The central feature of the novelette is the writer’s semi-fictionalised account of his life in Vengere Township in colonial Rhodesia. The writer gives vivid pictures of an “iron net thrown over the sky” (p 74, 75) in the sense of hungering for fulfilment and transcendence of what was effectively “a ghetto”, and yet being unable to attain that. His character is a mixture of arrogance and uncertainty about women. Above all, he is a character who disdains the vulgar level of survival necessitated by life in the black slums. His disdain of this kind of lifestyle is passed on as a disdain of women, whom he feels are dangerous as well as dangerously inhuman because of their ability to survive and nurture, even under the impossible terms of poverty and violence. The author’s attitude is one of hatred, nurturing a little seed of hatred until it grew:

I found a seed, a little seed, the smallest in the world. And its name was Hate. I buried it in my mind and watered it with tears. No seed ever had a better gardener. As it swelled and cracked into green life I felt my nation tremble, tremble in the throes of birth – and burst out bloom and branch. ( p 17)

This hatred, planted within the “house” of his mind – a hatred which is also represented as longing for “the black heroes” — was the likely force behind the his “shamanic initiation”. The inertia of everyday life in the “ghetto”, the reckless determination to hate the degradation of life in this environment, along with an intellectual and artistic drive that could not find nourishment within this limited environment was what pushed the writer and his protagonist to the point of crisis that undermined his sanity. An upsurgance of destructive effect from within was necessary to clear the space from which the author could construct a different platform for identity:

When the forces of growth overwhelm the forces of inertia, then a developmental crisis occurs. The symptoms of this crisis may vary depending upon the individual’s personality and maturity. They may range from primitive pathology to existential, transpersonal, or spiritual concerns (Wilber, Engler, and Brown). In the latter case the crisis has come to be known as a transpersonal crisis, spiritual emergency, or spiritual emergence (Assagioli; Grof and Grof 1986, 1989, 1990), and it is these that seem closest to and most helpful in understanding the shamanic initiation crisis. [Walsh p 116]

The novelette depicts what is really an involuntary shamanic initiation, in the sense that the writer didn’t set out with the goal in mind to become a type of shaman. Yet his hatred of reality nurtured and watered the psychosis that was to overtake him in the form of four hallucinated figures following him everywhere, when he was at the point of studying for his school leaving exam.

So much can be said for the involuntary aspects of the process of becoming “shamanised”. The wreckless watering of the seed of hatred no doubt had a voluntary aspect – at least in the form of the will of wanting to depart from reality. The writer also confesses, in autobiographical tone, to having enjoyed dagga (marijuana) ( p 3), which, as a drug, would have increased his chance of “shamanic initiation”.

Another aspect of shamanic consciousness was more obviously creative: “Friends who acted out of character affected me in the same way [as a tropic storm from which one needed to take shelter … I was] creating for myself a labyrinthine personal world which would merely enmesh me within its crude mythology. That I could not bear a star, a stone, a flame, a river, or a cupful of air was purely because they all seemed to have significance irrevocably not my own.”

A “crude mythology” of his own making forms the basis for his escape from the violence of the here-and-now. This is acknowledged very directly and precisely by the writer, in terms that invoke the shamanic elements, of earth, fire water and air, as well as the heavens and the earth.

“On a baser level I could not forgive man, myself, for being utterly and crudely there. I felt in need of forgiveness. And those unfortunate enough to come into contact with me always afterwards consoled themselves and myself by reducing it all to a `chip on the shoulder’.

This is an excruciatingly accurate psychological self-portrayal of a young man who violently broke an oppressive external reality, in order to create a different reality within his mind.

There is a key to both understanding and misunderstanding Marechera’s first published work of fiction – and it lies in the restoration of its intended name, “At the head of the stream.” For is it at the head of the stream – a shamanic designation, as I shall explain – that we find the author’s restored self, in the character of the old man at the end of the novelette. The other sections of the book, apart from the novelette, are nine short stories, semi-autobiographical, which reveal aspects of the author’s life experiences and psychodynamic states. The works in all were published under the name of The House of Hunger, and received recognition as a Joint Winner of The Guardian Fiction Prize in 1978. At the award ceremony, Marechera notoriously expressed his disdain by throwing items from his table at various presiding officials’ heads. He went on to write books that were not highly appraised as they were perhaps not so well understood. This early misunderstanding can be traced to the dropping of one name for the novel and the appropriation of another. David Pattison, a critic of the writer’s life and works points out that in the publisher’s strategic renaming of the work from “At the head of the stream” to “The House of Hunger”, the work obtained a broader and more poignant political focus than it would otherwise have had. This change of name was no doubt calculated to suit the marketing interests of the publishing company, who would been able to rely upon the negative publicity concerning the Rhodesia regime in order to generate interest in a book that seemed to be critiquing it. Whilst the change in emphasis made Marechera out to be a more conventionally political writer than he in fact was, Pattison points out that it also raised expectations for a certain level of conventional political service and engagement from the writer that was not to be forthcoming. That which was later viewed as the author’s failure to reach his audience was actually a failure of communication from the start, set into motion by this marketing ploy which misrepresented the author’s interests as being of a narrow, political variety, when his engagement would have been better understood in shamanistic terms, as suggested by his own title. Perhaps it was due to the overboiling of the author’s frustration at feeling wilfully misrepresented in his views that ended up with flying plates and bottles.

The concern of the writer was, and always has been, a shamanic one: He wanted understand as to the nature of trauma afflicted through political oppression. His writing was intended to give meaning to the afflictions of those who were fighting to liberate Zimbabwe from colonial interests, and who were dying by the day. He spoke on this when he accepted his award. His approach showed an intention to bring to light the suffering of his people in a transpersonal way, rather than to head a political movement in a way that objectively transcended the actual experience of suffering.

In order to understand that which Marechera as shaman wants us to understand, it is necessary, in shamanistic fashion, to cross an experiential and metaphorical bridge between the living and the dead. Discussing “the phenomenon of the ‘perilous passage,’ Eliade notes that whereas in illo tempore, everyone could pass easily over the bridge connecting heaven and earth, now, with the advent of a mysterious fall and consequently of death, that passage can be negotiated only ‘in spirit-either through actual physical death or in the simulation of death constituted by “ecstatic” practice.” [p 49, Perkinson] Michael Taussig’s concept of shamanic wildness as “the death space of signification” may also assist us here.

The colonized space of death has a colonizing function, maintaining the hegemony or cultural stability of norms and desires that faciliate the way the rulers rule the ruled in the land of the living. Yet the space of death is notoriously conflict-ridden and contradictory; a privileged domain of metamorphosis, the space par excellence for uncertainty and terror to stun permanently, yet also revive and empower with new life. ( p 374)

Thus, wherever life is prohibited from developing smoothly, a “death space” of signification (something that evades the possibility of speech and language) occurs. Yet this evasion of the dominant discourse also opens up a space for rewriting reality on one’s own terms. The concept above is particularly relevent to what occurs when societies are so oppressive that those living within them cannot express an adult identity except in a broken and shattered sense (as we shall see later in Marechera’s reference to himself perched upon the precipice of manhood but seeing only an “ape in the mirror”). Jim Perkinson, in his argument that blackness is a shamanic category in the myth of America, expresses the idea that certain groups of people can be “shamanised” as a result of their oppressive social contexts. For instance:

W.E. B. DuBois articulates the pain of enduring racial oppression in terms of the affliction of “double consciousness” that he also describes as the experience of “being born with a veil and gifted with second sight in this American world.”‘ This latter description (“born with a veil,” “gifted with second sight”) is itself a veiled reference to being born with a “caul” (or gauzy film covering the eyes) in African American culture-a sign of a peculiar shamanistic ability to see beyond the ordinary. [ p 19, Perkinson]

It is my argument in this chapter that the inability of the author and protagonist, the writer Dambudzo Marechera, to command a place in society as an adult citizen, with associated qualities of respectability, internal complexity, and ability to transcend some of the violence of subjection to the whims of others, leads to this shamanisation. According to Perkinson, shamanisation occurs when one is reminded of one’s inferior standing in society because of one’s skin colour. This produces a shift in consciousness whereby the subject who is so accosted is thrown backwards into an historical investigation in search of reasons for his current subjection. Such a backwards shift denies the validity of the current state of subjection and the identity associated with such devaluation. It also consolidates an alternative identity from that which is implied by the insult about one’s race. For instance, Fanon, when insulted on the street, may find that his consciousness is suddenly thrust back to the nature and identities of his ancestors. This occurs in the process of being unable to defend his position as an adult worthy of respect in the present. As Perkinson interpets it, there are shamanistic aspects to this occurrence for the oppressive circumstance compels a moving away from the consciousness of time in the present and its associated normal state of bodily awareness into something ressembling the world of spirits:

[I]n the moment of encounter on the street, where a little white boy says, “Look, a Negro!” and then continues, “Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!” the [slow composition of my self as a body in the middle of a spatial and temporal world] crumbles. For Fanon, the moment is “an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage that spatter[s his] whole body with black blood.” Indeed, the world itself shatters: “All around me the white man, above the sky tears at its navel, the earth rasps under my feet, and there is a white song, a white song. All this whiteness that burns me.”‘ His corporeal schema is replaced by an epidermal one. He ceases to be aware of his body “in the third person” and instead becomes aware of it “in a triple person.”13′ He suddenly exists triply, responsible at once for his body, his race, his ancestors. {41, Perkinson]

It was as if the subject, being so assaulted by present reality and its political restrictions, separates from his bodily sense of being in the present and is thrown back to encounter the spectres of the past — in all of their qualities of blessing or horror. According to Judith Lewis Herman, writing on Trauma and Recovery, “traumatic events generally involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence and death. “ ( p 33). Psychological trauma is also “an affliction of helplessness” ( p 33). There are some similarities between what the shaman makes of trauma and Michael Taussig’s notion of the “death space of signification”. Putting the two theoretical postulates together it would seem that a “death space of significaiton” (Taussig’s term) occurs when normal ego-based consciousness moves away from the ego’s normal construction of space and time, into a zone that cannot be represented in these everday terms of time and space. When one is denied the power – because of various state or social mechanisms, such as the institutionalisation of slavery – to transcend one’s extreme subjectification to the will of another, one enters this death space of signification. In shamanistic terms, one “crosses the bridge” [Eliade] between the living and the dead. In similar conceptual terms, one leaves one’s body (and the present) and enters the “spirit” world of the non-present. It would also seem that the oppressive force that compels the negation of one’s present persona in time and space also pressures one backwards to the past in some sense, — in Fanon’s case, back to the origins of his ancestors. This backwards movement can also be understood metaphorically in Marechera’s terms as a movement towards being “At the head of the stream” of life’s problems and dilemmas. It ought to go without saying that one must have encountered experiences of extreme oppression and of the extreme curtailment of one’s subjective will, in order to intuitively understand this notion of “death spaces”. This will not have been the case for most – hence the difficulty of engaging with much of the imagery and conceptual paradigms that Marechera loves to tease us with, in his writings.

The difficulty of understanding some of Marechera’s texts can be reduced by having an intellectual familiarity with what shamanism is, and how it can be found in this writer’s works– for there is a band of social and aesthetic logic running through Marechera’s oeuvre that by both accident of fate as well as artistic design, is shamanistic. “Three shamanic behaviors […] are the initiation crisis, mediumship, and shamanic journey.” [p 101 Roger Walsh, The Psychological Health of Shamans: A Reevaluation] In this chapter I will examine both his novelette and several of the short stories within the earlier section of his works published under the name of The House of Hunger. I will show that the novelette covers in a very psychologically comprehensive fashion his “shamanic initiation” and subsequent recovery to become a writer of a shamanic genre. I will focus primarily on the novelette published with this group of stories – which, like the title of this collection of writing also goes under the name of The House of Hunger.


The author’s acute observations of his psychological state are excruciating in their exactitude in terms of depicting a society’s psychological dynamics, and a young man’s psychic disintegration. […author.] has stated that shamanic initiation might be understood as the result of an internal pressure towards personal growth that breaks apart unconscious patterns of resistance. The tearing apart of the fabric of one’s being is a motif the writer has used more than once in the pages of the novelette. “I looked up. As I did so the old cloth of my former self seemed to stretch and tear once more.” ( p 17) Yet, the writer is also clearly driven to grow and develop despite his own limitations, thus the internal opposition that developed within him: “My fear of heights had not restrained me from climbing the cliffs of my nerves. And the demons, finding the House unattended, had calmly strutted in through the open door. Had I been a good atheist perhaps….” (p 29).

The writer is beset by voices and rain that seems to knock upon his head, the metaphoric house of spiritual hunger. “For it was a strange thirst. An unknown hunger. Which had driven him from himself, from his friends, from his family, from the things of his first world.” ( p 79) There is one violent event after another. In the opening scenes the author’s cat is killed by a children’s gang, and by the end of the book the violence hasn’t quite relented. The impossibility of nurturing is visited in the nature of a beaten and not dead yet cat which still seeks affection. The author resists Immaculate’s affections, because he cannot quite understand how she could be so, within the context in which she lives. The lack of personal transcendence becomes a limitation of subjectivity – a trap wrapped around his wounded and stitched up head: “Those stitches like a net cast up into the sky tightened around my mind, and with the needle bit sharply into the tenderer parts of the brain.” The life in the land of gansters has already taken its toll on the sensitive young man by depriving him of speech, earlier in the book.

The descent into madness is as a result of not relating to the dominant social orders as a whole (although he does relate to it already very strongly in terms of his masculine-identified desire to keep himself apart from the contamination of women – at least in part an experientially founded attitude). In terms of the traditions of Shona culture – his culture of origin – he had shown his proclivities to be other than those of an obedient and respectful son. This had been as a result of unintentionally speaking English to his mother, and earning a hiding. Nor could he identify wholly with the colonial English speaking culture, which seemed to impress upon him the culture of the oppressors. If the “symbolic register” of language (the entrance into which marks adult maturity within Lacanian psychoanalysis) is taken to encompass language as the expression of the social and cultural values of each of these social milieus, both put strain on the young artist to adapt to his role as an adult in contradictory ways. Aspects of the values of both systems also seemed debasing to this high-minded artist. (He could not accommodate himself to life in the slums any more than he could ethically adopt the oppressor’s language.) Both alternatives would have been felt as extremely threatening in terms of undermining his previously happy connection with the world, that he experienced (p 85) as a child. His culturally conditioned role as a man, who cannot tolerate the possibility of womanly love or romance under the cultural conditions of the ghetto, blocked his only avenue for comfort and must have only exacerbated his condition. Perhaps it was specifically his unhappiness determined by his strongly uncompromising attitude of masculine transcendence, which broke the protagonist apart?

“I began to ramble, incoherently, in a disconnected manner. I was being severed from my own voice.” ( p 30). The author goes on to describe the fight, autonomously taking place as if apart from his own will or preferences, between the English and Shona parts of his psyche. Yet he himself has become incoherent. The refusal of the symbolic order is a refusal of meaning on terms other than the subject’s own terms. It is a refusal of the reality of the ghetto and its lack of scope for transcendence in the form of subjective self fulfilment. It is odd then, that such a rejection of language should lead to such an unexpectable outcome – whereby the author in later works comes to refer to himself as a “wordhorde”. Indeed, the exquisite precision of his writing, when it comes to expressing just the right word for each psychological state he undergoes gives testimony to the expressive potency of an absolute master of language. What happened to Marechera or the protagonist if we are to be more exact could have so changed his nature and identity?

I believe that there existed an attitude in the author that was already shamanic – that invited the outcome of shamanic intitiation. Along with the effect of being in a pressure cooker, which is effectively what the ghetto situation was, on a psychological and social level, the author’s own attitude to life was to push the envelope, to climb up to the height of his nerves in order to satisfy his curiosity about life. This openness to knowledge is what ultimately secured a path for him outside of the dominant cultural mores and its status quo. This approach is fully compatable with various shamanistic projects, which according to Perkinson, “entails internal flights of creative daring, laboring inarticulable depths of anguish into forms of self-knowledge that continually elude dominant culture categories and understanding. In this vein, we would also perhaps have to recognize a certain novelty of the enterprise in coming to enjoy shamanistic flight for its own sake.” ( p 47)

The writer’s reckless tendency not to save himself by allowing his life and being to be co-opted by language as both a subtle (value laden) and overt (aspect of public identity) control mechanism may be part of what caused language to depart from him – creating the underlying conditions for his shamanistic initiation. It is also what saved him. Increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus. “The spirits increase, vigor grows through a wound.” said Nietzsche. [Twilight of the Idols]. The vigour supplied through the experience of being wounded expanded the range of his imagination to take in unconventional insights. The same recklessness that caused his brain to suffer from hallucinations now enables him to master his own psyche and its insights as adventure: Rather than locate his subjectivity within a particular brand of cultural identity, he invites his brain to explode. Towards the end of the book the protagonist welcomes the subtle exploding of his mind as part of a shamanistic journey away from the political categories of identity:

‘White people are shit,’ Doug added with closed eyes.
I agreed.
‘And black people are shit,” Doug blew cinders and ash from his shirtfront.
Before I could agree again Philip interrupted:
‘Everybody human shits, that’s the trouble.’
I nodded, watching my mind explode deliciously.’ ( p 67)

This epistemological destruction of difference is indeed shamanic, for it is a way of giving in to the conventional fear of losing one’s identity and the stability of self, only to find what one had been looking for all the time – the unity of one’s self as a preposterously humourous undermining of conventional tropes of identity. According to Joan Halifax [quoted in Perkinson (page 23)] “The shaman is a figure “balanced between worlds,” teaching that trauma can be “a passageway to a greater life where there is access to great power at great risk.” Indeed, the shaman often becomes androgynous, “balancing” or equalizing problematic social roles and creating healing through paradox. The initiatory quest here is one that opens the mystery by “becoming it,” transcends death “by dying in life,” pierces duality “by embracing opposites,” reunites fractured forms by fashioning oneself as “a double being.” ” In this case, the shaman journeys beyond the psychic damage imposed upon him by the political antagonisms between tribes of black and white.

If the story of the author’s life detailed in the novelette is indeed at least partly fact and not fiction, the author’s “shamanic intitiation” must have achieved the effect that turned him into a writer. It must have led to a greater stengthening of mind, insight and creative energy. The elaborate richness, acuteness of observation and humour of the writing in this group of works lends certainty to the idea that there is a salient difference between the person depicted as Marechera in the stories and the writer who completed the semi-autobiographical texts. A lot of the richness of the text is ironical. Marechera’s conscious or subconscious concession to an ironic view of himself as a kind of shaman is indicated through a viewing of his bones after having undergone an X-ray. Shamans, traditionally, count the number of their own bones. “But he let me see the X-rays on the illuminated screen. The sight of my own bones chilled me.” ( p 77) There are shamanic insinuations in the earlier parts of the text, wherein the writer conceives of himself as prematurely grey, and has his wise old man status affirmed by a bird’s dropping on his head. Perhaps the shaman is necessarily one who is prematurely aged? – As Perkinson says about Frida Kahlo, it was as if life, after her accident, suddenly had no secrets from her. The ‘old man’ speaks of a hunger that couldn’t simply be nurtured by hate. “He fed on hatred of all things; but that did not quench his thirst.” ( p 79) In the terminology of Carlos Casteneda’s don Juan, (whom Marechera read) he longed for “infinity”.

As stated in the beginning of this chapter, the clue resides in the very name of the book in its original intention: At the head of the stream. The shamanic resolution of the binary aspects of the author’s mind (particularly “spirit” versus “vulgarly there”) has its meaning in this term. In both Lacanian and in interpersonal terms, the shamanic iniitation experience would appear to involve a going backwards; a regression. This is in fact the case; however the regression solves a particular purpose of taking one to a place where the contradictions of life can be seen in a different light. What makes the difference is that Marechera discovers a nurturing aspect within himself, in the reformulation of his father – the “old man” who “died beneath the wheels of the twentieth century” under a train. “There was nothing left but stains, bloodstains and fragments of flesh, when the whole length of it was through with eating him.” ( p 45) – to an older and nurturing version of himself, who is a story teller. This revitalised old man takes the young man under his wing, by telling parables and snatches of stories and amusing him with his absurd ideas agasint the backdrop of his mother’s condemnation that his isn’t growing up quickly enough: “But the old man was my friend. He simply wandered into the House [which the writer tells us is the protagonist’s mind] one day out of the rain, dragging himself on his knobby walking stick. And he stayed. His face was like a mesh of copper wire; his wrists, strings of muscle [….] What he loved best was for me to listen attentively while he told stories that were oblique, rambling, fragmentary. His transparent, cunning look, his eager chuckle, his wheezing cough, and something of the earth, gravel-like, in his voice – these gave body to the fragments of things which he casually threw in my direction.” (p 79) This old man is, in fact, Marechera the writer as a shaman. Shamans are cunning and perhaps dubious characters by all accounts – however, what defines them is that they have mastered “the spirits” that had previously tormented them, just as the writer has mastered the necessary fragmentation of life, and the need for creative stitches to bind reality together, so as to give it some digestable semblance of form.

What is unique about shamans is not that they complain of persecution by spirits; it is that they eventually learn how to master and use them [(Eliade; Shirokogoroff) in 112 Roger Walsh]

If language and its symbols were indeed the young Marechera’s tormentors as he claims in relation to his protagonist, then by the end of the book the master has definitively established his mastery over them. This “old man” has also, quite obviously, overcome the younger writer’s hostility towards all that nurtures, which had been fueled by his sense of a gender dichotomy (wherein women foolishly sought nurturing and nurtured, whereas men were tough gangsters.) What has significantly happened is that the young man has overcome his disturbed psychological state by pushing on through the various stages of shamanic intiation.
One need go no further than Nietzsche to see how shamanic initiation follows a certain trajectory of taking things seriously, of throwing off the shackles of confining thought, and finally rebuilding the character structure in a way that is on one’s own terms. For the three metamorphoses described in Thus Spake Zarathustra, the weightbearing spirit changes into a destructive spirit which changes in turn into a playful spirit. This represents a logical transformation of one’s character from being part of a particular cultural group, to being one who has undergone the experience of being shamanised. We can see how this works through the mediating mode of subjectivity – the capacity for language. To have learned a language, only then to unlearn it or to be unable to speak it, is different from never having learned a language at all. One has developed a certain intellectual discipline, a certain social awareness as the result of language’s cognitive and social demands. To be able to speak a language is also to become aware of the political nuances of one’s culture, to learn its ins and outs, perhaps even to learn of its potential to hand you over into life or death (under the circumstances of a civil war, such as the Rhodesian bush war / Second Chimurenga): “Many heavy things are there for the spirit, the strong load-bearing spirit in which reverence dwelleth: for the heavy and the heaviest longeth its strength.” [Nietzsche] If language gives the character a social basis for identity and structure, (as would be the case according to Lacan), then a loss of ability to communicate one’s self is a form of destruction of that character: “To create new values—that, even the lion cannot yet accomplish: but to create itself freedom for new creating—that can the might of the lion do.” To have the capacity to speak a language and to lose it is to lose one’s capacity for conformity. Yet the foundation for a new structure for identity has already been developed as a result of the original psychological discipline of having to learn a language. “But tell me, my brethren, what the child can do, which even the lion could not do? Why hath the preying lion still to become a child?” [Nietzsche]
In terms of his “three metamorphoses”, [in Thus Spake Zarathustra], Nietzsche delineates that path of the shaman, from an experience of building one’s character, to one of demolishing the binds of social conformity (and thus, implicitly, losing one’s social identity and social character structure) to the point of embracing life on one’s own terms. “Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea.” The final outcome, in this prescription for shamanisation, is the individual who is radically self-determining as well as being imaginative and playful. This is the outcome that we do in fact see in the last few pages of Marechera’s novelette. The following prose is a radiant example of such shamanistic playfulness and the psychological clarity that comes from transformation and spiritual recovery [whether full psychological recovery from trauma is ever possible is another question entirely.] It involves a sense of struggle followed by a (paradoxical, certainly–) joyous embrace of life as an artist-exile (one who has developed the capacity to face life as a new kind of person, free of limiting binds of social conformity.) The outcome of persistence through the stages of shamanic initiation is detailed in the following playful fashion, towards the end of the novelette, where the book takes on a much more concentrated magical-realist tone:

[A hunter of women] fed on exhaustion of mind and body, but the brain only dies at its own behest and the body is a precious thing which, fading and knotting within itself, generates a new being who shimmers around the old body and does not die unless the great star comes down. And so exhaustion did not slake his thirst and weariness, did not stop the gnawing of the hunger in his belly. He came to a great city, but when he tried to enter the guard at the gates laughed a great laugh and the whole thing faded into nothing but sand-dunes. It may not even have been there. There were great beautiful birds in his vision, but when he called out to them they turned into vultures and awkwardly out of his sight. It was like a sudden irritation. In fact he actually scratched himself tenderly between his legs. That’s when he said: “I will live in the heart of a grain of sand.” And he also said: “I will light a match: When it flares I will jump straight into the dark heart of its flame-seed.” But as he listened to himself, to the thirst and to the hunger, he suddenly said in words of gold: “I will live at the head of the stream where all of man’s questions began.
As well as noting that the shaman is forbidden to enter “the city” – which can be read as indicating conventional community — another way of reading this is that the shaman lives at a point of experience that precedes and oversees the nature and development of the dichotomies of social meaning. Another way of looking at this comes from the short story, “Burning in the Rain’, in which the writer encounters his own hesitation “on the threshold of manhood” ( p 85) and encounters an apparition of an “ape in the mirror” (a sure sign that his transcendence into manhood is threatened by social limitations intrinsic to growing up in racist society). In this story, the destruction of his old self (in three different ways) is also counterbalanced by a submerged existence which nonetheless has compensatory value, “at the head of the stream”. ( p 84) . Speaking of a persona of a lover accused of being a whore, he writes, “At the head of the stream, that’s where they had, with great violence, fused into one and it was among the petunias so unbearably sweet that they had become afraid and listened to the staring motionless thing which made rivers flow. (84) This union that takes place as a form of creativity overcomes the male-female dichotomy that had been limiting his scope within the normative symbolic register of divisive cultural evaluations. It is precisely this refusal of the normal symbolic order and the recovery of a self that exceeds the epistemological scope of the common verities within a particular culture, that enables the shaman to develop into a wiseman: Shamans “show proof of a more than normal nervous constitution.[…] shamans not only recover but may function exceptionally well as leaders and healers of their people [p115 Eliade quoted by Walsh].
The “head of the stream” is the place of recovery, the explosively creative place in which the shaman dwells in the spirit world (along with the “manfish” – another symbol of a drowned soul) – yet it is also, most certainly paradoxically, a place of creative renewal of one’s lost identity. “At the head of the stream” one encounters the unity of one’s unfragmented self. This is an originatory position, conceptually pre-ontological, which, however, lies beyond the comfort zone of humanity and its social organisations. It is the position of the creator, who uses his or her creative insights in order to direct reality, without succumbing to the ideological force of language that would command cultural conformity (and in fact, which had previously been the basis for the protagonist’s disturbances). The shaman’s position is that of a cultural outsider, who nonetheless has the inside track on a particular culture and maintains a sense of freedom through psychological distancing from the norm. Assuming what I am calling a “pre-ontological position” towards life enables a shaman to see the present manifestations of cultural reality, in its realised and concrete senses, represents just one possibility for life out of many imaginable alternatives. This fuels the creative insight, found throughout the book: that ontology is actually indeterminate; that more than one person can occupy the subject-position of any one story (such as in “The Writer’s Grain,” wherein Marechera encounters his double).

The shaman is one who has fully acclimatised to a condition of wildness and marginality. The acceptance of an outsider status (by one who nonetheless knows the inside of a culture like the back of his hand) – actually a shamanic position – is one that Cixous wants to claim for women: “she is outside the city, at the edge of the city-the city is man, ruled by masculine law.” [49, In her article, “Castration or Decapitation,” 1981]. The shamanic mode is orchestrated to send a spanner into the works of a culture that has become stale, narrowly constrained and atrophied by conventional expectations and assumptions. A pre-ontological position is neither necessarily male not female. It is a realm of selfhood commanded by the imagination rather than by societal constraints. It is neither male nor female. Nonetheless in his embrace of a state of psychological exile as natural and inevitable, the shaman’s mode of writing has much in common with the mode of writing of the female position in society as implying an inevitable psycho-social exile:

A woman-text gets across a detachment, a kind of disengagement, not the detachment that is immediately taken back, but a real capacity to lose hold and let go. This takes the metaphorical form of wandering, excess, risk of the unreckonable: no reckoning, a feminine text can’t be predicted, isn’t predictable, isn’t knowable and is therefore very disturbing. It can’t be anticipated,” [emphasis mine, p 53 Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation”]

The writer’s hard-earned perspective is this mode that is imaginatively antecedent to– and yet practically surpasses — the more conventionalising mode of language (and its narrow dichotomies both within ourselves and against others). It is from his detached position in relation to normal, everyday life, that Marechera is able to accurately measure and diagnose societies’ ills. From his position that transcends death, the manfish – submerged, radically transformed by his experiences and somehow still alive (if not in the social sense, quite) – the subject reviews the politics of his culture (for as his short story tells us, the manfish is nothing if not political). So the writer gives to the politics of his day breadth and meaning through diagnosing the signs of his own wounds. At the same time, there is hope: the Marecheran term, “stream” invites us to recognise that cultures can be given a breath of new vitality — through creative drive expressed as stream of consciousness.



Marechera’s superego

To the side of his colonial education, which expected a non-materialist idealism, relating the ideals of being educated directly to a symbolic system enshrining social merit, he owed a non-materialist approach to life – where intellect, not money would enable one to make social progress. To the side of things represented by his family of origin and their ideals of liberation he owed his own guilt, as a non-active (but merely ideological) participant in the war of liberation. (He might have paid up his debt in this regard by enduring the hardship of his vagrant life on Harare’s streets, as one of the homeless.) Altogether, he was in danger from the ideologues of both sides of the fence. So, ultimately he pursued an approach to life that was dominated by an early training for survival. It is much like that which Ira Brenner refers to, regarding second generation offspring of Holocaust survivors:

Beating the system by outsmarting the one in charge has survival value in a world where one was being hunted down like a rabid animal, when being a Jew was a capital crime.

This type of superego seems to reflect a lack of cohesion, or a split […], which developed in some young survivors who were caught between obeying their parents’ precepts as opposed to following their own instincts for survival. [The particular subject’s] disregard for certain rules, laws and standars of behaviour, although multidetermined, may have been an example of this survivor superego transmitted to the second generation. A similar phenomenon has been observed in other persecuted minorities, too. ( p 98, Dissociation of Trauma)

Perhaps for the reasons given above, he unconsciously, at least is part, took on an attitude and internalised disposition at odds with much of the culture of his time (especially in Britain). For most brought up within a stable bourgeois condition, and not within as State in rebellion and a counter-culture within a state of revolution, superego counsels one simply to conform (and get ahead thereby).

the nature of our madness–superego

Certainly it seems likely that the real problem with Marechera was something he did not fully grasp the dynamics of himself. He did go very far, and the evidence of this is in his writing. Yet insofar as Marechera did not indulge in any cultural comparison exercises, for example in relating the implicit cultural assumptions of the societal situations that he came from against the expressions of society that he encountered in Britain, he is certain to have missed some important intellectual cues concerning his developing condition.

Marechera was not a theoretician of cultural comparative studies. Marechera did not, so far as the evidence available to us suggests, study sociology. His knowledge was in the sphere of literature and speculative (occult and philosophical) theory. He relied on his very sensitive and finely tuned aesthetic and emotional feel for situations to draw comparisons between his experiences in real life and parallel experiences that he had found in literature. As such, his approach was knowledgeable and informed, but nonetheless it primarily surged with an open-minded naivety about the world. (The naive aspect is rather as it should be for a great writer — one simply has to be naive in order to allow the phenomena of the world to approach one, without holding it back.)

Yet, despite his skills and perceptive capabilities as a writer (capabilities, as I have said, that rely upon a powerfully tuned emotionality — so that the sensations of the world play you like a harp) it seems that Marechera was not able to take into sufficient account the extreme oddness of his situation in terms of world history. He sensed something of it, of course, and referred (for example in The Black Insider) to the peculiarities of his fate. Yet, insofar as he neglected to make any comparison between his own peculiar fate (which, I shall argue, was historically determined) and the relatively nonpeculiar fate of others whom he must have encountered living within more normative circumstances in Britain (–and I am leaning, with much of the literature that sharpen arrows against colonialism, towards viewing “normal” in terms of “having a bourgeois ideology and therefore practical materialist approach to life) he did not see his own situation for what it was.

His own situation, to explain it, was historically peculiar indeed. It would be easy enough for Marechera to detail how this was so — the first generation of black Rhodesians to receive a serious education within a crumbling colonial regime at war with itself and with the world. Yet he did not analyse — although he did generally perceive — the manner in which these historical conditions were internalised within him, to become part of his own nature.

There were a number of things that occurred within Marechera’s psycho-social development. Few of these things were normal in bourgeois terms (in the sense of taking a smooth path from a non-productive childhood towards bourgeois yearning for material success, and bourgeois earning.)

For a start, the character of power, represented through the disposition of the colonial (white) state itself was to be in rebellion against the views and values of the rest of the world. Insofar as Marechera’s superego was “white” and “colonial” (and to some degree this outcome would have been inescapable given the insular nature of the State), the training of Marechera’s superego would have also been a training for rebellion.

In particular, the dissenting nature of colonial culture was upheld in making an implicit claim to being quintessentially civilised, whilst refusing to attach one sense of social status to typical bourgeois accoutrements such as wealth and the ownership by oneself or one’s family of the means of production. Thus in terms of colonial values, class status as a social value was partially severed and hence partially rendered independent from one’s capacity to earn a living and to accumulate wealth. This detachment of worth from material value can be seen as a somewhat culturally self-conscious mode of rebellion, engendered by the colonial regime’s self-perception as representing a purer form of Western culture and Christian values than could be found within the “decadent” global centres where values were determined by money as well as by politics infused with leftwing ideas.

The point is not so much that patriarchal and Christian values were upheld within the colonial outpost. Rather, I want to draw attention to an unintended consequence of the long term gesture of “making as stand” of UDI on the basis of one’s own narrow values upheld against the rest of the world.

The consequence of UDI had been to engender rebellion as a morally justified and normative social and cultural value within the auspices of the colony. “The stand” was made was against the authority of the rest of the Western world, whose values were those of bourgeois democracy. Thus an unconscious cultural opposition was formed and imposed upon those within the colony. It was an opposition between “pure” cultural ideals and relativistic bourgeois values. These values were further reinforced by the insularity of the colonial regime, which closed its border to the foreign media, and restricted what could be displayed on the news and television. Therefore, an anti-bourgeois (in religious terms anti “the world”) but nonetheless ideologically Christian and idealised version of culture sprung up within the colony, becoming the characterological structure produced through the education of those born there.

But, above all, this spirit of this rebellion became broadly and in the Lacanian sense, the “law of the father”. The value and maintenance of civilisation itself, henceforth, rested upon a fulcrum of one’s own political rebellion and defiance. (In fact, such rebellion, internalised as part of one’s character structure, sets the stage for the changing of the content of the original rebellious stance at will, in tune with a general characteristic of rebellion.)

So, I want to argue that rebellion itself inadvertently and indirectly became the civilised value par excellence, within this colonial outpost. In this sense, Marechera’s rebellion against bourgeois values was an internalisation of the Rhodesian rebellious spirit against the relativistic values of “the world”. Insofar as he maintained an absolutism in his refusal to compromise with his art – especially when the interests involved were culturally bourgeois, or compromised by issues of money, he reproduced the colonial spirit in his own approach to life, unconsciously, which is to say, this origins of this aspect of his character did not come under the focus of his otherwise sharp self-analysis.

Secondly, from the black side of things — the side of his own originative culture — a revolutionary disposition would have been imperative. Yet to revolt against the State on cue would be to succumb to the will and power of one’s parents. And the more powerful and pervasive order (and values) of the white colonial regime would have counselled against that. To “obey” ones parents would be to symbolically succumb to the condition of a weakling, to give up one’s state of rebellion against “the world” and to remain a child and not become a man. Rebellion was thus imperative for induction by the superego into the proper realm of adulthood. Thus Marechera was impelled by his white indoctrinated superego to rebel. This is what contributed to his appearance of oddness, and to the stangeness of his fate, which like the wind, appeared to scoop him up and propel him forwards towards a destination that he couldn’t hope to fathom.

It was an attitude and internalised disposition at odds with much of the culture of his time (especially in Britain). For most brought up within a stable bourgeois condition, and not within as State in rebellion and a counter-culture within a state of revolution, superego counsels one simply to conform (and get ahead thereby).

Within the very different social and cultural contexts of Britain as well as the new Zimbabwe (a nominally marxist but bourgeois state), Marechera’s disposition, forged in quite different circumstances from the ones in which he was to find himself, would have seemed quite insane. note that even Fanon, in his Wretched of the Earth is down on the colonial adminstrations for not being bourgeois enough. He claims that they act bourgeois yet do not have the monetary resources to back up their cultural claims to superiority (at least that was the gist of his take I got when I observed a few of his paragraphs at a red traffic light.)

Obviously I need to read more of his chapter, but it does seem to entail some peculiar assumptions about money and culture — not necessarily on a practical level, but on a moral leve, for madness and sanity is NOT defined by the culture one is in, but at least to a large part by the culture that one comes from, as Kristeva seems to suggest by her cultural treatment of the superego in her book on Strangers to Ourselves.

For to lack money is not necessarily to lack culture. And perhaps it is delusional to consider that one can, and indeed ought to have social status, when one doesn’t have the equivalent money to flash. Yet some might consider such an outlook to be more than refreshing. The entrenched materialism of bourgeois culture can be more than a bit it draining of one’s joy for life. Let us try for something that does not rely upon the money.

This point about how we judge someone’s position to be reasonable or not — whether or not they have the money to back up their power — brings me back to Marechera. He claimed to be both capable of knowledge and education to a high degree, and yet was content to remain poor so long as he was free. Ought we to connote this as a sign of madness, and if not….

For whom is this a problem?
I think it is those from both cultures who have absorbed bourgeois materialist values who see Marechera as insane.

Also a confluence with the fundamental workings of superego, too: “Colonialism isn’t Real power, because there is a more dominant father (ie. system of power) in the world.” Bourgeois ideology is therefore the Real father of us all.
I believe that encountering real bourgeois culture for the first time incited a very rebellious feeling in Marechera, as if the proper value of cultural currency (education) had been betrayed.In an industrial sense the colonial world is indeed the quintessential modern. Yet it is a modernism with an innocence about it, still wet behind the ears, Defoe-esque. Yet the anti-colonial literature which came from the dominant first world itself, and not from revolutionary quarters, castigated European colonialism for not being “real” enough in the precise sense of not being bourgeois enough.

I see this is the bourgeois ethno-psychiatriast Mannoni, I see the same critique (although perhaps more complicated) in Fanon, and I have certainly experienced the extreme disdain of those who have internalised a bourgeois socio-economic hierarchy of values against me, the “white colonial”, in spades. (My reaction was that I had encountered a surprisingly debased version of humanity that put so much stake on money as a measure of human value. They were certainly by no means superior to me, but astonishingly vulgar and dehumanised.)

Colonial society — outside of its discriminatory practices — was a society in which it was possible for great happiness or great misery to come to the fore. The pace and tempor of modern society, whose citizens can barely acknowledge these extremes based on the nature of the own experiences, is very different from that.

The bourgeois modernists are very capable of being abusive, however, which is funny! I keep reading, in the literature, remarks to the effects that the colonial whites would never have “made it” within the proper auspices of bourgeois society. This is what apparently turned them towards becoming colonial. But what is never addressed by such a refrain is the attendant assumptions pertaining to the rhetoric: “Yes– but to ‘make it’ in bourgeois society would prove what?”

But, of course, it is always more complicated that the mere geometry of simple paradigms implies:

The introjection of the father’s law of rebellion against the world of bourgeois values (and in some actual sense, in actual colonial terms, against “the world” – meant in the Christian metaphysical sense as well as in the sense of the bourgeois ideology of material accretion, dominating world politics) was a process that could not, would not, be historically completed through Marechera’s life. Rather it was disrupted through (politically welcome, but psychologically disruptive) revolutionary processes.


On an aesthetic, spiritual and emotional level, rupture of the identity means something other than madness. A feeling of the rupture of the self was an experience that Marechera was deeply acquainted with, due to his postcolonial position of being caught between numerous cultures, some of which in stark antagonism with the others. Since such psychological dismembership became personal territory for Marechera, he saw fit to experiment with these configurations of identity, on a narrative and poetic level. He also pushed further the experiment, by using drugs. Ultimately, he tied the whole approach together with a deep feeling (aesthetic and more generally psychological) for the shamanistic ecstasy entailed in the dismembership of the self — a process by which one could be reborn, the shattered identities reconstituted.

This deep-psychological approach to the autobiographical feelings and facts of one’s own life is hardly mad. Rather it reveals a certain courageous and adventurous desire to mend oneself by using one’s own psychic reserves. The insights Marechera reveals regarding the nature of the selves and their various component parts (compliant or antagonistic) are, on psychological and social levels, nothing short of profound.

Marechera may have also been conveniently cast as ‘mad’ by those who take political sides – and I have suggested that he appeared profoundly irrational insofar as he had not internalised bourgeois norms concerning the need to develop a material basis of resources and a dependable structure of life to guarantee one’s social status. Yet, Marechera was deeply sane – perceiving that to “take sides” in a political or cultural battle was to perpetuate the prejudices that had made his own life miserable. He wanted to transcend these. Yet his determination to do so came across, all too often as irrationality, because others could not see that entertaining prejudices against an ideological enemy does not make one a more moral person. Marechera could see this, as said, because the lessons were already deep within him. He was one who had internalised the crosscurrents of two different cultures – the colonial and the black African (Shona). He knew better than anyone that to intensify the ideological battle on the outside (in the world) was to intensify it on the inside. Indeed he saw the dangers and avoided taking sides, but instead showed the limitations of perspectives in taking sides. In this sense, he had taken steps to avoid an earlier threat of madness.



When I was picking up COLONIAL PSYCHIATRY AND THE AFRICAN MIND at the library, I also gathered up a couple of other books from the same shelf. My thesis is to demonstate that Marechera was not technically mad, personally and artistically.

Mike squandered one of these books away as toilet reading, and came out from the zone this morning proclaiming zestfully that he had discovered that being “odd” was a mental illness. “Look it up under O,” he said.

So, now we have Marechera’s ostensible “oddness” competing as a diagnosis against his more obvious symptoms of drapetomania.

The problem with this kind of an approach to psychiatry is not only that society’s norms might themselves be pathological “odd” — leaving drapetomania as the best recourse. There is also the problem that a social deviation approach to diagnosis overlooks the issue of a person’s internal equilibrium. For those born into a war zone — as both Marechera and I were, to very varying degrees — a normal state of psychological and emotional equilibrium is achieved through living on the edge. A high state of tension is normal for us, because a sense of war surrounded us ever since we were born. We maintain our optimal mental health when we are feeling a certain state of terror. The internal equilibrium of our emotional engagement starts to be lost when we find everything around us to be flatly “normal”.

So mental health might better be understood INTRApersonally, rather than on the basis of a social standard deviation or two.


Never discount societal madness!

Please check out the link below on John Keats. It gives a really good elucidation of the psycho-aesthetic basis for human wholeness that is largely missing in our contemporary world.

This paradigm, elucidated in the URL linked below, is key to understanding Marechera’s irony. So, now I think I begin to answer my own question as to why poetic irony (to take one literary aspect) could be misunderstood as “madness”.

The point is that if you have been brought up within a culture that has for the most part lost its sense of a particular kind of ideal of human wholeness, you will not be able to tune into an ironic tone in writing that laments the loss of this wholeness. You won’t see that when somebody laments their having only “a shred of identity”, for instance, that this is an ironic reference to the loss of the aesthetic and psychological sense of human wholeness — an outcome of industrialised modernism.

So, instead of picking up on the irony that is intended in the author’s upholding his “shred of identity” against an even more (in humanistic terms) debilitating condition of accepting the condition of industrialised modernism wholesale, you might mistakenly read the poem in a more literal vein.

To read the poem in a more literal vein — which means, as I have stated, to discount the irony that pertains to the human condition of machine-like servitude, under industrial modernism — is to read both madness and masochism into the poem. After all, someone who laments their “shred of identity” whilst others are happy to fit in and get along must surely be mad — nothing else to it.

I believe that there are many who could be drawn to the more simplistic reading of the poem, for the cultural reason I have given — namely, that many have simply not been put in touch with the humanistic project of psycho-aesthetic holism that both myself and Marechera were brought up with. (It was the water in which we swam, the air which we breathed — all this, despite the violence…)

I do believe that Western culture is becoming more crass. This is another reason why someone of Marechera’s calibre could be dismissed so easily.

An excerpt from “A shred of Identity” (by Marechera):

The dustman shrugs, hurls his concrete burden
Into factory hand adjusts the zip of his overalls
And without care awaits his Call – factory’s siren;
The milkman cycles his round; the soldier
Kisses his girl hurries to carry out orders.
They all seem to know their own selves
While I like a madman continue to decipher
The print on a shred of blank paper
The print that is to become the poem behind the poem.


I am right about Marechera — that he was basically sane apart from his PTSD. He drank to avoid the feeling of facing the kinds of crushing situations that are the aspects of memory which PTSD pushes up to the forefront of the mind.

What Flora Veit-Wild detected, then, was correct — “Drink makes him forget. It takes away his feelings of guilt and inferiority from him but at the same time creates new ones.”

These feelings (guilt and inferiority) are not at all what appeared in Marechera’s writing. Therefore they would have to be from a differentiated part compartment of the memory in which his trauma had been stored.

To have PTSD does not make one out of one’s mind, although the memories of violence that make up the trauma are disturbing. The trauma is part of history’s imprint upon one. To act as if Marechera’s trauma makes him mad (as I am suggesting that it is indeed trauma that made him drink) is to acknowledge that experiential reality itself bestows upon us elements of madness, as part of its natural course — since there has never been a human history without violence.

To dismiss what he says because he is “mad” or because his works have the erratic and nonsensical flavour of a “poetic genius” is to sidestep the senses in which he wants to communicate to us.

Going out of one’s way to avoid communication from someone who had very much to say, is extremely odd human behaviour. Perhaps it is we who are mad?