My wife and I watched Oliver Sacks: His Own Life the other night, an American Masters documentary on PBS,. The so called “poet laureate of medicine,” who died of liver cancer in 2015, was a strange figure, a genius outsider plagued by harrowing emotional weirdness. An older brother descended into schizophrenia; he was prone to chemical dependency and suffered from prosopagnosia or “face blindness,” a condition which made him deeply shy and removed from intimate contact (he refrained from sexual intimacy for 35 years).
Yet Sacks was a brilliant physician, and perhaps because he had suffered much mental anguish that he felt an intense empathy for patients suffering from a horrorshow of neurological afflictions. Convinced that deep within every patient was a living, yearning consciousness, Sacks re-wrote the literature of patient care with classics like Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Cat and Musicophilia.
Oliver Sacks and patient
Sacks’ nature was dual. He was first a passionate observer. “In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life.” He also saw the importance of narrative, for the case study as the more faithful, direct and humane path to successful diagnosis and treatment: “To be ourselves we must have ourselves – possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must ‘recollect”’ ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.”
The jury’s out whether Sacks was a better physician or writer. (Perversely, he was not well accepted in the medical community until the movie Awakenings came out in 1990.) But must we decide? And whatever the case, neuroscience has received a warm and tempering light from Sacks, and the general public has gotten some great books.
What strikes me here for an earthweal challenge is the figure of the wounded healer, one who can heal because h/she has experienced themselves the deep springs of life and death. There is something about the wounding experience which qualifies one to heal (and, in our case, to write poems). Rilke put it best in his Sonnets to Orpheus:
Is he someone who dwells in this single world? No:
both realms are the source of his earthly power.
He alone who has known the roots of the willow
can bend the willow-branch into a lyre.
(I.iv, transl. Stephen Mitchell)
Wounded healers go deep into our prehistory with the figure of the shaman. Many have written on shamanism and what we know of it is based largely on practices still in evidence a century ago. Mercea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy is one good study.
Figure in shamanic trance, Lascaux Paleolithic cave
Shamanic practice even a century ago varied widely, but some core elements are consistent throughout. The shaman’s initiation ordeal was often fatal but reconstitutive. Typically at early adulthood they were “soft-minded,” prone to neurosis; rejected by their hunting peers, they were loners who preferred wilderness solitude. Their initiation began by falling sick and swooning into what now would now be called a schizophrenic episode. In the initiate’s story, the madness is described as departing from the upper world and travelling to a dark and forbidding place where they were dismembered and boiled in a pot until just their bones remained. The spirits then reassembled them, adding an extra bone of sacred medicine, and sent them back to the living.
As wounded healers, their medicine songs called out to the spirit of a particular ailment. Many did not survive their initiation ordeal, and those who did were weird figures — wise fools, soft minded warriors, dancing like women and dressing like animals.
As mediators of the sacred; shamans would be replaced in more complex societies by the priest and savior. St. Columba was a wounded healer; an outcast from Irish dynastic ambition after causing a bloody battle over the right to a psalter he had copied in secret, he was exiled from Ireland, told to settle on an island so far away that the coast of Ireland could not be seen. Founding the Iona Abbey in 563 AD, Columba spread word of the new faith to pagan Scots, was said to have copied some 300 books and was himself a prolific poet. St. Columba only returned once to Ireland, for the Council of Drumeceatt where the fate of the old filid class hung in the balance. Columba made an impassioned plea for the traditional storytelling arts, saying, “humans of dust, you are nothing but a story.” As a result, the poets retained some of their rank while being instructed to work with clerics in committing the old tales to writing.
Sacks’ embrace of narrative as the royal road to care reminds us of the vital need to preserve our stories. (In AA it is said, your story is your sobriety).
Detail, Gundestrup Cauldron, ca 1st century BC
With the advent of the scientific age, the doctor would play the same role. Paracelsus was one of the early bridges from alchemy to medicine. “In extremis things reveal their nature, become visible,” he declared, which is the modern approach to diagnosis. (The tools for magnifying that sight grew from polished glass to magnetic resonance imaging.) Yet Paracelsus also believed like shamans that like cures like; a disease could be physicked if you knew its name, for you could brew a palliative of the same essence, a tincture which communicated with the god in the disease.
The formula for madness works somewhat in reverse, as the early modern psychiatrist Carl Jung discovered. He used an alchemical formula for treating alcoholics — spiritus contra spiritus or “it takes spirit to counter spirits.” (That became a founding principle of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Third Step —”Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Old-timers point out that AA doesn’t try to tell members who that God is, only the need to have one.)
The poet was another wounded healer invaluable to the tribe. Traditional poets were initiated in a manner similar to shamans, lying flat as if dead in a dark room while waiting for their poetic inspiration to come. They also learned the oral tradition in that manner, in a darkened singing hut as they listened to the voices of time. The ecstasy of song is like birdflight, capable of transporting the singer (with us listeners in tow) to the upper branches of the world tree. Buile Subhne was a seventh-century king who was cursed with madness and fled to the wood; his sufferings and songs of the healing wild must have been a powerful alembic in the harrowing time known as the Dark Ages, for they were largely intact when they were finally written down in the early 12th century.
In our late age, the wounded healer has been articulated as an internal health; shaman, savior, doctor and artist are myths or masks of emotional health. Whatever great wounds we all suffer are the very wombs of their healing, if we find a way to approach them and name them, let them sing their litanies and tragedies, grieve them and let them go. And go on.
Yet few are yet capable of successfully mediating such individual physic. The disrepair of our society is the clearest indicator. Anyone viewing the awful footage of mass pyres burning in India must feel the torment of their inner shaman. A Hindu priest walking among corpses in the Ghazipur crematory in New Delhi told a reporter the other day, “If I fall sick and die, I will go to heaven.” He then paraphrased a popular reading of Hindu scripture: “Death is the only truth.” In the year 2021, that’s hard to embrace, but where the air was recently fouled with the mass death from wildfires, now the cinders of the human dead fill the air.
And who or what is the wounded healer of the Anthropocene, witch doctor to climate catastrophe, mediator of rising tides and burning skies? Who says prayers for the soul of The Lady of Wild Things as she hovers near extinction? Who is being crucified for our global sins—the poor, the flooded, the critter—and what is the music which will yet awaken us to understand we all have to take a place on that cross so that the Earth might be saved? Such sacrifice takes place deep in the heart where wild and God are one.
I can’t help wondering if the wounded healer for such global malaise is the Earth herself, a damaged wholeness, borne of human madness and the terrible spells of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice — air conditioning and solo vehicles, plastic wrappers and nuclear bombs. Maybe the song we need to hear and emulate is the wounded Earth’s? We would need a story for that, a case history of the world assembled from diverse locations.
Something we could do here …
Back in 2005 I wondered if the damage and addlements of my youth fed and blossomed my adult into poetry. If that is so, why not the world? What and where are the wombs formed in the wounds of sea level rise and wildfire, mass extinction and ocean acidification?
What then are the Songs of the Earth Shaman?