Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Enlightened One and the Trickster.

"He tries to trick you. I try to enlighten you. Which is the more noble pursuit?"

Thus spoke the fictional Crown Prince Leopold in The Illusionist, shortly before he was effectively humiliated by the 'trickster' in front of his entire court of assembled nobility. Shortly before he announced that "everything can and will be explained; all mysteries penetrated". And in response to the the original quote, the trickster makes an expansive gesture and, with barely-concealed sarcasm, asks "may we have the lights please, so his Highness can better see". The whole scene is very funny, if only because of the verbal exchange between Trickster and Crown Prince, which is in truth a battle of wits and power; and the only time the two face each other in such an open manner, with the remainder playing out behind the scenes and through intermediaries.

I must offer, by way of disclosure before what follows, that, of course, my august namesake 'Till [real surname unknown] Eulenspiegel' (English, German reference) was also a trickster, albeit not of the 'magician' type, and that therefore I am disinclined to agree with the claim that 'enlightenment' is more 'noble'—that is, a property attributed to some kind of ethical, moral or or social elite or nobility—than 'tricking'; and especially if the claim is accompanied by such extravagant assertions about the penetrability of 'all mysteries' as preceded it. The point was, in due course, driven home later in the film when Eisenheim confessed to having seen 'remarkable things' but the only 'real mystery' was one having to do with something inside himself—a point Leopold would have utterly incapable of understanding, specifically and generally.

It is a property of 'nobility' that those who consider themselves 'noble' are by and large deluded—as, may I add, are those who think that nobility of the social kind is correlated in any way with nobility of body, mind or spirit. Indeed, the 'nobility' attributed to the 'character' of a person—inferred, as is the only way possible, by his or her actions—tends to be almost completely independent of social status per se.

This is a seemingly paradoxical statement, since 'nobility' is a purely 'social' attribute—even if we're speaking of 'character'. 'Noble' behavior is always a quality measured toward or in relation to other human beings. The same goes for a whole bunch of other 'behaviors' evidencing 'character'. Like 'loyalty', 'honor[ability]', 'rectitude', 'honesty', to name but a few; plus, of course, their opposites. Indeed, one might argue that everything having to do with 'character' is 'social'.

I'll leave you to ponder this particular set of value attributions and their contexts and dependencies. But what I was really going to talk about was the function of the Trickster and his 'value' for...well, everything really, but especially for understanding ourselves and our place in the great scheme of things. For 'tricks'—deceptions that is—are possibly the most effective means to expose what we are and how we function, as individuals as well as social creatures. They do this because we cannot be 'taught' anything beyond what you might call 'basic facts'—and even that is arguable—and instead can only be encouraged to learn.

Enlightenment, if it comes to us at all, is always an active process. All the self-appointed 'enlighteners' of all ages have contributed less, if anything worthwhile mentioning at all, to whatever progress that humankind as a species might have made than the tricksters throughout those same ages.

I know this is a bold statement qualifying as 'provocative', and the gut reactions of most of my august readers will be "Bullshit!", or a variant thereof in any number of languages they happen to think in. And, yes, the thought that I might be trying to trick you with such a pronouncement might occur to a few—though I'd hardly admit it if it were true, which it might be, nor not. But I am unrepentant. For the 'enlightened' ones invariably seek to bring their light to others, telling us, "look, this is how it is", and they equally invariably are the first to ignore light shed by others. In other words, Crown Prince Leopold is a pretty good caricature of one; exaggerated of course, as caricatures tend to be, but in his vain monomania and deluded egomaniacal zeal to set right the things he sees wrong with the empire of his father, he is pretty much everything I detect in every single idealist who can't cope with the messiness and imperfection of human existence. In the instance of Leopold it was the untidy and basically uncontrollable nature of some sort of democratic structure of the political life of society. "The situation is so obvious. Everybody is completely incompetent. [...] The country will be run by mongrels. A thousand different voices screaming to be heard, and nothing will be done. Nothing!" But it could have been anything, really. These idiots are all pretty much the same, no matter how benevolent they sound or believe themselves to be.

Consider, on the other hand, the trickster. His main aim, prompted by whatever motives drive him on, is to fool people, or even to make fools out of them; be it with regards to their behavior or what their behavior evidences about them. In so doing he may elicit a number of reactions in his targets. The ones I am mainly concerned with here are those of 'denial'—mostly of the realization that one's foolishness has been exposed or that one is indeed foolish to believe or do this or that—or of alternate being-shaken-into-wakefulness though realization of the implications of the exposure. The latter reaction usually leads to self-inspection and quite probably to a desire, possibly prompted simply by vanity, wounded pride or self-esteem, never to be exposed in such a manner again. In the more intelligent 'victims' this will lead to the logical conclusion that the best they can do is to abolish the causes of their foolishness. This leads to a desire to learn and become less of an idiot than one was before.

Or not. In those in whom it does the process tends to be beneficial. In others, of course—that being the 'dark side' of this thing, for there's always a dark side as well—all you'll get is anger and wasted energy. But such is life.

I can anticipate some of you arguing that I have ignored those who obviously do not trick us, yet provide enlightenment all the same. In this day and age, 'scientists' leap to mind, I suppose. And, yes, it is true that science, by an large is an activity that one might expect to 'enlighten' us. But think again. Science is basically a set of methodologies of investigating and dealing with the constraints and possibilities imposed on our being by our physical nature. Most of the time it's a far better one than the alternatives. Even when it doesn't seem to be, the notion that one should, as the CSI programmes say, 'follow the evidence' is a sound one. Better that than denying the evidence and losing the plot, as it were. The methodology, when practiced with care and circumspection, is not only powerful but also immensely beneficial.

Yet science does not provide 'enlightenment'. The 'facts'—in the Wittgensteinian sense of the Tractatus—of the world may be made explicit, insofar as they can, but there are always those things 'whereof one cannot speak'; not necessarily because one should not, but because some things literally cannot be made explicit. But that's all.

'Enlightenment' is a different animal and has nothing to do with 'facts' per se. Those who think that it can be provided through the mechanism of 'education' are deluded, if only because the educators at all levels, from administration to face-to-face delivery are, by and large, utterly unenlightened. Education can provide 'facts'—and even there it all-too-often doesn't, but instead delivers demonstrable non-facts—but, again, that's all. Enlightenment, if it comes to those who learn, comes to them, in their own way and in their own time, when they are actually 'learning' under their own initiative beyond the mere 'facts'. When stuff goes on in their heads that correlates to something we call 'understanding'. And no two people 'understand' the same. Because they are two different people. No other reason is required.

The vainglorious nature of those who want to 'enlighten' and their relationship to tricksters is very beautifully depicted in that scene from The Illusionist I quoted from above. It alone makes the movie worthwhile watching, because there so much meta-meaning in it. And when, toward the end and for a short tense moment the trickster, Eisenheim, who is in a socially far inferior position to the 'enlightener', chooses to, at the same time, exhibit his power and yet allow the now-revealed-as-less-powerful Leopold to save face in front of the assembly of 'nobles'...that almost elevates him to the status of a minor deity.

And so, the other question he asked—"Where does power flow from?"—in a way is answered, though maybe not quite in the way it was asked. Not that I'd think most watchers of the film would have seen all that, because, as good story-telling goes, it was all hidden under the testosterone fumes and the social tension between the two antagonists, as well as the ever-present element of competition for, if not the hand (well, it was that, too, but Leopold didn't know that at the time) but still for the esteem and regard of the girl.

Of course, the whole movie is about the power of the trickster. It pushes the boundaries to the point where we do have to ask whether more than trickery is involved. Not that one needs to endorse the whole spiritualist paradigm, but I have often wondered if—even today and with all the technology and gadgetry involved—maybe some 'magicians', who declare quite openly that they are preforming 'illusions' aren't actually conning us; whether their 'illusions' indeed are illusions, but not in the way in which we'd understand it and of the nature we expect them to be.

Alas, 'sleight-of-hand' can be a dazzlingly effective art, and to those who've seen the movie and recall the 'orange tree' illusion, just one question needs to be asked: were the 'oranges' plucked from the tree the same as those thrown to the audience?

Illusion works because those deceived ask the wrong questions. Tricksters have for ever been teaching us this simple truth.

By deceiving us.

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