Voltaire's shamans

Via dons maps

Even the Greeks were once, if you will, savages... – J.G. Herder

In the 1780s, both the model enlightened despots in Europe – Catherine II and Frederick of Prussia – suddenly found that the fashions were shifting. The old railing against superstition and spiritualism, which was so congenial to their hearts, was in conflict with the new interest in freemasonry, mesmerism, the hermetico-Egyptian philosophy – as Frederick the Great’s librarian, Abbe Pernety, called it – and, in Russia, with shamanism. Frederick’s nephew, who inherited the old man’s throne, immediately surrounded himself with a cabal of Rosicrucians. Catherine, who died in 1796, was already cracking down on what she regarded as the sinister power of the Masons in the late 1780s. She arrested the writer and publisher at the center of Russian freemasonry, Novikov – sentencing the old man to life in prison – and wrote a play, The Siberian shaman, mocking spiritualism as hypocrisy and faking, in much the spirit of Theophile de Viau exposing the fake possessed woman in 1620 – so much had libertine tropes migrated into the center of ancien regime power. Lai, Catherine’s shaman, is a Tartuffe of the steppe, so to speak. Or that may have been Catherine’s intention. However, he is given certain theatrical characteristics that are very different than the ceremonies of the devot in Moliere, as the translator of the play into English, ..., notes – he is, for instance, depicted as being in a sort of silent trance in the second act which goes on for some minutes, a unique stage direction in classical Russian theater. He is also depicted repairing boots – apparently a mark of someone truly low. Perhaps the idea that the feet are low, or dirty, or unclean, was behind Tolstoy’s obsessive shoe mending.

To my mind, though, the most interesting part of the play is the Shaman’s book. In a post (June 14 2008), I noted that the book and the savage became opposites after the discovery of the new world, although the idea that the savage might make books circulated on the fringe. In the eighteenth century, there was a controversy about whether the Inca’s quipu was a writing system, and whether the Inca priests made books of them – a position defended by Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero, who was, perhaps not coincidentally, the center of Free masonry in Naples.

The constellation of savage, masonry – disguised as shamanism – and the book reappears in Catherine’s play in the scene in which Lai brags of his shamanistic book of fates. After Lai claims that he is occupied with the notion of non-existence and silence, two courtiers ask him where he gets his knowledge and he says – “in this book”

Sanov: What’s in your book?
Lai: Everything... everything... everything.
Sanov: Everything! But, for example, we who are present here. Are our first and last names in your book?
Lai. Knowledge is born with each person.
Sidor Drobin. So be it... but are we written in your book? That’s the question, do you hear?
Lai (Speaking quickly) Our characteristics are made up of ecstasy, of flow, of sustenance, of movement, of warmth, of the bitter root. Love and hate each have the same foundation, as do salt, action, oil and density.
Kromov: What chaos!
Sanov. What an unusual man!
Sidor Drobin. You can’t get an answer out of him... He’ll do only as he pleases.
Bragin. First he didn’t speak; now he has gotten out of hand.
Karp Drobin. But he hasn’t answered the question.
Bobin. He will answer. (tO lAI) 140 degrees! Tell us, what do you think of the people here? Are they all listed in your book.
Lai. (importantly and distinctly) They are listed in it.
Sidor Drobin. How? How? By first and last names?
Lai. Here will be a great marvel! If I so desire, I will tell you the qualities of characteristics of each and every one of you, without knowing either your first or last names. (49)

We’ll continue with this in a later post.