Fishers of Men by Adam Elenbaas
Originally published in 2010, the autobiographical ‘Fishers of Men – The Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest’ by Adam Elenbaas tells the story the author’s journey of coming to terms with his self, against the backdrop of shamanic, ayahuasca exploration. Elenbaas has graduate training in creative writing and is a “case manager and activity therapist for adult schizophrenics”. He is also one of the founding writers/contributing editors of RealitySandwich.com.
The autobiographical drug story has well-established roots in the English writing tradition; beginning with Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822) by Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859). However, whereas for de Quincey the advent of opium was framed in a pathological discourse, which is to say his life was ailed by opium as part of his “daily diet”, for Elenbaas the very reverse is the case. This isn’t to say that pathology has been discarded from the drug text but only that it has been reterriorialized; rather ayahuasca, in combination with the shaman, is a curative, purging agent unlike the opiate addiction models. It is everyday life, with both its mental stresses and repressive strata, that is today the pathology of the individual in the drug text.
In this sense, Fishers of Men has much more in common with the LSD psychotherapeutic literature from the 1950s and 60s; wherein the aim is a reintegration of the self, as emergent from a schizophrenic social or personal trauma causing a personal psycho-pathology. Early sexual abuse by another boy, a difficult relationship with his father (which we will explore in more detail shortly) and tensions between his developing spiritual beliefs and the strata of religious practice (his father was a pastor) grounds the text pathologically. The narrative structure flicks, very fluidly it must be said, between chapters on both these grounding problems and the developing symptoms, like sexual promiscuity and drug addiction, with the healing sessions of ayahuasca; juxtaposed to create the healing model within the format of the text.
The cross-generational stories surrounding Elenbaas and his father, and his father and grandfather, sanctify the Freudian influence on drug writing. From the opening chapter when his father lays bleeding, holding a hunting knife, till the final modernist resolution, redefinition of all the relationships occur. It’s very reminiscent of the poem This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had/ and add some extra, just for you.” The Freudian model, which places so much emphasis on a child’s relationship with its parents as a foundation for personality structure, is being played out once more as a literary structure: “One of the most intense psychological settings in the world – the visionary space of ayahuasca” (201). The combination of the psychedelic experience and psychodynamic models is firm territory, not only in Fishers of Men, but in modern drug writing generally.
The curative use of an hallucinogen may have moved from the clinical setting into the shamanic sphere, namely the El Puma Negro healing lodge in Peru, but motifs repeat themselves. Modern ayahuasca-using syncretic religions and healing lodges often have large Christian influences in their ritual and, by accounts, in the ayahuasca experience itself. Elenbaas saw Jesus Christ in many of his sessions, just as Jane Dunlap did at the end of her psychotherapeutic LSD novel Exploring Inner Space (1961). The curandero of Elenbaas’ sessions, Ethan, says he had also seen him. Jesus tells Elenbaas to love himself and to not turn him into an idol; there is an emphasis on a “personal, not religious” relationship with Jesus and this epitomizes the psychotherapeutic model in that the object and concern of healing is the self.
There is a broad discussion of the character of the shaman, whom Elenbaas calls a “shape-shifter” and whose character the reader is told, especially as far as function is concerned, is difficult to define because it’s so multifaceted. However, Elenbaas begins to see the stratification of his healing lodge and the changing form of Ethan, having to cope with an increasing number of adoring ‘ayahuasca tourists’. Chapters chronically the author’s rebellious searches through different branches of Christianity seem to become embodied in the increasing idolisation of Ethan as the shamanic figure. In the end, Elenbaas felt that El Puma Negro no longer practised authentic shamanism and felt it was time to go back to the world. More importantly though, he’d had the psychodynamic healing: “…it was if I had found my regular self in the midst of the ritual, for the first time” (194). He’d travelled the landscape of his past and resolved himself to the present.
Elenbaas repeatedly frames special, spiritual spaces as sanctuaries. And, in fact, throughout the whole novel, one is given the impression of profane, often social, spaces and sacred, usually personal, spaces. The ultimate message seems to be that one finds the sacred within the self, in this case by utilising the curative properties of ayahuasca, and by doing so one carries the sacred within, through all space. In this manner the self becomes the centre of spirituality; Elenbaas synthesises the psychotherapeutic and spiritual value into a common goal, which both creatively and insightfully, resolves the tensions of the text.
While the self-confessed evangelism of the novel may not be to everyone’s taste, it is worth mentioning that the greatest departure of this book from the aforementioned LSD psychotherapeutic texts, aside from the drug and setting content, lay in the skill of the writer. Structurally, Elenbaas has nailed the narrative flow and manages to entwine the discourse of the novel far more fluidly than the writers of 50 years ago; producing an infinitely more literary text. For more information and to order a copy of Fishers of Men please visit the website here.