THE FIRST LIEby Lewis Hyde
[excerpted from Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art]
A SIGN OF YOUTHFUL THEFT
As I write these pages a mother cardinal nesting near the house is driving herself nuts pecking at her own reflection in my study window. She is convinced there is another bird there, an interloper, a threat to her nest, her eggs, her territory. If I pull the shade, or even prop a book up against the glass, the reflection disappears and the bird calms down. But some days I forget to perform this small, interspecies favor and now the glass is covered with the greasy smudges of her wing tips, like a script with only two brush strokes, a cryptic testament to the stub born persistence of her limited brain. A story we'll call "The Reflected Plums" was once told all over the North American continent. Here is the version in the Winnebago trickster cycle:
Trickster happened to look in the water and much to his surprise he saw many plums there. He surveyed them very carefully and then he dived down into the water to get some. But only small 56 stones did he bring back in his hands. Again he dived into the water. But this time he knocked himself unconscious against a rock at the bottom. After a while he floated up and gradually came to. He was lying on the water, flat on his back, when he came to and, as he opened his eyes, there on the top of the bank he saw many plums. What he had seen in the water was only a reflection. Then he realized what he had done. "Oh, my, what a stupid fellow I must be! I should have recognized this. Here I have caused myself a great deal of pain."
In the Winnebago cycle, immediately following this event trickster fools some mother raccoons into leaving their children alone so that he might eat them. To get the raccoons to leave their young, trickster tells them where the plums are: "You cannot possibly miss the place. . . for there are so many plums there.... If, toward evening, as the sun sets, you see the sky red, you will know that the plums are causing it. Do not turn back for you will surely find it."
As Paul Radin points out, the joke here is that for the Winnebago "a red sky is the stereotype symbol for death. This is what it should have meant to the foolish women for their children are about to be killed." Trickster is toying with them, offering them a figurative hint as to what is about to happen; they take his language literally, however, and suffer the consequences, just as trickster himself took the reflected plums literally and consequently suffered. As is often the case, we see trickster being simultaneously stupid and clever--one minute taking an image for the real thing, the next teasing others too dumb to hear an image for its layered senses. Whether or not it is right to say that this story's sequence of events describes trickster learning something, it is right, I think, to say that the story portrays a character living on the cusp of reflective consciousness. Trickster embodies reflection coming into being; in him we see both the need for reflective consciousness (without it he suffers) and the rewards of that consciousness (with it he exploits the world). In addition, we have a narrative in which mental experience (trickster playing with an image) replaces physical experience (trickster actually jumping in the water, hitting his head). We see trickster waking to symbolic life or becoming aware of his own imagination and its powers. How, in the history of an individual consciousness, does such an awakening come about? More perplexing, how, in the history of the race, did imagination itself emerge? How did mind first acquire the ability to make images and how then did it come to reflect on its images? In trickster's case, how did mental fakery come to replace incarnate fakery? What happened between the witless straight man who takes reflected plums literally and the double-talker who says "red sky" to mean "I'm about to eat your kids"?
We cannot take on such questions without pausing to differentiate some things that I have been mixing up. In describing the marks of trickster's cunning, I have been conflating natural history with mental and cultural phenomena. It is one thing for trypanosomes to change their skins; another for Raven to become a leaf floating in spring water; another still for storytellers to have imagined Raven in the first place, or for one of us to reimagine him. Before picking these strands apart, however, we should remember that the mythology itself asks us to confuse them. Coyote stories point to coyotes to teach about the mind; the stories themselves look to predator-prey relationships for the birth of cunning. These myths suggest that blending natural history and mental phenomena is not an unthinking conflation but, on the contrary, an accurate description of the way things are. To learn about intelligence from the meat-thief Coyote is to know that we are embodied thinkers. If the brain has cunning, it has it as a consequence of appetite; the blood that lights the mind gets its sugars from the gut. Nevertheless, the cunning of animals is not the cunning of Alcibiades. The octopus, the flounder, the trypanosome--each of these creatures has its tricks, but none reflects upon its own devices. The alligator snapping turtle has that clever tongue, but it's a one-trick turtle, never able to fashion new lures for new suckers. As we've seen, even when these creatures lie, their deceptions lack the plasticity of human deceit. The octopus has no choice in the matter; if for some strange reason it would be useful to turn scarlet on a gray rock, it couldn't do it. It is bound to its own reflexes in which gray rocks evoke gray skins. And the feedback system that produced those reflexes is not located in the octopus's mind but in evolution's slow, dimwitted carnage.
That said, let us ask again how, in the history of cunning, the lure tongue gives way to the mind that imagines lures. As with inquiries into the origin of language, there may be no good way to answer such questions. In earlier drafts of this chapter, I rehearsed some of the ways that evolutionary biologists have tried to respond, but I always had the feeling that mysteries were being shunted from one area to another, rather than resolved. The strangeness and wonder of reflective imagination seems still to elude the grasp of biological narrative. I suspect it still eludes all narrative. And yet, with humility beforehand, it's hard to resist speculation. Several places in the trickster mythology itself seem to me to suggest a creation story for the imagination. "The Reflected Plums," as we've seen, implies that the pain of trickster's witlessness moves him toward reflection. To this, let's add a thought-provoking sequence of events from the Hymn to Hermes. Remember what happens as Hermes finishes his sacrifice:
Then glorious Hermes longed to eat the sacrificial meat. The sweet odor weakened him, immortal though he was; and yet, much as his mouth watered, his proud heart would not let him eat. Later he stowed the meat and fat away in the high-roofed barn, setting them high up as a token [sema] of his youthful theft.
Hermes, that is, takes some of the sacrificial flesh and hangs it up in the barn to show what he's done. The Hymn calls this meat a sema, which in Homeric Greek means a marker, sign, or token. To reflect a little on what's going on in this scene, we might first decide who is meant to see this sign. For what audience has Hermes posted it? One likely answer is Apollo. After all, later Hermes seems to provoke a confrontation with Apollo, and perhaps, now that his theft has been carried out, he's beginning to advertise.
This makes some sense, but in fact Apollo never does notice the token, and when Hermes leaves it in the barn he is still wrapping himself in secrecy (in the same scene he dumps his trick shoes in the river and hides the traces of his fire). It seems more likely, then, that Hermes is presenting this sema to himself. This is the child, after all, who makes a sacrifice in complete solitude so as to direct a crucial part of it to himself. There is a strong self-reflective strain in this Hymn; the god is making a world for himself. Like the writing we do in our journals, some tokens are addressed first and foremost to their maker. Hermes in this case may be creating an image for his own reflection. I'll come back to this point in a moment, but to give it its full weight let's turn to the question of what the token stands for.
The Hymn itself tells us the first way to understand it: it's a sign of Hermesâ "youthful theft." It has something to do with childhood and with cunning appropriation. Moreover, if this scene describes the invention of sacrifice, if sacrifice is ritual apportionment, and if Hermesâ invention is rightly read as a change in apportionment, a change in the rules--then the meat in the barn betokens all of that as well. It is a sign of a shift in the order of things, a new wrinkle in the code by which the portions are to be distributed. Finally, let's not forget that the immediate context of this sema is the pivotal moment in which Hermes desires but does not eat the sacrificial meat. This seems crucial: there could be no meat from which to make a token if Hermes had eaten; therefore, the token must carry with it the meaning "meat-not-eaten" and with that the memory of appetite re strained, the belly denied in favor of something else. In this line it is useful to know that in Homeric Greek the word sema belongs to a group of related words, a semantic cluster that includes the word for "mind" (noos) and verbs that have to do with noticing, recognizing, interpreting, encoding, and decoding. Noos and sema go together; you don't get the one without the other. You don't get a sign without the mental faculty to encode and decode its meanings. My suggestion, then, is that this "sema of his youthful theft" marks the move from incarnate life (meat one actually eats) to symbolic or mental life (meat made to stand for something else). It marks that transition and stands for that transition. Furthermore, marking the move from belly-meat to mental-meat, it marks as well the awakening of the noos, the mind that creates and reflects upon signs. This noos is no flounder-brain with its hard-wired reflexes, but the mind of a mammal without a "way"-- one that can step back from the objects of its desire and imagine them. The scene is a little noos creation story in which Hermes, getting wise to the bait, imagines but does not eat the mortal portion. This trickster tale also tells us several things about how that encoding (imagining, signifying) mind comes into being. First, it implies that noos awakes with restraint of appetite. We do not get a sema until we have the "not" of meat-not-eaten. It should be pointed out that this restraining "not" comes from Hermes himself, rather than any external authority. This is not the psychoanalytic narrative in which a child's acquisition of language coincides with his or her growing sense of parental constraint. Here we get the link between mastery of symbols and a prohibitory "no," but when Hermesâ heart says that "no" to his salivating mouth, the constraint is self-made and the mood is one of bright-eyed duplicity rather than loss and guilt.
Such bright-eyed duplicity, in fact, is the second thing the Hymn marks about the encoding mind. After all, stolen from Apollo and then used in a sort of Hermetic shell game to change the character of ritual sacrifice, this meat-not-eaten appears as the consequence of a series of cunning subterfuges. In this story, only a thief could have effected the shifts in question; it is by virtue of that thief's duplicity that the meat takes its double or, rather, multiple meanings. In A Theory of Semiotics, Umberto Eco has this to say about what makes something a "sign":
Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else. . . . Thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used "to tell" at all. The baited hook, that "first trick" we looked at early on, might make a good example of a sign in this sense. A worm with no hook in it, a worm the fish can eat in safety, has, by Eco's way of thinking, no significance, but the worm that says "I'm harmless" when in fact it hides a hook tells a lie and by that lie worms begin to signify (and fish, if they are smart, will begin to read before they eat). Only when there's a possible Lying Worm can we begin to speak of a True Worm, and only then does Worm become a sign.
We shall return to questions of lying, but first I want to link Eco's definition of a "sign" to the substitutions involved in thieving, and to the duplicity that produces the meat-not-eaten. To begin, I need to say a bit about what Apollo's cattle mean and how they come to have that meaning. The classicist Jean-Pierre Vernant tells us that the cattle of the unmown meadow are somewhat unusual before Hermes steals them: they are neither wild nor domestic; they do not reproduce sexually (and thus have a fixed number); they are peaceful, beautiful, and immortal. Hermes, Vernant says, "takes these cows from the divine world. . . to the world of men, where they acquire domestic status" and where they become part of "the world as it is"; henceforth they live in stables, reproduce sexually, and are slaughtered to be eaten by humankind. Eco is arguing, it seems to me, that what Vernant has as the cattle's initial meaning--their immortality, and so on--exists only retroactively. If meaning cannot exist without the possibility of substitution, then so long as the cattle cannot be moved from their unmown meadow they cannot mean anything. Conversely, the moment at which they may be butchered and eaten is the moment at which their earlier state acquires its significance. Their meat means one thing on the hoof, another in the fire, and yet another hung in the barn. Hermes-the-Thief moves the meat from one situation to another and by such substitutions it comes to have its significance; it becomes a sign that can "tell" something. Especially in a case like this, where there is a rule against moving the cattle, there can be no signification without trickster's duplicity, and the mind of a thief is the mind most fully able to encode and decode.
That given, let me come back to the idea that noos is also born of restraint. We usually think of restraint as a virtue and when the Hymn mentions Hermes' "proud heart" it's hard to get away from the notion that something good is happening--this youngster is maturing, getting control of his impulses, and so forth. That is obviously the case in one regard, but we must not forget that duplicity surrounds the whole endeavor. No one imagines Hermes is about to shape up and become an Apollonian banker. This young god is restraining appetite now in favor of appetite later. Remember again what he says to his mother: "Why should we be the only gods who never eat the fruits of sacrifice and prayer? Better always to live in the company of other deathless ones--rich, glamorous, enjoying heaps of grain--than forever to sit by ourselves in a gloomy cavern." In short, we are seeing appetite deferred or displaced rather than any full restraint or denial. As I argued earlier, Hermes has not given up eating; dedicating the smoke of sacrifice to himself, he forgoes the mortal portion so as to feast on a portion that will do him no harm.
It may be helpful at this point to summarize the ground we have covered and formulate a few conclusions. I ended the last chapter by presenting several ways in which trickster's cunning has been imagined. He knows how to slip through pores, and how to block them; he confuses polarity by doubling back and reversing himself; he covers his tracks and twists their meanings; and he is polytropic, changing his skin or shifting his shape as the situation requires. Natural history offers wonderful examples of each of these. We see this cunning in the humpback whale casting its bubble net, in the fox doubling back to baffle the hounds, in the octopus blending with its chosen rock. And yet these images fail to catch the full flavor of what we mean by cunning. We are speaking here of a kind of mind, and mind has a plasticity not usually found in the animal world. Odysseus and the octopus are both polytropic, but Odysseus is more so. Like an octopus, Odysseus could put on a rock-colored cloak if he needed to, but the octopus can never, like Odysseus, dress as a beggar against regal surroundings. The octopus does not consider its coloration. Odysseus and those who imagine him, on the other hand, have noos, the mind that can form an image or representation of some sort and "float" it, detached, to be considered and shaped or changed before it is either discarded or acted upon. The story of Hermes hanging his meat-sign up in the barn suggests one answer to how such a mind came to be. Duplicity and deferral of appetite are key to its emergence, the implication being that signification evolved to help this animal slip the trap of appetite or at least better manage its constraints.
However the shift from unconsidered to considered trickery took place, once it has appeared we must reread the stories out of natural history as "just so" stories about cognition and culture. Now, in addition to the fox with its seven-holed lair, we have all forms of mental and social opportunism, from the mind that can sense loopholes in an argument to the pickpockets who hang out around railway depots. Now, in addition to the octopus squirting ink, we have the mind that can hide its assumptions in clouds of rhetoric or spin out opaque mythologies to preserve the barriers of caste and class. Beyond the fox that turns on its own scent to baffle the hounds, we now have the logician's paradoxes and ideologies that conceal their own contradictions. In addition to animals that disguise their tracks and predators that see through the disguise, we now have the encoding and decoding mind, and all the arts of reading. In addition to nature's polytropic beasts, we now have the imagination itself--the mastermind of tropes--and the world of art and artifice, from the bard who weaves a captivating tale to the disinformation officer who floats a cover story to lead an enemy astray.
In short, trickster's cunning now takes on its mental, social, cultural, and even spiritual forms. But it does so with one particular limitation. Earlier, I suggested that if trickster were free of all appetite he would no longer be trickster. In a sense, this is a matter of definition; the mythology we're looking at is constantly gustatory, sexual, and scatological. It seems to require, then, that we connect trickster's inventive cunning to the body's needs. With that in mind, I want to return to a topic we have several times approached, the idea that trickster invents the art of lying, for in this mythology that invention arises precisely where artifice and hunger are knit to one another.
The woman next to me leaned back and closed her eyes and then so did all the others as I sang to them in what was surely an ancient and holy tongue. --Tobias Wolff "The Liar"
Hermes is a day old when he steals Apollo's cattle, and this first theft he follows smartly with his first lie. First theft, first lie: isn't the same sequence of events a part of each of our childhoods? When I was five or six years old, living in England, I stole a five-pound note from my parentsâ au pair. I hid this treasure in a tiny hole in the trunk of a fir tree down by the fish pond. The five-pound note in England in the early 1950s was as big as a handkerchief and must have been printed with richly colored inks, for now as I conjure my wadded hoard to rise from the pool of memory it appears with emerald and ruby highlights. (If they don's want children to steal money, why do they make it so attractive?) There was consternation in the household when this theft was discovered and suspicion naturally fell on my brother and me. As with the time I ]it a fire in my wastebasket, I denied everything. I held out as long as I could, but my mother must have brought me around because I remember leading her to the hiding hole. I think I resolved the tension by making up a story about another boy, a recent houseguest, whose clever crime I had had the luck to witness. My mother let the improbability pass, and I guided her, with a touch of pride, to the secret depository. The hole into which I had put the note I took to be the home of some small bird; memory's narrative of my theft ends with gem colors lifting from the duff and fibers of that nest.
Such stories border on the mythology of the trickster; perhaps all of childhood does. Who among us in early youth did not sometime steal food or money and then lie about the theft? When we did, what did it mean? Reading mythologically, how should we understand our first transgressions?
For one thing, these crimes play with the possibility of separation from one's elders. At least briefly, there are two worlds, the real one of the theft and the imaginary one of the lie. For an actual child, if memory serves me, this doubling comes with some anxiety. There is the threat of punishment and anger, of course, but beyond that a separation from our parents is a risk because theirs is our only world and we depend upon it. With or without that anxiety, the first lie is a particularly weighted act of imagination. It is a motivated fiction, and a probe into the craft thereof. We may not actually doubt the reality of our parentsâ world, but still, a lie is a bit of an experiment with its solidity, an artificial world sent out to see if it can blend in and survive. If it can, the authority of the "real" may be shaken slightly and the first lie bring an early awareness of artifice. Here let me refine an earlier point about lying. I began with Umberto Eco's idea that a sign is something that can be taken as substituting for something else, and I used Apollo's cattle as an example: Hermes switches them from place to place and by these substitutions they begin to signify, first one thing and then another. The idea was that trickster's duplicity is a precondition of signification, a point I qualified by noting that in this case there is a rule against moving the cattle. Without the qualification, we get the general case, which is simpler: "substitution" is the precondition of signification, whether or not thieving is involved. An example will clarify the point and, by contrast, help show why, in this mythology, we get the special case in which thieving and lying are in fact a necessary part of the creation of meaning.
At one point in the Odyssey, Odysseus is given a task: he must take an oar and travel inland until someone mistakes it for a winnowing fan. A winnowing fan is a sort of shovel used to toss grain into the air so that wind will carry away the chaff; it looks exactly like an oar. There is a complicated point to this task in the Odyssey, having to do with making reparations for an insult to the god of the sea, but what is of interest here is the simpler matter of mistaking one thing for another or, better, the idea that a single thing can have two meanings in two places. The same object is "oar" at the seaside and "winnowing fan" up in some hill town. With that, we see how Traveler-Odysseus is connected to Cunning-Speaker-Odysseus, for only the person who has traveled (in fact or in mind) can realize that the meaning of an object (or a word) is connected to its location or context. Men and women who have never left the village might not know that. Only the polytropic, "much-traveled" mind can know that. The oar begins to signify as soon as it substitutes for the winnowing fan, a substitution possible because Odysseus can carry the oar from one place to another. It's as if nothing is significant until it's portable; we must be able to move it, in fact or in mind, from one context to another. That motion needs no theft or lie in the case of Odysseusâ oar, but Apollo's cattle are another matter. As I argued earlier, the meaning the cattle have in their unmown meadow--their immortality, their asexuality, and so on--exists only retroactively. They can's mean anything until they can be moved from the meadow. The moment at which they show up in an other context, butchered, is the moment at which their earlier state takes on its significance. So again we come to the point that in this mythology theft is the beginning of meaning. To put it another way, a prohibition on theft is an attempt to constrain meaning, to stop its multiplication, to preserve an "essence," the "natural," the "real." There is no prohibition on carrying an oar inland, so any traveler may multiply its meanings. There is a prohibition on moving the cattle of Apollo; only a thief can make them signify.
Both lying and thieving multiply meanings against the grain, as it were. A lie is a kind of mental imitation of a theft (when Hermes lies about the cattle, he does with words what he did with the cows them selves). A child's first theft and first lie are pivotal in the history of the intellect, then, for with them the child is not just in the world of signification, fantasy, fabulation, and fiction; she is in that world as an independent creator, setting out to make meaning on her own terms, not subject to the prohibitions that preceded her, just as, with his theft and his lies, Hermes sets out to make a cosmos on his own terms. Such is the mythological weight of the first lie. I myself was a failure as a mythic thief and liar, of course; I never leveraged those five pounds into a world of my own design; with my confession I scurried back to a childhood authored by my parents. Though, come to think of it, I never fully confessed. There, too, I told a lie, a secondary fib featuring a second little boy. I see him still, standing near the pine tree with a wooden sword the gardener helped me make.
I am seeking out the mythological meaning of the first lie that trickster tells. If we come at the question from another angle--trickster's relationship to truth-telling--we will be able to link his lies to our initial topic, appetite. At the beginning of Hesiod's Theogony, the Muses come down from Mount Helicon and speak to the poet. He's with friends tending flocks of sheep, and the Muses address them with scorn--"Shepherds living in the fields, base objects of reproach, mere bellies!"--and go on to point out how different are those who live on the high mountain: "We know how to say many falsehoods that look like genuine things, but we can also, whenever we are willing, proclaim true things."
The Muses believe that human beings are unlikely to tell the truth because they are "mere bellies," ridden by their appetites. This is an old conceit, well illustrated by several scenes in the Odyssey. Visiting the Phaeacian court, for example, Odysseus says that his belly makes him forget his story, and asks to be fed. He doesn't say directly that he will lie if he isn't fed, he says he will "forget," but it amounts to the same thing, for the root of "forget" is leth-, and to tell the truth is to be a-lethes. "If you want me to speak the truth," Odysseus is saying, "you had better tend to my shameless belly." Similarly, when Hesiod's Muses say they are "willing" to speak truth, the line probably echoes Eumaios, the swineherd in the Odyssey, who says that hungry wanderers are "unwilling" to tell true things. The remark comes late in the epic when Odysseus has returned to Ithaca disguised as a beggar. The first man he runs into is this swineherd who tells him that travelers often show up in Ithaca pretending to have news of the lost king, Odysseus. As the swineherd explains it, "Wandering men tell lies for a night's lodging, for fresh clothing; truth doesn't interest them."
Of course Odysseus is in fact the returned king, and he keeps dropping hints to that effect. He even says at one point, "Your lord is now at hand," but the swineherd won't believe him. He asks Odysseus to get serious and tell his "true" story, and Odysseus obliges with a lie. "My native land is the wide seaboard of Crete," he says, and spins a tale full of the concrete, specific detail that liars use to make falsehoods seem like the truth. He ends by saying that he has heard Odysseus will soon return, to which Eumaios replies, "Why must you lie...? You needn't lie to be a guest here." The swineherd rejects as a fabrication the single part of the story that is true. (The recurrent lies Odysseus tells at the end of the Odyssey are called "Cretan lies" because he typically begins them saying "My native land. . . is Crete." Cretans were understood to be "lazy bellies" and liars by nature, so Odysseus is hanging a lantern on his own fibs, though--as we shall see--only one of his auditors sees the light.)
The general point here is that, in the Homeric world, travelers and itinerant oral poets were presumed to adjust their tales to fit the tastes and beliefs of a local audience. Sometimes in the Odyssey people say a wanderer will always lie because he has a belly; other times they say he will lie until he's fed. Either way, we have again the link the Muses claim between lying and being a mortal who must eat. Conversely (as we saw when speaking of sacrifice), an immortal being is by definition one who is free of the odious stomach; the Muses have it that immortal truths cannot be uttered except by those who are similarly free.
The classicist Gregory Nagy suggests that the Muses' claim to belly-free truth can be better understood if it is set in the history of archaic Greece. Before the eighth century B.C., Greek cities were quite separate from one another; after the eighth century, less so. Before the eighth century, each city would have its own gods and its own poetic traditions, often radically distinct from one another. After the eighth century, Greece was marked by a growing pan-Hellenism--a "surge of intercommunication among the cities"--and with it a muting of differences in tradition and belief.
These two periods bring with them two kinds of poets. On the one hand, when localities differ radically from one another, it is understood that a traveling poet will vary his repertoire as he moves around. If the true and the false shift as the poet wanders, then the poet will be shifty, too. On the other hand, the pan-Hellenic bard hoped to recite, says Nagy, "to Hellenes at large--to listeners from various city-states who congregate at events like pan-Hellenic festivals--and what he recites remains unchanged as he travels from city to city." Odysseus fits the earlier model, the poet who adjusts his song to his setting. When Odysseus is not sure of his position, he tells people what they want to hear. He even lies to his wife when he first finds her among the suitors, "making many falsehoods. . . seem like the truth," until the tears flow down her face. By contrast, we can take Hesiod himself as a model of the later poet; his poems are addressed to pan-Hellenic audiences and attempt to embody values common to all Greeks.
Thus Nagy argues that the opening lines of the Theogony "can be taken as a manifesto of pan-Hellenic poetry, in that the poet Hesiod is to be freed from being a mere "belly--one who owes his survival to his local audience with its local traditions: all such local traditions are upset--dead--falsehoods in face of the alethea--true things that the Muses impart specially to Hesiod." In this Theogony, "the many local theogonies of the various city-states are to be superseded by one grand Olympian scheme."
The tension around which this history is built--variant local truths versus invariant global truths--is not unique to ancient Greece, of course. The story has surely been repeated all over the world whenever travel and contact forced contests of belief upon people who once felt secure in their isolation. To illustrate with a tension from the project at hand, a tricky character in Native American mythology is called Raven on the North Pacific coast, Mink or Blue Jay farther south; on the Plains, the Plateau, and in California he is Coyote; in the Southeast he is Rabbit; in the Central Woodlands he is Manabozho or Wiskajak; the Iroquois call him Flint and Sapling; Glooscap is his name among the Northeast Algonquins. Moreover, he is not the same in each place. Coyote never steals whale fat from any fisherman's hook. Raven makes his parents-in- law young again in an Eyak story from the Copper River delta in Alaska; that story isn't told anywhere else on the continent. In an Ingalik tale from the lower Yukon, Raven becomes the lord of the land of the dead, a detail that appears nowhere else on the continent. Any theorist who comes along and says that a figure called "trickster" unites all these is a bit like Hesiod, making a pan-American tale out of many local stories. Nor is it just modern scholars who work selectively with the tales, highlighting parts that fit the pattern and passing over those that don't. Oral cultures always have. Homer did. Native Americans did for centuries (groups in the upper Yukon reshaped coastal Raven stories to their own purposes, to take but one example). Wherever travelers carry stories from place to place there will be reimaginings, translations, appropriations, and impurities. Only the new versions won't be "described with those words; artfully told, they will be known as 'the truth'."
In this line, Nagy notes that the firming up of a pan-Hellenic theogony must have entailed the extinction of many local theogonies, and it will be useful for a moment to imagine the status of the Musesâ claim to "truth" from the point of view of one of those contested or suppressed "local truths." If you thought that Demeter was the Queen of the Gods, how does it look to have her subsumed under Zeusâ shield (especially by the misogynist Hesiod)? If Raven was your culture hero, how does it feel to have him subordinated to some character called Smart-Beaver? From the local position, the assertion that mountain Muses speak the "truth" may seem the ultimate falsehood, and the claim that they are free from the belly just a clever disguise, a rhetorical trick by which lies are made to look like genuine things. From this point of view, Hesiod's assertion that his picture of the world comes from beings who do not suffer hunger is a poet's clever way of masking his own falsehoods. Moreover, from the point of view of a contested "local truth," what does it mean to be free of the belly? It could be that those who claim such freedom are just well fed. The belly is less demanding when there is plenty to eat, after all, and one is not buffeted by hunger if one is not regularly hungry. I'm simply saying that it's easier to control one's appetites if one controls the food supply. An old canard has it that self- restraint is inborn in the ruling classes; it's more likely the case that aristocrats can appear to govern their neediness because they aren't in fact needy at all.
In short, the counterclaim to the Muses' scorn of hungry shepherds would have it that the satiated are the ones who bend the truth to their own ends. The well fed take the artifice of their situation and pass it off as an eternal verity. They claim their poets create a bridge to the gods "that bypasses the Promethean sacrifice, one that does not go through the belly" (as one scholar says of Hesiod). In the mythology of the trickster, when such claims are made, some "mere" but hungry belly will see through the artifice and speak, if not the truth, then at least a falsehood sufficiently cunning to change the way the food is distributed. Or he will perpetrate thefts and tell lies that not only feed the belly (that's the easy part) but upset the boundary markers by which the true and the false are differentiated.
"BEAUTIFUL UNTRUE THINGS"
The truest poetry is the most feigning.
The mind-boggling falsity that calls the truth itself into question is what interests me here, not the simple counterfactual statement ("I didn't," when in fact I did). Anyone whose lies merely contradict the truth is still part of a game whose rules have preceded him; he or she merely inverts the case, offering not-A in place of A. The problem is to make a "lie" that cancels the opposition and so holds the possibility of new worlds. Let's go back to the Hymn to Hermes for an example, a case of lying that muddies the line between the true and the false. Remember that Hermesâ crime spree starts because "he was hungry to eat meat." At the outset, that is, he is a mere belly, an agent of hunger's cunning, and though he doesn't eat he nonetheless later lies in the way that bellies will. For the first of his falsehoods we find him back in his mother's cave, snuggled down in his cradle as if he hadn't been out all night stealing. Here Apollo, who has been searching high and low for his missing kine, discovers the thief and threatens to throw him into the underworld unless he confesses his crime. Hermes, cooing in his blankets, denies all guilt:
"Why are you yelling like a bully, Apollo? You've come here looking for cows from your pasture? I haven's seen them. I haven's heard a word about them. No one's told me a thing. I can's give you any information, nor could I claim the reward for information. "Do I look like a cattle driver? A big strong guy? That is not my kind of work. I am interested in other things: I care for sleep above all, and the milk of my mother's breasts, and a blanket over my shoulders, and warm baths.
The straight-shooting god of sunlight and order is momentarily charmed out of his anger: "Far-working Apollo laughed softly then, and said to Hermes: "My dear boy, what a tricky-hearted cheat you are!" This is the first of two Olympian chuckles in the Hymn, each of which offers Hermes an opportunity to change the world into which he has been born. In this case, Apollo's laugh marks the moment at which he first loosens his grip on the cattle; his laughter melts his righteous anger and a touch of detachment enters.
With such humor, trickster's first lie differs from the way I earlier imagined a child lying about a theft. Trickster feels no anxiety when he deceives. He is often dependent on others, to be sure, but that dependence rarely constrains him. He does not fear separation from his elders and so can tell his lies with creative abandon, charm, playfulness, and by that affirm the pleasures of fabulation. Krishna or Hermes, Coyote or Raven--when one of these speaks his first lie he is the eternal child who cannot be significantly damaged and so may cleave to the pure and playful delight of floating fiction in the face of stern reality. But to come back to the idea that trickster's lies somehow call the truth into question, let me juxtapose Hermes' fibs to those that Krishna tells in a similar situation. In the typical tale of Krishna as a child, his mother Yasoda has to leave the house and tells her boy not to steal the household butter while she's gone. As soon as she leaves, Krishna goes to the larder, breaks open the pots full of butter, and eats it hand to mouth. When Yasoda returns she finds her child on the floor, his dark face besmeared with creamy white. To her reprimands Krishna has many clever replies. He says, for example, "I wasn't stealing butter; there were ants in the butter jars and I was simply trying to keep them out." Or he says that his apparent naughtiness is actually her fault: "These little bracelets you gave me chafed my wrists; I tried to soothe the sores by smearing butter on them." For our purposes, however, the most telling reply is this: "I didn't steal the butter, Ma. How could I steal it? Doesn't everything in the house belong to us?" At this point Yasoda, like Apollo, laughs, charmed by her cunning and shameless child.
Our ideas about property and theft depend on a set of assumptions about how the world is divided up. Trickster's lies and thefts challenge those premises and in so doing reveal their artifice and suggest alternatives. One of the West African tricksters, Legba, has been well described in this regard as "a mediator" who works "by means of a lie that is really a truth, a deception that is in fact a revelation." That's how Krishna works, too. When he is the thief of hearts, for example, he disturbs all those who have been foolish enough to think their hearts are their own property, not the property of god. As the thief of butter Krishna upsets the categories that his mother has established to separate him from that food of foods. It is in this sense that his lies subvert what seemed so clear a truth just moments ago. Suddenly the old verities are up for grabs. Who gave Apollo those cattle in the first place, anyway? Who exactly decides how the sacrifice should be apportioned? Who was the original owner of the butter that Yasoda guards so carefully? Who gave all of Pennsylvania to William Penn?
For trickster's lies to provoke doubt in this way, he must draw his adversaries into his own uncanny territory. It is a space ruled by the disarming charm of the very young child. It is a traveler's space where everything is on the road, cut loose from any clear locale. Here the citizens walk their livestock backward and speak a weird reversing language. Krishna's lie belongs to a class of statements that double back to subvert their own contexts. His is cunning or crooked speech because it undercuts the situation from which it takes its meaning. In Greek philosophy it was Parmenides who declared that "Cretans are always liars," but the joke is that Parmenides himself was a Cretan, so the sentence plus its speaker make a befuddlement, an aporia, an inky sea. The same joke is built into the Cretan lies that Odysseus tells, though, as I said earlier, only one of his auditors gets it. After Odysseus is set on the shores of Ithaca, Athena appears to him, disguised as a shepherd. She asks who he is and wary Odysseus pretends to another identity, inventing a tale to explain why he might be left alone on this shore: he killed an evil man, but had to flee; his shipmates abandoned him, and so forth. The tale begins with the words, "Far away in Crete..." and Athena is amused. Her smile is the facial gesture of those who knowingly occupy the space of trickster's lies, for mind itself is amused by these reversals.
Athena's smile, then (like Apollo's and Yasoda's), must also indicate that we are in the presence of that consciousness called noos. The sequence of Cretan lies points to this conclusion. Not long after his conversation with Athena, Odysseus deals with the oafish suitor whom he must defeat to regain his kingdom. He lies to this man, too, but the fellow hasn't a clue what's going on, a point that Homer underscores with the man's name: Antinos. This man is wholly unable to hear the complexity of Odysseusâ words and pays for his deafness with his life. Only noos gives the mental poise needed to navigate in deep ambiguity. Antinos is little more than fish bait in those seas. The thieving and lying that initiate the trip into this inky territory give trickster the chance to remake the truth on his own terms.
Another look at the Hymn to Hermes will illustrate how this might work. As I read the story, Hermes, born in a cave of a secret liaison, is out to change his station in life. To that end, he not only steals the cattle and lies to every one; once he has gotten their attention, he makes a kind of peace with Apollo. At the appropriate moment he turns on the charm. Taking out his lyre and playing a beautiful melody, he begins "to soften that stern, far-shooting archer," and before long, "bright Apollo laugh[s] for joy as the sweet throb of that marvelous instrument stole into his heart, and a gentle longing seized his listening soul." Hermes sings Apollo a theogony, "the story of the gods. . . how each came to be. . . and how each came to have what now is theirs." I suspect we are meant to imagine this as a theogony of Hermesâ own design, a reshaping of old stories, as Hesiod must have reshaped old stories. In addition, I suspect that this new Hermetic theogony includes both Hermes and Apollo in its cast and as such amounts to simultaneous self-promotion and flattery.
At the end Apollo is helplessly enchanted, whereupon Hermes gives him the lyre. In return, Apollo "placed his shining whip in Hermesâ hand, ordaining him Keeper of the Herds." From now on, this newcomer will "tend. . . the ranging, twisted-horned cattle." By the end of the Hymn, then, Hermes has been made the Keeper of the Herds and, in scenes I haven's cited, much more: he is admitted to the Pantheon, he is an acknowledged son of Zeus, he has been given a share of prophetic powers, he has become the messenger of the gods, the guide to Hades, and so on. None of this would have happened had he confessed guilt when Apollo first approached him. On the contrary, a true confession would have been an accession to the status quo and would have locked him in it forever. Spoken at the boundary of what is and is not the case, however, his lies unsettled and moved that boundary. Thieving and lying were not his only tools, to be sure (he is a charmer and enchanter as well), but the theft and the lie are the crucial first steps.
Moreover, once he has been ordained the Keeper of the Herds, Hermes' profession of innocence seems less like a lie, for when the keeper of a thing takes possession of it he is not rightly called a thief. Hermes might take a leaf from Krishna's book and say, "I didn't steal the cattle; aren't I their Keeper? Don't I carry the herder's whip?" Such is the fruit of that journey into paradox and befuddlement that the first lie initiates. It upsets the polarity between truth and falsity to emerge later with a new polarity, perhaps ("Hermes is truly the Keeper of the Herds"), but one set up with different boundary markers (the herder's whip has been shifted from one hand to another).
I want to back off a little here in order to widen this point and connect it to questions of appetite. All cultures have particular vocabularies that are deployed in paradigmatic patterns, in locally understood webs of signification. We enter such a web when we hear "Raven Becomes Voracious." The Tsimshian have all these terms and characters--intestines, salmon roe, the animal chief, sunlight, the Queen Charlotte Islands, slaves, sea-lion bladders, and on and on--which hang together in a locally felt manner. There is no story about burning the brain of a dead boy, only the intestines; the ancient Raven doesn't fly toward the Islands, only away from them. The terms are knit together in certain ways, not in others. American capitalist democracy has its webs too, of course. Weight loss, natural foods, Valley Forge, atomic power, the family, free trade, white bread: any citizen can spin a narrative of these things that will make sense to any other citizen. The story is always that George Washington didn't tell a lie; the cigarette always has a natural flavor. Typically, such webs of signification are built around sets of opposites: fat and thin, slave and free, for example, or-- more categorically-- true and false, natural and unnatural, real and illusory, clean and dirty. What tricksters sometimes do is to disturb these pairs and thus disturb the web itself.
Earlier I showed how any animal that is prey for a baited trap does well to develop the wit to see past the bait. The stories themselves suggest a kind of incrementally growing cunning that ends with a creature smart enough to defer hunger and steal the bait. Now, we see similar cunning in terms of the polarities that organize webs of signification. At the start of the Homeric Hymn, for example, Hermes is at one pole of such a set of opposites: he is not-Olympian, not-legitimate, not-the-object-of-sacrifice. He could have settled for that position or he could have settled for simple contrariety (stealing food for the rest of eternity). He does neither. He leaves what Theodore Roethke called "the weary dance of opposites" and finds a third thing. Just as the bait thief turns the predator-prey relation ship itself into his feeding ground, so the master liar (thief, deceiver) takes the web of signification itself as the site of his operations. When he does so, that web loses its charm, its magic. After Thlokunyana has stolen the bait from a trap, that trap no longer catches game. After Hermes has told the lie that makes Apollo laugh and played his charming lyre, Apollo's righteousness no longer serves. Yasoda's sense of mine and thine is subverted when Krishna makes her smile. Once the web has lost its charm, its terms lose theirs; suddenly they seem contingent and open to revision. For those epi-predators who work with the signifiers themselves rather than the things they supposedly signify, language is not a medium that helps us see the true, the real, the natural. Language is a tool assembled by creatures with "no way" trying to make a world that will satisfy their needs; it is a tool those same creatures can disassemble if it fails them. It is in this line that I understand a remark in Plato to the effect that Hermes invented language. In the Cratylus Plato discusses the origins of certain words, especially the names of the gods. At one point he says, "I should imagine that the name Hermes has to do with speech, and signifies that he is the interpreter [hermeneus], or messenger, or thief, or liar, or bargainer; all that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language.. . He goes on to propose that two Greek words meaning "to tell" and "to contrive" were combined to form "the name of the God who invented language and speech," because Hermes is "the contriver of tales or speeches."
The idea that Hermes invented language seems in accord with the earlier suggestion that duplicity is the precondition of signification. When discussing the token that Hermes makes to honor his youthful crime, I underscored the combination of theft, appetite, and restraint that went into its creation, and I took that stolen "meat-not-eaten" to mark the simultaneous appearance of signs and of the double-dealing mind that creates them. Plato works from a similar intuition: without the wit to deceive, he assumes, one would not have the wit to come up with language in the first place.
The notion that trickster invents language appears more than once in this mythology, though with considerable variation. Sometimes he creates multiple languages to replace a single primal tongue; sometimes he in vents the "inner writing" of memory or the "inner language" of self- knowledge; sometimes he invents picture writing or hieroglyphics; and sometimes, as in Plato, he is the author of language itself. A trickster from the Canadian north woods, for example, is said to have been around before human speech and, in ancient times, to have "brought words over" from the animals to human beings. A somewhat more modest claim is the most common of all: what tricksters quite regularly do is create lively talk where there has been silence, or where speech has been prohibited. Trickster speaks freshly where language has been blocked, gone dead, or lost its charm. Here again Plato's intuition--that deceit and inventive speech are linked--holds, for usually language goes dead because cultural practice has hedged it in, and some shameless double-dealer is needed to get outside the rules and set tongues wagging again.
But here I want to pause; a full discussion of speech and speechlessness belongs in a later chapter. I have organized this first part of the book around questions of appetite, and now that I have come to language itself and its webs of signification we are at an outer limit of that hunger narrative. There is a quantum leap between "traps of appetite" and the "traps of culture" that people weave with language; an inquiry into the latter belongs to the sections that follow. That said, however, let us not forget that appetite brought us this far. We have traveled from the invention of the fish trap to the invention of language, from the alligator snapping turtle luring suckers with its pale tongue to silver-throated Hermes baiting Apollo with charming lies. The point throughout has been to show that the mythology of trickster figures is, by one reading, the story of intelligence arising from appetite.
To recall much of the argument so far, remember the image of Raven diving into the ocean to steal fat from fishermen's baited hooks. Set in the tension of predator-prey relationships, tricksters seem by turns wise and witless: Smart-Trickster invents that baited hook, Witless-Trickster would swallow it, and in the give-and-take between those poles other levels of intelligence slowly appear until we get to Even-Smarter-Trickster, the one who has the wit to steal the bait. Raven is that epi-predator who continues to satisfy his needs while managing enough distance from them that he responds to the smell of meat with reflection rather than reflex.
Part of this mythology links that distancing from need to the invention of sacrifice, as if trickster, ensnared in his own intestines, burns a part of them, consciously restraining his hunger in hopes of its later and more durable satisfaction. In some of the stories, trickster seems to have stepped back from instinct as well as need. Wandering aimlessly, stupider than the animals, he is at once the bungling host and the agile parasite; he has no way of his own but he is the Great Imitator who adopts the many ways of those around him. Unconstrained by instinct, he is the author of endlessly creative and novel deceptions, from hidden hooks to tracks that are impossible to read. This genealogy of trickery brought us finally to questions of lying and truth-telling, to the sort of contingent claims that make up those webs of signification we call mythologies, cultures, ideologies--claims such as "The cattle belong to Apollo," or "There are seven major impulse disorders"; claims like "A modest woman covers her face," "American policy supports emerging democracies," "Hispanics can be of any race," "All men are created equal."
Long ago, Friedrich Nietzsche offered a wonderful way to think of such assertions. The truth, he said in a famous passage, is a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms, in short, a sum of human relations which were poetically and rhetorically heightened, transferred, and adorned, and after long use seem solid, canonical, and binding to a nation. Truths are illusions about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions.
The stories we've been looking at suggest adding a few lines about hunger to Nietzsche's formulation. Trickster lies because he has a belly, the stories say; expect truth only from those whose belly is full or those who have escaped the belly altogether. Not that adding stomachs to Nietzsche's idea changes it significantly, but it may shed some light on the matter of forgetfulness that he introduces at the end. To be forgetful of illusion is to be unconscious of it and in these stories it is hunger, I think, that threatens to disturb any such unconsciousness. Hunger prompts "mere bellies" to reveal the fictive nature of illusory truths, as if stomach acid, when it has nothing else to work on, will strip illusion of its protective amnesia. Hunger is the agent of a kind of anamnesis or unforgetting that Plato didn't imagine, one that recovers the memory of artifice rather than the memory of eternals. (This is what happens in the Homeric Hymn: Hermes is hungry, and he disrupts the supposed eternal order of things.) But such revelation is only half of trickster's power in regard to "truth." Just as he can slip a trap, then turn around and make his own, so he can debunk an illusion, then turn around and conjure up another (as Hermes does when he sings to Apollo). Where, after all, does Nietzsche's "army of metaphors" come from in the first place, if not from some enchanting mastermind of tropes? And how did it fall into the unconscious? Perhaps that army carries with it some drug or soporific to induce forgetting in the provinces it conquers.
In a variant version of the Hermes story, there are dogs set out to guard Apollo's cattle, and Hermes puts them into a stupor. The Greek for "stupor" is lethargon, a combination of lethe (forgetfulness) and argon (lazy or slow). It's the forgetful part I wish to mark. When Hermes is ordering the world on his own terms, he takes the watchdogs of the mind--acute, open-eyed, up all night--and numbs them with forgetfulness. Under his enchantment, illusion sinks below the threshold of consciousness and appears to be the truth. I say all this partly to review the territory we have covered, but also to indicate how that territory opens onto issues that will concern me in the chapters that follow. My project here is not just to derive intelligence from appetite but to think more broadly about the kind of inventiveness that is figured in this mythology, the kind of art, in particular, that might spring from trickster's spirit. In this line there is a long tradition that locates art in that trickster shadowland where truth and falsity are not well differentiated. The idea probably goes back to Aristotle, who thought the epic poets to be Cretan liars of a sort. "Homer more than any other," he wrote, "has taught the rest of us the art of framing lies the right way."
It is an old notion, then, that art and lying share a common ground, one that has had a hardy efflorescence in the modern world. The authors of modern novels have been known to describe themselves with that same language, from Defoe (who was said to "lie like the truth") to Balzac (who said that "fiction is a dignified form of lies") to Dostoevsky (who described Don Quixote as a novel in which truth is saved by a lie), down to Mario Vargas Llosa (who once declared: "When we write novels, what we do is create a profoundly distorted manifestation of reality, which we impose on readers, on society. Real literature has never told the truth. It has imposed lies as truths"). Virginia Woolf stirs the same muddy water in her introduction to A Room of One's Own: "Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact. . . . Lies will flow from my lips, but perhaps there is some truth mixed up with them." Ralph Ellison has said that Invisible Man "take[s] advantage of the novel's capacity for telling the truth while actually telling a lieâ which is the Afro-American folk term for an improvised story." Even that highly ethical modern poet, Czeslaw Milosz, can be found defending "the right of the poet to invent--that is, to lie."
In the visual arts, Pablo Picasso was the great confounder of the presumed distinction between truth and lies: "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies." Perhaps the most extended exposition on this theme is found in Oscar Wilde's 1891 essay "The Decay of Lying," an aesthete's defense of art against the service crowd who are always out to impress it into their own private army of metaphors. "The telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of Art," says Wilde, thinking of all those great creations (Milton's Satan, Hamlet, Jane Eyre) who are more real and durable than the perishable women and men we know in fact. Thus Wilde honors Balzac, saying his characters "dominate us, and defy skepticism. One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempre. It is a grief from which I have never been able completely to rid myself. It haunts me in my moments of pleasure. I remember it when I laugh." But Balzac is no more a realist than Holbein was. He created life, he did not copy it." Thus might we hope to have great liars at our dinner table rather than trivial pursuers of fact. "The aim of the liar," Wilde writes, "is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilized society. . . Such assertions contain their own puzzles (What does Wilde mean by "beautiful untrue things"? How does Picasso "convince others"?), but for now I want merely to note where these artists place their work.
Many of these statements are hard to understand if we cleave to any simple sense of what is meant by "truth" and "lies." They are easier to under stand if such opposites collapse, whereupon we are dropped back into trickster's limbo, where boundary markers shift at night, shoes have no heel and toe, inky clouds attack transparency, and every resting place suddenly turns into a crossroads. These artists, that is to say, claim a part of trickster's territory for their own, knowing it to be one of the breeding grounds of art and artifice.
Be that as it may, in what follows I hope to widen my reading of this mythology by turning more fully to that world of art and artifice. Not that we haven's been there all along. In these pages I, too, have been slowly marshaling an army of metaphors, one I hope to deploy when I need it in pages to come. But I have tried, also, to organize this section around a single and somewhat literal-minded reading of the material. The trickster stories themselves suggest we look to appetite and the natural world for the roots of trickster's cunning, and I have tried to do that. But to the degree that I've succeeded I have sometimes turned myself into Witless Coyote, thinking there are some plums to eat in "The Reflected Plums," or thinking the marbled meat of Apollo's cattle could really make Hermesâ mouth water.
It's not that questions of appetite don't lead to an interesting reading, it's just that now that we have seen that Homer is a liar, now that we have come to travelers who multiply meanings as they move, we should be wary of getting too comfortable with any single line of analysis. These stories have as many senses as the contexts of their telling. Their tracks point every which way. Odysseus' oar may also be a winnowing fan, but that hardly exhausts its meanings. Burying the handle of a winnowing fan in a heap of grain is a sign that the harvest is done. Burying a sailor's oar in a heap of earth is the sign that marks that sailor's grave. Maybe when an oar stands over a grave it does come to the end of its meanings, for then the traveler's journey is done. But who would want such closure? "Rabbit jumped over Coyote four times. He came back to life and went on his way."