The misunderstood art of mischief
For a long time, I kept a mental list of the smallest misdeeds. In one, you buy the exact same toothbrush as the person you share a bathroom with and put it in your shared toothbrush holder; When your cohabitant notices this and asks questions, act as if you don’t understand what the problem is. Or if you both wear contacts, wait for him to fall asleep, then put your contacts in his contact case and his in yours.
If evil is aesthetic – if it is art – then it has value for itself. But it’s more than that too; he can be a source of stealth power in times of seeming helplessness. It’s only now that I realize that my own habit of collecting mischief started during my stubborn phase in elementary school. Being a child of immigrants with eczema, a social pariah, I lay in bed at night devising elaborate, Rube Goldberg-style plans to confuse my light-skinned white classmates. Once accomplished, my misdeed would no longer have an apparent author. In a situation that prohibits explicit expressions of intemperance or protest, mischief is the perfect solution.
I had a classmate at the time whose contempt for me was palpable: she excluded me from the group, generally ignored my existence. One year, our teacher took turns celebrating us by hanging a poster with one of our names on the wall, on which everyone wrote words of affirmation and encouragement. When I thought no one was watching, I wrote on this classmate’s poster, J___ is rude.
Malice has often been a creative and anarchic weapon of defense among the marginalized: free, adaptable, difficult to control. American culture’s ur-trickster, Brer Rabbit, is derived from Southern black folk tales passed down between generations of slaves; figures like him, scholar Emily Zobel Marshall has written, could thwart plantation slavery “using some of the few means at their disposal; their cunning, intelligence and linguistic wit. Other traditions have their own folk heroes: There’s Coyote, who appears in stories from many Native American cultures; Anansi, from West African myths; Maui the Polynesian; Loki the Scandinavian.
In my favorite trickster stories, in myths, and in life, evil even has restorative power – its apparent wickedness eventually gives way to an inherent idealism of the mind. When Ringo goes rogue, he wets his camera in the river; then he is reprimanded by a policeman for throwing a brick. When he first meets the 10-year-old boy, they start arguing. But in all of this chaos, you get the sense that Ringo is, for once, moving through the world according to his own aesthetic, no one else’s.