Ritual, anti-Ritual

By James Como (July 2018)

The Cat with the Red Fish, Henri Matisse, 1914



The individual . . . is the measure of what he will do, and he himself is the judge. His fealty is to his own inclinations. . . . The man who takes this view cannot accept the sovereignty of the gods, of tradition, of history, or of consensus. He experiences directly and forcefully the sovereignty of his own passions.

—Thomas Howard, Chance or Dance


Lately I’ve been collecting the names of certain drugs advertised on TV. Here is a sampling: consentyx, chantix, emflamza, entresto, trulicity, levitra, stendra, zetia, spiriva, premarin, vytorin, xifaxin, ranexa, pentasa, pristiq, estring, multaq, elantra, sentra, fit, clarity. Yes, the final four are cars; I put them in because they sound right: if you didn’t know better they could be drugs, especially the last one, ‘clarity’ (a Honda plug-in hybrid). Try running Spell-Check on that paragraph.


But all are genuine, none has any phonic similarity to the sound of its pharmacological name, each is vaguely suggestive of function, expertise, or trustworthiness, all are easy to say, most are mellifluous, some sound somehow scientific (‘xifaxin’ is my favorite). How many committees, polls, and focus groups did it take to come up with ‘pristiq’? How many variations on ‘emflamza’ were kicked around? Were any random-selection algorithms used? Do the people who make them up go home at night to normal lives, or back to the loony bin? One thing we know, certainly: the names sell, or they wouldn’t exist. Each is incantatory, enacting its own authoritative micro-psycho-ritual of wellness.


Now, any experienced teacher knows never to underestimate the power of sheer stupidity (especially that of colleagues). Take, for example, the voting public. They inform themselves only to the rim of inconvenience, then take themselves to be fully informed. And what might be that “point of inconvenience”? Why, anything beyond Facebook, Twitter, a tendentious blog, a New York Times editorial, or Rachel Maddow (or the smirky Laura Ingraham, for that matter). Or take a CNN anchor—perhaps the best-looking woman dispensing cable news (notwithstanding a touch too much blush)—who took pride in not knowing what the GRU is. Or almost anything Hillary (the gift that keeps on giving, bless her heart) says these days.


Or me, lacing up to “move a couple of rounds” with Luis Resto for recreation. Sure, I was a middle-aged college professor who bothered no one, who enjoyed the ritual wrapping and lacing up and stepping between the ropes into the ring. But Resto—the nicest guy in any gym I’ve ever visited—had been a top-ten middleweight contender who had put an opponent in the hospital and went to jail for it. (His trainer had taken the stuffing out of his gloves.) Before we climbed into the ring, Luis came face-to-face and whispered how many new holes he would rip in me and what he would do to them. Brutal guy, old ritual, and it worked: the fear was concrete, not symbolic; I was unprepared for this non-ritual. For the record: I caught Luis hard with a straight, right-hand lead and backed him into the ropes. Big mistake. Twenty seconds later he showed me the same straight-ahead look, I took the bait, he twitched to his left and stepped in past my extended right arm with his own hook to my liver. That was that. (I mentioned this to a former student—twice the national amateur boxing champ—and Brian laughed: “sparring is never recreational, professor, never.”) In other words, not ritual.


Lately a guilty pleasure, indulged ironically at first, had become a duty. The famous Page Six of the New York Post—all gossip all the time—has a daily TV version. My wife and I have been catching it for about two months now and have just about had enough; any fun is gone and duty (to learn about the lowest common denominator of popular culture) is done. We are sufficiently repulsed by the Kardashians and their ilk; by the grotesque “life styles” of the fabled rich (who attack “the one per cent”); by the sheer inelegance of most of these denizens; and by the cultish “followers” who make this trivializing ritual of attention possible—and take it oh-so-seriously. The people who dish this out are charming, but shouldn’t there be a life to go with the style? (Daniel Boorstin once defined a celebrity as “someone who is famous for being well-known.”) Ritual for its own sake.


We cannot do without ritual, of course, from greetings, to dining and classroom rituals, to weddings, births and funeral rituals. In truth, I’m annoyed when they are dismissed as ‘empty’, or excessive, or merely as habit or custom, or—dreaded thought—as convention, as though there were something self-evidently wrong with that. All may be true in this case or that, but the criticism says nothing about ritual as a practice, for example, something as pedestrian as the unfunny stand-up comic who gets laughs as a sort of genuflection (see any Colbert audience): an unhealthy ritual devastatingly anatomized by Kevin D. Williamson in “Monkey Hear, Monkey Laugh” (NRO, June 7, 2018).


Then there is the vexing and duplicitous pseudo-ritual. I once ran for CUNY-wide union office and twice participated in the ritual of debate against the then (and current) president. (Bunny is beloved by a coterie who would sometimes sing the Internationale at union meetings.) I did not expect my long-term colleague and friend to compare me to Goebbels (but to understand Gloria see the sentence above on stupidity), or for an iterant fascist to try to turn the debate into a beer hall putsch. I did not know then what vexes me now: the absence even from the academic Left of actual rebuttal (as opposed to the sneer or the slander). For example, I know many a presumably illegal immigrant: courteous, hard-working, and (mostly) pious people. But among them are the criminal, the sadistic, and the outright demonic: why does not the Left say so and agree that they must go—and I do not mean concessionally but loudly? Does this cynical ritual of “inclusion” require silence, or is it a checking of the brain at the door?


Rituals make for much insider custom (and argot) and so account for considerable bad behavior. Who has not known a drug addict, alcoholic, or compulsive gambler? One remarkable feature of the addiction stands out: each is ritualistic. The atmosphere of the saloon, with its camaraderie, array of delights, and shared dissolution


Often have I seen these rituals excite the afflicted more than the final gratification does. In The Fervent Years, his memoir of the Group Theater, Harold Clurman describes Clifford Odets. “. . . [H]e had lived in a dismal hotel west of Columbus Circle, and here he had cultivated a little horror and more love for the atmosphere of dejection and defeat . . . as if he wanted to be one with the semi-derelicts who were moldering in this pesthouse.” This ritualist will belong, even if only to the First Church of Self-Depredation.


The nastiness in presidential politics—especially including that of the fourth estate—is an old story (early American political rhetoric was notoriously vicious, a small sample of that being Adams v. Jefferson in1800), as much an American ritual as any. But though there were as many self-righteous, condescending, intolerant prigs and political bigots then as now, there does not seem to have been as many solipsists; the culture then was not, as is ours, soaked in solipsism and did not, as does ours, affirm narcissism. (For its rise, see Christopher Lasch’s forty-year-old masterpiece, The Culture of Narcissism, Paul Vitz and Susan M. Felch’s The Self: Beyond the Postmodern Crisis, 2006, and almost anything by Tom Wolfe.)


Fifty years ago (April 22, 1969) the noted reporter and essayist Eric Sevareid intuited the beginning of this entropic spiral. He broadcast a piece on black Cornell students protesting on their campus while carrying rifles. “Some of their grievances are real,” he said, “but none justifies violence.” It is, he wrote, notwithstanding the source now being the Left, “still fanaticism; it is still a totalitarian spirit.” He concluded, “the first generation of prosperous white youth without memory . . . whatever of hardship . . . has come together with the first generation of black youth free to speak and act. It is a radioactive mix.” Note the tone of alarm of this famously well-balanced commentator. New ritual—exhibitionism for its own sake—had replaced the old, and the new ones would expand exponentially, e.g. the trendy kneeling among NFL players during the playing of the national anthem.


Ten years later the historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin wrote “The Road to Diplopia” for TV Guide. He examined this “disorder of vision that causes objects to appear double” in light of television: every event occurs twice, he said, once out there and then again on screen, where it is distorted. He thought “overwhelming” back then the general inability to distinguish “the grand from the trivial.” He concluded, “our newest problem, from our new diplopia is how to hold on to our sense of reality”: Mediated Information Deterioration Ritual for the masses.


Then ten years ago (December 2008), in his The Media column for The New Criterion, James Bowman unwrapped the perfect example. He wrote “The history of an Election.” Among other points is this one, quoting the liberal Anne Applebaum: “In fact—improbable though it may sound—I am now completely convinced that it was not, in the end, a disadvantage for Obama to be black”—in context an astonishing concession. Bowman goes on to say that “we elected someone for making uplifting speeches and nothing else at all” and goes on to compare him to Harold Hill from The Music Man


In March of 2015 in this space I offered “Obama’s Self-Organizing Rhetoric,” in which I adumbrated the presidential narcissism; five years earlier (though I had not known it when I wrote) Jonathan V. Last had given us “American Narcissist: the vanity of Barack Obama” in The Weekly Standard (November 22, 2015), a devastating piece, not least for its proliferation of examples. Since Obama has left office nothing has changed. He’s told us that his hope for his foundation is to produce “a million Obama’s,” and his wife has likened him to a strong parent (and, thus, the rest of us to children).


Lest the previous two paragraphs seem nothing more than an expression of my own confirmation bias I note David Bromwich’s “What Went Wrong? Assessing Obama’s Legacy” in the June 2015 number of Harper’s Magazine. He opens with a quotation from Kierkegaard (from The Present Age) describing a “political virtuoso” who invites people to a revolution and, at the end of the day, sends them home quietly believing that they’ve had one. It is an evisceration, emphasizing Obama’s self-professed preference for taking “the path of least resistance” and his tendency to believe in word-magic—if the words are his own. The criticisms are of Obama’s character, not least his laziness and self-indulgence (and spinelessness, I would add) but most prominently his narcissism: “his presumption seems to have been that all the disparate forces of our political moment would flow through him, and that the most discordant tendencies would be improved and elevated by this contact as they continue on their way.” Not a head of government but of state, a High Priest of self-ordained ritual. (All cults are hierarchical and highly ritualistic.) Note: this is criticism from the Left, and that Michelle has said her husband was just too good for America.


There are always people who—uncertain of their selves—invent, experiment, posture, and periodically re-invent a self, subscribing or aspiring to (or working hard to deny) this or that ritual. (Do you recall that Barbizon School commercial: “Be a model or just look like one,” as though modeling were something other than ‘looking like’?) Lacking perspective, these people tend to be a-historical, as though the relativities of time and space were theirs to manipulate, the contexts of circumstance theirs to conjure.


Each of us—some knowing, others not—inhabit many cultures at once (these days many walking the earth as ‘communities’), and the matter is a bit more complicated than that we play many roles as we strut upon the stage. Like Tarzan flowing from vine to vine, so do we re-create between and among our many cultures: corporate, familial, academic, public, institutional, commercial, recreational, the many in our heads about ourselves and others – we lose track of them. Conversation, speeches, tweets, posts, and so on, along with varied levels of diction, figures of speech, slang, grammatical complexity, gestures, dress, posture, gait, the management of media, and scores of other macro- and micro-choices all click into place as we swing along.


‘Culture’ is an amorphous concept, certainly. A breeding ground? A prescription for conformity? A target of rebellion? Actually, a hypothetical reality (though inhabitants often attribute to it the authority of Nature) made up of conventions, customs, norms of all kinds, expectations, values (moral and otherwise), types of interaction by way of talk or its mediating surrogates. Alert to the needs and pleasures of adjustment among cultures, some of us learn the repertoire of options better than others; some, on the other hand, don’t care to adjust or cannot; and still others never learn that there is an inventory in the first place, instead allowing mood or some inchoate conglomeration of needs, fears, pleasures, uncertainties, wounds, pettiness or exultations to determine their stance towards the world, towards others and towards themselves, thus exuding an unsettling rhetorical profile.


And still we manage to communicate, the wonder being not that so much goes wrong but that anything goes right. We somehow know that real information follows a pattern—diffusion, dilution, diminution, distortion—as our varied cultures get hold of it. The final result is noise, “that which obstructs or tends to obstruct” communication, which we might or might not dismiss, so rituals get rickety. Now we are spending more and more time trying to dope out the simplest sense of what others are talking about (‘collusion’, ‘obstruction’, ‘spying’). Again, between diffusion and distortion it’s hard not to lose track of information. Might we really be enjoying this game of pick-up-sticks, a new ritual?


Always the general tendency is towards “defining deviancy down,” to cite Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who twenty-five years ago wrote of altruistic, opportunistic, and normalizing down-defining): a prevailing ritual, these days marked especially by the attribution of malicious intent. When, for example, Congressman Joe Wilson shouted “you lie! at President Osama, Maureen Dowd heard three words, “boy” being the third. But it was in her head. Would that it had stayed there but, of course, Dowd, being Dowd, would define others down, though not herself or her ilk, a viral ritual in an age of those who can be described as grasping “their guns and bibles” and are “deplorables.” Nearly five hundred years ago, Pietro Aretino, using his terrifying power of public slander, became rich by blackmailing the Italian political class. Jacob Burckhardt (in his magisterial The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy) tells us he was “not burdened with principles” and so “in a certain sense may be considered the father of modern journalism,” if not political thuggishness.


Kathleen Hall Jamieson (formerly Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center) reports a wide variety of negative effects on “the person who is the object of verbal aggression,” including high blood pressure, increased heart rates, and a number of psychological dysfunctions. That is from her “Incivility and Its Discontents: Lessons Learned from Studying Civility in the U.S. House of Representatives,” an address to the National Communication Association in November of 1999. I doubt the data have changed much, but today her conclusion might: “to get along . . . in life, one must be civil.” Now we are a far cry from Cardinal Newman’s definition of a gentleman or, mutatis mutandis, gentlewomen, in The Idea of a University: “One who never inflicts pain . . . his great concern being to make everyone at ease.” He is “merciful towards the absurd.” We should, he tells us, “conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend”—which seems the epitome of healthy ritual.


However, if you did not know that Order (including its Downsides) and Chaos (including its Upsides) have always been at war, you will if you read Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Peterson ignores the Idols of the Tribe. In Canada he got into trouble because he refused to use invented pronouns that avoid sexual designations such as ‘he’ and ‘she’: our neo-Radical Chic culture cannot abide his paleo-Ritualism. His Rules (e.g. Stand Up straight With Your Shoulders Back, Be Precise in Your Speech) suggest banality, but the opposite is the case. “Order,” he explains, “is where people around you act according to well-understood social norms, and remain predictable . . . the world of familiarity . . . It’s the Wise King and the Tyrant.” On the other hand, Chaos “is Creation and Destruction.” He concludes, “People who live by the same code are rendered mutually predictable . . . They can cooperate. They can even compete peacefully.”


Take, for example, when, forty years ago, in “Confessions of a Socialist Conservative,” Samuel Hux wondered why it was that he could converse with conservatives but that liberals drove him at least half nuts. It was temperament, he concluded, “a collection of intuitions and prejudices.” His complaint against conservatism was—he argued, as he sought some mutually respectful conversation on the matter, itself (it seems to me) a conservative impulse—his complaint was that it was no longer invested in the rituals of “the cultivation of mind and sensibility, in the family, in the community of man, in the validity of the religious sense of life, a love of what’s good from the past, and all its other similar claims—but simply as an investment . . . in capital.” (By the way, in Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis allows that a wholly Christian society would somehow be socialist.)


My old friend knew then that I disagreed, not with his inventory of conservative investments but with his claim of a conservative disinvestment in them. And in wondering if a true conservatism might be a bit more “socialistic” (he allows that another term might do), he slighted, I think, the preponderance of private help freely given by conservatives to those in need. (Some years ago there was a book, favorably reviewed by Nicholas Kristof, that documented this largesse.) Would he agree with Russell Kirk? In his President’s Essay for the Heritage Foundation “Enlivening the Conservative Mind” from 1989, Kirk wrote that what matters are “equal justice under law, security of life and property, a common religious faith, a common literature of elevation, the knowledge of great history.” So far so good. But Kirk also thought then that the conservative, when told he has a part of some rich deal, “does not exult, ‘How rich shall we get!’ but inquires, ‘Can money pay for this break with beauty and tradition?’” Well, there are conservatives and then there are greedy SOBs.


A cultural meta-entropy—a war on the rituals, especially those of healthy communication—is afoot, and the meretricious gimmickry of catchy drug names, no matter their enchantments, is a small sign of that: opportunistic intervention, solipsistic invention, neo-fascist silencings (about which Madeline Albright does not worry in her number one bestseller). As Thomas Howard reminds us, “the re-created world, formed according to the analytic [as opposed to the synthetic] Word, is a world without form, and void . . . The experience of fragmentation has shaped the sensibility of our epoch.” Is there an antidote? We can hope and cheer on the enemies of the enemies of permanent things; the honest, the disinterested, the dysentropic; the authentic ritualists of conversation and practitioners of the paleo-rituals of genuine community.


James Como is the author, most recently, of The Tongue is Also a Fire: Essays on Conversation, Rhetoric and the Transmission of Culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015).

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast



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