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Secrets of the Picaresque
Why not drop your tragicomic narrative and just—you know—see what happens?
“Without a destination, I am never lost.” — Hakuim
TODAY I’M GOING TO WRITE about a term borrowed from literature.
I will attempt to suggest why—in our electronic age—the picaresque narrative is turning everyone and everything upside down. And why this is most likely a good thing.
The dictionary defines picaresque like this: “relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero or heroine.”
You could say we lived through a version of the picaresque during the last four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Aside from Trump’s generic awfulness, what made his time as president so maddening was the constant clash Americans experienced as the picaresque narrative overcame and replaced their old tragicomic narrative.
Because the tragicomic narrative is the one most Westerners were raised on (and have lived their entire lives through.)
The founder of social dreaming, W. Gordon Lawrence, wrote in his mind-bending book Tongued with Fire: Groups in Experience that the salient experience of life at this moment in time is “…discontinuous, a series of near-chaotic events for which people can find no shape.”
Lawrence lays much of our mania on electronic technology and what he calls ‘electronic events.’ And yes, we’ve all heard this before. But wait:
He asserts that because we figuratively exist everywhere and nowhere, we are falling deeper and deeper into a picaresque approach to life.
He borrows this term from the Jungian psychologist James Hillman.
[Hillman] understands some analysands to be living in what he calls the ‘picaresque mode’. This metaphor comes from the ‘picaresque novel’ in which the protagonist lurches in a discontinuous fashion from happening to happening, event to event, but never experiences his experiences. The principal character, the ‘picaro’, is a bit of a rogue, or knave, likeable but feckless. He does not develop, improve, or indeed deteriorate.
Hillman hypothesized that people have different fictional styles and noted how the picaresque individual’s narrative: “…ends abruptly without achievement for there is no goal so the denouement can neither be the resolution of comedy nor the fatal flaw of tragedy.”
As mentioned, individuals living through this modality live amidst a falling away from the traditional Western arcs of ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy.’
Their pressing question then becomes: Can I continue to live like this? My suggestion is YES, YOU CAN.
The Reappearance of Flow (Which was Never Gone)
I sense the picaresque perspective has more to do with a cultural mutation than any sort of failing on the part of the individual.
Our technological enmeshment was made doubly alarming amidst COVID, and with that forced investment of time came more of the picaresque.
In my understanding, the old ascend/descend oscillation of the tragicomic (that defines Western culture’s manner of assigning meaning) is falling away.
What’s established now is more akin to the experience of flow. Or at least the opportunity (or mental requirement) to embrace the flow.
Undulations—as opposed to the classic ascend/descend arcs—have given way to the ever-present ‘just this.’ These are the exact mechanics of flow as underscored in Taoist teachings.
And the bare-bones simplicity of the Tao feels like a much-needed moderator to manage our manic moment.
Rascal: A Mischievous Person
If we shed the derogatory associations of the picaresque (the knavery and fecklessness, etc.), we are left with G.I. Gurdjieff’s description of ‘The Rascal.’
In essence, the rascal responds to life from her wits and, more importantly, as Gurdjieff saw her, through her conscience.
Traditional rules or laws don’t apply and are readily manipulated to assist one’s wits—but never to the point of ending up in jail or harming another. Those were big distinctions for Gurdjieff.
Gurdjieff claimed conscience was an innate quality of being human and had nothing to do with cultural conditioning. And so conscience could be depended upon, in the way one depends on her stomach to digest her food. Gurdjieff saw conscience as part of our biology, not our psychology.
The Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in Aquarius in December of 2020 earmarked our grand shift into the flow—and the rising of The Rascal.
This conjunction marked the first time in 200 years (except for a one-off conjunction in Libra—back in 2000) that the Jupiter/Saturn cycle will play out through the air sign triad.
Air signs are picaresque by nature. The fire, water, and earth signs play the game of life along traditional Western arcs. You rise, you fall, you gain, you lose, you merge, you sink and disappear, etc.
The air element is everywhere simultaneously. The air signs’ narrative is expressed through airy attributes like diplomacy and fairness, trickery, and humor. Air signs are never pinned to any one path.
Even a Saturn-ruled sign like Aquarius can be as maddeningly discursive as Gemini (the most picaresque of the air signs.)
Escape From Infoglut
In much of my work with clients during the past five years, I have noticed the picaresque claiming more and more of their life’s narrative. The tragic and comic experiences are waning, primarily because people are confused.
Despite what shrinks and experts tell us, this might not be a bad thing. As William Blake noted: The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
Living within the onslaught of news and information and trivia indeed disturbs our capacity to stay fixed in anything long enough to track its effect (if there are to be any). But perhaps the halcyon days of extended navel-gazing are coming to a close.
The fallout of this confusion is that people are unplugging from the very mainframe that set this maddening world spinning in the first place.
The techno-promise of greater and faster and more consolidated and modern and innovative has to reach a point of collapse, not for itself but for the individual who attempts to anchor her life to its inhuman pace.
The individual can’t comply, so two options emerge:
Go insane by attempting to keep up with it all, or fall off the grid into the picaresque.
This is why you see the people who have accrued all their money by mastering the tech matrix—people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk—setting their sights on outer space and planetary colonization.
The old tragic/comic narrative arcs are burned out, but these compulsive souls must continue to prevail, lest their tragicomic arc collapses: “Look, Ma! I can be a winner on Mars!”
Tragedy depends on failed intentions. Comedy, through surprise and a coming together of opposites, offers resolutions and release (the release of laughter).
But more, comedy happens at the end of one’s life where we see that all of our striving and grasping was for naught—which delivers the biggest laugh.
Some schools of Buddhism claim that this is the moment when most people become enlightened, right during those final five seconds of their death rattle.
Why Not See All of That Now?
Traditionally the narrative arcs of tragedy and comedy require a commitment to a certain path for a certain amount of time to meet a climax or denouement. But who has the time or energy anymore?
Why not drop those narratives and just see what happens?
Why not unplug from controlling every step and breath we take?
King Lear wished for a peaceful close to his life and, in trying to arrange for his golden years, created mayhem and fatalities with his daughters. A real tragedy.
The well-known armatures to a life, which were installed by capitalism and industrialization, have melted in the post-modern heat of electronic events. In such circumstances, people become pressed into the picaresque mode, which is essentially to be manic.
Chaos As An Opening
Herman Hesse wrote that chaos needs to be acknowledged first before being converted to a new order. And this could apply to the mania that Lawrence suggests.
It’s important to realize another component of the picaresque is that moral qualities are mostly non-existent.
You read the word ‘manic,’ and immediately, negative connotations arise. The picaresque character might see mania as something new and exciting, worth trying and walking away from.
Perhaps mania is simply a step forward on the way ‘out’ and into the unknown, which, if we’re honest with ourselves, is where we are headed every moment of the day.
Half of the population is medicated because they are trapped in the mania of trying to still maneuver the tragicomic life path.
Where this becomes complicated is when our sense of destiny and fate collapses. Both notions are usually associated with the tragicomic and how one derives ‘meaning’ and ‘direction.’
Hillman said that the protagonist of a picaresque novel lurches in a discontinuous fashion from happening to happening, event to event, but never experiences his or her experiences, his or her’s destiny or fate. Uh oh.
The psychologist Christopher Bollas writes that a sense of destiny allows a person to:
…feel he is moving in a personality progression that gives him a sense of steering his course. People who have a sense of destiny also invest psychically in the future. This involves a certain necessary ruthlessness and creative destructiveness, of the past and the present, in order to seek conditions necessary for futures.
This makes me consider the classic American ideal of Manifest Destiny—one of the most brutal and destructive forces in world history. The recent Pluto return for the US put the curse of this ideal into high detail.
Hillman argued that the picaresque offered a larger range of narrative possibilities, which includes the tragic and the comic. This is not to choose one model over the other but to have them equally available for exploration. Or partake of none at all.
“For even,” wrote Hillman, “while one part of me knows the soul goes to death in tragedy, another is living a picaresque fantasy, and the third engaged in the heroic comedy of improvement.”
Where Lies One’s Fate?
Lawrence notes that our sense of fate and destiny is shifting into the global environment. Or, as I see it, through the Aquarian lens, as a movement from the personal to the collective.
Meaning—what I used to think was ‘my fate,’ ‘my destiny’ is an outworn concern.
Perhaps this is where the picaresque journey leads us; the much-vaulted and lauded individual is simply another cog in nature’s expression of flow.
Which, when you think about it, is what electronic media has been preparing us for during the past 25 years or so, especially with the invention of the Internet, which, as foretold by Marshall McLuhan, is a literal expression of the collective’s nervous system.
Lawrence frets that our falling into the picaresque mode is problematic. He considers this movement a defense against the depressive position that the loss of the old tragicomic—the loss of fate and destiny—precipitated.
“In the psychic state of a picaro the individual's preoccupation is with survival. While there is an element of the comic present in their lives, they have no access to any available myths to account for the tragedy that they are not experiencing.”
Tragedy, he felt, is what imparts a sense of destiny and fate in one’s life.
And he concludes with this, a key part of this thesis: There are no available myths to account for the sense of mania that we are experiencing.
In our current cultural moment, the emergence of the picaresque narrative found its first icon in Donald Trump, who manifested the very worst of the Rascal or Trickster archetype.
But if we scrape away the man from the impulse that conjured Trump into existence, we’ll see many themes at play; themes that involve a radical disruption of the status quo—rampant knavery, unfettered fibs and lies, vulgar humor, and like a giant blob of Mercury—that you press on with your finger—an inability to pin anything down.
With Trump, we experienced Orwellian levels of dissonance that scrambled the most entrenched and loyal parts of the American psyche. A nightmare for sure, but in keeping with how radical change first asserts itself into life.
I mean, this is not uncommon—that our first experience of a new modality arrives through the grotesque.
There are the frogs, trolls, ogres, dragons, hags, and witches that disrupt and disturb the hero and heroine’s tragicomic narrative, so a new impetus, a new direction, a new character might arise as the prince or princess—the king or queen.
The difference now is that this new prince or princess would embody characteristics described by Lao Tzu.
The Other Thing About the Picaresque
Abandoning the narrative arc we were trained to believe in brings surprising opportunities.
If you study the relationship between who you are and who you are trained to believe you are supposed to become, you will discover a lot of unnecessary tension and suffering.
There’s no time for endless equivocating. As they say in various recovery groups: “Name it. Claim it.” And then I’d add: “Move the fuck on.”
The tragic and comic are propelled on their arc by the cracking whip of what Freud called ‘the ego ideal.’
Somewhere in your upbringing, an invasion happened—usually first by a parent and then later, perhaps by a teacher or coach or minister, or one of the Kardashians.
These adults admired some of your natural proclivities and convinced you that to be loveable, successful, or powerful, those proclivities should be developed and exploited somehow.
This situation then places a person, at a very young age, into the tragicomic’s narrative arc.
This also courts confusion and undue pressure, primarily because a child shouldn’t be saddled with shit like this at an early age. What child is possibly interested in commodifying herself while in kindergarten?
I remember when a friend of mine, who had just given birth to a baby girl, asked another wise friend of ours what goals she, as a new mother, should instill in her child. Our wise friend paused and said, “Why not just demonstrate how she can like herself?”
Striving and struggling to bring the ego ideal into fruition is, of course, part of the tragicomic arc because, for the ego ideal, there is never enough reward or satisfaction, or love.
It’s tragic because we ultimately fail, and it’s comic because somewhere inside us, we knew all along we’d fail, and so WTF was I doing? Haha! Cue Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is?
The Picaresque Offers More Latitude and Relaxation
This is because the pressure is off. The grind to just ‘be yourself’ or ‘live your authentic self’ or ‘be your truth’—all of that falls away once freed from the tragicomic narrative.
The picaresque style allows for curiosity, devoting thought to each moment and circumstance as it arrives and then moving on to see what appears next, and then—you’re dead.
It means being ‘less of oneself’ because what I consider to be myself is usually tied up with the ego ideal and its driver—what Freud called ‘the superego’—another fancy psychological term for the inner critic. That niggling voice that never lets up, never lets us be.
Being ‘less of oneself’ is what you feel when you say, “Fuck it, I’m not doing this or that.” Or you just spend the day reading instead of obsessing about something not being enough or too much.
One of my clients said to me recently, “I don’t understand how any of this would work. How will I accomplish anything?”
And I said it’s like taking a shit. “When you’re ready to go to the bathroom, you get up and go. Everything else in life is the same because we’re not in control. You don’t need to believe in shitting to take a shit.”
The picaresque story ends with no denouement, no earth-shattering epiphany, no ‘a peaceful and quiet end’, no ‘ascent into heaven or hell.’ The picaresque ends just as it started, best typified by The Tarot’s card for The Fool.
Those Final Moments
A friend of mine who works as a hospice assistant told me that it’s the people who are filled with different ideas and beliefs about what will happen after death that have the hardest time slipping into their closing moments, letting go into their death. “They really struggle,” she told me. “It’s so sad.”
They were still caught up in their tragicomic narratives.
Writing this was a picaresque experience.
Several times I stopped myself and said, “This needs to change here, you rambled here, oh, and that isn’t clear, and I need to say more about this here.”
Finally, I said, “Fuck it,” and trusted the part of me curious about fleshing out some of my notions about the picaresque for you. That was enough, and then I started reading about Cate Blanchett’s new movie.
Also, I liked the thought that Donald Trump was an unfortunate fairytale-like frontrunner to someone that will surprise and delight you as a happier expression of Gurdjieff’s rascal.
And who might that be: Why you, of course. (NO PRESSURE! NO EGO IDEALS, PLEASE!)
Opening image: The Tarot’s The Fool Card. Public Domain.
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