Marcel de Lima Santos: From “The Poetics of Shamanism”

[The following excerpt from a longer work by the Paris-born Brazilian scholar Marcel de Lima Santos gives a capsule view of the role played by Alcheringa & its contributors & predecesors in the early development of a workable ethnopoetics. (J.R.)]

Arising out of the 18th century’s rationalism was a counter current of fascination with what went beyond reason, and seemed to express the inexpressible and the sublime, but it is only in the Romantic movement that a crucial dimension of the modern conception of the shaman is developed, namely that of artist. Indeed artistic creativity and imaginative capacity take on a religious and transcendent coloration. Such a view of the artist as isolated seer and healer for society aligns him closely with our figure of the shaman, so that it is in the 19th century’s exploration of the higher reaches of the imagination that we find a rekindled interest in primitive religion, past and present.

In order to achieve the required altered states of mind, the shaman has to undergo a ritual. The ritual is a magical performance, as defined by Sir James George Frazer, himself the heir to this Romantic tradition, wherein the shaman “mimicks the doings of divine beings in order to arrogate to himself the divine functions and to exercise them.” By doing so, the shaman performs a sacred drama that was originally carried out by mythical personages who controlled the operations of nature in order to “wield all their powers.”

Therefore, the shaman becomes a living link between the magical reality of the mythical beings and the course of nature. Frazer contrasts the myth as figurative language with its magical correlate in the ceremony of mimicry:

We shall probably not err in assuming that many myths, which we know now only as myths, had once their counterpart in magic; in other words that they used to be acted as a means of producing in fact the events which they describe in figurative language. ... The principle of mimicry is implanted so deep in human nature and has exerted so far-reaching an influence on the development of religion as well as of the arts.

That is why outsiders often regard the ritual as something barbarous and coarse. Behind the brutality and the bloody sacrifices performed in a rite lies a meaningful purpose perceived only by those who know the mysteries. The magical flight comes about through a ceremonial performance in which the shaman acts as an artist of ecstasy, who performs like a madman in a trance. Usually, a shamanic ritual involves artistic expressions such as dance, theatre, music, and poetry as a means to help alter the shaman’s state of mind. Therefore, one can see the shaman both as a healer or medicine man and as an artist.

In fact, as Joan Halifax declares, the multifarious roles of the shamanic figure have also undergone under some transformations as a means to adapt the archaic technique to the world’s changing cultural practices:

The lifeway of the shaman is nearly as old as human consciousness itself, predating the earliest recorded civilizations by thousands of years. Through the ages, the practice of shamanism has remained vital, adapting itself to the ways of all the world’s cultures. Today the role of the shaman takes many forms – healer, ceremonialist, judge, sacred politician, and artist, to name a few.

It is argued here that special kinds of artists may also express themselves in shamanic forms, i.e., they bring to art a sacred meaning, often entering themselves into other layers of consciousness in their search for artistic expression. Claude Lévi-Strauss makes the connection between art and the primitive, giving it an enclave-like capacity that is present even today: “whether one deplores or rejoices in the fact, there are still zones in which savage thought, like savage species, is relatively protected. This is the case of art, to which our civilization accords the status of a national park.” In addition, of all the artistic expressions sharing primitive roots poetry arises as one of the closest forms to the venting of man’s primal utterance. As explained by Ruth-Inge Heinze, “these individuals [shamans] bring problems to the surface so that they can be dealt with, and they translate ineffable messages of the sacred into secular language.”  Thus, one can understand certain artistic expressions through a shamanic perspective.

Western thought has long considered “primitive” peoples as a minor representative of literary culture because of their reliance on oral rather than written representations. Many recent poets have sought to change this view based on a new poetics that would represent more fully human cultures the world over, including those peoples whose works have been marginalized by an exclusive range of Western traditional literary culture. This movement has been concerned with a complex redefinition of cultural and intellectual values involving the idea of an ethnopoetics. This new poetics, which paradoxically can be traced back as far as the Paleolithic, is concerned with experimental works ranging from the Romantic period up to modern poetry. It is my contention that shamanism is itself a phenomenon that can be best represented under the light of this new conceptual idea that brings together poetry and ethnography. Hence I will now present a general outline of ethnopoetics, and then include my own presentation of poetic experimentation stemming from Romanticism into modern poetics, in order to contextualize it into my argument and to articulate it in preparation for the presentation of my three cases of study. An ethnopoetics can indeed allow the artistic representations of shamanic practices to reflect more fully the worldview of cultures to which art, as culture in general, is intrinsically linked to religious values as a whole, revealing the complexity of “primitive” as opposed to civilized.

Jerome Rothenberg proposes to formulate a poetics in the context of the revolutionary cultural countermovement that took place in the West as a reaction against “the official ideologies that shoved European man to the apex of the human pyramid.” This artistic movement, which stemmed from cultures “described as ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ – a stage below ‘barbarian,’” was born out of the work of “some thinkers and artists who found ways of doing and knowing among other peoples as complex as any in Europe and often virtually erased from European consciousness.” Rothenberg calls this poetic discourse, or rather “ a range of such discourses,” ethnopoetics, which he defines thus:

The word “ethnopoetics” suggested itself almost too easily, on the basis of such earlier terms as ethnohistory, ethnomusicology, ethnolinguistics, ethnopharmacology, and so on. As such it refers to a redefinition of poetry in terms of cultural specifics, with an emphasis on those alternative traditions to which the West gave names like “pagan,” “gentile,” “tribal,” “oral,” and “ethnic.” In its developed form, it moves toward an exploration of creativity over the fullest human range, pursued with a regard for particularized practice as much as unified theory and further ‘defined’ […] in the actual discourse.

Ethnopoetics has been around for millennia and should not be “confined to the modern world.” As Rothenberg points out, in being “maybe as old as human consciousness itself,” ethnopoetics represents a search for the primary need to know what it is to be human, and to explore the human potential to its fullest.

The explicit discourse around ethnopoetics, as Rothenberg explains, “involved the magazine Alcheringa (founded by Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock in 1970) and included the 1975 gathering, at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies in Milwaukee, of the first international symposium on ethnopoetics.” A successor magazine, New Wilderness Letter, was founded by Rothenberg and Charlie Morrow, in order to recognize “poesis in all arts & sciences, all human thoughts & acts directed toward such ends: the participation in what the surrealist master André Breton called a ‘sacred action’ or what Gary Snyder defined as the ‘real work of modern man: to uncover the inner structure & actual boundaries of the mind.’”

The interest in ethnopoetics, and the coining of the term, which Rothenberg had introduced in the second issue of George Quasha’s magazine Stony Brook, developed out of writers who drew not only on the Romantic poets and their concern with the irrational and primordial, but also on anthropology, which helped them to flesh out the Romantic idea of primitive. Jerome Rothenberg spent time with the Seneca Indians, and Gary Snyder’s M. A. thesis in Anthropology was a study of Northwest Coast Indian myths. His early book of poems, Myths and Texts, is actually a reference to Boas’s work, while also raising the crucial question for ethnopoetics of the relation of the oral performance, taking place in a specific tribal context, to the written text which represents and misrepresents it. It is as an attempt to address these textual limitations that Rothenberg develops his theories and practice of “total translation” which involves using sound and stretching words to the semantic breaking-point in performance. The Journal Alcheringa included sound recordings and drew on an eclectic mixture of poets and ethnographers, as did their conferences. Hence, in their effort to redefine the range of primitive poetry and insert it into the traditional Western discourse of the written word instead of excluding it, these writers presented not only words of songs and chants, but also picture poems, sound poetry, dreams and visions inserted in scenarios of ceremonial events. The emphasis was thus given on performances in which the singing voice gave way to ritualistic poetic narratives including laments, prayers, prophecies, etc.

Rothenberg, and Snyder, though taking different paths, with Snyder developing the ecological implications and Rothenberg the aesthetic connections with experimental modernism, represent, together with the work of Nathaniel Tarn and Dennis Tedlock, a nexus of ideas which interrogate not just the relation of the written to the oral, but the authority of the West and of scientific objectivity over the primitive. Drawing on Stanley Diamond’s reconceptualization of the primitive, they are able to avoid some of the more simplistic use of Indian culture, though their work has still been criticized for cultural expropriation.

Another convergent aspect between the poetics of shamanism and ethnopoetics is their search for communal living and environmental protection. These issues, which have been neglected, if not obliterated, by the agenda of the search for comfort in modern civilization, have, on the other hand, as Rothenberg reminds us, been of primary concern for “primitive” cultures despite their growing vanishing status in Western societies:

Our belief in this regard is that a re-viewing of “primitive” ideas of the “sacred” represents an attempt – by poets and others – to preserve and enhance primary human values against a mindless mechanization that has run past any uses it may once have had. (This, rather than the advocacy of some particular system, seems to us the contribution of the “primitive” to whatever world we may yet hope to bring about.) As a matter of history, we would place the model in question both in the surviving, still rapidly vanishing stateless cultures and in a long subterranean tradition of resistance to the twin authorities of state and organized religion.

Borrowing the title of his anthology from Robert Duncan’s concept of “Symposium of the Whole,” Rothenberg is in a way proposing the “dream of total art,” that is, a complex “redefinition of cultural and intellectual values,” by means of a new reading of past and present poetic representations. Robert Duncan in fact advocates a new artistic totality that will include many of the areas that have been consistently outcast by Western society at large:

To compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure – all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.

Rothenberg looks for a new primary scene for this dream of total art other than the “imperial and swollen mold … from Greece,” and finds it among the proto-poets/artists of the Paleolithic past. The works of these marginal artists, which have amazingly survived the onslaughts of modernity, represent, as Rothenberg asserts, “a complexity of act and vision” which merits calling their creators “technicians of the sacred.” Rothenberg’s allusive term here is only too conspicuous; he is clearly referring to shamanic practices in terms of their artistic representations, borrowing from Eliade’s groundbreaking work on shamanism. Rothenberg uses his own term as the title for a book wherein he presents a worldwide range of native texts that he parallels with the writings of contemporary poets, along with his own editorial comments, providing a vast anthology of ethnopoetical material. The idea is still that of a shamanic séance, in which all the senses are summoned to perceive synaesthetically.

Shamanic practices and shamanic art are linked to the oral tradition, which in the Western poetic tradition has been either excluded or set apart. Hence, as Rothenberg indicates, “a recovery of the oral is crucial” to ethnopoetics, which, without meaning to exclude any written form, calls for their simultaneous expression: “the oral recovery involves a poetic deeply rooted in the powers of song and speech, breath and body, as brought forward across time by the living presence of poet-performers, with or without the existence of a visible/literal text.” Rothenberg therefore calls for a fully human poetics that does not exclude the oral tradition and whose range is

the range of human culture itself, and the forms they take (different for each culture) run from wordless songs and mantras to the intricacies (imagistic and symbolic) of multileveled oral narratives; from the stand-up performances of individual shamans and bards to the choreographies of mass dancers and singers, extended sometimes over protracted periods of time.

Ethnopoetics is poetry of experimentation of the human potential in all times and places. Yet, it is not a movement concerned with the experimental qualities typically associated with modern poetry. As Rothenberg puts it,

ethnopoetics -- which looks away from the modern and experimental to focus on the ancient and autochthonous cultures (often under threat of mass extinction or long since blown away) – is the product (as study and praxis) of our most dedicated and outrageous modernism, even surviving (under fire) into that postmodernism taken as the older movement’s early and forever problematic offspring.

Hence, a poetics of archetypal representations long forgotten by the Western tradition makes itself needed:

The recovery of archetypes (as image and/or symbol) that infuse our own work at its most heated: the animal and trickster side of us; the goddess and the feminine; the sense of ‘earth as a religious form’ and of a living, even human, universe; and the commitment to imaginal geographies and journeys that lead into our own lives and minds.

By means of an ethnopoetics it will be possible, as Rothenberg believes, to “show how ethnographic revelations can change our ideas of poetic form and function.” As I will show in the texts involving Black Elk and María Sabina and in those by Carlos Castaneda, the participants, as Rothenberg calls them, are “not only poets but – in an age of intermedia works and genre cross-overs – other artists as well; not only anthropologists and folklorists but the indigenous poets and shamans for whom the others often act as conduits to the world of print and text.”

The issues present in the conceptual representations of ethnopoetics are indeed far ranging and, likewise those found in the representations of shamanism at large (some of which I have already addressed), resemble those of a human, rather than primitive, poetics:

The reinterpretation of the poetic past, the recurrent question of a primitive-civilized dichotomy (particularly in its post-Platonic Western manifestations), the idea of a visionary poetics and of the shaman as a paradigmatic proto-poet, the idea of a great subculture and of the persistence of an oral poetics in all of the “higher” civilizations, the concept of wilderness and of the role of the poet as a defender of biological and psychic diversity, the issue of the monoculture and the issue of cultural imperialism, the question of communal and individual expression in traditional societies, the relation of culture and language to mental processes, the divergence of oral and written cultures (and their projected reconciliation), and the reemergence of suppressed and rejected forms and images (the goddess, the trickster, the human universe, etc.).

As can be seen, my own dealings with the representations of shamanism and of shamanic practices have a lot in common with Rothenberg’s proposition of a “new poetics.” In fact, as I intend to show, the three cases of study presented are also part of this ongoing movement toward an ethnopoetics. Starting off with Black Elk and the poetic description of his shamanic vision, passing through María Sabina and the (re)discovery of ancient healing chants by Western scholars and poets, and culminating in Carlos Castaneda’s allegorical representations of magical thought, I attempt to insert my own work within the range of discourse, from Romantic literary representations to contemporary ethnopoetic narratives. My own case studies point toward the plurality of voices echoing this forgotten, and often marginalized wholeness of the human enterprise – voices which are vivid and ever-present in cultures worldwide thought to be primitive, as an expression of their complexity.

An ethnopoetic discourse toward a poetics of shamanism can also be found in Eliade’s writings, and his statement on the ecstatic origins of literature at large: “The shaman’s adventures in the other world, the ordeals that he undergoes in his ecstatic descents below and ascents to the sky, suggest the adventures of the figures in popular tales and the heroes of epic literature.” As Eliade explains, literary narrative dealing with underworld journeys, as well as with supernatural events, typical of epic and heroic tales as those by Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton, are borrowings from shamanic narratives, which describe the shaman’s spiritual ecstatic journeys: “Probably a large number of epic ‘subjects’ or motifs, as well as many characters, images, and clichés of epic literature, are, finally, of ecstatic origin … borrowed from the narratives of shamans … their journeys in the superhuman worlds.”

Eliade goes on to say that poetic inspiration itself finds a parallel in shamanic practices. The shaman’s preparation for entering the spiritual world suggests the same mystical freedom that pervades poetic creation:

Poetic creation still remains an act of perfect spiritual freedom. Poetry remakes and prolongs language, that is, the creation of a personal universe, of a completely closed world. The purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience that, like the ecstasy or the religious inspiration of “primitives,” reveals the essence of things. It is from such linguistic creations, made possible by pre-ecstatic “inspiration,” that the “secret languages” of the mystics and the traditional allegorical languages later crystallize.

Thus, we can say that this secret language, with which the shaman summons the spiritual beings, parallels, if not originates, the inner experience that will be translated into poetry.