What a deeply strange beast this book is.

As with many strange beasts, I found it accidentally, rather than hunting for something I knew existed. Foraging the web for interesting material on trickster myths, I stumbled across the first footprint: an interview with Arpad Szakolczai and Bjørn Thomassen, regarding their co-authored book with an unpromising title: From Anthropology to Social Theory: Rethinking the Social Sciences (2019). Despite this dry title, the interview hinted at some juicy ideas: a ‘revitalisation’ of thinking about modernity and its self-analysis (sociology) via concepts such as the trickster, liminality, and imitation, through the work of neglected ‘maverick’ anthropologists such as Gregory Bateson, René Girard, Paul Radin, and Colin Turnbull.

I got hold of the book, but as I read it, while I was fascinated, I sensed some perspectives that struck me as odd, infused into the inspiring stuff. Shunning the pretty fundamental idea of tricksters being morally ambivalent, they are deemed here to be ‘worse than evil’.1 I began to wonder about the source of the Szakolczai / Thomassen interview: the On Knowing Humanity Journal, which aims to ‘promote the development of a Christian faith-based approach to anthropology.’2 Also, there seemed to be a constant slippage between the idea of ‘the trickster’ as a mythological figure with an imaginal relationship to human life, and descriptions of ‘trickster figures’ as a kind of historical, sociological, or psychological type. Among other potential problems, these two factors — classing tricksters as evil, and identifying them with social groups — together seemed to me to risk feeding currents of demonisation. For sure, the world is presently rife with real-life tricksters, especially in politics. But it’s also rife with the demonisation of facets of society which fall foul of these scholars’ ideological ire. I’m very wary of both. We should be sophisticated in how we relate imaginal figures to literal people, and remain aware of the fact that demonisation is a key tactic of tricksy political leaders.

I decided I had to delve deeper into this aspect of the authors’ thinking, and Szakolczai’s book on ‘tricksterology’ with Agnes Horvath seemed to be my best bet. Szakolczai and Horvath seem to be two of a number of scholars who cluster together under the banner of the International Political Anthropology Journal, and in universities in Hungary, northern Italy, and west Ireland. I was spurred on to investigate this book by the cautiously positive blurb granted to it by archeologist David Wengrow (‘A complex and timely meditation on the nature of evil in human societies, reaching back into the distant past – while not all will agree with its methods or conclusions, this book offers provocative ideas for consideration by anthropologists, philosophers, and culture historians.’).3 What I discovered was… strange. Erudite, paradoxical, dripping with lurid imagery but at times poorly written, at some levels carefully reasoned but at other levels possessed by an unruly, hard-to-fathom animus, it provokes issues too complex to resolve in a review.

The trickster logos

Perhaps the best broad view of this work can be obtained by considering the authors as devout, generally conservative Platonists. They see ‘the good’ as something primary and simple, something corrupted by evil Sophists who encroach from outside the harmonious community.4 There is a deep suspicion here that poetry and art are inauthentic, mimetic parasites on real life, together with a kind of hyper-Heideggerian critique of technology and modernity. Add in some of the aforementioned maverick anthropologists, some anti-ressentiment Nietzsche, snatches of Foucault, and a bunch of other interesting thinkers, some of whom I suspect would baulk at the context their ideas are roped into, and you have a rough outline of this bizarre intellectual brew.

The general thrust is that modernity is best understood as an unfolding of ‘trickster logic’. Horvath and Szakolczai (henceforth H&S) stress that their interest ‘is not in identifying certain persons or occupations as tricksters, rather to identify a certain trickster logic […] at the heart of modernity…’.5 As I mentioned with regard to Szakolczai’s book with Thomassen, though, this statement of intent is constantly at odds with the identification of actual social types as ‘tricksters’, or the targeting of whole movements or schools of thought. Following one of their guiding lights, political philosopher Eric Voegelin,6 the Gnostics are crucial bogeymen here, along with Sophists and alchemists,7 blacksmiths,8 shamans and sorcerers,9 and jesters.10 Between these two books co-authored by Szakolczai, there is a deep resentment of the ‘neo-Kantian’ orthodoxy in modern academia.11 It seems clear that Marxists and neo-Kantians are the primary contemporary groups tarred as manifesting the evil of trickster logic (a tangled mish-mash of double-binds, parasitism, resentment and… doing something in the dank underground with ‘effluences’ — more on that later).

‘Guilty by character’

There’s a kind of sociological trickster origin myth in here, perhaps analogous to Freud’s Primal Horde origin myth for the Oedipus complex, based on the Vedic myth of creation and the figure of Prajapati. They speculate that Prajapati and his lonely, pain-filled acts of creation are echoes of the resentful imaginings of some prehistoric outcast.

The trickster by definition is an outsider and outcast, and if we start with the perspective of a well-functioning community — and we should have this as our starting point, instead of an absurd, Hobbesian, war of all against all; or an even more absurd Girardian starting point of a collapse of order, as in order to collapse, a proper order must first of all exist, then the trickster is a genuine enemy of the people, and is bound to be considered as the first person to be considered as the culprit if something is going wrong, being guilty by character (hubris).12

I’m deeply sympathetic to their objection to Hobbesian myth; but for me, their own is also riddled with problems. In this context we can perhaps summarise Hobbes’ approach to the problem of ‘evil’ as seeing it (in the form of selfish conflict) as primal. H&S counter with the vision of good order as primal. Some wrong-doer is ostracised, and their exclusion, and the subsequent stewing of their resentment, warps their morals even further. They enter a fantasy world and justify themselves through deceptively tarring everyone else as being ‘guilty’, and — somehow, over the years — insinuate themselves back into community, gathering around themselves a priestly ascetic elite, resentful of the world per se, corrupting the formerly healthy community in a spiral of ‘trickster logic’ which culminates in the evil explosion of technology and political machinations that is modernity.

This interpretation of Vedic myth is rooted even further in the past, in the Palaeolithic, via elaborate and free-wheeling interpretations of the rare and strange humanoid figures in cave art, such as the ‘shaft scene’ in Lascaux. These figures are seen as evidence of early intrusions of trickster evil into the healthy primal community. Contrary to the widespread view that tricksters form one of the earliest, deepest and most widespread strata of divinity, and that the early Stone Age was a time of social fluidity and fascinated proximity to nature’s mutability, for H&S ‘the late Palaeolithic was not the age of metamorphosis, rather the — indeed lost — Golden Age; the real age of the trickster only came with the Bronze and especially the Iron Ages — including … the age of modernity.’13

The Lascaux ‘shaft scene’

H&S thus appear as ardent traditionalists. The fundamental break in history is the advent of modernity, and the Tradition that it interrupted and corrupted is seen as rooted in the mists of human time. Perhaps their originality, such as it is, is to see the modernist rupture as the culmination of a strange thread of evil running through history and prehistory, to find the seeds of this calamity running darkly alongside and within the development of civilisation. For them the Palaeolithic contains no radical difference from the later instances of social life which have failed to fall to the machinations of trickster outsiders; the early Stone Age is just a deeper, simpler variant on the Platonic image of simple, good community.

There is sporadic lip service to the rejection of binary moralism (‘we cannot start with the simple distinction between good and evil’14 ), but at the heart of this vision of history seems to be a sidelined mystery or paradox. If human community was originally good, where did ‘evil’ come from? The idea of the outcast bringing evil back from the wilderness kind of passes the buck, since of course the genealogy here ultimately comes back to the ‘good’ community itself. At best evil figures as a kind of emergent force. H&S say: ‘a central concern for any community is how to handle tricksters. This has no clear and easy solution, as pushing them outside only renders their eventual return more threatening…’15 — clearly implying that these characters were evil ‘tricksters’ before being expelled. What is perpetuated here as a disavowed mystery is the idea that while evil definitely exists, we must thoroughly deny the uncomfortable possibility that anything ‘evil’ is or can be immanent to the community, or to reality itself. So while H&S occasionally rail against dualisms, and don’t seem to have much to say about Christianity, it’s hard to not sense here some commonality with the aspect of Christianity which posits an omnipotent, benevolent God, yet also has to allow its lore to generate a Devil in order to siphon blame for evil away from the supposedly single God. Of course, the monotheist’s Devil is widely related to the demonisation of pagan trickster figures, ambivalence flattened into pure malevolence in order to prop up a binary logic in which a scapegoated figure of depravity shoulders the blame for the mysterious origins of evil.

‘Like seductive reptiles in human form’

H&S would no doubt distance themselves from this dynamic — clearly a mythical engine for the generation of scapegoating and persecution — by reiterating their insistence that evil shouldn’t be resisted. Although they only mention this twice, one instance is near the beginning,16 and one is literally the punchline of the book’s very end:

The trickster is unreality and absurdity itself, thus producing evil, whenever it is irresponsibly set in motion, whether by yielding to its incommensurable attraction or by resisting it. Instead of doing so, and following Plato, it can indeed become invisible in good thinking, losing its dynamism if it is left alone.

So it should not be disturbed.17

I find this deeply odd, almost a non sequitur, since the dominant tone throughout the book is one of an almost sensationalist demonology, the impact of which very much does not suggest ‘leaving things be’. The erudite references and sophisticated reasoning utterly fail to counter this. I can only quote at length to demonstrate what I mean.

… [t]he form of the good … is the cause of reality: correct, ordered and beautiful. But insensible merging with evil makes a black hole in reality with stamped, masked people, who are bewildered. They are the keepers of a huge monster of sensuals, and they have knowledge of what it desires, how this monster has to be approached and handled by sensuals, strong and mild, fed by souls, which makes it smooth to handle. The troglodytes have spent enough time in the Tartarus to acquire all this knowledge, though erratic, and they started to spread it even in the form of alchemy, which in fact was only a way of excess, resulting in slavery to demons.18

The mention of ‘troglodytes’ here refers to a chapter here on Anatolian artificial cave systems, which are merged with the proto-ethnographic speculation of writers like Hesiod, to form an oddly seamless mixture of scholarship and fantasy, which to me has the atmosphere of the weirder edges of fringe research published in small-press pamphlets. I found such stuff fascinating in the ‘90s, and have always proudly existed myself as a writer and publisher bordering on this kind of fringe. But here in the post-QAnon 21st century, the incongruity of finding such material in something published by Routledge carries, rather than the thrill of outsider scholarship breaking into the academy, a queasy discomfort.

H&S lament modern secularism’s naivety in neglecting ‘the problem of evil’, and certainly this is worth examining. The sidelining of this mode of thought and rhetoric has abandoned it to realms which do little to maintain any kind of nuance or wisdom: the zealous edges of religion, and the sensationalism of tabloid media. However, H&S’s project of bringing evil back to the forefront of discourse unfortunately, bizarrely, seems to perpetuate the religion-tabloid nexus as much as it nurtures learned insight.

Underground spaces are of course prime sites for lurid speculation, especially that tinged with paranoid erotic undertones (one thinks, for example, of Richard Shaver and his ‘Deros’19 ). There’s a fundamental horror of fluidity20 and darkness here, cast as ‘unnatural’ (as if nature is all stable and nicely lit). Again, quoting at length is my only recourse.

But they [the troglodytes] have judged the process in one way or another, working in alienation, inside the dark labyrinth, in the non-society of the underground, aiming to manufacture something, as part of a fearful and risky enterprise. Indeed, the activities literally undertaken there, were beyond human capacities. They were assisted by the powers of Tartarus, or better say, by the interplay of two similar wills that filled the gaps inside the process, two aspects of the same attributes to amend wretchedness. Both the punished Titans and the troglodytes shared the hunger for acquiring the other, the Titans needing the forms of beings, while the operators wanted fluxes from them. The Titans were locked there by Zeus, while troglodytes, like an army of blind and ferocious termites in repressed, intractable human form attacked the earth with mile-long dig-outs to catch something in the damp darkness, unable to escape any more from the bellies of the earth, earning nothing but losing the meaning of their life there, only spreading merciless violence and imposing terror on beings.21

The living dead live in dissipation, lacking any restraint, engaged in self-indulgence, give themselves up to debauchery. Once their minds and good feelings became sickened and grown strange, they could only be soothed by the excitement of the awful and the exhilarating, as if sucking sensuals from the living.22

The outcome is the living dead state, archetype of the trickster. Their coarse features, unpleasant and cold appearances frightened the people around them. They looked like seductive reptiles in human form — rife with magic in their dopamine frazzled zombie appearance. They were stained and emptied, vacuous: men of many demons, operators of dark forces deviated from nature in the underground.23

Besides the demonological feverishness, in these passages — which are far from exceptional — you’ll notice some peculiar, arguably plain bad writing. It’s interesting to note how a flavour of someone writing outside their first language comes through — perhaps generating, for myself as an English speaker, that kind of subliminal sense of otherness which can easily tinge the atmosphere with xenophobia. Am I othering these others for their own apparent othering of outsiders? If nothing else, this is some kind of confirmation of a contagious insidiousness to the ideas under discussion. In any case, since Szakolczai’s book with Thomassen bears little if any of this style, and Horvath’s solo work (e.g. Modernism and Charisma (2013)) bears some of it, this aspect seems to be Horvath’s idiosyncratic voice, combined with dereliction of duty on the part of the editor.

‘Their eyes upon young and gentle souls’

I mentioned QAnon earlier, and perhaps primed by this virulent wave of conspiracy theories, and the resurgence of ‘Satanic Panics’ in recent years, I found it hard not to cast a slight sideways glance at occasional tabloid-flavoured expressions of concern for the children.

The trickster heavily invests in recruiting, for a flow of new souls is constantly needed to pay off effluences of sensuals. Tricksters have their eyes close upon others, especially upon young and gentle souls, slowly but irresistibly instilling into them the poison of impropriety and limitlessness, blackening their intentions…24

Earlier, discussing Evans-Pritchard’s classic early 20th century study of witchcraft among the Azande in Africa, H&S suggest that due to the hardships of initiation, and the sorcerer’s status as an outcast (‘reconfirming that sorcerers are tricksters of a kind’), the perpetuation of this tradition requires ‘the trick of enchanting, even seducing young children’.25 Since H&S are such fans of ‘normal, healthy’ community, reproduction in the context of a normal, healthy family carries an aura of quiet sacredness for them. And ‘tricksters’, as the errant source of evil, are placed firmly outside these bounds. ‘The existence of tricksters is not the result of filiation [a fancy sociology word for being the child of parents], or formed by bringing together equal partners, but only of imitation … Filiation catches the absorbing, digesting substance by transmitting graceful characters, fine and stately appearances, while substitution by imitation results in an all-become-one monstrous disgrace of ugliness.’26

Now, while I’m not that familiar with the work of Evans-Pritchard, consulting his book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande (1937) reveals some odd — and presumably wilful — shortsightedness in H&S’s appropriation of this material. I mean, Evans-Pritchard’s very first chapter is titled ‘Witchcraft is an Organic and Hereditary Phenomenon’! He clearly states: ‘Witchcraft [according to the Azande] is not only a physical trait but is also inherited. It is transmitted by unilinear descent from parent to child.’27 In fact, Evans-Pritchard emphasises that the Azande distinguish between witches (who act ‘without rites and spells’ and use ‘hereditary psycho-physical powers’ to attain their ends) and sorcerers (who fit H&S’s image better, using ‘the technique of magic’ and deriving their power ‘from medicines’28 ). H&S, on the other hand, blur this distinction, saying that becoming ‘a witch doctor, magician or sorceror was not an easy process’.29 In a footnote they add: ‘Evans-Pritchard makes a distinction between witch doctors and sorcerers, but this is not relevant from our perspective,’ — adding, vaguely and unconvincingly, that this distinction ‘could be misleading, as the term “sorcerer” is widely used in a general sense for prehistory.’30 The fact remains that H&S have studiously omitted a major aspect of the material they’re drawing on which contradicts the image they’re constructing to represent the core of their argument. Evans-Pritchard does stress that for the Azande, both witches and sorcerers alike ‘are enemies of men’,31 but the connection between witchcraft and ‘filiation’ is conspicuous by its absence in H&S’s theoretical paean to domesticity.

The Azande only tell stories of the spider trickster Ture at night, and clearly H&S are right to label this as a ‘liminal’ time appropriate to this mythical character. But they can’t simply note an atmosphere of ambivalent weirdness; they cannot resist pushing further, tarring this practice with one-dimensionally sinister, bizarrely-phrased insinuations.

… [Zande] children are often told such [spider trickster] stories while going to bed, thus on the one hand exciting their eagerness, on the other assuring that whatever they heard would stay with them during their sleep, in their dreams. The similarities, but also the differences, between such trickster stories and standard European folktales are evident. The heroes of European folktales are rarely tricksters; and when they are, they do not perform the kind of exploits characteristic of Ture. However, parallels are tight with the impact of watching television, both set on inserting the void into the body since early childhood so that it would stay with them forever, blackening the soul through the impossible idea that you could be anything, thus forming a tight web of perfect entrapment into eternal dissatisfaction.32

H&S’s combination of sensationalist rhetoric — which traffics heavily in common tropes of demonisation — and misrepresentation of prominent sources, leaves a particularly bad taste. (I’ll discuss other problems with the (mis)use of sources in a bit.)

‘A kind of duplicity’

In their first chapter, H&S assert their intent to avoid distorting through projection:

… the trickster belongs to a single tradition, that can be traced to the Palaeolithic, using archaeological facts, and should be approached genealogically, starting from the most remote past, and not projecting backwards our own worldview…33

Even within this single sentence we can note a probable distortion. While 20th century anthropology was in some senses justified in suggesting this single label ‘trickster’ for mythical figures across a wide variety of diverse indigenous and historical cultures, it remains a modern imposition. These traditions are also diverse. I’m a staunch advocate of the value of cross-cultural comparison; but there are limits. H&S seem to be overly keen to nail down this ‘single tradition’, in order to propagate their monomaniacal vision. Their universalisation of their vision of tricksters is perhaps ironic, given their intense professed opposition to neo-Kantian prioritisation of universality over particularity.

What’s more, their section on the Azande contains a curious comment:

… Evans-Pritchard remarks about the general predisposition of the Zande that they are ‘cheerful people who are always laughing and joking’ … , not being afraid of witchcraft because of the power of the witch doctors. However, laughter can mean many things, and while the general, benevolent and cheerful disposition of no people can be doubted, living together with the ideas about the ever-presence of witchcraft certainly must colour such predisposition, creating a kind of duplicity, doubleness or even bipolarity which Evans-Pritchard perhaps was not able to catch.34

I’m not going to contest the fact that witchcraft, historically speaking, often signalled, or helped create, a certain paranoia and touchiness in social reality. But while this speculation about ‘duplicity’ among the Azande — which H&S deem themselves capable of perceiving even though a noted anthropologist who actually lived with the people in question didn’t — might contain truth, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that this might be as much a case of a stopped clock telling the right time as anything. Such is their eagerness to project their own story, sometimes evidence seems subservient — even as they decry projection with deceptive firmness.

‘Moving towards evil’?

Hermes / Mercury

Given their staunch valorisation of ancient Greece, it’s no surprise that H&S dedicate a chapter to Hermes. However, their reading of his nature and role seems heavily skewed. They seem to play fast and loose with evidence even when drawing on their own ‘tradition’. Earlier they state:

A further, crucial feature of the trickster, if we combine the various traditions, is that while it is a kind of divinity, it is in permanent conflict with the gods, especially the main, creator deity… 35

Clearly there’s an element of truth to this in many traditions. Tricksters are usually rebels, ruptures in order. But if this is a core feature of their image of the trickster, and they’re so interested in ancient Greece, why wouldn’t they note the fact that in this tradition, far from being in permanent conflict with Zeus, his son Hermes is his valued herald and messenger?

In 2018, two years before H&S’s book was published, classics scholar Arlene Allan’s book Hermes appeared, the first academic study devoted to the god since Norman O. Brown’s Hermes the Thief (1947). This apparently authoritative work speaks of ‘Hermes’ innate concern for proper order and apportionment’.36 Contra H&S’s characterisation of all tricksters as fundamentally asocial outcasts, Allan cites someone speaking of Hermes as ‘the social god’.37 For Greeks he was the ‘friendliest of gods to mortals’. Within the Olympic pantheon, Hermes and Hestia — the hearth goddess of home, domesticity and the state — ‘were believed to work especially well together in the effective running of the household’.38 For H&S, Hermes, like all tricksters, ‘is only interested in his own benefits’.39 Allan, on the other hand, reports that, taking all of Hermes’ stories into account, ‘there are very few instances in which the god acts from his own motives and with his own agenda … Hermes wants his father to uphold the order he has already put in place.’40 There follow fourteen pages detailing how Hermes acts to facilitate his father’s orderly cosmos. (Without wanting to generalise across trickster traditions, but merely to illustrate the weakness of H&S’s generalisation of tricksters as simply selfish disrupters, we can also note Robert D. Pelton’s comments on the West African trickster Eshu: ‘As a two-sided figure, Eshu simultaneously dissolves and reshapes the world, but always with the goal of reestablishing the cosmic order intended by Olodumare.’41 )

A key part of H&S’s mythology is the primitive ‘gift economy’ famously theorised by Marcel Mauss. Obviously this forms part of their image of Palaeolithic life as primally beneficent domesticity, to be gradually infested by devious tricksters. Despite broad evidence of the significant role that tricksters play in hunter-gatherer mythologies, they see Hermes’ association with exchange as having little to do with this archaic order of generosity; to them his domain is purely one of devious, selfish commerce and theft.42 Allan, however, emphasises that Hermes was associated with all forms of exchange, beneficent or corrupt. One of his epithets was Dôtôr Eaôn (‘Giver of Good’); Allan speaks of ‘his concern with and oversight of what we would call complimentary exchanges, particularly those associated with convivial and satisfying interactions.’43

H&S subtitle their chapter on Hermes ‘Moving Towards Evil’, and characterise the Greek apprehension of him as ‘extremely negative’,44 even ‘an unmitigated disaster’.45 (Compare with Norman O. Brown, writing in 1947 on the Homeric Hymn to Hermes: ‘Nowhere is moral disapproval expressed.’46 ) H&S say that in Hermes, Greece somehow managed to ‘pacify’ and ‘domesticate’ the trickster. But this view is starkly at odds with their other comments, and in any case is framed as a ‘delicate balance’ that is ‘always threatening to collapse.’47

It strikes me that if anything, Allan’s work suggests that ‘Moving Towards Good’ would be a better title for a chapter on Hermes. Moral ambivalence is still prominent in this Greek trickster, but his ‘domestication’ seems far more robust than H&S’s biases suggest — and far more robust than I would have guessed from my baseline of seeing tricksters as ambivalent. Still, in the end I wouldn’t want to counter their ‘evil’ by imputing ‘good’ to Allan’s reading. Ambivalence has to be the bottom line when it comes to tricksters.

Manhandled sources

H&S draw on many thinkers who I find compelling, but my impression — deepened by the above distorted representation of Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Azande — is that they sometimes rally their sources inappropriately. Of course sometimes it’s the case that they draw on one aspect of a thinker’s work, while diverging from other aspects. This is obviously legitimate, since it’s unusual for any scholar to fully agree with another. But occasionally there seems to be something else afoot here.

Gregory Bateson’s concept of the ‘double-bind’ is scattered throughout this book, as well as Horvath’s solo work and Szakolczai’s book with Thomassen. As a dilemma created by contradiction in communication, it can clearly be located in the realm of the trickster, and H&S understandably figure it as an aspect of ‘trickster logic’. However, it’s notable that while their entire vision relies on tricksters being devious outsiders, Bateson and his colleagues formulated their theory of the double-bind in the 1950s while studying the genesis of schizophrenia within families. The destructive engine of the double-bind is fuelled precisely by the fact that the person expressing it is a trusted figure of intimate authority (usually a parent). For me this seems to echo H&S’s wilfully blind use of Evans-Pritchard’s Azande fieldwork; the potential immanence of ‘evil’ to the domestic situation is swept under the carpet, and tricksy outsider figures are conjured as scapegoats.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

I’m also moved to contrast H&S’s heavily loaded characterisation of trickster outsiders as seducers of children with the now-common knowledge that a minority of acts of child abuse are committed by strangers; family members are the primary culprits. Of course outsiders pose risk. But the ideal mask for truly dangerous forces is something trusted and familiar — just ask Leland Palmer.

Michel Serres’ work seems to stand as one of the deepest engagements with the figure of Hermes in recent thought, so naturally he is a major reference point for H&S. I’ve yet to properly study Serres. However, I recently read Christopher Watkins’ fascinating Michel Serres: Figures of Thought (2018), the first comprehensive English introduction to Serres’ ideas; and this work suggests more slanted appropriation on the part of H&S. Serres’ best-known work is Parasite (1980), and H&S keenly deploy this term to colour their demonisation of trickster figures. But even the brief blurb from Parasite’s publisher suggests significant divergence from the vision of H&S: ‘Among Serres’s arguments is that by being pests, minor groups can become major players in public dialogue — creating diversity and complexity vital to human life and thought.’ Serres’ provocative designation of parasitism as primal to human relations is underlined by an observation that utterly complicates H&S’s precious image of ‘filiation’ — that is, we effectively parasitise our mothers for the first months of our life.48 For Watkins, Serres’ account ‘offers transformative models to the humanities and perhaps in particular to disability studies and gerontology, directly confronting the insidious stigma of “being a burden” by revealing parasitism as the fundamental and universal condition of existence, both human and non-human.’49 H&S speak of the ‘fundamental relationality of evil’;50 for these Platonists, of course relations play a deeply shifty second fiddle to Being. But Serres gives us a sharply opposed vision: ‘Relation precedes being; there you have my philosophy in a word.’51 You wouldn’t be able to gather this apparently basic information on Serres anywhere from H&S.

Of course Serres isn’t naive; his vision of tricksters and parasitism is about danger and risk — and, yes, evil — as well as opportunity and adventure. And H&S don’t have a duty to fully explicate the entire vision of each of their sources. But in many instances, elements of other thinkers’ work are deployed in ways that do more violence to their original context than feels valid.

Thorny resonances

I have to round off my critique with some very touchy comments. How to broach the subject of antisemitism, especially that which comes with hints of fascist rhetoric, in the current climate without triggering those who see mention of such things in contexts other than SS officers goosestepping down the street as being a ‘woke’ witch-hunt? But, given the tone, tropes and perspectives rallied by H&S, how to not mention these elephants in the room, and maintain integrity?

For the avoidance of doubt, here I’m erring on the side of fairness, and not accusing H&S of these toxic ideologies. And generally I try to avoid the tactic which (rightly) deems fascism impossible to reason with, and deserving of extreme prejudice, but which proceeds to extend this level of prejudice an ill-defined distance back up the slippery slope of ideas that may or may not lead there. I see people do this with hazy notions of communism (e.g. ‘regulations about pronouns lead to gulags’), and deem them bonkers. You don’t need to blandly ‘both sides’ the matter to see the problem. Further, the fact that David Wengrow lent blurb to the cover seems – given that he’s presumably more knowledgeable of H&S and their work than me, and that I imagine he would be the last person to tolerate antisemitic sentiments – to put paid to any speculation about a truly sinister agenda here.

At the same time, with the best will in the world, I find myself unable to wrap my head around the idea that anyone wary of these ideologies could write such vividly adjacent prose, in our political present, and comprehensively fail to address the issue head-on. At the very generous end of the spectrum of accusations seems to be the sense that the authors rest naively in innocence and didn’t think to deny or engage with what they never even considered. This would be a back-handed kind of generosity though. Or perhaps it seemed too much of a diversion from their central thesis? Well, this might hold water if they weren’t writing about ‘the political sociology and anthropology of evil’.

In any case, to underline why I feel broaching these issues is necessary, maybe it’s worth itemising some of the key thorny resonances.

  • ‘The trickster by definition is an outsider and outcast … the trickster is a genuine enemy of the people …’52 While H&S advocate Plato’s elite rule, they critique authoritarianism, and recent tricksy figures like Trump. So it’s odd to come across this pointed ‘enemy of the people’ phrase. It was coined by Stalin, used by Nazi propagandists to vilify Jews, and became a sly dog-whistle among recent demagogues. Maybe the stress is on ‘genuine’, implying a kind of distance from these famous deployments? This feels like fairness pushed beyond reasonable limits.
  • H&S closely associate tricksters with mimicry, with masks used to cover a lack of substance, to deceive and (of necessity) parasitise the otherwise stable community. Compare with Simona Forti’s summary of the Nazi view of Jewish instability: ‘[The Jew] is changeable because he is mimetic, and he is mimetic because he is duplicitous, untrustworthy, a liar, someone who takes advantage of everyone. He assumes the features of others to insinuate himself in the bodies and in the nations to which he does not belong. Here is the stereotype of the parasite as bacteria or as a virus – so as to better undermine Nordic humanity, to erode it from the inside.’53 This doesn’t make H&S Nazis. It does make them suspiciously careless rhetoricians, at best.
  • Related to the notion of parasitism is the idea of a kind of vampiric preying on the precious fluids of the people, especially children: ‘Tricksters are soul-devouring provokers of sensuals, duplicitous poisoners who are traversing borders in order to accumulate the sensuals of existing things … The trickster is an evil agency, plotting against the souls which – once liberated, or detached from the body – become discharged into a liquid mass…’54 Echoes of the notorious antisemitic ‘blood libel’, in which Jews were accused of capturing and murdering Christian boys in order to use their blood for ritual purposes, are hard to ignore. This myth has gained new life of late, in various attacks of ‘Satanic Panic’ (without overt antisemitism, though Jews were always cast as agents of Satan by antisemites), and then with more overt antisemitism in the QAnon conspiracy theory which saw ‘globalist’ Democrats sacrificing children for their adrenochrome. The deep suspicion about globalism that runs through both of Szakolczai’s co-authored books I’m looking at here, together with the profound vilification of sacrificial rites, and the elaboration of sacrifice’s association with tricksters (chapter 5), further ramify the resonances with this cluster of ‘blood libel’ motifs.
  • Little comment is needed on the tone of the contrast with which H&S choose to frame their exaltation of the Hellenic world: ‘The Greek vision of the world, which is centred, benevolent and keeping one strong, gave them powerful and magnificent features, they became one of the most beautiful people of their time, a small enclave among the mass of stateless, rootless and reasonless, irregular and unpredictable…’55
  • Tricksters are of course deeply associated with trade and money. However, the demonological tone of H&S’s rhetoric, together with the multiple other apparent points of contact between their image of the trickster and the antisemite’s image of the Jew, genuinely complicate their critique of capitalism and modern economics.

For myself, even without explicit association of this tangle of imagery and ideas with Jews themselves, it remains worthwhile, even vital, to question what’s going on here. Again, erring on the side of fairness, my main question is: given the contemporary rise of antisemitism (sometimes on the left as well as in right / reactionary circles), if the aim is to critique ‘trickster logic’ and not to scapegoat actual people, notably Jews, why aren’t these issues addressed head-on?

There’s practically no discussion of Judaism in Szakolczai’s book with Horvath. But in his book with Thomassen, the major section related to Judaism only intensifies the question about not even minimally confronting antisemitism. In one of the many instances where actual groups of people are tarred with the now-unambiguously evil name of the trickster, the Sophists of ancient Greece are twinned with the Pharisees of Second Temple Judaism.

The parallels between the Pharisees and the Sophists are quite close, even striking. Just as the Sophists were the main enemies of Socrates, the Pharisees were the main enemies of Jesus. … Although the Pharisees were not foreigner outsiders, like the Sophists, they were external to the main circles of power, being plebeian intellectuals, while their central concern was exactly to get inside, in the sense of gaining power and influence – a central feature of trickster figures in depersonalised urban societies. Gaining power and influence among the masses would be their genuine obsession … The Pharisees aimed to gain power through a shrewd combination of tricks … Even further, and sealing their achievements, they conjured up the trick of identity politics … sparkling [sic] a genuine politics of mutual hatred.56

No mention of the fact that notable recent scholars doubt ‘that there were any substantial differences between Jesus and the Pharisees’, and believe the New Testament accounts of their conflicts ‘have more than a slight air of artificiality.’57 And – given such a dense confluence of antisemitic tropes – it’s odd that there’s simply no mention of the fact that, since Pharisaic Judaism gave rise to mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, ‘anti-Pharisaism has been virtually synonymous with antisemitism and a source of inflamed hatred of Jews.’58

Kōjin Karatani’s work on the history of ancient Greek philosophy has shown me that H&S’s view of the Sophists is a little too beholden to Plato’s distorted image of them.59 Similarly, their view of the Pharisees seems to naively rely on the questionable evidence of the Gospels.60

The impact of the section on the Pharisees is capped off by the section that immediately follows it, which declares:

The argument we are building up … is that the modern world is the outcome of a series of liminal crises leading to schismogenic developments and ending up by placing imitative trickster logic at the very heart of modern life, undermining participatory life and gift relations.61

I concur with the basic idea that the figure of the trickster is crucial for understanding the tumultuous modern world, and on many points concur with their critique of the devastating effects of modernity’s economic and scientific ideologies. However, when this is framed by casting the trickster as evil, and by identifying specific historical groups as ‘tricksters’, who thrive in chaotic liminal situations and thus scheme to create such situations and prey on the vital fluids of ‘the people’, and who have massively succeeded in creating the rootless modern world of capitalist globalisation… even when none of those historical groups you identify as tricksters are Jewish, I’d say be careful with this kind of conspiratorial analysis and rhetoric. When you actually identify as tricksters the historical group who became the mainstream of modern Jewry, and instead of being careful, you litter your prose with luridly fantastical imagery of parasitism, underground machinations, and dark sacrificial rites… you’ve got some serious questions to ask yourself.

I don’t know about you, but for me this ambivalence – between apparently being blandly tolerated by academic colleagues and publishers, at the same time as wielding such clearly problematic rhetoric and analysis – has had me disoriented. I can see how some might resolve tension through taking a firm side for or against H&S. But – while I definitely lean towards ‘against’ – I don’t want to lose sight of this tension, because it’s utterly central to the issue at hand. Finding such slippery ambivalence in interpreting a text… we can only be in trickster territory.

The trickster’s party

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake famously wrote of John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

This was of course a compliment from Blake, who valorised the vital liberatory rebellion of Satan against the dismal, oppressive ‘Nobodaddy’ worshipped by orthodox Christianity.

I don’t mean it as a compliment, but a paraphrase of this comment of Blake’s constantly returned to me while reading this book: perhaps H&S are of the trickster’s party without knowing it.

It’s interesting that H&S’s main man himself, Plato, is classed by avid Plato scholar Earl Fontainelle (creator of the monumental Secret History of Western Esotericism podcast) as ‘the ultimate literary trickster … Plato was first and foremost a trickster, a fact which cannot be overemphasised.’62 Despite his voluminous literary output, he never appears as a first person, and appears as a third person just a few times. Almost all of ‘his’ ideas are placed in the mouths of literary masks: characters based on real-life people like Socrates, who in some ways echo their real-life counterparts, but clearly deviate from them into realms created by Plato, but with a complex, creative, aporetic63 relationship to whoever Plato ‘really’ was. Often, the substance of Plato’s philosophy is not only placed ambiguously in the mouths of others, but is nested many levels deep in reports of reports of reports. There may well be a debate about whether the famed Platonic ‘noble lie’ is ‘noble’, or a ‘lie’,64 but his dazzling literary achievement is certainly steeped in slyness.

However, whereas Plato’s tricksiness is knowing and skillfully crafted, the tricksy aspects to H&S’s book seem unconscious. Or are they? It’s hard to know in trickster territory. How could someone declare on their first page that evil means ‘going beyond limits’, then spout such excessive rhetoric – and remain unreflective about this fact?

Implicit in their enthusiastic subscription to Plato’s low opinion of the Sophists is a deep suspicion of rhetorical manipulation. And when discussing the rites of the Kabeiroi (a group of fringe ancient Greek gods that they associate with Hermes), H&S deem them ‘highly suspect’, involving ‘sinister speculation that is not based on true understanding but a mixing of the divine and the human, with the possibly quite sinister aim of inciting emotions.’65 Yet I would class much of the prose in this book as darkly emotive in the extreme, even if it wasn’t ‘academic’.

I always wanted academia to inject more passion into its writing; as they say, be careful what you wish for.

Tricksy all the way down

This book’s rhetoric of trickster-loathing, its demonological tone, and occasional antisemitic resonances, appear to my historical imagination as eruptions on the surface of a particular way of envisioning our species’ deep past and historical arc. My differences with H&S can be grounded in differing visions of how humanity grew out of nature, and how we processed this emergence throughout our history.

For H&S, to repeat, ‘the late Palaeolithic was not the age of metamorphosis, rather the — indeed lost — Golden Age; the real age of the trickster only came with the Bronze and especially the Iron Ages — including … the age of modernity.’66 The ‘late’ Palaeolithic is specified, presumably, because this is the period in question in their discussion of cave art (between about 50,000 and 12,000 BCE). Presumably they would extend this ‘Golden Age’ into earlier times. If so, in this vision, the Fall from Eden happens slowly. Various factors lead to a gradual influx of trickster evil (the factors discussed by H&S include guilt over the invention of long-range hunting weapons, and kickback from social ostracism). Trickster logic is set in motion, and much of the ‘progress’ of civilisation – especially the flourishing of modernity – is seen as the result of this demonic incursion. Instead of the Biblical Fall – singular, early and calamitous, with a long, tragic backwash – we have a slow build to the multi-faceted, late and calamitous Fall of modernity.

Crucial to this vision is the metaphysical sense that a primal order of harmonious Being is, over time, corroded, fractured, disintegrated. There are two major responses to this narrative arc of decline. One is the liberal progressive narrative of ascent, à la Thomas Hobbes and Steven Pinker, which sees no Eden, painting early human life as a conflicted, brutish mire from which rationality inexorably lifts us. Another response is to claim that ‘it was ever thus’; or at least, all this guff about narrative arcs is just fantasy projected onto aimless wandering through time.

I have more time for the ‘aimless wandering’ idea than the progressive and regressive ideas. But I believe fantasy, in the form of narrative arcs and motifs, is deeply important for our reality, for how we construct our lives in relation to our history. And I’ve found that Timothy Morton’s recent work contains one of the most interesting and considered fantasies about our deep past, which usefully undercuts the ideology underpinning H&S’s work. Morton speaks of ‘the Severing’, a playfully mythic take on the rupture caused by the Agricultural Revolution. But the Severing has a twisted relationship to the typical notion of the Fall. In one sense, it’s ‘regressive’, rating Palaeolithic life kind of positively, in comparison to agricultural civilisation and modernity. But the standard regressive narrative is warped by seeing in the Severing, rather than a fall away from wholeness, a retreat into fantasies of wholeness.67 We retreated from the ragged, uncertain realm of ecological relations, which Morton terms the symbiotic real: ambivalent, multiplicitous, vital, spectral. Settled agricultural life, in beginning to create greater distances from wider ecologies, set in motion a withdrawal from intimacy with this strange realm, into a compensatory dream of harmonious purity. In Humankind (2019) Morton writes:

The violence of post-Mesopotamian civilization is precisely not a deracination from Nature. The violence is the establishment of a human ‘world,’ cosy, seemingly self-contained […], walled off from the disturbing / wonderful paranoid play of the symbiotic real. A world bounded by wild Nature on its physical outside, and by Eden on its historical outside. Humankind is not a fragmented being trying to stitch itself back together again into Adam Kadmon or Hobbes’ Leviathan. The Severing consists precisely in the stitching together itself, one of whose logical conclusions is fascism; a schizophrenic defense against the symbiotic real.68

This cosy human ‘world’ seems to be a fair approximation of that which H&S ascribe to their normal, healthy Platonic community, which they project into the deep past. And the ‘disturbing / wonderful paranoid play of the symbiotic real’ is of course the trickster character of the Palaeolithic, and ecological relations, which H&S deny.

This isn’t the place to fully argue this point. And of course it must be stressed that the terrain of the debate – the earliest millennia of human existence, and our evolution from apes – is shrouded by temporal distance, and subject to great uncertainty. It’s also a vast span of time, surely involving a great deal of variety.69 My main reason for rallying Morton’s Severing here, is to suggest a plausible alternative to H&S’s view of the deep past as a Golden Age of stable, consistent harmony. For my money, this latter view is largely a civilised projection, intensified by modernity: a nostalgically skewed grasp of the past which is constructed in reaction to – and is thus deceptively entangled with – the particular upheavals of civilisation and modernity.

My sense is that wherever the debate about the role of antisemitism in this work ends up, the study of antisemitism has relevance to H&S’s trickster-loathing because there’s a profound structural analogy between the two. As Slavoj Žižek writes, ‘the anti-Semitic idea of the Jew has nothing to do with Jews; the ideological figure of the Jew is a way to stitch up the inconsistency’ of the ideological system of the antisemite.70 Like H&S’s trickster, the antisemite’s Jew is ‘an external element, a foreign body introducing corruption into the sound social fabric.’71 ‘In Nazi ideology, all human races form a hierarchical, harmonious Whole […] — all races except the Jews: they have no proper place, their identity is a “fake”, it consists in trespassing the frontiers, in introducing unrest, antagonism, in destabilizing the social fabric.’72 The structural resemblance with H&S’s image of the trickster is almost total. Again, combined with the identification of Pharisees as tricksters in Szakolczai & Thomassen’s book, the absence of any attempt to extricate this analysis from antisemitism is puzzling at best.

Again, of course this doesn’t mean that real-world tricksters don’t exist, or pose no threat. What’s at stake here is how such figures are related to mythic frames, and how mythic frames function to sustain cosy illusions. Even as they hit upon occasional insights into the trickster, H&S perpetually construct this figure as an essential foil to their simplistic image of primal domesticity, fortifying what Morton would call defence against the symbiotic real: the far weirder togetherness in the shifting roots of our existence.

Squandered potential

There’s an interesting book in here somewhere, smothered beneath the motivated reasoning, slanted scholarship, and emotive rhetoric. Before I got bogged down by the murky demonology, I certainly felt my own fondness for trickster figures being usefully challenged. Unlike H&S’s binary logic which classes them as ‘evil’, I never really classed them as ‘good’. However, in valorising the very ambivalence they represent, perhaps I had fallen for an especially tricksy binary – that between ambivalence and binaries! (My sense from what I’ve read of Michel Serres’ work is that he managed this tightrope act in an interesting way, mindful enough of real life to not slip into an abstract valorisation of ambivalence, or into carelessness about the evil within this ambivalence. I imagine I may return to some of the more interesting ideas in this book — and, most likely, proceed to the thinkers behind them, sidestepping H&S’s demonology.)

Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to modernity surely has some time for biting critique of technology and political deceptions. Especially now, in the brutal 21st century battering of the late 20th century’s last-ditch optimism. But H&S’s critique is too extreme to be useful, and too freighted with lascivious demonisation to be truly insightful. Maybe they feel they’re being necessarily extreme to counter the inertia of modernity’s smug self-regard. For me, this simplistic opposition, and much of the rest of their thinking, demonstrate a lower-dimensional view of modernity, a naivety about their relationship to it, and ultimately an inability to relate to and navigate modernity’s ambivalence, to navigate ambivalence itself – an inability of a piece with their view of the trickster as fundamentally demonic.

The conspiratorial cult of QAnon is a populist bastard cousin of H&S’s more lurid rhetoric, and the fact that its hysteria about child trafficking actually hobbled genuine efforts to tackle this issue reveals in extreme form a danger I think exists in H&S’s work. Their tone and analysis is unhinged enough to muddy the waters of discourse, and reassure those who still cling to a destructively naive faith in progressive modernism that their critics are peculiar eccentrics at best.

H&S do combine their critique of capitalism with attention to its role in our ecological crisis, and this is utterly vital. But the spectre of eco-fascism looms too large to allow H&S’s rosy image of ancient Greeks with magnificent features and crystal-clear mountain streams, alongside antisemitism-flavoured conspiratorial rhetoric, to pass by unchallenged.

Their scepticism about political deceptions is of course welcome. But while its roots in their experience of the tricksiness of communism in their native Hungary has the potential to edify the naive strains of leftism in western Europe, this potential seems to be squandered through traditionalist fervour, and undermined by Platonic elitism. Likewise, their critique of democracy, universalism and the ‘open society’ founders, for me, amid the reactionary resonances surrounding it.

Haunting their entire ‘genealogical’ narrative of tricksters is a curious dissonance. The arc of their narrative has tricksters and their logic increasingly present in history. But even if we set aside their unconvincing assertion that the Palaeolithic was mostly a trickster-free Golden Age, we’re left with the fact that their beloved ancient Greece had a prominent trickster firmly embedded in its pantheon. In contrast, their hated modern era, following millennia of trickster myths being sidelined in favour of Manichean monotheist binaries, did away with respect for mythic ambivalence altogether through rationalist secularism.

H&S have a complex argument that locates rationalism in the trickster lineage, which cannot be dismissed out of hand – as any student of the roots of modern science in Renaissance Hermeticism will testify. But awareness of the presence of out-of-control trickster logic in modernity – ‘Hermes inflation’, as James Hillman has it73 – must surely be paired with awareness of the dearth of mainstream engagement with trickster myths. I’m not saying that if we all had trickster altars behind our front doors, modernity would be a bed of roses. I am saying that tricksters represent something weirdly fundamental to the world, and cultural failure to accept and relate to this leads precisely to this logic running riot. In this very Jungian sense, H&S’s demonisation of the trickster, conflating the figure straightforwardly with complex real-world evils, along with their reactive fantasy of lost wholeness, is part of the problem they diagnose. They occasionally confess that they feel trickster logic is ‘our destiny’,74 but instead of dealing with this reality, they stringently deny its roots in natural ecological complexities, fantasise a lost Eden, and retreat into paranoid, duplicitous demonology.

I’ve failed to find any other review of or response to this book, and the author’s appearances on YouTube don’t seem particularly popular. I’ve repeatedly questioned the time I’ve spent writing this review, wondering if I should follow H&S’s own advice and – to the extent that they may be unconsciously of the trickster’s party without knowing it – leave them alone. Everyone else seems to be doing so.

But for anyone interested in tricksters, the book raises important issues despite itself, and has a certain appeal for people like me who slow way down and rubberneck when passing weird and contentious scholarship. If anyone else tackles this strange beast, hopefully this review suggests some complementary, cautionary, and contrary perspectives.

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