Maria Sabina and Psychedelic Enchantment — A Postsecular View (RMMLA Presentation)

January 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

(The following is a presentation version presented on the Oral and Traditional Arts panel at the 2014 Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association conference in Boise, Idaho.)  

This post briefly argues that in order to analyze the identity affirming appeal of mystical enchantment, a postsecular perspective is necessary. Such analyses help understand the drawbacks of otherwise well-intentioned appeals to discourses of sustainability, ecocriticism, and ethnopoetics. By “identity affirming appeal of mystical enchantment” I mean subjectivities that consciously situate themselves against the rational project of the European Enlightenment. Such critiques often rely on enchantment and the occult as obfuscation of the positivist, evidence-based tradition associated with the public regulation of knowledge production.[1] While theoretical discussions among academics often refer to the Enlightenment or “the West” in the past tense, the procedures of modernity and the methods of knowledge production are still enmeshed with the difficult concept of the modern.  I believe a postsecular perspective offers a more recent and ethically nuanced approach to the complexities of postcolonial theory and theory in general. While secularist perspectives may align either with a critique that labels mystical enchantment as vacuous “new age fluff” or more generously as embedded “trickster-like,” a postsecular perspective affords rhetoricians and theorists not only a look at the affective modes of identity-persuasion; it also speaks to contemporary crises in theorization. My goal here is to briefly introduce postsecular as a theoretical frame and apply it to the ethnopoetic criticism and cultural impact surrounding the Mazatec ‘shaman’ or ‘wise one’, Maria Sabina. The questions surrounding the subject of shamanism are dynamic and multivalent and demand an ongoing theoretical attention, and so they help transcend backlashes against theoretical study, such as claims that theory is “dead”; indeed, they potentially provide a theoretical basis for moving between the living and the dead.[2]

Maria Sabina gained notoriety in both the United States and Mexico, first in the late 1950s through the publication of R. Gordon Wasson’s “In Search of the Magic Mushroom” in Life magazine, and later through the celebrities such John Lennon and The Rolling Stones who visited her. In her memoir she says:

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)

Jerome Rothenberg included Sabina in his poetry anthology, Technicians of the Sacred, in 1968 – a collection that introduced Rothenberg’s term, “ethnopoetics.” Rothenberg himself wrote the entry for ‘ethnopoetics’ in the 1993 edition of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: “A comparative approach to poetry and related arts, with a characteristic but not exclusive emphasis on stateless, low-technology cultures and on oral and nonliterate [nonliteral] forms of verbal expression.” He goes on to say:

[Ethnopoetics] is clearly linked with impulses toward primitivism in both romanticism and modernism, along with avant-garde tendencies to explore new and alternative forms of poetry and to subvert such normative views of traditional values and their implicit claims of “civilization” to hegemony over other forms of culture. Yet for all its avant-gardism, the principal ethnopoetic concern has been with classical, even hieratic forms, with fully realized, often long preserved, pre-modern traditions.

More recently, 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” (xviii). While I am sympathetic to Rothenberg’s assertion concerning poetry, I also think there is more at stake with Sabina and the ethnopoetic tradition within which Rothenberg places Sabina’s work.

In linking ethnopoetics to the postsecular, I want to consciously draw on the fact that widespread knowledge of Maria Sabina’s work is clearly the product of a privileged liberalism that allowed her to enter a discourse of “enchantment” made popular during the 1960s by the counterculture and the psychedelic movement in particular. Much rhetoric of the psychedelic movement critiqued liberal subjectivity and liberal citizenship by appealing to divination, the occult, mysticism, and other forms of enchantment. Artists and activists across multiple mediums used various techniques to invoke the infinite within the necessarily formal constraints of signification – avant-garde jazz and the levitating of the Pentagon, to name a few notable examples. With this, a longing gaze toward an archaic, pre-political state began to use primitivism as a critique for the failures of modern, liberal society. This was a highly qualified primitivism. While experimental communities had been a longstanding feature of romantic nostalgia for a pre-alienated, pre-modern self, what made people like Sabina especially desirable to “westerners” was the so-called “authenticity” of her seemingly prehistorical practices, which aligned with counterculture politics as they critiqued liberal democratic practices. The desire was an appeal to the “originary” so as to overcome the nostalgia introduced by the alienation of modernity — a condition popularly described and oversimplified in Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane. Such are the contradictions of the Romantic subject.

Maria Sabina’s resonance within the counterculture created legal trouble for Sabina as a political subject of Mexico. Heriberto Yepez writes:

At a time when Mexico was attempting to assert at once its cultural independence and its rebirth as a modern nation La Onda (the counterculture) was seen by many as an invasion of American influence: youth culture, and its interest in the indigenous, which in María Sabina’s case had been the result of publication in the United States, were both seen as foreign.

Sabina’s traditional associated with the countercultural movement exacerbates tensions within scholarly discourse as to the level of seriousness it takes to study her work while masking the political-theological consequences of postsecular literary study.[3]

Certainly Sabina’s transcribed and audibly recorded rituals challenge the author-centered identity of the poet as it has arisen since the arrival of European modernity. She worked in a strictly oral tradition that blended European Christianity with indigenous practices in northern Mexico. To claim her as a poet in the Western sense then challenges the vocation of an identifiable author capable of being “disciplined,” and subject to the law, as Foucault would argue. Both Foucault and Roland Barthes’ in their classic articles of literary criticism, “What is an Author?” and “The Author is Dead,” rely on narratives of a process of secularization where the permissiveness of fully-realized liberal society has done away with the author as auctoritas or actor “subject” and given birth, as Barthes says, to the anonymous “scriptor.” Liberal subjectivity here in these theorists is treated as a mythical automaton, as nothing more than a poetic device,[4] as post-structural methods attempt to defy appeals to originary while simultaneously being encultured within European imaginaries. Curiously, it is the fully “secularized” society that treats authorship as a remnant of copyright and document-centered society. Such arguments, like the postcolonial and postsecular frames, only make sense within historical valuation of secularization as a move toward disenchantment. Yet similarly, even in more romantic approaches to ethnopoetics like 1990s psychedelic guru, Terence McKenna, in his call for an “archaic revival,” still rely on a secularist frame and evolutionary appeals in order to claim that what the world needs in the 21st century is a “return” to shamanic culture. It is not that I am not intrigued or even politically aligned with some of these critiques of Western civilization; I simply believe more theoretical attention needs to be given to the claims that many thinkers like McKenna make in their rhetoric of nostalgia for pre-history.

One simple way of addressing the complexity is the claim that the shaman herself is produced by historical forces, which curandera Elena Avila makes in Woman Who Glows in the Dark. Curanderismo, according to Avila, is really a fusion of Spanish, Aztec, and African traditions evolving into a “medicine of the people” (16). If we look at the Mazatec, Maria Sabina’s work, it clearly shows the introduction of “book-centered” literacy to an oral culture infused with Christianity. 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 of healing, not the medicine in the psilocybin mushrooms:

And since I received 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.” While “illiterate” in the traditional Western sense, Henry Munn notes several instances in Sabina’s work that allude to pre-Spanish Mixtec codices, including the “book of days” or tonalamatl, which was used for divination and Mixtec histories painted on deerskin (158), and her use of couplets, “double-expression in which the same thing is said twice in different ways are a characteristic of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican rhetoric” (142). Sabina is unique among Mazatec wise ones in her inclusion of an historical figure, Benito Juarez, a Zapatec Indian also from Oaxaca who as president of Mexico resisted the French presence during the 19th century and who had died well before Sabina would have been born. “Ironically,” Munn notes, “since Benito Jaurez expropriated the property of the Catholic clergy and established a rigorous separation between Church and State, she gives the secular hero the status of a saint by invoking him with the Virgin de Guadalupe and the Magdelene” (157). Munn states that although Sabina did not speak Spanish, she “is constantly code-switching back and forth” (160). She also consciously blends a traditional figure of a “root woman,” named Chjon Lucia sengui nte, “Woman Lucia under the earth” by giving her a Catholic name, “Our Doll Virgin Beneath the Earth” (153-54). Sabina clearly addresses historical circumstances in her chants and in her biography, and Munn notes that Mazatec curers generally deal with themes of justice and law in their chants.

There is a more powerful irony, then, in Sabina’s later claims that the Principal Ones no longer speak and that the mushrooms are useless because the culture of modernity, of the fragmented self and document-centered culture, negates the power of the language of the Principle Ones. Sabina became bitter at her exploitation by the countercultural youth and the maltreatment by Mexican authorities. She claimed late in life that the healing power of mushrooms no longer worked, much to the dismay of scholars like R. Gordon Wasson, who felt personally guilty for having single-handedly helped to destroy an ancient tradition. Sabina tells her biographer, Alvaro Estrada, “from the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children [mushrooms] lost their purity. They lost their force; they spoiled them. From now on they won’t be of any use. There’s no remedy for it” (69).

This problem of cultural erasure as a byproduct of the spread of liberalism[5] is ongoing, but a postsecular frame can help to acknowledge spiritual aspects of Maria Sabina’s work in academic settings. Her writings show no ambivalence about their alignment with Christianity, even if a pre-Christian culture shows up in “The Principle Ones.” At the same time, her emphasis on a kind of gnostically initiated Language as doing the work of spiritual healing finds a curious place within the emergent desires of western liberal culture for a “return” to shamanic social organization that amount to more than colonizing claims brought about by privilege. Such desire is also in line with writers such as Gloria Anzaldua, who writes in La Frontera / Borderlands: The New Mestiza:

In the ethno-poetics and performance of the shaman, my people, the Indians, did not split the artistic from the functional, the sacred from the secular, art from everyday life. The religious, social, and aesthetic purposes of art were all entertwined. Before the conquest, poets gathered to play music, dance, sing, and read poetry in open air places . . . The ability of story (prose and poetry) to transform into something the or someone else is shamanistic. The writer, as shape-changer, is a nahual, a shaman. (88)

In the notes to this passage, Anzaldua references R. Gordon Wasson’s work on the psychedelic uses of morning glory seeds (a close natural relative of LSD) among Aztecs for shamanic purposes. Sabina herself had also noted the sincerity of some of the people, Wasson included, who had sought her guidance throughout her life. The nostalgia Anzaldua feels for preconquest shamanism and overlaps with the nostalgia produced by modernity’s alienation and so-called “disenchantment” from religion that produces a longing for spiritual meaning.[6] A postsecular perspective demands that the enchanted qualities of Sabina’s language be taken seriously in their spiritual integrity, which amounts to saying some literary or rhetorical techniques, such as double-speak and melody, are themselves enchanted. How do we theoretically attend to spirit? Michel Foucault’s late lecture (1983), “The Culture of the Self,” argues that by no means is subjectivity the unique product of something called modernity.  He ends with a prediction that new subjectivities will need to be explored.  To a certain extend we have seen this with an explosion of gender expressions in academic and public discourse over the last 30 years. Yet, a holdover with sticky concepts of religion and spirituality are still emotionally entrenched in a secularism aligned with the Enlightenment still creates discursive taboos both in universities and general conversation in the United States.

Works Cited

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute, 1987. Print.

Avila, Elena with Joy Parker. Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.

Cheon, Mina. Shamanism + Cyberspace. New York: Atropos, 2009. Print.

Eliade, Mircea. Shaminism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1962). Print.

[1] They overlap with attention to and inclusion of indigenous perspectives in academic settings. They also have existed as a counter tradition throughout the Enlightenment and their recent manifestations, especially since the 1960s, are often obscured by concepts such as postmodernity. Such critiques promote spectrum-based approaches to spirituality in opposition to transcendent notions of both a divine being and a nation state. It has been important to such critiques to be both protective and more inclusive of overlap marginalized and “subaltern” identities, such as Maria Sabina, of whom I am myself speaking today; but the critiques often operate from the privileges afforded by those with the rhetorical power to “experiment” with different identities, travel, study, etc.

[2] Broadly Shamanism deals with liminalities. In classic and at times over-determined accounts like Mircea Eliade, shamanic experiences “represent a well-organized variant of the universal theme of death and mystical resurrection of the candidate by means of a descent into the underworld and an ascent to the sky” (43). For Mina Cheon in Shamanism and Cyberspace: “The shaman brings out things that go unnoticed in our modern era and raises questions about Western science as a dominant force in modernism. To learn shamanism is to leave the world and enter into the liminal space of non-knowledge, non-place, and non-culture” (15). Discourse on shamanism points to the shaman’s ability to move through differing realities, transcending the locating game of verifiable truth and originary authenticity. The shaman thus comes to represent kind of heroic figure for postmodernism with all sorts of claims to her ability to resist imperial “othering” and colonization, but the shaman also becomes a desired identity category for the traveler or tourist who perpetuates colonization. The desire is motivated by nostalgic attempts to overcome history, so rhetorical appeals to perennial concerns and traditions reaching into prehistory frequently saturate the appropriation of the shaman figure in emergent globalized culture. Trauma and disaster themselves come to code developmental delay, manifesting the new goal to be overcome so that one may reenter the narrative time of history. Obliterated selves and ahistorical traumatic experiences often necessitate the foundation of narratives of recovery while hazy bordered spaces do both the work of mourning and suffering while appealing to liberally utopic desire “to be” in perpetual infinitive of Being.

As a rhetorical and literary theorist, I am generally interested in the epideictic nature of the announcing of the “new” as a call to presence, be it in recovery from trauma or in the aesthetics of the avant-garde – the ceremony of the new. Over the past decade, among a growing number of theorists, the term “postecular” has arisen.[2]

In “Is Who Postsecular: A Post-Postcolonial Response,” Singh locates the post-postcolonial era with the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The distinction with the postcolonial era exists in the necessity for both existing and newly emerging political entities to confront “[n]ew patterns of immigration grounded in grooves worn by other aspects of globalization (movements of capital, goods, services, etc.)” (36). According to Singh,

What is crucial about the post-postcolonial … is that the movement of persons, the new immigration, cannot be folded back into the same processes of assimilization / ghettoization that were sustainable throughout the twentieth century. In 2010 we heard this in another way from Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, and later from other European leaders: multiculturalism is dead. This is an awareness of the postsecular situation. It is one among so many recent admissions of crisis. (37)

Emergent crises demand critique, but each critique assumes a way of seeing or knowing, a theory. My aim is not to say that the liberal political projects promoting secularism (including multiculturalism) are “dead”; but there is a usefulness in the term postsecular in challenging the generally publicized valuations dogmatically aligned with the European Enlightenment in which religious or spiritual enchantment is the antithesis of rational, progressive discourse. Far from simply being another historical marker, just another ‘post’, I believe there are tangible results to be made in both pedagogy and cultural criticism by using the postsecular as a heuristic device to understand the current world.[2] In particular, these results can be found in relation to a variety of appeals toward traditional and indigenous cultures during times of crisis for liberal democracies and “late capitalism” through literary study and poetics.

[3] Must one be an Anthropologist to authentically speak of her work? Rothenberg’s ethnopoetic claim would say, “No, of course not.” But if he’s right and her work challenges traditional notions of what literature and poetry are, then how do we ethically address the challenge? This is a rhetorical issue in relation to literary genre classification and literary theory demanding an historical account of Western literary tradition and an exciting venue for theory.

[4]I am building here on the work of my former professor, Victoria Kahn, who in her most recent book, The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts, argues that in current liberal crises we need to attend more conscientiously to the role of aesthetics and making or “poiesis.” Kahn claims the following:

According to the usual story, we can trace the origins of modernity to the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in Europe, and its resolution of a theological-political crisis. The religious wars of this period prompted Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke to develop a religiously neutral discourse of rights that helped to found the modern liberal state on a distinctively secular foundation. If political theology refers to the theological legitimation of the state or a state founded on revelation, then political theology is the problem that the new secular language of rights was intended to solve. It did so by bracketing the question of religion in the state of nature and subordinating religion to the secular power of the sovereign once the commonwealth has been founded. Instead of being guided by religious principles, individuals according to the new, secular idiom of political theory are motivated by the desire for self-preservation. The contract that founds the state is simply a contract of protection for obedience. In suspending the question of a substantive common good or end of human action, the new state also removes the occasion for disagreement. Everyone is entitled to practice his religion in private, as long as his actions do not impinge on the liberties of others. Or, as modern parlance has it, we agree to disagree. This, we might say, is the self-congratulatory narrative of modern liberalism. (13)

Building off of Kahn’s work, what I believe to be missing from discussions of liberal democratic crises is also what I believe psychedelic aesthetics attempt to achieve: namely, an enchanted citizenship that addresses the cognitive and affective needs of people. While I agree whole-heartedly on Kahn’s commitment to the importance of aesthetics and fabrication, to poiesis, I also want to stress both pre-modern aspects of poetics, as well as a tradition of mystical poetics that have long been critiquing modernism – throughout the Enlightenment and into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

[5] At the same time, a degree of respect was given to Sabina by researchers like Wasson from the United States that was not given to her in her own country. The Michoacan poet, Homero Aridjis, laments, “Her chants were first translated from English into Spanish, not from Mazatec. None of our literati know this language and few even mention her” (165). However, as with the music produced by rock n’ rollers who sought spiritual guidance from Sabina, which espoused various forms of liberation while simultaneously spreading market economy’s domination, the inherent universalist gestures in liberal democratic countercultural values ends up acting as a cypher for world conquest by liberal / neoliberal economies.

[6] As an educator, I often feel myself in a curious border space between such critiques of dominant culture and those who would naively embrace an archaic revival. I say “naïve” with particular reference to a lack of awareness of the liberal privileges that afford identity exploration and their potential to perpetuate identity colonization because they are encultured within the bindings a dominating and imperial culture. This dilemma is old hat for postcolonial studies and has recently been called “the New Racism”; but it is especially nuanced from a postsecular perspective.


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