I’m reading Lewis Hyde’s remarkable book Trickster Makes the World. Maybe that is why I keep mentally seeing, when it comes to the rioting and chaos in Britain, Milton’s snake, erect on his circling folds, crossing English cities.
The looting and the violence was shocking, especially on such a large scale. It makes me think of a scene from Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant Children of Men.
I’ve never lived in London, but I’ve visited it and have an intimate a connection to the city as I can through Peter Ackroyd’s London: A Biography. The capital city also has an imaginative pull on me, as any cultural city does, the way its history lives like an electrical charge always ready to zap new life into us all, and its literary world so mingled with the fabric of its quotidian world that it’s hard to tell what is real, what is not, which is the beauty of art.
But the chaotic world has torn through the fabrics of reality. Maybe that’s because the twenty-first century has lounged in complacent rationalism too long. It’s time for a regenerative spirit, a trickster, the spirit of change.
I think it was Nietzsche who talked about the Apollonian principles of order, created to protect humans against the Dionysian state of chaos and gleeful destruction. And Britain looks like it’s very much in the throes of a Dionysian state of gleeful disorder. And though Cameron and the Metropolitan Police will once more return Britain to its Apollonian principles, it is tragedy, I think, that truly controls these two primeval forces.
In fact, I see my home country as a land in perpetual riot and tragedy between the great forces of myth and fairytale and modern reality that tries ever so cleverly to mask this imaginative force with more illusions.
Britain has always been a land in revolt, you could say, right down to its stones and dirt and trees and rivers. To start, there is the myth of Merlin breaking apart the red and white dragons. Then moving on to the Celts resisting the invading Romans. The Saxons rising up against the Normans. The Civil War where Roundheads and Cavaliers clashed heads. And it goes on. The order in destruction, the destruction in order. Milton’s snake eating its tail.
Perhaps this rioting, this looting, this thuggery is evidence of what Nietzsche wrote about: “Every culture that has lost myth has lost, by the same token, its natural healthy creativity. The forces of imagination and the Apollonian dream are saved only by myth from indiscriminate rambling. The images of myth must be the daemonic guardians, ubiquitous but unnoticed.”
Maybe Britain has let go the threads of the myths that reinvigorate it. Maybe that is why there is unrest, unease, a Dionysian spectacle. It is the “daemonic guardians” that have been left on the fringes. And by “daemonic guardians” I mean the artists — writers, artists, musicians, dancers, intellects, philosophers, scientists, poets — have been be left to go unnoticed by a population fixated on greed, celebrity, government dysfunction, global epidemics, the whole grim mess. But the atom of all life begins with the creators, the artists.
And, yes, it could all be explained away by the simple dogma that life is nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbes so grimly pointed out.
But it’s more layered than that. There is so much unraveling here. There’s these disenfranchised, marginal, alienated teenagers who are once more left to hang by the little rope that society continually dangles at them as if it will solve poverty, no opportunities, no role models, the same as it ever was.
Or it could be that man is simply violent and loves to have moments where the wild nature of Dionysus needs an outing in our over-stifling civilized world.
I’m not condoling the rioting. In fact, the anarchy frightens me. As it should. But what frightens you can give you strength, the strength to look more deeply at what is being played out on the streets of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham. To look at its essence, not just its occurrence.
But I’m also not condemning the rioting, either. How can I? My body knows what it means to riot. I know what it means to be defiant, too. I’ve had riots of the mind, of the emotions (maybe that’s what being a writing is all about?). I’ve even imagined letting go and going on some impish rampage. But I stop myself. Which is not to say it’s directed by some morality (beside my own), but comes more from a sense of compassion for the other to which I may end up hurting in my free-for-all.
And there are lots of people who have or will condemn this rioting. It’s to be expected. But how does a person become so flawlessly righteous? Is it really that easy? Is the state of Baldr, the bright and untainted one, in Norse myth, a skin we love to torment ourselves with because we want to be like Baldr, but we are cursed as being the crude giants in Norse myth?
I think it’s a flawed way of seeing the world as a righteous abode where dwell the chosen few. Those who cling to their private property (which is a kind of theft from those who can’t or don’t or aren’t allowed to have), who earn their living like clockwork, spend their money like well-practiced chutes, support the mass mentality of retribution out of fear of retribution for voicing something subversive, or worse, enlightened, and wish to only return to their nice, morally balanced, ordered existence where life is a garment that is cut exactly to their size, fitted ever so snugly. But isn’t it us who need to be cut to fit the size of life? Because Loki, the lord of change, always comes with the mistletoe.
We love our gods of Love, Wrath, Courage, and Charity, (Homo homini deus est), but we can’t seem to stomach the god of trickery and change.
We need more of the trickster spirit. He or she is the only one who is clever enough to set things right, but he or she is also irresponsible, wayward, and full of duplicity. Much like our world, which we continually wish to see as ordered.