“His sickness was only part of something larger, and his cure would be found only in something great and inclusive of everything” (from Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko)
I enjoyed moving-up ceremonies in elementary school at the end of each school year. Every grade stood in a separate line in the gym. And then the principal commanded everyone in each grade to step forward. There was some magic in that step. It instantly made us older and wiser.
But after a few years ceremonies all began to feel like empty gestures. Stepping forward and serving Communion and so on felt too superstitious.
Then in college I read the the book Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko. It was about a Laguna Pueblo Indian man named Tayo, returning home from World War II, unable to cope, heading for ruin. His path to healing involved the realization that his demons could not be addressed as personal problems, as the medical establishment insisted on doing. The madness of the war, and his own madness were inextricably linked. It was a witchery possessing the Europeans when they arrived, and affecting the whole world now. A mass hallucination of isolation, of feeling alienated from the earth, from the tribe, and from one’s own being. And culminating in the sacrilege of the nuclear bomb.
And the reader was part of that witchery, and a participant in the healing ceremony of the book itself. Ceremony broke the barrier between observer and observed, reader and writer.
Here was something real, not superstitious. The movements of the medicine man, Betoni, weren’t empty gestures. They seemed to conform to subtle orders of intelligence, or spirit, that were not always visible to people infected by that witchery.
That book quietly reversed the accusation of superstition, calling into question white society’s conventional wisdom. Against the backdrop of Ceremony, reductive and downright deadly superstitions in mainstream history books and patriotic narratives became more obvious. They were also rituals, but incoherent and divisive.
The Ceremony in Ceremony was made manifest. It was a material reality I could hold, over which the eyes danced, and meaning shifted like a flame, throwing a wavering and sometimes disorienting light on familiar things.
I began to see ritual as a teaching that takes a certain form only because the issue that is being resolved demands a certain physical response, a healing pattern manifesting a new order, or the negation of an old order.
“I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong. She taught me this above all else: things which don’t shift and grow are dead things….” (Ceremony).
Here ritual suggests something spontaneous. Which seems contradictory. Or perhaps paradoxical. A relationship between pattern and change that has remained difficult for me to sort out.
Can the structures of ritual initiate a change of mind, or do insights initiate new rituals?
Which is the cart and which is the horse?
And does this question suggest a dichotomy (a witchery allowing only one surviving point of view) or a paradox (allowing multiple possibilities)?
Changes in the Meaning of Ritual Introduced by Tony Dias
Those old questions have been roused from semi-sleep by encountering Tony Dias’s subtle use of the word “ritual.”
Here the meaning is not fixed to any religious doctrine. He means something more open-ended. The word seems to beckon like a lighthouse, both as a warning of shipwreck in one direction, and a sign of open water in the other. A paradox. A Shoal Hope.
As a warning, it shines light on a loss of innocence and wonder. On a mundane vision of adulthood, which required only the false initiation of denial. A denial of uncertainty and awe. All that we deemed “childish.”
A denial of what a poet or artist tries to restore. In favor of a mentality that strips the earth of everything but utilitarian value. That reduces our unfathomed potential to a component of the GDP.
We share the earth with beings that should make us quake with awe: the blue whale, the elephant, the bear…. And creatures delicate and miraculous. But their destruction seems to merit only an adolescent flippancy.
Maybe we could take our place, magnificent in our own peculiar way, as shatterers of illusion, as makers of meaning. In the way Gautama touched the earth with his finger, grounding himself in an actuality beyond all self-trickery. That, too, was a kind of ritual movement. It was a coming of age story. The beginning of open-ended self-discovery, and of an almost swooning reverence before the majesty of living and dying.
But this culture is caught in a reductive death-spiral. Its chief vision of the sacred is some self-centric reward in an “afterlife.” Essentially a transaction in a marketplace. Receiving the goods of Heaven in exchange for reciting rote incantations. That’s not the ritual he has in mind. It’s something simpler than all the complexities of self-trickery.
It suggests a way of living that is without ulterior purpose or the alienations of self-consciousness.
These descriptions say only what ritual is not. What it means requires moving beyond the warning and promise of the word itself. Into meanings that change as we learn. Shifting and inconclusive meanings paradoxically grounded in the flesh and blood world.
Beyond the rocks of dichotomy there are no final answers. Something better. A kaleidoscope of ever-more far-reaching questions. They restore movement, a new beginning. A long delayed initiation.
Insight, Movement and Language
This vision of ritual requires a clear language. But words are not enough. It requires an insight, but insight can’t be purely cerebral. As Krishnamurti emphasized, it’s not enough to understand the dilemma. We have to feel it in our bones, as a flesh and blood realization.
But flesh-and-blood movement alone is only empty gesture.
There are no carts and horses here. There is no cause and effect relationship between these three elements. They are another inseparable trinity of sorts – insight, language and movement.
But the witchery infects perception through modes (or “moods”) of language that reduce meaning to fixed positions.
And other moods of language have the potential to simplify the perception of something blocking an undivided and open-ended state of mind.
So I need to understand the danger and promise of words. Then perhaps a mood of language that is not bewitched by reductive dichotomies is possible. A mood of language that can simplify the complex dichotomy between thought and thing.
In Part 2 I’ll look more closely at the danger and promise of words.