Review of Christ Returns from the Jungle: Ayahuasca Religion as Mystical Healing. Marc G. Blainey, Albany: SUNY Press, 2021, 562 pp.

Reviewed Book

Christ Returns from the Jungle: Ayahuasca Religion as Mystical Healing. Marc G. Blainey, Albany: SUNY Press, 2021, 562 pp.

Christ Returns from the Jungle: Ayahuasca Religion as Mystical Healing. Marc G. Blainey, Albany: SUNY Press, 2021, 562 pp.

Cover of Christ Returns from the Jungle (2021)

Abou Farman

The New School for Social Research

When the Afro–Brazilian rubber tapper Irineu Serra opened his first public ritual (or “work” as they call it) with the Amazonian psychoactive brew ayahuasca in 1930, he surely did not imagine that the particular syncretic practice he had initiated on the margins of the small town of Rio Branco, drawing in a mix of other former Afro-Brazilian rubber tappers and caboclo peasants, would spread across the globe in the 21st century through a network of white European and North American spiritual seekers. Mestre (Master) Irineu’s church of Santo Daime encompasses a heterodox combination of Brazilian folk Catholicism, Amazonian spiritual healing, and a brand of French Spiritism known as Kardecism that was growing at the time in places like Cuba and Brazil. Today, it is a central part of a global Ayahuasca circuit that stretches, mostly underground, from Brooklyn to Brussels.

The interlocutors in Christ Returns from the Jungle, Marc Blainey’s book about the European chapters of Santo Daime, see this reversal as a salubrious development, a kind of re-colonization spreading from the peripheries of the Brazilian jungle into the heart of empire. That position also gives them good reason to not feel guilty about the appropriation of an Afro–Brazilian practice, itself a post-rubber boom adaptation via Christianity of Amazonian indigenous healing practices that have been under constant threat since the time of colonial settlement. It’s the site of a complex set of transformations and potentials, harms, and benefits, of economics and politics, that get too scant attention in this book and in the burgeoning literature on ayahusaca as a global phenomenon. Here and in the literature, appropriation appears as a trope built around cultural ownership, rather than part of a global political economy within the structural remains of colonialism.

The book’s main question is simple: Why has Santo Daime become popular in a secularizing Europe? The answer Blainey provides, via in-depth interviews with members of Daime groups, is not complicated either: Enchantment never disappeared, and those who are after the larger questions to existence still seek their answers along the spiritual path. This may well be true. Yet, the fact that there is a constant need for spirituality and thus an ongoing process of re-enchantment in a secular context, does not explain why people gravitate to this particular site to grasp at their mystical answers, since there are so many other possibilities on offer in the spiritual supermarket. Indeed, as it turns out, almost all of Blainey’s interlocutors have dabbled in a range of other practices and traditions. To align himself ethically with the group he studies, Blainey focuses on the emic perspective as a way to take “them seriously,” in contrast to official European policy that has rendered ayahuasca an illegal substance and thereby also vilified Santo Daime groups. In a growing field of studies of psychedelics within the psychological sciences, a longer term ethnographic and emic study is welcome; but the emic is not a way out of the analytic—it should rather be a way in.

Admittedly, very few studies of psychedelics take this this sort of approach (Michael Taussig and Arun Saldhana, for example, being important exceptions), but a deep engagement with colonial and postcolonial transformations is crucial to understand what makes ayahuasca, hallucinations, and spiritual healing a particular assemblage in the globalization process, or even more, within the global climate change discourse, in which the Amazon as a figure plays no minor role. Universalism—in this case coming via the ideas of perennial philosophy, which equates all mysticism as a version of the same fundamental human quest, and espoused both by the author and his interlocutors—can’t be sufficient. Rather, the appeal to universalism itself functions in particular ways that bear analysis. What are the symbolic meanings, social functions, and efficacious practices of “mystical healing,” as he calls it, for white Europeans today, coming as these do via indigenous hallucinogens and practices?

Ayahuasca has been shown in scientific studies to effectively address certain ills, especially addiction and some forms of anxiety and trauma; many have claimed a long list of other psychological and physical benefits. Blainey doesn’t spend a great deal of time on the medical benefits, or on any of the old questions in medical anthropology regarding the efficaciousness of rituals or the social construction of illness. Instead, Blainey works well in analyzing Santo Daime as part of a growing orientation toward what he calls a “post-secular cosmopolitics.” In the ethical narrative of the book, ayahuasca not only is deemed a potential remedy for psychophysical illnesses, but also a tool for consciousness changes that affect personal journeys in daily life as much as larger connections to the cosmos. Invoking Csordas, Blainey defines mysticism as the removal of the self–other divide, something that psychedelics are reportedly good at. Aside from begging the question of the self, it is not clear how the feeling that the self–other boundary has dissolved translates into daily socioeconomic life or a post-secular cosmopolitics.

To his interlocutors, the overarching concern seems to be existential malaise, a sense of disquiet within modern industrialized life and a broken seam connecting humans to each other and the human to the cosmos, both of which appear to be satisfactorily addressed by their involvement in Santo Daime. Why and how Ayahuasca’s answers to these questions within Santo Daime really do satisfy—beyond the declaration that they do—is addressed through the question of personal introspection: Santo Daime’s rituals and brew are powerful techniques for self-examination for which Blainey has coined an interesting concept, suiscope. The analysis of introspection works quite well, but as with universalism it elides some important questions: What is it that for the European interlocutors makes introspection a satisfactory form to answer larger, especially political or cosmological questions? This question in general, as well as in this specific case, could be important to pursue, for here the problematic would require not so much asking the old Levi Straussian question central to medical anthropology, but recalibrating the notion of healing—not asking what makes the healing work, but rather probing into what makes the work healing.