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The Trickster Brain--Introduction

In the Yoruba culture of West Africa, the mythic trickster character, Ajapa, is famous for his musical gifts, through which he can conjure, transfix, and seduce, while bringing much-needed mirth to the world. Like most trickster figures, he breaks taboos, and mocks the pretensions of society as well as the hierarchal structure upon which society is based. He, being a “lowly” animal (a tortoise in this case) still teaches us humans (of which he is also one through the mythical magic that allows such shape-shifting to occur) that we too are animals, who regardless of our trappings of culture still maintain the most basic instincts, the most primal desires.

The trickster is, I believe, a category defined by certain specific traits, that I argue does exist in both myth and culture, which for all practical purposes can be called an “archetype.” But I am not using the term in a Jungian sense of an archetype emanating from a collective unconscious or some other mystical cause. Rather, this pattern of myths, stories, songs, and personas stem from a universal human brain that is often at odds with itself: hence, The Trickster Brain. Trickster attributes occur not only in mythology but also in the behavior of human beings who take on the roles of clown—from the court jesters of medieval Europe to the Heyokas of the Lakota. Sometimes real-life tricksters are seen as

sacred, other times profane, but all share characteristics of the mythic tricksters, enlivening in multiple ways the cultures in which they abide. The human trickster, like the mythic one, can be a rapscallion of multiple dimensions or a cultural hero, serving numerous functions in the society in which he or she emerges—sometimes bringing comic relief during times of sorrow; sometimes bringing joyous artistic expression through antics and/or musical gifts; and quite often showing the folly of the elders—giving even the great and mighty their comeuppance. All in all, the mythic tricksters and the human clowns who play them work to turn the social order topsy-turvy, showing all of us how myopic, self-serving, and ridiculous our numerous pretensions are—each of us emperors without clothes.

The fact that the Yoruba trickster figure of myth is also a musician is no accident, as musicians in societies around the world are often tricksters— through musical feats of magic, through musical shape-shifting, through sexual seduction, as well as through their many songs that challenge the status quo. Often, trickster-musicians are shadowy figures who emerge at the margins, crossing boundaries, treading where “respectable” people dare not go. However, in doing so music tricksters are often willing to embrace the Other in ways no one else can or will—not being afraid to shape-shift, borrow, or steal anything—from melodies to tools. They even steal fire from the sun and bring it back for the good of the tribe. And they cross-pollinate, bringing energy and vigor into their cultures. Like emissaries from another realm, tricksters bring us the continually surpris- ing news that no matter where we come from, which continent, which country, which ethnic group or rank, underneath all of our differences we are very much the same.

Soon after learning about the trickster figure in college, it did not take me long to realize that many aspects of Trickster were present in all the artists, poets, and musicians I had both known and studied. Hav- ing made a good deal of my living through music since the time I was a teen, I particularly saw strong correlations between the behaviors of musicians and the trickster characters of myth. It dawned on me quite clearly one day that I myself (as a musician, cartoonist, writer) was play- ing the role of fool/jester/trickster. I began questioning why such similar traits had developed in both the mythic trickster and the musical fools of the world that had been inclined to follow such a contrary path.

Yet, studying Trickster as a graduate student working on American Indian mythology and culture, I was often frustrated. For while I learned about the various trickster incarnations across North and South America, questions regarding the implications of universal patterns were never raised. No one wanted to address the “why” of trickster. That was be- cause the search for universals in literature was deemed an irrelevant exercise in the Humanities, as it was thought that a universal human nature did not exist. But in the current climate of cognitive discovery, and the prominent rise of evolutionary psychology throughout the sciences, the paradigm of natural and sexual selection has infected every area of dis- course, even touching departments of literature (though like Issa’s poem of the snail—climbing Mt. Fuji—slowly, slowly). Looking at Trickster from a cognitive narrative perspective allowed me to see things anew.

In order to examine literature from a cognitive narrative perspective one must have a basic grounding in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, physical anthropology, gender studies, DNA research, prehistory, history, world literature, literary criticism, and more. What I have at- tempted to do in this book is provide such background information from which further analyses of literature from this point of view can be made. Some of the ideas I examine here, like Miller’s Ornamental Theory, are still controversial. Many of the ideas I present will be resisted by fol- lowers of social constructionism. Yet, I believe that in the end scientific analyses of literature will prevail and the humanities will have to accept the paradigms arising from scientific thought (including neuroscience and biology). Otherwise literary analysis will not be taken seriously and could be relegated to mere superstition.

The premise of this book is that stories are artifacts of the human mind, and as such, should be able to tell us something about ourselves when examined in the context of scientific research on the brain. By pry- ing into the mythology of the trickster figure, by looking at these stories from the perspective of science, I will be making the case that Trickster should be seen as a universal human category of literature that emerges cross-culturally because of our biology. Trickster stems from our ancestors, who gave us the genes and brains we carry with us today. Trickster is part of the human story we never grow tired of telling, for the trickster character rises out of a convoluted evolutionary past, making his way continually into the language of our lives because of the ways we are wired.

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