgetting, as the souls of the dead drink to forget from the River of Lethe. To tell the truth, then, is to be unforgetting, holding the past in present mind.
For almost all of history, societies have trusted shaman-poets to speak truths, whether that truth is literal or metaphoric, and the poets have had real power. Pace Shelley, poets are the acknowledged legislators of the soul-world, which is why people quote a line from Shakespeare or Whitman for its inherent truth, for its instinct for the altus: an authority both high and deep. Medieval Welsh bards were actual legislators: they were judges as well as poets. Celtic poets were even the judges of kings, who depended on the applause of the bards, and were overthrown if that approval was withdrawn.
Recently, the Mamas, the shaman-seers of the Kogi people from the mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, issued a statement on environmental devastation. The “life-essence of the planet is failing,” they said, while their own situation was “as serious as the Conquest itself.” These were voices from altus, speaking at one of their highest sacred places in the mountains, and from altus, the depths of soul, the long-sighted, far-feeling, timbre of truths.
Traditionally, the Kogi have not welcomed outsiders, but they are fundamentally altering their communication. They invited filmmaker Alan Ereira to this recent meeting, and are directly seeking to make their own voices heard in the wider world, in what they believe is a last chance to protect themselves and the balance of the Earth. It is as if they feel forced, finally, to use the Tricksterish media because no other kind of voice can be heard.
There is a direct — inverse — relation between environmental devastation and the respect given to the voice of the shaman-poet. When either one is in ascendance, the other will be in decline, which is why that voice has never been more ignored, never more reviled, and never more needed than now.