Monday, February 25, 2008

transition rituals

A beautiful offering from Antonija:

From Richard Sennett's book on Authority,

"A mask is a way of sheltering someone from influence or seduction by authority. The logically opposite path of disengagement is to purge the influence. Purge rituals are familiar in anthropology: the exorcism which wards off evil spirits, the rite of passage in which the adolescent erases childish fears through an exploit or test. As Mary Douglas has pointed out in Purity and Danger, a purge is an act people perform because they fear that the danger is inside, that they have been seduced and have yielded. Pure coercive power would be a one-way influence: the purge is aimed at dealing with the fact that the person is responding. The attempt to disengage through purging oneself is a universal phenomenon; it appears in the most complicated circumstances as well as the simplest. Here is a complicated and notorious example.

In the wake of a trip André Gide made to England in the company of a seventeen-year old boy, Gide's wife, Madeleine, burned all his letters to her, something like two thousand letters covering his youth and middle age. "All the best of me I had entrusted to those letters," Gide wrote in his Journal Intime;

… they were not exactly love-letters; effusiveness disgusts me, and she would never have endured being praised… but in them the pattern of my life was woven before her eyes, little by little and day by day.

Three days after she told Gide that she had burned the record of his life, Madeline Gide also told him:

After you left, when I found myself all alone again in the big house that you were abandoning, without a single person on whom I could lean, no longer knowing what to do, what would become of me… I burned your letters in order to have something to do. Before I destroyed them I read them all over, one by one… They were the most precious thing I owned in the world.

The statement that she destroyed what was most precious to her captures the essence of a purge. Neither in anthropological nor psychological lore does it appear as a parallel to the physical purges of modern medicine. Not the relief of pain, but the infliction of sustained pain upon oneself is the act, in order that something destructive even if pleasurable to the human being may be expelled. In rites of passage in New Guinea, the test of valor an adolescent performs are to teach him that he will not survive if he continues to enjoy the soft pleasures he knew as a child. For Madeleine Gide, protecting and caring for André Gide had been a role and a source of maternal pleasure since her childhood; burning Gide's correspondence was an apt way of pushing this pleasure out of her life."

I wonder, then, if it is possible to transform, to transition, without resorting to masks and purgings.

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