"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

The United States is Haunted by a Terrible Demon

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When I lived at the San Francisco Zen Center, one of the senior priests told us about a festival that was held annually in the small alpine town she grew up in in Switzerland. A certain holy relic was sequestered away in the village church, except on this festival of renewal, when it was brought out and placed on a kind of carriage, and paraded through the town in a procession. The trick was, you were not to look at it.

I think I gasped aloud when I heard that story. The ritual force of such an episode, and the life-long impact it would have on children who grew up with it, was immediately obvious. I thought of many interesting counterparts, such as the Shingon Buddhist altar I saw in Narita with a towering Buddha statue set back in an enormous stepped platform that receded into an unlit corner of the room, so that you could just make out the outlines of the statue from anywhere in the room, but  you could not quite see it. Its presence dominated the room, but it was held in a liminal state of semi-awareness. It made quite an impression.

Or I think about the mythology of similar prohibitions on seeing or doing that, for example, finds expression in my favorite fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm, Marienkind (my translation is here).

This episode is a motif in the religious traditions and mythologies of the world because it makes an impact, such that its uncanny power is remembered decades later, on into adulthood, as the beginning of some deep stirring of the psyche, as in my teacher’s story.

I couldn’t help but think of this motif of the half-perceived sign and its potential to activate the unconscious when a friend of mine told me that her five-year-old daughter is required to participate in active shooter drills in New York. Her kindergarten class has to practice hiding and remaining quiet when someone knocks on the door.

If you don’t think this isn’t going to traumatize a generation of children, then you know nothing of psychodynamics.

There are a lot of reasons I recently moved to Germany, and there are a lot of things that Germany gets wrong, in my opinion, in managing its affairs. But one thing that it gets right, along with the rest of the developed world, with the exception of the United States, is gun control.

There are areas where I simply have to disagree with my fellow citizens. On climate change, for example, I vehemently disagree with people who deny the unambiguous consensus of the scientific community, and the other 179 nations that have joined the Paris Accords, but at least I can comprehend the other point of view, much as I disagree with it.

But I can not comprehend, or forgive, the bizarre fetishization of guns that runs amok in the United States, and that fuels a fundamentalist interpretation of the second amendment – an interpretation whose bizarre logic leads again and again to monstrous policy recommendations and a bizarre attitude of paranoia and fear.

There is a lot of talk in the United States these days about arming teachers as a first line of defense against school shooters. There are plenty of reasons to oppose such an empirically-unmotivated and obviously self-destructive posture, but one that doesn’t receive as much attention as I would like is the question of whether the people of the United States have the right to ask teachers, in addition to all that they already give and sacrifice for their careers, to put their own lives at risk acting as security officers, who must be prepared to wield lethal force against their own students.

Again, this is all quite beyond my comprehension. There is a bizarre, shadowy demon haunting the United States, and I fear it is not going away without some kind of huge catastrophe, or mass exorcism.


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March 17, 2018 at 2:07 am

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Tsong Khapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path

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tsongkhapaIf I had to choose, the Tibetan polymath Tsong Khapa would probably constitute the single most important figure in shaping my worldview. That isn’t to say I agree with him on everything, or consider myself by any stretch of the imagination to be a member of his Gelukpa order, but he does present the basic existential, ethical, and critical-phenomenological framework with which and against which I articulate my views of life. With him and against him I would play other key figures like Nagarjuna and Shantideva, Gendun Choephel and Gorampa, Nietzsche, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Kant, and Habermas.

As a Mahayana Buddhist philosopher, Tsong Khapa believed that the end-goal of contemplation was to liberate oneself from the habitual patterns of thought that externalize and reify the conceptual distinctions and valuations that we make in order to provide a framework for understanding the world and surviving within it. An exaggerated sense of the objective validity of the conceptual schema we use to posit objects and events in the world is ultimately founded in what the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget considered to be the fundamental conceptual schema from which all others derive – our concept of the Self.

The psychologist George Kelly went so far as to say that the personality ultimately consists of nothing more than the habitual patterns of action and interpretation that we use to navigate the world. I think to some degree this accords with the Buddhist conception of samsara, which holds that the problem of suffering in the world results from our being unconsciously driven by our beliefs about ourselves and the world which are merely provisional, but which are instinctually taken as having objective validity.

Tsong Khapa in one short text of considerable interest posits that the Buddhist therapy of alleviating suffering rooted in such misconceptions is based on what he calls the three principal aspects of the path, which he identifies as renunciation, compassion, and wisdom, with the latter specifically referring to the wisdom which directly grasps the degree to which the world we inhabit is largely a conceptual construction of our perceptual organs and the mechanisms of our consciousness.

These may be considered three aspects of one path because they are three articulations of the same underlying insight from three different reference points.

Tsong Khapa elsewhere defines renunciation as the definitive intention to emerge [from samsara]. I consider this the best definition of the Buddhist concept of renunciation that I’ve ever heard – it places emphasis on the relinquishment of the attachment to desirable things in the world that keeps us bound to our mental constructions and valuations. In this sense, renunciation is something rather distinct from the mere asceticism it is often confused for – it is not just a change in behavior or attitude, but a recognition of the actual state of affairs. Specifically, desirable things are only desirable because we desire them, not because of any intrinsic virtue that they possess. Likewise, ownership or possession exist solely through the force of convention, and there is no greater underlying reality to the fact of ownership than the degree to which we all act as though one person owns a thing. If we all stop saying it, we stop owning it.

Compassion is an analogous insight articulated with respect to our habitual tendency to value ourselves and our own experiences more than we value other people. In Tsong Khapa’s view, this posture results from the same underlying cognitive error. In his arresting analysis of compassion in his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Tsong Khapa writes:

[U]nderstand that self and other are mutually dependent such that when you are aware of self, you are aware of other; and when you are aware of other, you are aware of self. It is like being aware of near mountains and distant mountains, for example.


Moreover, Shantideva’s Compendium of Training states:

By becoming accustomed to the equality of self and other,
The spirit of enlightenment becomes firm.
Self and other are interdependent.
Like this side and the other side of a river, they are false.

The far side and the near side of the river are not false in the sense that they cannot be systematically and meaningfully differentiated, they are false insofar as they are completely contingent on a judgment of the intellect based on its point of view. If you move to the other side of the river, the nature of the shore changes from “other side” to “this side.”

In that sense, the self does not exist inherently or independently, it exists in dependence upon how it is posited by consciousness. This is true of all things, according to Tsong Khapa – the present Dalai Lama has described interdependence as “Buddha’s slogan.”

That this determination of the dependent nature of existence may be extended to all things constitutes the reality of all phenomena is the third principal aspect of the path, or wisdom. In this technical sense, wisdom refers to the non-intrinsic identity of all phenomena, which ultimately depend on their causes and conditions, their spatial and temporal parts, and the way that they are designated by consciousness.

The final point, that phenomena depend on conceptual imputation for their existence, is subtle, and in my view it should not be misconstrued as a statement of idealism, such as George Berkeley would have made in holding that there is no substance or fabric of reality beyond their fact as mere appearances to consciousness. A close reading of Tsong Khapa and his sources reveals a view much closer to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who held not that things are mind-only, but that insofar as we can speak of their existence in anyway whatsoever, we can only speak or analyze them from the standpoint of some consciousness. Their status as things in themselves is unknowable and indeterminate, and attempts to characterize phenomenal appearances as if they exist in themselves ultimately leads to contradiction.

The point of all this is not abstract deliberation, but the existential realization that our own misconstrual of the world and our relationship to things is harmful and deceptive, and leads us to cause suffering for others and for ourselves. I think there are times of life when the radiant nature of things shines through and we can have a direct perception

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February 21, 2018 at 2:46 am

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Berlin Dada Man-Machine

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I’ve been reading Matthew Biro’s outstanding book The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin, which focuses on German Dadaist representations of human-machine hybrids (Amazon link here).

I remember seeing a Dadaism exhibit at the De Young museum in San Francisco many years ago, and being struck by how fresh and relevant the movement still seemed. If anything that only becomes more and more true. It is an art movement largely preoccupied with the shock to the human psyche caused by the fact of mechanical reproduction.

In Biro’s account, for the Dadaist, the human-machine hybrid was a manifold symbol which represented the degree to which the bourgeois citizenry had been mentally colonized by ideology; the degree to which the self is a post-human and transpersonal hybrid of organism, context, information and machine; and a recognition that the mechanics of the self are to some degree cybernetic in Norbert Wiener’s sense – that is, subject to characterization in terms of control system dynamics that can equally be applied to information systems, circuits, and complex machinery.

Obviously we are still within the horizon that the Dadaists identified and began to work through with their art – these ideas are more relevant than ever.

As it so happens, I learned recently that I moved to Berlin almost one hundred years to the day after the founding of German Dadaism with the delivery of Huelsenbeck’s Dada-Speech on January 22, 1918. I thought I’d commemorate the centennial and honor the Berlin Dada by translating his speech.

Dada-Speech, by Richard Huelsenbeck

Ladies and gentlemen!

This evening is intended to provoke interest in Dadaism, a new, international “culture direction” founded two years ago in Zürich. The instigators of this beautiful cause include Hugo Ball, Emmi Hennings, the painter Slodki, the Rumanians Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara – and I myself, last but not least, have the present honor to propagandize at this time for my old comrades and our old-new view.

Hugo Ball, a great artist and greater man, an entirely unsnobbish and unliterary man, founded the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 in Zürich, from which Dadaism developed with our help.

Dadaism was unavoidably an international product. Something common must be found between the Russian, Rumanian, Swiss, and German. There was a witch’s sabbath the likes of which you cannot imagine, a hullabaloo from morning till evening, a frenzy of timpani and negro drums, an ecstacy with steps and Cubist dances. The Rumanians came from France, loved Apollinaire, Max Jacob, knew much of Bazun, poetry and drama and the Cubists. Marinetti, Palazeschi, Savignio wrote from Italy. We Germans stood there quite harmlessly.

Ball was in fact the only one who absorbed and processed the problems of the Futurist and Cubist directions. Perhaps some may be found among you who have heard of the Expressionist Evening talk that I organized with him. That was in fact the expressionistic poem, such as Germany had never heard. Ball brought his “Barking Dog” to Switzerland, a phantasm of a strength that little people like Korrodie and Rubiner still suffer under.

The Cabaret Voltaire was our experimental stage, where we probed to try to understand our commonalities. Together we made an extraordinarily beautiful negro song with rattles, wood klappers, and many primitive instruments. I served as the precentor, an almost mythical figure. Trabaja, Trabaja la mojere – with lots of lard.

All the artisans of Zürich began a united campaign against us. That was the most beautiful thing – now we knew who we were dealing with. We were against the pacifists, because the war had given us the opportunity to exist in our full glory. And back then the pacifists were even more decent than they are today, now that every stupid youth with his books wants to exploit the economic boom against the times. We were for the war, and Dadaism is still for the war today. Things must collide – for too long they have not been horrible enough.

In the Cabaret Voltaire we first tried our Cubist dances with Janco’s masks, self-made costumes from colorful cardboard and baubles. Tristan Tzara, who publishes the Dadaistic journals in Zürich today, invented the schema of the poème simultan for the stage – a poem that is recited by several people in different languages, rhythms, and tones at the same time. I invented the concert des voyelles and the poème bruitiste, a mixture of poetry and brutalist music, as made famous by the Futurists with the rèveil de la capitale. The inventions reigned, Tzara invented the poème statique, a kind of optical poem which you see like a forest, I myself initiated the poème mouvementiste, lecture with primitive movements, which has not yet been done in this way.

My lords, so stands Dadaism, a focus of international energies. We had had our fill of Cubism, which began to bore us with its single-minded abstraction. You arrive at the actual by yourself, once you move and are a living person. Futurism as it existed was a strictly Italian affair – a fight against the fearsome antiquity with its slick business acumen that beats every talent into the ground there. Futurism, which here in Germany, where we have the honor of being last in all things, has until recently been despised as hocus pocus by the crassly ignorant and empty-headed, because its verses were bad or incomprehensible. This Futurism, my lords, was a fight against the statue of Apollo, against the Cantilène and the bel canto – but what does it have to do with us Dadaists?

Neither with Futurism nor with Cubism. We were something new, we were the Dadas, Ball Dadas, Huelsenbeck Dada, Tzara Daha. Dada is a word that exists in all languages – it expresses nothing more than the internationality of the movement. It has nothing to do with the childish stammer with which people sought to track it.

What then is the Dadaism that I wish to espouse here tonight? It is to be the faction of great international artistic movements. It is the transition to the new joy in real things. There are guys who have been assailed by life, there are types, men with destinies and the capacity to experience. Men with sharpened intellect, who understand that they are at a turning point in time. It is only one step to politics. Tomorrow, minister or martyr in Schlüsselburg.

Dadaism is something that has in itself overcome the elements of Futurism or Cubist theorems. It must be something new, for it stands at the point of evolution, and time changes with men who have the capacity to be changed. “The Fantastic Prayers,” from which I will recite a selection, have appeared under the Dada publishing imprint and, I hope, carry the color of this movement.

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February 20, 2018 at 8:06 am

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Goodbye San Francisco, Hello Berlin

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A great heat wave descended; it was a beautiful day, the sun turned red at three. I started up the mountain and got to the top at four. All those lovely California cottonwoods and eucalypti brooded on all sides. Near the peak there were no more trees, just rocks and grass. Cattle were grazing on the top of the coast. There was the Pacific, a few more foothills away, blue and vast and with a great wall of white advancing from the legendary potato patch where Frisco fogs are born. Another hour and it would come streaming through the Golden Gate to shroud the romantic city in white, and a young man would hold his girl by the hand and climb slowly up a long white sidewalk with a bottle of Tokay in his pocket. That was Frisco; and beautiful women standing in white doorways, waiting for their men; and Coit Tower, and the Embarcadero, and Market Street, and the eleven teeming hills. – Jack Kerouac


Ah San Francisco, Queen of California, long have you inspired the romantic with your fogs and shadows and your golden light. Next month I’ll be leaving you after calling the Bay Area home for eighteen years.

In that time I’ve watched my adopted home fade like a richly-colored photograph left in the sun, gradually desaturating to a monochromatic sepia. One by one your artists fled and your bookstores and studios closed, while pour-over coffee shops and startup incubators crowd out … well, everything else. So many of the renegade physics PhDs and T.A.Z. anarchists, the immigrant avant-garde dancers and sclerotic acolytes of cacophony, the noise musicians and the street punks left, while the techno-utopian left-libertarian programmers have crowded in.

I moved to San Francisco in the April of 2000, a refugee from a year-long foray at the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies program in Charlottesville, where Jeffrey Hopkins was in the process of winding down his career. It didn’t take me long to learn that I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the new head of the department. Nor did I love life in Virginia – despite its natural beauty, it was hard to feel at home in a state that celebrated Lee-Jackson-King Day.

So I jumped at the chance to take a room in the last affordable house in Potrero Hill. I packed my books and sent them cheaprate post and moved with a few bags of clothes by train on a five-day journey that traversed the gigantic continent; a fitting externalization of the equally-momentous internal journey I was taking into a new world. A few days after I arrived I spotted a bumper sticker near the Panhandle that read “Honk if You Love Borges”. A few days after that I made a joke about Werner Heisenberg at a party and everybody laughed. I knew I was home.

Two years later I was practicing daily, and then living in, the San Francisco Zen Center, studying in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind fame. A few years after that I was working as a staff writer/researcher for the drug information website Erowid. Then came life working for Facebook, then I joined Oculus.

I saw the midnight sky above Big Sur when to be young was very heaven. I once (momentarily) stymied Jeffrey Hopkins with a question about Madhyamaka at a conference in Boulder Creek (“If emptiness exists only conventionally, what conventional consciousness certifies its existence?”). I was in a book group with Mark Zuckerberg and recommended he read William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience (he did). I debated the ethics of gray-market psychedelics with Sasha Shulgin in Costa Rica. I ran into Blixa Bargeld on the street not once but twice.

In February, Mrs. O’Cosm and I will pull up the roots of my eighteen years and crash land in Prenzlauer Berg, and then begin the reportedly arduous process of finding a permanent apartment. I foresee a year of logistics and bureaucracy, of intensive language study and disorientation, and professional sabbatical. I look forward to sharing some of the highlights with you.

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January 11, 2018 at 11:15 am

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Pixar’s “Coco” Sounds Surprisingly Awesome

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According to an article in Entertainment Weekly, Pixar’s next film “Coco” tells the story of a musician whose mysterious link to his ancestor leads him to the Land of the Dead on Dia de los Muertos. There, he meets a “trickster skeletal spirit” named Hector. All-Latino cast.

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December 6, 2016 at 11:54 am

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Brief Update

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Hey folks,

Just wanted to give a heads up that I’ll be slowing down on Mesocosm for a while. I’m going to shift focus to Mesoscope, my political blog. It is not something I particularly want to make a central focus of my attention, but under the circumstances I feel that I have no choice.

The purpose of Mesoscope is to provide tools for opposing the extremely destructive policies that have been embraced by the Trump administration, and supporting efforts to construct a positive alternative vision for society.

My primary political commitments are: 1) rational, evidence-based discourse is the legitimate basis for political consensus, 2) political power must be rooted in democratic norms and procedures, and 3) human society must be organized in terms of a shared understanding of universal basic rights.


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December 4, 2016 at 9:53 am

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52:13 The Raven and the First Man

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This week I’m going to look at a masterpiece of contemporary Haida art, the yellow cedar monumental sculpture The Raven and the First Man, created by Bill Reid and housed at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver.


This is one of the most beautiful works of art that I’ve ever seen, a mythological image of stunning complexity and richness rendered with breathtaking technical perfection. It depicts the Haida myth of the Trickster figure Raven bringing forth the first Haida people out of a giant clam and into the world.

I have written several times before of the wonderful mythology and art of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, including pieces on totem poles, raven and bear shamanism, and Kawikiutl secret dance societies. One could spend many lifetimes wandering wide-eyed through the living dream evoked by these splendid systems of imagery and the imagination, and it is daunting to approach a piece of this richness and complexity. But I will try to share some thoughts.


The Raven plays a seminal role in the Pacific Northwest as one of the key crests used in the social economy of numerous groups in the region. He is also a key figure in the local mythology, where he is a classic example of the Trickster, a charming figure who stumbles by appetite and accident into pivotal moments of evolution, driving forth the play of the cosmos by his wit and energy.

What an endlessly rich, endlessly complex archetype we have in the Trickster. This beloved folklore motif is found the world over, from Bugs Bunny to the Norse God Loki, from Inari’s foxes in Japan to Agu Tompa and Drukpa Kuley in Tibet.

Master of inversions and sudden escapes; uniting opposites and serving as an endless wellspring of creation; agent of fragmentation, intensification and release; constant companion, foil, and inspiration to humanity. Holy fool, coyote, raven, alchemical Mercury; master of the medieval carnival, wolf of the Lupercalia, Tantric master, creator, destroyer; the Trickster encompasses all.

Carl Jung notes in “On the Psychology of the Trickster-Figure” that he “is a forerunner of the saviour, and like him, God, man, and animal at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness.”

The Trickster lives and acts outside the conventional ordered realm of society and the cosmos, which is a field of incredible fertility. He functions as a midwife who brings the energies of the unconscious into the field of awareness. In the symbolic language of myth, he is frequently a cosmological creator or a culture hero who gifts humanity with the arts of civilization, such as agriculture and writing.

Insofar as he disrupts the established order, he can be perceived as a threat. Jung’s essay, for example, chronicles a long list of known instances in which the medieval church in Europe tried unsuccessfully to suppress the many extremely popular carnivals and liturgical parodies that echoed the operation of the Trickster, and which were the occasion of a temporary suspension or inversion of the ordinary social hierarchy, allowing the forbidden and repressed energies of belief out into the light of day for a prescribed period of time. These events function as a kind of psychic safety valve that allows the social order to function without exploding from the tensions of its own manifest contradictions.

Jung writes:

If we consider, for example, the daemonic features exhibited by Yahweh in the Old Testament, we shall find in them not a few reminders of the unpredictable behaviour of the trickster, of his senseless orgies of destruction and his self-imposed sufferings, together with the same gradual development into a saviour and his simultaneous humanization. It is just this transformation of the meaningless into the meaningful that reveals the trickster’s compensatory relation to the ‘saint.’ In the early Middle Ages, this led to some strange ecclesiastical customs based on memories of the ancient saturnalia. Mostly they were celebrated on the days immediately following the birth of Christ – that is, in the New Year – with singing and dancing. The dances were originally harmless tripudia of the priests, lower clergy, children, and subdeacons and took place in the church. An episcopus puerorum (children’s bishop) was elected on Innocents’ Day and dressed in pontifical robes. Amid uproarious rejoicings he paid an official visit to the palace of the archbishop and bestowed the episcopal blessings from one of the windows. The same thing happened at the tripudium hypodiaconorum, and at the dances for the other priestly grades. By the end of the twelfth century, the subdeacons’ dance had degenerated into a real festum stultorum (fool’s feast). A report from the year 1198 says that at the Feast of the Circumcision in Notre Dame, Paris, ‘so many abominations and shameful deeds’ were committed that the holy place was desecrated ‘not only by smutty jokes, but even by the shedding of blood.’ In vain did Pope Innocent III inveigh against the ‘jests and madness that make the clergy a mockery,’ and the ‘shameless frenzy of their play-acting.’….

These ruptures, along with many other lesser-known customs and episodes, wholly contradict the stereotype of religiosity of the European medieval period as a staid, solemn, fearful affair of mere dogmatism and witch-burning. Particularly during the High Middle Ages, the religious imagination reached a pinnacle of license and creative power in Europe, until the full weight of the Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade in southern France largely put an end to to the whole show.

Take the Goliard Poets: these clerics savagely lampooned the solemnity of the church at every turn in performance events reminiscent of Dadaist happenings. At St. Remy, for example, the Goliards went to the mass in procession, each trailing a herring on a string. From “The Confessions of Golias,” translated by George Whicher:

Let the wise man place his seat
On the rock firm founded.
Hither, thither I must beat
By my follies hounded.
With the flowing stream I fleet,
So my doom is sounded;
‘Neath the arch of heaven my feet
Nowhere yet have grounded.

Like a hapless ship I fare
Left without a sailor,
Like a bird on ways of air,
Some poor lost cloud-scaler;
Not a jot for chains I care,
Nor for key nor jailer.
Sinful flesh is frail, I swear.
Mine’s the same – but frailer!

The Trickster, then, is driven by the energies and appetites of the body, unchained from the ordinary perspective. It is worth considering in this light that nearly every one of Shakespeare’s comedies involves characters going outside of the walls of the city and creating an alternative society with its own rules. There seems to be something deep in the human social constitution that finds such endeavors profoundly restorative.

That Raven also functions outside the ordinary bounds of society is made perfectly clear by the myths of his birth, which show us that he is a shamanic figure – for more details, see my post The Raven, The Bear, and Shamanism in the Pacific Northwest. The shaman is a powerful, magical, and ambivalent figure. The shaman in Tlingit society, like the characters of Shakespeare’s comedies, lived outside of the village. His was also the only profession that could be directly paid for their services. Every other type of labor was compensated within the general circulation of goods within the symbolically-organized potlatch economy.

You can appreciate, now, the danger of undertaking to write about the Trickster- in order to take compass of his range and richness, you must wander far afield. But let me circle back now to our marvelous sculpture and its mythological context. I’m drawing from several sources in this discussion, but I’ll highlight The Raven and the Light by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst, which goes briefly through an entire Haida myth cycle involving Raven.


Raven’s story begins with a key myth that is quite popular in the region called the Theft of the Light. The world exists in a state of universal, undifferentiated darkness, and Raven liberates the light from its imprisonment in a magic box and scatters it to the heavens in a Promethean theft. In the accompanying image, you can see Raven with the moon in his beak wearing the sun around his neck, sitting atop the magic box in which the light was hoarded by a powerful old man.

The regular Mesocosm reader may recognize a few motifs that we’ve seen several times before, such as the cosmological theme of bringing light to a primordial darkness, a dual symbol that evokes both the creation of the world and the dawning of awareness. Cosmological myths often recapitulate the ordering function of consciousness, which gives structure and coherence to the blooming, buzzing confusion. As I previously wrote:

Consciousness emerges out of the unconscious as light emerges out darkness: dividing, making distinctions, applying designations and value judgments. One finds this structure in creation accounts throughout the world, such as the Memphite Theology of Egypt, the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, the Hindu Vedas, in the Norse accounts of the creation of the world from the bones of the frost giant Ymir, and in an interiorized form in the Bardo Thodol, or so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, to name some prominent examples.

We can recognize the primeval darkness as the same which preceded the “Let there be light,” of Genesis, a common symbol of the unconscious. Another common symbol of the unconscious the world over is the sea or the flood, which is a parallel image of an undifferentiated medium. So it does not surprise us to find that the story of the Raven on which Reid’s sculpture is based begins by setting the stage in this way:

The Great Flood which had covered the earth for so long had at last receded, and even the thin strip of sand now called Rose Spit, stretching north from Naikun village, lay dry.

Our story begins at the meeting point of the conscious and the unconscious mind, where Raven feels quite at home, being a bridger of the two worlds. Note that like many Trickster animals, the raven is a scavenger and a carrion eater, and thereby analogously bridges the realms of life and death.

Bored Raven hopped along the beach looking for something to do when he heard the squeak of unfamiliar animals:

At first he saw nothing, but as he scanned the beach again, a white flash caught his eye, and when he landed he found at his feet, half-buried in the sand, a gigantic clamshell. When he looked more closely still, he saw that the shell was full of little creatures cowering in terror of his enormous shadow.


Well, here was something to break the monotony of his day. But nothing was going to happen as long as the tiny things stayed in the shell, and they certainly weren’t coming out in their present terrified state. So the Raven leaned his great head close to the shell, and with the smooth trickster’s tongue that got him into and out of so many misadventures during his troubled and troublesome existence, he coaxed and cajoled and coerced the little creatures to come out and play in his wonderful shiny new world.

In the infancy of the world, Raven served as a midwife to help the first Haida come forth out of the dark watery womb and into the light of consciousness that he himself scattered about the skies. It is important to note the significance of Raven’s speech in bringing the Haida forth into consciousness – as we noted above, speech is often a direct symbol of cosmological ordering, and is associated with acts of creation in many cosmogonies.


The contemporary art of the Pacific Northwest is one of the most mythologically vital forms of expression I’ve found in the world today. Bill Reid is a master, and I’ve also been quite impressed by the work of Robert Davidson, whose art can be seen in the wonderful book The Abstract Edge.

If you’re interested in Haida mythology, in addition to The Raven and the Light, the book A Story as Sharp as a Knife by Robert Bringhurst is also a powerful and striking study and set of translations.

If you’re interested in the Trickster figure, the Jung essay I have quoted is collected in the volume The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. The interested reader will also find an engrossing survey of the motif in Lewis Hyde’s delightful Trickster Makes This World.

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November 26, 2016 at 8:43 am

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