Lately I've been thinking of the modern-day version of the shaman (appropriative and not) vs. the traditional figure of the shaman in indigenous cultures. To me the biggest difference is that for traditionally shamanistic cultures, the shaman was an individual who was not a regular participant in the daily life of the culture. They lived apart, they were allowed a separate set of rules, and acted contrary to the norms of their society. The situation is entirely different with today's shamanistic practitioners, who, though likely to be weird, and practicing rites and beliefs that aren't necessarily mainstream, are just as likely as any of us to need to hold down a day job.
Thinking about that aspect, about a figure who could be revelatory and at the same time still required to pay the bills, the earliest figure in modern society I could identify as filling that role was William Blake.
I always imagined that Blake came from a privileged background, because who else has the time to spend on the kind of work that he created, but I was dead wrong. Blake came from a tradesman background, and learned engraving, a vocation that would provide him a living throughout all of his life. In a way, I should have known, because the heterodox theology of his writing is clearly not related to an aristocratic worldview but something much more vibrant and unpredictable. Blake was also married, though one that accommodated, in theory at least, certain sexually-powered ecstatics. Neither his work or his living arrangement really mesh with the traditional role of the shaman, yet Blake's visionary art and writing offer a glimpse into a spirit world that was not accessible by others. To me, Blake set the pace for contemporary neo-shamanistic identity: one that can both deny the world and really be a part of it.
What is Man?
For a while now I've been wanting to do a Pairing of Blake and the Wu-Tang Clan. It's a more appropriate pairing than you might think at first glance, thanks to the affinities of certain esoteric beliefs of the 5 Percenters and Blake's own revelatory world views.
United by a certain patriarchal cosmology, Blake and Wu-Tang together give us more chances to see a glimpse of the evolution of the modern shaman, whether it's something we want to look at or not. Consider Blake's "London":
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
Reading this poem, I can't help but think of The W. The W was the first bad Wu-Tang album and it probably fucked me up more than anything they ever did, before or since in terms of its sheer ability to evoke the desperation of living and the desperation of the city.
Because cities unite Blake and Wu-Tang. They're places that make chimney sweep urchins and kids with no jackets on cold mornings possible and awful. Who wouldn't want to see a New Jerusalem, a city completely unbound by this world? This shared apocalyptic vision links Blake and Wu-Tang, who both always seem on the verge of chanting the world down, as it felt when The W came out in November 2000, if that date means anything anymore.