Monday, December 31, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Ayahuasca (Part Nine)

Ayahausca (Part Nine)

Interviews with Shamans (Part Three)

The biggest and seemingly most important part of drinking ayahuasca is who one does it with, meaning who is the shaman one gets stoned with, the person who makes and delivers the punch, the person who babysits the drinker, the person who guides the vibes. The wrong shaman, or an outright bad human being, and what one hopes for and probably expects to be an excellent adventure can turn out to be ones worst nightmare come true. It depends, then, on who you hang out with.

Earlier we talked with a local shaman, a Peruvian man living in the Amazon jungle in a tiny village an hour and a half from the world's largest city not connected by roads to the rest of the nation: Iquitos. He is the real deal, a native in a native tradition. But he is just one of many potentially “real deals” in the drug business of ayahuasca drinking. And he is a man and a Spanish speaker who lives and breathes a world most of us will never genuinely enter, as he will never fully grasp what it is to be a Modernist, i.e. one of those incredibly rich persons living in a state of anomie and near nihilistic despair over lack of meaning in the world and ones personal life. People who have it all turned out to find themselves total losers. Gido the Amazon shaman will never get that part. Modernists don't get much else these days. Man or woman, the Modernist is just like us. It means we have to look at ourselves as we are and see others like ourselves as probably better suited to help us deal with problems they, like we, actually can speak to from experience. Like him as much as I do, he's not “one of us” any more than we Modernists can fake being natives in the Amazon. We have to talk to people who speak our emotional and experiential language. Men, though, are men, and they are not, any more than we are Amazonians, women. So, we will talk to a female shaman and to a male to ask more about the Modernist taking ayahuasca in the hope of some better grasp of our situation, whatever it might be.

There are American hippie shamas in the ayahuasca business in Iquitos, one of whom is named Ron Wheeler, or maybe, according to some, Wheelock, or, my personal favourite, Ron Hubbard. Ron, whom I have not met, is reported to have large amounts of cash on hand due to the price of his services, drawing the interest of armed robbers who wish to spread the wealth aroun, feeling that at some point he, like others, has made enough money and should pay his fair share to those who need it more than he, they being exploited and oppressed by the system. So, Ron reportedly has pit bull dogs guarding his place, no doubt better able to bite than the dog that tried successfully enough to eat my right foot, still swollen after three weeks, and Ron also, at least from local rumour, raises fighting cocks, also, I think, to protect his investments, no armed robber daring to confront an angry chicken in the dark. There are other American shamans to talk to, and they are all interesting. I haven't settled on speaking to anyone else yet. It seems somewhat imporant to know what to ask first, and though I had some ideas this morning I spent the afternoon reading a doctoral thesis by an anthropologists to see if I can find things about ayahuasca that I don't know about, which is much. Talking to shamans should be a matter for an informed interviewer. This evening I know more, and once others know this information as well, then reading the interviews will yield insights from them and about my take on this as well so that the reader can see my bias and make a clearer judgment himself. Or not, as the case too often is, so many, like the recent anorexic kid who “has a band” and spent three straight days on the toilet and on his bed sick nearly to death, not from food poisoning as I had assumed, but from ayahuasca and lack of food. He had no idea what he was doing, other than that he was doing something cool, even if it nearly killed him. There are things one can know about ayahuasca, not only pertaining to ones general health, a seeming obsession with the crowd intent on “healing” whatever imaginary ills they might dream up as an excuse to “heal.” And when they walk blindly in a state of ignorance that would shame the average Christian faith-healer selling used cars outside the trailer park, one can only blink. It's not cool to be a deliberate moron, contrary to the crowd of drug-taking naifs who lap up the crap of peer group conformity. Some shamans are outright seriously bad people, and one won't know if one doesn't even understand that such is not only possible but too often likely. And some drug tourists are scum on the ground doing more harm to the locals with their self-absorption and gooey sentimentalities than the worst dictators of the land. The later one could fight, but the free-spending, drug-taking tourist is a menace one embraces. Some shamans are bad. Some tourists are as bad. But not even thinking of thinking about what one gets into before one gets into it is a prescription for catastrophe.

There are problems with ayahuasca. One is the sentimentalisation of Amazonian individuals by Modernists who dismiss the uniqueness of said individuals for the sake of self-indulgence as moralistic poseurs. The following is so well put I might have it tattooed on my arse just because:

[W]esterners who naively perceive the performance of shamans as authentic and the shaman himself who is transformed to a “clown in a New Age circus” (Joralemon 1990:109).
Evgenia Fotiou , “From Medicine Men to Day Trippers: Shamanic Tourism in Iquitos, Peru.” University of Wisconsin, Madison. 2010.

I might be overly fond of using the term philobarbarism, but it is too apt to refuse. It means a “love of barbarians” in contrast to loving ones own more advanced culture. It is an affectation, a falseness played by unintelligent intellectuals as a matter of distancing themselves from the banalities of the norms of their own milieux while creating the illusion among the gullible that the sneering critique of Modernity, in whatever form it might take contemporaneously, is somehow sophisticated, a matter of “slumming” in front of the middleclass by the middleclass, as if they were higher. The usual pretentious pose among “sophisticated” middleclass intellectuals is to be seen with a Black “friend.” Conversely, it is a middleclass Black affectation to be seen among successful Whites (from who he makes his living) while criticising them as racists. The case of ayahuasca tourism brings out the same kind of posing among the truly repulsive who, rather than cry rape and female victimhood, instead have sex with shamans, ayahuasca groupies who wreak havoc on families in small communities with no regard for the chaos they cause. Trophy shamans. To others these shamans suddenly showered with Modernist attentions are husbands and fathers and village doctors. Rock star shamans for the moment, they can leave town in disgrace to take up residence at a yuppie lodge at something financially greater than they could dream of in their own homes among their own community members, being “clowns of the New Age circus.” The price is high for all involved. One generally unnoticed price paid is the creation and sustenance of a parasitic clique of low level intellectuals who then criticise the indigenous alienation created by drug tourism. Modernity creates a class of intellectuals who criticise philobarbarists to find an edge in the competitive market of social reformers and community organisers, another form of philobarbarism, though less obvious.

I've taken issue previously with those Modernists who claim to be in need of “healing” from whatever traumas they might have suffered as children, as if they were still children. These same people are often wealthy beyond my imagination, and they visit men and sometimes women living in grass huts in the jungle to find something new to brag about when they return to Modernity, something exotic to say to their business associates and other “friends” about what they did during their summer vacations. Yes, Modernity, or in this case, post-modernity, harbours a sickness. If it were simply simpering insipidity among the spoiled one would be hard pressed to find reason to care. Unfortunately, the result, not limited to the damage among the locals, is the spread of a real disease, Reaction, the fundamental error, and fatal, of the German Revolution taking place across the Modernist world today. Following is a further example of this fatal attraction to the German Revolution.

The archaic mystique
For many, participating in shamanic ceremonies fulfills a need to connect to an archaic past, or a desire for continuity of consciousness from ancient times. The past is thought to hold what the modern lacks and that is located in cultural others– consumable by moderns in their search for self-fulfillment (Fabian 1983). (Ibid. Fotiou.)

Corruption of selva life is, for me, not particularly important here, the advance of the people into the Modern being, in my opinion, a greater leap and one worth the loss of heimat and gemeinschaft. The serious problem of Modernity is the lack of understanding of such a concept, the acceptance of the sentimentalised construct as if it were authentic; and thus there is a further alienation in the pursuit of the alienation unknown. To put this in English: some people are unthinkingly accepting of the idea of community as if it were valuable over individualism-- to a degree that many have come to destroy unthinkingly and in a state of uncritical conformity to the norms of postmodernism the very foundations of liberal Modernity in the pursuit of a better, a higher, a purer liberty, effectively an illusion most are too unaware of to grasp the futility of such a pursuit, utopian at best, a return to primitive fascism. In short, stupid intellectuals and some outright morons are ruining a freer world by indulging in a phantasy of self-absorption they seem to think is cooler than the boring stuff of ordinary living. Taking ayahuasca in the Amazon jungle with a shaman is far more interesting to them than to stay at home and raise families. A woman in her forties dressing like a 16 year old and having sex with a village shaman who got caught and is banished from his house and family and village because of it is OK for her. She can edit that story to make herself seem far more than the creepy slut she is. Her friends, assuming she has any, will then have to go further to find some experience to top her, so to speak. All the while, Modernity crumbles into ruin because of the pursuit of self-indulgence leading to further alienation, to a further disgust with oneself as a loser without a foundation the shaman and his former family had and cannot legitimately share with those who fly in and fly out in a matter of weeks. The rot spreads. Modernity becomes to be seen by the emergent, proto-Modernists as a disease to be avoided by their own Reaction, as one sees in the Sendero Luminoso terrorists of Peru, for example. Shamans of the jungle do become “Clowns of the New Age circus.” For what? the average person might ask.

One might laugh at some of the criticisms of the drug tourist by low level intellectuals who must make a living at anti-Modern criticism and also gain prestige as “rebel” intellectuals:

Some warn of the impact this “industry” might have on the environment. According to Grunwell (1998) “not only are the people of South America placing demands on the supply of ayahuasca, but also with the influx of tourists, sources could be in danger of complete exhaustion”. Finally, as Proctor (2001) notes this commercialization can have negative effects on health care in Amazonian communities as a lot of shamans are mostly interested in tourism than healing members of the community. She also warns that shamans adapt to the expectations of the tourists, a fact that greatly distorts indigenous shamanism. Ibid. (Fotiou . p.14.)

The last time I checked, ayahuasca and chakruna are plants. They grow when people bother to plant them. These plants grow almost all by themselves. To panic over the disappearance of such plants because too many tourists are demanding them is so stupid only a postmodernist academic could put his or her name to such idiocy without shame. No one will run out of ayahuasca even if they try. It grows wild in the jungle. And if shamans spend all their energies “healing” Modernist losers, that would leave the local population with no alternative but to see Modern medical professionals who actually do some good occasionally. But those pseudo concerns are simply further manifestations of the rot of post-modernism. Any kick at Modernism, no matter how repulsively stupid, finds an audience willing to pay in cash and status for the speaker. I'm in the wrong fucking business!

Dobkin del Rios, as so often, does get it right:

 “As many South Americans realize its money-making potential, they 'come to adopt a New Age vocabulary of shamanic healer/spiritual voyager'.” (Dobkin de Rios 1994:18). (Ibid. Fotiou.)

This is a fine thing, and one can only hope that, like so many pop star gurus of the sixties, they will go to California and buy Rolls Royce limos to sit in the barn while hippies swoon at the authenticity of the former jungle shaman now living in a Beverly Hillbillies mansion. Good. Go. Make a lot of money and be a Hollywood shaman. Pay my student loan. I sure won't be doing it with the money I make.

Most people in the Modern world have far too much stuff, too easy a life. That in itself is not a serious problem, and it's even a problem I might like to have, though I'm not so keen on working at it. Instead I live a bohemian life of genteel poverty. OK, poverty. What separates me from my successful colleagues in the literary business, aside from my use of terms like philobarbarism, is that I don't pose as one who hates people who have a lot of money. Nor do I hate stupid people. I do tend to hate stupid people with too much money who hate middle class people. Thus, I am not cool.

For decades, ayahuasca was the stuff of legend associated with various scientists and literary writers, from the pioneer field ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes to the poet Allen Ginsberg and writer William Burroughs. Today its use has expanded to a global level and has had an enormous impact on religious and neo-shamanic currents in the West. (Ibid. Fotiou.)

I promote the beauty of sewers, McDonald's, and plastic. I am destined to be poor forever. I don't think you are special. I think plastic is special because anyone with a few bucks can have a throne like the Sun King's at Versailles. It might be plastic, but it's a democratic thing. If I were to write about you being the centre of the universe, then perhaps I too could have a bunch of groupies and tonnes of cash floating around me. Unfortunately, I am particularly stupid in my own special way, and I think you, whoever you are, are just you. Your enlightenment is not important. I am a loser, indeed, destined to live as a backpacking loser.

Marcel Mauss (1938) was the first one who discussed cultural variations of the concept of the self throughout Western history asserting that earlier human communities had a more sociocentric conception of the person; in addition, he argued that the notion of the self as a unique individual possessing self-consciousness, the “cult of the self,” is of recent origin. (Ibid. Fotiou.)

Well, yes. But no. The problem is the Romantic vision of Self. People have an innate sense of self, a matter of infant individuation. The problem is in the alienation today that drives the ignorant and self-indulgent to think of himself as special and above all communion in spite of hortatory rotomontades of the special people to save the earth from the middle class.


People sometimes think they are special because they say the “right thing” about the latest group think issue, knowing nothing much about the issue at all, in spite of sometimes long study, as worthless as specialising in astrology in the age of String Theory, and because they receive congratulations from their friends they think they are superior to the middle class, of whom they mostly are and hate to admit it, seeking something greater than mediocrity as a self-identifier. Lots of demands of others to be “moral” like the speaker, even though the speaker usually has little to no idea what he's on about. Thus, being an ignorant arsehole with a lot of noise, he finds a niche to live in as a lonely and stupid moralist no one really believes but most are too afraid to say they think he's a fool. And chasing emptiness is a full time occupation, requiring ones dedicated energies forever to fill the emptiness with more emptiness. Today it's ayahuasca, like yesterday it was transcendental meditation with the Beatles, like tomorrow it will be reading my fine books. There is a lack of humility that attempts to fill the vacuum of mediocrity. Almost everyone is mediocre. Those who can't accept that about themselves often turn to persona to mask it for others. It is a basic alienation. More alienation is simply more alienation. More words, more exotic drug-taking in other exotic places is more alienation. People have always felt their own individuality, but recently they have come to think it's not enough to simply be oneself: one must be special.

Alright. I confess that I think you are special. Now, please send me money. Ha.

Mediocre people comprise about 80 percent of the population, and few would chose to be in the remaining division of tens. But few seem to think of the consequence of being mediocrities who are somehow special. An easy, and therefore popular avenue to specialness for the unhappy mediocrity is to be morally superiour to other mediocrities, i.e. people no different from himself. For some, being morally fashionable is better than being well dressed. To be so moral that one can criticise all around him is to reach the heights of mediocrity without having to do much or be much other than to fly off to a remote city and take drugs for a long weekend, at least till it becomes too popular and the working class is doing it too. The the “artist” will have to find some new fashion to distinguish himself from other mediocrities. Artaud. Does anyone seriously read that stuff? He used to be fashionable.

Kehoe (2000) has argued that New Age and neoshamanism appropriation misrepresent or dilute indigenous practices and subtly reinforce racist ideas such as the Noble Savage image. Unfortunately, these stereotypes are still pervasive in popular culture. Early on artists and scholars wrote extensively about them. Artists used them as tools for self-exploration and inspiration. Romantic poets like Coleridge, Poe and Shelley investigated their dreams and trance states also using drugs with the intention to probe the far reaches of the mind (Pinchbeck 2004). Theirs was an act of resistance to modernity and the Industrial revolution. Mind altering substances became one way to explore cultural otherness by making direct contact with “primitive” knowledge. Antonin Artaud, by participating in peyote rituals in Mexico attempted to recover the sense of the sacred that European culture had lost (Artaud 1976). Artists like the Surrealists also explored dream states 100 (Pinchbeck 2004). (Ibid. Fotiou. p. 97.)

Alfred Jarry used to be a vanguard artist. So he should be, given that he was nuts. His acolyte Artaud was nuts. Faking it is nuts; but it's not that kind of nuts. It's a stupid nuts. Poe was genuinely nuts. Want to be like him? Or is it better to fake it? You probably aren't special. Leave it to those who are truly nuts. Stay home. Drink beer in front of the television. Leave nuts to professionals who can't help themselves. Send me money. You are not special. It doesn't matter what the shaman says. You are very likely mediocre. You are not going to be any more special by going to the jungle to take drugs.

How we see shamans has changed, of course. Today among the bored and pathetically pampered it is cool to be a lover of all things not Modern, which only the post-modernist can afford. A rather long excerpt from Fotiou 's doctoral thesis puts this in perspective:

Classical thought emphasized the idyllic state of simplicity and integrity while the Judeo-Christian thought focused thought focused more on bestial and devilish interpretations of the primitive. In both discourses the savage is perceived in opposition to the civilized West and both are equally one-dimensional and static. They view the “other” as frozen in time and are reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices. Within the discourse of the Good Indian we find the stereotype of the Indian as keeper of the earth, a very familiar image in the 20th c. Hamayon (1998) suggests three trends in the history of the approaches to shamanic behavior; devilization, medicalization and idealization. She places the first one historically in the 17th and 18th c. During that time, shamans were seen in opposition to Christianity and as “taken” by the evil spirits.

During the Enlightenment, primitivist ideas were used in order to educate with no intention to encourage people to appropriate savage ways of living (Wernitznig 2003). Their intention was to use them as a commentary on the civilized society’s malaise.

One approach presented them as “charlatans,” “imposters,” and 85 “magicians.” For example Diderot, the first writer to define “shaman” and the chief editor of the Encyclopedie, referred to shamans as Siberian “imposters” who perform “tricks that seem supernatural to an ignorant and superstitious people” (Narby and Huxley 2001:32).

Flaherty, however, noted that Europe in the 18th century was not entirely preoccupied with rationalism, humanism, and scientific determinism; manifestations of romanticism and the occult were present as well (1992:7).

The second trend was “medicalization” and is associated with the 19th c. and colonialism (Chaumeil 1999). It is the approach that focuses on the psychopathological aspect of shamanic behavior and its therapeutic aspect. This view was influenced by psychoanalysis. This approach has been abandoned and healing is no longer seen as the basis of shamanism. In addition it has been argued that sometimes healing appears to be a mask put on traditional customs in order to be tolerated by colonial and modernizing powers (Hamayon 1998).

According to psychoanalytical approaches shamanic behavior has been characterized as schizophrenia, something, which for many is oversimplifying his condition and role (Krippner 1992, 2000).

Hamayon (1998) calls the third trend in approaches to shamanism, “idealization” of shamanism. This trend can be traced historically to the 19th c. but has reached a peak in the 20th c. We can find traces of this approach in European romanticism, with its attraction to the spiritual and the mysterious, as well as in American transcendentalism and the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of which had a similar “organic approach to nature and spirituality” (Znamenski 2007:24). Echoing this romantic perpetuation of the nature– culture dichotomy and inspired by anti-modernist sentiments, shamanism is viewed as the most archaic religious form and is “praised as representative of a genuinely natural philosophy particularly useful in our modern technocratic world. Primitive is turned into primordial, wild into ecological, magic into mystic, makeshift into artistic” (Hamayon 2001:3). In fact this nostalgia about the past and hopeful idealism about the future seems to be a common theme of modernity. This approach brings to mind what Rosaldo called imperialist nostalgia (1989), the sort of nostalgia that people feel after conquering people. As he pointedly argued, this nostalgia is not innocent.

During the 1980s and later, we see an emphasis on the image of the spiritual noble savage, showing inner harmony (with oneself) and outer harmony (with the environment) (Wernitznig 2003). The stereotype of the wise, prophetic Indian became very popular during that time and is still with us today. The environmentalist movement found in indigenous knowledge the potential remedies for civilization’s problems. … Neoshamanisms claim a strong concern for ecology and everything that is considered to be “natural”.

One of the most recent chapters in this history is the phenomenon of neoshamanism and the appropriation of indigenous spirituality by loosely defined movements such as the New Age. Neoshamanism is defined as “a form of shamanism that has been created at the end of the 20th c. to re-establish a link for modern man to his spiritual roots, to re-introduce shamanic behavior into the lives of westerners in search of spirituality and, thereby, renew contact with nature” (Jakobsen 1999:xi).

Shamanic tourism is not a unique example of appropriation of indigenous knowledge by westerners. Another example that might relate to the case of ayahuasca is the case of Tibetan Buddhism as discussed by Lopez (1998). He discusses the different and sometimes even conflicting images of Tibetan Buddhism, often considered in opposition to Western culture. Some of these highly romanticized portrayals of Tibet still continue to hold sway. Similarly to some of the portrayals of ayahuasca, Tibet is imagined to embody the spiritual and the ancient and to hold wisdom lost to westerners. According to Lopez (1998:10) “Tibet is seen as the cure for an ever-ailing Western civilization, a tonic to restore its spirit”. The same can be argued for ayahuasca as well; not only the plants, but Amazonian peoples themselves are seen as spiritual and wise, and holding the answers to our problems.

(Brosius 1997), outside appropriation of indigenous knowledge can impose meanings on it that may be quite imaginary. Environmentalist discourse tends to present indigenous people as a homogenous group and their knowledge as universal in order to promote conservation. But the politics of this should not be ignored since it is westerners who define concepts such as conservation and who have acquired the role of speaking on behalf of the indigenous people. Several scholars have pointed out that even positive stereotypes perpetuate erroneous and detrimental assumptions about the “other”. (Ibid. Fotiou.)

Philobarbarism is a lie, no truer today than when it was applied to the early Taoists or Herodotus. It is also disgusting and often physically harmful to those abused by it. Unless you are truly nuts, stay home.
Gordon Wasson, a former banker, who visited Mexico in the 1950s and tried psilocybin mushrooms with Maria Sabina, later publishing his account in Life magazine (Wasson 1957), is responsible for the waves of Western seekers that flooded Oaxaca in the 1960s. (Ibid Fotiou.)
See here:

“In the 20th c. Aldus Huxley might be the first influential figure who discussed the potential benefits of hallucinogens openly.” (Ibid Fotiou.)

One hears frequently that the ayahuasca user feels that his ego has died under the influence of the drug. That makes no sense at all, the ego being part of a three part construct, according to Freud, a thinker mostly despised today by ayahuasca users, and if the ego dies, there might, though it's nonsense to think so, remain the id and the super ego. But the ego does not die, even according to the uninformed use of the term by ayahuasca users. Rather, they speak of themselves dissolving into a universality of oneness, what Freud's contemporary Roland Romaine describes as “the oceanic.” Huxley, too, discusses this, but he knows, as most others do not seem to know, that the ego doesn't die under the influence of ayahuasca: it becomes greater. In truth, the user becomes the focus of the oceanic, the centre of his own universe, the universe not being all and he an indefinite part, but the user is the ocean around which the universal floats, like an unindividuated infant who conceives of the world, his mother, as part of himself, as is everything else. The ayahuasca user doesn't become anything greater: the greater becomes the self-obsessed user, more focussed on his own self than previously. And the irony is that for most users I have spoken with, they have no curiousity about the drug they take nor the history or the chemistry or the lives of the shamans they idolise for a few days or a week as if they had backstage passes to a rock show and could meet the star of the latest pop tune splendours. But no curiousity about the drug or the culture or the people involved. The banality of the “ego” is stunning to behold, as is the conceit and the self-righteousness of the aggressively ignorant and the painfully lazy. They know that an influencial figure once said, maybe even wrote a book, that such and such is the good, and thus, following the trends wherever they might lead, even into the Amazon jungle, they do what others have done, knowing not why but only because. The reward for all of this is to finally feel a drug-induced euphoria of “loving themselves,” of being cured of traumas, of “healing.” But they are ever the ignorant bastards they began as, though able to cite a time in Iquitos, the name of a favourite shaman, the babble of an idiot drug user. The vanity of such people is staggering to encounter. Such people should, by rights, stay home and pursue their banalities in private; but their vanities will not allow it. Such things should be left to madmen only. If only!

A book that introduced ayahuasca to the Western consciousness at that time is the Yagé Letters. William Burroughs, a known heroin addict, hoped to find in ayahuasca what he did not find in other drugs. He characteristically wrote: “Yagé may be the final fix” (Lee 1953). Burroughs traveled to South America to try ayahuasca and seven years later Allen Ginsberg did the same; the result was the Yagé Letters, their correspondence from that period. However, Burroughs did not find what he was hoping for in ayahuasca or in Peru for that matter. His account is rather negative and unlikely to have attracted people to ayahuasca as much as other first hand accounts. In one instant he reported “...I had been conned by medicine men” (Burroughs and Ginsberg 1963:15). Ginsberg’s account is closer to the stereotypical first person account. Ayahuasca is mentioned in a number of other books written by Burroughs (Lee 1953).
Kristensen found that there were four main reasons that people became ayahuasca tourists: self-exploration and spiritual growth, curiosity, physical and emotional healing, and the desire for a vacation to an exotic location (1998:15). All these motives have been quoted as motives of tourism and pilgrimage as well. The common theme that can be discerned below is the attractiveness of anything that is perceived as the antithesis of Western civilization: pre-industrial, pre-modern, natural, exotic, spiritual, sacred, traditional and timeless. (Ibid. Fotiou.)

This is not attractive. It's a destructive philobarbarism that invades other people's legitimate culture for the sake of dilittantish vanity on the part of self-centred buffoons who are spoiled by affluence and an ego-driven nihilist and the constant despair of Gnostic mediocrity in search of authenticity that cannot come, regardless of the struggles or the credit card bills run up in the pursuit of.

What is to be gained?

In the case of ayahuasca rituals, participants are physically temporarily away from their culture and their social roles; metaphorically they intentionally step outside culture by ingesting a hallucinogen that challenges the very cultural categories that they take for granted. In this context they experience communitas and personal transformation. A viable theory of ritual for this context should account for rituals that capacitate personal transformation through temporary removal from social structure, but also by challenging cultural categories themselves through the ingestion of a powerful hallucinogen. (Ibid. Fotiou.)

Dislocation from ones familiar surroundings can be, often is, “mind-blowing” and sometimes frightening to the inexperienced. To seek out further a mind altering hallucinogen for the sake of making the break with ones norm ever starker is not to say that works, the person remaining essentially the same, and the projections altering the object as much as anything else. The drug tourist affects the local more than the shaman affects the drug user.

Earlier scholarly work has presented the indigenous peoples of the area as culturally intact, like Lewis and Lewis, who see traditional Shuar medicine as a static body of knowledge stating that “they use plants now as they have for perhaps thousands of years” (1994:61). Similar comments were made by most of my consultants, who were under the impression that the ceremonies that they participated in were identical to the ceremonies that indigenous peoples did “for thousands of years”. This point of view denies the obvious influence of the West on these cultures, as well as the cultures’ response to that influence. In the context of this discourse the figure of the shaman becomes mythologized and is presented as the preserver of ancient tradition. This perspective is not particularly interested in the reality of the present but more likely is looking for traces of the primordial in present shamanic practices. Shamanism is therefore essentialized and removed from its historical and cultural context. (Ibid. Fotiou)

One result of the sentimentalisation of ayahuasca drinking by suburban mediocrities from Modernity is that people like my friend Alemia can make a living of sorts dressing up in a “traditional Shipibo” costume while walking up and down Prospero street selling ayahuasca-themed embroidery to support herself and four young children. I dated the lady for months without ever knowing the squiggles on the blankets she sells tell a narrative of an ayahuasca vision. She never mentioned it, and I never had any interest in that part of her life. I would like very much to club to jelly many of the tourists who ooh and ahh at her and her work. They don't know her, don't care to, and sentimentalise her life and pity her for having left the “authentic” life of the jungle. They often times tell Amelia about their spirtiual awakening under the influence of ayahuasca, not knowing or caring to know that Amelia's father is an ancient and highly respected curandero from Pucalpa, ayahuasca shamans' version of Harvard.

Often people project the experiences they have in ceremonies to the shaman. If they have good experiences, then they consider the shaman to be very powerful and a great healer. I found that very few shamans will actually point out that it is not them that does the healing but the plants, the spirits and the patients themselves. Most will enjoy the respect they receive and probably exaggerate their abilities. (Ibid Fotiou. P.213)

Thus, it is seldom about the actual shaman, almost never about the city of Iquitos, nor about the nation of Peru that inspires the tourist to take ayahuasca. It is generally about the tourist exciting himself. Truth, even basic facts, are unloved in this crowd. For the average drug tourist, it's about the average drug tourist alone.

For some, it is a political act, rejecting organized religion and seeking out a more democratic way. They feel that traditionally religious authorities of every form claimed to monopolize the access to the divine agency and priests became the mediators between the people and the divine. They became necessary for the function of society because they regulate important activities. These new alternative spirituality movements find these mediators unnecessary and look for ways for every individual to tap into the divine. (Ibid,. Fotiou.)

It is indeed political, and that, in the last analysis, is why this look at ayahuasca use among Modernists is important. We will see more about the sentimentalising of “primitives” later, but next we'll look closely at the realities of shamans, not so much the phoniness of the picture presented by the typical drug tourist. Real shamans, real lives, real people.

A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:

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