Designed to deceive

Hermes, or Mercury, the trickster god of commerce, presides over one of its temples, Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. Photograph courtesy Dreamstime.

When it comes to tales of designing men and women – the architects, master builders and interior decorators – art doesn’t have a whole lot to say.  What springs to mind are Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” — about a successful architect whose luck runs out when he re-encounters the young woman he once seduced; “The Fountainhead” — the Ayn Rand novel and subsequent fi lm, in which a Frank Lloyd Wright type brooks no compromise to his creations; the battle-of-the-sexes comedy “Designing Woman,” with Lauren Bacall as an interior decorator in love with a sportswriter (Gregory Peck); “Designing Women,” a sitcom about interior decorators in the New South; and the film in which noble architect Paul Newman cannot stop his soaring skyscraper from becoming “The Towering Inferno.”

But art has a lot to say about designing men and women of another ilk —the trickster, conniver and schemer. He’s Coyote to the American Indians, Raven to the Eskimos, the Monkey King amid the Chinese. He’s Loki in Norse mythology (and in the Marvel Comics universe, which extends to the “Thor” and “Avengers” movies).

He’s Hermes in Greek mythology — Mercury to the Romans — the wily messenger god and Apollo’s badass baby bro. A chunk of charm and a ton of trouble, the precocious Hermes not only steals his brother’s cattle while he’s still an infant, but he makes Apollo love him for it.

Whoever he is, he lives by his wits on the fringe and at the crossroads, bringing with him destruction at times but also adventure and transcendence.

“A trickster does not live near the hearth,” Lewis Hyde writes in his intellectually sweeping “Trickster Makes This World: Magic, Myth, and Art”(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998). “He does not live in the halls of justice, the soldier’s tent, the shaman’s hut, the monastery. He passes through each of these when there is a moment of silence, and he enlivens each with mischief, but he is not their guiding spirit. He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town. …He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither.”

He is indeed invariably a he, Hyde writes, given our patriarchal history in which men have been the primary agents of change. But art, heretofore also essentially the work of men, has had it share of hair-cutting Delilahs, its head-hunting Salomes, its spying Mata Haris and other femmes who have been oh-so-fatale — their subterfuge a response and a path to male power. Not the least of these femmes but perhaps forgotten now is Gene Tierney’s Ellen Berent in the fi lm “Leave Her To Heaven,” a woman so obsessed with her husband that she will tolerate no one else in his life. And if that means standing by as his disabled brother drowns or “accidentally” falling down a flight of stairs to terminate her pregnancy or pinning a criminal rap on her kid sister, well, then, so be it.

The designing woman in this sense of the term has also been played for laughs, notably in “I Love Lucy,” in which starry-eyed Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) is always trying to put one over on husband Ricky — who disapproves of her attempts to break into show biz — often with the aid of her sidekick, Ethel.

Ultimately, inevitably, however, the world of the schemer has been male and tragic. Think of Milton’s Lucifer in “Paradise Lost.” Enraged at having to bow to God’s son, Jesus, he disguises himself as a serpent to destroy God’s other favorite, Man.

Milton’s Lucifer owes much to that other great nihilist, Iago, in an earlier work, “Othello,” writes Harold Bloom in “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” (Riverhead Books, 1998). Like Lucifer, Iago is furious at being slighted by the boss and so decides to strike at Othello’s Achilles heel — his jealous love for his wife, Desdemona. Using a diabolically simple device — a handkerchief belonging to Desdemona that’s dropped by Othello and found by Iago’s wife, Emilia — Iago is able to convince Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful, leading him to strangle her. For a brilliant distillation of Iago’s fatal trickery, see Jos. Limon’s ballet “The Moor’s Pavane” on YouTube.

What makes Iago’s treachery tolerable — palatable even — is that while it’s true, it’s not real. “The truest poetry is the most feigning,” “Trickster Makes the World” notes, quoting Shakespeare. And off ering this from Picasso: “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”

The artist, then, is the ultimate designing man or woman, the real trickster, making order out of chaos, beauty out of ugliness — holding out transcendence to those willing to succumb to its spell, just as Hermes does when he guides souls to the afterlife in Hades at the behest of his father, Zeus.

So just as some tricks are treats, some tricksters are fun, thrilling even.

Just watch your back.

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