Tracks of a Trickster – who does Boris Johnson think he is?

The continued full-throated assault on Boris Johnson’s fitness for office, sparked by the recent testimony of his former chief advisor Dominic Cummings, was side-stepped last weekend when the Prime Minister “secretly” married his fiancée Carrie Symonds. Suddenly, we were deflected from paying any more attention to his litany of failings with regards to the Covid crisis – or at least, that was presumably the plan.

However, while marrying in “secret” – and in apparent haste – in front of just 30 guests (as per the current Covid restrictions) might have seemed like good distraction tactics to Number 10’s PR department, the fact that the twice-divorced Johnson and his newest bride chose to have a Roman Catholic ceremony at Westminster Cathedral has led to more public outcry and questions, both about the Catholic Church’s decision to allow this, and about Johnson’s suitability – or lack thereof – for the office of Prime Minister.

But on the subject of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, we are still a nation divided. While half the country rues the day he managed to oust former Prime Minister Theresa May in a carefully executed coup, the other half seemingly celebrates his playboy antics, and delights in his “intriguing” public Peter Pan persona. How many middle-aged, bored, stuck-in-the-mud men envy Johnson’s capacity to charm, to hoodwink the electorate, our institutions, and last but not least, the Catholic Church – and get away with it?

Many of us were incredulous at his chutzpah.  Discussion of canon law over the airwaves and in the papers has resulted in a “get out of jail free card” for him from the Catholic Church. It is widely understood that because his first two marriages were not Catholic, but he was baptised a Catholic, somehow all was to be forgiven. His “starter” marriages – the second of which produced four of his “at least six” children – were not recognised and did not even need annulling. Debate about this rages on, with some saying that the Catholic Church recognises all religious marriages.

However, what is clear is that the Prime Minister has yet again reinvented himself – not as a clown, nor even a “lovable rogue”, but as another classic archetype: the trickster. Bored with the (self-) identification with Winston Churchill, which is wearing thin, this time he has properly taken on the Catholic Church in a way Henry VIII tried and failed to do; and he seems even to have hoodwinked Cardinal Vincent Nichols into agreeing to the shenanigans.

THE TRICKSTER ARCHETYPE: “A curious combination of typical trickster motifs…[include] his fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks, his powers as a shape-shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tortures, and – last but not least – his approximation to the figure of a saviour” (Jung)

And so the prodigal son could return to the bosom of the church he was baptised into as a baby. His antics have often been characterised as “clownish” but gone are the days when they got him into serious trouble. The time when integrity and honesty formed part of our unwritten code of conduct in positions of high office are in the dim and distant past, when acts like getting a woman pregnant and then lying about it to the then-Prime Minister resulted in resignation (or sacking).  

Because adultery and abortion are considered sinful in the Catholic Church, a large number of Christians (who take their faith very seriously) are appalled that a serial adulterer, and someone well known to have abandoned his children, could get away with taking the sacraments in Westminster Cathedral. Yet reinventing himself is part of his raison d’être. I suspect he has no particular attachment to being able to take the sacraments and went along with the whole process because he had no strong opinions either way – and that is exactly what a trickster would do.

Johnson’s widely panned novel Seventy-Two Virgins was as close to his own personality as it was possible to get. He said of Barlow, the book’s hero, in an interview: “The whole world just seemed to be a complicated joke – everything was always up for grabs, capable of dispute, and religion, laws, principle, customs – these were nothing but sticks from the wayside to support our faltering steps.”

The trickster is an important archetype that surfaces in many cultural and religious stories. Each one is unique to its own culture, but they are all bound by certain shared characteristics no matter what religion they show up in. Jung would say they are a manifestation of our own collective unconscious and suggest that there is a trickster within all of us, sitting on the borderline of conscious and unconscious thought.  He is a god, yet he is not. He rebels against authority, pokes fun at the overly serious, plays with the laws of the universe, and is his own worst enemy. He is an alchemist, a magician, creating realities in the duality of time and illusion.

Tricksters can be cunning or foolish or both – they are often still considered funny even when performing sacred or important cultural tasks.  The trickster can be a companion or ally of the hero, or he can work for the villain. He lives inside and outside of time, both in the world and not of our world, so our laws will not always apply. He is admired – even loved – and certainly venerated for his perceived merits and virtues, all despite his thievish, deceitful, patricidal, incestuous nature.

For every good aspect of the trickster’s personality there is an equal and opposite attribute. He is earthbound like man, but constantly trying to fly  – getting stuck on a zip wire springs to mind.  No matter how hard he tries, the trickster cannot shake off his human condition.

Then-mayor Boris Johnson dangling from a stuck zip wire during his now-famous publicity stunt gone awry promoting the 2012 London Olympics.
Then-mayor Boris Johnson dangling from a stuck zip wire during his now-famous publicity stunt gone awry promoting the 2012 London Olympics. Photo in public domain.

In Africa, the trickster of many legends goes by the name of Eshu. He is often scapegoated when things go wrong. In one story, two farmers who live next door to each other agree that they will never argue. One day Eshu puts on a hat that is white on one side and black on the other, and then walks between their properties. They fight and eventually Eshu takes off the hat, turns it inside out and shows it is red.

Who can ever forget the two sides of the Brexit coin – and the two columns in support of both Remain and Leave – that Johnson wrote before cynically deciding which one to go for – not based on principle, just a self-serving gamble? I am minded to look at the other side of the coin that Johnson is forever tossing as he shape-shifts his way through life – the wounded ex-partners, and wives whose marriages now cease to exist, and the children who now become illegitimate in the eyes of the Catholic Church. What hypocrisy. There is something rotten in a nation that not only allows this to happen, but celebrates it. There has to be a way for those still believing this mirage to escape it, but how? Maybe, just maybe – like with Trump – it will be the women who finally break the spell.

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