Yesterday I saw Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It was the first 3D movie I had ever seen in my life and, though I’m sure it was a much less aggressive use of the technology than normal, I found it disorienting in this way: the illusory extension of space between my two eyes seemed to pry apart the frontal lobes of my brain, to peel them back toward the stem where the older parts of brain structure still are – the bits we share with the prehistoric people who made the paintings in the Chauvet cave. I kept slipping in and out of consciousness. Better perhaps to say that I was uncertainly balanced between consciousness and some other state in which flashes of dream and archaic intuition kept flowing in and out of the voices from the film and the images of painted animals moving over the contours of rock on the cave walls. I was a little frustrated because I had wanted to see this film for a long time and I wanted to have the full experience of being in the cave.

But maybe that was the full experience of being in the cave.

I make up stories for a living, make them up and write them down, and for a long time I have claimed, on suitable occasions, that my work is dictated to me by daemons, being careful to include that extra ‘a,’ so that the daemons I’m invoking may seem at least morally neutral, not out and out evil as single ‘e’ demons are mostly considered to be.

There’s been a vogue for angels lately, but somehow I like daemons better.

Artists and writers don’t necessarily have to believe that spirits like that are really out there – inspiration can as easily be understood as a process of reflection within the individual psyche. But somehow I like my daemons better.

Any writer who has ever written well is aware of a sweet spot in the consciousness where imagination and expression cooperate seamlessly and seem to become effortless. A flow state, it’s sometimes called. The problem is getting there, and getting there reliably, day after working day. For that, many writers have rituals, most of them so mundane they are not recognizable as magical acts. Sharpening a certain number of a certain kind of pencil – that sort of thing. There are extreme variations, such as Graham Greene going down to the street to look for a particular combination on a license plate of a passing car, before he could begin to write on any given day. (One imagines weeks or months going by . . . ) Across the spectrum from strange to banal, these rituals are all about invoking the, well . . . muse – not that most writers in the twentieth-first century believe in the literal existence of muses, any more than they’d be believe in fairies or Santa Claus. Or daemons.

In the mid 1980s I had a few sessions of therapeutic hypnosis that made me understand that the writer’s flow state was really a light hypnotic trance, and that writers’ rituals were a means of self-induction – self-hypnosis, unconsciously practiced more often than not. A key to imagination’s door . . . I wrote a novel (Doctor Sleep) about a hypnotist that also involves some of the more extreme possibilities of auto-hypnosis, such as multiple personality disorder. The model of spirit possession turns out to fit the phenomena of multiple personality syndrome pretty well (e.g. total suppression of the ego for a time and inability of the ego to remember afterward what the alternate personality, or possessing spirit, has done). It’s a two-way street: you can believe that hypnosis explains and reduces all such experiences, or you can believe (as the religious do) that the daemons are out there, and sometimes come in . . .

Did Ivan Karamazov really get a visit from the devil, or was it only brain fever?

Most religions have in them somewhere an element of spirit possession, close to a mystical core. I have been going to Quaker meetings lately, where there is no rite or ritual whatsoever; where the congregation sits quietly for an hour, waiting in silence for the Holy Spirit to move any individual to speech. In our time the only other religion I know of that offers such extraordinary empowerment to the individual practitioner is . . . Haitian Vodou.

Strange comparison, I know. The lwa, the spirits of the Haitian tradition, are courted much more elaborately than in Quaker meetings, and with a lot more noise and movement too: drumming and chanting and dancing – all directed toward the induction of trance. Possession, in the Haitian context, can be kind of rough, the first time or two. Frightening. Terrifying, even. You feel what you think of as your self being peeled away like the husk from a fruit. Your brain splits open, back to its most ancient core. And away off in the dark someone is screaming the most blood-chilling screams and you become aware that those screams are coming from your body – but you are not in your body any more . . .

Afterward, the most blissful and peaceful euphoria – what typically follows a strong and violent catharsis.

Most religions are out to free the practitioner from the prison of the self. That requires displacement of the ego. The ego may be lulled into inattention, which is what I believe occurs in the Society of Friends, or it can simply be snatched out of the saddle. In the latter case, the terror one feels is caused by simian claws of the ego clinging to its place with all its might, tearing shreds from your being as it’s dragged away howling – an experience I sometimes like to call la déchirure.

Some say, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living god.

Truth to tell, possession in Haiti Vodou is often, maybe more often than not, much milder than that, especially for experienced practitioners. A seasoned serviteur can move from one state to the other by looking for a few seconds into the flame of a butane lighter. A writer can get to the right place by sharpening one or two special pencils.

I want to be there because I want my ego out of the way when ‘I’ am writing. When writing is writing. I want the spirit that moves the story to pass cleanly through me on to the page, thence into the mind of the reader, without any conscious interference from my own personality. Because I get a better story that way. And because I also get all the benefits of the strong catharsis, once the story has been told.

A few years ago I had a sort of counseling conversation with a Haitian writer I had known for several years – one of the most brilliant and most tormented writers I have ever read. She had daemons, plenty of them, and she had to wrestle them, like Jacob, every day. The thing that I told her that seemed to be helpful was, tu es au service de l’histoire; that is, you are at the service of the story. In the Haitian cultural context, the resonance of this sort of statement is deep. Vodou practitioners call themselves serviteurs, rather than believers or worshippers, and the service they offer is, through their own heads and bodies, a passage for the lwa to travel from the invisible to the material world, where they can interact with human beings in the flesh.

Something of the sort went on in the Chauvet cave. We know that, though we have no way of knowing. The images themselves are an uncrackable code. We know it from our daemons, or from the more ancient parts of our brains, and because the evidence is everywhere in human experience, not only when drums begin in Vodou ceremonies, or when Friends assemble quietly in a meeting hall, but also when any artist picks up an instrument and aims it at a surface meant to be transformed.

One of the people Herzog interviews in the film is a young man with a ponytail who had once been a juggler, and who remembered seeing (in person or on film, I don’t recall) an Australian aborigine who still did a little stone-painting once in a while. I am relying on my own memory now, and though it’s a memory from yesterday, memory is a daemon too . . . sometimes a daemon of deception.

The stone-painter was asked, ‘Why are you painting now?’

And he replied, ‘I am not painting. Now Spirit is painting.’


Read an extract from Madison Smartt Bell’s new novel, Out of the Tombs, here.

Photograph by Mark Robinson

Out of the Tombs