Shamanic knowledge is ontological, rather than epistemological. That is, metaphorically, it evokes the idea of intellectual synesthesia, whereby one “hears” with the eyes and sees, as it were, with the ears (like Bataille’s “pineal eye” which “sees” in terms of the body’s visceral registers, rather than in terms of literal vision). “Black sunlight” casts a light which immediately retracts itself from conscious memory. Yet the effect of “black sunlight” as shamanic experience – as having transformative powers at the level of being – remains. As if it were the memory of an apocalyptic solar eclipse, the shamanistic initiatory experience casts a shadow upon conventional notions of being, by opening up the ears and eyes to different aspects of experience, which seem to come from the “spirit world” (although they come from the parts of the brain that have merely been submerged and repressed by conventionalising patterns of consciousness). One apprehends the sacred through these unconventional means. Just as Don Juan’s apprentice routinely imbibes hallucinogenic drugs in his quest for self-knowledge, “Christian” – one of the main protagonists in Marechera’s Black Sunlight – has inadvertently swallowed “Chris’s psychiatric drugs”, which facilitates his entry into the realm of shamanic experience and experiential otherness.
The very existence of a sacred realm at all is premised upon there being various divisions or compartments in the mind, to which entry is restricted or forbidden. Colonial society, with its unusually extreme policies of segregation on the basis of a relatively fixed and immutable conceptualisation of public identities, would have conditioned the author’s mind, as the mind of a black colonial subject, to develop mental compartments that represented forbidden aspects of selfhood. For instance, it is forbidden to see one’s choices in life as unconditioned by the possession of a categorical black identity. Therefore, forgetting the absolute nature of one’s identity, acting as if it were wholly mutable and able to enter or leave bodies at will (in terms of the subject’s experience in Black Sunlight) evokes a sense of the sacred through transgression of the socially conditioned superego’s demands (that one stick to the one, narrow identity that society has allotted one.) The author’s determination to lose that one identity through his deliberate self-immersion in a field governed by pre-oedipal psychological dynamics – such as dissociation, splitting, projective identification and magical thinking – is an attempt to facilitate spontaneous self-healing of the damage done to him through the imposition of a narrow and unsuitable (in any case, not desired for its limitations) culturally black identity.
It is as if the writer had returned to the primordial soup of pre-identity – a state of being before individuation, and before the political characteristics of identity had become fixed. Self healing and a shamanistic overthrowing of the existing social order is a different strategy for dealing with an identity that is socially deemed inferior (such as, conventionally a black or feminine identity), as compared to the identity politics of the new left. It is, indeed, a radical, rather than reformist approach, which intellectually harmonises well with Marechera’s anarchistic politics. That the loss of identity is expected to be regenerating and transformative in a superior way is not in any doubt in Black Sunlight. In the novel, there are socially outsider female characters, who cannot find it within their natures to adapt to the strict kind of femininity that a strongly patriarchal society makes necessary for their acceptance. Rejecting their allotted feminine identities, (in the same way as the author is rejecting his politically allotted black identity), they undergo an identity transformation, becoming “changelings”. They fulfill their sacred duties as militant anarchists creating a new sort of society that will be fit for them. The thoroughly well-recognised (by now) anthropological notion of shamanistic death and rebirth is described by the writer of Shamanism: The neural ecology of consciousness and healing, Michael Winkelman, as reflecting “perinatal experiences” ( p 81, 82) and the restructuring of the ego:
The death-rebirth experiences frequently result in dramatic alleviation of psychosomatic, emotional, and interpersonal problems resistant to previous psychotherapy. ( p 83)
The rejection of one’s allotted identity thus allows for the choosing of one’s own identity, and the acceptance of a sacred role of furthering society’s development. Thus the death of the author’s persona at the end of Black Sunlight, also prefigures his own spiritual rebirth, as he looks into the mirror and sees him physical self as subject to the vagaries of his historical time and place, as a whole self, that is nonetheless subject to life’s contingencies. Despite the despair that the author’s image of himself evokes in this closing scene, there is also a sense that the writer has recognised the processes of life in himself as being universal, and has spiritually and emotionally transcended his sense of life’s limitations through the sacrifice of his ego via his experiences akin to shamanistic initiation. His life-satiated, anguished but transcendent gaze into the mirror indicates that he is ready to accept that it is the very contingent nature of reality itself that forever makes it Sacred.