Years ago, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers riveted my attention with their series The Power of Myth. I listened carefully to Campbell. His love for his subject gave his words power and excited me. He talked about “following your bliss” which is the same as your soul’s desire. I knew that my bliss was writing stories, exploring the mysteries of the human condition and behavior through fiction. Then in one segment, Campbell talked about artists and their position in a society, their role in passing on the stories of myth. Especially writers whom he referred to as “shamans,” or holy people. Writers are the stewards of a culture’s myths.
Are writers today the shamans of our culture? Who are our shamans, the stewards of our culture’s myths? Do we even know anymore what our culture’s myths are? Do we care?
The word shaman conjures images of magic, indigenous people, mysterious rituals, fire and mist. A shaman has access to the supernatural whereas traditional clergy of most of our religions are grounded in the physical world. Our religious clergy have a hierarchy of power to which they adhere along with rules and regulations that govern each religion. Shamans tend to be independent contractors who abide by the laws of the Universe, as they see it. Magic often plays a prominent role in a shaman’s work. We can easily imagine our traditional clergy as scholars and writers — many have been. But could we imagine a shaman as a writer?
I believe this is an especially important question right now because of the social upheaval we’re seeing in our culture. When I think about writer-shamans, the first name that pops into my head is John Lennon and his song Imagine. In this song, Lennon focused more on imagining positive images after identifying what needs to be changed. He kept it simple, giving the song power in its straightforward words. Lennon understood that it wasn’t enough simply to identify what’s wrong. It was necessary to use the imagination to create images of the positive changes that will replace what’s wrong.
For the life of me, though, I cannot think of any novelists or poets who I could elevate to shaman status. Writers who explore social change have traditionally written in the science fiction and fantasy genre where they can set their stories on other planets or worlds to gain distance from earth’s readers and their sensitivities. The last few years, dystopias and apocalyptic scenarios have dominated this genre to a certain degree. Does that mean that we are expecting the worst? Or does it mean that we need to be reminded even more to use our imaginations to imagine positive futures for ourselves?
I’ve just finished reading a novel written by a possible shaman: Walter M. Miller, Jr. His novel was A Canticle for Leibowitz. After a nuclear war that destroys earth as we know it, there’s a social backlash against political leaders and intellectuals, scientists and anyone else who was involved in creating the conditions that led to the war, and the knowledge involved. But the physicist Leibowitz understands that someone needs to protect and preserve human knowledge for the future when people will be ready to learn it again. The overall theme of this novel is the question: Can humans learn from their mistakes and not make the same mistakes again? Miller explores how humans think, what’s important to people in the future, religion and spiritual influences (not always the same thing), and the social changes that occur over time. I think this is the work of a shaman-writer because of the depth of the exploration, the hard questions Miller poses, and his honesty and integrity in telling the story. It’s not as optimistic as I think writers would create now, but it thoroughly examines humanity and the issues we face now as well as the possible issues we’d face in the future.
Who else could be a writer-shaman in the present? Are there any bestselling novelists who would qualify?