A plea for empty ritual

The Last Psychiatrist has a post up about narcissists at funerals, which resonated with my “religious but not spiritual” instincts. The gist is: “On the one hand they don’t know how to be real, on the other hand they they think protocol and formality is dishonest and insensitive. They can’t say, “my condolences” because it sounds fake. So they improvise, catastrophically.”

I found this to be something of a challenge to my call for improvisational awkwardness as a response to the breakdown of the social bond at the end of Awkwardness. I wonder, though, if returning to the old rituals may be the most awkward thing of all — if at this late date, they might be more useful precisely because they are recognized to be purely social constructs, because they so obviously don’t “fit” the situation in any intuitive way. The narcissists in TLP’s posts are looking for some kind of discharge of the awkwardness of dealing with strong emotions, some kind of “solution” to the problem of mourning, and they try to force others to conform to their expectations. Perhaps simply saying, “My condolances,” in its obvious inadequacy and unoriginality, is actually the best way to “live into” our awkwardness. We aren’t saying it because it’s the objectively right thing to say, we’re saying it as a way of expressing the fact that we don’t know what to say, that there is nothing to say.

The same thing seems to be true of wedding vows. I’ve always hated it when people write their own vows because of the forced sentimentality — a wedding day is already inherently stressful enough without worrying that you’re “performing” your love adequately. While there are obviously problems with the patriarchal bias of the traditional vows, I still think that some kind of generic formulaic vows are preferable. Generic vows express the fact that there precisely isn’t a formula that fits your unique snowflake of a relationship — in a way, starting your publicly-recognized relationship with a formula that fits awkwardly may serve to set the expectations at the right level. Certainly it’d be preferable to the soul-mate/lover-and-best-friend/can’t-believe-I-met-you crap that makes the relationship out to be some kind of unique world-historical event.

In short, I’d suggest that we need more empty ritualism — and an emptier ritualism, a ritualism that openly admits its own inadequacy and hopefully thereby cuts off the useless quest for authentic self-expression.

32 thoughts on “A plea for empty ritual

  1. Perhaps this is why the ending of Melancholia appeals to me so deeply. I really believe the film definitively solves the problem of “what do you do if the world is ending” — you make a ritualistic empty gesture toward defending yourself against it, and you take it seriously. The narcissists at the funeral are all like Charlotte Gainsbourg, wanting to “do this right,” and like her, they might as well have just taken a shit.

  2. From _The Death of Ivan Ilyich_: “Peter Ivanovich, like everyone else on such occasions, entered feeling uncertain what he would have to do. All he knew was that at such times it is always safe to cross oneself.”

  3. I’m with you on this, Adam, especially per wedding vows. There is far too much artificial sentimentality in our culture, i.e., the mummery of sentiment without discernment and insight, in which case many toss aside the rituals in order to express themselves but only manage to be cliche.

    Yes, there is nothing to say, and I think your identification of narcissism is apt. It is as if the event has no meaning unless *I* say it does or express its meaning–as if only personal expression gave something meaning.

    In my experience of funerals, I am too devastated to do anything but the barest ritual. It’s utter simplicity and routine–its starkness–creates space for the silent mountain crushing most in attendance. Thankfully, I haven’t seen the funeral phenomenon in person, but I have seen the wedding one.

  4. 2nd from top story currently on ESPN.com is “Conn. school shooting shakes sports world”. Thank God the editors found such an important and hitherto-unnoticed angle. Our narcissism is institutional and thoroughgoing.

  5. I read this just as I returned to my home following some premarital counseling.

    I think this is a big difference between intimate religious rituals and public, civic rituals. In the latter, the Elks and Moose gather in the public gazebo for some ritual for Memorial Day performed in an empty way, awkwardly, with some Sousa-esque numbers as a way of masking the taboo of openly questioning the senselessness of war and nodding to patriotism, as well as the taboo of being genuinely grateful. But in our secularizing situation, the differences between such situations has become confused.

  6. Chris,

    Please say more about the “taboo of being genuinely grateful” and our “secularizing situation?”

    Personally, I tend to shock many passerby when I take the points of etiquette seriously, e.g., seriously mean “how do you do?,” which many take as off-putting since they never expect the social formalities to be performed genuinely. In other cases, people take it as extreme politeness, but often it is taken as awkward. A notable exception appears, at least in my experience, when I am in rural communities of which I pass as a member. Another notable exception occurs when I talk to foreigners who are visiting in the short term; I presume that they are intentionally attuning themselves to social etiquette and thereby being especially responsive. Regardless, I take all of these to be cases where empty formality is bad in general, since the formality is supposed to bind rather than lubricate. Oh maybe I’m just not a liberal (in the social-contractarian sense, etc).

  7. Ugh, I just wrote this long response and it got lost somehow. Here’s the short version. I dislike officiating funerals, for example, in a funeral home, because it is difficult for even closely knit families and church communities to greive and be an empathic community together in such a sterile environment whose entire focus is upon illusion and hiding reality, even down to the color of the lightbulbs. Our experiences of attempting to grieve, or faking grief, in funeral homes then shapes how we might behave in situations where we wish to be empathic or have assembled an empathic community.

  8. Yes. I appreciate this post. There’s a beautiful passage in McCarthy’s The Road to this effect: when all else fails, make rituals out of the air. (Sorry, it’s more eloquent than that, but I’m on the road. It’s around p. 76 I think. It serves as an epigraph to Desiring the Kingdom.)

    Just wanted to affirm your intuition here.

  9. I will try to think this through more later and I apologize that this is sub-rigorous. I guess my concern is that the difference between performing the ritual, well, “ironically” and performing it sincerely is that the difference is, at least initially, a difference of intention that is not manifest in the behavior itself. Many people do still go through these rituals because they’ve convinced themselves that the rituals have a real substantive meaning. For them a return to the old rituals is impossible because they never left them–at the same time, though, their belief in them, the investment in cliches, is still worth criticizing.

  10. In my experience, I have rarely seen the major rituals performed ironically, and I wonder if it’s a difference in demographic. This irony craze seems contained in the educated upper middle class.

  11. I completely agree; very insightful post. I think, in a way, the emptier the ritualism becomes, the more it creates a space for complex and often overwhelming emotions that we feel. The emptier the room, the fuller it can become with our own feelings.

    Rituals are structures of our intellectual/spiritual/emotional lives; they are the houses that we meet in, the monuments we gather around. Emptier ritualism needn’t be ugly, or plain – it just needs to be open – there must be space in ritual that we can fill with our own bodies. The worst kind of ritual is filled with clutter, the kind of personalized and sensationalized content – like self made vows – you mention here. It’s as if we had all decided to meet in a small parish and the bride and groom, fearing that the ritual space would be bland, covered the floor with pretty decorations. If people even could enter, it would be a choking experience – exactly what I have felt at such weddings.

    So yes, forward with emptier ritualism. Let the outside of the building be ornate, as long as the the inside is hollow. What needs to fill the hollow halls is our hearts, not our stuff.

  12. Empty of what? I think of a funeral as providing a clearing for mourning, whereas the rituals of greetings provide a more definitive and positive framework for interaction. They don’t recede; they engage. So, what do you mean by empty in that case?

  13. The point of TLP’s piece is forming another brick in his larger critique of narcissism and not his support for thousands of years of funeral rites. Some of those rituals are horrific, or at least damaging. That is where I was a little confused by his work, appealing vaguely to the past did not add to his critique of present practices (which I thought were fair).
    In the face of death you can’t escape in either empty ritualism or personalized response you just learn how to attend well (I think Goodchild’s work on attention is helpful here).
    And this is true of wedding vows. I am guessing no one is advocating for a return to the context in which those vows were meaningful (which you allude to). So to try and fully empty them is, it seems, to infuse them. So be it. Its just not emptying them. Perhaps its semantic then, but people will suddenly take it with utmost seriousness when you try to acknowledge its emptiness.
    These are the two opening lines to a wedding that I would like to offer at some point,
    Dearly beloved our gathering creates an alternative coding that will not impact the substance of your present or future relationship. However, the codes may be just strong enough to create a space that can offer itself as a non-destructive social narcotic. And this, this is not a bad thing.
    Dearly beloved we are gathered here on this most holy of occasions to recognize marriage as the expression of humanity’s inability to face themselves and acknowledge the spaces of unnameable meaningless and uncontrollable desire.

  14. You’re right, I wasn’t thinking clearly. My reaction to the word “ritual” is that it lost its original significance and thus what is left over is just a ritual, but I don’t think I’m using the word in the same sense as in this post and comments…

  15. Empty rituals are indeed a potent performative resource in some situations.

    But, wedding vows – there’s a middle ground here between anachronistic trad. vows, and mediatised/instagrammed/my vows are better than your vows type approaches; a simple statement of ‘sincere’ feelings for the other person, not with the aim of singularising the event, but personalising it (just a little!). From experience, done with humility, this can produce beautiful results.

  16. Between this blog and TLP’s, this is the best discussion of end of life ceremonies and attitudes I have seen. Yes, there is nothing to say at the time of death, and yet the officiant must say something. One of my greatest reliefs upon leaving the active ministry was that I would not again face the fact that my words are likely the last public words spoken in the name of the deceased. I would not again see that the words I read get their impact, which seemed so meaningful to the grieving, not from me but from their own emotions. Ministry is always muddling through—just like life itself.

    TLP’s rant, and except for his final paragraph it is such, may reflect that we cannot ‘cure’ ourselves of death–we who attempt to surmount all our natural adversaries. Have you seen Jean-Luc Nancy’s new book? In it he has a lengthy reply to a colleague on the topic of death. It may be one reason Nancy still takes religion seriously.

  17. Personalized wedding vows feel so lame because they’re symptomatic of how masses of dim witted and dull middle class people have decided that expressions of their inner lives are now as meaningful as those of the handful of truly interesting people the human race produces. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with personalized wedding vows and uniquely interesting weddings per se. The problem is most people aren’t capable of producing them, yet seem unaware of the fact. No longer does lack of talent, or craft, or access to the expensive raw materials of creativity act to enforce taste. As instagram turns everyone into a little Ansel Adams, and twitter turns everyone into a potent aphorist, the story of every couple’s love is now as enthralling as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s, apparently. So we need NEW enforcers. Isn’t this the REAL reason we need a revitalized “emptier” form of ritual? To convince the masses of people who don’t seem to know what they are worth, to take a step back to a position more worthy of their mediocrity? Chapel-painting for the Michaelangelos of the world. And the confession both for the rest. TLP couches this in the language of psychology (where narcissism stands in for poor taste, and something like a healthier psychic state stands in for tasteful). But it can be just as easily (and perhaps more honestly) stated in this anti-democratic language I’m using, no? I’m NOT saying I even agree with the possibility I just put forward, but I think its important to examine WHY people well versed in high culture might advocate a return to ritual. The thoughtlessness of ritual just seems so strikingly out of synch with what thoughtful people usually put forth as valuable. But hey, I’m not a professional intellectual. I’m just a lurker that occasionally blurts out a mental instagram……

  18. Yes, nice thoughts, thank you. You might be interested in the work of Sanskritist Frits Staal, especially Rules Without Meaning, in which he argues that Vedic rituals are not performed in a transcendent, teleological fashion with an end goal or some kind of offering in mind, but rather that their meaning is immanent and derives from their perfect execution of very strict numerical sequences,

  19. Isn’t this how ideology is supposed to work? Knowing that the magic teepee is bullshit, but doing it anyway; or, worse, doing it for the sake of some other – a child, no less! – who is supposed to believe. I would even prefer to spend my last moments on the toilet.

  20. Imma,

    The problem is not “most people are not capable of producing them [personalized wedding vows]” or any other content of a ritual, because content is not the problem. Those who creatively perform the rituals, whether in a clichéd or truly novel way, are not the problem. The problem is those people who are aware of the emptiness of rituals, yet enact the ritual from an ironic stance.

    I will specific what I mean by “empty.” Certain rituals, e.g., funerals or weddings, are “empty” because they conform to traditional religious or cultural expectations that few people now genuinely hold. The rituals only have content or are “full” when performed with a genuine intention and sentiment.

    The problem with an ironic performance is that it cannot be genuine. Ironic performance either tends to mock being genuine in a playful and indirect way, or outwardly follows the ritual while inwardly considering it a joke. Irony, however, is not attained by the “dim-witted and dull middle class people,” which I words I recommend avoiding as they muddy the issue with other concerns.

    I believe this doubles as a response to Dominicfox, but let me be more pointed.

    No, this is not supposed to be how this works, and those who cannot do them genuinely should either be silent or not participate. For example, the original posts mentions the narcissists who have to personally console the grieving, although the consolation has little to nothing to do with either the person or the ritual, but an unwise and ill-timed need to vent a feeling of obligation caused by one’s misunderstanding of the purpose of the ritual.

  21. I’ve always hated it when people write their own vows because of the forced sentimentality — a wedding day is already inherently stressful enough without worrying that you’re “performing” your love adequately

    Is the problem that self-written vows are forced and sentimental (not all are, in my experience; I’ve heard some very nice ones) or that they’re stressful because of the self-induced performance of it?

    I also don’t see why it’s an expression of awkwardness to have recourse to “my condolences” or whatever in the knowledge that of course it’s not adequate and nothing else is (it’s not as if the person on the receiving end is going to think, in every case, that it is an adequate way to respond to bereavement). (Except actually I think that for precisely that reason “my condolences” or “I’m sorry” or something that similarly doesn’t attempt to encompass the enormousness is adequate. So better to say: it’s not as if either party will think that “I’m sorry” etc. encompasses the enormousness of the phenomenon, but attempting to do that isn’t what’s called for.)

  22. I define awkwardness as the persistence of the social bond even when unmediated by social norms. Hence an unassimilable situation like death or making a crazy promise (marriage) fit.

    I’m also disappointed that I came across as apparently calling for some kind of knowledge or intention. I was hoping precisely to exclude that. An example: The Girlfriend has recently recruited me to volunteer occasionally at a food pantry. Oftentimes I have not wanted to do it, but then I tell myself, “Well, the food gets distributed regardless of my mood.” Other times, the act of distributing it efficiently produces a certain kind of satisfaction. Sometimes I’m more or less indifferent. I see no use in policing those types of reactions. In fact, the food would still get packed even if I spent the whole time thinking about what a heroic, charitable person I was. The same goes for “my condolences” — I don’t care if some idiot wants to think to himself, “You know, I was really there for my friend, what a great guy I am….” Just as long as he’s not acting like the self-absorbed assholes described in the TLP post.

  23. Your post here is far more charitable than the TLP post. As I had suggested there, people who mishandle awkward moments, if we make charitable assumptions, have done nothing more than performed poorly in a difficult, perhaps impossible, situation. Flinging moral contempt upon them–something TLP did, but you did not–seems entirely wrongheaded, and even mean-spirited.

    I like a lot of what you say here. Where do you think liturgy, by which I mean the sorts of motions, performances, etc., generally found at funerals and marriages among other places, finds its legitimacy? In other words, you say that you prefer standard, though perhaps vacuous, liturgies in awkward moments, but why these liturgies? Why are they the preferred ones? Presumably, these were novel liturgies at one time, at least the manner in which they are carried out today. At one time “my condolences” was novel. Do you only prefer them when they’re hackneyed and meaningless? If so, why say or do anything? Why not marry quietly and with no ceremony? Why not quietly burn or bury a body alone with immediate family?

    More succinctly (about time, I guess), if a moment is sufficiently awkward so as to obstruct any meaningful words or expression, why not at least try–and fail–to express them without any liturgy and crowd at all?

  24. “Why these liturgies?” Because they’re available, I suppose. I don’t imagine that the people back then hit on the right answer — just that having some shared point of reference is preferable to expecting everyone to do everything ad hoc.

    And wouldn’t refusing to take part in any ritual at all be simply a hyperbolization of the kind of narcissism that TLP and I are both targetting? We are social beings — a person’s death is a public event, not a private family event, and marriage is also a public commitment (if you don’t want a public ceremony to any degree, just don’t get married at all! Works for me!).

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