Most people want nothing to do with the ambiguity Old Man Coyote carries around like a mojo. Rarely mentioned by any his more traditional names, or recognized in his more common anthropomorphized forms, he’s still there…whispering his way in and out of our daily lives like a waiter with a tray full of drinks weaving his way across a busy dance floor. Trickster came to post-modern America in the guise of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. The mortal emissaries of Old Man Coyote, they came scratching at the door and begging to be allowed to introduce Trickster into the conservative American culture of the 1950s.
A basic need for any human being is a sense of being, of belonging, a sense of not only the continuity of society, but also that they have a place in that society if it does continue. The trickster character has evolved as one of the most useful and widely spread mythological tools we use when searching out form and purpose in stabilizing ourselves as autonomous individuals in the context of a nation, ethnic group, tribe or family.
Having no form or purpose of his own, Trickster is an agile and exacting actor, easily assuming the local costumes and culture while carelessly creating and destroying in the eternal dance of life and death. He spans generations and continents as easily as he does gender and sex, changing with the stability of quicksand. Every culture has focused their neurosis and fears on at least one such character of ambiguity. In Germany, it is Till Eulenspiegel; in West Africa, it is Spider; in Ireland, the Leprechaun; in France, Reynard the Fox, Gargantua and Pantagruel; in Greece, Kargoz; in Turkey, Nasr-eddin, the hodja (clown-priest); and to the Norse he is Loki, the mischief-making sky traveler. But the Trickster tales of the North American Indian cultures outnumber all of them put together. To them, Old Man Coyote is the quintessential trickster figure.
Old Man Coyote, part human and part animal, taking whichever shape is convenient to his purpose, combines in his nature the sacredness and sinfulness, grand gestures and pettiness, strength and weakness, joy and misery, heroism and cowardice that together form the human character. Willing nothing consciously he brings everything about. Easy-going he does harm. Carelessly, he does good. He is the master of paradox and flexible pragmatism.
Symbolically we may take Trickster for human beings, struggling to master themselves. In everyday situations we recognize him as a con artist, or a big, fat liar, or in a more sympathetic view, simply our best non-ordinary friend. Carl Jung, very aware of mythic archetypes, incorporated Trickster into his concept of the Shadow – the dark side of being human, the side better kept hidden from the neighbors. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs were perfectly imperfect Tricksters for our post-modern world.
If ever there was a time that American culture needed a little loosening up, it was the late 1940s and 1950s, an era when popular sage Walter Lippman observed smugly that, “for the first time in history the engine of social progress has run out of the fuel of discontent.” For some, President Eisenhower’s politics of consensus reflected the nation’s affluence. Throughout America, those who were doing well seemed to believe that economic inequality had been eliminated.
With home ownership spreading, consumerism becoming the dominant lifestyle of the country, and television advertising suggesting that everyone was taking part in the “good life,” there seemed to be almost no one questioning the system or even suggesting alternatives were necessary. Conformity was the only game in town.
This was the situation that young people like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs faced and began to question. How does an individual retain any autonomy in an overbearing system? How does one find freedom in a world where every move fits into someone else’s plan, and the individual, even under the illusion of acting independently, ultimately exerts no control over, and has no choice in, their destiny?
To Ginsberg – more so, Burroughs – and especially Kerouac, the answer seemed…do like Old Man Coyote does; keep moving and provide a difficult target. These three tricksters became stateless and rootless nomads. Kerouac’s On the Road celebrated individualism and the lonely quest for identity, displaying contempt for the security and stability that American culture offered at the high price of total conformity and personal compromise.
Ask any coyote and it will tell you that no claims to freedom can be made without offering the same liberation to those around you. Kerouac seemed to have no problems with this idea, as Joyce Johnson relates in Door Wide Open, a book of letters between her and Kerouac. “Jack could come and go in my life, turning up for a few weeks or perhaps a month,” she wrote, describing their on-again, off-again love affair. “When he said, ‘goodbye until next time,’ he’d leave you with your freedom intact, whether you wanted that freedom or not.”
This freedom Kerouac sought, and found, seemed at times to be a demon, and as with all demons, questions are raised…demands are made…tolls are exacted. There seems to be a dark, choking, and personal fear in his work that the true and ultimate freedom that he sought might not be found at the far end of the highway or on the other side of the border. The toll?
For better or for worse – and Old Man Coyote is at more than comfortable with ambiguous results – Kerouac is remembered as a tortured soul searching outwardly and inwardly for the ultimate sound, the ultimate high, the ultimate place, the ultimate consumption of “the other.”
Allen Ginsberg did his fair share of searching also, moving across continents and oceans to league with other intellectuals and bohemian types. But, as where Kerouac’s rambles seemed random and erratic, Ginsberg seemed to always have some ultimate pattern serving a specific purpose and end he had in mind. His inner Coyote came out as a disseminator of exploratory knowledge as he became a guru to the Woodstock Nation of the late 1960s.
Ginsberg’s impact on succeeding generations was sealed forever with his part in popularizing LSD-25. The hallucinogen was given to him by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whose supply came from connections to the shady CIA operatives who were supplying the drug to academic programs and individuals.
Besides sharing many of Ginsberg and Kerouac’s more Trickster-like attributes, William S. Burroughs honed in on a couple of subjects near and dear to the heart of Old Man Coyote; avoiding outside controls and dissecting language to its bare bones, to a state where all lies and truth become not only possible, but necessary. His novels Naked Lunch, Junky, and Queer were not only in defiance of the sensibilities of the times, but offended the guardians of public decency to the point where his books were banned, and he was tried on obscenity charges.
Using his experiences with opiate addiction as a model for control of any and all kinds, Burroughs has done as much as anyone to try and break down the barriers that society and language have erected. As Old Man Coyote might do in the end, Burroughs finally moved to Lawrence, Kansas, the near-geographical center of the Bible Belt, and the nation he spent most of his life escaping from. Defying middle-Americans and daring their agents of control, he used his back yard for target practice, collected too many cats, openly smoked what he wanted, and held court to bikers, Rastafarians, and other rebels until death came for him six months after it came for Ginsberg in 1997.
The “beats” were more of a fraternity of spirit and attitude than a literary movement, and their writings have little in common with each other. What they did have in common was a reaction to a constricting and repressive society and the narrow-mindedness of their society. They also shared an interest in widening the areas of experience available for themselves, and if necessary, dragging the rest of society along with them until some kind of communal shift in consciousness occurred. And, like Trickster, they used any and all means available.
Joyce Johnson fears that the effect these three shape-shifting and changeable figures had on her might be lost on succeeding generations. In Door Wide Open she wrote, “By the mid-1960s the culture had changed so much and so quickly that it is hard today for a-historical young people to remember that there were transitional years before certain kinds of freedom we now take for granted could be fully achieved.”
The “beats”, like Old Man Coyote, are praised and cursed, sometimes in the same breath. Doctrinaire feminists, along with many of the more politically correct, roasted them for their macho behavior and attitudes, but deep down, most will admit that they were responsible for ushering in sexual liberation and a new openness in American art and literature, forever transforming the way Americans, and eventually the rest of the world, lives.
Candidates for my Hall of Heroes? Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs…I guess so. Old Man Coyote? For Sure !