The Backward Dancing Man

(Photo: Mario Tome/ Creative Commons/ Flickr)

The Backward Dancing Man

In the early 1970s when I was teaching myself how to draw and hoping, in the process, to develop an artful voice, I was also reading the great anthropologist, philosopher, poet, paleontologist, and writer Loren Eiseley. Eiseley's autobiography, All the Strange Hours, had just been published and in it was an extraordinary passage where he describes giving a speech that was altered in its reception by a rat that jumped out onto the stage into the spotlight and cavorted -- dancing, tumbling, leaping, then disappearing. Eiseley himself did not see it -- so concentrated he was on his talk -- but the audience did & the rat's antics mocked his serious message.

Afterward, Eiseley reflected on "...the trickster in every culture who humbles what is supposed to be our greatest moments." He says about the rat that, "I laughed but the trickster always brings pain." And then he talks about the roots of the trickster stories in indigenous people: "Only the old people from the silent cliff houses and the horse people of the plains had known and institutionalized him -- the backward dancing man, the caricaturist of order."

What indigenous people identified as the "backward dancing man" was the figure from the future -- the figure of accident, heartbreak, chaos, malicious humor -- who is always dancing towards us, blind even to his own backward progress, but intent on disrupting continuity and plans, disrupting the arrogance of stability.

As a would-be artist I was fascinated with the philosophical notion of the trickster and I decided to see if I could draw a backward dancing man. Curiously, and in contradiction to the message of the drawing, that picture showed me my personal direction forward. With swirling pen & ink lines, like a figure taking shape in a dust devil, I drew a grotesque man dancing backwards, his head back in a lantern-jawed horse laugh, one leg down, the other up to his chin, and holding out behind him a stick with a fierce-toothed, hyena- like animal head dangling from a tether. This insane hyena had the only set of eyes and was plotting the way backwards into the present -- gleefully bringing the death of a child, a hailstorm that beats down the ripening corn, a plague of locusts, drought, general mischief.

My older brother bought the drawing from me. In those days he was my blessed patron. I was poor & making my young family live out my artist's dream. So, the $75, or whatever it was he paid me, seemed the gift of a beneficent god -- anything but the gift of a trickster. I was so grateful -- to my brother & to Loren Eiseley -- as grateful as I was thrilled to have made the image.

Today I think of the backward dancing man as the climate. Freak storms, floods, droughts, species extinctions, links cut out of food chains, insect plagues, glaciers melting, water rising. The difference, though, is that we see it coming. In the old stories, the dancing man was invisible. Now he's looming like a Goyesque giant. We can all see him, hear the cackling laugh, feel the ground vibrate with beat of his heavy boots, see the hyena head swinging from the stick, smell the rancid odor mixing his sweat & our fear, taste the acid in the water. We can see this trick coming because it is our own doing. We used to think, wrongly, that we could outwit fate; now we've created our fate and refuse to use our wits to avoid it.

So, the real problem is not the backward dancing of malicious destiny, it's the malicious denial of that destiny when it is in clear view. A hallmark of the original backward dancing man is that he is perversely even handed, democratic, you might say. He dances backwards into everyone's good time, an equal opportunity disrupter, regardless of class or race or gender. The backward dancing climate man will affect everyone, but the poor first & hardest. The rich oil and gas executive, who promotes denial, profits from the fossil fuel status quo and will be able to buy some short term protection.

40 years ago I drew a picture of a malevolent, nightmare demon. It was hard to imagine what that should look like. Who could envision the face of unexpected chaos? Today, though, it's easy. I'd draw the man who insists on the denial because he profits from it -- a handsome, middle aged man in an gray Armani suit, a confident man striding back and forth through the revolving door between his corporate headquarters and his Senate office, a man who thinks the wealth that bought him power can buy nature, a man who knows that his mountaintop, trophy home in Aspen is safely above the rising water, a man so invested in Monsanto he has forgotten that food grows in common dirt, a man who can afford the best plastic surgeon when the hyena begins to show through, a man whose status quo is sowing the whirlwind.

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