Marechera’s shamanistic mystery

The best place to start in terms of understanding Marechera from a shamanistic point of view is from his own words in a typewritten journal that was reproduced in part in a posthumously published set of his works, Mindblast:

My father’s mysterious death when I was eleven taught me – like nothing would ever have done -that everything, including people, is unreal. That, like Carlos Casteneda’s Don Juan, I had to weave my own descriptions of reality into the available fantasy we call the world. I describe and live my descriptions. This, in African lore, is akin to witchcraft. My people could never again see me as anything but “strange”. It hurt, for the strangeness was not of my own making; I was desperately cynical for the descriptions were the only wierd things I cared to name “truth”. They were the heart of my writing and I did not want to explain my descriptions because they had become my soul, fluid and flowing with the phantom universe in which our planet is but a speck among gigantic galaxies. [Marechera, p 123, Mindblast].

The author makes a very clear, and indeed overt, reference to a perceiving the world in terms of shamanistic sensibilities – for the cult books of the 60s by the American, Carlos Casteneda, featuring his shamanic apprenticeship by a Yaqui (Northern Mexican) master of estoeric knowledge, don Juan, are concerned with an experience of traditional shamanism.

There are also profound resonances with the Continental tradition in a novel like Black Sunlight, the name of which echoes Julia Kristeva’s work, Black Sun (albeit published after Marechera had died, in 1989) and Bataille’s conception of the “solar anus” (a short, surrealist text published in 1931). Marechera’s sense of the sacred is qualitatively different, however from those of the Continental tradition I have mentioned.

Conceptually, shamanism requires a notion of the Sacred, and Nietzsche, Bataille, and indeed, Julia Kristeva, all offer, through their work, different conceptions of where the sacred is located. In each case, as it seems to me, the allocation of a particular place for the Sacred, and indeed the necessity of the Sacred, is produced paradigmatically, through the drawing of a line that psychologically separates the individual from states of mind that are, according to regular social mores, forbidden. Nietzsche, for instance, felt it to be verboten to depart from Christian moral standards where everybody was each other’s “nursemaid”, in order to achieve a sensation of transcendence “where the air is pure and free” [see Zarathustra, etc].

His transgression of Christian norms is precisely what lent to the feeling of self-overcoming a feeling of the Sacred. Bataille, finding that “transcendence” had acquired a rather sterile and disengaged quality during his time — no doubt because it had become the normal aspiration, rather than the exception – sought to find his sense of the Sacred in the opposite metaphysical position to that of Nietzsche. He sought to sacrifice his normative condition of middle class masculinity in the space nominated as “feminine” – the field of experience denoted as “immanence”.

Kristeva was a more recent arrival than Bataille on the Continental intellectual scene, and a Bulgarian transplantee to France who learned under psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. She saw in the child’s original close relationship with its mother, the basis for our poetic sensibilities. Yet it is the child’s primeval sense of closeness with its mother that orthodox approaches to psychoanalysis consider in a negative context, as representing a stage of immaturity within a broader context of definitively patriarchal social relations. Kristeva’s writing is transgressive within a broader patriarchal intellectual and social context, since it highlights the benefits of a state of mind – dependency on the mother – that is later in the process of development forbidden by conventional (that is, patriarchal) social (and hence psychological) strictures.

Such is the nature of the Sacred.  One experiences it as the field of psychological experience that is forbidden according to conventional social mores, which may sometimes be related to a particular historical time and place. Marechera’s writing had its own ideas of the Sacred – and that is what I am suggesting, regarding Black Sunlight, in particular. Yet, to return to the original text, quoted earlier, it was Marechera’s father’s death that made him into a sort of shaman. I don’t believe I am taking the text too literally when I make the connection between the author and the psychological structure of shamanism – for all that I have read on the matter indicates to me that it is via a “wound” to mind and body that one first becomes a shaman; that is, first gets access to the spirit world.

The “wound” that changes Marechera forever is a wound caused by the “mysterious” death of his father. It  sets him apart from the rest of the community, as he has said. More than this, however, the nature of the wound – experienced as psychological trauma – has created divisions within his mind, between what is socially acceptable and what is not. A large part of his personal experience, given that it is traumatic or at least traumatically separated from other parts of his experience in his mind, has been allocated to the field of the Sacred. Henceforth, he may not speak of these experiences in a direct way, or in a normative social context, since they no longer belong to this sphere, but to the field of knowledge that is separated from the field of conventional knowledge. To this kind of awareness of the incommunicable sacred, George Bataille attaches, mysteriously, the term, “non-knowledge”, whereas Dambudzo Marechera elects to use the word “mysterious” in more ways than one, to describe not only his feeling about having only sketchy details of his father’s death, but to allude to something sacred in terms of the meaning this death had for him. The meaning, as he has said, is that it induced him into the world of shamanism.

There is more that can be said about how this originative wound, which creates a shamanistic sensibility, functions to enhance self-perception and perception of the world around one. It seems that one may pay a heavy price for it, and even though healing may be attained – to a level of psychological health greater than one had previously enjoyed, due to the levels of awareness being enhanced, the “corrosion of the brain” that is due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may continue to lurk in certain cavernous passages of the mind, to assure a marginal social status, no matter how gifted, perspicacious, or giving one might be. Nietzsche’s shamanistic formula, “The spirits increase, vigor grows through a wound,” does not therefore tell us the whole truth of the matter, but it does tell us a large part of it.

Marechera’s early demise was despite his internal vigour and increased spirit of awareness, and mostly likely due to his radical lifestyle on the streets that had triggered his earlier PTSD. The two aspects of his mind and health are not separable, but only compartmentalized – it was, without a doubt, the wound that gave him his shamanistic insight that also led to the marginal status that finished him. Yet, before that, he tried in various ways to communicate with us in a shamanistic vein.

In Black Sunlight, the shaman as writer seeks to exert upon us a downward pressure upon the psyche of his readers. He wants us to experience the part of our psyche that thinks about identity in a deeply visceral, not just emotional way. He wants to guide us through a way of thinking that encounters the Sacred in a way that is both transgressive (along the lines of Bataille’s approach to the Sacred) and also socially and psychologically re-integrative.

In order to demonstrate the ways in which we mistakenly attribute “essences” (in terms of ideas about enduring characteristics determined by race, but one could argue, in terms of gender, too) to particularized human identities, Marechera constantly uses, as literary devices, the universal psychological capacities we have that draw from a lower part of the mind, to practice ego-defence. He utilises conceptions known as “splitting, projective identification, magical thinking and dissociation” to show us that the person whom we take as a unified and integral “self” is not what it seems to be, but merely an assumption of self-identity based upon primitive ego-defensive capabilities.  It’s as if these innate human tendencies to make dividing lines between one’s tribe and those of others are exhausted by the end of the book, at which point one no longer is so prone to seeing the world divided up, but views it as an intricate whole.

Far from splitting his authorial self in the writing of Black Sunlight, he reveals the underlying, socially systemic unity between one’s self and the selves of others – who could, but for an accident of fate and philosophically arbitrary conditions relating to human birth and identity circumscriptions, all have come out of the same womb with you.

Marechera’s Black Sunlight, with its splitting and its multiple authorial identities, does not reveal, as per postmodernism, the shattering of the authorial self, but rather the fact that there is an underlying unity of meaning in terms of what it is to be human and to experience the necessity of relating to the other, in a historical time and setting that one has not chosen. It is a novel that continuously evokes the transgressive (and hence, necessarily Sacred) knowledge about identity – that personal identity is not in fact chosen, but is actually contingent upon such things as historical accidents and features of life that are beyond one’s own control. To acknowledge such is not to deny self-responsibility, but rather to face the reality of one’s sacred responsibilities towards others.

It is necessary for the reader to experience a pressure on one’s consciousness, a downward movement towards the level of consciousness whereby one relates to others in a reflexive way, that causes psychological splitting, and a confusion about where one’s own boundaries end and another’s begin – the state of mind described by Melanie Klein, in object relations psychology, as pertaining to an infant’s general psychological state – in order to “remember” one’s primeval origins in relation to the Mother.

Through the shamanic mediation of the writer, one is taken back, via psychological regression, to the state of mind that is infant dependency. Here, one is able to recall that one’s experience of life is not premised upon such things as one’s natural goodness or inherent characteristics that seem to derive from the self alone, but from the nurturing facility and good will of the mother Earth.

One is facilitated by the shaman author to remember — that is, to understand —  that the qualities of being alive are not “deserved’ but received as a gift. A shaman-facilitated mental recollection of the early origins of consciousness furnishes the basis for a different kind of social and political life.


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