- The Ethnopoetics of Shamanism by Marcel De Lima
Silvia Tomášková, Marcel De Lima, Shamanism, cultural anthropology, Lakota, Black Elk, John G. Neihardt, María Sabina, R. Gordon Wasson, Carlos Castaneda, Don Juan, ethnography
If only we could talk . . . would we understand each other?
Marcel de Lima, the author of The Ethnopoetics of Shamanism, is not very fond of anthropology or anthropologists: “It is clear that the scientific approach of anthropology has made it, until recently, inadequate for the understanding of shamanism in its complex dynamics and the way it challenges logical scientific ways of analysis” (13). In effect De Lima sets up anthropology as a straw man for his argument, a representative of Western scientific reasoning, which could never grasp native spirituality or shamanism, both deemed primitive and irrational from the early days of the discipline. It appears that de Lima does not know many actual anthropologists, and has not paid attention to discussions of belief systems and native ontologies since the last century. This is a shame. As an anthropologist, and a prehistoric archaeologist, I can attest that the field of anthropology is a changing, insightful, and reflexive discipline. Many of us have given a lot of thought to knowledge production, and to our disciplinary history when it comes to relationships with native peoples. Marcel de Lima needs to meet more of us soon.
The Ethnopoetics of Shamanism would have been a more interesting text had the author familiarized himself with the last two decades of scholarship by a [End Page 258] large number of anthropologists who addressed poetics, ethnopoetics, magic, native spirituality, and shamanism in particular. Whether reading the classic work Wisdom Sits in Places (1996) by Keith Basso or Margaret Wiener’s Visible and Invisible Realms (1995), he would have noticed that neither ethnopoetics nor magic are strangers to anthropologists. De Lima could similarly benefit from insights by scholars focused on Latin America such as Mario Blaser, Marisol de la Cadena, and Arturo Escobar who have paid sustained attention to multiple ontologies for over a decade. De Lima’s own compatriot, the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Vivieros de Castro, whose influence at this point is truly global, has written specifically about divinity and native ways of seeing the world in Amazonia. Yet his name too is sadly absent from the text. On the other side of the Atlantic, numerous anthropologists have been paying attention to Siberian peoples, and shamanism in particular, for at least half a century. Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, Ludek Broz, Carole Humphrey, Rane Wilerslev, or the best authority in French, Roberte Hamayon would have been great conversation partners for de Lima had he wished to have a scholarly tête-à-tête. I would not expect my own recent book on the history of shamanism, Wayward Shamans (2013), to receive a mention, but found the absence of other current literature more mystifying, and ultimately frustrating.
So what is The Ethnopoetics of Shamanism about if contemporary debates are missing? De Lima lays out the roadmap for the reader at the beginning: “This book is mainly interested in the representation of shamanism found in the crossroads of seminal encounters between so-called native and civilized cultures” (2). He divides the exploration of these encounters between three case studies: the interaction between the Lakota Black Elk and the American poet John Neihardt; the exchange between Maria Sabina, a Mazatec healer and an American mycologist R. Gordon Wasson; and the strange relationship of Carlos Castaneda and the Yaqui Native Don Juan. In a very simplified sense—as far as this reader could gather—the argument of the text boils down to two claims: first that none of these Westerners were all that interested in their native informants, and second that they were after something else. That “something” varied in each case but mostly was about hallucinogens or out of body experiences. Even when the investigators tried to understand their informants, they could not because they were Westerners, influenced by scientific Western anthropological thinking. “Perhaps one thing is for sure on this new road: namely, that there is no place...