Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Ghosts of Versailles: from Sicilian Poets to Neo-Shamanism

In the 3rd century BCE the Sicilian poet Theocritus wrote idyllic poems about carefree shepherds. Untrammeled by worldly cares, they spent their days chasing nymphs, carousing with shepherds and singing happy rustic songs.  While these stories bore little resemblance to the actual lives of herdsmen or pastoral cultures, they found a ready audience among the weary sophisticates of Alexandria.  Two centuries later the Roman poet Virgil would write his first major work, the Eclogues, in imitation of Theocritus: its success would inspire many imitators.

Seeking to rebuild Europe in the wake of the Black Death, Renaissance thinkers looked to the Classical world for models.  Yet even as they privileged the civitatis (city), so too did they idealize the simple lives of the have-nots. As the Renaissance gave way to the Colonial Age, pastoral themes began appearing all over the place. Handel and Monteverdi wrote pastoral operas. Shakespeare used pastoral conventions in many of his plays, most notably As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream while Milton's Lycidas casts the poet's recently deceased friend as a drowned shepherd.


Pastoral artworks were particularly beloved among the French aristocracy.  The fête champêtre (garden party) was a popular entertainment.  Escaping the hustle and bustle of Paris, courtiers and noble ladies retreated to rural surroundings, where they would dress as shepherds, milkmaids and peasants. Freed of courtly rules of etiquette, they could engage in simple peasant dances (accompanied by orchestras kept conveniently hidden) and act the part of satyrs chasing nubile nymphs.  In 1783 Marie Antoinette, who was especially fond of these parties, had a thatched roof country cottage, le petit hameau de la reine (the Queen's Little Hamlet) built on the grounds of Versailles.

Much contemporary neo-Shamanism appears to be influenced by the same "back to nature" urge which has fueled pastoral movements since the days of Theocritus.  There is the same dissatisfaction with the dominant culture, the same desire to return to a simpler way of life.  There is the same romantic fantasy about the childlike happy primitives and their pure wisdom.  As Dr. Bruce Charlton says: 

We were all animistic children once, and for most of human evolutionary history would have grown into animistic adults. Animism is therefore spontaneous, the 'natural' way of thinking for humans, and it requires sustained, prolonged and pervasive socialization to 'overwrite' animistic thinking with the rationalistic objectivity typical of the modern world. It is learned objectivity that creates alienation - humans are no longer embedded in a world of social relations but become estranged, adrift in a world of indifferent things.
But objectivity is superficial: animism remains the basic underlying mode of human thinking, and animism can be recovered. When we are removed from the rational systems of civilisation, when learned patterns of socialised behaviour are stripped-away, then animistic thinking can re-emerge and a sense of belonging in the world may return.
I am sympathetic to Dr. Charlton and to the re-establishment of an animist worldview. But I am leery of any solution which involves a removal from civilization.  I think that Charlton, like many modern neo-shamans, is looking for an antidote to contemporary alienation in the primitive. Historically these efforts by a privileged class to shake the bonds of "rationality" have been hollow play-acting at best. At worst, they have been a panacea for our guilt feelings about inequality and appropriation.  

The trick is not to reject our civilization but to transform it: instead of seeking animistic thinking in a never-was Eden, we need to reinstate it in our own lives and our own world.  The solution to our malaise will not be found in far-away places and distant times: it lies instead in discovering the Divine expressed in our here and now.