Savagery, perversion, shamanism

From Lacan (but actually from Wikipedia):

—The pervert [is one who] disavows castration; he perceives that the mother lacks the phallus, and at the same time refuses toaccept the reality of this traumatic perception.

 Therefore, a “pervert” in Lacanian terms is clearly someone who may well be culturally Japanese, for he or she holds that  “nature” still has meaning, relevance and, indeed potency. Such “a pervert” (in my terms, a shaman) engages with that meaning and potency in nature in a shamanistic fashion, which is deemed “perverse” by the Judeo-Christian ideological establishment defined by Freud (Judaism) and Lacan (Catholicism). 

Judeo-Christianity, a distinctly Western way of structuring thought, opposes and pathologizes naturalistic sensibilities, whilst maintaining that “castration” ought to be accepted as defining sanity.


 Marechera sayeth:

To be able to read and write is […] only the first downward step towards the first circle where black fires rage inconsumably. Candide’s experience of the world is the nearest we can get to the series of cerebral shocks which await the savage who is earnestly in search of culture. ‘There is nothing here but illusion, and one calamity after another.’ The experience is not unlike that of one organism living on and at the expense of another. (p 33, The Black Insider).

What, though, is the “organism” that lives on at the expense of another, if not “civilisation” that lives on at the expense of our innocence and our naive “savagery”?

According to what I have just read this morning about Lacan:

Castration’ […] is the moment at which we become human beings, for the Law makes us ‘parle-etre’ or speaking beings. Language from then on structures our desires: language comprises the Symbolic Order. We figuratively must ‘be told’ what we feel and think through the big Other, the arbitrarily and socially-constructed matrix of words, which is the active functioning of the Symbolic Order.

Reading and writing are strong motifs of Civilisation and of being civilised. In European civilisation (such as the France of Lacan), “language” itself stands for the term ‘civilisation’ — probably because to speak is to give one’s obeisance to the social necessities of one’s existence as commanded by some complex dominating structure of power or ideological hegemony. In African societies, however, it is possible that “language” has some equivalence to nature, rather than being totally determined by the history of civilisation itself. For Marechera, then, it is not ‘language’ but reading and writing which contradict one’s natural state of being and put one in the outer circle of Dante’s Inferno.


 I read that Lacan considers that males are those whose desires are determined by seeking power through acquiring. Women are those whose desires are determined by seeking power through a mode of being.

Modes of being and acquiring are both features of lack — since coming to be civilised (and hence human) and coming to be castrated are the same thing, both caused by a sense of lack (which can be read as a deficiency in our emotional — and no doubt economic — independence as isolated, non-social organisms). Becoming civilised, then, does actually imply a calamity — castration! (that is — to be “civilised” one must accept one’s absolute dependency on others, paying the price that is required: that is, sucking up to dominant orders who promise to run things ‘in our best interests’). 

Lacan holds that society turns us into “men” or “women” depending on the exact manner of the boomeranging of our desires (which can go in only two possible directions when we are still children). What about the resolute savage, though? Is there not a third direction for our desires ?

If one is already born into a late form of civilisation, one could say desire boomerangs off the mother, due to her limitations to fulfil one’s every wish. Perhaps even if one is originatively savage (which is to say that one already lives beyond the limiting structures of the bourgeois nuclear family, which would restrict a child’s immediate options for being powerful to what would be approved by mummy and daddy), desire necessarily boomerangs off the mother to other sources of interest. Yet, the savage’s desire boomerangs on to the immediately fascinating aspects of the natural environment, which are imbued with animistic powers. 

The savage, henceforth, finds limitless fascination in the natural environment and with regard to the “adventures” it offers. It is as if the savage child exchanges one teat — a female human teat — for another. He or she finally embraces their true destiny — which is to emotionally feast on the abundant pleasures offered by the natural landscape. 

He will continue to face life with joyful abandon — unless inducted into reading and writing. These represent calamity as they stem from a European hegemony of culture, which (given that this represents “civilisation” itself) requires one to be castrated. 

Since the above is the normative dynamic of civilisation in relation to nature (the force of one necessarily castrates the pleasure of the other — only more so than perhaps thought, because the former is also a hegemony) — one wonders why, under any circumstances, “the savage” should be “earnestly in search of culture.” As I have said, the natural situation of the savage is definitively NOT one of lack — which should therefore preclude such seeking. 

Why is this savage “earnestly seeking” culture? — Perhaps because nature has already been taken away from him, in his particular instance. In any case, the more he seeks, the more he lets go of the possibility of returning to nature, and to its consolations. Thus he faces one calamity after the other, being aware of what he has left behind, but being unable to return to it — whilst falling more and more into the centre of hell in his miserable search for “culture”.



Repairing the broken glass of vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not postmodernism, but rather never far from politics

THE BLACK INSIDER. In it, ideas have a material force and are hence considered in a material way (language as water). The book also has a dualist construction in there being a conceptual parallel between the realm of the living and the dead. Thus a kind of spiritism is invoked in the reader’s imagination. The little corridors and rooms and dead-ends are the themes, sub-themes and stories contained in the novel.

The protagonist proposes that the book was written in his mind during three months in a Welsh prison as an illegal immigrant. The imagery and context of the book (emotionally and imagistically) is relatively flattened and intellectual in approach and style rather than being emotionally loaded.

Is the book mad?

It seems not to be. It comes across as almost a toning down of the author’s emotions — the less he is capable of roaming, the more intellectual he must necessarily become. (He does have a sexual fantasy or two, however, the details are skipped over — the tone of the book is repressed, urbane.)

But the context of the writing of the book, the context of the book is the corridors of the mind — the inward world that one has — after one has been locked up for one’s drapetomania (I mean his absconding from the social control of the university, to take up an independent life as a vagrant in Britain.)

The book has some slight Foucauldian resonances — the halls of culture, with some rooms arbitrarily bricked up with their skeletons mouldering inside — sounds like the historical cultural architecture that each generation inherits without its meaning from the generations before. Despite an emphasis on language and its determinism for our thinking processes, the book does not seem Derridean, since language, thinking and attitudes have a material (and hence political) force that is much more dire than sheer play.

Culturally, Marechera was African, and even when locked up to think alone, his images and ideas are grass-roots democratic and collectivist. He does not quite feel that we are the victims or products of a cultural apparatus to the degree that Foucault does. Nor does he accept the mind-body dualism that would lead to the conclusion that mental processes could lead us to a realm of pure play (Derrida). There is always something more deeply and materially political at play than this in Marechera’s writings.

He jokes about identity, and feels ambivalent about the freedom that has come to him through the removal of colonial control from Zimbabwe’s people. “The winds of change have cooled our porridge,” he says, nonchalantly. It is now possible for those who have been liberated to eat it.

The non-serious tone of the approach to national politics was part of a grass-roots participatory tradition in that part of Africa. On the part of the whites — who also had their oral history, news and reactions to it moved like a fire to communicate good or bad news. Nicknames for certain things also implied a degree of contention as to their value. But always with an ironic air

I just came from this site and, well, you can kind of see the sorts of consequences when we devolve into accepting a kind of écriture automatique but without the sense that we are producing something new: We are just replicating the forms of the cultural structures that have invaded us. And seemlessly too, for let there be no jarring historical factors involved but instead a gentle elision of meaning and reality as one state of being surpasses and replaces another.

Marechera’s writing in The Black Insider is not “postmodernism” (only, similar to Barthesian perceptions) because he perceives that “attitudes”, although seemingly empty and without foundation, nonetheless have real consequences. In this view he is more premodernist and engaged with actual material reality, rather than being modernist or postmodernist. But perhaps arguably there are all three strands of ideology in his novel.

I would say that the flattening of reality effect of the sort of writing in The Black Insider could be termed postmodern.

I am reluctant to term it thus, however, because I think that to do so would potentially mislead a reader into thinking that his intentions were to operate purely at a level of “play” — and whereas, I think this is certainly this element in his work, he seems ultimately drawn to the gravitational pull of realpolitik. He is not yet wholly subsumed by the modalities of theoretical projections (which is the condition I take to be the quintessential postmodern one).

What I see are elements of a pre-modernist (sense of adventurous direct relationship with an environment, without ideological mediation) creativity, combining with various modernist and postmodernist elements. But bearing in mind that Marechera did not emerge from a modernist system of culture, I do not see a great deal of point in postulating that it was his modernism that produced postmodernist shoots, or postmodernist recoiling of thought. He seems rather to have concocted a much more audacious (and insoluble) mix of postmodernist adventurism (eg. Robert louis stevenson) and Barthian cultural determinism.

But I think I’m taking Fredrick Jameson’s definition of postmodernism as the one that rings true — the cultural logic of late capitalism.

Lyotard’s one makes sense as a very abstract paradigm, but socially and historically (in a concrete sense) appears incoherent to me. Because even in very tribal contexts there will be those who are excluded for thinking differently. It happens in every context and the sheer ubiquity culturally excluded aspects from society renders the term of postmodernism, as describing such an effect, vague and obtuse.

Shaka Zulu was victimized by his tribe from an early age, because his father was dead and he was considered to have been in effect a bastard child. So was Shaka Zulu and his situation therefore postmodernist at this point?

And Shaka turned the situation around an became a sadistic abuser himself. And so we lose a sense of the cultural logic of late capitalism here, because the outsider does not remain solidified in his outsider position. But if he did (remain the masochist rather than becoming the sadist) wouldn’t he then be a quintessential postmodernist?

Another meaning of the attack on the Arts Faculty in TBI

Operation Quartz – Rhodesia 1980



Beyond the edge of all that’s conceivable there lise a hideous thing that would teach us to unwrap the bandage of cnynicism from our wounds and reveal the eyes so long — too, too long — bound by it. But there is nothing to be seen but a city ruined, a mind diseased, and paratroopers suddenly dropping in thousands out of the unmoving sky. ( p 107 TBI)


“The covert part of the plan – Operation Hectic – was to be carried out by the elite troops of the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS). ‘A’ Squadron of the SAS would assassinate Mugabe, while ‘B’ Squadron would take care of Vice-President Simon Muzenda and the 100-man contingent of ZANLA based in the Medical Arts Centre. ‘C’ Squadron was designated to take out the 200 ZIPRA and ZANLA men with their commanders (Rex Nhongo, Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Musika) based at the Audio Visual Arts building of the University of Rhodesia. As far as possible, the ZIPRA men would be given an opportunity to escape, and had possibly been informed of the plan beforehand. “

“Eland armoured cars would support ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons, while the Rhodesian T-55 tanks would support ‘C’ Squadron by pounding the Audio Visual Arts building into rubble prior to the attack by the troops. At first it was intended that all eight of the T-55 tanks would be used against the university buildings, but later four of them were sent to Bulawayo to assist the RLI Support Commando in the attack planned for a large Assembly Point in the area.

“The tanks were secretly put onto low-loaders and moved to a forward assembly area at the King George VI barracks. Rehearsals with the tanks had taken place at Kibrit barracks, and the planning was thorough and detailed. The tanks would fire approximately 80 high-explosive rounds into the building at point-blank range, after which a single tank would ram the security wall around the university. With foresight, the troops had even removed the front fenders of the tank concerned, so that debris from the wall would not get caught under them and foul the tracks! This was the command tank and during the preparations the CO was in close contact with SAS Major Bob MacKenzie, whose troops would subsequently enter the building and clear it. Trooper Hughes, who took the unique photos shown here, was loader on this particular tank and he recalls that the tanks were also equipped with spotlights and fully stocked with extra 12.7 and 7.62 ammunition in addition to the main gun load.

“The SAS teams would use this breach to storm the building and clear it of terrorists, marking each cleared room with a sheet draped out of the window. The SAS men were well-prepared for their task, equipped with AK-47s, body armour and stun grenades, similar to those used by their British counterparts. The operation would be over before the terrorists were aware of what was happening.”

psychological universalism in Marechera’s TBI

In general, Marechera’s work has a European intellectual context and a Zimbabwean social context — confusing for some?

Kristeva’s Meursault and his nihilistic shooting resonates very much with the state of being “subtracted from” oneself and no longer being able to feel “the temperature of the blood”. Marechera’s book also descends into nihilistic shooting in the last few pages. Additionally, Helen of Troy is killed as a result, and this seems anti-feministic.

But there is also deeper commentary in Marechera’s writing that goes beyond this subjectivist framework. There is the issue of black Africans as “cerebrally raped” exiles. This depiction may run closer to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. (But as Jock McCulloch points out, Fanon’s views were also Europeanised — psychoanalytic — and hence adopted a psychologically universalist model.)

The thing with Marechera is that he moves through culture like a fish through water, adapting, churning the substance, and allowing it to pass through him and his writing. There is just a huge degree of intellectual adapability about his approach/es.

And for some reason he has determined to give us a sense of the uncanny in The Black Insider. It’s all contained in a paradigm of inclusion and exclusion which is not just related to the environment of the exile but also works as a model of his own mind: “Inside out is outside in.”

And this, in turn, feeds into the final reversal (inversion) whereby the insiders who had been intellectuals and cultural outsiders and — particularly — pacifists — take up arms to oppose (but at the same time become) the militarised world that they were previously opposing.


The Black Insider motifs

Another aspect of The Black Insider to be explored is the use of certain motifs to create a tapestry.

A strong motif is the round shape — the globe, the camera’s lens, the pupils of the eyes, the stars, the shape of the horizon, perhaps even, upon which plays the changing light of the aurora.

Which brings us to light and its neon effects. The play of light is very important for Marechera — especially green, but also blue and city lights.

The delayed effect of time (in terms of physics and the use of chemistry, but also in terms of intellectual time and the capacity to see things as they are actually occurring) is also played with. Marechera does NOT think it is possible for us to see things as they are actually occurring in time. Therefore accurate self perception isn’t really possible. One can only have a perception of the past, in any accurate sense.

finding the other side of the coin

This following is so quintessentially Marecherian.

When the formal requirements of society get you down, there is always the flipside of the coin. One turns towards one’s impious, naturalised self.

This is a quote from THE BLACK INSIDER:

The impiety of a Puck is the sort of mood I get into whenever I feel injured by reviewers and the family; it is a sordid but exhilirating attempt to recapture the childish openness of my youth. Though this was dangerous in a London full of policemen and National Fronts who added spice to the victuals. The drink was steadily transforming me, it injected into me a belligerant impishness which I thought I had lost with the departure of my student days. It took the form of rapid and delirious recapitulations of my whole life, bits and pieces of which would suddenly flit into my mind like bars of half-remembered music. It was [at] once audible, visible, tactile, fragrant and elusively bitter-sweet as it swept again and again through the plastic atoms of my mind. The very act of recapitulation was itself enough; the finely-cut diamonds of specific memories were a bonus. I could have danced — all the million versions of me — danced on the point of a pin, so light and inexplicably subtracted I felt. It was, as Petronius said, that the soul craves what it has lost and wholly throws itself into the past.
— p 110

This kind of inversionist movement like the chess motion of castling gives the basis for a fresh set of circumstances in the game of life. It is a motion of renewal, and of taking back some aspect of control over things.

To succeed with such a movement in one’s life, one must have first tacitly accepted that reality is neither linear nor simply hierarchical. There are other movements that can occur within the game of organising and determining reality.

This outlook is refreshingly shamanistic as it derives from values other than improving the image of one’s public self and/or climbing the hierarchical ladder towards success. Other alternatives for selfhood come into view. It expresses a feeling of freedom at being able to give oneself permission to subtract what is authentic delight in oneself from the reified representation of the self.

Of course the writing is also audaciously defiant, wryly comic and expressive of a huge amount of psychological resourcefulness.