The Last Shaman Image

Recently deceased author Robert Pirsig wrote in his famous philosophy / roadtrip / mental illness book Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about two ways of looking at the world: romantic and classic.  

“The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. “Art” when it is opposed to “Science” is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience. […] The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws – which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behaviour. […]”

This difference is at the heart of Raz Degans documentary The Last Shaman, which is entirely in the romantic mode and that is it’s fatal flaw. It plays like an infomercial preaching the gospel of Ayahuasca (an Amazonian plant mixture that is capable of inducing altered states of consciousness) without the balance of classic critical thinking to offer the viewer contrasting arguments.

College student James Freeman is severely depressed and not responding to treatment. Degan goes out of his way to point out that Freeman is rich, white, privileged, and has been raised with all the advantages to make the point that the trappings of wealthy American life weren’t making him happy, nor could make him happy. Which is all bullshit. Freeman has an illness. Full stop. Mental illness is like any other illness, only it’s in your brain. It’s not a cultural condition.He didn’t have spiritual congestion. He wasn’t suffering from the industrial disease malaise of being a Westerner out of touch with the spirit of the land. He was simply ill. He still is. Despondent and frustrated with not having seen progress in treatment, he’d set himself a 12 month deadline at which time he meant to commit suicide if he didn’t feel better or at least feel something.

“It plays like an infomercial preaching the gospel of Ayahuasca…”

The unsuspecting villains of the piece are James’s parents. They love their son but he’s never fit into their educated and erudite view of the world and even though they are both physicians themselves they don’t understand what’s happening with him or how to help him. James’s father is an authoritarian old-school dad and his son resents him for that. In Degans formula his parents bear the brunt of representing the failed ideas of Western culture. Even though James is sick there’s a whiny brat component of his response to them and to his illness. Fair enough: being sick doesn’t mean you’re not also an a*****e.  

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  1. Michael 'Brett' Baker says:

    yep re: “ZEN…,” a roommate handed it to me (? -’87) & after reading a few paragraphs I realized I wasn’t breathing… few yrs latter same happened when handed “Whispering Winds of Change”- Stuart Wilde… &may have had the final breath- taker at

  2. Kate says:

    Thanks for mentioning Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I hear it is a tough read but a good one (they say only about a third of readers finish it entirely).

    There is beauty in the “scientific”, or the classic, clearly. And, yes, one does not have to run to the jungles of Peru to find a sense of fulfillment once again in life. That is something I can agree with. However, I have to disagree with you in that I believe this film did something a little different in its portrayal of ayahuasca and the journey of the human spirit.

    James, a rather privileged white man lived in the city of Boston known for its “exceptional” psychiatric facilities. Even his own father in the film acknowledged this fact and for some reason its “treatments” and facilities STILL failed his own son. Should we anticipate a clearly romantic view on life as the cure to all of our issues? Absolutely not. Should we acknowledge that there is a pressure to live up to standards of “success” that tend to put a lot of people in this society under forms of great distress? Yes. And can we learn from the simplicity of people who live with next to nothing materially in comparison to those of the West and instead closer to the lungs of our Earth–whom tend to feel a greater sense of satisfaction and purpose without years of academia behind their belt?

    Those are the questions one must ponder. Art is important. And, regardless if Degans tended to be “too romantic” with this film, at least he portrayed the extreme on the opposite side of spectrum of what we worship here in the West.

  3. Noah Weafs says:

    Your review is exactly the problem with western society. No one needs pills for anything, period. Showing the jungle life is exactly how those people have survived and thrived for centuries without the bullshit we put upon each other here.

    The worst thing a sick oerson could do is read your review and NOT go into the jungle for help. You say he’s sick but nearly everyone working 9 to 5 then watching 4 hours of tv a day is SICK. But take the pills and you’ll feel good while watching the mindless television.

    The film was skeptical enough as if you watch the DMT documentary (the element in Ayahuasca) then you hear the more far out theories about literally leaving your body and encountering entities across the universe. What James experience was so realistic and rational and simple for an open mind to accept that there is no need to a critique questioning everything that happens in the film.

    Furthermore it’s also sickening that such review can alter ones approach to the movie even after seeing it. I wish I could unread your review and bask more in the glory of the film.

    Future Ayahuasca User (and celebrity)

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