The Art of Stirring Things Up

When we look closely at myths and tales from around the world, we see that the archetype of the trickster plays an absolutely essential role in the growth and development of everyone else within the story. In fact, we can safely say that in many cases without a trickster there generally isn’t much of a story at all to tell. Noted scholar Lewis Hyde sums it up even further by stating succinctly: “Trickster makes this world.”

Obviously, tricksters are not simply found in stories, but everywhere you find surprise, laughter and a deeper understanding. There is a little bit of trickster in every single one of us, and a lot in those who consistently help us laugh at ourselves and our circumstances—our comedians.

Like the archetypal tricksters of myth, our best comedians not only are funny, they can help us see the world in a completely new way. They break boundaries by discussing things that are taboo in the society, and bringing them into the light to be seen and understood rather than remain in the shadows of fear. The status quo does not remain unchanged in the hands of a great comedian. Something new is brought forth.

If there is any comedian who has embodied the deepest and most transformative aspects of the trickster archetype over the past few decades, you will certainly find John Cleese at the very top of the list. Sharp, biting, quick and unafraid to go into the dark, Cleese has brought us to tears with laughter and taught us more than a thing or two about how the world really works.

Cleese has a lot to teach us. His insatiable curiosity and thirst for knowledge has propelled him to study many different fields from law to psychology, human development to religion, and creativity to group dynamics. And thankfully, over the past two decades, he has had an official post to share his vast knowledge as Professor at Large at Cornell University.

John Cleese teaching at Cornell University Photo by Charles Harrington (Cornell University Photography)

Until recently, Professor John Cleese’s wisdom was only available to those who were lucky enough to attend his appearances in person at Cornell. We have changed all that by collecting his best lectures and talks together in our book Professor at Large.

One of the official requests made to Cleese by Cornell administrators was to “stir things up.” And stir things up he does—throughout his time at Cornell he has helped to dramatically open up peoples’ minds to new ways of thinking and provocatively question all that is conventional wisdom.

A small sample of his trickster teachings at Cornell:

Creativity—“If you want to be more creative and open-minded in your work, 1) stop trying to draw up to-do lists, 2) stop trying to draw up to-do lists, and finally, and most important of all, stop trying to draw up to-do lists. . . .You have to create a space, and you do that by creating boundaries of space and boundaries of time. You need space to avoid interruption. If you are a fat cat, you can sit in the office and say to your assistant, ‘Don’t interrupt me for an hour and a half unless the building is burning down.’ If you are at the bottom of the hierarchy and you’re young, then you may have to sit at a park.”

Spirituality—“I was taught absolutely nothing about, for example, aspects of religion which I find really fascinating, such as mysticism, which, after all, is what the founders of most religions were—mystics. This is something that is completely ignored when religion is taught because it is made into an intellectual theory, where really it starts with experience. . . . All I can say is, the people that I know who are more interested in experiential religion seem to be much more relaxed, very kind to people, and much easier to talk to about important matters because they aren’t trying to defend their experience.”

Science—“The key to scientific thinking is that data should outrank theory. The territory is primary to the map. If you look at some territory and then you look at a map of it and you compare them, and on the map there’s a bridge and in real life there isn’t a bridge, you don’t say: ‘Well, obviously there must be a bridge.’ Do you see what I mean? If you look at the reality and see there isn’t a bridge, you query, why does the map say there is a bridge? So the territory is primary to the map. Scientists don’t behave like that. Scientists are very emotionally attached to their theories, and if anybody starts challenging a theory, they get rather angry because they like being right.”

Our universe—“I think that the more I read about quantum physics, the more I am quite convinced that this is a very much weirder universe than anyone knows. People get very upset with this kind of thing. If you want one example of what I am talking about, Google the following word: Gauquelin. This guy did statistical research that shows almost, I think incontrovertibly, that there is something—whatever it is, I don’t know—to astrology. He shows that, for example, generals and athletes have Mars coming over the horizon at the time of their birth more than they statistically should, and artists and musicians have a lack of Mars influence in their charts. Now, you may think it’s poppycock, but look at the statistics. It’s very strange and yet no one is talking about this.”

You can learn much more from Professor Cleese in his book Professor at Large.

Enjoy this full-length video of John Cleese’s most recent Cornell talk with our director, Dean Smith.

Jonathan Hall is Digital Marketing Manager at Cornell University Press. He loves interesting insights and information that truly stir things up.

The Art of Stirring Things Up