Magic Realism vs. Magical Realms #6

Bruce as shaman

An easy and clear distinction between magic realism and fantasy, or science fiction, is that MR is about revealing and exploring character by weaving the story through two worlds—reality and fantasy— in such a fluid manner that neither seems to intrude on the other, whereas the other two genres are about building fantastical worlds that are meant to be dissociated from the reality we know. A bi-dimensional world versus a one-dimensional world!

As promised, Bruce Nicoll will conclude this series with a contribution about his interest in shamanism and his work-in-progress Young Adult novel on the concept of adolescent rite-of-passage.

Bruce says, "First of all, a disclaimer: While I am more interested in shamanism than almost anything else, I am not really trained in it. I have read numerous books on the subject and attended plenty of short workshops conducted by its luminaries; Michael Harner, Hank Wesselman, Eduardo Luna, Nan Moss, David Corbin, to name just a few of the many teachers I have been privileged to learn from. And of course, like many of you, I’ve drummed and journeyed and fasted, crouched in sweats, swallowed foul-tasting brews and heady tinctures, chewed on obscure seeds and bitter twigs, all in the sincerest and most respectful hope of entering into communion with the “other,” some transcendent harbinger of information from outside of the mundane. A direct line to and from the realm of Spirit. Many times I have been successful. I have had experiences that changed my life. But what I most sought, an experience that might change somebody else’s life, has eluded me. To my immense disappointment, the ability to be of service in relieving the dis-ease of others is not a gift the Spirits have seen fit to channel through me.

Nevertheless, my faith that there is something to it all remains unshakeable. What else has kept the human race alive against all odds for such countless millennia? Like radio receivers, we are tuned to a particular bandwidth, evolved to sensorially process only certain frequencies. Our scientific knowledge is mostly circumscribed by these faculties, though thought, imagination, a near-death or psychedelic experience can sure push the curtain back a little, to give us a notion that there are teeming universes going about their business right next to us, right now. Shamanism is, in my opinion, just one of the many ways that these alien frequencies sometimes leak through.

I guess that my interest in all that—an interest forty years in the fermenting—has built up iteratively, beginning with exposure to African folk tales in my youth, complete with their panopoly of shapeshifting natural and animal spirits intersecting with the lives of men and women, mostly to do mischief. Then there was the understanding that the majority of my fellow South Africans, the indigenous black people, that is, would rather rely on a traditional faith healer when something was amiss than bother with Western medicine. Practitioners of that tradition were divided between inyanga herbalists and sangoma diviners, both considered essential, the former being those ethnobotanists basing their remedies on the fauna and flora of the natural world, the latter those that “threw the bones,” interpreting signs from the supernatural world of spirits, ghosts, and ancestors, whether to cast, or ward off, spells. I saw an agitated young women leap off the back of a truck onto a tar road—at fifty miles an hour—because she was convinced that she had been bewitched after finding some bloody scraps of meat and hair tied in a bundle in her hut. The spell worked. It worked on me, anyway.

My mother, who had grown up in rural Zululand, a tribal region positively seething with spectral mystery and rampant supersitition, was fascinated with herbal medicine and intuitive white magic. My father, mystically New Age decades before it became fashionable, was into yoga and meditation in the fifties, for heaven’s sake! How could I possibly have been normal? Predictably, I did everything I could to avoid learning anything from them. It is only in retrospect that I now realize they were two of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Despite my teenage scorn, however, I became engrossed in Lobsang Rampa, then astrology, then Egyptology, and then I discovered metaphysics, which led to soul work and Terrence McKenna and ayahuasca and coming to America. And throughout that time I was searching for the opening to my own shamanic ability but—if I’m honest—at few moments was I seriously open to the lifestyle compromises apparently required for the Spirits to take one to heart.

Nowadays, I’ve put those ambitions to one side and embraced the profane, so to speak. Those who can, do and those who cannot, teach. Instead of a reliable livelihood in soul retrieval, I started writing a kind of guidebook for my godson (in lieu of the religious instruction godfathers are supposed to impart), trying to tell him about everything that I believe, in the form of an adventure story in which a young boy goes off on a quest to save the natural world, along the way discovering pretty much all I know about the practice and purpose of shamanic ritual. You could call that magic realism, I suppose."