When the wise man learns the Way
He tries to live by it.
When the average man learns the Way
He lives by only part of it.
When the fool learns the Way
He laughs at it.
Yet if he did not laugh at it,
It would not be the Way.
Indeed; if you are seeking the Way
Listen for the laughter of fools.
“I feel that living your life in contradiction keeps one confused and happy.”
–Zach Galifianakis, Comedian
This article explores the significance of comedy as a transformative art form. Many treatises have been written on the significance of painting, literature, or film as mediums for sacred creativity but I found that research that focused upon similar aspects at work of the comedian turned up short. By distilling the essential elements of the trickster as an archetypal figure the following article illustrates how the cultural icon of the comedian resonates with and is shaped by this archetype. Though the trickster is most often depicted as a mythological god or hero, the comedian, along with iconic figures like the alchemist or shaman, are actual facts of human history that are strongly bound by archetypal material which initiates transformation in a mercurialmanner similar to the trickster. I put forth that through the art of comedy, the stand-up comedian taps into the trickster’s archetypal roots as an agent of change.
Edshu and the Farmers
Let me begin with a brief tale about the African trickster god Edshu. One day Edshu was wandering along some farmland when he spied two farmers working in fields separated by a small road. Edshu decided that he should give them a rise and so “He donned a hat that was on one side red but on the other white, green before and black behind” (Frobenius quoted in Campbell, 1993, p. 45). He then proceeded to walk up the road between the two farmers until he was out of sight and then he reversed his clothing and returned for one more pass. Later that night, the two farmers began a casual conversation about the strangely-dressed wanderer on the road. One of the two referred to the wanderer’s white hat, but the other argued that it was red. The argument soon escalated into violence between the two as they drew knives upon each other. The village constable was forced to break them up. Later, as they sat in front of a headman who didn’t know which way to lay out his justice, Edshu stood up and announced himself. He showed the village his hat and proclaimed that “The two could not help but quarrel . . . I wanted it that way. Spreading strife is my greatest joy” (Frobenius quoted in Campbell, 1993, p. 45).
Though it is presented here in brief, this tale leaves us with a wealth of information pertaining to the trickster archetype and the types of situations that activate it. Archetypes themselves can be thought of as essential patterns of organization in the psyche. They underlie perceptions and lend themselves to the construction of subjective and social realities accordingly. Further, they lie just beyond the reach of our actual ability to perceive them. Just as it is said that a fish does not know the water in which it swims, so too, the archetypal psyche is something that is at once beyond us and yet immanent within us. The essential qualities of the archetypes can be found within cultural manifestations and through mythology, but one should be careful in assuming to ever know the archetype in its fullness (Jung, 1971). Though it only illustrates one of the many aspects of the archetype, Edshu’s tale gives us enough material to outline the essential points of the trickster and how this numinous force is still found acting out today through the art of comedy.
Essential Elements of the Trickster
In his wanderings, Edshu comes upon a plot of land divided by a road. One can take the land as representative of the common awareness of the farmers and perhaps the whole of the farming community of which they are a part. The land, if carefully tended, will continue to yield the same crops from year to year, and thus is a reliable life-source for the farmers and the community. Being that there is no direct interaction between Edshu and the farmers, the story implies that farmers keep their heads low to the land, only briefly noticing the apparently inconsequential trickster as he passes by. Looking deeper into this image, one finds a representation of the collective consciousness of a group of individuals. This consciousness recursively maintains its form through a continued input of information by its participants, which then yields a stable worldview that acts to support the system as a whole. The farmers can be understood as aspects of the individual or collective psyche. These elements participate in similar levels of identity and therefore remain largely unconscious of their potential for disunity. As long as each aspect keeps to its own “field,” a harvest will be made and eventually be put back into the earth when the cycle is started anew. This process is assumed to be an essential element of reality. However, as Edshu makes clear, stability is only an illusion perpetuated by the system itself. As soon as the information introduced into the system is adjusted—even if only slightly—chaos ensues.
The very act of walking the road between the two farmers symbolizes a bifurcation within the system as a whole. A cleavage has occurred, and in this case it is the level of consciousness within the system that will determine the outcome of this split. As Joseph Campbell (1993) points out, the colors Edshu has clothed himself in represent the four world directions and thus he is an embodiment of the psychological or world Center. Edshu is symbolic of what Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, would call the transcendent function (Edinger, 1972). In this form he is representing something deeper within the unconscious that has entered into a semi-conscious system in order to promote change and thereby growth. Unfortunately, the force of change in many cases is not something predictable or pleasant. Contact with the force of the unconscious has as much potential to destroy a system as it does to expand it (Jung, 1989). Like any system, whether ecological, biological or technological, the psychic system must adjust to the introduction of any new influences. On the one hand, the energy of the unconscious imagery has the potential to generate a higher order within the individual conscious system, such as that which may occur through the process of analysis. On the other, it has the ability to cause a depressive or schizophrenic breakdown if the conscious system is overwhelmed by the unconstrained forces (Lazlo, 2002
Initially, Edshu’s passing seems like it is nothing out of the ordinary, just another event in an ordinary day, but as night falls and the farmers enter into the liminal space between the daylight world of consciousness and the night world of the unconscious, tension escalates. The farmers are polarized because each feels that his recollection of the day’s events is correct one and this inability to see beyond their limited perspectives leads to the violence that ensues. The two begin by beating about each other with fists but soon draw knives in hopes of making their points clear. Despite this violent turn, Edshu’s trick has inadvertently given the farmers the opportunity to discover tensions that already existed between them all along; only their level of consciousness had previously prevented them from awaking to this possibility. The potential for destructive change is well captured in the words of author Susan Rowland (2006), “Without the self-consciousness only possible through individuation with the inner ‘other’, the image, the outer ‘other’, such as another person, may be subjected to devastating ‘mindless’ violence” (p. 294).
This phase of the tale represents one of the simplest functions of the trickster as it forces a moment of reflection upon the farmers by forcing them recognize their polarity (Miller, 1991). Edshu forces these two characters to serve as mirrors for the other. Sometimes when one looks into the mirror provided by deeper aspects of the self the revelation becomes a violent one. The farmers are forced to confront the relativity of their values though they have a long hard road ahead of them in doing so. The essential point is that Edshu has caused the first crack in what appeared to be an otherwise stable system. He has set in motion a potential avalanche of activity that will eventually result in one of two paths.
Looking more deeply into the symbols used to illustrate the conflict between the two figures, one may recognize the knife as a further representation of the increasing momentum of change initiated by Edshu’s initial stroll between the to farmers. Cutting tools often refer to an “active principle which changes passive matter” (Chevalier and Gheerbrant, 1996, p. 573). Whereas a noble weapon such as the sword often symbolizes the conscious ability to discern between two or more options, the knife as a crude weapon alludes to elements of cruelty, wanton violence, and blood sacrifice. As such, it illustrates a change brought about without the quality of foresight (Chevalier and Gheerbrant, 1996). The way that these two farmers suddenly resort to violence instead of approaching the conflict in another way reinforces the symbolism of the knife as a crude implement, incapable of providing true discernment and provoking forceful change instead.
In the last scene, we witness the extreme polarization that has occurred due to the fact that even the headman of the community cannot decide which of these two individuals is correct. The community is approaching the situation from a limited level of reality that is incapable of resolving the tension present between the two poles. What is needed is a logical leap to a higher order of reality, but this is not something that can be achieved from within the limitations of the current state. In the words of Rowland (2006), “archetypal images arise from a dialogue between the irrepresentable shaping purity of the archetype and its inevitable partial dispersal as the image is formed in the context of an individual’s personal, social and historical life” (p. 288).
A constellation of forces that includes the polar opposites and a representative of the higher order is required to initiate a change from one level of perceived reality to the next (Nicolescu, 2008). It is at this point where the tensions between the two farmers has reached the boundaries of the entire community—as represented by the town council and the headman—that Edshu makes himself known as the perpetrator of all that has transpired. Edshu’s actions drive home his role as the avatar of the transcendent function. Though his actions may seem to have involved little in the way of consciousness, it is his role in the story that brings about a new order of consciousness within the community. As physicist David Peat puts it (2005), “We lead much of our lives asleep and manufacture all manner of excuses to allow our dreams to continue” (p. 18).
What Edshu has done is challenge the dreams by which this small community has been living. He has forced them to wake up in the world if only for a moment. However, Edshu will council them no further as to how their fate should unfold from here. He has aided the community in establishing a connection to something deeper, given them a mirror of themselves. It is now up to the community to do what they will with that, whether for better or for worse.
The entrance of the trickster into the stagnant situation acts as a catalyst for a higher order of change. Unfortunately, the Edshu tale goes no further and the reader is left wondering what comes next. Seeing this point in the story as yet another bifurcation point, I can imagine two different possibilities: one leading to the breakdown of the system, and the other leading to the evolution of the system. Should the system break down, it is likely the result of a renewed polarization. Instead of farmer being against farmer, the two would unite in their struggle against an apparently senseless act of some insane god (Laslo, 2002).This approach could come about only if the members of the community used the logic established in their previous perceptive reality for addressing the impact of newly attained insights. Instead of attempting to integrate the new form to include a more complicated level of reality than initially supposed, the community would only enact the previous pattern of polarization that was carried out previously by two of its members. In this case, the events preceding Edshu’s revelation could be seen as fractal elements of the system, a natural tendency within the system as a whole to resort to polarization whenever its identity is threatened (Lazlo, 2002).
One can also assume that Edshu’s revelation is akin to the transcendent function in Jungian psychology. Though it may be disruptive to the overall stability of the conscious system, the transcendent function serves a higher order by bringing the system into closer contact with the archetypal roots of psychic reality and providing a bridge for the synthetic integration of the system with the unknown. As this bridge between hidden psychic elements and the conscious ego is built, the ego becomes able to identify with something beyond itself, thereby enlarging its limited perspective (Edinger, 1972). In the same way, the farmers represent a conflict within the ego-frame that can only be resolved through the “divine” intervention of the collective unconscious in the form of Edshu. Following the Jungian concept to its conclusion would imply that Edshu’s revelation enlarges the perspective of both the farmers and the community as a whole.
Recognizing that each of the two polar elements was privy only to a limited perspective is a means of achieving an enlarged perspective in which one understands that there are often outliers of awareness that may subtly influence the experience of any situation. On a biological level our perceptions may be obscured by basic mammalian desires for nourishment, sexual satisfaction, and security. Our perceptions may further be colored by our conscious cravings, worries and desires. In this case, had each of the farmers acknowledged the possibility that the wanderer on the road could be wearing clothing made of many colors, the ensuing conflict would likely not have occurred. However, because the farmers were so established in their unitary perspectives they were not able to conceive of an alternate possibility.
Assuming that the transcendent function did its job and drew the community into a closer relationship to the divine principles as represented by Edshu in his costume as World Center, one can conclude that, despite the violence and turmoil, the community has achieved a new state of equilibrium. This new state contains the logical mechanism for dealing with more complex situations should they crop up in the future. It also provides the community with an enlarged perspective that is better able to balance oppositional tensions in order to reconcile them into newly formed wholes instead of disparate parts. Edshu acts to make the community aware of its inferior functions so that they do not occur again. Making the inferior function present within the group obvious by bringing it forth as a historical fact (the violent disagreement did occur), the trickster serves to bring into awareness an aspect of the group that previously was unknown (Rowland, 2006).
Through this commentary, it has been my goal to illuminate some of the essential qualities of the trickster archetype by reflecting on it as a literary figure. In order to further this process of reduction I will once again restate the essential elements as they pertain to the comedic art. First, in the words of Edshu, the trickster is attracted to strife. He always sows the seeds of new potential, whether destructive or creative; the trickster rarely identifies solely with one of these two forces. As Rowland (2006) puts it, “As a figure, he is not mere singularity, but rather a multiplicity of potential stories involving confusion, delight, and humiliation…so ‘he’ hints of larger mythological frames. The trickster is narrative; perhaps ‘he’ stands for narrative itself as a tricky, undecidedable [sic] foundation of knowledge” (pp. 292-293). It is the very undecidability of the trickster figure that contains the element of strife to which he is attracted. When the potential for even the slightest rupture in a system appears, the trickster will insert himself in order to break apart the old form and give birth to the new. The instability or strife within a system becomes a fractal image of the mythological frame represented by the trickster, thus allowing for the divine entity’s entrance into the world of form.
Secondly, oppositional forces are essential to the trickster’s creative/destructive potential. As two forces build up tension between them, energy for transformation is created and without this energy change would be impossible. Third, after the initial movement of energy has been catalyzed by the trickster, he is no longer responsible for the outcome. The trickster may find ways to subtly adjust what is taking place in the creative container but, for the most part, the figure leaves transformation to its component parts. This is illustrated in the fact that there is no full resolution in the Edshu story. Our minds will naturally fill in the final details of the story, thereby giving insight into how we participate in the narrative as a whole. The tale is not meant just to represent the transformation of an imaginary community, it is meant to evoke a psychic response in us as passive participants in its unfolding. In that way, the trickster touches our lives, creating a rift, but letting it heal in accord with the psychic tools we have for addressing it. As Peat (2005) puts it, “The whole flow becomes an alchemical cycle, a constant movement between inner and outer worlds” (p.12).
Enter the Comedian
Unfortunately, attempting to convey the effects of a good comedian does not translate especially well to a written commentary. The reactive potential of a joke is lost when it is deconstructed in the name of “understanding, perhaps losing some of the numinous qualities represented by the trickster. I think it can be safely assumed that each reader will have had some experience with a comedian whether on a television sitcom, in a movie theater, or in a comedy club. Our familiarity with this icon is because the comedian serves an essential role by assisting the broader culture to assess and assimilate itself in an alchemical fashion. Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz (1997) speaks about the purpose of psychological alchemy:
We try to remove the enmity between the elements, not by discarding it, but by forcing people to have it out with their own conflicts, to confront themselves with their own conflicts instead of just letting them happen in the unconscious, and by supporting the integrating tendency of the unconscious. . . . That clears the way so that the integrating tendencies of the Self can come through and work for the integration and unification of the personality. (p. 100)
The comedian is able to “clear the way,” so to speak, because he or she enacts the same patterns outlined in the above commentary on the tale of Edshu (Campbell, 1993). The comedian uses jokes to meddle with the prima material that is the basic psychological system of the audience members by coagulating the conflicts contained within for all to see, then dissolving them using the very tension that is unconsciously present from the outset. Not all audience members will find that their members will find that their inner opinions, prejudices, and beliefs have been turned into gold at the conclusion of the performance, but at the very least a handful will be transformed by the experience. While this is not true of all comedians, I would suggest that it is unlikely that a comedian who has accomplished this task of initiating confrontation within the audience—whether individually or collectively—will be able to continue to do so for any length of time. All too often, the comedian is called more deeply into the collective culture and thus, that which once shocked or puzzled an audience into the state of conflict (thereby creating the potential for dissolution and integration), becomes a part of the newly formed culture. When the comedian steps into the collective culture through the medium of a television sitcom or a promising movie career and no longer stands on the fringes of that culture, his or her ability to create an impact recedes because in order to maintain a foothold in the collective, the comedian must become a part of it. Either the comedian has entered the collective because his or her material was integrated by it, or the comedian was forced to give up some aspects of the comedic material in order to gain acceptance.
A comedian who is in touch with the trickster archetype is one who is able to continually stay a step ahead of the collective culture. A comedian of this caliber is able to make the act of telling jokes into a sacred art that satisfies the essential elements of the trickster by polarizing the audience as a whole, or psychologically, as individuals. As David Peat (2005) remarks about the sacred in theater, “In true sacred theatre one is not ‘representing’ a ritual or sacred act, it is actually taking place” (p. 1). The trickster comedian makes those brief moments spent with an audience into something sacred by bringing to consciousness in the audience what generally lies on the liminal boarders of collective awareness. Tackling issues such as racism, sexism, sexuality, and drugs in the safe container of a performance gives audience members a chance to face something that lies just beyond consciousness in themselves and their culture. In his remarks about an off-color joke, psychologist William Miller (1991) makes the following points:
Of course we know it is wrong, and we certainly wouldn’t do such a thing; but remember, among other things, shadow is all that we wouldn’t dare do, but would like to do. Finding the story funny enables us to perceive ourselves a little more clearly. On the other hand, the person who denies and represses shadow will find not humor in it, but will instead be judgmental of it all. (p. 42)
Once the comedian has cracked the egg of cultural conditioning that surrounds the audience internally and externally, he or she is able to step back and allow the audience to come to their own conclusions. In most cases the comedian attempts to act as a detached observer who is merely bringing these fractures to consciousness. It is unusual for a comedian to offer solutions to the issues raised through comedic material. If a comedian is consciously offering a particular agenda to the audience then he or she is not fully embodying the trickster archetype, though in some cases, such as when the material is still too volatile, this may be desired.
Comedian Andy Kaufman was certainly one of the few who truly enacted the tricksteresque elements in his performances. From his ultra-popular stage character Ladka, on Taxi, and his rendition of Mighty Mouse, to his over-the-top wrestling stunts and his onstage death and resurrection of an elderly woman, Andy always drew his audience beyond the borders of acceptable culture. In doing so, he encouraged his audience to recognize where their own perspective fell along the spectrum between his actions and the standards of collective culture. Though Andy’s performances may have often seemed to stem from the profane, they served the higher purpose of the trickster by allowing the audience to confront what was actually going on inside them, thereby granting them the potential for enlarged perspectives. As Jungian analyst Gary Toub (2001) remarks,
The more we align ourselves with our own individual paths, the less we can live strictly according to the collective norms and values. To realize our wholeness, we must free ourselves from the suggestive power of the collective psyche. (p. 255)
It is in this space that the trickster and the comedian collide. As one embraces the other, an opportunity for growth is initiated in everyone with whom this figure comes in touch. The comedian becomes akin to any of the other traditional transformers of culture—the artist, philosopher, shaman, or scientist—it is just that the comedian’s inspiration lies in a slightly less-than-sacred world. The comedian dances with the divine as much as the profane, and through this dance of opposites, the comedian provides us with the opportunity for change.
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Keith Morrison MA, is a PhD candidate at The California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, California. He is also a faculty member at the Center for Advanced Studies in Tokyo Japan. A collection of his work can be accessed at http://diariominimo9.wordpress.com/