3 Old Men: Shame and dirt

In Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: mischief, myth, and art, he has a chapter called “Speechless Shame and Shameless Speech” in which he posits that shame is linked to societal rules about speech and silence, and that those rules have an “ordering function,” not just of society but of the body and the psyche as well.

He quotes from Hunger of Memory, the memoir of one Richard Rodriguez:

The normal, extraordinary, animal excitement of feeling my [teenaged] body alive—riding shirtless on a bicycle in the warm wind created by furious self-propelled motion—the sensations that first had excited in my a sense of my maleness, I denied. I was too ashamed of my body. I wanted to forget that I had a body because I had a brown body.

Hyde goes on to note that “…an unalterable fact about the body…”—in this case, Rodriguez’s brown skin— “… is linked to a place in the social order,…”—i.e., less than white skin— “… and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.” [1]

The Trickster, however, subverts that trap. Remember that Trickster = Raven, Coyote, Br’er Rabbit, Shiva, Dionysus, Jesus.

Or Old Men.

If you take Rodriguez’s passage and substitute old for brown, you can see another source of the power of 3 Old Men’s ritual at burns:

Wise to the tricks of language, the [Trickster] refuses the whole setup—refuses the metonymic shift, the enchantment of [societal] story, and the rules of silence—and by these refusals [he] detaches the supposedly overlapping levels of inscription from one another so that the body, especially, need no longer stand as the mute, incarnate seal of social and psychological order. All this, but especially the speaking out where shame demands silence, depends largely on a consciousness that doesn’t feel much inhibition, and knows how traps are made, and knows how to subvert them.[2]

That’s long and complicated. But what it means for us is that rather than be complicit in the role that society has constructed for the words an old man, the 3 Old Men troupe rejects that metonymy— “a kind of bait and switch,” Hyde says, “in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body”[3]—in this case, our aging male bodies—and instead substitutes a different reading.

This reading (about which you can read my original thoughts here) also links into Hyde’s contention that any social structure of meaning undergoes “purification” as it continues to create order, discarding undesirable or repellent bits, i.e., “dirt.” He contends that in an eternal dialectic, the Trickster takes the dirt, the waste, the excluded detritus of the system and revivifies the system by breaking it open and throwing the dirt back in.[4]

Thus, our society’s ideals of beauty and power have over the centuries focused more on the youthful male body—sleek, virile, strong—and rejected the aching joints, sagging breasts, and protruding bellies of the old. 3 Old Men uses its ritual to call attention to those attributes of “oldness” and to overturn and recreate that societal order in the labyrinth, and then to include that society which excluded the former “dirt,” by opening the labyrinth to the journey of others, ending with our agon encounters at the boundaries.

Ritual: Order. Community. Transformation.

—————

[1] Hyde, p. 169

[2] ibid., p. 171

[3] ibid. p. 170

[4] In a stunning bit of synchronicity, the chapter after “Speechless Shame” is “Matter Out of Place”: dirt is that which is out of place when we create our order. Matter out of place, or MOOP, is of course a key concept in Leave No Trace, one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man. (I do not know whether there is a connection between Hyde’s work and the growth of Burning Man—it would be interesting to find out.)

3 Old Men: mapping the field of ritual, redux, part 6

: Ritual action :

[original post here]

What kinds of actions are performed as part of the rite, for example, sitting, bowing, dancing, lighting fires (!), touching, avoiding, gazing, walking?  In what order to they occur?  … What are the central gestures?  … What actions are not ascribed meaning?  What actions are regarded as especially meaningful and therefore symbolic?  What actions are regarded as efficacious rather than symbolic?  What meanings, causes, or goals do participants attribute to their actions? … Which actions are repeated?  What gestures mark transitions?  What are the recurrent postures?  What qualities of action persist—quickness, slowness, verticality, hesitance, mobility, linearity, exuberance, restraint?  Are parts of the rite framed theatrically? … What parts of the body are emphasized by participants’ kinesthetic style?  … How do the social and environmental contexts influence the actions?  What actions are done with objects? …  What actions are optional, required?

So much questions…

One thing I found fascinating was the way we arrived at Alchemy with having gone through the ritual only once, and yet it was cemented, fully formed—and it was still allowed to grow in a very organic way.

For example, no one determined that after donning body paint each Old Man would wait to enter the labyrinth until the Man before him had reached and left the center, yet that became our standard action.

There was no prescribed method of painting oneself; everyone did as they felt best (especially as it got colder!). Personally, I think we looked best as a group when we covered our entire torsos.

Our solutions to initiating a walk to the next station evolved, and I remember the first time we did that, Joe just naturally walked from the west to the east, not stopping at the north entrance where the paint was. It seemed right, and so that’s what that part of the ritual became. It also worked when Wolf showed up with a fully worked out protocol for those who wanted to be relieved by another Old Man—thank goodness, since I was the first one to succumb, to dehydration I think.

The opening of the ritual I think was nearly perfect. I think our decision to strip and paint ourselves was the right one. Not only did it play off the infamous “drop-trou” atmosphere of Burns, it underlined the ritual transformation of campers into Old Men: we shed our daily garb; exposed our bodies and marked them with the other-worldly white of the body paint; took the journey into the labyrinth, stopping in the center for whatever private moment we each made there and then emerging to our station; donned our skirts and took up our staffs; and there we stood, newly born as officiants.

(And then of course, the reverse process: stripping off the skirt, retracing our steps into the labyrinth, and emerging to reassume our daily personae.)

As for the “qualities” of these actions, it seemed to me that we all invested our time as Old Men with seriousness and grace. For our participants, there was room for laughter, for talking, for serious meditation and blessing, for shenanigans; throughout, the Old Men were protective and alert.

The question I had of making the installation of the labyrinth a ritual—still unresolved. That might be a good excuse to get together next spring out at Craig’s and explore. For one thing, Old Men Who Aren’t Dale should be able to construct the labyrinth without me. More work is required there.

Craig has talked about developing a “walkabout” ritual, really the original concept for 3 Old Men: us in our skirts and staffs walking through the Burn. I think it would be very easy to institute: effect the transformation, then line up and head down the road to the Promenade and up to the Effigy. What would we do once we go there? More work is required.

We also need to develop a more betterer “acolyte” role, one that Christine created on the spot. Perhaps the idea of a carnival barker is not particularly apt, but we need to work on ways to invite the rubes passersby into the experience. More work is required.

Anything else? It’s tough analyzing an ineffable experience.

3 Old Men: mapping the field of ritual, redux, part 5

: Ritual sound & language :

[original post here]

What is the role of silence in the rite? … Do the people consider it important to talk about the rite, avoid talk about it, or to talk during it?  Are there parts of the rite for which they find it difficult or impossible to articulate verbalizable meanings? … How important is language to the performance of the rite?  What styles of language appear in it — incantation, poetry, narrative, rhetoric, creeds, invective, dialogue?  In what tones of voice do people speak?  … To what extent is the language formulaic or repetitious? … How much of the language is spontaneous, how much is planned?

The ritual itself, the transformation of Old Men, was done in silence, and I think it was good that way. I don’t know what others were doing, but I was soaking in the energy and trying to return it to my fellow Old Men and to the space. I think also that the visual of the Old Men performing their ritual in silence—as if we’d been doing this for years instead of for the second time in our lives—was quite compelling and beautiful.

(Think about that last bit, guys: we’d literally done the ritual only once before, at the runthrough out at Craig’s in September. We had no official way of making assignments or changes—and yet we did. More than one burner was astonished to find that we were Alchemy virgins, and a lot of their impression came from watching the solidity of the ritual. It looked ancient.)

Of course language was important to the agons—we had to engage the participant with the blessings/struggle. As far as I know, we didn’t actually codify the language there, although I don’t think anyone strayed very far from, “May I bless you?” / ”Will you bless me?” / “I offer you a struggle.” It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

And then language became critical for the experience: either our improvised blessing or theirs, and the choice of the struggle. Silence played its role as well: I never explained the struggle to the participant, just pushed into the space and did what felt right. Question for discussion: did anyone else develop specific language/actions for their versions of each agon?

As for talking about the rite, many people did and thought it was important to do so. I agree. I like to hear what people brought to the experience and what they got out of it. I think Craig’s instincts are correct that we should eventually provide a “decompression” space, perhaps with food and/or music.

Music was always welcome. Will’s Bach suites were amazing, and of course after sundown we always had Incendia for company. I do wonder how, if we added drumming, bells, or flute laying as a regular thing, that would work with Incendia going full blast.

3 Old Men: mapping the field of ritual, redux, part 4

 : Ritual identity :

[original post here]

What ritual roles and offices are operative—teacher, master, elder, priest, shaman, diviner, healer, musician?  How does the rite transform ordinary appearances and role definitions?  Which roles extend beyond the ritual arena, and which are confined to it? … Who initiates, plans, and sustains the rite?  Who is excluded by the rite?  Who is the audience, and how does it participate?  … What feelings do people have while they are performing the rite?  After the rite?  At what moments are mystical or other kinds of religious experience heightened?  Is one expected to have such feelings or experiences? … Does the rite include meditation, possession, psychotropics, or other consciousness-altering elements?  … What room is there for eccentricity, deviance, innovation, and personal experiment? … Are masks, costumes, or face paint used as ways of precipitating a transformation of identity?

Again, I think there are two rituals going on in our camp: the ritual we perform to become Old Men, and then the ritual experienced by those who walk the labyrinth. I’ll try to keep them straight as I move through this section.

I don’t know how others felt, but I for sure felt as if I were elder, priest, and occasionally a shaman while I was in our ritual. The transformation from Alchemy camper into Old Man never failed to ring true for me. I felt not necessarily exposed, but opening to the onlookers: “This is my body,” if you will. “I mark it, I draw attention to it, I show you the way in, and now I become an Old Man who can assist you. Follow.”

While officiating, I felt very calm—outside time—while at the same time alert to the participants and their choices. I found myself reviewing the original list of traits: solemnity, compassion, serenity, wisdom, openness, and groundedness, and trying to embody and project those to onlookers and participants.

Someone commented that they noticed that I smiled much of the time. Truthfully, it was a conscious decision on my part to return all the positive energy that I was absorbing to the environment. Alchemy and 3 Old Men made me very happy, and I wanted to give that back.

It is interesting that in the original post I was still dithering about the body paint and the nudity. I was fairly sure that it was what we needed, but at that point the troupe was all my theory and no real practice. Needless to say, it was amazing to perform and to watch. I’ll have more thoughts about this element in a couple of days when I talk about ritual action.

I am very curious as to what people’s feelings were when they walked the labyrinth. That’s one thing I want us to do better in the future: collect responses, either through interviews or with some kind of book people could write in.

Was there room for “eccentricity, deviance, innovation, and personal experiment”? You betcha. I think that’s one of the strengths of 3 Old Men, that we opened the labyrinth for others to build their own experiences. It never bothered me to see people romping through it, or stepping over the ropes to be ‘clever’ in ‘finding the way out.’ Everyone brought what they needed and took what they needed.

As I said in the original post:

I expect to see people walking the labyrinth in silence and prayer; singing and dancing; giggling and inattentive; naked; stoned and lost; smirking and cynical; hurriedly.  I expect drummers and other musicians to join us.  I expect people to be puzzled or put off by the offer of an agon; I expect some to accept it gratefully, with tears, with joy.  I expect to be quizzed—”What is this about?  How do I do it?”  I expect to be ignored.  I expect to have others expect me to be something more than I have offered.

And I expect to be transformed by all of it, to learn more about my identity as an Old Man.

And so it was.

3 Old Men: mapping the field of ritual, redux, part 3

I’m revisiting my explication of 3 Old Men in terms of Ronald Grimes’ Beginnings in Ritual Studies.

: Ritual time :

[original post here]

At what time of day does the ritual occur—night, dawn, dusk, midday?  What other concurrent activities happen that might supplement or compete with it?  … At what season?  Does it always happen at this time? Is it a one-time affair or a recurring one? … How does ritual time coincide or conflict with ordinary times, for instance work time or sleeping time? … What is the duration of the rite?  Does it have phases, interludes, or breaks?  How long is necessary to prepare for it?  … What elements are repeated within the duration of the rite?  Does the rite taper off or end abruptly? … What role does age play in the content and officiating of the rite?

The Great Ritual, i.e., Burning Man/Alchemy/wherever, determines when the 3 Old Men emerge from the mists and perform their ritual.

As I posted earlier, we had decided on dawn, sunset, an hour after sunset, and midnight as the four times we would perform the ritual—but the exigencies of weather convinced us to dump the dawn and add noon instead right off the bat.

The fact that I misunderstood the chart I used to determine sunset each day (neglecting to account for DST) meant that we had submitted a schedule to the central committee that had us out there at sunset and an hour before. (At our very first performance of the ritual, it seemed to me that it was very much daylight; nothing like taking your clothes off in front of a steady stream of traffic arriving at the burn.)

But we stuck with it, just in case someone out there had downloaded the schedule and came looking for us. It worked, although I think next time we will go with the actual sunset and an hour afterwards. We look awesome by the flickering of the tiki torches.

I’m also fine with our canceling ritual performances when it’s too freaking cold to smear liquid kaolin over our naked bodies, although that last performance with the blankets/shawls was great too. We could legitimately make actual shawls/serapes to wear if it’s chilly.

As for supplementary or competing activities… Well, that’s what makes it a burn, ne-ç’est pas?

I like the fact that we were available most of the time to assist those walking the labyrinth even when we aren’t out there in full regalia. I like how people felt comfortable sitting and chatting. I think our canopies could be better deployed as a decompression area.

In the original post, I talked about the Great Ritual of Burning Man vs. the small ritual of the labyrinth. I think the same concept can be applied to 3 Old Men itself: the Great Ritual of the officiants vs. the open labyrinth the rest of the time. Four times a day, the Old Men would take their places at the entrances to the labyrinth and offer the agons to participants. Otherwise, the labyrinth lay open for exploration and meditation. I think this worked. I do want to continue to recruit Old Men so that we can offer more/longer sessions. I think it would be great if we were “open,” so to speak, the entire time Incendia was up and running, for example.

I think we ended up manning our posts about 30 minutes each time. It seemed adequate; more officiants would allow us to tag team and keep going.

As for “age” as a determinant for participation, I really like the fact that all of us were over 45 at least. For me, the entire experience was a profound meditation on being an Old Man and how powerful that was. I don’t know how I would feel if a young man (say, the kid who stripped and painted himself) asked if he could camp with us or officiate.

3 Old Men: mapping the field of ritual, redux, part 2

I’m revisiting my explication of 3 Old Men in terms of Ronald Grimes’ Beginnings in Ritual Studies.

: Ritual objects :

[original post here]

What, and how many, objects are associated with the rite? … Of what materials are they made? … What is done with it? … What skills were involved in its making?

Back in March, I talked about the staffs and the skirts and indeed those became the major ritual objects, but there’s a lot more to discuss now that we’ve actually done it.

When we met in September for our technical runthrough/final dress rehearsal, it was clear that the four of us had had a wonderful time designing and making our staffs. Mine was the simple blue staff with the rings of wire and the copper lizard. Craig’s was hand-carved with a serpent surmounting it. Michael’s was a spiral-cut wooden curtain-rod which he had painted and trimmed along the spiral grooves. Joe’s was this phantasmagoria of styles, a different look-and-feel every foot or so, ending up with a steampunk top into which he could insert a glowstick. (We also had a fifth one for volunteer Old Men; Michael made it and I’m afraid I don’t have a firm memory of it.)

The staffs became therefore a focus of our own particular energies and styles. I’m sure none of our participants paid the slightest attention, but it made a difference to me.

One thing we did not use the staffs for was to lay out a central octagon for the labyrinth. It was completely unnecessary: we measured the space so that we’d have room for the entire thing, then staked out the center, aligned the points of the compass, and then used the triangle to place the stakes. I did use the markings on my staff to place the stakes at the appropriate distance from either side of the short “blue” rope, so that was both useful and necessary.

The skirts were particularly fine as objects: they set the Old Men apart as Other in a really beautiful but undefinable way. Together with the staffs they left the viewer with no choice but to understand that these men were figures of power.

Back in March I posited creating stands at the four exits, one for each of the four elements, but Black Rock Desert’s windy environment wouldn’t permit it. They would have been superfluous, as it turns out.

I did whip up a stand for our bowl for the body paint, and that turned out to be very effective. We moved it around from exit to exit until we settled on the north side, which was the side by the road—almost literally by the road. By creating a place for the body paint, it gave the ritual itself a beginning and ending in space. Once or twice participants used the body paint themselves, and that was nice. (Only one, a much younger man who had spent some time chatting with us about the whole thing, stripped and painted himself before walking the labyrinth. I thought we’d have more.)

At the dress rehearsal, Craig suggested that I bring my gong/bell from the labyrinth, and that was an amazing addition. As the weekend progressed and we actually developed details in the ritual, the bell became an important part of that. (See the discussion on ritual action in a couple of days.)

Craig also built a little altar in the center for people leave and take ritual items, and by Cthulhu that worked! People seemed to know without being told what to do—or maybe that’s a universal dirty hippie freak thing.

Finally, the labyrinth itself was fabulous. We could if we wanted make the construction more ritualistic, but it didn’t feel to me as if that were a problem. The tawdriness of the materials—the fluorescent orange and yellow in particular—might be problematic in establishing the sacred nature of the space (well, it is for me), but I keep coming back to the basic issues of visibility and safety. I don’t know that it bothered the audience.

3 Old Men: mapping the field of ritual, redux

Back in March, I blogged a lot about the theory and practice of the 3 Old Men ritual troupe as I prepared to head out to Burning Man.  This was before I found out that we were not able to go this year.  We did, however, go to Alchemy, the Burn-like event in north Georgia, and as I reread those posts from March I thought I should go back over some of the ideas and talk about them as they eventually played out in real life.

The background is Beginnings in ritual studies, by Ronald L. Grimes, and I did a series of posts on his chapter of “mapping the field of ritual.”  What I’d like to do is spend a few posts looking at his questions again and see if there were any unanswered questions or surprises in the event itself.

: Ritual space :

[Original post here]

Where does the ritual enactment occur?  If the place is constructed , what resources were expended to build it?  Who designed it?  What traditions or guidelines, both practical and symbolic, were followed in building it? … What rites were performed to consecrate or deconsecrate it? …. If portable, what determines where [the space will next be deployed]?  … Are participants territorial or possessive of the space? … Is ownership invested in individuals, the group, or a divine being?  Are there fictional, dramatic, or mythic spaces within the physical space? [Grimes, p. 20-22]

Rather than the vast and inhospitable Black Rock Desert, Alchemy takes place on a green tract of farm land in North Georgia.  Hilly, wooded, with roads, a lake, and even camp showers, it’s not quite as an austere environment as Nevada.  It did require—when I submitted our application to be considered as a theme camp—knowledge of the territory, which I didn’t possess but on which my fellow Alchemists were happy to advise me.

As it turned out, we were placed right at the entrance to the site.  There’s a giant windbreak/hedge across the eastern side of the property, and the main road cuts through it—and there we were, first camp on the left.  Nice, flat, and accessible.  At first I thought we might have been slighted as newbies; for the first 36 hours of our experience, there was a steady stream of traffic pouring past our camp, not quite conducive to quiet meditation. But the team leader who actually placed us there told me he thought we would benefit from the foot traffic to our neighbors across the street, Incendia, and he was right.

Consecration was simple—I smudged the circle and the center, and then our team members, and we were off.  In the future I would like to incorporate that moment of sacralization for each time we perform the ritual.

In March I talked about the Great Ritual of Burning Man itself and of the smaller rituals such as 3 Old Men.  Because of the smaller scope of Alchemy and shorter life-span (both in terms of longevity and of duration), I did not sense a Great Ritual there other than the liminal experience of crossing that boundary and committing to life with the dirty freaking hippies for four days.  Lots and lots and lots of smaller rituals, of course.

We had interesting territorial issues, in that the 3 Old Men’s performance was compelling, but daunting: it turned out that many passers-by were so impressed by the ritual that they regarded entering the labyrinth as a real test.  Most looked interested but avoided participation.  As we worked through the weekend, we developed ways to make it clear to people that they were welcome, and as word spread we got an uptick in participation.  I think as we continue to attend Alchemy and other events, we will build a reputation and more people will be willing to take the plunge.  Still, I’m kind of impressed that what we had made it clear that this was not a silly thing.

Ownership did become invested in the group.  While I think everyone still looks to me as a guiding force, I was delighted that everyone felt comfortable in creating new aspects to the experience.

Besides the labyrinth itself being a mythic space, the center became more important as a focus, a fact I’ll talk more about in the section on Ritual Objects tomorrow.

Today in crapping out music

Yes, I know it’s Thanksgiving, but I woke up from dreaming about a) men getting tattoos, and b) the symphony.

Leaving aside the tattooed men for the moment—oh, GROW UP YOU PEOPLE—I decided to slip upstairs while I could and crap out some notes.  I had gotten the fourth movement nicely started, and then it nicely ground to a silence, which was my intent.  The problem with grinding to a silence is that then one must start back up.  That’s where the dilemma is, and that’s what I woke up dreaming.  If I had actually dreamed a solution, that would have been fantastic, but I didn’t.  I just awoke to the need to do something about it.

For the moment, I’ve been falling back on my “abortive attempts” strategy: putting in a double bar (to mark my place) and just plopping out new sounds to see if I can trigger something that works.  I’ve also been going back into the file of the original fourth movement and stealing stuff I liked from there to see if it will fit in with the new stuff.  Which it should, because as I said previously I’m not starting from scratch, just rewriting what I’ve already done.  So far, it’s a good stopgap measure: the old work is not bad stuff, and it may get me started when I’m actually able to sit down and work all day on it.

You will have noticed that I have not shared any of this.

So, tattooed men.

Let’s see if I can find a nice, pretty, safe-for-work image of what was running through my head last night…

That’s kind of it, although I recall the tattoos as being more geometric than tribal, just big blocks of black.  We were at some kind of social gathering, and all the men had these tattoos on their arms.  (Click on the image to see the whole page of some very nice tattoos.  And then click on this link to see some absolutely beautiful tattoos!)

Other than my long-term fascination with tattoos, I don’t have any explanation for the dream.  The whole concept of marking oneself appeals to me, and it would be disingenuous of me not to recognize that part of the appeal lies in what I take to be an inherent masculinity in the concept.  (Certainly the young men on the tribal page are healthy exemplars of manly manliness.)

However, I’ve always shied away from the idea of large tattoos on my own personal body.  The two I have are small and discreet.  If you didn’t know I had them, you’d never know.  I think it’s because I have no confidence in my ability to carry it off, masculinity-speaking-wise.  I don’t have the broad chest or shapely biceps that the specimens you see on the internet have, and I never did.  One doesn’t want to look ludicrous, after all.

I’ve been forbidden to get more tattoos because some of us don’t find them appealing so it’s kind of a moot point to think about the topic, but there are at least three that I would get if I could.

The first is my lovely first wife’s signature.  You’d think that one would be appealing, but no.  I’ve informed her that if she dies, I’m showing up at the funeral with her name tattooed on me and everyone will think it’s sweet.  Probably I’d want that one on the inside of my wrist.  (FYI, I have a sheet with her signature already filed away.)

The second is a lizard.  I hesitate to use the term “spirit animal” out in public, but it’s an animal that has recurred in my meditations and in my art collecting, and one day I realized that I have half a dozen of the critters sitting around my study and the labyrinth.  It must mean something.  I don’t have a design picked out, and I’m not sure where I’d put it.  Maybe as I continue to evolve into an Old Man, I’ll get a rather large one on my chest.  Break down that particular barrier. (For a very interesting explication of what tattoos can mean, I highly recommend Seven Tattoos by Peter Trachtenberg.)

The third one is the Lichtenbergian motto, Cras melior est, which translates as “Tomorrow is better.”  This is my friend Kevin’s idea for his tattoo, and I don’t know why it didn’t dawn on me previously.  Upper arm, perhaps, or my shoulder blade?  As I said, it’s a moot point, so I don’t spend a lot of time pondering the issue.

There may be others.  I seem to recall wanting four, but nothing is bubbling to the surface at the moment.  The important thing for me is that none of them are decoration.  The tattoos on the two pages to which I’ve linked are beautiful, but many of them seem to be sheerly decorative, “tribal” in the sense of “trendy/in-crowd.”  That’s not what I’m after.

I think that the best word to describe what I hope for in getting a tattoo is incorporation.  (I will now pause to let Marc shiver with a frisson of sinthome or whatever it is he shivers with.)  The marks I want on my body—permanently—are markers: some thing, some idea, some force that I want embodied on my body and in my living.  I crave the commitment.

Hm.  I did not plan to write about tattoos this morning.   Wonder what that’s about?

Burning Man: mapping the field of ritual, part 4

Finishing our examination of Ronald Grimes’s mapping of rituals, from the second chapter of his Beginnings in ritual studies.

: Ritual sound & language :

What is the role of silence in the rite? … Do the people consider it important to talk about the rite, avoid talk about it, or to talk during it?  Are there parts of the rite for which they find it difficult or impossible to articulate verbalizable meanings? … How important is language to the performance of the rite?  What styles of language appear in it — incantation, poetry, narrative, rhetoric, creeds, invective, dialogue?  In what tones of voice do people speak?  … To what extent is the language formulaic or repetitious? … How much of the language is spontaneous, how much is planned?

I don’t have answers to any of these.  I have deliberately postponed any kind of planning on language/sound until Craig and I (and others, hopefully) get on our feet, as we say in the theatre, and start to play with it.  All I know is that when a participant exits the labyrinth, I must in some way connect with that person and offer one of the agones.  I honestly have no clue about how this will work.

I imagine that the offer of the agon will be formulaic, but then the rest of it is going to have to be improvised.

As for music/sounds, I’m not planning anything, but that could easily change as well.  As I said in our Theme Camp application, we would welcome drum circles and other musicians to contribute to the ritual as they see fit.  If our camp were bigger, say ten or more people, we could plan to have our own drummers in attendance.  As it is, we each have our own bells/bowls/shakers we can bring with us, but how we implement them I will leave to more shamanic minds than mine.  I can easily see a participant singing or playing an instrument or singing bowl or shaker while walking the path. It will be very interesting to report back what happens on the Playa as the community participates in the 3 Old Men ritual.

: Ritual action :

What kinds of actions are performed as part of the rite, for example, sitting, bowing, dancing, lighting fires (!), touching, avoiding, gazing, walking?  In what order to they occur?  … What are the central gestures?  … What actions are not ascribed meaning?  What actions are regarded as especially meaningful and therefore symbolic?  What actions are regarded as efficacious rather than symbolic?  What meanings, causes, or goals do participants attribute to their actions? … Which actions are repeated?  What gestures mark transitions?  What are the recurrent postures?  What qualities of action persist—quickness, slowness, verticality, hesitance, mobility, linearity, exuberance, restraint?  Are parts of the rite framed theatrically? … What parts of the body are emphasized by participants’ kinesthetic style?  … How do the social and environmental contexts influence the actions?  What actions are done with objects? …  What actions are optional, required?

Again, a bucketload of questions, some of which we can answer, splitting our focus between the officiants and the participants.

For the Old Men, for this Old Man anyway, here are some answers:

  • Performance includes standing, walking, dancing/movement (during the walking), and touching.  I would include the agones themselves as actions, and they are to my mind central and especially  meaningful.  I think from my perspective they are in fact efficacious rather than symbolic, although of course I have no control over the actual efficacy; I can only offer a gesture that I hope is effectively meaningful to the participant.
  • The agones are repeated, and they are themselves the transition from the journey of the labyrinth back to the world at large.  They are, however, optional: the participant may decline the offer, or even choose to exit where there is no officiant.
  • Again, not having gotten on my feet I’m not sure of the “qualities” of these actions.  In my head, I sense they should be slow, deliberate, nonthreatening, even the ‘struggle’ agon.  But I will not be surprised if, out on the Playa, the Old Men choose to become exuberant at least part of the time.
  • Body parts.  This is very important to me, since the whole impetus behind the 3 Old Men is of course our aging bodies.  The skirt will emphasize our torsos, specifically our bellies, which among our current participants are not taut.  I think too our arms and hands will play a large role by dint of holding the staff and engaging in the agones.  Also, if we go with the nude walk through the labyrinth as our opening, then all kinds of body issues will present themselves as part of the ritual.  One question that arises: do we paint just our heads and torsos, the visible parts of our bodies once we don our skirts, or do we paint our entire bodies for the trip through?  That will require some discussion.  (Sorry about the mental image…)

One question I have not resolved for myself is whether installing the labyrinth is part of the ritual.  I think it will be for me, although once we arrive on the Playa and set to work, it may become just a bloody chore.  Certainly we have no plans to take the thing down and re-erect it every day.

For our participants, the ritual action is pretty straightforward:

  • Approach the labyrinth.
  • Choose an entrance.
  • Enter the labyrinth.
  • Journey to the center.
  • Choose an exit.
  • Journey outward.
  • Choose whether to engage in the proffered agon, and if so, engage.

What meaning our participants assign to these actions is, as I’ve said before, anyone’s guess.

And that fact leads me to question whether what we’re doing is a ritual at all, since it is not part of an actual culture that produced it other than that of dirty hippie freaks like me and the 68,000 other Burners.  Still, my experiences with my own labyrinth have convinced me that this offering to the Burning Man community will in fact be received as a meaningful experience by those who participate.  In any event, I have an interesting anthropological study ahead of me.

Burning Man: mapping the field of ritual, part 3

Continuing our examination of Ronald Grimes’s mapping of rituals, from the second chapter of his Beginnings in ritual studies.

 : Ritual identity :

What ritual roles and offices are operative—teacher, master, elder, priest, shaman, diviner, healer, musician?  How does the rite transform ordinary appearances and role definitions?  Which roles extend beyond the ritual arena, and which are confined to it? … Who initiates, plans, and sustains the rite?  Who is excluded by the rite?  Who is the audience, and how does it participate?  … What feelings do people have while they are performing the rite?  After the rite?  At what moments are mystical or other kinds of religious experience heightened?  Is one expected to have such feelings or experiences? … Does the rite include meditation, possession, psychotropics, or other consciousness-altering elements?  … What room is there for eccentricity, deviance, innovation, and personal experiment? … Are masks, costumes, or face paint used as ways of precipitating a transformation of identity?

Well, that’s a lot to cover, isn’t it?

As for the role of the 3 Old Men in the ritual, I have noted in one of my Burning Man notebooks the following:

  • What are the attributes of the officiants?
    • solemnity
    • compassion
    • serenity
    • wisdom
    • openness
    • groundedness
      • not anger
      • despair
      • decay
      • aggression

I have avoided from the beginning calling them guardians, because they’re not guarding anything.  They’re there as anchors more than anything, providing a sense to the participants that there is mind behind the installation of rope and stakes.  They are also there to provide a sense of closure at the end of the journey, whether or not the participant elects to engage in the proffered agon.  (I think the Old Men can at least bow/nod/reverence an exiting participant—and I really need another term besides “participant.”)

So let’s just go with Elder, since that’s part of our gestalt anyway.

Transformation of appearances: this is one reason I’m leaning toward the idea of the Old Men opening the ritual by stripping from their regular clothes, painting their bodies, walking the labyrinth, then donning their skirt and staff.  It makes it pretty clear that we have become the Old Men.  The last question in the set addresses this as well, and I think it’s important.  Just as priests and shamans and judges put on specific garments to become their role, the 3 Old Men put on theirs.

The body paint thing is problematic, of course.  For one thing, it’s going to trigger associations with Butoh dance, with its visceral emotions and existential terror, and that’s not what we hope to project at all.  For another thing, it’s 100° out there and we don’t have showers.  Ew.  This is an idea that we’re going to have to consider carefully before committing to it.

Who is the audience and how do they participate?  All of Burning Man is the audience, all 68,000 of us.  Such is the nature of the festival, however, that we will be one of thousands of experiences available to people, and unless we are selected as an official theme camp and given a space where we might attract attention, we will be off on one of the side streets and will host whoever stumbles across us.

How our participants respond to the ritual is anyone’s guess, since nothing about it is prescriptive.  Our hope is that the experience is meditative and personally transformative.  (As for psychotropics… I’m shocked—shocked—that you would suggest such a thing might be possible at Burning Man.)  Our hope is that people find meaning in their walk through the labyrinth, and that engaging in the agon upon their exit gives an extra push to what they found in their journey.  Our hope is that they find themselves still thinking on it as they walk away or in odd moments during the week.

What room is there for eccentricity, deviance, innovation, and personal experiment? Honey, please.  You just defined Burning Man.  We would be idiots to presume that we’re not going to host Burners whose Dionysian impulses make a mockery of the solemnity of our setup.  And that’s OK: clowns can be priests; fools can be visionaries.  I expect to see people walking the labyrinth in silence and prayer; singing and dancing; giggling and inattentive; naked; stoned and lost; smirking and cynical; hurriedly.  I expect drummers and other musicians to join us.  I expect people to be puzzled or put off by the offer of an agon; I expect some to accept it gratefully, with tears, with joy.  I expect to be quizzed—”What is this about?  How do I do it?”  I expect to be ignored.  I expect to have others expect me to be something more than I have offered.

And I expect to be transformed by all of it, to learn more about my identity as an Old Man.

Tomorrow: ritual sound & language, and ritual action