What Did You See There? Ian Curtis and the Visionary Quest of the Shaman

Trauma, Transformation and Punk Rock (Part IX)

Originally published in Mental Contagion 

The focus of this column has been on one central subject, transformation, and particularly transformation through that which is generally shunned: darkness, and despair. I have long wondered why the music and lyrics of Joy Division and Ian Curtis have such a powerful effect and how a curious transformation of mood can occur when listening to their music. One can start off with melancholy, despair, anger, self-hatred, and yet after listening for a while, one’s mood can become expansive, energized, and gradually shift, maybe to despair’s opposite, or maybe to a sense of vitality or power. The idea of going deeper into darkness in order to reach the light is a concept that can seem counterintuitive. For the contemporary American, the idea that despair, trauma, or suffering could be “positive” is quite challenging. It would seem that a primary assumption of our populace is that life should be pain free, and if one experiences pain, it should be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. We have developed a number of different tools to rid ourselves of pain, such as medication, legislation, law suits, and escapist entertainment. However, this attitude of avoidance is not the only attitude toward pain and suffering. The attitude of shamanism, which is perhaps the most ancient spiritual practice, views suffering as an unavoidable aspect of transformation.

The only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and it can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone can open the mind of a man to all that is hidden to others,” (Igjugarjuk, cited in Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology, 54).

Mircea Eliade defines shamanism as a “technique of ecstasy” in which the shaman enters into “a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld,” (Eliade, Shamanism, 5). The shaman is “chosen” by life threatening illness (and is often reported to have died and been reborn), or by lightning strike (the ultimate “enlightenment”), by voluntary fasting and exhaustion (as in the vision quest), or through hereditary transmission of the “gift.” Suffering, pain, illness, and even death, play a crucial role in the transformation of a member of the community into a shaman. From this perspective, suffering is not to be shunned, but is seen as not only an integral part of life, but something to be valued for its potential transformative power.

An initiation into shamanic healing means a devaluation of all values, an overturning of the profane world, a peeling away of the inveterate handed-down notions of the world, liberation from everything preconceived. For that reason, shamanism is closely connected with suffering. One must suffer the disintegration of one’s own system of thought in order to perceive a new world in the higher space,” (Holger Kalweit, Shamans, Healers, and Medicine Men, 4).

The shaman’s “healing crisis” is similar to the wide spread “rite of initiation,” which has been so well documented. This rite entails separation from the tribe, painful ordeals or body modifications, some form of symbolic death and rebirth and then return to the community with a new identity. This also mirrors the “hero’s journey” of separation, descent, trial/combat, winning the boon, and return to the community. Here is another Eskimo account of the process of becoming a shaman: “I searched in the darkness, I was silent in the great silence of the dark. That is how I became an angaqoq, through visions, dreams, and meetings with flying spirits,” (cited in Kalweit, 14).

You’ve been seeing things/In darkness, not in learning

Joy Division, “No Love Lost,” (1977)
(all Joy Division lyrics taken from Deborah Curtis, Touching From a Distance)

I was moving through the silence without motion

Joy Division, “Shadowplay,” (1979)

I never realised the lengths I’d have to go
All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know

Joy Division, “Twenty-four Hours,” (1980)

After surviving and mastering the initial trials of illness and descent into darkness, the shaman gains the ability to voluntarily enter an ecstatic trance that can be transformative not only for the shaman, but also for his/her patient or audience. Drumming, chanting, dancing, and music are often aides or vehicles to enter into such a trance state. In some cultures the drum is even called the shaman’s “horse” or “canoe,” implying that it is a vehicle for travel, (Eliade, 173 and 254, respectively). The trance often culminates in spontaneous, involuntary shaking. For this reason, epileptic seizures were long held to be a sacred illness which was interpreted as “meetings with the gods,” (Eliade, 15). Keeney, a contemporary shaman and psychotherapist, describes his “shaking” as taking “many different forms, including hand, arm, and leg trembling, varieties of head movements, body swaying, vibrating, oscillating, convulsing, jolts and jumps,” (Keeney, Shaking Out the Spirits, 167).

Live, he [Curtis] appears possessed by demons, dancing spasmodically and with lightning speed, unwinding and winding as the rigid metal music folds and unfolds over him,” (Jon Savage’s review of “Unknown Pleasures,” in Joy Division, New Order, A History in Cuttings). Later Curtis did actually develop epilepsy. His widow, Deborah Curtis observed that, “Ian’s dancing had become a distressing parody of his off-stage seizures. His arms would flail around, winding an invisible bobbin, and the wooden jerking of his legs was an accurate impression of the involuntary movements he would make. Only the seething and shaking of his head was omitted. This could have been a deliberate imitation, but his dancing was not dissimilar to the way he had danced at our engagement party four years previously,” (Deborah Curtis, Touching from a Distance, 74).

A report of the trance of a Yakut shaman described the following, he “gashed himself with a knife, swallowed sticks, [and] ate burning coals,” (Eliade, 29).

Oh, I’ve walked on water, run through fire
Can’t seem to feel it anymore

Joy Division, “New Dawn Fades,” (1979)

“One night, during a performance at Rafters, he [Curtis] ripped the whole stage apart, pulling off these twelve-inch-square wooden tiles with nails in them and throwing them at the audience. Then he dropped a pint pot on the stage, it smashed and he rolled around in the broken glass, cutting a ten-inch gash in his thigh,” (Peter Hook, in Deborah Curtis, 52).

Often times, the shaman does not recall the words or actions he/she performs in the trance, at other times a possession state seems to occur, in which various spirits speak through the shaman.

“I don’t write about anything in particular, I write very subconsciously,” (Ian Curtis in an interview with Mick Middles in Sounds, 11/18/78).

I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand

Joy Division, “Disorder,” (1979)

While the outward manifestations of drumming, dancing, injury and shaking precipitate or are manifestations of the trance, inwardly the shaman has expansive experiences which may be recalled after the trance. He/she can visit the land of the dead, descend to hell, explore many heavenly layers of the sky, commune with animals, or transform into animal or supernatural shapes. The shaman can pursue the lost soul of a patient or remove various blockages, objects, or imbalances that are causing illness by disrupting the person’s energetic field. It is commonly reported that the shaman encounters the spirits of the dead, dark demons, or even the Supreme Spirit, itself. Also in this state, it is reported that the shaman can wander and explore the entire earth, or other fantastic realms in various out of body manifestations. The shaman is thus, a “seer” and can educate, inform, heal, and protect the community. Likewise, shamans can inflict curses, bring plagues, control the weather, insert troublesome foreign objects in others bodies, or even steal souls.

To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you
To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank, searching for you

Joy Division, “Shadowplay,” (1979)

I’ve travelled far and wide through many different times
What did you see there?
I saw the saints with their toys
What did you see there?
I saw all knowledge destroyed

Joy Division, “Wilderness,” (1979)

They keep calling me

Joy Division, “Dead Souls,” (1979)

You’ll see the horrors of a faraway place
Meet the architects of law face to face
See mass murder on a scale you’ve never seen...
And I picked on the whims of a thousand or more
Still pursuing a path that’s been buried for years
All the dead wood from jungles and the cities on fire...
Take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be

Joy Division, “Atrocity Exhibition,” (1980)

A journey that leads to the sun

Joy Division, “Heart and Soul,” (1980)

Here are the young men, well where have they been?
We knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chambers

Joy Division, “Decades,” (1980)

Eliade describes the shaman as being able to act as a mediator between the living and the dead, and to be able to de-mystify death. “Little by little the world of the dead becomes knowable, and death itself is evaluated primarily as a rite of passage to a spiritual mode of being. In the last analysis, the accounts of the shamans’ ecstatic journeys contribute to a ‘spiritualizing’ the world of the dead, at the same time that they enrich it with wondrous forms and figures,” (Eliade, 510).

I’m not afraid anymore...
And all God’s angels beware
And all you judges beware

Joy Division, “Insight,” (1979)

I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, let it out somehow...
Until the new sensation takes hold, then you know

Joy Division, “Disorder,” (1979)

Just passing through, ‘till we reach the next stage
But just to where, well it’s all been arranged

Joy Division, “From Safety to Where...?,” (1979)

Kalweit explains that trance “means healing through inner recuperation from the unending stream of external stimuli, from complex thinking, from complicated emotions,” (Kalweit, 91). Here we see a return to a balanced, Zen-like, simplicity. Healing is a matter of peeling away the layers of cultural education and assumption, of convoluted ego-oriented thinking and desire, until one can feel the universal pulse of life coursing through existence and oneself.

I saw all knowledge destroyed

Joy Division, “Wilderness,” (1979)

A blindness that touches perfection...
But if you could just see the beauty
These things I could never describe

Joy Division, “Isolation,” (1980)

This is the hour when the mysteries emerge
A strangeness so hard to reflect

Joy Division, “Komakino,” (1980)

Kalweit sees this return to center as a universal, sacred impulse of humanity that exists in the modern world only in attenuated or perverted form. He observes that social gatherings offer an “opportunity for collective accord and harmony and, above all, for an intensity of emotion that is absent from the monotony of everyday life. Social gatherings make possible a sense of letting emotions flow that reaches a climax through dancing, rhythm, and elation-if necessary supported by psychoactive drugs...In Western society, alcoholic inebriation is a rather hopeless attempt to overcome our compulsively mechanistic definition of humanity, one last fling at trying to regain the ecstatic, mystical side of life, to bring this element back into human existence,” (Kalweit, 134). This partially explains the popularity of alcohol and other mind altering substances at contemporary rock shows - as a vehicle out of the ego, that allows the self to ebb and flow, to “feel” the music, and for the audience and performer to “tune in” to the same vibe of pulsating sound energy. In this way the minds of the performers and audience can more easily escape the fleshy shell of the body, and the ego, and “plug into” the vibrations flowing through the air, also allowing the ego to be quieted or sedated so that the body can resonate with the pulsating rhythms. This leads Kalweit to state that the “human being is essentially sound, vibration, and melody, and perhaps our consciousness frequencies can be arranged in scales,” (Kalweit, 85).

It is worth quoting Kalweit at greater length on the transformative potential of gatherings. “At its innermost core, this is a state of timelessness and fusion with the world around us. In our own celebrations, as constrained as their dancing and music are, survive the last vestiges of an irrepressible urge to trance and of hope for ecstatic harmony with all beings that cannot be further intellectualized...this state is a collective healing mechanism that tribal societies naturally employ to purify themselves from restrictive, inhibitory, and delusive conditions and to re-open themselves to the all-embracing reality inherent in us, to a more multi-faceted spiritual unfolding, and a more harmonious feeling of community, free from ego-oriented motivations,” (Kalweit, 134-135).

Thus, in the shamanic system, we come to what Kalweit calls the “shamanic paradox,” that suffering can be viewed as a “way of knowledge,” (Kalweit, 226). This doesn’t necessarily imply a rejection of health or well-being, but rather can be viewed as an acceptance of humanity’s place-equidistant from light and dark, between despair and joy, between life and death. This can be illustrated in the symbolism of the shaman and the central axis of the world tree, bridging heaven and hell, balanced between the four directions of the compass, as well as the directions of up and down. One can journey to various realms or directions, but the journey is always a return to the center. To go in any one direction, one does not fall off the edge of a flat world, but rather circles back to where on started, but now with a fresh perspective.

To the centre of all life’s desires

Joy Division, “Failures,” (1977)

To the centre of the city where all roads meet

Joy Division, “Shadowplay,” (1979)

This return to center is not, however, guaranteed, the journey entails very real dangers. “Those who journey to this gleaming and fabulous realm are in danger of going astray, of drowning,” (Kalweit, 4). Kalweit suggests that in our current culture, one may be more apt to be lost then to return as we live in a culture that has lost its spiritual vision and its connection with primal sources,” and this can lead to the “negative way,” (Kalweit, 52).

We are not in a position to judge the ultimate outcome of Ian Curtis’ vision quest. From a worldly perspective, Ian Curtis was lost and succumbed to the darkness he was exploring. However, it cannot be denied that his death established a New Order and that many find Joy Division a comforting companion when times are dark.

While it may seem far-fetched to compare a rock band from the late 20th century with the pounding drums, frantic shaking, and visionary trances of shamans, this essay gives one possible explanation for the transformative power of Joy Division’s music. Also, when one sets Curtis’ lyrics side-by-side with the reports of shamans, there is an uncanny similarity in the themes and behaviors: descent into darkness, meetings with spirits, otherworldly travels, strange, frantic dancing, and ecstatic trances. While shamans undertake these journeys for the benefit of humanity, it is less clear what the motivations are of a contemporary visionary and suicide. It is possible that Curtis tuned into the same vibrations of life that the shamans submerge themselves in, perhaps even without knowing what he was doing, just following some strange power that suddenly coursed through his veins. His untimely and tragic death may not illustrate the unsoundness of his methods, but rather may attest to the power of the material he was handling-that where there is great danger, also there is great potential, and where there is death, there is life.

And the only mistake, led to rumours unfound
Led to pressures unknown, different feelings and sounds
Yeah, the only mistake, like I made once before
Yeah, the only mistake, could have made it before

Joy Division, “The Only Mistake,” (1979)

ConiunctionisDavid Kopacz