Comfort through Ritual

March 6, 2008 at 12:49 am (Fróðleikr, Leikr, Skrifa) (, , , , )

In an emotional lapse, a moment ago, I stroked the second joint of my index finger against my porcelain tea mug. These little games keep us tethered to immediate quotidien life in moments of absence. You do them less now that you’re older, but when you weren’t, you would rub your fingertips on pavement, bounce your toys on countertops to hear the noise, breathe into your stuffed toys to feel the moisture of your own breath, and turn your pillow over in the middle of the night to feel the cool side.

The impulse to do these things constantly – to count red cars, to walk on top of walls, to pick berries and crush them, to touch the windowpane every time you passed a tree, to jump over cracks, to avoid the white tiles and only step on the black ones, to heat sugar emptied from packets in your dessert spoon over the candle – faded from you, like it faded from me, and then we sit and sometimes dispair over where our imagination went. I don’t want to be austistic, which is what retaining the compulsion to incessantly do these things would require, but as a result, my gift for gab is a chocolate Easter bunny. (I always expected those things to be solid, because I always started with the ears. I’d not fail to be disappointed every time the forehead caved in, revealing the inevitable truth. You learn, as you get older, to eat your fill of solid chocolate eggs before you start on the ears – that way, you’re sick of chocolate before you start on the head, and postpone defeat.) When I write, it relieves a compulsion. It’s the obsession that devoured all of the others, but without that chaos, without meaningless rituals, it’s a hollow obsession.

Other people are fighting the good fight. Agnes Varda stops her gentle and vicious political commentary in Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse to pretend that she’s capturing and crushing lorries with her hand, and to collect heart-shaped potatoes. Great Teacher Onizuka likes to isolate girls’ legs in a finger-thumb peephole. My ex and my boyfriend always eat the edges of their sandwiches before eating the centre. My mother bounces her leg up and down and chews gently on the side of her tongue when concentrating. My dad used to saw the sharp edge of my fingernails back and forth across the thick calluses on the fingertips of his fret-hand (his left). He’s dead now, so I repeat his ritual in words, for comfort.

As for my own rituals, I can’t eat cracker sandwiches without first twisting them open and inspecting the filling for integrity, nor Cadbury’s caramel cake bars without first removing the chocolate base and sides, then separating cake strip and caramel top, then eating the dry cake, saving the caramel for last. I draw swirly things on foggy windows. I pick leaves from bushes and trees I pass. I put my fingers in running water. Apart from retaining my tendency to search for meaningless, pretty things to do, I sometimes listen to music through the ears of a bacchae, so that I remember how to shrug sloth off my shoulders.

It would be killed if I invented a religion, the meaninglessness. Joseph Campbell was an intelligent man, and I suppose he has a point, because if you extend those temporary, chaotic rituals and childhood beliefs in fairy tales along a timeline, and you use those tools to explain the mysteries of the world, then religions develop, but religions have meaning, that’s their purpose: to explain something. They begin to look to their own rituals to make sense out of things, rituals that began as randomness. You’re not allowed to have an imagination as an adult; you’re supposed to replace it with religion.

I know that meaningless ritual is good for me; it makes me feel better and does me good even when I’m not searching for material to write about. I think that means it’s essential. I’m not sure why other people need it.

It might be the case that Joseph Campbell is right, that they need meaning, and meaningless ritual is adapted to explain the inexplicable, but there are people who are imaginative and religious. That must mean that not all meaninglessness in their lives is devoured by religious ritual, so there are people like me. Do we only need meaninglessness for our imagination to function? Is it always there to feed something, like writing or painting or cooking, or is it necessary in itself for everyone?

I would invent a religion if I couldn’t live without meaninglessness but didn’t know it, if I were convinced my little rituals had meaning. If I were unable to accept my need for chaos, I would invent a cult – not believe in it, just invent it. I may do it to see if I can. I’ve never tried writing a holy text.

From an evolutionary standpoint, experimenting for no good reason is healthy. That sentence drained the mysticism from my questions. As much as I believe that it’s the correct answer, I’m feeling a bit deflated for giving in and writing it down. My speculations have now been stripped of artistry. They’re mundane. You’re feeling this deflation, too, if you’ve read this far and enjoyed what I wrote. The discussion doesn’t feel lofty or philosophical or artistic anymore. It’s a question of evolutionary biology, and evolutionary biology has debased it thoroughly, and we both know it, that it’s suddenly uglier.

This is proof, I think, that meaninglessness is essential, but not to art, exactly. If you closely examine something that is lofty or artistic, if you even examine the word “artistry” closely enough, you run up against this problem, that chaos or meaninglessness is  absolutely essential, because it’s at the heart of mysticism, which is at the heart of all art, which is at the heart of all the noble ambitions. But meaninglessness exists apart from its uses, and it is soothing. That’s something entirely different; there’s no art in autism, no art in stroking a teacup.

My conclusion must be that art and religion get their loftiness from meaningless ritual, which is something good for us in and of itself. But we’re not quite back where we started, in the ugly realm of art by genetic compulsion, in a place where biology answers my questions and makes them trivial.

Importance is rooted in randomness. Kosher rules are sensible rules to live by when in a society without antibiotics or antibacterial cleansers; they are holy because of their mysticism, because they are rooted in randomness, in rituals used to appease a thunder god. Somebody invented a ritual, and by chance, it rained the first several times he performed it. If a human could explain the importance of such a ritual to him, it would not be something he did for god. Kosher rules are still observed, not because they are sensible rules of hygiene, but because they are meaningful to god. The difference between hygiene and holiness is chaos, the great unknown.

Chaos is at the heart of high human ambitions. Art is important because it injects chaos into our lives. Culture is important because of the meaningless rituals it holds dear. Those rituals are important because they are chaotic.  When chaos is removed from lofty things, they are debased. When chaos is removed from the question of mysticism, and it becomes a matter of biology, the mysticism disappears. Biology answers the question, “Why are we aware that chaos is important?” not, “Why is chaos important?”, which is exactly the wrong question, the same question as “Why is water wet?”

Certain forms of satanism cut to the chase. They say, “Mysticism is at the heart of everything. Let us worship mysticism.” This premise is flawed, because mysticism is not at the heart of the matter, randomness is. Attach rituals to randomness, and it becomes the same thing as any other religion: a mixture of randomness and reason, and worse, a reason for the randomness, a ritual dictating the randomness, hobbling it.

Making a religion out of chaos is finding the secret inside a box, taking it out, and making a new box for it, with a picture of the secret inscribed on the lid. It’s not a secret if you describe it on the outside of the box. The point of keeping it in the box is lost.

Being religious is more peaceful than being where I am; religious people have both chaos and its box. Having opened the box, I don’t have anywhere left to go. I have to construct my boxes and pretend I don’t know what’s inside them. I sometimes want to step back and return to a world where higher ambitions are meaningful, but the truth as I’ve deduced it and laid it out for you here is so beautiful, and simple.

I would be relieved, really, if this isn’t the truth, because I am frightened of being correct while so many people are deceived. It feels pompous to have beliefs that are so rare, and so isolating (chaos is always personal, ritual always binding). Shame of being intelligent, of being right, of being an atheist, make me want to be wrong, but it’s too late, because I am dazzled by it.

I’m trying to put this in words that don’t feel religious (What would religion do for me?). I am drawn to randomness. I love chaos, the underlying current of the world.


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