January 05th, 2021

Secrets of the Picaresque


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“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction. ” –Pablo Picasso

Today I’m going to write about a term borrowed from literature.

The picaresque.

I will attempt to suggest why—in our electronic age—the picaresque narrative is turning everyone and everything upside down. And why this is most likely a good thing.

Aside from Trump’s general hideousness, what made his time as president so maddening was the constant clash Americans experienced as the picaresque narrative overcame and replaced their old tragicomic narrative.


Because the tragicomic narrative is the one most Westerners were raised on (and have lived their entire lives through.)

Jumping In

The founder of social dreaming, W. Gordon Lawrence wrote in his mind-bending book Tongued with Fire: Groups in Experience that the salient experience of life at this moment in time is, “…discontinuous, a series of near-chaotic events for which people can find no shape.”

Lawrence lays much of our mania on electronic technology and what he calls ‘electronic events.’ And yes, we’ve all heard this before. But wait:

He asserts that because we figuratively exist everywhere and nowhere, we are falling deeper and deeper into a picaresque approach to life.

He borrows this term from the Jungian psychologist James Hillman.

Lawrence writes:

“[Hillman] understands some analysands to be living in what he calls the ‘picaresque mode’. This metaphor comes from the ‘picaresque novel’ in which the protagonist lurches in a discontinuous fashion from happening to happening, event to event, but never experiences his experiences. The principal character, the ‘picaro’, is a bit of a rogue, or knave, likable but feckless. He does not develop, improve, or indeed deteriorate.”

Hillman hypothesized that people have different fictional styles and noted how the picaresque individual’s narrative: “…ends abruptly without achievement for there is no goal so the denouement can neither be the resolution of comedy nor the fatal flaw of tragedy.”

As I mentioned above, individuals living through this modality are living amidst a falling away of the traditional Western arcs of ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’.

Their pressing question then becomes: Can I continue to live like this? My suggestion is YES YOU CAN.

The Reappearance of Flow (Which was Never Gone)
I sense the picaresque perspective has more to do with a cultural mutation than any sort of failing on the part of the individual.

Our enmeshment with technology was made doubly alarming amidst COVID, and with that forced investment of time came more of the picaresque.

During the passing decade, we’ve read only negative assessments regarding our exponential technological growth. But what about considering other possibilities or ways to consider this moment in history?

In my understanding, the old ascend/descend oscillation of the tragicomic (that defines Western culture’s manner of assigning meaning) is falling away.

What’s establishing is more akin to the experience of flow. Or at least the opportunity (or mental requirement) to embrace the flow.

Undulations have given way to the ever-present ‘just this.’ The mechanics of flow are underscored in Taoist teachings. And the bare-bones simplicity of the Tao feels like a much-needed moderator to manage our manic moment.

Rascal: A Mischievous Person

If we shed the derogatory associations of the picaresque (the knavery and fecklessness, etc.) we are left with G.I. Gurdjieff’s description of ‘The Rascal.’

In essence, the rascal responds to life from her wits and more importantly, as Gurdjieff saw her, through her conscience.

Traditional rules or laws don’t apply and are readily manipulated to assist one’s wits—but never to the point of ending up in jail or harming another. Those were big distinctions for Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff claimed conscience was an innate quality of being human and had nothing to do with cultural conditioning. And so conscience could be depended upon, in the way one depends on her stomach to digest her food. Gurdjieff saw conscience as part of our biology, not our psychology.

Aquarian Intimations

This shift to flow and the arising of The Rascal has been earmarked by the recent Jupiter Saturn conjunction in Aquarius.

This conjunction marks the first time in 200 years (except for a one-off conjunction in Libra—back in 2000) that the Jupiter/Saturn cycle will play out through the air sign triad.

Air signs are picaresque by nature. The fire, water, and earth signs play the game of life along traditional Western arcs. You rise, you fall; you gain, you lose, you merge, you disappear, etc.

The air element is everywhere simultaneously. The air signs’ narrative is expressed through airy attributes like diplomacy and fairness, trickery, and humor. Air signs are never pinned to any one path.

Even a Saturn-ruled sign like Aquarius can be as maddeningly discursive as Gemini (the most picaresque of the air signs.)

Escape From Infoglut

In much of my work with clients during the past five years or so, I have noticed the picaresque claiming more and more of their life’s narrative. The tragic and comic experiences are waning, primarily because people feel so confused.

Despite what shrinks and experts tell us, this might not be a bad thing. As William Blake noted: The busy bee has no time for sorrow.

It’s true that living within the onslaught of news and information and trivia disturbs our capacity to stay fixed in anything long enough to track its effect (if there are to be any). But perhaps the halcyon days of extended navel-gazing are coming to a close.

The fallout of this confusion is that people are unplugging from the very mainframe that set this maddening world spinning in the first place.

The techno-promise of greater and faster and more consolidated and modern and innovative has to reach a point of collapse, not for itself but for the individual who attempts to anchor her life to its inhuman pace.

The individual can’t comply, so two options emerge:

Go insane by attempting to keep up with it all, or fall off the grid into the picaresque.

This is why you see the people who have accrued all of their money by mastering the tech matrix—people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk—setting their sights on outer space and planetary colonization.

The old tragic/comic narrative arcs are burned out but these compulsive souls must continue to prevail, lest their tragicomic arc collapses: “Look Ma! I can be a winner on Mars!”

Tragedy depends on failed intentions. Comedy, through surprise and a coming together of opposites that offer resolutions and release (the release of laughter).

But more, comedy is what happens at the end of one’s life where we see that all of our striving and clawing and grasping was for naught—which delivers the biggest laugh of all.

Some schools of Buddhism claim that this is the moment when most people become enlightened, right during those final five seconds of their death rattle.

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