A puppet is a magical object. It is not a toy, is it? Here they see it as puppet theatre, as puppets for kids. But it’s just not like that. These native tribes — in Africa or Oceania, etc. — the shamans use puppets in communication not only with the upper world, with the gods, but even in relation when they treat a sick person. Those shamans, when they dress as some demon or some deity, they incarnate genuinely. They are either the totem animal or the demon.
Dr. James Fadiman
Just published and now available here at The Teeming Brain: my interview/conversation with Dr. James Fadiman, one of the pioneers of transpersonal psychology and modern research into the spiritual and therapeutic applications of psychedelics. This has been a long time in coming, for reasons that I explain in the interview’s introduction.
The interview is ten thousand words, so be prepared to settle in. A lot of what we talk about focuses on the practical and philosophical inadequacies of dogmatic scientific materialism in dealing with things like anomalous and paranormal experiences such as inspiration and perceived communication or encounters with supernatural entities. Here’s a key excerpt:
JAMES FADIMAN: The reductionists eventually paint themselves into a corner. Consider the people who talk about the neurophysiology of dreams. They say, “Look, here’s this little part of the brain that turns on when you’re dreaming, and therefore dreams are psychophysiological in nature.” Then we ask, well, what generates a sex dream, a dream where a dead person appears with information, and a dream where you’re seated before a large pizza? And of course they say, “Why don’t you just go away.”
MATT CARDIN: I think you’re raising the basic question of phenomenology as it relates to ontology.
JAMES FADIMAN: But if you take the position that the brain is the place through which consciousness moves, so that it acts kind of like a radio, then all of those different dreams are much more understandable, because we can say they’re coming from different channels, different stations, different gods, different muses. And that makes much more sense. . . . Science’s fundamental error is a religious sort. Science says, “Certain data (since we know it does not exist) you shall not look upon.” Science holds up the story of the church and Galileo to emphasize how dogmatic the church was in its refusal to look at evidence. But if you say to scientists, “What do you know about telepathy? What do you know about clairvoyance? What do you know about near-death experiences?” they say, “Those don’t exist, and I’ve never spent a moment looking at the evidence, because they can’t exist” . . . . Scientism — science as a religion — and science are quite far apart. You see, I think I’m a scientist. That means that anything that happens, whether subjective, objective, sensory or whatever, I look at it. That may be due to my psychedelic experiences, which reminded me that, “Whatever you think the world is made of, James, you have a very limited view.” My muse chimes in and says, “Obviously, if you look at the size of the universe and contrast it with the size of your brain, the chances of your being able to know everything are statistically almost non-existent.”
In a fascinating article from 2008 at The Daily Grail, Aeolas Kephas (a.k.a. Jason Horsely) reflects at some length on the roles of Whitley Strieber and Carlos Castaneda as literary shamans whose dedication to sharing their paranormal experiences, encounters, visions, and insights brought them much trouble:
Both Castaneda and Strieber were apparently singled out by mysterious parties to undergo an extraordinary initiation process and bring account of it to the world. Without the intervention of don Juan Matus and his party of sorcerers, it’s doubtful we would ever have heard of Castaneda, and the same holds true of Strieber. Although he was already a best-selling author (of horror fiction) before his alien encounter of 1985, it was only with the publication of Communion, in 1986, that Strieber established himself as one of the most puzzling and original writers of our time. In the field he has chosen — or been chosen — to write, that of UFOs and alien visitation, Strieber is probably the current leading exponent.
. . . Caught between a strange and deeply threatening new reality and an old reality that no longer offers comfort or assurance, that seems increasingly hollow and illusory, is it any wonder if both Strieber and Castaneda took refuge in writing, and in the grand gestures of prophet-gurus?. . . The very gift for which they were chosen as conveyers of forbidden knowledge would make Castaneda and Strieber outcasts, both in the world of men, and the realm of sorcerers and “aliens.” Like Mercury, the price of being granted free passage between the realms meant that they belonged to neither. Intellect, like the messenger, like language itself, is a means and not an end; it has no place in the primal realms or the supernal spheres: the one is beneath it, the other beyond it. This is the comedy and tragedy of the word, and why a day comes in the life of every writer when he or she is forced to choose between the illusory control of the written word — being the messenger — and the power and freedom of direct experience: becoming the message. He who lives by the pen, dies by the pen.
But of course such dangers, and the existence of people who willingly court and/or accept them by taking on that literary shamanic role, are nothing new. Case in point: Charles Robert Maturin, author of the towering Gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer, published in 1820. Melmoth is a novel that, with its distinctly Faustian plot of a man who sells his soul to the devil and then spends 150 years trying to undo the deal, has long been recognized as one of the greatest and, as it so happens, appallingly darkest novels of its kind. No less a light than Lovecraft described it as a masterpiece “in which the Gothic tale climbed to altitudes of sheer spiritual fright which it had never known before. . . . No unbiassed reader can doubt that with Melmoth an enormous stride in the evolution of the horror-tale is represented.”
Apropos to Kephas’s words about Castaneda and Strieber above, Maturin’s masterwork gains a resonance that’s all the more riveting when considered in light of the following words from one of his biographers, Robert E. Lougy, who notes that Melmoth arose out of a very real and very deep psychic well of darkness that very nearly undid Maturin when he assented to its opening:
[O]ne has the feeling that Maturin, in writing Melmoth, calls forth a reality that is so powerful, yet so grotesque, so cruel, and so foreign to Maturin’s daily existence, that the dividing line between genius and madness is throughout it very thin. (Indeed, a contemporary account of him during the time he was writing this novel suggests that he was virtually obsessed with his creation.) And Maturin himself frequently alluded to his own creativity in terms of witchcraft — of how he wanted his reader to “sit down by my magic Cauldron, mix my dark ingredients, see the bubbles work, and the spirits rise.” The danger, of course, in evoking spirits is that one can never be certain whether he can control them or of the price they will demand from him. The dangers would appear to be multiplied when one calls upon the spirits in their own territory, as Maturin seems to have done in Melmoth.
For to write such a novel is to probe those areas of knowledge, both “the visions of another world” and the darkest recesses of the human psyche, which strain the endurance of the mind, and to cross, perhaps irrevocably, forbidden boundaries. The writer then becomes isolated from the world around him, having used the incantatory power of the world to bring forth a reality that borders on the irrational and the insane. He is at once the possessor of secrets he will share with those readers who dare to sit down by his “magic Cauldron” and also possessed by those demons whose presence his art will reveal.
For a lengthy excerpt from Lougy’s 1975 monograph that includes this very passage, see the entry on Maturin in Gothic Literature: A Gale Critical Companion.
For more on the same general theme, see “Shirley Jackson: Witchcraft, madness, and the uncanny dangers of writing.”
“The Flood” by Johann Heinrich Schönfeld (1634/35)
Via Art and the Bible, Fair Use
I recently saw the Noah movie, and I’m pleased to report that I really liked it. The angle taken by writer-director Darren Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel struck me as deeply engrossing and just right for our collective cultural moment. I was pretty well swept away by their deliberate re-visioning of the basic Bible story as an epic tale of antediluvian human civilization and planetary apocalypse, all revolving around the deep mystery of “the Creator” (the only term used throughout the film to refer to the deity) and His inscrutable nature and terrifying intentions for a world that has been thoroughly corrupted and perverted from its original purpose by humans.
One of the more fascinating changes was Aronofsky’s and Handel’s decision to incorporate an explicitly shamanic theme into the story, largely centered on the person of Methuselah. In the Bible, the Genesis genealogy does present Methuselah as Noah’s grandfather, but he is nowhere mentioned in the flood story itself. The film, by contrast, makes him an important supporting character, and it portrays him as a wise and mysterious old shaman-like figure who gives Noah a psychoactive brew to help him gain a clear vision of what the Creator has been calling him to do in a series of horrifying apocalyptic dreams. As described by Drew McWeeny of HitFix, upon drinking the brew
Noah is propelled into a vision of the Garden and the snake and Adam and Eve’s fall and Cain and Abel’s violence, and he sees the flood, and he sees the Ark, and he knows, with one complete revelation, what he is supposed to do. Methuselah isn’t remotely surprised. He knew that this particular brew would give Noah a direct pipeline to the voice of God, and Aronofsky uses a very real-world visual vocabulary to show a direct communion with the supernatural.
It’s a fascinating way to imagine what a prehistoric, pre-flood religion or spirituality in the general context of this particular tale and tradition might have looked like. It also strikes me as true in spirit to the history and probable prehistory of real-world religion. In the world of the Noah film, religion is experiential, not propositional or intellectual, and it involves a direct sense of communication with the invisible deity, along with an agonized struggle to interpret and understand the meanings of dreams and visions with the help of wise old mediator figures and psychoactive substances.
Methuselah is played by Anthony Hopkins, who does a marvelous job in the role. He also does a marvelous job in a recent interview with McWeeny for HitFix, where in addition to discussing the filmmakers’ decision to include Methuselah in the story he discusses the shamanic matters under question and the explicitly philosophical side of the screenplay as he compares its portrayal of Methuselah to the real-world philosophical figures of Socrates, Plato, and Diogenes. Then he ends with a brief comment on the way Aronofsky managed to create a film that presents “a landscape of . . . darkness and horror,” where the main character is “in tune with some inner signal” as “the ground of all being” speaks within him. It all adds up to a rare moment of true depth in a show-biz industry interview.
I presume that at this point we’ve all heard about the (apparently serious?) speculations by a CNN personality that a black hole or an unspecified supernatural force might be responsible for the disappearance of Malaysian Flight MH370. Weird as this is, it’s only slightly weirder than the recent and sudden decision to radically relocate the search for the missing jetliner only a few days after the Malaysian Prime Minister issued an official statement confirming that the flight had gone down into the Indian Ocean, with “all lives lost.”
With all of this in mind, and on a much more subtle level of discourse than CNN’s spontaneous foray into fringe supernaturalism, here’s writer and independent scholar of religion Joseph Laycock offering some nicely penetrating thoughts on the possible paranormal implications of Flight MH370’s singularly strange disappearance. His thesis is that anomalous events like these tend to open people up, both individually and collectively, to a sense of the truly mysterious and uncanny, which in turns invites both a profound transformation of worldviews and the mercenary attention of individuals seeking to make a profit by claiming some sort of paranormal power or authority.
Joe begins by noting that both the Israeli psychic Uri Geller (yes, that Uri Geller) and the Malaysian bomoh (shaman) Ibrahim Mat Zin recently claimed to have been contacted by government officials with requests to help with the search for the aircraft by using their supernatural / paranormal / psychic powers. Then he says this:
When an unprecedented event like the disappearance of flight MH370 occurs, it creates a vacuum of meaning. New models of reality are created almost immediately to account for it. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz gave the classic example of a “uncanny toadstool” — an unusually large toadstool that grew unusually quickly in a Javanese village. Villagers gathered from miles around and offered various explanations of how and why it had formed. The toadstool’s uncanny-ness had to be accounted for. Disasters are essentially the uncanny toadstool writ large: They present a similar threat to our understanding of the world. They also present an opportunity to reorder our model of the world and to introduce something new.
In some circumstances, a community’s need to make sense of the world in the wake of a mystery or disaster gives rise to seers and prophets. Charisma, among other things, is the ability to make claims about the way the world is and have them “stick.” This, I propose, is why the mystery of flight MH370 is so attractive to career-minded shamans and psychics. On some level these figures must sense there is some “ontological wiggle room” surrounding these events, which they can use to enhance their authority.
Image courtesy of photomyheart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Andre Dubus III
In On Becoming a Novelist — one of my favorite books about writing — John Gardner emphasizes the centrality of the “fictive dream,” the mental-imaginal movie that novelists are tasked with entering as deeply as possible so that they can channel it onto the page and thus recreate it in the imagination of the reader. “Every writer,” Gardner says, “has experienced at least moments of this strange, magical state. . . . But it is not all magic. Once one knows by experience the ‘feel’ of the state one is after, there are things one can do to encourage its onset. (Some writers, with practice, become able to drop into the creative state at any moment; others have difficulty all their lives.) Every writer must figure out for himself, if he can, how he personally works best.”
I was reminded of these words recently when I read an interview with Andre Dubus III, published last October at The Atlantic, and saw him describing an approach to writing that, as noted by his interviewer, sounds positively shamanistic. Dubus starts from a piece of advice given by novelist Richard Bausch, which he (Dubus) claims as a kind of presiding mantra for his own writing: “Do not think, dream.” (This comes, by the way, from the anthology Letters to a Fiction Writer — another book that has long occupied an important place in my own authorial life, and that I heartily recommend.) He then shares some profound insights drawn from his own practice of writing in this mode:
We’re all born with an imagination. Everybody gets one. And I really believe — this is just from years of daily writing — that good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams. I think the desire to step into someone else’s dream world, is a universal impulse that’s shared by us all. That’s what fiction is.
. . . . [D]uring my very early writing, certainly before I’d published, I began to learn characters will come alive if you back the fuck off. It was exciting, and even a little terrifying. If you allow them to do what they’re going to do, think and feel what they’re going to think and feel, things start to happen on their own. It’s a beautiful and exciting alchemy. And all these years later, that’s the thrill I write to get: to feel things start to happen on their own.
. . . It’s very difficult to achieve this dream state, and it requires a lot of courage. And I don’t think it’s going to happen unless you can cultivate two qualities in yourself, which William Stafford, the poet, taught me when he said “The poet must put himself in a state of receptivity before writing.” Stafford said you know you’re being receptive when a) you’re willing to accept anything that comes, no matter what it is, and b) you’re willing to fail. But Americans are very impatient with failure. I think one of the many reasons people don’t end up living their authentic lives is because they’re afraid of failing — they don’t take chances. And I understand it. This is very risky, terrifying territory writing this way. But it’s the only way I can do it. Frankly, I just feel so alive when I write that way.
. . . I really wrestle with religious faith, but I don’t wrestle with this. I used to think I had no religious faith of any kind. I’ve been a father of three for years, and I never prayed until I became a father for the first time at the age of 33. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in something: Something’s out there. And the main reason I believe that something’s out there—something mysterious and invisible but real—largely has come from my daily practice of writing. There’s a great line from an ancient anonymous Chinese poet: We poets knock upon the silence for an answering music. The way I write, the way I encourage people I work with to try to write is exactly this: Trust your imagination. Free fall into it. See where it brings you to.
. . . I do not ever think about career when I’m in my writing cave. I do not. I try not to think; I dream. It’s my mantra. I just get in there and try to be these people. It’s not so I can write a book and get paid and have another book tour — though those are good problems to have. It’s because I feel an almost sacred obligation to these spirits who came before: to sit with them and write their tale.
(Incidentally, the quote from William Stafford, coming on the heels of the line from Bausch, makes me wonder if Dubus has somehow been sneaking into my house and snatching books off my shelf.)
Full story: “The Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends“
Image by Wes Washington (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
In his new book The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, English professor, writer, and classical guitarist Robert Tindall, writing with psychology professor and transpersonal psychotherapist Susana Bustos, “Weav[es] together the narrative traditions of the ancient Greeks and Celts, the mythopoetic work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and the voices of plant medicine healers in North and South America [in order to] explore the use of healing songs, psychoactive plants, and vision quests at the heart of the Odyssey, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Tolkien’s final novella, Smith of Wootton Major.”
The words “heady” and “fascinating” seem insufficient to describe such a book. They’re also insufficient to describe the interview with Tindall that was published in February at Reality Sandwich. In addition to telling interviewer J. P. Harpignies about the motivations and origins behind the book, Tindall ably articulates the fatal problem with our contemporary Western worldview that combines a quasi-Cartesian rationalism with a reductive scientific materialism. He also addresses the ontological question of the reality or unreality of the beings encountered in visionary states.
For these and other reasons, my wholehearted recommendation is: click. Read. Slowly. Attentively. The following extended excerpts are just a small part of the whole.
TINDALL: When I first sat down to write on the striking parallels between the mythology of the ancient Greeks and the cosmovision of contemporary Amazonian peoples I thought I was writing a short article. Sixty pages later I knew I had a hydra on my hands, and I wasn’t able to lop off heads fast enough.
In order to explain how it was possible for the Sirens in Homer’s epic and the sirenas of the Amazonian waterways to be so uncannily similar, I realized I needed to explore the consciousness underlying these experiences among traditional peoples. It turned out that there is a primal experience of “permeability,” of a transparency to the elements, animals, spirits, stars, which has allowed human beings over the millennia to experience the sentience of the cosmos and derive valuable information from that communion. I eventually realized that this “primal mind,” sometimes derided as “animism,” underlies not only Homer’s work, but is also markedly present in the works of other authors central to the Western European literary canon, such as Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien has been a great inspiration to me ever since I was a boy. The cosmovision of The Lord of the Rings made more sense to me than anything else in the barren Reagan-era culture I grew up in the 1980s, and during my studies of medieval literature in the university I found myself following in Tolkien’s footsteps academically as well. Tolkien’s express purpose was to re-inject the vitality of the pre-Christian oral tradition back into the enervated Western imagination. He termed his endeavor “mythopoeic,” and some of his earliest writings are clear evocations of the primal mind of our ancestors. Given that my purpose was to revitalize the cosmovision of the Odyssey, I found myself enlisting the old master’s support.
. . . I think Tolkien has been cast in the mold of a brilliant academic with a marvelous, far-ranging imagination, yet a man of essentially modern rationality. I disagree. I think there’s more to Tolkien’s creative experience than is recognized.
. . . We’ve ended up in a narrow corridor of perception, one that privileges Cartesian consciousness as “normal,” the standard by which the worldviews of other cultures are measured. Yet, in fact, viewed ethnographically, the modern style of perception is rather peculiar. Who in their right mind would believe in a dead, mechanical universe, and of themselves as the sole arbiters of the meaning of their existence?
. . . HARPIGNIES: You seem to accept fairly literally some of the “magical” experiences described by some shamans and other practitioners you interview — episodes of “animal becoming,” of astral travel, of seemingly miraculous healings, of abduction by spiritual entities such as water spirits in the Amazon, etc. Are you convinced that these are objective phenomena, i.e. that these spiritual entities or forces are fully autonomous of [sic] humans and “real” in some way, or do you consider these phenomena too mysterious to fully understand and categorize?
TINDALL: “Real” is an elusive concept, especially in the world of shamanism. I know I went through a painful shift of paradigm during my first year of apprenticeship in the shamanic traditions of the rainforest. As an educated Westerner, I had been open to Jung’s ideas of archetypes and had experienced meditative states during my training as a Zen Buddhist, but my default setting was essentially Cartesian: I think, therefore I am. I was the center of the show, the only real consciousness in charge, and the idea of “spirits” or “entities” was a bit distasteful, if not downright spooky.
It was therefore with a mixed sense of wonder — Oh, brave new world! — and profound existential disorientation that I began to discover my little consciousness was only one wavelength in a vast transmission of sentience that permeated everything. Ugh. I wanted to crawl under a rock.
Somehow, with the support of those around me, I weathered it. I think it’s the process of adaptation, of crossing frontiers into other states of consciousness, which is far more interesting than the question of the ontology of spirits.
Really, phenomenologically speaking, we have raw experience, and that’s it. What I found in my own apprenticeship is encountering “spirits” that inhabit a vital cosmovision is the same as running your hand over the bark of a tree, diving into a river, or talking with your child. Things that go bump in the shamanic night all fit the criteria for “objectively out there real stuff” — and have real consequences in the daylight world.
In this sense, asking whether one “believes” in the reality of spirits is rather like asking if one “believes” in the reality of the ocean. The answer could be yes, but it seems rather awkward to say so.
— J. P. Harpignies, “Embarking Upon the Shamanic Odyssey: A Talk with Robert Tindall,” Reality Sandwich, February 18, 2o13