The dangers of language

Bataille gets his lessons from language and the danger of too much consciousness from Nietzsche.

The shaman sees both sides of the psychological coin — the advantages pertaining to the early world of paranoid-schizoid consciousness, and those that pertain to the adult state of rationality.

Bataille’s approach, like all shamanistic approaches, seeks to draw dialectic of communication between the two.

 In the paranoid-schizoid state, there are only singularities, with nothing else sufficiently resembling each event enough to acquire the label of being “the same”. It is with this awareness in mind that Bataille rails against the limitations of the “I” that is adopted when we take up language.

The logic of language, which is the inductive method of knowing, makes him seem (to himself) to be one out of all too many human entities who have been linguistically reduced to conceptually simplified forms, rather than the singularity that he knows he is. He finds this “I” to be servile and lacking in the sovereignty that comes from being a singularity — a thoroughly individual self.

Bataille, however, is also keen to use language (the other way of formulating reality) effectively, to convey, if possible, this sense of lack he feels in having to imply that his identity is general and universalisable.

He also expects to fail in his attempt to bridge the two worlds that divide our self-identity, to the degree that we, as readers, lack the capacity to take in a point of view that does not depend on language.

Marechera’s Black Sunlight maintains knowledge of the two different modes of being, building a bridge between the paranoid-schizoid position and language.

Thus  Black Sunlight   expresses a shamanistic position that sees reality as having two very different sides to it.

European and African shamanistic philosophers/writers

I’ve virtually read every book in the house. That would be about 800 books.  Mike had his collection, which he shipped over from the US in sea bags.  I also accumulated mine, particularly as I wrote my PhD.

Mike’s books consist of heavy historical tomes describing and analyzing the nature of communism in the 20th Century and its shortfalls.    My books tend to be by Nietzsche, Bataille, Marechera and assorted other African writers who give a historical context to my thesis.   Mike’s literary interests include the Beat Poets and texts by classical Greek and Roman authors.   My interests are more contemporary, although I don’t read literature these days.   I stopped reading literature after Black Sunlight blew my mind.   Now I rarely read theory, either.

Theory has always held a fascination for me, but now I think I’ve reached it’s outer limits.  In truth, I felt that I was suffering from all the G-force I could take from theory as I approached the completion of my thesis.  I was applying my version of theory to go beyond my limits, opposing my own superego with all the force my mind could muster.  My emotions began to shatter as I made headway into the stratosphere.   My emotions and my will power became counter to each other.   I could barely keep it together as the external shell of the shuttle of my being began to quake.

Part of the reason was de Sade.  I say this now with some degree of certainty, having pulled his tome of collected works off the shelf.   I’d had to do battle with his elements in Nietzsche and Bataille, by trying to formulate a different attitude and solution, as per my “intellectual shamanism” than the woman-hating that the Nietzschean chain supplies.  Immersing oneself in the intellectual logic of woman-hating writers in order to understand them, and then attempting the difficult task of self-extrication from their zeitgeist, with a surge of woman-hating trolls forever on one’s back was not easy.   I determined, finally, that Marechera did have more insight into the psychological repercussions of woman-hating than either of these earlier authors.  In “The Alley”, a short play, he portrayed how wartime contempt for women made the self-image of the soldier as a valiant protector of women and children into a farce.

Marechera has a kind of combativeness that uses psychological insights in order to overthrow attitudes he finds contemptible.   Hierarchical domination is precisely disliked.  One must be honest about one’s psychological states and not pretend that they are other than they seem to be, otherwise one does not face the fact that war inflicts trauma that requires healing.   Of course, the use of psychologically informed political tactics is not new, for they also form a large part of Bataille’s writing.  His predominant trope of facing death, for instance, is a double-edged sword, intended to push individuals to more extreme limits, beyond the circumscribing limits of bourgeois morality.   In Nietzsche’s writing, he offered that the noble elements of European culture were those most accepting of the need to sacrifice themselves; that is, those for whom “the preaching of death was most at home”.   The other edge of the sword is that the subjugated classes would become ungovernable if they effectively (in my terms) “shamanized” and had strange visions.   They could overcome their fear of death and therefore fear no punishment for their behavour.

If Nietzsche was defender of the aristocracy, Bataille wanted revolution for the working class.  Marechera was in some ways more extreme than either of these writers, more aligned with the lumpen proletariat, at least in terms of choice of lifestyle (vagrancy, petty crime).   For all that, Marechera was more deeply shamanistic in his insights — that is, more aware of the degree to which psychology can be used to manipulate political perceptions.    He was also a master of disguises in his own way.   He thought that one could simply become what one imagined being, for instance a Fleet Street photographer (you just need to wear a number of cameras around your neck and pass yourself off as one).

Marechera was also the least sadistic of the chain of writers.    He had no stake in maintaining any form of social hierarchy whatsoever, so there was no need to try to distort perceptions in any way.  He just had to show up the aspects of the psychologies of groups that they were trying to hide.   For instance, the cost of going to war is that one must live with the knowledge of what war does to women.

Although the European writers mentioned are sadistic, Marechera’s writing isn’t, at least it’s far from being so at bottom.   Despite this, his style finds its place in a historical continuum with Bataille’s perspectives.  That is, he uses politically motivated psychological writing in a surrealistic, stream-of-consciousness form.   His writing has the effect of making one feel like one has entered a privileged realm where one is aware of the glorious fragility of life and its sacred nature.

Even if you are atheistic, you can be in awe of what it means to live and breathe and have existence — life may be being squeezed out of you, but you are still here, to watch it and record it.   At this most reductive level, which is where Marechera takes you, there is the quintessence of life.

Such is the author’s shamanistic propensity, that we can eschew sadism from our psychological vocabularies, and still be sure to have adventures and dare ourselves.  Read, for instance, Black Sunlight.


Marechera’s Black Sunlight is the most shamanistic of all his writing. The book invites us to undergo, with him, a recapitulation of the past – meaning the specific historical past of Rhodesia, and the psychological states that were common to it during the time of the bush war. The term, “recapitulation”, has a specific meaning in terms of shamanism (a term taken from Carlos Casteneda’s books).

To recapitulate one’s past, one must first have a need to do so. This is not to say that all traumas can be recovered from, since some cut too deeply for the one who desires healing to be able to benefit from a recapitulation. Black Sunlight is a novel that invites us to go along with the author as he re-experiences traumatic past events. The book expresses his mental anguish, as it relates to the anti-colonial revolution in Rhodesia.

Marechera invites his readers to go on this highly subjective inner journey, where everything that we would hold to be true and fixed and objective about the world seems to melt into the air, and we are left only with a feeling of complete immersion in the emotions of the time, increasing to an ultimate sense of paranoia and terror as the reader is positioned on the side of the anarchist revolutionaries against the encroaching Rhodesian security forces.

The recapitulation is highly effective – for his psychological approach and aesthetics force us to confront ourselves in “immanence” – meaning in terms of the dynamics of an infant’s early consciousness, before a reality-based ego had been developed. (In terms of Kleinian theory, this is a return to the very early part of the consciousness relating to infancy, which can be understand as a “paranoid-schizoid position“.)

It is hardly surprising that shamanic journeying leads to insights about the psyche and how it can become better grounded. One risks living too much on the surface of reality if one overlooks the engulfing side of nature; the possibility of the loss of self. It is the character of “Susan” who represents the dangerous side, rapacious and engulfing. (We are later to understand the encounter was as a result of having taken the protagonist’s drugs.)

Self-knowledge comes from understanding and accepting that life has two aspects: nurture and aggression. We, ourselves, embody both sides, and accepting this fact enables us to go on towards psychological freedom.

The author’s self-revelation in the final passages of the book, naked and wet, triumphant from his fight with nature but entirely despairing of his negative experiences — reveals to us once and for all, that it is impossible to overcome the fact that reality and nature have two opposing sides. Also: Marechera finds a model for postcolonial metaphysics that is based on something other than blind revenge. It is a very peculiar motion, if you read his novella, BLACK SUNLIGHT.  He starts of with blind revenge and ends up with shamanistic catharsis. It’s very strange to experience this transition with him.

Nietzsche and the Bible

“We grope like the blind along a wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. Even at brightest noontime, we stumble as though it were dark. Among the living, we are like the dead.”–Isaiah 59:10

“and you will grope at noon, as the blind man gropes in darkness, and you will not prosper in your ways; but you shall only be oppressed and robbed continually, with none to save you.” Deuteronomy 28:29


“And the blindness of the blind one, and his seeking and groping, shall yet testify to the power of the sun into which he hath gazed,–did ye know that before?”–Nietzsche

Compare the quotes above Nietzsche gave a very non-Biblical (shamanistic) meaning to his aphorisms. He thought it was funny to take portentous Biblical words and change them into ideas that oppose Biblical trains of thought with more naturalistic ones. For instance, he thought that knowledge had to do with realizing just how necessarily and interminably irrational reality is.   The more one gazes into this fact, the more one loses one’s illusions about any overarching rationale for human existence.

In opposition to the Biblical views, which imply that blindness to the light is the result of not acquiescing to God’s will, Nietzsche maintains that blindness is the result of gazing too directly into reality — that is too much into “the light”.

Marechera must surely have read Nietzsche, as his parodic humor suggests that the blinding light of knowledge emerges out of the Devil’s ass.


Detachment: shamanic knowledge versus Meltzer’s "object relations"

I now conclude that the “epistemophilic” instinct, spoken of by Meltzer, is something very different from shamanic knowledge, at least as I have studied it in Marechera. The epistemophilic instinct leads to the generation of an ideological framework. You look at the world in terms of ideology — but an ideological framework is really only a framework for an abortive/masturbatory epistemology. Ideology is a claim to knowing that doesn’t come in touch with the real world. It believes it does — and yet it doesn’t.

Shamanistic knowing may encounter the seduction of essentialism (like the epistemophilic instinct encounters in order to produce its ideological outcome — which is overgeneralising about ideologically pre-formulated ‘natures’.)

Tellingly, the perspective of the shaman who RETURNS from natal or early post-natal experience is defined by a capacity for detachment from objects, rather than a state of immersion in them as the object relations school would have it . Thus, shamanistic experience produces a state akin to Buddhistic transcendence of the subjective social relations (i.e. it ultimately transcends the early infant’s consciousness that psychoanalysis describes as  “object relations”).


black sunlight

Knowledge has a paranoiac structure according to Lacan. Marechera would have known how well this aspect of common neurosis, if worked upon hard enough, could give way to a shamanic vision which breaks through the dualistic structures of mind and body, revealing the nature of the world as one of common unity between mind and matter. When Marechera, in the Source book of his life and work, speaks of “shortcircuiting” normal thinking patterns and using “words as bullets” this is exactly the outcome he is looking for by playing upon our commonly human paranoid tendencies, in his writing of this novel. He wants to bring us to a point of embracing his own shamanic vision – the deep sense and feeling of how everything in life is deeply interconnected.

Repairing the broken glass of vision

Shamanism is one of the most ‘primitive’ forms of religious practices, which deals with the emotional components of identity, and is connected to forms of animism, the taking of psychoactive drugs, and an outcome of spiritual wholeness and enhanced perceptual processes through a process of figurative dismembership of the self, suffering and symbolic death. According to C Michael Smith, in Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue,

Shamanistic relations with the sacred rest upon a pre-theological and pre-political spiritual vision and experience. Having probably arisen in the Paleolithic-hunter period of cultural evolution, when small tribal groupings had not given rise to priesthoods and credal dogma, shamanic authority rested upon the sacred power and efficacy which shamans could command for the benefit of the people. That is to say, the shamanic vision of reality and the shamanic authority rest upon levels of experience rather than upon priestly ordination or institutional hierarchy. ( p 38)

There is thus a strong link between autobiographical explorations as a means to self knowledge and the healing of others through the knowledge one has gained of oneself and the psychic realm of things (no doubt knowledge subjectively influenced by the nature of one’s particular history and the particular nature of the societies one has experienced.) Autobiographical and literary signs point to the adoption by Marechera of various shamanistic perspectives and motifs.

The link between African animistic and magical practices and the cultural revolution of the late 60s and the 70s is significant for understanding Marechera. It is not that he adopted precisely his own homegrown nativistic techniques for engaging with the world of magic. Rather, he seems to have derived a very personal intra-subjective approach of his own, in relation to psychic (soul) fragments and sub-identities which exist within a more complete aesthetic a psych-social context of his stories. Whether or not this literary technique came out of his own psychic injuries, we cannot know.

It is common for those who have been deeply injured in some way to learn to see the world in the manner of a shaman, according to Michael Richardson, who wrote as much concerning Georges Bataille. Indeed, it appears that a socially modernistic current of shamanism may be detected to some degree in the work of Georges Bataille, who seems to attempt to approach a condition of self-transformation and achievement of mystical (and simultaneously sexual) source of ecstacy under the auspices of conditions within the modernist state. According to C Michael Smith in Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue,

Shamans and persons suffering from dissociative disorders have much in common. Both know how to dissociate and utilize trance states, and both have exceptionally enhanced imaginative powers. Shamans have been the great masters of psychological dissociation, and they have been able to use it for therapeutic purposes as well as for the benefit of the larger community. […I]t may be useful to briefly review some of the dissociative features of shamanism and compare them to [Multiple Personality Disorder, now known as Dissociative Personality Disorder]. Such phenomena as trance states, meaningful hallucinations, hypnotic amnesia, symbolic dreams, ritual dismembership, possession by spirits, possession by ancestral souls, neurological exhaustion following trance work, use of intoxicants (or hallucinogens) to stimulate dissociation, out of body experiences, and transformation of identity are common to the shaman and the person suffering MPD ( p 179, 180).

The author goes on to relate the involuntary nature of the of these experiences for someone suffering from MPD as compared to the Shaman who “intentionally evokes dissociative states for the purpose of exploration of non-ordinary reality, for the purposes of making diagnosis and contacting healing potentials and for the purpose of healing his or her patient.” ( p 180). In a similar way, the self explorations of the psychic (soul) dimensions subjectively entailed for him in Marechera’s various social environments gives us a subjective ground map of such environments which can be used for healing one’s own fractured identities.

The Black Insider, and to a greater extent, Black Sunlight, both rely heavily on literary impulse to convey their ideas, whilst setting themselves in a cultural and historical context.   This indicates an intentional aspect to the dissociative experiences — making them shamanistic.


Marechera’s poetic prose in BLACK SUNLIGHT could hit us with all the force and sense of novelty as Jim Hendrix performing Wild Thing for the first time.  Why doesn’t it hit all people in this way?  The level of violence he was attuned to, as a “norm”, acts upon us in a way that shuts down our engagement. We may read, but we cannot always digest.

Black Sunlight and Dionysian regressiveness

My main point is to show how ambivalence is involved in the novel, Black Sunlight, as a psychological and literary means to deconstruct character.   It is not individual character per se that is being deconstructed by this ambivalence but the bourgeois ideology of the homogeneous (rather than heterogeneous) character structure. Ambivalence, I want to suggest, is the child’s natural response to the parent and to authority. This option is circumscribed  after the child becomes an adult and is turned into a unit of production. After this point he or she is expected to respond positively to society’s class-based authorities so as not remain in a mode of questioning and learning about the nature of society.

To revel in ambivalence is to transgress the values of the productive character in the narrow terms of how it is defined in an industrial age.   To refuse to define one’s self according to the categories and characteristics of dominant bourgeois systems of meaning (which also demand a movement towards transcendence of the autobiographical and immanent sense of self) is to experience a state of being which is symbolic of ritual physical dis-membership.  This is to enter a realm of Dionysian experience.

Reading Marechera’s writing

When I decided to study Marechera for my PhD, I was attracted to his writing from the outset by the sense of honesty I found in various quotes of his I’d found. I immediately felt that this was a person who knew himself very, very well, and was not afraid to say something just because it didn’t fit a pattern of socialization or acculturation which might have been more acceptable. I thought this  subject was worthy of my PhD studies. Since these early stages, my esteem for this writer has only grown in multiples. I find him a difficult writer because he is not lacking in depth.

It is hard for a person to read a writer of another culture whilst understanding his or her depth. I chose Marechera to study, specifically, because he came from the same region of the world that I did. I thought that this would help me to understand him. It did– but psychologically, at times, I’ve felt almost that I had bitten off just as much as I could chew. Specifically, I have been shocked at what I have understood — the viciousness of poverty, the extremity of social alienation which leads to madness.

I approached Marechera with a sensibility of one who is also alienated. (For a further elucidation of the nature of this, read the end part of my autobiography, which is attached to my profile on this blogger.) I followed his writings through the logic of my own alienation, with the implicit understanding that alienation is actually a form of logic. What I read and saw in my mind’s eye appalled me. I saw someone who believed in himself — despite overwhelming social pressures not to. This was someone who saw the preservation of his sanity as being dependent upon staying the course of personal independence from dominant and dominating social forces. He stayed the course — and paid the ultimate price with his life.

This was my  mind-shattering insight into the persona of Marechera. He refused to submit — and a price was subtracted for that. Marechera’s own life speaks to us about the violence of society.

Trying to relate to Marechera’s writing requires mental and emotional conditioning. It is as if, I — being a semi-contact fighter — decided one day, for reasons best ascribed to a sudden spark of daring masquerading as madness, to go up against a full contact amateur fighter.

Marechera writes in many ways like a self-trained, intuitive fighter. He ducks and weaves a lot — it can be hard, at times, to find a “self” within his writing. As a reader, you find his self evades you, time after time. Sometimes you manage to pin him down, to land some contact with the subject hiding behind the text — but not for long. A close reading of Marechera’s Black Sunlight will leave an engaged reader feeling the gasp and retraction of far too many body blows. He is a hard writer — in all too many senses.

One can learn a lot about writing from reading Marechera. I learned enough from him about the hardness of life in order to finish my autobiography, which had been screaming, in the half-birth position, for a number of years.

Marechera’s writing is audacious and nothing if not confrontational. He deals with the ongoing issue of preserving human dignity in the face of extreme unfairness, poverty and oppression.

His writing is not only rich thematically, but also stylistically. He adopts a casual and extremely bold approach to style — appropriating aspects from all different stylistic systems; often with the effect of a humourous juxtaposition of anomalous cultural ideas and content.

His writing has been underestimated because he chose not to be constrained by notions of conventionalism (artistically and socially) — especially ideas about how someone of his race and (originally, peasant) class ought to write. He is still not read as widely as he should be read today because of various unconscious social prejudices — not just literary prejudices, which concern style.

From Black Sunlight

But where do minds go, where do they come from? The things human beings construct have no connection with whatever it is a human being is: machines, mazes of streets, classified ads, water-closet, constitutions. And the things that have always been there (one hopes), like clouds, rocks, sky and water, do not have any direct connection with the human lives scurrying among them like inscrutable ants. The appreciation of urban squalor and derelict suburbia in the arts has not changed this but actually seems to reinforce the alienation of mind from mindcreated matter. The sombre indpendence of landscape and cosmic prospect from human consciousness and human striving instils in me fears of something radically misisng from my own make-up. We may as well not be there at all. Is is this not-being-there which appeals to me in music; yet when it is powerful enough it inspires us with the deep and opposite thereness of everything that is human. The force is so akin to the strange glue that holds and that sticks everything together, remote from understanding, that we fall back on demonaic terminology to explain it. […]

Beginning to live over again, having more provisions for the road than I have road left. Like Cato the Censor, learning Greek in his old age, I am learning to speak just when I need to learn to be silent forever. Words are an empty bag, a rowing round seven miles of it all. Their bells at Easter follow her mountains ringing on a donkey and fire sits hardy when winter loves an old hag. I am burnt on the breaktooth words. Their timeless sneer to all. Meaning leaks in through holes in the roof and drums softly here and there collecting in puddles that soon extend their tentacles all over the floor where I watch the gashes in my wrists leak faster and faster with meaning to flood beyond recognition my embittered days with Blanche Goodfather. Amazon. And we grew to know less and less of each other. Yet the memory would not set into the setting sun, that green and frozen glance to the wide blue sea where broken hearts are wrecked out of their wounds. A blind sky bleached white the intellect of human bone, skinning the emotions from the fracture to reveal the grief underneath. And the mirror reveals me, a naked and vulnerable fact.