Perfect Sound Forever

Camelot: Arthur or Merlin?

Tricksters in pop culture by PG Horne
(January 2004)

Forty years ago, on November 22nd, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The King is dead. Long live the American Dream of Camelot.

A month after he won the race to become the 35th President of The United States in November 1960, John F Kennedy attended a performance of the Broadway hit, Camelot, starring Richard Burton and Julie Andrews and enjoyed the musical, especially the climax:

Don't let it be forgot,
That once there was a spot,
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot

Singing along, the President-elect imagined presiding over a rejuvenated America where the citizens would work together to attain the freedom of man. It had fallen to him to make the fairytale a reality. Warm inside the theatre, JFK might have been dreaming of being King Arthur. But America is governed by the trickster, not royal prerogative. Outside in the cold streets Merlin rode into town. Tricksters usually travel under an alias – the American trickster almost always does. He went under the name 'Bob Dylan.'

Americans are proud of the republic their forefathers forged in the fire of revolution – a nation free from the corrupting power of kings and queens. And free too from undue restraint on free-booting capitalists. The corollary of which is that the people are insecure because 'No-one owes you a living.'

As if to compensate for the inherent right to homelessness and starvation, the American longs for a fairytale reality – the American Dream. Elvis Presley embodied that dream. He went all the way from shotgun shack to Graceland and became the King. Of entertainment.

The fairytale kingdom of Camelot might have come with the Kennedy inauguration. But not until the spectre of Lee Harvey Oswald had passed did anyone recognise King Arthur. Only after the event were Jack and Jacqui remembered as the incorruptible royal pair.

It may be thought that confidence in the Republic had blinded the people to the existence of their King and Queen, that the American psyche is imbued with the secular Enlightenment ideals of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, etc, and thereby inoculated against medieval myths and fairytale notions. This would be wishful thinking. In fact, the American psyche is awash with myth and legend. One need only eliminate the distorting effect of electric neon and digital gadgetry to notice it.

The people didn't see Camelot because it belongs to a myth of a hierarchy of nobility. American myth – including the American Dream – is all about the trickster.

The trickster reverses the hierarchy, upsets the natural and social order. He is the fool, the practical joker, a dual being who is half divine and half animal, a paradox, both good and evil, the wounded healer, a pair of twins. He is a shape shifter, brings about change and does not readily come to heel. The trickster can be brutal and unreasoning, like Yahweh, but also a wise and subtle guide, a redeemer. He will escape to freedom at the first opportunity, choosing liberty over comfort.

America's mythical heroes are of the frontier, the New World; they don't live in the luxury of moat-encircled castles. It's Merlin that the American is looking for, not Arthur. It's not kings and queens he wants but magicians, jesters, medicine-men, confidence men, cardsharps, travelling salesmen, outlaws, fiddlers, blackface minstrels – entertainers in short.

Trickster psychology is evident at the birth of the nation. Liberated from British rule, many citizens of the newly formed United States of America also escaped from Puritan strictures and took to the road. These free spirits became peddlers, smooth talking fellows who had to quickly learn the art of parting a man from his money before moving on. Naturally, in order to succeed at this game one had to be a pleasant, adaptable, confident, sometimes dishonest, often duplicitous, undaunted, light-hearted story-telling trader. Before long, this itinerant trader was idealised as representative of the rough-hewn new nation. He became the symbolic American, the Yankee. Initially a child of nature, by the 1830's the Yankee (dressed in 'that long-tail'd blue') shared the American stage with the epitome of duality, blackface Jim Crow. Homespun philosopher, comic wit, poker-faced shrewd operator and iconoclast who upset established order, the Yankee was the trickster. Going under other names, he ventured into the wilds of Kentucky and performed feats which had hitherto been the province of divinities. He was on a par with the tricksters of Native American mythology.

Meanwhile, back in 1840's Boston, Philadelphia and New York City, P.T. Barnum was building a successful business career as a confidence trickster. American city dwellers, fascinated by fraud, paid handsomely to be deceived by humbug. They were entertained by Barnum's blurring of the boundary between truth and fiction, fantasy and reality. The form of deception must continually change lest the magic wear thin but the American psyche's trickster heart is still pumping – and probably will be long after the oil stops flowing.

The trickster turns up in various stages of undress in 19th century American literature. Mark Twain captured his spirit in classic stories and mercurial quips such as 'Wagner's music is not as bad as it sounds.' He's there, too, in 19th century American art. Tromp l'oeil ('fool the eye') pictures captured the public imagination. People enjoyed being tricked into mistaking paintings of common place objects for the real thing. The 'fool the eye' aesthetic upset the Establishment (who looked down upon it as a joke). The artists, though, took the work seriously. The New Jersey recluse, John F Peto, for example, paid tribute to the 18th century French trompe l'oeil school by 'quoting' Jean-Simeon Chardin's painting 'House of Cards'.

France helped America to throw off the shackles of British oppression in the 'War of Independence.' The new country had its liberty – and trickster psychology. The inherent duality in the national psyche became more and more prominent: North and South, master and slave, trader and traded, twins at odds.

The seeds of Civil War were sown. Abraham Lincoln's White House balcony speech on peace and reconstruction at the end of that war in 1865 incensed the actor John Wilkes Booth. He found the idea of Southern slaves becoming citizens of the United States intolerable and shot the President. He needn't have worried because the South had another card up its sleeve: Jim Crow laws and peonage.

A century later, the Southern Negro was pretty much where Booth would have hoped. In the summer of 1963, the Kennedy White House nervously watched on as 200,000 liberal Americans marched on Washington and rallied at the Lincoln Memorial to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. tell of his dream that Black America would at last be free.

Jim Crow Segregation was tantamount to a God-given law for white-supremacist Americans. Their God is Yahweh, the ferocious trickster of the Old Testament. They saw Kennedy as an Irish Catholic, a dangerous 'liberal' impostor pandering to the needs of the Blacks, considering the case for Civil Rights. The President was dead within three months.

The fairytale reality JKF had imagined presiding over as he sang along with the cast of Camelot was nothing but a dream. What was needed was a myth. Bob Dylan arrived in New York in December 1960 spinning yarns of having been an orphan who had made his way in the world playing in medicine shows and circuses with Jesse Fuller, Big Joe Williams and other itinerant musicians. He had woven an identity more wondrously coloured even than Jack Downing, mythical adviser to President Andrew Jackson. Dressed as Huckleberry Finn, he sang in the coffee houses with a hillbilly voice. This innocent youth penned American folk songs of the finest quality, songs that seemed to have been distilled from the mists of time. Dylan the magician came to Camelot and turned everything upside down. The folk movement hailed him as saviour. His songs put the finger on rightwing America. The singer-songwriter performed 'Only A Pawn in Their Game', with lyrics that go straight to the heart of American politics, at the Lincoln Memorial the day that Martin Luther King told of his dream.

Could Merlin save liberal America? Could Huck Dylan get Jim his liberty? Would he write the song to raise the nation, to make the slain King's dream of a free America come true?

A fortnight after the regicide, on Bill of Rights Day, Dylan was awarded the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. It was taken for granted that the songwriter was a liberal, that he was a political sophisticate, devoted to the cause. He was instead, a phenomenon, a trickster phenomenon. Already brought low by the murder of the President, the guests at the fundraising dinner were appalled to hear the politically naοve folk-singer apparently identifying with the assassin in his acceptance speech. Bob Dylan had not come to New York to be in politics but to be the next Elvis Presley.

By late 1965, it looked like he might succeed. Trickster incarnate, Dylan became a living legend, an inveterate shape-shifter whose adoring followers held on to each sloughed off skin from which he had escaped, demanding that it come back to life and play protest songs or rock'n'roll or whatever image it was they were convinced was the real Dylan. He was Court Jester, Lear's fool. But Elvis was still the King.

Whatever the real Dylan was up to at the end of the '60's, the recording artist presented the public with a self-portrait universally misunderstood and disliked. Elvis, meanwhile, was in the White House discussing matters of National Security with a latter day King Richard.

R M Nixon had won a landslide second term on the back of a gratuitous escalation of the Vietnam War. His Administration had yet more blood on its hands when it installed the brutal military dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile on September 11, 1973. There was nothing regal about all of this. No, the head of State presided over the Oval Office, not the Round Table; the trickster was afoot. The joke was that the President had to resign not because of America's performance on the world stage but because of the Watergate break-in. This trickster was so mischievous that the Chief of staff at the time, Alexander Haig, felt confident enough to explain the celebrated 18-minute gap in the subpoenaed White House tape recordings as the handiwork of "some sinister force.” Tricky Dicky.

The tenth anniversary of the assassination might have presented an opportunity for healing, for a step in the direction of resolving the duality in the national psyche. Instead of which, the duality was exposed. But at least exposure meant something back then. During the 1970's, American voters still distinguished between the seat of government and bums on seats. They recognised an important distinction, that is to say, between being governed and being entertained, knew that failure to differentiate between the President and the Entertainer would ultimately be folly. Richard Milhous Nixon's play-acting might have been entertaining but there was no place for blatant deception in government.

The trickster took to the road again. Bob Dylan, painter of pictures that fool people into thinking that he has their life in his hands, toured the United States reflecting the national psyche back at itself in sold-out concerts, reminding Americans that their President stood naked. That done, the wounded healer returned to the studio and painted his masterpiece: Blood on the Tracks. The song "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” from that album is the aural equivalent of trompe l'oeil art work. Written as the Nixon circus was pulling down the tents, it captures that same spirit of American trickster psychology which John Peto alluded to in his painting "Card Rack with a Jack of Hearts.” Dylan's "Black Diamond Bay,” written the next year, almost escaped notice as trickster magic in anticipating what happened a quarter of a century later at Guantanamo Bay at Camp X-Ray.

If the Civil War of the 1860's and the Civil Rights Marches of the 1960's could fail to resolve the inherent duality in the national psyche it was surely expecting too much to hold out hope that the 10th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination would witness a positive change. By the twentieth, though, in the summer of 1983, something had changed. The Entertainer was the President. Not the King, of course (the King is dead), but a movie star: Ronald Reagan.

That's Hollywood.

Still, he was the duly elected President, as popular with Americans as Allende had been with the Chileans. In a tricksterish sort of way, it made sense. Perhaps the split in the American psyche could be redeemed by this man who was both dexter and sinister, Mickey Mouse and Machiavelli? No longer did the joker have to stand on the sidelines giving unbidden advice (as Jack Dowling had given Andrew Jackson on the workings of democracy and Bob Dylan given JFK on the growth of the country) but was himself the President. There is no actor anywhere better than the President of The United States. Jokerman.

In the wake of Reagan's triumph (the first President to serve two full terms since the assassination) evidence of the trickster's presence appeared all over the Office. The twin motif was the most obvious indicator: two Bushes. Known as 'forty-one' and 'forty-three,' this odd pair of Presidents sustain the argument that Americans want Merlin the magician running the show, not King Arthur.

George Dubya won the White House in a trumped up game holding cards that didn't fool anyone. Hail to the Chief; he brought humbug to Washington. Once upon a time, the people required the fool in the Oval Office to be wise. Nowadays, you'd be a fool to care. President Andrew Jackson's mythical jester, Jack Dowling, was not joking when he pointed out that "In a Government like ours the people is used for voting.” Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that without the prescribed antidote of free speech, American democracy would become a tyranny of the majority. Two hundred and fifty million TV viewers can't be wrong. It's circuses they want and the Administration is happy to oblige.

Trickster cycle events are mythical, outside of temporal reality, often occurring as weird coincidences such as those surrounding the 1865 and 1963 assassinations. Public awareness of a relatively insignificant burglary destroyed Nixon. In an ideal world, it would have been knowledge of his chicanery in promoting Pinochet that ensured the ignominious downfall. Perhaps weird coincidences do partake of some dream-world of Platonic Ideas? That would help explain why it took 28 years for America to wake up to the bastardry associated with September 11th.

That particular anniversary dawned with a reality TV show of unspeakable horror: the collapse of the twin towers. Without apparent cause, the same type of evil event that American politics so readily dishes up to its victims had been visited upon the Republic itself. The Bush Administration responded with the blind fury of a Yahweh. Someone was gonna have to pay and it didn't matter who because America was hurting and the people needed a spectacle, a demonstration of almighty invincible power. Waging war on Afghanistan and Iraq was supposed to give it to them in spades (while securing oil supplies).

The trickster is off the leash and the dogs are barking at Guantanamo Bay. If America deals you into this game you have no choice but to play – and the odds are stacked against you. There is no justice. All the evidence establishes, by definition, that you are guilty. Free press or not, American audiences aren't interested in knowing that their government is violating human rights. To the American voter's ear, it's just another hard-luck story that he doesn't want to hear.

September 11th has taken over from November 22nd as seminal to the American psyche. The Arthurian sentiment expressed by the 35th President at his inauguration sounded so romantic then but now, with Merlin in his negative aspect as number forty-three calling the shots, it has an ominous tone:

"Only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.”

P G Horne, is the author of the philosophical fiction Broken Signs (published by Copledale Press)

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