Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 8: Soma Sacrifice, Maria Sabina, Anne Waldman
July 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
For a time there came young people of one and the other sex, long-haired, with strange clothes. They wore shirts of many colors and used necklaces. A lot came. Some of these young people sought me out for me to stay up with the Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth. “We come in search of God,” they said. It was difficult for me to explain to them that the vigils weren’t done from the simple desire to find God, but were done for the sole purpose of curing the sicknesses that our people suffer from. (63)
— Maria Sabina, Selections
In last week’s discussion, I talked about the ways that psychedelic discourse has continued to come from perspectives that often times cannot acknowledge their own investments in white privilege. Even the tendency to treat illegal drugs as “entheogens” with the potential worth “experimenting” assumes the privilege of experimentation. In the United States, the heritage of slavery continues in our prison systems where men and women who are not white continue to be sacrificed on the altar of the European Imaginary. Psychedelic discourse has often also privileged the perspectives of men, and to a certain extent this has been a flaw of the reading lists this summer. The flaw, however, has been necessary to articulate what I have been calling the European Imaginary. The laudable efforts toward the inclusion of women’s perspectives within academic culture continue. Much recent gender critique is enmeshed within the insights and theories that drove the psychedelic movement and broader civil rights movements in the 1960s. A recent statement by Nese Devenot claims that “Psychedelia is, properly speaking, queer” (http://realitysandwich.com/121888/declaration_psychedelic_studies/). While I tend to agree with Devenot, even such a claim relies on the academic privileges that allow us to contemplate queer theory, poststructuralism, and much of what informs my own work this summer. I should take this moment in my last lecture to remind that this has been an introductory course. I will not, in the two hours we have today, be able to do justice to the exclusion of women from this discourse overtime. To the extent that women have been included, they are often aligned with qualities of enchantment, an enchantment that critiques the European Imaginary. But what we risk by appealing to inherent “enchanted” qualities among women is an essentialism of the variety critiques by the third wave feminism in reaction to their second wave predecessors. It is difficult for me to address these issues without explaining an already privileged discursive situation. In relatively non-academic discussions, like this course, the risk we commonly run into is to essentialize. This is old hat for feminist and postcolonial scholars, but even in academia there is a constant need to address these issues. My purpose in today’s lecture is to parse out, in the psychedelic terms I have presented this summer, how psychedelic scholarship of good intentions produces troublesome critical positions. We will discuss Sabina and Waldman in part two. For those interested in my explication of both of the poetics of both of these women, I will be presenting a paper on them in Boise, Idaho in October, and will be happy to circulate that work as it get closer to completion. As a final course, let me simply say that beyond texts like Sisters of the Extreme, little work has been devoted to women, gender in general, and ethnocentric power within psychedelic studies. Rather, there is often an appeal to sciences steeped in masculinist rhetoric. To make such a claim is not to devalue that work but to simply point out where we could do better. I especially invite women present here today to speak from a gendered perspective I cannot pretend to know, particularly in your responses to Anne Waldman’s Fast Speaking Woman and her extensions of Maria Sabina’s poetics. The rest of my lecture will aim at a much more male-centered body of scholarship. My question at the end will be: What can women’s perspectives add to this? In psychedelic rhetoric there is always the tendency to disintegrate into more essential modes of being and thereby appeal to universal experiences, even plant consciousnesses. But how can gender not be part of our mind manifestations?
Soma, in The Rig Veda, has multiple meanings. In “On the Significance of Soma,” Sanskrit scholar Biswanath Mukhopadhyay historicizes the development of the term as follows: “soma first meant the inebriating juice of plants, secondly, the plants bearing soma, thirdly, the elixir of life and delight and lastly the god” (6). It is unclear what Mukhopadhyay’s rationale is for this specific order of placement. He generally moves toward the more abstract concept. He mentions that it is derived from the Proto Indo European root, su, meaning “to press” (7). Soma in The Vedas is also related to music, along with the deities Agni and Savitr, but it is particularly associated with the Anustubh meter in the creation of the sacrifice (Rig Veda 10.130). In a related article on the Bhagavad Gita, “The Song Celestial,” Mukhopadhyay discusses the distinction between divine and mortal soma, saying, “it is through the power and inspiration of this drink alone that the victorious god Indra accepted the task of killing the fearful demon, Vritra” (28). Soma is also associated with Srikrsna’s celestial singing and the Samaveda, which along with the Rig Veda date as far back as 1700 B.C.E. Soma persists through later Indian literature; in The Bhagavad Gita, Srikrsna tells Arjuna “that Krsna is Arjuna himself” (Mukhopadhyay 29).
In order to attempt understanding the ancient meaning of soma, it must be linked to the part it plays as oblation in the sacrifice, and that part is to be a unifying aspect of the mortal and the divine. Thomas Oberlies argues “that access to the divine draft soma signifies political power and legitimizes rule” (in Whitaker 417). Those who took the soma became a political elite. Jarrod Whitaker, however, disagrees with Oberlies’ assertion that “the terms ‘presser’ (susvi) and ‘non-presser’ (asusvi) represent a separation of Vedic society into two halves; one that participates in the soma cult and one excluded from it.” In either case, it appears that access to soma was still meant for those who were privileged and those who were “non-pressers” were looked down upon for not participating in the cult (425). While it is unclear to what extent soma pressing determined Aryan citizenship, it is certainly a term that distinguished an identity group, even if that was only a group of priests. Partaking in the sacrifice determines citizenship.
If Mukhopadhyay is right in relating soma to the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, then it appears that the conception of divine inspiration and merge transcend the sacrificial ritual and eventually relate to dharma, or upholding the natural order of things. If ingested, soma would inspire one to act rightly. In acting rightly, one performs a kind of citizenship in the soma cult. To press and drink soma was part of ritual sacrifice, which seems to have traveled from India to ancient Greece, where the word’s meaning changed to represent “body.” Many scholars find similarities in the Eleusinian mysteries, but hasty references to the mysteries, such as Wasson’s famous claims in the 1950s cited by Leary in his perennial returns to the pre-political, mask the anthropological complexities and unsubstantial evidence present in the field.
In linguistic terms, it is tough to track the word from Sanskrit into Greek, the meaning of soma, as it seems to have moved from Aryan culture into Greek culture. While anthropological evidence is emergent and encouraging, it can only be roughly traced both through mythology, etymology, and philosophy. The scholarly literature then, inadvertently codes the desires of the scholars working in the field. For example, in The Apples of Apollo: Pagan Mysteries of the Eucharist, Carl A. P. Ruck, Blaise Daniel Staples and Clark Heinrich discuss soma by focusing on entheogens, particularly the hallucinogenic mushroom, Amanita muscaria, which they trace from its usage in the Rig Veda through the Indo Aryan and Indo European nomadic cultures which transported both entheogens and ideas about sacrifice to ancient Greece. Ruck et al. discuss the myth of Perseus, the “mushroom picker.” They read what other scholars have read as a tiny detail – Perseus’ picking of a mushroom on the site of the city of Mycenae – as “the culmination of his career,” for plucking the mushroom and decapitating Medusa appear to be “one and the same.” They base their findings on analyses of artistic depictions on a Greek vase from the fourth century BC. Moreover, they note that in the Garden of the Hesperid sisters, Medusa’s head “is equated to the Golden Apples of the tree – and with a pair of mushrooms” (43). This group of scholars has a long history of trying to identify Amanita muscaria as soma.
Ruck et al. base much of their research on the ethnobotanical work of R. Gordon Wasson, a banker turned ethnomycologist whose article, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” in a 1957 issue of Life Magazine, brought the subject to a wide public. Wasson and his Russian wife, Valentina Pavlovna Guercken, were obsessed with different cultural attitudes to mushrooms between Russians and Anglos, developing theses concerning how cultural attitudes toward vegetation parallel other developments in civilization, especially religious practice. In “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” Wasson recounts a trip to the Catskills with his wife in 1929:
In ecstasy she called each kind of by an endearing Russian name. She caressed the toadstools, savored their earthy perfume. Like all good Anglo-Saxons, I knew nothing about the fungal world and felt that the less I knew about those putrid, treacherous excrescences the better. For her they were things of grace, infinitely inviting to the perceptive mind. She insisted on gathering them, laughing at my protests, mocking my horror.
Wasson’s article influenced many scholars and hipsters to hallucinogenic mushrooms and brought traditional healers like Maria Sabina into the public eye. Sabina’s aesthetic influence on psychedelic poets like Anne Waldman has been noted in Jerome Rothenberg’s collection, Maria Sabina: Selections. But Wasson’s ongoing research eventually led him from Mexico to India and Southeast Asia during the 1960s, after he heard about soma myths. He believed he could prove the soma plant was a mushroom. In 1969 he published, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Wasson’s work did not go unchallenged, however, due to a lack of the mushroom in present-day India. Even so, in “Historical Evidence: India’s Sacred Soma,” a 1972 article by Huston Smith, Smith defends the validity of Gordon Wasson’s claim to have identified the soma plant as an hallucinogenic mushroom against those who deemed Wasson an amateur, citing the approval of a variety of famous scholars, including Claude Levi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson, a close friend of Wasson and Pavlovna. Wasson’s 1986 collaboration with Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott and A. P. Ruck, Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion, mentions that entheogens “are extraordinarily rare in the Eurasian botanical world, and Amanita muscaria was the entheogen of the ancient world. The citations of Soma in the Rig Veda are all consistent with this reading” (33). Wasson sees challenges to his theory as evidence of a Eurocentric aversion to mushrooms. He is so sure of his work by 1986 that he claims, “We are well beyond the stage of hypotheses” (16). It is unclear at this point if Wasson is referring to Amanita muscaria or if he is referring to the thesis he and his wife first developed about cultural attitudes toward plant life. In any case, a large body of literature now surrounds Wasson and his intellectual peers like Carl A. P. Ruck, Huston Smith, Jonathan Ott, and Albert Hoffman – the discoverer of LSD 25. This group of intellectuals, beginning in the late fifties and continuing today have made a large impact both on Religious Studies and broader culture as well.
That Huston Smith chose to reprint the article defending Wasson in his self-selected anthology of his own work, Cleansing the Doors of Perception, in 2000, attests the author’s continuing acceptance of Wasson’s claim, despite numerous other hypotheses about the nature of the original soma plant. It is now, for example, generally understood that soma was not a single plant, and as far back as 1978, Mukhopadhyay has asserted this (“On the Significance” 7). Soma, then, in ethnobotanic and religious discourse since the late fifties has broadened in meaning as it has joined a larger discussion about entheogens in general and their relationship to human civilization, and this broadened meaning has itself affected ancient scholarship.
This is evidenced by Huston Smith, who in the same article discussed above, credits Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956) with “introducing entheogens to the contemporary west” (63). It is strange that Smith, a famous professor of Religious History, would so quickly gloss over William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience – a text that is recurring even in Huxley’s own writings, in which the subject is addressed. Therefore, Smith’s statement should be read as referring to the popular nature of Huxley’s audience and to the perception that the discourse changed in the 1950s. That change is, of course, the nascent psychedelic movement. And it is not surprising, therefore, that Huxley’s work also finds resonance in Ruck’s The Apples of Apollo.
Huxley’s Heaven and Hell (1956) characterizes the experience of entheogenic drugs and visionary experience as both producing mystic ecstasy and horror. This too can be found in the account Ruck et al. give to soma in The Apples of Apollo, and it is this version of soma that is the more conceptual one, developed by scholars since the late fifties. So, along with Perseus, Ruck et al. claim that Prometheus stole soma in the form of spiritual fire (23). They also cite Euripides’ Ion, which tells the story of Creusa, the Queen of Athens, who receives two drops of Medusa’s blood, one which “was intended as the consecrating anointment for the city’s dynastic sovereign. The other sprang from the Gorgon’s serpents and was a lethal poison” (43). In doing so, these scholars both amplify and transcend the romantic tradition of William Blake within which Huxley has placed his lineage.
Ruck et al. build their definition of soma from the following epithets they attribute to it: “golden apples, an eye, a multiplicity of eyes, golden water, honey, lightning bolts, golden urine, golden semen, golden rain, golden snow, estrual cows, bellowing bulls, golden hides, pelts, phallus, vulva, wings, etc.” (41). They also suggest that tracing soma occurs etymologically, and not just as a collection of epithets: “‘It rains’ in Greek is the impersonal verb huei, and if there is a subject, it is Zeus; but the verb is cognate with Sanskrit sunoti, which means “to press out the juice.” In Herodotus’ account of Polycrates’ daughter’s premonition of his death, Zeus also brings rain on Polycrates’ impaled body. The Vedic entheogen Soma is named as ‘the pressed one’” (69). According to Ruck, this concept carries all the way into Christianity with the story of Gethsemane. Gethsemane, in Aramaic, means oil press:
The agony of Gethsemane took place at the Oil-Press, perhaps an element of the mythologizing: for Jesus was the prophesied Messiah, anointed, as it would now appear, with the same amber feverish pharmakon that Apollonius discovered amongst the Brachmanes. This act of pressing is significant, since not only does it yield the oil of chrismation, but also the juice of the grape, the wine that will be transubstantiated into the blood of Jesus. The Soma of the Brahmans was named with the epithet the “Pressed One,” pressed in sacrifice from dried mushrooms soaked in water, to produce the drink of blood. In the Hellenistic age of religious syncretism, it would have been inevitable that Soma be confused with the Greek word for “body,” soma (although its cognates are probably to be found in Greek sus, and English “swine,” the boar being a common metaphor of fly-agaric). The communion experience of the Eucharist was real and profound. (211)
We can also see the sus / swine root in the suovetaurilia sacrifice, which is described by Circe to Odysseus in books ten and eleven of Homer’s Odyssey as a sacrifice to Demeter in the underworld.
Ruck et al. suggest a confusion of meaning between the Greek soma as body and the juice / deity in Sanskrit. Rather than confusion, it seems to me that the term went through linguistic narrowing between Homer and Christ, and that this narrowing parallels the burgeoning philosophical discussion of the western state and the citizen’s relationship to governing bodies. While the narrowed term of soma as “body” may have had a more fixed meaning linguistically, it also had philosophical counterparts in Greek culture that maintained some of it the contextual aspects of its original meaning, those relating to sacrifice.
Sacrificial ceremonies differ according to culture, and contemporary scholarship surrounding soma has often glossed over those differences in ways that concern scholars committed to multiculturalism. One brief way to conceive of this is to consider ancient Mesopotamian sacrifice in relation to Semitic and Greek notions. Walter Burkert has written extensively concerning a bias in mythological criticism against “oriental” or “eastern” influence on early Greek culture in The Orientalizing Revolution and Ancient Mystery Cults. Tzvi Abusch has argued that sacrifice “may serve to maintain a group that is drawn together by, or whose identity is based on, some common characteristic” (46), but also that a comparison between Semitic sacrifice and Mesopotamian sacrifice reveals an important difference. For Mesopotamians, according to Abusch, sacrifices had to do with the temple, which was a storehouse of food. Food was offered to gods as a part of a relationship where the gods created humans to serve and feed them. After the prepared food was offered to the gods, it was distributed to the members of the cult. The Semites, on the other hand, organized their sacrifices around kinship and blood ties:
For the Semites, then, it was the family, the tribe, and the wider tribal territory that defined identity and power. This remained true even of the Semites of northern Babylonia and northeastern Syria. For while they absorbed the culture of the urban Mesopotamians of the south, they did not give up their own identities; rather, they transformed the culture that they had assimilated, introducing new images into it that were consonant with their own background and social situation – images such as the blood that they introduced into the Mesopotamian mythological tradition of the creation of man. (45)
As part of the cultural assimilation then, the Semites introduced blood and liquid aspects of sacrifice, which related to kinship relations and the transference of governance by family lineage. Political theology in its western sense is burgeoning here. It is well known that this appears to have replaced the Mesopotamian, female-centered fertility social structure, but Marvin W. Meyer’s The Ancient Mysteries discusses fertility cults surviving in Eleusinian mysteries. Meyer writes that “the mystai participated in rites that performed three types of sacred observances: legomena, “things recited,” deiknymena, “things shown,” and dromena, “things performed” (10). There are similar distinctions between the different Vedas. In contrast to this, however, Tzvi discusses the Mesopotamian creation myths where human bodies were formed out of clay and covered in flesh and blood of a sacrificed god. The god’s flesh gives life to the clay. As Tzvi argues,
The addition of flesh and blood reflects a new point of view. While the flesh is the source of the human ghost, the blood, . . . is the origin of the ability to plan, that is, of human intelligence, and is, ultimately, the source and etiology of the personal god or, rather, the family god who is passed down from generation to generation by a male progenitor. The personal god is not simply the god of an isolated individual; rather, he is the god of the individual as a social being. (45)
Still, the liquid aspects of the blood sacrifice are reminiscent of Vedic soma, and it would be worthwhile to more precisely track down the historical diaspora of Aryan and Semitic cultures to see cross-cultural contact. But, as I have said, debates over soma are not settled.
What we can glean from what I have presented here is the possibility that the blood and liquid aspects, which Tzvi claims are the roots of intelligence, merge with the liquid aspects of the Aryan soma, and that the liquid and material aspects begin to divurge in Western culture, eventually becoming the distinction between soma and psyche. Hebraic political theology of course shapes western political theology. One can see this with respect to the Yom Kippur festival and the idea of the scapegoat and the sacrificial goat. One goat was offered to the god while the other bore the sins of the people and was taken out of town by a “prepared man” and thrown off a cliff (Stokl 209). Daniel Johannes Stokl argues, “with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, the Temple ritual lost its natural geography. The centre of Jewish worship shifted from the destroyed temple to the synagogues, and its ritual was transformed into a bloodless service of liturgical memory” (210). So, while Tzvi sees a connection between the personal god and blood sacrifice, Stokl sees a decentralization of the sacrifice in Jewish and eventually early Christian cultures. While I certainly cannot trace a direct lineage of the western meaning for soma back to Aryan ritual, knowledge of how Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultural mixtures does help to understand how in the West a separation was developing between body and soul. However, that separation, as Tzvi suggests, is in relation to a personalized deity that maintains a unified identity structure for particular groups of people through the development of transcendent religion, which Marcel Gauchet aligns with the idea of the State. But in order to continue the discussion about soma, it is necessary to touch on one of soma’s Greek counterparts: psyche.
According to John P. Wright and Paul Potter, the editors of : Physicians and Metaphysicians on the mind-body problem from Antiquity to Enlightenment, in the western tradition the concept of soma can be traced historically in the following way:
The soma, which is contrasted is with psyche, is seen variously as the shell of a real person, a kind of counter-self with desires and goals of its own, the sensible and affective part of ourselves, the unactualized potentiality of a living being, the ‘nature’ of the organism which carries out the operations of life the community of Christian believers, a mechanical automaton, a mechanism which is in a state of constant corruption. (7)
While Ruck et al. have connected soma to Gethsemane and the Eucharist, Wright and Potter trace it to Christian conceptions of corrupted flesh. This is an inversion of the Mesopotamian idea that it was the fleshy parts of the sacrificed god that gave clay men life. So as the word “soma” changed meaning from Sanskrit to Greek, entering a western discourse based on tensions between mind and body, its meaning narrowed to signify something seemingly more materialistic. In Greek discourse, tension arises between soma (body) and psyche (breath, life, soul). As a result, psyche takes on some abstract, liquid, and vaporous qualities of soma. One cannot understand the concept of soma in the west without understanding the meaning of psyche. Wright and Potter claim that psyche, like soma, means a variety of things:
the life principle of the body, the principle of sensation and purposeful movement, the morally significant part of the human being, the principle of a being which has self-movement, the intellectual part of the self, the ‘form’ of a natural body possessing the potentiality of life, the inner person who can reflect on himself, an intellectual being constantly required for the maintenance of the body, a force that represents the teleological and integrative processes of the living organism. (7)
Beate Gundert discusses how the usage of the word psyche changes throughout the Hippocratic corpus, saying among other meanings “it refers to the male and female seed as the vehicle of life” (33). So, it does retain material qualities. Gundert asserts that
for the Hippocratic physician mind and body are two distinct, yet related aspects of human nature. According to Regimen, both soma and psyche consist of the same substances. The characteristics of both are shaped in a similar fashion by external influences and inheritance . . . the division is not absolute: symptoms change from mental to somatic, and vice versa, as a disease moves from one part of the body to another. (31-32)
This concept had, according to Gundert, changed since Homer, and here again the division between body and soul gets thematized:
For Homer, psyche is the life principle that leaves the body [soma] after death and persists as image in Hades . . . Between Homer and Plato . . . psyche, while originally meaning ‘life’ – albeit now the living person – comes through a fusion with the many specific expressions for perception, thought, and the emotions to denote in addition the mental correlate to soma: the pair psyche and soma stands for the living person in his totality. (13-14)
Even as far back as Homer, then, soma designates body or corpse for the Greeks, losing its liquid qualities and becoming static and taking on the physical aspects of sacrifice. It is a body that is sacrificed, and we can see this easily with the pharmakon and human sacrifice. Soma in western culture thereafter takes on more nominative (subjective) or accusative (objective) fixed linguistic meaning, and the linguistic interchange between subjectivity and objectivity as it relates to mysticism and psychedelic writing should be sought here. In contrast, the development of the concept of psyche, while never completely separate from soma, often relates to the capacity for feeling, for sense, and perception.
This capacity for what one “may be” is expressed by Anthony Beavis in Eyeless in Gaza. Before he encounters Miller, the character loosely based on Gerald Heard and F.M. Alexander, the body for Anthony is merely what holds one’s place in time. In Anthony’s ultimate acceptance of pacifism, however, the possible death of the body loses its significance as merely a placeholder for being-toward-death.
Soma as characterized by Wright and Potter as “unactualized potential” needs psyche to activate itself. In this capacity, then, are the notions of mind, intellect, and thought (nous, dianoia, gnome) (33). While the totality of the human body is an aggregate of soma and psyche, aisthesis (sense, perception) “provides a paradigmatic case-study in relations between soul [psyche] and body: sentience becomes possible only through the interaction of the mutually dependent body and soul, yet it is necessary to both” (von Staden 86). This is especially important for ancient Greek thinkers’ notions of aesthetics, and it has important implications in the twentieth century philosophy and psychedelic aesthetics, as we saw previously with poststructuralist meanings of chora, as discussed earlier.
The beautiful was, for ancient Greeks, in a very real sense, attunement of body to soul. It is not until after Christ, when Galen discovered nerves, that sense begins to be more associated with body than psyche, and major Greek philosophers’ – Plato and Aristotle’s – conceptions of the soul driving the body, while still influential, began to change (von Staden 116), eventually becoming much more codified in the modern era after Descartes, when the body became viewed much more mechanistically (Wright and Potter 9). The European Enlightenment can, especially when we consider the concept of soma, indeed be characterized as codifying rather strict relationships between subjects and objects, a result of emerging liberal societies as well. The secularization that occurred in the Renaissance could be characterized in some ways as a recapitulation of the separation in the ancient world between polytheism and monotheism. As Tzvi argues, the blood sacrifice was derivative of Semitic kinship relations and transference of power through patriarchal lineage. This form of governance continued through Europe’s conceptions of royalty, corporation, and the body politic. Yet even in medical discourse, Francois Aznouvi has argued that the enlightenment distinction between body and soul became a distinction between the moral and the physical. This was then refined in the nineteenth century,
when, as a result of the Cartesian revolution, soul became synonymous with thought and body with movement, the need arose to develop a new term to designate the opposite of material reality, to designate the realm to which we refer to today with the word psychique – in English, ‘psychological’ – a new term as indispensable as it is vague. Moral, then, would be the ancestor of psychique, referring to something non-material, which is nevertheless not pure thought. (270)
The excess aspects of soma, particularly those related to ritual and sacrifice, public and State, thus became an abstract “morality” with the rise of the modern, liberal subject. Morality became synonymous with a version of society with which the liberal subject was always in tension. God’s laws were replaced with civic apparatuses and social contract philosophy. The development of the social sciences, particularly the disciplines of psychology and anthropology, evidence this shift, as does Nietzsche’s genealogical approach to enquiry, which valorized ancient views of the good over and against modern views and influenced both Huxley the writer and his characters. All of this deep political theology is behind the concept that Huxley uses with respect to entheogenic ingestion and citizenship; and while messy, it is a clear rivalry with respect to thinkers like Carl Schmitt. But both early political theologians did not have the benefit of religious studies or more recent archaeology as disciplines to draw from.
Carl Raschke argues in Fire and Roses: Postmodernity and the Thought of the Body that “it is not historically coincidental that the advent of the discipline known as religious studies in the 1960s coincided both with the Nietzschean “murder of God” and the liberation of body throughout Western culture” (120). Characterizing modernism itself as a kind of faith, Raschke argues that its founding myth is a myth of “the transformative.” Raschke is part of a generation of scholars who criticize – while not discarding – structuralist approaches to mythology and religion. Raschke sees Nietzsche’s “death of God” as a sacrifice itself. Discussing regicide and the Greek idea of the Pharmakon (scapegoat and sacrificial victim) Raschke returns to Vedic ideas of sacrifice. Building from the work of James Frazier, Rene Girard, and Bruce Lincoln, Raschke notes:
The priest slays the king to let lose the transformative energies that he possesses. To put the matter in nonmythological language, we can say that “humanity” as priest sacrifices a vital aspect of itself (i.e. the “king”) to attain a higher state of existence, to be reunited with the three quarters that are “immortal in heaven.” (130)
Raschke sees modernism’s myth of transfiguration as culminating in personal transcendence through an attack on structuralism’s centrality. Poststructuralism and the work of Jacques Derrida thus become especially important for religious studies as they focus on the deconstruction of the state and the body politic. Raschke and poststructuralist thinkers like Derrida and Michel Foucault then evidence an examination of the entrails of the sacrificed body of the state in the wake of psychedelic aesthetics. But the state is not just a somatic body; it is a psychic one as well, because psyche is what is inside the body politic.
Rene Girard’s classic Violence and the Sacred argues for a view of sacrifice via Freud’s Oedipal complex. Raschke echoes this saying, “the sacrifice of the god was the recapitulation historically of, as well as the mythical token of the Oedipal wish for, the murder of god” (156). Freudian psychology continues a long-standing parallel in western medicine between psyche and soma. The Western concept of soma is deeply attached to the concept of the State and bodies of power; thus, a sacrifice on the State itself cannot only occur in terms of institutional bodies – and politics cannot either. In order for the sacrifice to be complete in the west, psyche must be sacrificed along with soma, and that is what the psychedelic aesthetics have attempted and continue to attempt.
“Psychedelic,” the word coined in 1957 in a letter to Aldous Huxley, literally means “mind-manifesting.” The search for soma and entheogenic religion thus arises out of this historical situation in which individuals radically assert themselves over and above the out-moded authority of the State. This happened in the 1960s as a performance of aesthetics as the psychic manifestation of exactly what transcended state power determined in the Weberian sense Schneiderman asserted above by means of physical force. Huxley’s pacifistic transcendence of such a worldview seems anything but politically complacent in this view. Consciousness changes and paradigm shifts can be understood as the psychic counterpart to the somatic sacrifice of institutional bodies. In searching for the mythical soma and entheogens then, scholars ideologically attempt to usher in the new age of religion. In experimenting with psychedelic drugs in the 1960s, populaces partook in the sacrifice of the state by reorganizing the notion of citizenship. They did not have to believe they were doing this as individuals.
Yet, as I stated earlier, the affordances that soma allows for certain writers (myself included) creates problems. Take, for example, a more recent book entitled Soma: the Divine Hallucinogen, by the ethnobotanist David L. Spess, which argues that soma is based on Indo-Aryan magic, where cosmology overlaps with human soul (breath, prana) and the “inner man.” This leads him to claim soma’s influence on the Greek conception of logos and the mystical beginning to The Book of John. Spess claims: “The entheogenic soma drink’s inner formation of this body coupled with the soma ritual, not only influenced all Indian religions, but it appears to be the original source of influence upon later Western conceptions of the subtle body” (92). This leads Spess to the grand claim that the soma ritual informs not only all western alchemy and hermeticism, but also Chinese, Greco-Egpytian and Islamic alchemy (161). It is important to see Spess’s claim as continuing a tradition of scholarship into entheogens that is politically fueled by the psychedelic movement in the 1960s.
Soma, in the scholarly discourse I have discussed, is often metonymic for a return to the perennial. As such, it ideologically performs the same criticism of European subjectivity that I claimed psychedelic aesthetics employed in earlier chapters. It is also, however, highly suspect to scholars interested in maintaining distinct cultural identities. What is at stake is the possibility of conceiving a broader definition of humanity that is global. What is at stake is the possibility of human rights and international legal legitimacy.
Insofar as soma, or more recent studies of molecules like DMT relate to post-1960s consciousness studies of Stanislav Groff, which try to produce psychedelic experiences without the use of drugs, a fundamental structure for human consciousness may indeed be biologically determined. This discourse, if proven, could perhaps take away from the stigma of essentialism inherent in cross-cultural ethnobotanic work as well as help in legal discussions about human rights. The issue quickly becomes biopolitical and theological in nature. But what we learn from psychedelic aesthetics is a growing tradition that criticizes liberal subjectivity from within western cultural frames and habitus. If western notions of subjectivity in terms of law and human rights could be more historically informed, that is, in ways that precede the development of nation-state discourse, we might be better able to create working definitions of human rights and citizenship than current ethnocentric ones. I am suggesting this as a development on notions of “The Archaic Revival” or The Myth of the Eternal Return as presented by undoubtedly great thinkers like Terrence McKenna and Mircea Eliade respectively.
It is within this tendency toward essentialism that I want to open our discussion of Maria Sabina and Anne Waldman today. I do so with a particular emphasis on the potentially masculinist tendencies of the discourse so far. Many of us have perhaps heard that matriarchal cultures precede patriarchal ones as well as continue alongside them. But rhetorically this appeals to origins; and what so much poststructural thinking coming out of the psychedelic movement – as well as thinkers like Nietzsche presented earlier in the course – have challenged is the notion of origins. Literary study of aesthetics helps to do this.
Jerome Rothenberg writes in his introduction to Maria Sabina: Selections that to bring Maria Sabina into an “ensemble” of poets of the new millennium is “to question the boundaries of poetry as a matter of literature, at least in the way in which those words – ‘poetry’ and ‘literature’ – are commonly understood. Maria Sabina says in her autobiography repeatedly that she could not work as a wise woman while with a man: “in accordance with our beliefs the woman who takes mushrooms should not have relations with men. Those who are going to stay up shouldn’t have sexual relations for four days before and after the vigil. Those who want to can complete five and five. I didn’t take the saint children [while married] because I was afraid that my man wouldn’t understand it. This condition should be fulfilled faithfully” (18-19). She also refers repeatedly to mushrooms as “children” and “the blood of Christ.” Taking mushrooms allowed her to come into contact with “the Principal Ones” who gave her a Book of Wisdom that taught her the Language she used to heal. She is adamant that it is Language that does the work, not the medicine:
And since I receive the Book I have become one of the Principal Ones. If they appear, I sit down with them and we drink beer or aguardiente, I have been among them since the time when, gathered together behind a table with important papers, they gave me wisdom, the perfect word: the Language of God.
Language makes the dying return to life. The sick recover their health when they hear the words taught by the saint children. There is no mortal who can teach the language. (25)
She says, “I cure with Language, the Language of the saint children. When they advise me to sacrifice chickens, they are placed on the part where it hurts. The rest is Language.”
With respect to your reading of Anne Waldman’s Fast Speaking Woman and Maria Sabina’s clear statements about gender exclusion for practice, what is the significance of the psychedelic woman?