The setting of Scrapiron Blues is post-war Zimbabwe. It is the early to mid-eighties and echoes of Rhodesia at war find their images within the pages of this posthumously published book of works (Marechera returned to Zimbabwe in 1982.). Despite Marechera’s lighter mode of writing, and his corresponding deftness of touch, he does target some serious political and social issues pertaining to Zimbabwe straight after the war, and many of his pieces in this book employ a shamanic logic to get their points across.
There are several stories published in Scrapiron Blues that come from a manuscript entitled, “Killwatch or Tony Fights Tonight”. Also included in Scrapiron Blues is a prose narrative, “When Rainwords Spit Fire” (a novella written in 1984) and an unfinished novel-like piece called “The Concentration Camp” (depicting the end of the war from 1979-80.) . As well as these, we find some children’s stories, such as “Fuzzy Goo’s Guide to the Earth.” These read as entertaining snippets in their own right, but do not appear to be finished.
Although this writing in general does not, as compared to previous works, appear to go as strongly towards shamanistic motifs or employ shamanistic psychological dynamics to try to influence the readers’ thought processes, this book of collected works has not left behind the project that Marechera had begun with as a writer. In Scrapiron Blues, a key question in Marechera’s mind is the effect that the war had on both the perpetrators of it and the victims. Marechera took on a somewhat journalistic role in order to answer this question – he interviewed many of those who had lived through the war, and tried to get inside their minds. Although this approach seems to indicate that he had broken from his previous “inwards looking” methodology in writing, it is quite clear that the emphasis in his thought processes have not substantially changed, and that he is seeking to understand what the outcome of the war was in terms of how it affected people’s inner lives. What does the catastrophe of the war of liberation mean “shamanistically”? Can trauma be used as an experiential basis for redirecting the pathways of people’s lives, collectively and individually? In any case these questions cannot be answered so simply as with the rhetoric of political independence, for that caters merely to an exoteric way of seeing. In speaking of how he had planned to complete “The Concentration Camp”, Marechera stated:
My plan is not to end the manuscript with Independence. The second section will be from 1980 to 1982 or 1983; it will be about the survivors: what happened afterwards to all those people of the first section in the concentration camps or the guards or the soldiers.” ( xv — Scrapiron Blues)
The key issue for the author, then, was to take the temperature of his society, both before and after independence, in order to establish its degree of health, and what can be done to facilitate a greater degree of communication between the author and his potential readers. Not to allow “Independence” to speak for itself in a superficially rhetorical way, but to attempt to dig further into its possible hidden meanings at a psychological level is profoundly shamanistic. But it is also profoundly anti-elitist, for political rhetoric generally turns towards serving a privileged few.
Shamanism, on the other hand, as I’ve described it, concerns itself directly with quality of life, and only indirectly with moral and political issues. Inevitably, however, a moral and political critique is drawn up and conveyed to readers, on the basic of primary shamanic insights. Moral and political issues are very important in shamanism; however they are not approached through conventional epistemological lenses.
One will approach questions of morality shamanistically, in terms of the possibility of “soul loss”, which is to say that capacity of any moral system or moral principle to either undermine or restore the quality of robust life that makes for, to use Nietzsche’s words, “the more complete [human] animal”. Whereas the processes of civilisation, as such, counsel psychological repression of one’s deeper animal nature, shamanistic insight draws the conclusion that such unconscious deference and submission to society’s pre-existing mores is most likely damaging to the soul (thus Nietzsche’s call for a revaluation of [moral] values.) But what is “the soul” in this shamanic sense? And more importantly, how can it be lost? In shamanistic terms, a robust soul is one that functions on the basis of action, rather than repression. One can lose one’s “soul” – that is one’s inner sense of self – by repressing parts of the contents of one’s psyche, due to fear that one would put oneself in danger by reacting to these “must be kept hidden” aspects of self identity.
In Scrapiron Blues, we encounter a number of Marechera’s shorter works – plays, part of several unfinished novels, some children’s stories and adult short stories. Whilst all make astute moral and political critiques of the Zimbabwe with which Marechera was contemporaneous, some of these works are more shamanistic than others – that is, their moral and political critiques of Zimbabwean society are hinged rather precisely upon the diagnosis of “soul loss”. We can see this idea as the unstated ontological principle that gives us the key to the meaning of “Black Damascus Road”, a short story about a returning war vet, who does everything right by serving his country, and then, just in the same cold and deterministic manner that he had always performed his duty, takes a live grenade and holds it to his chest, committing suicide.
The story asks us to consider this implicit question: “How long ago had the protagonist, who seemed so quietly accepting of everything, actually lost his soul?” “The Alley” is a short play that follows along the same lines, of using a shamanic critique of “soul loss” as the basis for its moral and political criticism. In this case, Rhodes and Robin are two war veterans, who had fought on the side of the Rhodesian regime and the guerrilla side, respectively. Post war, they are both tramps, although they had been lawyers and colleagues at one time. The layers of moral critique contained in “The Alley”, with regard to the post-war mentality of types like Rhodes and Robin are numerous, and complex. The shamanistic motif that carries these levels of critique is the memory loss that afflicts both characters, which renders them comical and profoundly inept, (like any of Beckett’s characters that are based along the lines of this formula of forgetfulness.) Dissociation of the self or “soul loss” is the cause of the characters’ inability to remain robustly aware of the present.
Rather, the souls of Rhodes and Robin are sequestered away from where the actual characters are sitting, in memories that lie behind a wall of consciousness, where war atrocities quietly loom (unless the wall is hit with a stick, in which case the otherwise repressed memories begin to shriek.)
What force causes this disturbing and nightmarish shrieking? My introductory paragraph seems to suggest that “war” could be an extremely shamanic enterprise, not least with regard to Nietzsche and his thoughts, since it prefers action and engagement to passive repression. However, Marechera’s analysis of the costs of the prolonged bush war is more thorough than this formulaic view permits. His acute shamanistic skills diagnose a core of macho ethics in a war which resided in an extremely cowardly misogyny, sacrificing women on the altar of war, as victims of the male desire to express libidinous desires through war. Robin and Rhodes have lost a daughter and a sister, respectively, to this enthusiasm for war.
Their lack of literal, “presence of mind” is expressed in their failure to recognise that it wasn’t the “other” that caused the gruesome deaths of these women, but rather, their own lusts for war. They are largely unconscious of the meaning of their choices, and are thus, in the shamanic sense (and indeed, in the Nietzschean sense), not whole or fully complete animals, since “presence of mind” has escaped them. [Footnote: the test represented by the idea of the eternal recurrence is fundamentally shamanic: Can you remain present to each moment of your life, without dissociating from many of them? If so, one is present to oneself in a way that justifies life (and, in the terms employed by this thesis, avoids “soul loss”).]
Other stories in Scrapiron Blues utilise the motif of dissociation in a way that is more sympathetic and suggestive that the form of dissociation may actually be creative and restorative of genuine human values (that is, in the holistic “animal” sense, implied by Nietzsche and other shamans). Dissociation from a life that offers little other than patriarchal mores and a job and a home in the suburbs would be a creative, rather than destructive act. This is to consider it in moral terms, on the basis of shamanic reasoning towards restoring the fullest range of consciousness possible, under any circumstances. So Jane (who is the female half of the TonyJane suburban unit) encounters a ghost (in the dissociated shamanic realm of her dreams), whilst her husband goes to work in an Orwellian sounding ministry and submits within a Kafkaesque nondescript bureaucracy, to The Man. The series where “Tony washes the walls” reveals Tony’s incomplete ability to repress his unconscious notion that the walls of suburbia, which hem him in, are made of blood (no doubt his own blood, sweat and tears — and not least the sacrifice of his animal instinct, as indicated by the fact that his wife is having an affair with Marechera, and is leered at by the lascivious walls.)
Another shamanically-formulated mode of dissociation is also to be found in the short free verse poem “Tonderai’s father reflects”, which is part of the incomplete work, “The Concentration Camp”. The father’s refusal to speak, because he does not want to reveal the whereabouts of his guerrilla son to the Rhodesian forces, leads him to endure suffering with the aid of dissociation.
In this case, his burial ship becomes the words that he refuses to speak, carrying him off to distant shores. The suggestion here is that the father is engaging in history in a positive and effective way through shamanic (intentional) dissociation. The motif of the beating drums, used to assist Tonderai’s father’s departure from the everyday reality, is also a reference to part of traditional shamanic ritual. The father thus crosses the bridge to the other side of reality “as spirit” and his speculations of what life will be like, after he is gone, give him the eyes of a ghost looking at his wife surveying death notices in the paper.