Filed under: brave new world | Tags: communion, eucharist, food, margaret visser, scapegoat
This is from an interview of Margaret Visser on her book The Rituals of Dinner. In it, she makes the case for the eucharist being one of the most complex human constructs ever devised. It is a meal full of content and ritual that upends everything we know, every order and truth and thing we hold sacred.
Her truly radical claim, that only two things really unite people: joining together in killing one who has been isolated from the group, the scapegoat, and sharing a meal. Her vision is isolating and bleak and more than a little true.
The Eucharist is blinding, it’s so incredible. It’s one of the richest, the most extraordinary rituals ever devised. I’m not talking about the belief in it. Just look at it analytically. It smashes all the categories of our culture: all of them. It smashes all the oppositions by which we categorize the world. It takes everything and makes it into one. The difference between here and everywhere is gone, the difference between one and many is gone, the difference between same and different is gone, the difference between meaning and fact is gone, the difference between host and guest is gone, the difference between God and man is gone–all the huge things which are absolutely divided in the experience of the world as we are brought up are smashed.
The mystic experience is one of perceiving a thing and its opposite at the same time, and realizing that black and white are the same. The Eucharist does this in an incredibly sophisticated way. And one of the many, many, many things it does is completely destroy the categorization of food, because it is a vegetarian meal which is also cannibal. And then you have all the poetry and all the ritual. This is mediated by ritual, it has to be–mediated by incredibly complex ritual although it’s extremely simple as well–and only eating can do this.
You see, there are two ways in which human beings are brought together most completely. One is by killing them, namely the scapegoat, and one is by eating together. And the Eucharist, of course, is about both. So it’s the ultimate uniting thing. But you see how food can say things like that. Only food could do the trick, because it’s an outside thing that comes inside. It’s one thing that we all share. We all eat it; we all become one. Human beings have been going on about food and its meaning since we were squatting around fires in caves. It’s the great metaphor. Much more important than sex. Sex is really a latecomer.
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: canibalism, dinner, manners, margaret visser
Here is Margaret Visser on table manners. I like this topic because the dinner table, at different times in my life, has been fraught with a simmering underlying violence, or a place of real communion, or a time of loneliness.
We never never think that the family time around the dinner table could have this alternate meaning: a summit of words designed in cooperation to kill one who has been singled out. So, the least conforming in the circle must decide to suppress personal interest in order to not be eaten.
Table manners are social agreements; they are devised precisely because violence could so easily erupt at dinner. Eating is aggressive by nature and the implements required for it could quickly become weapons; table manners are, most basically, a system of taboos designed to ensure that violence remains out of the question. But intimations of greed and rage keep breaking in: many mealtime superstitions, for example, point to the imminent death of one of the guests. Eating is performed by the individual, in his or her most personal interest; eating in company, however, necessarily places the individual face to face with the group. It is the group that insists on table manners; ‘they’ will not accept a refusal to conform. The individual’s ‘personal interest’ lies therefore not only in ensuring his or her bodily survival, but also in pleasing, placating and not frightening or disgusting the other diners.
-Margaret Visser, Rituals of Dinner
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: fred l. gardaphe, from wise guys to wise men, grief, mafia, mourning
A beloved senator has died, for me like a father figure and I have been thinking about mourning. Everyone knows we don’t do it properly — but we continue on in our repressed state, celebrating his life instead of raging against the ugliness of death. Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book coming in October, Bright-Sided – a take down of the perpetually up. Take some time, mourn.
Here is a quotation from Gardaphe’s From Wise Guys to Wise Men, a description of a chapter from Mario Puzo’s The Fortunate Pilgrim, 1965. It shows two extremes, an Old World Italian one of unrestrained grief, that can lead to madness. The other is the New World American suppression of grief. Gardaphe way over emphasizes mourning leading to madness and the necessity of conforming to American emotional repression. But the commentary is revealing of the two cultures and gives the evidence we need to begin again to properly express our helplessness and fear and loathing in the face of death.
For Lucia Santa, the death of her son Vincenzo, Larry’s younger brother is unbearable. At Vincenzo’s wake, Larry helps the doctor anesthetize his mother to spare her the physical expression of her grief. This is a grief expressed twice earlier, after the death of her two husbands, so the stifling of it this time is particularly telling: “Dr. Barbato was holding a needle in the air. Larry was gripping his mother with all his strength to keep her from bucking up and down with convulsions.” Lucia Santa is sedated to keep her from feeling the full effects of her grief – in essence to keep her from mourning. This is the American response to grief. The Italian response is unrestrained, and it can lead to madness when not expressed appropriately through ritualistic mourning.
This expression of grief that leads to madness is presented in the shortest chapter of the book. Chapter 25, just one page long, is dedicated to Teresa Coccalitti, whose three sons are killed in World War II. Coccalitti wanders the streets, calling out “‘Aiuta mi! Aiuta mi!’ Screaming for help against the ghosts of her three dead sons, Teresina Coccalitti ran along the edge of the sidewalk, her body tilted strangely, her black clothes flapping in the morning breeze.”
This penultimate chapter sets up a stark contrast between the Old World and the New. In America, the natural feelings of mourning are not allowed to escape. They are curtailed, stifled, repressed, drugged and kept from surfacing. When grief is not stifled, yet allowed to get out of hand rather than performed in a proper traditional way, it leads to madness, a madness connected to the evils of the world. The bottom line for the immigrant is “Americanize or go crazy.”
-From Wise Guys to Wise Men: the Gangster and Italian American Masculinities, Fred L. Gardaphe.
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: alan jacobs, cabinet magazine, culture, guilt, in the garden, shame
In his essay In the Garden, Alan Jacobs discusses the biblical origins of shame. The quotation excerpted below distinguishes between shame and guilt cultures. He tells us how the guilt culture is confessional; the act of confession gives release from the pain of transgression. A shame culture, however, doesn’t see the transgression as a problem unless, of course, it is revealed.
Since the 1940s, anthropologists have distinguished between shame-cultures and guilt-cultures. People who belong to the latter suffer from an inner sense that they have transgressed some immutable law, and the hiddenness of that transgression can intensify the pain: thus the feeling of relief that can accompany confession in such cultures. But in shame-cultures, exposure is the great evil: not to transgress, but to have one’s transgressions revealed. Thus in the Iliad, when Andromache begs her beloved Hector to stay in the city rather than return to the fighting, he replies that he cannot, for the shame of doing so would be too terrible.
-In the Garden, Alan Jacobs, Cabinet, Issue 31, Shame, Fall 2009
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: barbara ehrenreich, dancing in the streets, dionysus, ecstasy, pan, shiva
Here is a list of the many incarnations of the god Dionysus who presided over “rites performed in the forest at night,” as described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. She describes the particular allure of this god for women who leave their children and duties and husbands to take up the ritualized dance.
In the description below, Shiva, the Indian Dionysus, is an outsider in extremis: he steals our women, tramples our codes, engages the outcast, communes with the dead, he is obscene.
From Dancing in the Streets —
Dionysus was no respecter of ethnic boundaries. According to the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, the worship of gods resembling Dionysus ranged over five thousand miles, from Portugal through North Africa to India, with the god appearing under various names, including “Bakkhos, Pan, Eleuthereus, Minotaur, Sabazios, Inuus, Faunus, Priapus, Liber, Ammon, Osiris, Shiva, Cerenunnus,” and, we might add, the delightfully named Etruscan analog of Dionysus: Fufluns. In his brilliant rendition of the Indian epics, for example, Roberto Calasso describes the Hindu god Shiva as “this stranger, this woman-stealer, this enemy of our rules and ties, this wanderer who loves the ashes of the dead, who speaks of things divine to the lowest of the low, this man who sometimes seems crazy, who has something obscene about him, who grows his hair long as a girl’s.” Like Dionysus, Shiva bore an association with wine, his cult being “particularly widespread in the mountains where the vine is cultivated,” according to a Greek who lived in India in the fourth century BCE.
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: chris marker, japan, medieval japan, poetry, sei shonagon
This quotation is from the short film Sans Soleil by French filmmaker Chris Marker. The film’s narrator describes receiving letters from someone who is moving from place to place in the world – Iceland, Africa, Japan – and describing cultural difference, thoughts on memory, history and time.
He recounts how in medieval courtly Japan lady in waiting to the princess Shonagon likes making lists, her best being a list of things that quicken the heart. Now that is worth doing; I’d add one of things that freeze it and compare the two.
In Japanese poetry just naming something, like a rock or hail, is enough to quicken the heart in apprehension of it. In the western canon and life we don’t trust the noun alone and modify it with unnecessary adjectives.
Here is the quotation from the screenplay –
He spoke to me of Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting to Princess Sadako at the beginning of the 11th century, in the Heian period. Do we ever know where history is really made? Rulers ruled and used complicated strategies to fight one another. Real power was in the hands of a family of hereditary regents; the emperor’s court had become nothing more than a place of intrigues and intellectual games. But by learning to draw a sort of melancholy comfort from the contemplation of the tiniest things this small group of idlers left a mark on Japanese sensibility much deeper than the mediocre thundering of the politicians. Shonagon had a passion for lists: the list of ‘elegant things,’ ‘distressing things,’ or even of ‘things not worth doing.’ One day she got the idea of drawing up a list of ‘things that quicken the heart.’ Not a bad criterion I realize when I’m filming; I bow to the economic miracle, but what I want to show you are the neighborhood celebrations.
He wrote me: coming back through the Chiba coast I thought of Shonagon’s list, of all those signs one has only to name to quicken the heart, just name. To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it’s radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid. Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies. There is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all. Newspapers have been filled recently with the story of a man from Nagoya. The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work—Japanese style—like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’
“L’Éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps.”
(The distance between countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of time.)
-Jean Racine from Bajazet