Ripping and Pasting Fiction

 Brer Rabbit by Barry Moser

Brer Rabbit by Barry Moser

The implication of last week’s service was the erosion of all certainty, an invitation to be more critical of those pervasive narratives which dominate and dictate how we understand world events, cultural trends, and even individuals, an invitation to deconstruct, and problematise fictions within our society. In order that we might be liberated from them. We invoked the trickster archetype in the figure of Ted Hughes’ Crow. The trickster is the one who disobeys the rules, and subverts the status quo. He rebels against perceived normality, because that ‘normality’, the status quo, is in fact unjust, suffocating, and dehumanising, even though, from within those dominant structures, these dehumanising traits often go on unrecognised. Because of course the most dominant narratives are those narratives which serve the most dominant. The voice of those who are not served by the status quo is always an unwelcome one. The disenfranchised voice is side-lined, or even better ridiculed, and ‘strong and stable’ win the day.

This morning we heard a story about the Brer Rabbit. The Brer Rabbit is another example of the trickster archetype, this time from African American folklore. Stories of the Brer Rabbit were part of an oral tradition amongst African American slaves in the Deep South - the Brer Rabbit is small and weak, but none the less the Brer Rabbit is always able to outsmart the bigger and stronger animals by using his head. The slaves told stories about the Brer Rabbit, and thought to themselves, maybe we could overcome our troubles by using our heads too. I read the story of Brer Fox, Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, and the Peanut Patch. What I think is fascinating about this story is the extent to which our perception of it alters dramatically on the basis of whether we imagine the story being told by the Brer Fox, the Brer Rabbit, or indeed the Brer Bear. Brer Fox tills his land, he wears on his head a large purple top hat and a nice jacket. Brer Fox has a pest problem, a peanut thief. A peanut thief who steals from Brer Fox and gets away with it. It’s a story about the triumphant trickster thief; an odd story perhaps to read to children. What is the moral of this story? Go ahead and steal, and if you’re smart enough you’ll get away with it…? To Brer Fox, the underlying socio-economic structure of society which results in a disfranchised Brer Rabbit does not even occur to him. To Brer Fox the thievery, the legal infraction, is the only thing which matters. And if Brer Rabbit could be punished, if he could be strung up and lynched, it may not do Brer Rabbit any good, but it would act as a necessary deterrent to other likely peanut thieves, and therefore be beneficial to society at large. It would help to maintain the fabric of society.

 Brer Rabbit by Edward W. Kemble

Brer Rabbit by Edward W. Kemble

African Americans told stories of the Brer Rabbit because of course they identified with the Brer Rabbit.  They knew what it was to be dehumanised, to live as non-humans, to live in a society in which all action towards self-preservation or self-expression was interpreted as a threat, to live in a lose-lose society, in which the only options left open to you necessarily require contravening the laws of the dominant power (i.e. the white man). The trickster is an appealing figure to the persecuted. He allows the persecuted to revel in the possibility of getting one up over their oppressor, even if it never actually happens, and at the same time demonstrates the very injustice of the system itself. So, these systems, these fictions - the trickster archetype acts to undermine them. Up until now, I have been assuming undermining fictions is a thing we should be doing; after all, who wants to live within a fiction, right? But of course, it’s not at all that simple. All large-scale cooperation, from building pyramids, to organising wars, to setting up nations states, requires people to buy into fictions. Take Germany. There is not really any such thing as Germany in the same way as there is a thing called a Tree, or a Stone. The idea of Germany is a fiction, a large-scape mutual fiction bought into by hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people. But it doesn’t really exist. And yet despite it not existing, despite it being a fiction, people sacrifice their lives to it, they die to protect it, or devote their lives to making it a better fiction. The historian Yuval Harari wrote a book called ‘Sapiens’ which is about this very phenomenon - what makes humanity great. Is not who we are as individuals, but what the fictions we build have allowed us to be collectively. Our ability to weave fictions, to cast word spells with our mouths, has made humanity everything that it is. Second to none. We are fiction building beings.

Some fictions have been positive, and some of been negative. Some negative fictions have resulted in positive outcomes, and some positive fictions have resulted in negative outcomes. Take money as a pretty amazing fiction. We all trust that the £10-pound note is worth £10. We can leave this building and find a stranger, and before we even begin to talk to them we can assume they also believe this fiction. If people suddenly stopped believing that fiction, all of society as we know it would crumble apart. As long as everyone believes the same story amazing things can be achieved in the name of that story. We don’t therefore necessarily have to dismantle every story; some stories are good. Consequently, we are left having to assess stories. Assessing the value of stories is an incredibly difficult thing for humanity to do, because we get irrationally invested in our stories. We are able to rationalise to ourselves a lot of suffering in others if it serves our story. Indeed, human history is a long list of people killing themselves for fictions. It comes down to suffering then. Does the fiction in question generate more suffering, or less suffering? The stories we create should serve us, not the other way around. That also means that no fictions should be revered over humanity. Just because a fiction has served us well up until now, is no indication it will serve us well in the future. Does the fiction generate more suffering or less?

 A fox in a top hat

A fox in a top hat

If we take Brer Fox we can assess the fiction he is choosing to believe. Brer Fox knows he is superior to Brer Rabbit. To Brer Fox, his own superiority is so obvious, it’s a question that he has probably never even entertained. He’s a fox, he owns land, he has a beautiful purple top hat. He knows this land is his because he has built a fence around it, just as the fox in the next farm has done, and the fox in the farm after that. The rabbits, on the other hand, have no land. Indeed for rabbits to own land would be quite improper; all foxes know that. Brer Rabbit is a shabby creature. A creature that has very few redeemable qualities. Why can’t Brer Rabbit be more like a fox? Brer Fox wonders. Every day, Brer Rabbit wakes up hungry. Brer Fox has never really felt hungry. Brer Rabbit doesn’t know if he’ll eat on any given day. Brer Fox has never really had to worry about it. Brer Fox doesn’t think it’s strange that all politicians and bankers are foxes. It’s logical it would be that way. If a Fox makes a mistake, his friends (of course) let him off - after all, Foxes are a good bunch really. But when a Rabbit does something wrong, well all Rabbits need to be taught a lesson. If anything goes wrong you know there’s a rabbit in there somewhere to blame. And so the fiction generates suffering, but it’s rabbits suffering, so, does it really matter?

The implication of last week’s service was the erosion of all certainty, an invitation to be more critical of those pervasive narratives which dominate and dictate how we understand world events, cultural trends, and even individuals. But we can go too far down that path. If we attack and undermine all social narratives, all societal fictions, we are left with only one place to retreat - the world of individualism. We erode everything back to the whims of the self, and that can be its own kind of oppression. Sometimes perfect freedom is found when we give ourselves up to fictions, sometimes fictions can alleviate suffering. But sometimes fictions dehumanise us, suffocate us, and are evidently unjust, and when we’re confronted with those types of fictions, well, I hope then we can find our inner trickster, whether it’s in Crow or Rabbit form, and do some ripping.

Amen.