Lichtenbergian Ritual

Warning: long post ahead

The Lichtenbergian Society’s impending Annual Meeting has me all aquiver, and I am at some pains to figure out why this is so. The mere whimsy of the association is one thing, the whole grown-men-forming-their-little-club aspect of it, complete with seal and charter; but that’s not enough to account for the genuine excitement around here.

Somewhere over on the Lacuna blog, Jeff wondered if we should have some kind of ritual thing, and I pointed out that over here on this blog we already had one outlined: the proposed Order of Business for the meeting. Go take a look at it.

I’ve been reading Ellen Dissanayake’s Homo Aestheticus (down, Jobie, down), in which she talks about how “making special” is an evolutionary adaptive behavior to be found in three aspects of human existence: play, ritual, and the arts. All three stem from the ability of humans to conceive of an “other” reality, and all three use that conception to different purposes. I’d like to look at Dissanayake’s examination of ritual and how it applies to our less-than-serious Society and how that in turn might in fact be invested with meaning far beyond anything we suspected when we cobbled it together.

She borrows a term from a study called Ancient Art and Ritual (1913), in which the author used the Greek dromenon, ‘a thing done,’ to concoct her own term, dromena, to describe the human imperative to act when impelled by strong emotions, our impulse get ‘things done’ in a ritual setting. We seek to do, and later in her book she will extend this idea beyond ritual to artistic creation. (It is her thesis that art did not spring from ritual but is an evolutionary adaptive behavior that developed alongside ritual.)

Dissanayake describes a ritual as a patterned response to a transition or transformation in human existence. Since transition or transformation is often anxiety-producing (“I’m going to start my symphony,” or “I need to get those ideas out of my head into novel format”), a ritualized response is useful to take the subject (i.e., us) through a comforting, patterned experience.

First of all, the main purpose of the ritual is to take the participants from their everyday state into the “liminal” state, over the Campbellian threshold, to a place where the rules of daily existence do not apply. This is one point at which, Dissanayake says, the aesthetic impulse rears its evolutionary head: we wear special outfits or disrobe, we use instruments that are created or enhanced for the occasion, we decorate ourselves and our surroundings.

Just think, for example, of the things that one or more of us have laughingly suggested for the evening’s activities: naked dancing, presentation of a piece of the fire to be contained in a specialized chalice, smearing of the participant with ashes, the Journal of the Proceedings of the Lichtenbergian Society, etc. More than one of you are bringing examples to guide our discussion of “What is Art?”

I say “laughingly suggested,” because as yet we are unsure of how serious any of this is or even can be. Marc has suggested that it is now impossible to devise a real ritual because of our postmodern penchant for irony. But even in his demurral I hear the yearning for such a thing, and I think, as I’ve told him on the other blog, that I believe that it is possible, and that it is possible to include our irony within the structure. Yes, we are prone to observe ourselves, but that doesn’t mean that what we witness cannot be truly meaningful.

Dissanayake goes on to say that the liminal state can produce a communal transformation too, an emotional condition called communitas. “Individuals feel themselves join in a state of oneness, with each other, with powers greater than themselves, or with both, a sort of merging and self-transcendence. [This] capacity for self-transformation, felt as… self-transendence… seems to be a universal element in the human behavioral repertoire.”

Indeed, if you will recall, the invitation to join me for a Winter Solstice get-together, which enjoined us to nothing more than drinking and musing, preceded the formation of our Society by a couple of days. My desire for communitas must have struck a chord, because everyone on the email list responded almost immediately to say he’d come. My intent was already to invoke dromena/communitas in a more generic kind of way, and the Society has given us a very important, at least to this group of men, and focused way to do that.

This communitas is related to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow,” that state of play/work/creativity to which we all aspire, in which there is a dissolution between the “I” and “other,” and the stuff we do comes easily without barrier or impediment, especially from us. I think this is germane to the ritual we have constructed, since we are dealing with one of our self-made barriers within it.

Finally, as part of her ethological thesis, Dissanayake posits that the “effect of ritual actions and performances, of dromena, is to make people feel better, and indeed one might suggest… that ritual practices are not so much expected to work, though certainly it is hoped that they will, as to deliver people from anxiety.” I don’t think I need to explicate the anxiety which the items on our Efforts lists can generate or have generated in us.

Jeff has suggested in comments somewhere around here that this anxiety springs from our comparing our inner, “perfect” selves with our everyday, lazy, ineffective, unproductive selves. He states that we should ignore the two obvious choices, to pretend the inner one is real and live in delusion; or to gnaw ourselves into agony through focusing on the outer one, and go with a third choice: embrace the gulf between the two.

I believe this is what our ritual Annual Meetings are destined to do. By listing the things we never got around to (adromena?), by recognizing that we do not struggle alone (communitas), by toasting ourselves silly into companionability, by drawing a picture of the coming year as we hope it to be, we stand a chance of neutralizing or even dispelling the anxiety which accompanies all of us as creative men and which often threatens to paralyze us.

So when you end up dancing drunk, naked, and smeared with ash in my backyard, remember: you’ll be a better man for it.

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