Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Writer as Shaman

In nearly every culture you can think of, there are men and women who have sought and found a particular relationship what is often referred to as the godhead.  In some cultures, the term is accorded capitals, thus The Godhead.  Some cultures not derivative of the Abrahamic religions, say any number of Native Americans, refer to the great spirit or, in similar fashion, The Great Spirit.  You are aware of some sects following the path of the Buddha, who make a kind of patronizing joke in response to the question of whether they believe in either the godhead or The Godhead.  "What's that?"  they respond.

Because of the schisms, territoriality, and simple-but-profound differences of vision of the nature of existence, some of us have bought into a system of calling some beliefs pagan, others animism, and still others cults of superstition, giving us license to refer to the followers of a system of belief other than ours such things as cultists, perhaps priests, panjandrums, fakirs, cuanderos or cuaranderas, and the old standby for patronizing, a shaman.

You're aware of a number of anthropologists who have stated their belief that a shaman, which may be of either gender, is used to getting visions and insights with the assistance of some compound derived from one or more plants.  Although this could turn with ease into a political screed involving comparisons between various types of insights and apparent supernatural information (to the point, for instance, or advancing the argument that Joan of Arc's "visions" came as a result of eating wheat bread tainted with ergot, a known psychedelic), your vector here is to draw the conclusion that artists, writers in particular, are the cultural equivalents of shamans, each having developed technical chops as in the ability to tell a story and depict characters, but also as individuals who have forged and entered a unique personal vision that informs their subject matter, their thematic reach, their choice of representative characters, and the tone or attitude propelling their work.

One such individual from the religious life who causes you to see this triangulation between shamanism, the quest for a supernatural vision, and the "finding of authorial voice" is the Bengali man born Gadadhar Chattopadhoye in 1836, a Hindu ascetic who later took the name Ramakrishna.  He was as close to single-minded in his attempt to "know" or experience the presence of the Godhead via an encounter with the primary female force of the Hindu experience, the goddess Kali.  Having done so, he continued his meditations to the point where he was able to experience the Godhead in its formless state, which led him further into explorations of experiencing Muslim and Christian unions.

You recently saw an artist's rendition of Ramakrishna at a small temple to the goddess Kali, where he served as a priest, his arms clasped about a statue of Kali, an expression of complete devotion and longing on his bearded face.  This led you to the associations necessary for a triangulation of your own which is not religious in nature, rather it is literary, advancing the thesis that there is a point in the development of many writers where they have found the equivalent of what Ramakrishna found with Kali.

The writer has found the secular equivalent of a door to creativity and imagination, where story and theme emerge to provide a sustaining vision and the energy to attempt its articulation.  In the most reductive sense, the writer who has wanted, yearned for, and with single-minded intensity striven to reach this point undergoes a form of individualized awareness of a piece with enlightenment.  While it may seem absurd and/or presumptuous to throw a writer such as Tom Clancy into this equation, there is an argument for his having become the sort of shaman of whom you speak; alive with the possibilities of his own visions and approaches, his audience and sales figures buoying him to the point where his confidence is secure.

You have chosen an extreme example to test the outer reaches of your theory, and you believe it holds.  Of course you are in your own way practicing a form of shamanism, using those same principals to support your own visions, your own preferences in other writers, the ideas and notes you pass on as an editor, the approaches and theory you set forth as a teacher.

One of your dearest friends dedicated a book to you after you'd been its editor.  At first, you were a bit uncomfortable with the inscription, simply a comma after your name, then the word "magician."  You believe you see what he meant.

You want a thing long enough, you tend to lose track and perspective of the efforts you extended to achieve it, but you do not lose touch with its access to things you'd never imagined about yourself, the world about you, and the worlds you create.

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