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.

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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.