Text as Trickster: Postmodern Language Games in Gerald Vizenor's 'Bearheart.' (Maskers and Tricksters)

By Blair, Elizabeth | MELUS, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Text as Trickster: Postmodern Language Games in Gerald Vizenor's 'Bearheart.' (Maskers and Tricksters)


Blair, Elizabeth, MELUS


The trickster narrative situates the participant audience, the listeners

and readers, in agonistic imagination: there, in comic discourse, the

trickster is being, nothingness and liberation; a loose seam in

consciousness; that wild space over and between sounds, words,

sentences end narratives; and at last the trickster is comic shit.

(Gerald Vizenor, Narrative Chance)

Gerald Vizenor is a curious figure in American literature. A mixedblood Ojibway poet, playwright, journalist, essayist, novelist, and critic, Vizenor writes stories that incorporate research, polemic, quotation, criticism, and poetry, as well as standard narrative materials. "What are these hybrids, these mongrels?" the reader demands when first confronted with his noncanonical stories. As Robert Silberman puts it, "The didactic and imaginative impulses are constantly at odes in Vizenor's work" (13-14). Despite critic Arnold Krupat's 1989 call for the application of contemporary literary theory to Native American texts (Krupat and Swann 113-28), Vizenor's writing has remained problematic for those who attempt to fit it into a paradigm of Native American literature.(1)

In Crossbloods: Bone Courts, Bingo and Other Reports, Vizenor defends his mongrel texts quoting Roland Barthes, contending that "narrative is first and foremost a prodigious variety of genres, themselves distributed amongst different substances--as though any material would fit to receive men's stories" (65). Through his narrator in "Four Skin Documents," Vizenor pokes gentle fun at editors (and readers) who have trouble accepting satire, criticism and "facts" in the same narrative package (Landfill Meditations 163-65).

Vizenor has theoretical and political reasons for refusing to commit to conventional form or genre. Theoretically, he aligns himself with the postmodern tradition, as evidenced by the critics he cites in his collected essays--Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, to name a few. In Vizenor's view, one looks for neither meaning nor truth in the postmodern novel. Griever: An American Monkey King in China begins with an Octavio Paz epigraph: "Writing is a search for the meaning that writing itself violently expels. At the end of the search meaning evaporates and reveals to us a reality that literally is meaningless." In The Heirs of Columbus, Vizenor quotes Milan Kundera: "The novel...is the territory where no one possesses the truth" (185). And in The Trickster of Liberty, he cites Julie Kristeva's definitions of the dissident, clearly aligning himself with the writer who "experiments with the limits of identity, producing texts where the law does not exist outside language" (155-56). In other words, language not reality, identity or truth--is preeminent in the postmodern text.

In Narrative Chance, Vizenor defines postmodernism as "an overture to amend the formal interpretation and transubstantiation of tribal literatures" (4), thus making his political agenda perfectly clear. He has declared war--word war--on the "racist denial of tribal languages" (11). Like N. Scott Momaday, Vizenor views words as both cause and cure. He believes that when social scientists attempt to capture American Indian culture in "cold litanies and catechistic monodramas" (Trickster x), they not only reify the flexible nature of native culture, but reinvent it for their own self-serving ends. In Wordarrows: Indians and Whites in the New Fur Trade, Vizenor argues that written language has been the privileged weapon of the dominant party in the culture wars since the earliest days of contact; consequently, few of those victimized by it know how to use it. As Tosamah tells his pan-Indian congregation in Momaday's House Made of Dawn, contemporary tribal people live in a white world. Surrounded by the white man's word, they "are as children, mere babes in the wood," but, says Tosamah, "a child can listen and learn" (94).

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