Terror as totem

Bataille ‘s writing suggests to me that if we establish a direct relationship with terror, we will be able to resist the imposition of terror from the outside. Alternatively, not to face the terror of life is to remain intoxicated by false assurances as to our ability to escape our own demise.   We all die. Also, when we are afraid, we find out what we’re really made of — what we are prepared to hold onto, and what we are willing to discard.

Marechera concurs by his rejection of the rest of humanity, to be alone with his own terror:

Nothing but blows and kicks
Greet the friendly eye of thought
Which bloodied muddied shakes the dust
To all humanity
And discovers terror the totem of truth.

Clarifying some concepts of INTELLECTUAL SHAMANISM

My use of psychology is totally abnormal … because what I am stating is that when you lose touch with conventional reality, because of hardship, or pain, you go on a journey to find a better reality and you come up with one
can the external condition be an agent or another being of some sort or its just a deformity created by extraordinary conditions
especially Perkinson’s text on shamanism as a black American identity and Taussig. My view is closer to Taussig’s
conventionally it is a deformity, but I don’t think this is what it actually is
Does intellectual Shamanism manifest only through the affected person’s ability to engage intellectually through works such as writing?
I think there are reasons to think, in the case of Bataille and Nietzsche, and others, that it enhances self awareness
Not just writing, but self-awareness
Marechera, to a reasonable observer’s POV, exhibited strong evidence of being mentally ill or mad.
… so despite that, he was more self aware?
It is also a feature of aspects of Bataille and Nietzsche’s writings — they are seen as mad philosophers
That is exactly what I’m saying, although I also allow that the cost of being self-aware can be a painful sort of madness
Like Nietzsche said, Hamlet was mad because he was certain of the truth
One would find it hard to give one’s child Marechera’s children’s book!
and yet what he advises kids is naked truth which is normally not told to kids directly
Yeah, yeah, that is what I see, too
actually, to know the truth about power relations could send most people mad. They don’t want to know it
I am more convinced that most of normal life is false and the life Marechera saw and experienced was the truth … and living, walking and talking it appears abnormal
We have a god intoxication, or an idealism intoxication, in that we believe in hidden purposes, or that life is a training ground for morality.
To see that this is not the case is difficult
It would wreck the psyches of most people
I agree … and so lies seem to normalise life … and make morality seem sane??
In a way. It’s not so much lying, but idealism, which is a milieu we’re born into. It’s a kind of lie, or distortion, but also a form of adaptation
It’s not like it’s morally wrong not to have a morality, if you know what I mean.
Or that it’s morally right to have one. You are standing outside of morality
You talking to someone who is not technical in this subject – more of a novice and so my language is not very good
OK, I meant Nietzsche, Marechera and Bataille are standing outside of the idea that there are hidden moral principles in the universe
Yaah, I understand better when you say “standing outside morality”, which is a perfect context for most of what Marechera did and say!
But I think you understand it
Well, because most people think there are hidden principles governing outcomes, when there are none
There is no principle that assures that if people do the right thing they will have good lives. They will more likely be serving others without realizing it
I remember reading where Marechera wrote something along the lines “don’t listen to what your parents and all adults say, because they all lie to you and all other little children”
Yeah, yeah. It’s idealism
Nietzsche called it the ascetic ideal
I don’t fully understand what idealism is.
It’s a bit hard to explain
The question is to whom should little kids listen to … Marechera seem to tell kids to just do what they want
Yeah, good point
Well he thought kids had a better capacity to live a meaningful life than adults
is this not anrachism?
I think it differs from anarchism although it is compatible
How does it differ?
Well, the idea that kids are in tune with nature or the universe in a way that adults have lost touch with
So, if adults get in touch with what the kids still have, they will live more meaningful lives
…which is also the benefit of going mad
because you get back into that childlike condition of receptivity
being in tune with narture, I hope is not equivalent to extreme form of limited experience and knowledge – which is what little kids have.
ha. Well, that is the other side of the paradigm. I had to do battle with that one, because it is the bourgeois perspective
But the idea is the quality of life, not the content, or in other words, ontology, not epistemology
“bourgeois perspective” – no idea what it is.
Um…it’s kind of the cynical view that there can only be one sort of order and that is the one we presently have
For instance, that to be adult you need to conform to existing mores, have a full time job, etc
By quality of life do you mean, in a child’s case, the perfect state of bliss, lack of care and worry, built on a foundation of no knowledge of what might or might not be?
not really.
Actually, if you look at Georges Bataille, who was a French philosophical writer, he says that this “non-knowledge” involves the embrace of terror in the immediacy. So instead of trying to postpone our terror of death, we encounter it directly, without mediation.
But this gives us quality of life, because then we start living it as it really is and don’t postpone it
For Marechera, I wonder whether there was a way of his viewing the world that did not accelerate his physical discomfort or destruction
We can even live it on our own terms, because we know that there is no truth outside of ourselves of the sort that really matters in an eternal or infinite way
I think it did accelerate his destruction
Morality, even though it is false, is mode of self-preservation
I wonder where if the sense of self-preservation or is this state also invalidates self-preservation?
Nietzsche seemed to think that it was both
Your preserve something, but you also lose something
Oh I had not seen your last sentence on self preservation.
I hope this makes sense
Nietzsche thought that those who wanted to seek beyond themselves would sacrifice themselves to their best qualities
Sorry. “create”beyond themselves
It does not because nature itself if left to operate will establish brutal rules such that non-conformance will lead to one destruction … rules of nature must be obeyed in most cases unless one craft strategy to postpone their repercussions.
What are the rules of nature?
any that can natural befall matter
Still don’t quite understand what you are saying
what your objection is
anything that naturally happen does so by force of rules of nature
Kind of, but nature is also pretty random
yes but the randomness is systematic
which makes it the rule
Yes, it tends to be systematic in the broader picture and random on the micro level
What is your objection concerning “nature”?
there are times what I see order in randomness
yeah, there is order in randomness, indeed.
My view is that being close to nature does not lead to quality of life
Yeah, being close to nature, as in being subjected to it, is not good
so it probably does not explain Marechera
But one does not subject oneself to nature as a necessity, but only by way of an experiment, and on one’s own terms.
a matter of terminology
also I don’t quite understand what your objection is, but I think it is to the term, “nature”. But one need not understand it in terms of the grass and trees
Being wild, living under the hibiscus bush
a temporary immersion in an unmediated reality — that is what I meant by “nature”
To me nature is both what you say AND also interacting with the elements
Ok. Yes, probably. I think the key is to get away from the mediation of civilizing meanings
“unmediated” – means in both the virtual and the physical
To destroy your civilized mind with drugs and alcohol
thats probably not the only way … there may be more ways to achieve it 🙂
of course!
So we will talk later
I believe living purely and normally can also achieve it in the manner that people like Ghandhi may have done
I think that is a way to live morally, but it doesn’t touch on the kind of realm of experience that Nietzsche, Bataille and Marechera did
Can any one really seek this?
Answer next time
I think they tend to be thrown into it by force of circumstance, but that they find something beneficial in it
I don’t think you seek shamanic initiation unless your life is already hellish and it seems the only option 

Object relations and shamanism: two theories of a kind

If Marechera’as self-exile from the world of conventional mores had a reason, then that reason was to repair an internal sense of loss. According to Alan Collier Ostby, H. Ellenberger (The Discovery of the Unconscious, 1970) says traditional healers saw psychological problems in terms of “soul loss” (Otsby p 166). Contemporary object relations thinking of the psychoanalytic school speaks, instead, in terms of “object loss”, however the qualities of sickness they are describing are, in phenomenological terms,  similar, one presumes, apart from the obvious cause of cultural differences, which contextualise this inner sense of loss in different ways. To place oneself into a mode of temporary exile facilitates an opportunity to recover the lost “object” that is experienced as a lost part of one’s self. The partially regressive return to the “womb” — that is to a state of mind where reality is dealt with on simpler terms than those on which a healthy adult would normally be inclined to deal with it — can facilitate healing. Restoration of the lost object would restore one’s hope in humanity, enabling re-integration into the social realm of everyday human relations.

Such psychological regression turns toward the psychologically receptive mode of the pre-oedipal field, wherein reality appears to be defined less by society and more by one’s internal object relations. This state of being involves the apertures of the mind narrowing to limit the data taken in from the outside world, to emphasise the particular nature of the internal dynamics of love, hate and knowledge (ref. Bion) that give one one’s idiosyncratic design, thus make one who one is. Marechera’s refusal to adopt the mantle of social conformity, to fit into his society, was based on his need to continue his “soul journey” to find the lost parts of his being that would enable him to feel whole.

What were these parts in particular, that he felt he had lost? Indications from reading his book of Hararean exile, Mindblast, give the strong impression, through many different textual “clues”, that what he sought was to continue his life in a peaceful Zimbabwean society, from childhood on up, that would have nurtured him as part of it. The breakout of civil war (the Second Chimurenga), which began in earnest around 1966, around the time that Marechera’s father was suddenly killed in a road accident, destroyed the sense of normal everyday life for the teenage Marechera. This loss of internal security, a loss emphasized still more in his mind through the increasing intensity of war in the society at large, robbed him of the sense of security he required to feel “at one” with himself. Henceforth, he could no longer believe in “society” and had lost it as an object of love.

Having lost his belief in this object – society – he also lost his feeling of security that would have enabled him to be at peace with himself. In a shamanistic sense, Marechera was suffering from “soul loss”. His stint as a tramp on the streets of Harare was designed to simplify life in such a way that he would be able to focus his mind on finding something valuable and emotionally precious that would stand in as a replacement for that original loss, and would have enabled him to integrate himself more effectively into society.

In Mindblast, Harare is a “womb” for Marechera not just in the sense that it is the place with which he identifies as the core and origin of his Zimbabwean identity.  Like Orpheus, he is in search of his lost other half, and he hopes to find in the world of the dead. In Harare is both a place of psychical regression and a “hell” — where the author struggles with a sense of the ethereal nature of his art against a countervailing reality of middle-class lifestyles, devoid of meaning or depth.

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.

Why I took the path I did

What attracted me?  Quite precisely, it was that the colonial way of life I’d been bought up to experience as normal was no longer viable for me. This is, to sum it up, what attracted me. Beyond this, also that I was brought up to have a colonial feminine personality. My superego was very badly formulated, that is, it was formed to suit a very different culture, which was also now defunct. It also made me subservient to men — my superego. This was all very, very bad for me. I’d reached a dead-end so far as my psychological survival went. So, I got into this mode of “facing death” for renewal. I discovered this method originally through Nietzsche, but it is also highly prevalent in Bataille, and one can see the death and renewal motif in Marechera’s writing, especially THE HOUSE OF HUNGER, although his is the most anguished of the three.  I suspect that psychological pressures from home, also accompanied by an extreme sense of the social and cultural frameworks shifting, brings about an existential crises that can lead to a beneficial reappraisal of one’s purpose and state of being.

This solution has turned out to be very, very useful to me. On it’s basis, I have an extremely viable marriage/relationship, I only do the work that fulfills me, I have found deep companionship with many black Zimbabweans (which my superego had later drawn limits against, post-migration). I go against the grain that has been established for my peers, many of whom are housewives. I do kickboxing. I have a high (no longer repressed) sex drive. And so on.

Undoing identity, undoing fascism

The primitive components of our brains are preoccupied with setting invisible boundaries that are defined by social inclusion or exclusion is .   Nationalism, sexism, racism and all other forms of social identity rely on this primeval mechanism of division and exclusion.

We can’t directly fight these aspects of our thinking, since they are part of our way of structuring the social realm. This part includes certain members socially by exclusion and scapegoating.  “Projective identification” creates negative identities  by scapegoating, whereby those who are perceived to be outsiders of the group are made out to represent the kinds of qualities the group doesn’t want to own as part of its identity.

Fear and pride predominate at this level of consciousness.

  Identity politics, which attempts to make us address our “privilege” has  failed on every level.   It has only led to infighting within the left, which has created a gigantic gap for those who are better organized on the right to perpetuate their agendas.  This they have done ever since the eighties, so that American society is effectively dominated by an extreme right-wing agenda.

Leftist identity politics is just like its right-wing counterpart.  It is wrong-headed because we cannot attack a part of our own humanity without failing.  It is better to understand the workings of the   primitive brain and use our knowledge to become more fully human, and not fight it as snooty moralistic ascetics.

Few people are aware that our brains create basic boundary divisions at an unconscious level.  More specifically, most people take the divisions they meet in the world as natural and logical.   Ethical groups all have essential qualities.   Zionists are crazed and wrong and Palestinians are noble.   That’s just how they seem to our naked eye.  Or, vice versa:   school teachers are leaching off our system and business men are here to help.  That, too, is visible to the naked eye, if one is brought up with the “right” forms of conditioning — that is if one has a pure, religious heart and fears the economic bust.

Just as being aware that the sun rises in the morning is not the same as commanding it to rise, being aware how the mind creates divisions does not mean that one applauds them.

For instance, much has been suggested, in the past, that Georges Bataille, who engaged with the psychology of fascism and understood the psychological states involved in it, must necessarily be a “left fascist” himself.   After all, why study something, unless one in fact is the object one is studying?   If one is not lifting up the sun with one’s eyelids, why claim that the sun actually exists?

I have Michael Richardson to thank for pointing me to Georges Bataille’s shamanism, at least in the sense that Richardson conceives that Bataille’s emphasis on “facing death” was shamanistic and that it was Bataille’s intent to cure himself via this method.

Another trope of shamanism is boundary crossing:

[S]hamans are men in some cultures, either men or women in others, and biologically male transvestites in still others. Some Inuit cultures are especially well-known for their association of shamanism with cross-dressing. If we wish to think about this in terms of symbolic classification, it seems quite logical that crossing one symbolic boundary, that between the sexes, should be made to “stand for” another symbolic boundary-crossing, the bridging of the gap between humans and the supernatural. [David Hicks, quoted by University of Waterloo]

Whereas I’ve heard it mentioned, in a class at university, that Georges Bataille engaged in cross-dressing, to learn about the other side of consciousness he was repressing, I have been unable to trace any written references to this effect.   That is to my regret, for it makes entirely logical sense that Bataille would have engaged in this kind of experience, given his other shamanistic proclivities (documented by me elsewhere).

Dambudzo Marechera, whose writing I’ve also pointed out as being shamanistic, was a  quintessential boundary crosser:

Hell is crossing the railway line

In dark mood on a dark night

This railway line would have been between differently segregated parts of town, in racially segregated Rhodesia.

Crossing boundaries gives us access to experiences we have earlier avoided, but without being aware of our avoidance thanks to the operation of the primitive parts of our human brains.

Shamanistic crossings thus undo the boundary-making that our lizard brains have formulated.   Transgression breaks through the code of primitive thinking, and expands our minds.

There’s nothing necessarily primitive about breaking down primitive unconscious processes, even though the means themselves may seem strange and dangerous to us.   “Watch out!” Primitive lizard brain warns us.  “Boundaries of identity are there to preserve you.  Breaking them down will be dangerous to your health!”

Still, the shaman must be master of the lower mind: This isn’t fascism,  this is the denial of fascism; its undoing.

Paradox of the psyche: at sea

A shaman is one whose life has been ‘shipwrecked’.  The victim cast to sea, only to sink to the depths and find hidden treasure.  Who would believe in this treasure, or that the meaning of the shipwreck could have turned out to be something positive? It is this paradox that we are dealing with, for instance in terms of the productive power of Zimbabwean author, Dambudzo Marechera, who was a contemporary shaman, by necessity, and not by conscious choice.

There results a self that is somewhat of a tragedian, which laments the original sense of self and its feelings of security aboard a boat with definite direction and an already furnished life-purpose, but beside that self  is another “self” that has somehow triumphed, not despite of – but because of – the chaos. This is the doubling of the self that we constantly meet within Marechera’s work. The fact that the ‘tragedy’ of one’s life produced unexpected benefits is harder to speak of in direct, everyday language, since it goes against the grain of rational expectations. This knowledge pertains to the ‘shamanic” aspect of the self, which gives the subject access to a level of reality that is generally denied by those who are uncomfortable with being “wrecked” out of one’s wounds.

N.B.  Nietzsche  experienced traumatic awakenings when his father died suddenly, an event depicted by the image of the howling dog in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  He had earlier experienced such when his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was poorly received, and when he succumbed to extreme illness and had to quit his professorial position. All these led to a sinking more deeply into the unconscious mind and resulted in aphilosophical deepening of his ideas.

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.



Nietzsche’s inclination to shamanism doesn’t go as deeply as Marechera’s does into the origins of the consciousness; because he was afraid that going into such depths would lead to the kind of truth that was actually destructive of consciousness. Too much knowledge would tear the veils from our eyes, and be all too likely to show the base and unappealing aspects of human existence. Such knowledge would make us give up and fail to aspire to make cultural progress (since such progress requires a limiting of consciousness and a natural measure of self-deception). Thus Nietzsche’s “shamanism” is reflexively self-limited. Traditionally, however, shamanism is not limited by such philosophical caution. One goes to the bottom of one’s being and is either destroyed by it (remaining in madness) or one ‘recovers’ to a healthier state than one was in before descending towards the temporarily regressive state (successful recovery from it implying ‘shamanic initiation’).

In regards to shamanistic ideas, overall it seems that Nietzsche was not recommending shamanic initiation for others in the active sense, so much as anticipating a period of cultural upheaval, during which time the “higher men” (intellectuals, artists, philosophers and those whose appreciation for culture were a mark of physiological sensitivity) would become shamanised (pushed towards a temporary mode of regressivity) due to catastrophic change. It is likely that Nietzsche has experiences this “shamanic initiation” himself, and wanted to prepare the ground for others, whom he anticipated experiencing it. He wanted to make sure the outcome of this inevitable crisis was positive for those whom he favoured and identified with – “the higher men”. They were to become stronger as a result of encountering the tremendous upheaval of cultural change.

Bataille takes up Nietzsche’s philosophical baton by using shamanistic initiation as part of his philosophy. However, Bataille writes half a century later (1897 – 1962), after the catastrophic changes that Nietzsche had anticipated had already occurred. Whereas Nietzsche writes for “aristocrats” of the spirit, who were still partly immersed in much of the culture that Nietzsche considered worth preserving, Bataille writes for a society that has lost its aristocratic spirit. His contemporaries are no longer the rulers of society, even symbolically, but are the “mass men” reduced to wage slavery. Bataille wants to create a shamanic awakening in just those sorts of people, since they are the people whose spirits define his day and age – the democratic masses (and proletarians), just as Nietzsche had predicted. The kind of initiation he recommends for them may be well suited to their barbaric consciousness. In any case, his ideas of shamanic initiation are more extreme, and related to outright revolution.

Both Nietzsche and Bataille show us that shamanistic initiation can be easily related to a political agenda to either managing and directing (Nietzsche) or causing (Bataille) social change. That is because, as Nietzsche correctly points out, a descent into the depths of consciousness (the epistemological benefit that sometimes accrues through temporary regression) leads to deeper self-knowledge, which can either damage us irreparably, or change us for the better. I wish to suggest that such shamanic knowledge is by no means illusory, unless we are to believe that such high calibre intellects as those of Nietzsche and Bataille were firing blanks.

the starry final night of shamanism

Another aspect of shamanism that I am now encountering as a result of putting a lot of facts together is that cliche of a bright flame burning out sooner. As I write this it is without a trace of pleasure. Shamans are in danger of burning out.

Perhaps a shaman, as I have understood this animal, is nothing other than a master of intra-subjectivity. Knowing the structure of the psyche like he knows his own hand, this intra-subjective manipulator conjures it up so that he may see the world in the way that lends it its brightest appearance of vitality. He seduces parts of his mind to corroborate this overall vision, she erases parts that cause her to reflect only on perpetual drudgery, he causes others to see what he sees too, and so, she causes the spiritual rain to come to water others’ lives when they’ve been stuck in drudgery for far too long.

But the shaman, as I have come to understand her, pays, quite normatively, a high price for this. For all of the effort of directing flows and energies, first inwardly, and then out to the world, will use up psychic energy, until there is none left. And once this happens, that which the shaman trades in (knowledge of the pattern of psychical energies) and that which she seeks to use her own resources to redirect (the psychical energies that organise society) will no longer be able to be managed any more. At this point, the shaman’s life will be over. Time to hug a horse in Turin, or sit desolately on a park bench in Harare wondering who one is.

This seems to be the life pattern of the contemporary shaman, who burns out quickly in the face of the systematic organisational energies of Modernity.

At the point when this happens, when the flame burns itself out, and where the inwards resources implode, the enemies that one had fought against one’s whole life start to close in. Thus in Nietzsche’s case, his mother and his sister moved in to take care of his living carcass. In the case of Marechera’s Mugabe’s cronies moved in against him, in his weakened state, to have their feast. And Nietzsche’s shamanistic record became, under his sister’s control, a fascist monogram. And Marechera’s oeuvre was seized upon by those living normotic bureaucratic lives to prove that he knew nothing about politics.

Such is the condition of the shaman when he draws the last flame out of his body, and those ridden with Thanatos hurry to close in.

Nietzsche, Bataille, Marechera — comparing shamanisms

The immense task of a contemporary shaman is to use all means available to discover how to survive a huge historical crisis that has ended up wounding his or her psyche. A modern shaman is generally one who has lived through sudden historical changes. The wounding of these changes compels deep and thorough investigation into the world as well as into the structure of one’s psyche. The urgency and personal nature of this quest ultimately produces its fruit: profound insight into the nature of reality as well as access to means creative means of self-expression that are not available to those who haven’t had to look so deeply.
A shaman is a wild person and so a socially marginal one – although not by virtue of his or her original nature, but based on a return to Nature, through shamanistic initiation. He is not civilised, in the narrow sense by which Nature and Civilisation are seen to be at odds. Rather, he uses knowledge of Nature in order to enhance and prolong his own life, and to endure Civilisation. Thus one can compare Nietzsche’s and Bataille’s shamanism, as imparting very different strategies for shamanistic survival, on the basis of knowledge that has been obtained more or less in shamanistic ways (that is, via an ecstatic experience).

Looking at it in this way, Nietzsche took his shamanism towards patriarchy and towards master race domination, which Bataille’s approach managed to correct — but not in time to save Nietzsche’s reputation. Survival of a shaman is based upon the ability to innovate a solution to existential dilemmas as they present themselves. The paradigm that Nietzsche chose — that of transcendence — gave him fewer options for creative innovation in solving life’s problems as compared to the one opted for by Bataille.

To transcend the body is to risk social and psychological rigidity, as one departs further and further from the source of psychological nurturing. Aiming to enhance one’s feeling of power (equated with a sense of intoxication) was an alternative means by which Nietzsche expected to gain a sense of revivification for his mind and body. Yet to descend into the body — as Bataille did — was to descend into this base, and to be nurtured by the very source of Being, itself.

Marechera’s shamanic solution was to perpetuate his inwards survival in a way very similar to that of Bataille, in opting for immanence rather than for transcendence as a method to draw in vitality. It was a risk, but a calculated one — since the dregs of society provide more exposure to the raw substance of immediate reality than do those who live aloof, respectable, and above the thronging crowds. His capacity to live homeless, on the streets, was certainly reflective of his capacity for shamanic innovation.

He had the capacity to dissociate, if need be, and the well developed inner self knowledge that would enable him to know best how to distract himself with entertaining stories. Yet to live in such objectively desperate circumstances for too long would deplete even an experienced shaman’s inner resources. Thus the practical limits of everyday life represent a realistic limit to the fundamental shamanic principle of trying to influence reality to the point that it bends to one’s requirements.

Nietzsche had already gone too far in trying to perpetuate his own survival when he tried to develop a system of gender relations that would have robbed women of their agency. He was not able to perceive that this approach no longer was in line with his original principle of transcendence, but represented a descent towards a pre-Oedipal (very early childhood) type of arrangement of male symbiotic union with women, as in the psychological situation of the mother and child.

To make women into symbiotic “part objects” for the sake of masculine supremacy — which would have been the consequence of his approach, when generalised socially and politically — would have compromised the shamanic masculinity, by making of it a kind of childishness and dependency. For the pre-Oedipal structure of relationship, whereby one is nurtured and the other gives the breast, is a quintessential example of extreme immanence.

Far better to aim for immanence and nurturing to begin with, as Marechera and Bataille actually did. At least each of them were shaman enough not to remain at this level, but to utilise their experiences of immanence in order to develop their creativity and schemes of thought.

Cognitive dualism and its actual uses

Marechera’s body of work enables us to locate ourselves in the universe on the basis of a shamanistic metaphysics. It is the revelation of this ontology of this shamanistic metaphysics that enables us to understand not only what it means to live a human life, but to make the best use of our lives so as no to waste them. The shaman uses his imagination to travel into other spheres of being, which can be called ‘nonordinary reality”. The exploitation of the contents of the psyche undergoing shifts of consciousness – (shifts that are sometimes but not always facilitated by taking of drugs) – enables one such as Marechera to simply know more than those who do not facilitate shifts in their consciousness for the purpose of investigating what it means to be human and to be alive.

The shaman travels “in spirit” to the past and the to the future, and in psychological terms, this means to travel back to infancy and to the womb, as well as travelling towards the possible future of humanity and towards the inevitability of death. Thus Marechera’s “Cassandra complex” relates to his ability to read political events in a much more subtle mode than most of us are psychologically attuned to. The shaman also travels to the heights and the depths of human experience in order to map these in his texts – he travels to the heights of human ecstasy and to the depths of human despair. Thus he traverses, in varies ways, the four directions of the Axis Mundi, and does so “as spirit” – which is to say, via flights of the imagination, in search of self-knowledge.

Marechera’s writing is shamanistic in all of this. Yet it is also shamanistic in terms of the way traditional shamans attempted to use their knowledge of the “spirit world” or the realms of “nonordinary reality” in order to try to change their societies for the better. A shaman uses his knowledge of human potential – which he has gained by mapping the psyche during his shamanic voyages – in order to set a new agenda for a new kind of society. He also taps into the power of existing political and social trends, in order to turn them towards his own ends, such as to heal, restore and improve existing societies. Utopian and restorative modes of through both coincide and overlap in a shamanistic discourse, depending on the level of consciousness that the writer-shaman has accessed during a particular journey of the imagination. The shaman, however, must always return from his disembodied journeys, to bring back his knowledge for the real world, and thus he is positioned, by this logic that necessitates return to concrete reality and to everyday existence, as someone who is bound to use his knowledge practically in the world.

Shamanism is thus a form of cognitive dualism, which makes use of a conceptual framework of ontological dualism (the idea that we are two things – body and spirit) in order to enhance humanity’s ontological knowledge – that is, its knowledge of itself: where it has come from, where it is going, its possibilities for experiencing highs and lows. In seeking to discover the outer boundaries or limits of possible human experience, shamanism projects humanity beyond the limits of the spheres of human experience and knowledge that have been accumulated to date. It can be viewed theoretically as a mode of speculative thinking (that is, a mode of spirit, unbound by limits of time and space) that, however, ultimately returns to a grounded reality by virtue of the ontologically situated nature of the body in its historical and political context of ordinary, linear time. One might view shamanism, as Nietzsche has done concerning his own writing (which is arguably shamanistic) as a “tragic” discourse, since a shaman always seems to go beyond his time in terms of knowledge and depth of character, and thus he becomes the victim of his time and place, which subsumes him physically without usually understanding the knowledge that he wishes to impart.

As a shaman who could anticipate the future, Marechera was “ahead of his time”, and so it is not surprising that he met an early demise as a victim of his times. His work leaves a lasting intellectual legacy of insight into the ontological structures of identity – not just as it is constructed under Colonialism, but in terms of the way in which those dominant and submissive identities are generated under those systems of domination that we encounter as part of our everyday lives. Such is the very broad scope of Marechera’s oeuvre, which makes him more than just a “Zimbabwean writer”. He wrote as much in relation to the human spirit and its capacity for self-knowledge as he wrote concerning Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans and their particular needs during this time and place in history.

the shamanic logic of "burning in the rain"

That which is shamanic about the short story, Burning in the Rain is, first and foremost, the way that identity is understood. As I have taken pains to mention in the introductory chapter, shamanic knowledge is not strictly speaking “epistemological” (paradoxically, of course).

That is, it is not knowledge in the conventional sense that we understand knowledge. Rather, shamanic knowledge is ontological. This means that when it comes to understanding identity from a shamanic point of view, one will not understand it according to conventional systems of knowledge, not even according to according to one that is as informative and politically and historically aware as that provided by the archaeological approach to knowledge about social identities furnished by Michel Foucault. Marechera’s writing is not postmodernist, but rather deeply psychological. His understanding of how the black identity comes into being is based – shamanically – on personal experience, and is related, also shamanically, by means of a doubling of the self.

The literary doubling – and even tripling – of the self, as per the literary aesthetics of Edgar Allen Poe, is not quite what I am referring to here. Rather, I am intent upon conveying my recognition as a reader of the intense self-knowledge that the author expresses concerning the way that social and political forces interpellate an as yet unformed psyche, so that the self becomes party to the needs of various Ideological State Apparati, by adopting an identity that fits in with politically determined values and systems put in place before the individual being affected by them was free to make choices.

Thus it is the unusual self-awareness of the writer than enables him to describe the ontological deformations of selfhood that were the only ones available to him as a young man growing up in colonial Rhodesia, in the process of “coming of age”. The ontological aspects of the story reveal themselves to us in the way the young man’s path of development is sabotaged rather than facilitated by the options available to him within colonial Rhodesia. The psychical wholeness that he had previously experienced in synchronisation with nature is confronted by a treacherous two-pronged fork in his path, which could lead to acceptance of the status of being an ape, or a false white aristocratic demeanour and consciousness. Alternatively to these paths, however, is the shamanic path, the way of which is woven throughout the storyline as contradictory to the troubles described in the”realist” version of the story and as a redemptive narrative.

The shamanic narrative involves the idea of a “manfish” who can dive deeply into the subconscious, as a result of facing his fears (and in this significant sense, facing death, as well). Another of Marechera’s short stories tells us that a “manfish” is a drowned man, whose spirit has turned into a fish, and is a danger to children who want to swim at the place of drowning. A shaman is likewise someone’s whose continuity life has been interrupted by an encounter with death. In a sense, their old life has “drowned” and they are now living on borrowed time. Yet, for all this, the access that such a shamanic individual has to this borrowed time is redemptive – for it implies a continuity of life beyond a point that life should logically be considered to continue: A drowned man does not, conventionally, live on, not even as a “manfish”. So the “manfish” – or rather, imaginative power – redeems the situation that the author finds himself in, which is dire.

One looks to Lacan as well as to the post-Kleinians, to understand how a mirror may “interpellate” a person into having an identity that they have not chosen. “The mirror, I suppose, was at the heart of it.” That is how the story begins. The “mirror stage” implies seeing oneself as a whole person for the first time, rather than as experiential chaos and multiplicity. One can see it as implying the beginning of self-consciousness, a point of transcending political unconsciousness and a dependency on a state of nature (represented in Kleinian theory as “the mother”), towards arriving at an awareness of one’s separate personhood. (The question of identity cannot be far behind.) In some parts of Africa, one may arrive at this crisis point of identity particularly late, due to a lack of efficiency in systems that would integrate one into the processes of conforming to the Ideological State Apparati much earlier. (A lack of industrial technology may be to blame.)

Marechera’s shamanic awareness is implicitly postcolonial — since his understanding reveals that he is aware that what has the power to interpellate him into the state of having an adult identity is an alien power. To put it plainly: the options available to him, if he wants to take up a role in adulthood, are all predefined by colonial power structures. This is why it seems to him that a natural life, in which he “had been happy, unbearably happy, as a child” (p 85) is experienced as suddenly being subjected to alien spiritual powers. The author, in his profound awareness of what was at stake at that period of his life, can take a certain distance from his earlier experiences, since the shamanic endowment of “borrowed time” has earned this for him. “But time had rubbed pepper into his eyes and the stinging of it had maddened it out of him. The mirror said it all and in it he knew his kinsman; the ape, lumbering awkwardly into his intimacy.” ( p85.) The tone is tragi-comic.

The “ape” is the colonial concept of the black man. The writer is describing his dawning of consciousness as to what it means to come of age in a political system that has reserved a particularly lowly place for you because of your colour. The alien nature of this consciousness – alien because it is colonial – is represented by the author’s representation of this consciousness as interrupting his otherwise normative and happy life in an occult (unnatural) fashion, which is represented by the mirror because of its capacity to double and even possibly even distort existing reality (as per the term, “smoke and mirrors”). The mirror reveals one to oneself objectively, but not if “objective reality”—that is, the formal ideology of the dominant political order – is already invested in distortions.

Finally it should be said that Marechera’s short story involves a redemptive narrative: Although the intervention of the “ape in the mirror” (representing the intervention of madness due to the need to make an impossible choice) leads to disruption and a sense of violence in the relationship between the girl, Margaret, and the man who wants to impress her with his adult identity, in a parallel shamanic sense, all is already redeemed. “At the head of the stream; that’s where they had, with great violence, fused into one.” ( p 84). So, even before the story descends into the inevitable chaos, in recognition of the protagonist’s inevitable madness, the form and structure of the narrative has already been redeemed by the actions of the “manfish” and the concomitant powers of his imagination.

Marechera and the psychology of shamanism

My particular intellectual background and experiences have made it fairly easy for me to find shamanistic elements within Marechera’s work. The other reason for my discovering these is that these elements were already in Marechera’s work, waiting to be analysed and discovered – if not be me, then by somebody else like myself, for I am sure that I cannot be alone in having the kind of background and ideas which would permit me to evolve towards a shamanic reading of Marechera.

Marechera himself may not have known the full extent to which he was shamanic in his way of writing and way of approaching the world. If one were a practitioner of a specific religion in the traditional sense, it would be necessary, of course, to know that this is what one was. Such self-recognition would hardly be so necessary if shamanism were rather a phenomenon based upon the neurological structures of the mind – as I am suggesting, in line with the intensive theoretical research of Michael Winkelman, that it in fact is. Shamanism is the intuitive discovery that destruction of parts of the self (including and above all, one’s self concept) need not spell the end of the road for one’s processes of life, but is rather the beginning of new forms of life and self-identity, which can transcend in their perfection and intensity earlier ways of thinking and existing.

Shamanism is the creative and regenerating life force that recasts those accidents of fate that would have led simply to personal destruction into a sense that one has access to something better; something more. It is the neurological structures of the mind that help the kind of healing that results, and it is the psychological experience of this healing that causes the one who had become inadvertently ‘shamanised’ to associate experiences of a partial ‘death’ and destruction of earlier self concepts with an intrinsic healing power within life itself.

This is by no means to imply that the shaman fully forgets the traumas of his or her past, or that he overcomes his sense of tragedy. Quite the opposite is the case.

Rather, a ‘shamanic initiation’ is an induction into psychological trauma, that results acknowledging ones’ mortality. From the point of view of one who may have been brought up within a system of monotheistic religion, it involves a radical destruction of the sensibility that there’s a God “up there” who will intervene on ones’ behalf. Rather, gods and the sense of the Good lose their positions on a pedestal above humanity, so that the sense of what is sacred is recast, neurologically, as being much more proximate to the human being and his or her everyday experiences.

Similarly – and this goes to the ‘bittersweet’ aspect of shamanism – death itself also draws nearer to the one who has been ‘shamanised’, and remains in proximity, as a constant reminder of human mortality. It is as if conventional ego defences, that would cause the subject to constantly deny his or her own mortality had been severely weakened by the traumatic process of ‘shamanic intitiation’. The initiate from now on has more self-knowledge, and more knowledge of the structures of human reality – but only at a cost.

In overall terms the cost is perhaps worth it. One has to, I suspect, be a bit ghoulish to say so – yet, in all honesty, one feasts upon the bones of the saints (both in literary and political terms, and in terms of spiritual self nourishment). Marechera’s writing embodies a state of human activity – the state of being thoroughly neurologically active – that one rarely sees in any written work. The normal developmental processes that produce the ‘good citizen’ and the ‘mature adult’, also lead to an outcome that is relatively static.

The following is the position of orthodox psychoanalysis (although it is not often recognised that this is its stance, due to the tremendous power of conventional ego defences, in protecting us from developing knowledge about ourselves – in the end, knowledge about our mortality.) Psychoanalysis points to ‘normative’ processes of development that are also deemed to be normative in their traumatic nature, which can extract much of the life-force from a human being. (See Freud’s reference to the woman of 30 years.) Shamans, by contrast, are those who have made the happy discovery that there is life on the other side of the rational constructions (and rationalizing limitations) of ego.

In the case of a shaman-initiate, death has become a very well-known enemy indeed. And having become so well-known, death may be bargained with, and persuaded to release more of one’s life force. A shaman is one who keeps his friends close and his enemy – death – even closer. It is through negotiating with death that one can persuade superego – that would need one to become increasingly more psychologically static – to allow one to expand. One faces down death and thus takes life force – (that which Nietzsche refers to as ‘plasticity’) – back from him. A shaman is a type who has discovered that there are benefits in engaging with the forces of destruction. Needless to say: despite his proclaimed intentions, he performs his mediation role for others more than himself, for the shamanistic role is inevitably sacrificial.

Marechera’s open-ended universe

If Freudian psychology teaches us anything about the world, it is that patriarchal value systems go hand in hand with the sense that everything already has a predefined meaning and purpose. That the Earth was the centre of the Universe was the prime article of faith when the patriarchal system was at its greatest, mystical heights. The medieval (and earlier) era of church domination brought us the fantasy of a Universe ordered by a supreme being who kept everything within its proper sphere, which was thought to be determined by the thing’s ascribed ‘essential nature’. The boundary limits of reality were determined theoretically by the mind of God the Father. Practical reality was limited, in turn, by the head of the extended family household — the human father, who laid down the law concerning not only what was allowed, but what was to be considered to be knowable. For, what was outside the sphere of what was known by the household father was not considered to be worth knowing, if the father was to hold his position as the supreme human knower — the one most in touch with the mind of God.

Despite cultural and historical claims regarding the omniscience and omnipotence of the Christian deity (or, indeed, with regard to any patriarchal deity), the force of such claims did not lead to a veneration of knowledge as a direct link to the sacred. Rather, the claims concerning the attributes of God the Father placed a heavy weight of fear upon the population that was gripped by the fantasy. As Nietzsche teaches us in Genealogy of Morals, a feeling of indebtedness to a power greater than oneself produces guilt. From Freud’s teachings, we can likewise deduce that introjection of the image of an all-powerful father figure (God) would produce a superego of proportions that would go beyond the kind of superego generated by the theoretically “normal” resolution of the Oedipus complex in relation to the laws laid down by one’s human father. The overall effect of succumbing to belief in God the Father, is thus a superego that binds the universe shut in such a way that obedience to “law” rather than search for knowledge becomes the guiding principle of life. This social and psychological limitation to stay within the boundaries of “the law of the father” and not to question it, or go outside of it (in order to explore further) was what bound the universe into a limited, secure, and theoretically already-known sphere of human relations — a bubble of meaningfulness securely pinned-closed by God-the-Father clasping it all together, circumscribing the upper limits of the mass fantasy.

What would it be like if the fantasy of that-which-is sacred came to Earth — not as transcendence (which is mere suggestiveness of an idea), but as integral, experienced reality? The loss of a father at an early age might trigger such an explosion of knowledge of the sacred, as “God” becomes immanence again, and all things take on an animistic hue (imbued of the sacred). Then the Universe would continue to expand in an unbound way, its meanings and purposes stretching out to limits that God-the-Father can no longer put a lid on. The sense of being safely ensconced within a limited, but already-known Universe would be all gone. Death would take a step closer to the observing and questioning subject — whose existence is no longer metaphysically assured. (One would have to get to know death intimately, and to live along with it, as part of life.) Yet life itself, and eros and the sacred would also come crowding in. In all, the fantasy that concerns the meaning of life would become more complex.

This is the nature of the shaman’s world — and Marechera’s:

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 weird 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. [ p 123 Mindblast].

Marechera’s little Pattison

It is not just that the British critic  Pattison and the African writer Marechera are not in the same intellectual league at all, that irks me most about P’s critique of M. Rather, it is that they are not in the same psychological league. It is clear from P’s points of reference — the importance he attaches to civility at all costs, to propriety in terms of giving proper lip-service to one’s parents, and to never plumping up ones resume by claiming that one was doing something for a reason other than the one you really had — that P’s life has been relatively easy, and free of the kinds of storm clouds that could produce real moral dilemmas.

It is Pattison’s vulgar tendency to posture that one proves one’s sanity by abject conformity to the unexamined mores that P, himself, holds dear, that really proves that P and M are not in the same moral league either. M had empathy for those experiencing hard times — and was honest about those situations where his instincts drew a line, cautioning him against any further engagement. Pattison goes in entirely another direction for he demands a purer degree of social compliance from those whom he has hardly known. It seems that the issue of holding onto one’s sanity by unlikely means — by avoiding situations that unsettle it, for instance — does not satisfy P at all. He does not seem to be able to tolerate the fact that somebody who would have been driven crazy by his circumstances found a way to survive them, despite socially systemic pressures that would have floored a poorer mind (or, even more commonly, driven the poorer mind into dull resignation, an unconscious commitment to slavery of the spirit). No. Pattison wants the purest form of social compliance there is — the kind of compliance that takes a job at the Ministry of Information and is so simple of heart and mind that this suffices as life, driving the embattled subject into a deeper and pervasive madness that is purer in its form for being abject, absolute and finally irrevocable.

Pattison hankers for the purest kind of madness that is available to raw humanity. He presses in for his reward —  to bring into abject conformity every aspect of the wild human spirit.

Marechera’s The Alley


Object relations psychoanalysis teaches us that as humans we keep many of the intra-psychological devices concerned with ego self-regulation, from our early childhood. As adults we defend our place within society by projecting, for instance, the qualities of masterliness upwards within a hierarchy, so as if to perceive our social context as if our own superior qualities were emanating from elsewhere, from those in the strata of social hierarchy above us. (Menzies Lyth). Likewise, to adapt to the logic of a pre-existing social hierarchy, we may be inclined to project onto those in the social strata below us our negative psychological qualities, being those we find less desirable in ourselves – in the terms of Menzies Lyth, we project downwards our incompetence.

To project upwards or downwards our emotional needs can end up with us losing touch with those particular elements. Along with the infantile but nonetheless adaptive tactic of projection, is the splitting of the self, so that parts of the self are acknowledged as being “really me”, because others are dissociated from, as being “other”.  The loss of parts of oneself – whether that be in the form of the sense of ones competency or the sense of one’s human fallibility (as the loss of the sense of this is also a loss in terms of self-understanding) comes under the contemporary or “new age” shamanistic paradigm as “soul loss”. The restoration of the “soul” – that is, of one’s true self, existing in a form that isn’t compromised by social and political necessities – is the key to shamanistic healing. It is not just the person who is restored and made whole by virtue of “soul retrieval” [term: Ingerman]. Society as a whole needs restoration from the states produced by primeval splitting, to move from stress-related (pathological) modes of coping towards a healthier model of relating within the social whole.

“The Alley” is a play that deals with this issue of societal and personal healing, through an encounter with the split-off aspects of the self. The play examines the traumatic legacy of post-war Zimbabwe (post the second Chimurenga that ended in 1980). Marechera is keen to show how the dissociation from the past (and from aspects of one’s self), in post war Zimbabwe, leads to a mode of forgetfulness that is the forgetting of the self. In such a condition, one goes through life without the sense of who one really is, or how one got there. One needs to face the trauma of the past to affect “soul retrieval” – that is, in order to become who one is, again.

In “The Alley”, a black and white tramp struggle with their tendencies to forget, as they fraternize in the streets of Harare, unable to recognise the cause of their demise. They had both fought in the war of liberation on opposite sides, and they had both had the privileged status of career lawyers, before making their descent into the grey mists of fugue and loss of social status, entailed in living the hobo lifestyle. Marechera borrows from Beckett – in particular from “Waiting for Godot” – in his idea of exploring the life of tramps through an aesthetic and conceptual lens of forgetfulness. His approach involves more of a psychological and political study of post-war Zimbabwe, however, and not being concerned with an existential statement of the human condition, which is how Beckett has generally been read.

The complication that Marechera introduces in “The Alley” is the question of gender and how that impacts on how trauma and recovery are experienced. Whereas Beckett also subtly implies a gendered aspect to his play in naming one of his male tramps Estragon (which sounds like estrogen), Marechera takes the issue of gender further, in order to show that post-war trauma in his contemporary Zimbabwe of the eighties, had a distinctly gendered quality. His mode of writing is both slapstick – Cecil Rhodes is introduced as “Cecilia” – and tear-jerking. This tragicomic mode is designed to break down the current ego-defences of the audience, with their current stress-based and probably pathological adaptations to the social world. It is designed to guide us, through laughter and tears, to see the real tragedy of those whose lives and potential were sacrificed during the bush war. Only then, upon recognition of what was sacrificed and lost, can a real restoration of the soul begin to take place.

As is common in Marechera’s writing, the aesthetics of the play are based upon the tacit psychological understanding that when we’re under deep emotional stress, the qualities we attribute to others are really a part of ourselves, and not something entirely separate from us.  Just as we might be inclined to socially eschew the other for being black or of the wrong gender, so we are also socially invested in maintaining the normal state of affairs that keeps others at a hierarchical distance as the psychologically dissociated aspects of oneself. To be compelled to know the other, through tears and laughter, is to come to know the socially alienated aspects of one’s self – the aspects denied when one adapts to a social role, within what is normal in society: a social hierarchy.

Marechera’s work shows to us the link between psychological self-alienation and societies that are organised by political and social hierarchies. The cost we pay for the latter is in terms of the former. In terms of the patriarchal and socially conservative society that was post-war Zimbabwe (and as it still is to a very large degree), Marechera’s exploration of the gendered base of traumatic dissociation is very radical indeed. Marechera shows that Rhodesia, on the sides of both black and white cultures, has had a patriarchal history, and leaves a patriarchal legacy to those in the present. To fully heal, society has to face that which it has dissociated from – which is hidden behind “the wall” of consciousness, in the unconscious or semi-conscious parts of the mind. Marechera points out that where the black and white men fought each other like “dogs in heat” ( p 46) , redirecting their erotic impulses towards aggression, those who really paid the emotional cost of the war were women – specifically the daughter and sister of the black and white men (who are represented by the two tramps).

The traumatic spectre that hides behind the wall is the damage done by this excessive “sexual” self-indulgence of the bush war to the women whom the men had no doubt sworn to protect. Rhodes – the black tramp – has been given slightly greater authority by author in terms of the moral ground for fighting for his liberation. It is he who introduces his “other” – the white tramp, Robin – to the spectre of his sister, Cecilia, who was raped and murdered by the Rhodesian forces, and now abides behind “the wall” of consciousness.

RHODES: Your daughter, Judy, is right there with her. I can see them. They are kissing.

Robin’s daughter, in turns out, was also a victim of the war, raped and murdered by the black “comrades”. Only when the brick wall in the alley is struck, with determination to know what is behind it, does it give us these traumatic answers about the cause of the tramps’ pathologies. Surmises Rhodes to Robin, speaking again with a margin of greater authority than his colleague has the right to:

I used to suffer from world weariness, but the wall says that too was nothing. I cannot get away from you, though that’s the only thing I want from life, from the whole last ounce of the universe. You also want to get away, but like me, you can’t, and for the same reason. I am your wall, and you are my wall. And the game we tried during the war of mounting each other like dogs in severe heat has not yet been settled. ( p 46)

The way to healing for these men is to face the traumatic and dissociated feminine aspects of these men’s identities, which lies behind the wall of consciousness.

Scrapiron Blues 2


Mugabe insists ‘Zimbabwe is mine’
Friday, 19 December 2008 BBC NEWS


Mugabe: “I will never surrender”
President Robert Mugabe has said that “Zimbabwe is mine” and rejected calls from some African leaders to step down.

This chapter will look mainly at four pieces from the book of Marechera’s posthumously published works, compiled and edited by Flora Veit-Wild and published in 1992, five years after the author’s death. […plus more here about the general content of the book] In these works I will be examining, the author examines question of evil as the repressed Real in the Lacanian sense (via Zizek). Evil is imposed as political and social repression and expressed via narrative disruption and dismemberment of the narrative continuity. Its presence separates those marked by its effect, cordoning them off into their own worlds where they see and experience things differently from others, as those marked out for a special, esoteric kind of knowledge. We are in the company of  the wounded healers of society, who perceive the world magically.

The lens through which the question of social evil can be examined is in terms of a phrase that claims possession of its own social reality. “Zimbabwe is ours,” is just such a phrase, for it expresses a sense of seemless continuity between ‘what is me’ and what is mine.  The statement is patently untrue.

The Marxist complaint of the alienation of the worker from the product of her or his labour is grounded in a structural discontinuity between ‘what is me’ and what is mine, which robs life of its deeper meaning.

Migrants undergo a similar experience of alienation, as a baptism of evil, experienced as being separated from social and political environment of the nation by an inability to possess the new environment in any deeply felt and meaningful sense. The disruption of self that is experienced as a result of not being able to interpret the local or national order as “mine” can often lead to a sense of being set apart by fate, for a particular purpose. It is a subtle form of shamanistic initiation; as it produces the effect of “double vision”, spoken of by DuBois, for how others see you is never quite how you see yourself. This disruption of ones’ selfhood at the level of communication and a sense of efficacy is experienced in isolation, rather than publically, for it is the relative strength and certainty of the public discourse as hegemony that creates the recoil and alienation on the private level.


shamanism and its key point

the key point is the use of psychoactive drugs to discover a cosmology that would make us all connected to eachother, in particular via a sense of unity with Nature, as the prime source and origin of life. The insights gained through exploring this cosmology are useful. The sources of malaise can be ascertained, observed and come to terms with.

Also, at this level, the range of possibilities for life may be greater and more widely varied than those observable in everyday existence, thus a shamanic journey can lead not only to healing, but to creative solutions to life’s difficulties.

Shamanic experience could also free one from idées fixes through a baptism in new experiences which wash over and overwhelm the senses.

the thrill of living fast through history

One of those things I do not think I will ever be able to fully bring out in my assessments of the writer who is Marechera is the thrill of his life in terms of living through so much of history.

When the ever so posh Oxford scholars came in and found that he was trying to dry his clothes in his student room by hanging up lines and turning all the heaters on, and shutting windows, they had not idea that what they saw was somebody who had crossed whole eras of historical time very quickly.

The lines he put up to hang his clothes were just the first link he had to make between his early origins in a mud hut and the modern network of communications he would utilise to write his books.

Teaching the Children

It’s one thing to teach children how to conform to what society expects of them. This requirement to conform is represented as necessarily painful, although ultimately productive, in Lacan’s notion of castration. It is by this means that children leave the realm of Nature and enter into the realm of the Civilised social order.

How does Marechera’s views on teaching the children differ from this process outlined above? Clearly there is a great deal in terms of children’s “natures” that Marechera has no wish to refine, correct and adjust to the social order. In fact, his mode of writing to children is a form of teasing their minds and emotions, in a way that invites these young minds to reach out and explore their local environments for themselves. Marechera’s writing to children invites them to doubt the veracity and integrity of the adults and their worlds, and to adopt and independent and adventurous mode of being, perhaps with also using literature as an emotional window on the world.

How could a Zimbabwean child, who would almost certainly live much closer to animals and to nature than many a Western child would have the opportunity to do, be anything other than amused at a story which spoke of a cat sneezing, startling the mice, with the consequence that the cat’s whiskers shrunk in shame? ( p 220, Scrapiron Blues). The subtle injuction attending this segment from the Marecheran short story on “The Magic Cat” night be not to believe everything you hear. This tone of mocking hilarity also accompanies the following segment, which would be read differently by Zimbabwean adults than Zimbabwean children (although the children, too, would one day put two and two together about idealised and genteel world of the magic cat:

My Cat asked the soldier”Where is Heroes’ Acre?”The Soldier smiled and pointedMy cat loves the Eternal Flame.
The soldiers at Heroes’ Acre are notoriously taciturn. It would be hard to imagine them smiling and pointing, then, even for the pleasure of something as innocuous as a magic cat. And it is, notably, the author’s cat — rather than the author himself — who “loves the Eternal Flame”. The author’s subtle snubbing of the state socialist regime is readily apparent in this children’s short story he wrote in the early 80s. Already a few years after national liberation, it was apparent to the author that there were autocratic aspects to the regime — including keeping him in Zimbabwe when he wanted to leave. His own experiential knowledge of a hidden, and politically repressed reality, is conveyed through the foil of his cat.

There is present in this a peculiarly Zimbabwean flavour of humour, however. To take note of, and to surreptitiously remark upon the discrepancies one sees between lived reality and the officially contrived versions thereof, has traditionally been a mode of political and social commentary in Zimbabwe for a very long time.

Marechera’s children’s writing, which invites children to see the discrepancies between reality and purported reality, is therefore profoundly culturally Zimbabwean.
In Fuzzy Goo’s Guide (to the Earth), Marechera goes even further in his endeavours to safeguard children from the devices of “civilisation” employed by adults. He encourages them to doubt and fear a range of adult authorities — including the police, ambulance men who “rape you (girl or boy) if you are unconscious”, and the powerful members of the political inner circle known locally as the “chefs”. To instil an emotional tendency towards doubting one’s authorities is arguably a way of protecting the young from ideological subsumption into the political roles and models formed by their elders. Such protection is particularly pertinent in a society which is violent and/or exploitative. One must put a wedge between the adult world and the children’s world, in order to preserve the children by making them adopt a mode which is constructively “paranoid”. (see Isabel Menzies Lyth on “Constructive Paranoia”.) This mode of seeing is also related to the facility of the strong mind which – aware of its anxiety — overcomes a human tendency to revert to primitive psychological defences [as described by Menzies Lyth] in the face of overwhelming anxiety. “Paranoid means seeing all the things which big humans have been taught not to see.” ( p 241)
Marechera draws very much from his own experiences in his education of the children. His teachings, being experiential, invoke shamanistic wisdom — they are not abstract teachings, or those based upon transcendental principles. Rather, the teachings furnish the emotional and cognitive basis for living in an objectively dangerous world.
You know what I said about big people! They have a torture machine called drought which they bang on the heads of the little people: they say there is no food. Drought means no food for the little citizens. All the big chefs will be eating silly — but not for you. Especially if you are sick. ( p 243)
Marechera’s advice to children, as I have said, is to be independent as much as possible, and to seek to experience the world on their own terms, on pain of death:
So when you know you are growing up you must kill yourself before you become just another very boring blah. If you are a coward, then you must smoke ganga or get mean and drunk every day and night. It is usually better to run away from home. All you need is a rucksack and a small tent. If you stay in society and the big ones want to beat up the other society next door they will put you into the army and you will get your small finger and private parts blown up with bombs. It is very painful. If you stay in society, the big ones will make you stand in line in the streets and wave stupid flags and sing horrible national songs, and be kissed by the thick drunken lips of the biggest of the big human beings. They won’t let you pee when you want to but when they want you to. ( p 241)
The writer’s message to children is clear: If you do not want your lives totally controlled all the way down to every microscopic detail — including when you can pee — and if you want to escape the fate of beind reduced to both the ordinary and more extreme forms of misery that are the lot of adult human beings, you must take extreme action up to and including running away from home.
From Dambudzo Marechera’s passionately experiential and humorous point of view, the greatest danger that can come to children is that presented by adults and by their ideals of “civilisation”.

The Zimbabwean Children’s Liberation Festival

There was a bear in the garden
Playing piano wires in its teeth
A sparrow on the triangle echoed the burden;
The cat on violin clawed out its kin & kith.
Owl’s brassy eyes sleepily clashed like cymbals
While the rat in owl’s beak shrieked in soprano calls
Cricket & Cicada’ steel brush on silver drums
Dappled the scene with a jazzy farewell to arms.
Little Lulu pulled the pin of a gall she found
And BOOM! Lulu burst out of life into the bass drums.
Her mum on the trumpeters screamed & screamed all

While the bear in the Festival Garden
Clawed the piano wires in its jagged teeth.
Fatboy let loose a cello sound from his behind;
Violet the violincello sneezed into her mama’s skirts;
Little Farai squeezed Shona juices out of his brown eyes
And, with a flourish, burst into God Bless Africa.
“Bless you,” Fatboy murmured asweat with sweet

But little jeering faces leapt onto the sets
Holing Farai down, sang Baboon Go Home
And sneered at Fatboy for a kaffirlover.
Fatboy’s fists swung like windmills facing Dover
Meatball, his expat teacher, dragged all apart:
Tweaking into reluctant ears the art of nonracism.
BOOM! Lulu again burst out of life into the deep bass

The bear thumped a grim growl from the piano muzzle
Over his jaws.

“Ma, Shakespeare’s girlfriend was a nigger. Fatboy
Said so, “ said Peter the Pants.
“Ma, Othello’s wife was a white girl,. Fatboy said so,” said Violet the violincello.

“A nigger was an Emperor of Rome. Fatboy said so.”
“You don’t want us to know the United Nations or the
OAU. Fatboy said so.”

“Ma, are you a boer?” “That means I’m also a boer.”
“Did you really kill Farai’s parents at Sharpeville,
Chimoio & Nyadzonyia? Fatboy said you did.”
Fatboy’s parents are white like us. But he says you
jailed them for years and years. Why did you?”

“SHUT UP! These brats ask too many questions.”
“But teacher said to ask.”
“For that I’ll take him to task.”

Bootsie, The Ghetto Boy, chewed his lip.
His dusty buttocks showed through his khaki pants.
With paper & comb he played his soul, hoping for a tip.
His brown moth face, his brown moth wings all vibrant
Toward the spotlight, he played hoping for a tip.
In the background of Bootsie’s thin ghetto strains and

Grimfrown the Beat rested his chin on the great bass

And with hairy clawed fingers thrummed a slow judgment
BOOM! Lulu thundered out of life into God’s wrath.

“Fatboy says those who take the gap are cowards.”
“Fatboy says Smith and Walls should have been hanged.”
“Fatboy says reconciliation only works when justice is
seen to be done.

Otherwise all whites are lumped with the killers.”

Fatboy by the fountain fought down a great yawn.
The blistering sun sucked bitter sunlight from his fatty

Little Farai had his can-opener head stuck fast between the

BOOM BOOM Lulu detonated again and again.

Bootsie sang:

I got nothing to tell you
That’s not skin off my back.
I got every
little thing to hide
And win respect a mile wide.
But I don’t do nothing
for nobody
‘Cos nobody does nothing for me.

The cat, furious, screeched demented arrows at the
vanished moon.

Prefects like hyenas drooled and drew nearer.
The rat in teacher’s beak squealed expressionist poems.
Alice bleeding from the smashed looking glass bit her lip.
She thought the Zimbabwe Festival “very curious”.
Three staffroom typewriters chattered in tune
Thought Fatboy a future minister or bloated monster
Deemed Farai a prick and Lulu too fargone
And declared the Festival a resounding disaster.

take a walk in the mind of the negro

I am the television switched off in my eye
I look out see newsvendors television sets walking around
I am the books clamped shut in my brain
I think of all the clamped brains walking around
I burn them with iodine hear the screams through burst of teargas
Their weird ends hand around the meatgrinder’s means
Tins of MIND NHS solicit me in colleges libraries

I sit down to write it hear you cough disapprovingly
I read down to masturbate a little Mary Whitehouse scream
Let me scratch out the sense it rouses dense dictators
These Christian beings are lavatories full to the brim
I squat over them shit spasms of thwarted freedom
Dawn pulls up my trousers night’s dreams desert me
They send me to advice law centres my legal existence in uproar

I said take a walk through the mind of negro
Like everything human it’s not a pleasant sight
I cannot meet you there only in the grey area of the mindless
The one they quaintly call the anarchist cookbook
I prowl its street and bookshops find Hansard Old Bailey
Writ large on the careful grime of the seedy façade
I wipe my nose find myself in Buckingham Palace blunt and blue

The writer won’t meet you ‘in the mind of the negro’ because that isn’t really where he is. It’s just a social construct – as Lacan says, “I think where I am not”. In this instance, the thinking happens not at the level of the social construction of identity but in the unconscious feelings about this way of being structured in the world. The grey land of anarchist insurrection is really where he is – an aspect of the unconscious that he cannot really live within, since the dream is obliterated upon waking; upon being forced to face social reality.
Marechera also uses against the audience what he sees as the unconscious fears of white british people, concerning their idea of the oversexed nature of black people.