David Blaine: fasting, cynicism and shamanism

Just been discussing David Blaine with my good friend Jim. I’ve been aware since reading a BBC story about various hostile reactions to his fasting stunt that the predictable and usually charming British irreverence was out in force. Well, it seems that last night Jim ended up wading through the web, only, it appears, finding hate for this guy and his endurance test. Not just dismissal or cynicism, but people falling over themselves to revile and lambast. Even trying to harm.

I felt I had to speak here to heartily second Jim’s blog post on David Blaine. Really, what is the issue that people have here? Finding him pompous and thinking that they he “needs to be brought down a peg or two” is fair enough. I’ll charitably assume that everyone making these claims applies their standards equally to all, and consequently live a frenetic life of constant agitation, their nervous systems seething with little outrages at every rock star, TV personality, business mogul and royal family member who demands the same response. I’m pretty sure, equally, that everyone who’s wandered down the south bank armed with food or golf balls to taunt Blaine quit their jobs a long time ago in order to make time for their incessant task of pelting stuff at pompous people.

No? Does Ryan’s title for his Blaine-baiting call for food-pelting—”Our national duty”—really only express a healthy British contempt for pomposity (a phenomena born of post-Imperial self-loathing?), and remains untainted by vindictive anti-Yank sentiments?

Whatever the case on this issue, it does seem to me that Jim’s touched on something in seeing in our reactions to Blaine’s feats a real sense of loss. I have to take this opportunity to heartily recommend The Death and Resurrection Show by Rogan P. Taylor (Frederick Muller, 1985; ISBN: 0856341517). It’s out of print, so check out your library’s ordering system. It’s a criminally under-read survey of the roots of modern entertainment in shamanic traditions, passing from “classic” hunter-gatherer shamanism, through nomadic outcasts and wandering gypsy performance troupes, to Houdini, Morrison and Hendrix. There’s a wonderful section that details a European circus touring America in the early frontier days, and their clown being instantly recognised by the Native American heyokas as “one of us”. The clown, I recall, left the circus and stayed with the natives.

Yes, it seems wonderfully easy to dismiss the “shamanic” associations around David Blaine as hype, or even, to those half-versed in shamanic studies, as some form of blasphemy—secular modern ego-driven money-grabbing media charlatanism masquerading as authentic magic. But living in such a false, pretence-ridden world as ours has subtle dangers. The armour of cynicism that anyone unwilling to give in to passive zombiefication quickly accumulates brings peril as well as protection, as we lose the ability to appreciate the truth when it wears a mask of falsity. We throw food at the mask, and it gets covered so deep in our gunk that it’s harder and harder to rip it away.

The reactions flying around to Blaine’s cocky, self-assured mask really seem to show a worrying concern with style over substance. Sure, everyone thinks this is Blaine’s sin. But who here is saying that trying to sit in a perspex box for 44 days without food, surrounded by apathetic, and pathetic, reactions, doesn’t constitute substance? What’s the longest you’ve fasted for? Is anyone really seeing what’s going on here, or have we developed such deep knee-jerk reactions to the masks our media forces on everything that everyone, be they rebel or conformist, sees only the masks?

David Blaine’s no shaman, mostly because the defining attribute of a shaman is that they perform some form of magical, healing service for their community, and are accepted as doing so by those around them. That service usually involves some sort of trickery or showmanship. Healing, it seems, is about tricking the ill soul into believing that change is possible, exploding the dejected, destructive comforts of its pessimistic resignation and acceptance of entropy. The shaman’s apparently super-human feats can serve, on a communal scale, to banish social ruts of drudgery and decay. People see that the extraordinary is alive in the world.

As for the community accepting this service… Is Blaine just not going far enough? “Fuck you, man, sit there without food, water, light or air for a few months and maybe you’ll amaze me.” Of course we need to be on our collective guard against money-grabbing and trickery. But this whole affair makes me sadly suspicious that our society, in its current state, is just too sick to heal. Our armour against the false media gods has slowly crippled our ability to believe that the marvellous is possible; or our ability to see the marvellous when it stares us in the face.