Ritual and Myth in Modernity

18 February 2010


Ritual and Myth in the Modern World

The Japanese Tea Ceremony emerged in the Muromachi period and remains a familiar ritual to this day, creating a bridge from the present to past traditions.

An Addendum to “The Role of Ritual in Industrialized Society”

In day before yesterday’s “The Role of Ritual in Industrialized Society” I concluded with the observation that, “…a thorough-going treatment of rituals that have emerged within industrial society to evoke myths that we did not even know that we believed would be a project of substantial dimensions.” While this remains true, the thought expressed here in passing deserves something more than a mere mention. The very idea that we do not know what we believe until it is brought to our attention indirectly is worth further consideration.

Often we do not know what we believe, even while we can say with confidence, indeed without hesitation, what we do and how we do it. Rituals are among those things that we do and about which it is relatively straight-forward to be explicit. In so far as ritual is a guide to mythology — as Joseph Campbell put it, a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth — we would do well to pay attention to our rituals in the attempt to discover what it is that we do believe. Of course, it is also often true that we don’t realize that we are participating in a ritual even as we do so, but it is easier to recognize a contemporary ritual than to recognize a contemporary myth. The recognition of rituals, like philosophical understanding in Hegel, comes only with the setting of the sun. Perhaps the meaning of these rituals can be discerned only long after night has fallen, by midnight oil, alone in the darkness.

Some rituals are easy to recognize because they are related to formal rituals with a long history and the official sanction of some duly constituted body. For example, in his The Illusion of Technique, William Barrett wrote:

Each day when I enter my garret of a study I make the sign of the cross over myself as I pass the threshold. Do not ask me what it means. It is a gesture they taught me as a child, I had forgotten it, but it comes back to me now. It helps to keep me from thinking. In silence, performing it, I am not trapped in words and their cunning. (p. 375)

I don’t know if Barrett had Pascal in mind when he wrote this, but it clearly resembles the passage from Pascal that I quoted to the effect that, “this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.” It is difficult to me to understand how a philosopher can take this seriously. Others may want to deaden their acuteness and achieve a childlike simplicity of belief, but not me. But Barrett acts of Pascal’s admonishment to stop thinking by engaging in ritual.

In any case, Barrett’s personal ritual is easily recognizable as a ritual because of its relation to a religious tradition. He even says that he learned it as a boy. This is a ritual sanctioned by tradition, even if its meaning has evolved over time and it no longer has the meaning for Barrett as a mature man that it had for him as a boy. The ritual remains, although the mythological justification for the ritual has vanished. Such a ritual is the emptiest of empty gestures, a defunct idea, with no more content than nostalgia.

Other rituals are more elusive, though still recognizable. In “So the last shall be first, and the first last” I wrote about the emergence of so-called “makeshift memorials” that emerge soon after a tragedy has visited a particular location and are broadcast on the news, giving everyone the opportunity to participate in this new public ritual of mourning. There I noted that previous rituals of public mourning have fallen into disuse over time (for example, the custom of dressing all in black for a particular period of time), and other rituals such as the makeshift memorial have emerged to take their place. Here the ritual is recognizable as a ritual because it serves a social function formerly served by an abandoned ritual. In what mythology the contributors to makeshift memorials are participating is difficult to say, but clearly they are so participating, and the myth may yet be elucidated. Unlike Barrett’s nostalgic gesture, the possibility remains here that there is a living myth in operation.

It could be argued that the political rituals that have emerged form the democratic industrialized nation-state — a relatively recent historical phenomenon — are genuinely new rituals corresponding to a new mythology. The democratic industrialized nation-state can lay claim to many ideologies, such as ethnic pride, self-determination, nationalism, democracy, and industrial progress, and each of these ideologies, or a combination of them, could constitute a modern myth for the modern world.

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