A friend in the Midwest asks if a shaman could help in the present crisis?
Given presidential grandstanding and the run on toilet paper and guns, it seems like a reasonable question. But it all depends on what kind of shamanism and what kind of help.
Shamanism is no substitute for science as regards virology, but as performance art sparking the imagination, it could dampen panic, ease social isolation, and promote cohesion. As a Happening it may not have raised the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, but it emboldened the imagination that brought that war to an end. During Occupy Wall Street downtown NYC, you could smell burning sage learnt from Native American shamanism. Attempting to resist the white man from the Rockies to the Plains, the Ghost Dancers were massacred, but now the white man needs to form the magic circle, compose the songs, and start dancing too. And for sure it will be a magical circle seeing as we are now in strict isolation.
Giorgio de Chirico’s melancholy paintings of Roman arcades and streets without people are no less shamanic, capturing the aura Walter Benjamin found in Eugène Atget’s photographs of Paris streets likewise without people. Being alone in cities with empty streets and piazzas is more shamanic than the “real thing.”
With his prescient focus on viral epidemics and on words as mutating viruses, William S. Burroughs would certainly be asking my friend’s question, especially as regards his notion of the “composite city” as a mosaic of fabulous forms. For him it all began in 1953 with his eye-opening encounter taking the hallucinogen yagé (ayahuasca) with shamans in the Putumayo region of southwest Colombia, which I visited annually from 1972 to 1999.
The phantasmatic properties of viral pandemics in the fiction that followed paralleled his yagé experience with shamans. His curiosity was writerly, becoming a few years later a conscious method of cutting up images and, with that practice, confronting “Control,” spiritual no less than political.
As with yagé, the cut ups were intended to connect language with the body in galvanic upheavals of subject-object relations for which the all-night wordless song is essential.
Shamanism is primarily a means for buffering rumor and paranoia. Yet it depends on that too. Who is bewitching (read infecting) who? Fox News and Trump are pretty good at this shamanic warfare. Hence our need for an alternative. It is not a choice but a necessity.
The yagé séance is a small-group unscripted theatrical exorcism of the malevolence the sorcerer projected into oneself. Relief depends on visions flowing into one like a blue substance, storytelling, and the fiercely visceral sensations that recur in wave-like rhythms with the divine hum of the shaman, the hum of the waking world.
But could anything like this be achieved in a situation of social distancing and lock-down? Can you on your lonesome cook up image and music repertoires, say like Alice Coltrane, so as to engage inner fear with global meltdown? Here’s the thing: due to the pandemic the gates of creativity swing wide open. We have to become our own shaman.
An important yagé trope for me and I think for my Putumayo friends was to see the shamanic experience as journeying through the “space of death.” Dante presented a version, but his is famously symmetrical and ordered. The yagè space of death is not.
Shamanic magic today owes much to colonial projections of magical power to the primitive. That, combined with the at times terrifying sensation of dying under the influence of yagé, made me think of the Iberian conquest of Latin America as bringing together the magical underworlds of Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and indigenous America. In my estimation, akin to the historiographic practices of Benjamin and Aby Warburg, this is alive as occult force today yet easily abused by people looking for the shamanic fix, including dime-a-dozen shamans themselves.
My friend’s question begs the big picture. How have we been looking at climate change?
One opinion is that we in the West long ago disenchanted nature.
But what the question opens up is the thought that with global meltdown we now live in a reenchanted universe for which the aesthetic of a dark surrealism is relevant. It is a mutating reality of metamorphic sublimity that never lets you know what is real and what is not. Born from WWI, there is a lot of Dada here too, with its shock effects and montage. We were told the bourgeoisie had gotten bored with that. But now, has not Dada and surrealism returned with a vengeance? Before it was avant-garde subsiding into history. But now with the reenchantment of nature, history is subsiding into Dada, and it’s not so boring, not with swans and dolphins being sighted (so it is said) in the now clear canal water of Venice where people are dying in quantities and “Death in Venice” recurs as if an Eternal Return while tourists flee in their pestilential cruise ships in a replay of Michel Foucault’s Great Confinement.
Perhaps the strangest thing of all are the masks of the medico della peste, the doctor of the plague, for sale until lockdown in the ubiquitous tourist curio shops in Venice. It is an unsettling mask with a long beak that I could never make sense of. Now I get it. The beak was the fifteenth-century equivalent to the surgical mask of today (and people think the germ theory of disease is modern!). It was filled with sweet smelling flowers. A drawing by Paul Hirst in 1721 is spooky in the extreme. It shows a beak-masked plague doctor with huge goggles and an overflowingly large gown so large it could encompass the universe. He is the epitome of the black plague and the Corona virus. That would be the sympathetic magic of like affects like as the fourteenth century meets today.
Of course they were a superstitious lot back then, not like today as people scurry for toilet paper and guns.
As people die the pope just announced that you can confess directly to God. Opera singers belt out arias from their balconies. It seems like the shamanism I was describing; lavish images in the space of death, as the divine hum like a candle in the night steadies the soul in our reenchanting world.
Shamanism coexists with allopathic medicine, with penicillin and dialysis machines, for example. It’s not one or the other. What the latter lacks, however, along with political economy, is the divine hum of the reenchanted universe that opens the doors of perception just as the virus does. That’s what I’ll tell my friend.
High Falls, NY
30 March 2020
Michael Taussig teaches anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of The Devil and Commodity Fetishism (1980); Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (1987); The Nervous System (1992); Mimesis and Alterity (1993); Law in a Lawless Land (1993); and My Cocaine Museum (2004).