21st century writing | 21st century approaches

The Traumatised Shaman: The Woman Writer in the Age of Globalised Trauma

Hilary Mantel’s writings, particularly Giving up the Ghost (2003) and Beyond Black (2005), raise the question of the woman writer specifically as a kind of committed shaman in this new globalised world who attempts to bring about change for good and heal the world. Beyond Black mixes neo-Victorianism with contemporary psycho-geography to foreground the problem of self-reflexivity. The Victorian preoccupation with spiritualism, or invocation of the dead voices, becomes a figure for the contemporary woman writer’s concrete externalisation of inner dialogic conflict through the creation of character. Hilary Mantel’s writings suggest that, in an age of globalised risk and trauma, the author might now be seen to have a therapeutic function. Writers become therapists for the present and curators of the past. The distinctive tone of this new metamodernist fiction departs from the sceptical textualism of the postmodern to produce a new blend of the ironic and the sincere. This new author is both healer and wounded figure, committed to pushing the boundaries of the novel (towards the infinite) and to exploring the power of fiction in connecting to the globalised world, thus facilitating our understanding of the suffering of others on a more global scale. Like a shaman, this author-function also brings about positive change through acting as a conduit for the traumatic and the wounded.

Alison Hart, the heroine of Beyond Black, has ingeniously found ways to convert her traumatic   communication with ghosts, spirits and demonic others into a career as a latter day medium. Hart thus summons up ghosts for the bereaved and suffering as she travels around the edgelands of the London Orbital. From the beginning, Mantel invokes a feeling of threat by evoking a place of margins and dark edges. She depicts a society that protects itself by removing misfits and rebellious women to the edges like lurking animals. The motifs of globalisation, risk, fragility, violence and uncertainty are established from the very beginning, as the poisoned terrain of London’s edgelands is presented as a contemporary Waste Land: “wastes looping London”, “the leaves of the poisoned shrubs,” “fridges dead on their backs,” “a landscape running with outcasts and escapees, with Afghans, Turks and Kurds: with scapegoats, scarred with bottle and burn marks, limping from the cities with broken ribs,” and “something dead” stirring in the back seat of the car, “the Heathrow sheep, their fleece clotted with the stench of aviation fuel”, with “burnt-out pedophiles,” “[a] static cloud bank, like an ink smudge. Darkening air”, and a land where “[c]olour has run out from” it (1). This is a powerfully vivid, surreal yet penetrating image of the radically unsafe metropolis and outer landscapes (with its polluted, detrimental and toxic environments) inhabited by impoverished immigrants, paedophiles and zombie-like creatures limping over a lethal dead land.

Drawing upon Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000), and Gilles Deleuze’s concept of a movement from a discipline society to a control society in Negotiations (1995), Jeffrey Nealon regards the contemporary era as an intensification of postmodernism (78). He argues that postmodern surveillance [i]has entered a new phase and has become less tangible but more constant and disembodied. This control society can now be implemented via credit cards, subway passes, Web browsers, DNA and mobile data usage (92). As the world moves beyond late capitalism, postmodernism can no longer appropriately express its ethos. The contemporary world is now better defined in terms of transnational capital, or to use Nealon’s term, an “economy of globalized control,” which guarantees the “smooth flow of capital and goods” globally (93). This new control society no longer functions based on exclusion (as in a disciplinary society that would exclude minorities such as lepers, women, mad people, etc.). Rather, to guarantee the flow of capital, it celebrates diversity and difference (the Other), in contrast to Cold War-era high-postmodern discourse although generating new marginalised minorities.

Figure 1 Nealon brings up Arby’s chain commercial (1993) that celebrates “different is good” as an example of welcoming and celebrating (manipulating) difference and multiculturalism.

Figure 2 L’Oreal’s 2018 haircare campaign and celebration of diversity by using a hijab-wearing model.

As mentioned earlier, London, in the novel, is depicted as now run by the once marginalised and excluded: outcasts, Afghans, Turks and Kurds. Yet, simultaneously this new globalised, inclusive centre, inevitably creates new margins: “impoverished immigrants, pedophiles and zombie-like creatures” (1). The world of Beyond Black is also that of a new, transnational form of capital and control, in which the possession of a credit card triggers the fear of constant surveillance and tracking. Alison is fully aware of, and fed up with, this world. Her dismay is depicted in her asking a woman to cut up her credit card: “Cut up that credit card. Throw away those catalogues. You can break these spending habits – well, you must, really. You have to grow up and exercise some self-control” (17). Credit cards, catalogues, and later emails, are disembodied yet constant reminders of the power and control of transnational capital; they mark the backdrop against which Alison struggles to preserve her sense of agency and control, along with the means of doing good and bringing about a positive change in the world (184).

The representative of this newly emerged, globalised power is Colette, who decides to expand the business globally and turn Alison, who is known only locally, into a transnational brand, a product to sell out. Yet, Alison shows no interest in being part of this transformation: “‘I’d like to make you a global brand’, Colette said . . . She could only think of fat things, like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. In Al’s belief, the four of swords governed the Internet” (184). Alison feels a responsibility towards healing this expanded world as she reluctantly takes on a global, transnational role for herself. Hence, her concern with the desire to bring about positive change through solutions and alternatives; her healing efforts take the form of mediumship, a kind of pastiche of late Victorian spirituality that Mantel resorts to. Her profession is a kind of shaman, and her interaction with benevolent and malevolent spirits, all projections of her own altered states of consciousness, represents an attempt to draw down other forces that might cure the world of dis-ease.

The voices and spirits heard by Alison formally emanate from her own consciousness. Nevertheless, she is represented as a conduit for the widespread traumas of the world and voices therefore emanate from this ecological outside. The contemporary concept of authorship suggests that authorial functions are complex and dialectical, exercising a negative capability by externalising voices which are already internalisations of the external world’s afflictions, horrors and traumas. Exercising hyper-vigilant awareness — the dark other side of the bright new world of transnational commerce — Alison calls up its voices and transforms them into rowdy and colourful characters expressed in fictive language. Alison’s re-invention of the neo-Victorian shaman – the wounded healer – is an attempt to bring a spiritual cure to this contemporary spiritless (uncaring) wasteland and its lethargic people, who are only preoccupied with their properties as investments (as Al’s neighbours after the death of Mart); medicine has failed to adequately cure their malaise which is the result of the dominant uncaring, apathetic lifestyle. The author-function in the contemporary metamodernist world constitutes projection and substantialising of those i dialogically internalised voices – these consequently become vehicles for addressing the unsayable and the hidden of personal, social  and environmental trauma.

Photo by Jason Taellious “Shaman” used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Once the key themes of Alison’s life – risk, child abuse, violence, death, and poison – are established, the narrative begins its own hermeneutic journey towards revelation of the personal and cultural sources of Alison’s traumatic voices. Though seemingly related to the supernatural or “Spirit” the voices are auditory hallucinations that signal Alison’s traumatic experiences in the past that she continues to live with. The first voice is that of Morris, her spirit guide, who possesses a berating tone and scolds her professional abilities. Criticising Alison’s choice of partner, Morris refers to Colette, Alison’s P.A. and manager, as a [f]ucking stuck-up cow” and “[w]hite-faced fucking freak. She’s like a bloody ghoul. Where did you get her, gel, a churchyard?” (7). Again, in the ambiguity-laden form of free indirect speech, mingling Alison and the narrator’s voices, the reader learns, “[h]er colleague was right, Morris was a low person. How did she get him? She probably deserved him, that was all there was to it” (7). We might attribute the narratorial voice here to Alison, but her low opinion of herself emerges from internalisation of voices which have already robbed her of self-esteem and bolstered her assumptions around notdeserve anything or anyone better.

Morris also constitutes a vehicle for the eventual reworking of threatening childhood voices – mother, rapists, teachers, family members, social workers; made able to listen to them through the distancing mechanism of dissociation, to make them real as fictions, Alison slowly begins to remember and to understand that it was not her fault. The ambiguous agencies of free indirect discourse are resolved through Alison’s occupying the narrator’s voice. Psychologists such as Richard Bentall have revealed through extensive research and case studies how “being raped increases the odds of voice-hearing sixfold” (McCarthy-Jones et al. 4). Similarly, the voices Alison hears are initially unacknowledged as the vigorous recurrence of suppressed internalised emotions (such as guilt and shame) related to her disturbed, traumatised past. Alison’s externalisation of her traumatic past in the form of inner voices is a reworking or thinking back of the woman writer through her mother to the rape of Philomela and its image of silenced femininity. The ghosts whose voices Alison hears are shadowy figures in the same way as the men who threatened Alison violently are now shadowy presences in her memory. Mantel not only draws attention to the mechanics of the novelist as a voice hearer but also to the serious issues of violence that women face in society.

Mantel refigures the concept of the wounded storyteller that the medical sociologist Arthur Frank raises up in The Wounded Storyteller (1995) and with this, the question of the ethical responsibility of the author. Frank’s key argument is that illness has a story that we need to listen to in order to learn by telling and sharing. He adduces examples including his own experience of cancer to show how the dominant scientific medical discourse (a biopolitical discourse intensified under the efficiency and profit regimes of neo-liberalism) silences the stories that each illness might tell and dehumanises the patient, treating them not as persons but as specimens, a case. Via its “general unifying view”, this discourse takes away personal experience and individuality. As the medical language/discourse silences the story behind illness, it colonises the body.

Thus, the ill person needs to construct a new map by telling a story. In other words, the expression to reclaim the occupied, colonised land/body is to find “one’s voice” (72). Moreover, in the contemporary era, there is little opportunity for the patient to speak, given cuts, clinical costs and the increasingly limited time physicians have at their disposal in a broken welfare system. Consequently, patients “speak elsewhere” (13). Therefore, this ‘elsewhere’ voice is that of a post-colonial writer. In the same vein, Alison’s doctor fails in diagnosing the real causes of her problems and instead focuses on checking her cholesterol, blood pressure, thyroid and endocrine system: all biologised, technical and de-humanising jargons (Mantel Beyond Black 175). Medical materialism reduces deep suffering to biologistic diagnosis, failing to address or understand the hidden traumatic causes that rest in this broken society. But where medicine as a therapy fails to address and deal with the underlying traumas of a threatening world, stories must become a remedy. Alison, feeling she has lost agency over her colonized maimed body sets out to narrate all its underlying (her) stories. Thus, the woman writer in our contemporary time is a wounded figure who speaks to the singularities of the dead and the debilitated.

Likewise, Mantel’s main motivation and inspiration in writing up her memoir, Giving up the Ghost, lies in her need to narrate her body’s wounded past. She too has suffered from a debilitating illness; diagnosed with a psychotic ailment and put onto antipsychotic drugs, then hospitalised for an “echocardiogram” (28) she was finally diagnosed with endometriosis – a woman’s disorder – and underwent perilous surgery. The result of this health condition and surgery is the inability to have children and a continuous steroid treatment leading to drastic weight gain. In her own words:

For a long time, I felt as if someone else were writing my life. I seemed able to create or interpret characters in fiction, but not able to create or interpret myself . . . The book of me was indeed being written by other people . . . I began this writing in an attempt to seize the copyright in myself. (70-1)

Medicine’s failure is also evident in Mantel’s memoir. Putting her on antidepressants is an act of silencing the problem rather than addressing the underlying causes. If the problem is not found in her body, her mind must be the source and needs to be fixed (178). The description of her encounter with a psychiatrist is quite similar to that of Alison’s. Her doctor’s diagnosis is “stress, caused by overambition” (174). The psychiatrist asks her if it would be better for her to work in her mother’s shop rather than studying law (174), the underlying assumption being that studying, implied and represented in the term “overambition,” is the cause of her illness. Her doctors ask her not to write, denying to her as a woman the possibility of becoming an author. She thus realises that her body is not her own but “a thing done to, a thing operated on” (211).

So, Mantel explains her main aims behind writing stories and her memoir. She looks for an alternative therapy: “I am writing in order to take charge of the story of my childhood and my childlessness; and in order to locate myself, if not within a body, then in the narrow space between one letter and the next, between the lines where the ghosts of meaning are” and continues, “sometimes I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being” (222). She seeks to construct herself as an active agent, rather than a passive vegetable or “dried out like an old quill pen” (223[ii] )

Alison’s profession as a psychic, medium, and the tendency among the characters, major and minor, towards the practice of mediumship is a practice of Victorian spiritualism which allows her, mediating Mantel, to understand and come to terms with her traumatic past. Her motivation for delving into the magical and clairvoyant lies in understanding what medicine (doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists) fails to see: the hidden causes of one’s traumas, stemming out of the ecological, and “the complete mystery of human relationships” that people reductively simplify as sex (39). The psychic profession (“crystal healing” (38), fortune telling, tarots) gives her, even unknowingly, the opportunity to negotiate with her own past, an act that other instruments, that claim they could bring about therapy, fail to do. This act of practising mediumship allows Alison to write an illness narrative which touches upon the risky, fragile, threatening world around her. Alison’s story and Mantel’s memoir are attempts to restore memory and readjust past and present to construct a coherent story: the creation of a coherent self. Alison’s listening to the voices and her special attention to Mart constitutes acts of self-visitation and  negotiations with the past.

Photo by Paweł Pająk “Haunted” used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

In some ways, Mantel is picking up on, and evoking, discourses of neo-Victorian mediumship. Yet, the dead here are not the ghosts living on a supernatural plane but those voices from the depths of consciousness suppressed in the contemporary world. Mantel shows how this use of mediums and therapeutic culture is flourishing because of a desire to connect across the dead world of transnational capitalism into a more vibrant realm of the potentially undead past/passed. Clearly too, Mantel uses it to confront the novelist’s function within this culture. Although a novel about England but it is also a novel that indicts the global neo-liberal culture that is larger than the nation; the way its luxury sits on a wasteland, its lack of empathy, its blighted ecology, its people turning to consumer goods and sex given the failure of New Age cultish versions of the spiritual. It situates models of female authorship within social contexts. It is existential (as it writes and constructs a self), political (as it lays bare the oppressing laws and norms, i.e. patriarchy or expropriation) and social (as it aims for empathetic connection). For the woman writer in the wake of the death-of-the-author claims, it announces “Me-too.”

Cite This Article

Arya Aryan. “The Traumatised Shaman: The Woman Writer in the Age of Globalised Trauma”. Alluvium, 7.3 (2019): n. pag. Web. 1 July 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.3.06

About the Author

Arya Aryan has recently completed his PhD in Postmodernist, Feminist and Contemporary literature under the supervision of Professor Patricia Waugh and is currently a teaching assistant in the Department of English Studies. His dissertation entitled “The Authorship Question and the Rise of Postmodernist Fiction: From Madness to Agency” examines conceptions of authorship before, during and after the historical moment of the emergence of the concept of the death of the author. He is currently preparing his first monograph on the topic of authorship since the 1950s to the present. He was also a co-editor of Postgraduate English: A Journal and Forum for Postgraduates in English and is a reviewer of the Durham English Review: An Undergraduate Journal.

Website: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/arya-aryan-39a71265

Work Cited

Arby’s – Different is good – 1993, uploaded by Tele Spot & Kids Gameplay (6 March 20016). Web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzwX6pOO4fg>.

Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.

Hijab-Wearing Model Amena Khan Featured In Hair Ad, uploaded by HuffPost (18 Jan. 2018). Web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJ_T86d9bwY>.

Mantel, Hilary. Beyond Black. London: Fourth Estate, 2010.

—. Giving up the Ghost: A Memoir. London: Fourth Estate, 2003.

—. Ink in the Blood: A Hospital Diary. Great Britain: Harper Collins, 2010.

McCarthy-Jones, Simon, et al. “Hearing the Unheard: An Interdisciplinary, Mixed Methodology Study of Women’s Experiences of Hearing Voices (Auditory Verbal Hallucinations).” Frontiers in Psychiatry 6 (23 Dec. 2015): 1-16.

Nealon, Jeffrey T. “Post-Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism.” Supplanting the Postmodern: An Anthology of Writings on the Arts and Culture of the Early 21st Century. Eds. Rudrum, David and Nicholas Stavris. New York; London: Bloomsbury, 2015. 78-97.

Useful Hyperlinks for Further Reading:

“Shaman” https://www.britannica.com/topic/shamanism

“Giving up the Ghost” https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/490618.Giving_Up_the_Ghost

“Beyond Black” https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/101923.Beyond_Black

“globalised risk” https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Risk_Society.html?id=QUDMaGlCuEQC&source=kp_book_description&redir_esc=y

“trauma” https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Trauma_Question.html?id=M9CVH0ojpWMC&source=kp_book_description&redir_esc=y

“ironic and the sincere” http://www.metamodernism.org/

“Empire” https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26694.Empire

“Negotiations” https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/154326.Negotiations_1972_1990

“postmodern surveillance” https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/80369.Discipline_and_Punish

“Arby’s commercial” https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/American_Literature_and_Culture_in_an_Ag.html?id=gqD7XCQJHn8C&source=kp_book_description&redir_esc=y

“Arby’s chain commercial” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzwX6pOO4fg

“L’Oreal’s 2018 haircare campaign” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJ_T86d9bwY

“Victorian spirituality” http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/religion/spirit.html

“metamodernist” http://www.metamodernism.com/2015/01/12/metamodernism-a-brief-introduction/

“Philomel” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philomela

“The Wounded Storyteller” https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/106486.The_Wounded_Storyteller

“Ink in the Blood” https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ink-Blood-Hospital-Hilary-Mantel-ebook/dp/B004GJXQ0C

“expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, neutralize or otherwise eliminate” (endnote): http://www.whatreallyhappened.com/RANCHO/POLITICS/COINTELPRO/COINTELPRO-FBI.docs.html  


Notes

[i] During the Cold War, the United States adopted a policy of containment which assigned the American administration to take control of cultural production by funding institutions such as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This was a response to Communism’s expansion and influence in culture and the mass media. Accordingly, movies were made at the request of the administration as Communist tendencies in film production and the mass media were seen to be on the rise. Also, The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also officially established its Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in 1956, which lasted until 1971. Its clandestine domestic aim was to monitor groups and individuals from minorities to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, neutralize or otherwise eliminate” all those kinds of activities that were reckoned to be subversive. All these led to domestic surveillance and intolerance of any dissent.

[ii] The metaphor of ink as blood, circulating through and coming from the body is also evident in Ink in the Blood (2010), a diary that she wrote after a hospitalisation and operation. She turns this “devil’s dictionary of anguish” into a literary work.

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