• Andrew Field

Shamanistic Criticism

Now that we are entering the second decade of the 21st century, and have to begin thinking more clearly about the relationship between beautiful and the good, and the literary-visual, because of the Shoah, or slavery, or the nature of hybridity in the arts, or the cathartic quality of the arts and its need to be ekphrastic as a means of expressing oneself in whatever medium fits one, while honoring what has shaped one from the past, we also new and different critical lenses that, while knowing that there is nothing new under the sun, still can spin the wheel in a slightly different direction so that we can see, hopefully, where we are at in our cultural moment, and better understand the directions that our culture is taking.

It is clear to me that the best works of art being done today, in music, film, graphic novel, poetry, and other art forms I want to learn more about, like painting or TV, are all united by an interest - not even an interest, but more like a driving force within it, like Schopenhauer's will combining different elements but all with a similar bent - in shamanism, by which I mean a form of the imagination that is neither exactly surreal nor exactly science-fiction, neither exactly fantasy nor exactly literary realism, but that bends the fictive towards religion while remaining predominantly an imaginative and aesthetic endeavor (and this religious bent brings out moral qualities we still need to consider for a better understanding).

Shamanism is a religious tradition that foreground the imagination as something with an ontological truth to it. And also an epistemological truth. Shamans are people who, like Walt Whitman, travel through their imaginations, make imaginative journeys, but the journeys are so intense, so wrought by suffering and the beauty that comes out of it, so overdetermined by meaning and liberated by meaning, that they are not matters of fantasy by actual ontology, meaning there is a truthfulness to the best imaginative writers that cannot be marked up anymore to merely pretend. When we pretend, we are fake; but when we imagine, we are authentic; and the imagination is an authentic ability of the human being, somewhere between the mind and the heart, to speculate, and wonder, and fight against the forces in the world that try to dominate through fear rather than love. Love itself has a relationship to shamanism and the imagination that we need to work out more, but I suppose if the religious bent in human beings meets the imaginative - and it already does in our culture, where we derive our morals, and therefore our religion, from shows like "Stranger Things" - then shamanism seems the best framework to unite art and social justice, the literary and the visual, the mundane and the metaphysical, and the aesthetic and religious.

It also seems the best umbrella concept for thinking not only about the various art forms like film, music, the graphic novel, the novel, plays, TV, dance, classical music, hip-hop, TikTok, poetry, but also to describe the best work being done in each of these forms in American, like the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, for example, or the music of Fiona Apple; the graphic novels of Gabrielle Bell, or the poetry of Ariana Reines; the acting of Joaquin Phoenix, and how all of these combine in something related to Shakespeare and aspects of shamanism in his own work. Shamanism is also capacious enough to take into account different traditions along with the American and European, like the African or the Native American, and so can help us interpret the poetry of Jay Wright, for example, or even the music of Bob Dylan, both of whom draw upon a wide variety of traditions, aesthetic and ethical and religious. And shamanism can also help correct certain tendencies in Western thought that are unhealthy, like Freud's refusal to think robustly or clearly about the importance of religion, or confusion about differences between mental illness, creativity, trauma, and religious experience, or the avoidance of Western culture of the oral and performative and musical in favor of the linguistic and written and abstract.

Shamanism can also help explain the tendencies in our culture towards the hybrid and ekphrastic, since central to shamanism is the notion of twinship, be this a kind of parallelism between the spiritual and physical worlds, or an organic unity between what Whitman described as being the poet of the body and the poet of the soul; it could be a description of a love relationship, where two people find each other as twins that reunite; it could be a description of a kind of organic metaphor that can be both natural and strange; it can even serve as something referencing various lines of independence rather than something interested in convergence rather than divergence; and it can help explain why ekphrasis, the description of one art form and its meanings via the meanings of another art form (and therefore the meanings of a different subjectivity viewed through the light of another subjectivity) is a sort of twinship, of one fish flowing through another fish, out the mouth, out the tail, like the Nommo in Dogon religion, which are a wonderful tonic to the unslipperiness of our categories in Western thought. We need new frameworks for thinking about the non-conceptual as well, especially for music, and shamanism helps us to do this as well, and therefore helps us describe ekphrasis, since, in the work of The Magnetic Fields, for example, the songs are always working in and through different forms of art, whether describing life through art in the form of a 50 song memoir, or a song called "Two Characters in Search of a Country Song" (a weird nod to characters like Malvolio in Shakespeare that seem to somehow step into the permeable boundaries of the play and then leave without ever seeming to fit in exactly within the tragedy or comedy of that play). John Beer's work in poetry is another interesting example, where we are given conversations between characters in Friends where Ross might mention Nietzsche and Chandler say something weirdly enjoyable and enormously profound, and this is set in the context of a book of poems that somehow works as a book of poems. We are writing and creating in a time of tradition-clashing, tradition-mashing, complete and wonderful anarchic, fun, adventurous experimentation - think of Outkast's music, how it combines aspects of Sun Ra, or Parliament, with the social justice outlook of A Tribe Called Quest, while doing something new with speechified singing, or singing speech (what rap is, in a sense, and suggestive of a form of religious chanting or davening) and combining different samples from different genres (think of Tribe's use of the opening of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" in their "Can I Kick It?"), which is also an enjoyable counter rip-off from the Beatles, for example, unacknowledged debt in the public to Black music.

Shamanism itself is a matter of masks, of trying to figure out the relationship between minstrelsy and Dylan donning the white mask, or how artists can be coyotes crossing boundaries, entering into plays and understanding them deeper than the players, only to move into a different play and astonish in a new way. It is fundamentally an aspect of the imagination, and therefore the heart, and through a lens of shamanism criticism I think we can combine aspects of anthropology and orality - as Jerome Rothenberg was interested in doing with his study of ethnopoetics - with the strongest aspects of the literary, visual, and musical traditions, and in so doing come up with a better framework for understanding art, culture, religion, and social justice in the 21st.

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