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Blind Perception

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Michelle Chen


Paper #9

Edited December 10, 2008


Blind Perception

            Tricksters are a part of our everyday lives.  Whether they are masked in literary contexts or present in reality, we inevitably encounter them everyday.  In order to understand a trickster, you must be familiar with its ways and educated about its existence.  Often times we will fall for a trickster’s traps because we are ignorant and blinded by our familiarity.  But through education, we will be able to learn how to avoid being fooled by a trickster.  Being tricked may actually be part of the education: by learning how to face a trickster, we will be able to broaden our horizons and gain a new outlook of life.

            In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde draws on myths from different cultures to describe the characteristics of human or inanimate tricksters we may come across.  He dissects the motives and intentions of these tricksters, giving us a full analysis of what to expect.  Hyde found that tricksters are always motivated by appetite.  Without it, they would have no purpose to trick others whether it was intentional or not.  Hyde references the coyote, the trickster figure in Native American culture, which is bound by appetite and adapts in order to survive.  While he references a mythical coyote, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer refers to an actual coyote which acts as a trickster throughout the story.

            The coyote has the ability to “exhibit a great plasticity of behavior and is, therefore, a consummate survivor in a shifting world” (Hyde 43).  In Kingsolver’s novel, the coyote displays multiple roles, which are interpreted differently by each character.  Eddie Bondo is a western sheep rancher who views the coyote as the predator and a threat to his livestock.  He would “sooner kill a coyote than learn to pronounce its name” (Kingsolver 28).  Deanna Wolfe considers the coyotes as essential to the food chain: by being at the top of the food chain, they keep the predator-prey relationships in check (Kingsolver 10-11).  Since Deanna is educated about the coyote and its tricks, she does not fall for them.  She differs in this way from Eddie Bondo and the farmers, whose ignorance about the coyote’s trickster ways leaves them powerless and unable to protect their livestock.  Ultimately, the coyote tricks in order to stay alive and thrive in the forests.

          The key to understanding a trickster is through education.  Deanna knows that coyotes are “downright tricky” which is why farmers have been unable to rid their farms of them (Kingsolver 325).  As Hyde explains, in his interpretation of the mythological coyote, coyotes learn from their mistakes (Hyde 18).  So on the farms, the coyote may fall for a trap once but it will rarely fall for it again.  When coyotes encounter the same trap again they will take the bait and defecate or urinate on the trap as sign of their sense of humor (Hyde 21).  Essentially, tricksters are mocking the ignorance of their audience and robbing them of their dignity.  The reason coyotes have sharp wits is because they have encountered others with sharper wits (Hyde 20).  Tricksters only get smarter when they encounter those smarter than they are; it takes more education just to keep up with them.  They will always be one step ahead of us, continuing to trick others until someone catches up to them and exposes their tricks.

            Lacking Deanna’s education, the farmers in Prodigal Summer view the coyote as a predator and target it because it preys on their livestock.  However, as Deanna explains to Eddie when coyotes are killed they end up working twice as hard to reproduce and their populations are rarely affected (Kingsolver 325).  Since coyotes are not bound by a certain “way” of survival, they are able to adapt, to do whatever it takes to survive (Hyde 44).  Farmers not only slaughter coyotes but all types of carnivorous animals, such as wolves, that venture near the farm.  But wolves are not as cunning as the coyote and stick to their “way” of survival which eventually renders them extinct (Kingsolver 325).  With the wolves gone, coyotes are free to roam the forest with one less predator to avoid.  What started out as the farmer’s attempt to rid the woods of coyotes actually leads to an increase in their population to threaten his livestock more.  That unintended consequence is due to his lack of understanding of a trickster.  When you do not understand a trickster or its ways, it will use your ignorance to its advantage.

            The farmers in Prodigal Summer are so easily tricked by the coyote because they refuse to see the truth that has already been laid out in front of them.  They need a scapegoat and the coyote is the easiest one to blame since it never dies out.  They refuse to see that slaughtering coyotes only brings more back to haunt their farms.  The coyote and other tricksters use this type of selective reasoning to keep tricking others.  They understand that human beings will always be blinded by the familiarity of what they believe is there.

            What interested me most, in developing this argument was the realization that authors are capable of being tricksters too.  They take advantage of the reader only noticing things that are familiar to them.  While Hyde refers to the coyote as a metaphorical trickster, Barbara Kingsolver actually operated as one when she wrote the last chapter of Prodigal Summer.  When I got to the last chapter of the novel I noticed many parallels between it and the first chapter, and assumed Kingsolver was still talking about Deanna, ending the novel with her and so making the book come full circle.  In class, however, it was suggested that Kingsolver was actually talking about a female coyote in the last chapter.  Being skeptical about this, I reread the last chapter carefully and noticed slight changes in the wording.  For example, this character has “had meals of squirrel” and has been feeling “restless and distracted to be this far from her sister and the children” (Kingsolver 442-443).  Kingsolver is clearly talking about the female coyote: we know from Deanna that coyote packs consist of a head female coyote, her sisters and her children.  When I first read this last chapter, the similar phrasing blinded me, I only paid attention to what I was familiar with so I completely missed the subtle references to the coyote.  But since I am educated, I am able to accept new ideas and take them into consideration when I reevaluate my initial reactions.

            Paul Grobstein explained why we are blinded by familiarity.  According to him all inputs to the brain are “ambiguous and what we see is always only one of many possible constructions that can be made from that input” (Cyckowski and Grobstein 1).  For example, when the farmers see a coyote they interpret it as a “meat-eating animal setting up camp on a dairy (Kingsolver 43).  The farmer’s brain then conjures an image that is associated with a coyote and any thoughts that accompany it, and he thinks his only option is to kill it.  These thoughts may have been passed down by a father or previous farmer or even a personal encounter with a coyote, such pre-conceptions are hard to let go. Therefore even when the truth is revealed, it still may not be enough to let go of a thought that has been held onto for so long.  Grobstein argues, however, that our brain consists of two regions: a cognitive unconscious and a conscious part.  Our cognitive unconscious “makes informed guesses and delivers them to the second, conscious part which supports our awareness of what we are seeing while knowing little or nothing of how what we see has been constructed” (Grobstein 3).  It is this bipartite structure that enables us to revise our thinking. 

            The reason we fall for a trickster’s tricks is because we fail to use the reflective conscious part of our brains, and so we are reluctant to change our way of thinking.  When I conducted my survey on the checkerboard illusion with square A and square B, I asked fifteen people a series of five questions.  First I allowed the survey participants to stare at the picture and I asked them whether or not they thought that square A was darker than square B.  Upon hearing their answer, I proceeded to show them that actually square A is the same exact shade as square B.  I obtained a variety of responses, but the people who did not believe what I had showed them also refused to try out the optical illusion for themselves.  Sometimes people flat out refuse to see what is actually right in front of them or even make an attempt to understand why they are unable to see it.  I had already showed them the truth and yet they were still unable to accept the optical illusion for what it was.  From this survey I learned that people are extremely stubborn and fall for tricks because they are unable to loop between the conscious and unconscious parts of their brains to accept new topics.  Many survey participants felt that their eyes were tricking them into thinking that square A was darker than square B when in reality, it was their brains that did the tricking.  To understand an optical illusion, we need to “withhold judgment long enough to give the cognitive unconscious a chance to come up with some alternative informed guesses” (Grobstein 4).  Our brains are essentially conjuring multiple interpretations of what an image may be by drawing from familiar images that we have already seen before.  In order to outwit a trickster we have to realize that “we have a continuing capacity to create in new ways, that any particular understanding is not an end but rather a foundation and resource for new understanding” (Grobstein 5).  We need to learn how to broaden our horizons and by entertaining new interpretations that come our way.

            I think it is extremely important for us to always be broadening our scope of knowledge, and tricksters can help us do so.  Like tricksters, we can get smarter as we encounter those smarter than us.  When a trickster tricks us, instead of feeling defeated and ignorant, we can be open to what the trickster has to offer.  The new idea or interpretation revealed by the trick can give us the option to look at the world from another point of view.  Some of us may be reluctant to let go of familiar ideas, but tricksters challenge this comfort zone.  They invite us to interpret situations or images in a different light.  The trick is for us to learn something from the trickster’s doings.  I feel that tricksters are viewed as having a parasitic relationship with those they come across: coming and taking advantage of their “victim”, who is left demoralized.  However I’m proposing that rather than being parasitic, the relationship can be seen as symbiotic.  There is no victim: both the trickster and the one on the receiving end of his trick can benefit from this act.  Ultimately, we have to thank the tricksters in this world for keeping us constantly on our toes.

            So what happens if some of us are extremely stubborn and never learn from the trickster? Does it get frustrated or elated because it will always have someone to fool? To further understand tricksters, we would have to track them back to their origins.  How do they become one in the first place? If it was a matter of choice, what led them to choose such a lifestyle? Was it for fun or for survival?  These unanswered questions fill the world with more uncertainty and ambiguous figures waiting to be interpreted.

Works Cited

Cyckowski, Laura, and Paul Grobstein. “Ambigious Figures—“Reality”: Construction,     Deconstruction, and Reconstruction.” Serendip’s Exchange. 18 April 1999. 5 Nov 2008            </exchange/ambigfig>.

Grobstein, Paul. “Illusions, ambiguous figures, and impossible figures: informed guessing and       beyond.” Serendip’s Exchange. 7 June 2008. 5 Nov 2008        </exchange/node/2604>.

Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World. New York: Farrar: Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Prodigal Summer. New York: Harper Perennial, 2000.