Monday, June 13, 2011

From Fragmentation to Integration 5

Revisiting the Thought of van Gennep

Arnold van Gennep
 Having studied theology, religion and the sociology of religion many moons ago we were, as students, very familiar with the primordial idea of life and death being a cyclical thing rather than a linear reality with death at the very end of a straight line representation as it were.  Obviously the Judaeo-Christian take was more linear with the line after death continuing on into a Utopia-like Heaven after the individual had "shuffled off this mortal coil."  I now accept this as just one symbolic representation among many others of what possibly life could mean.  There are, as I have said, many others and they are of equal importance from an objective scholarly and socological point of view. Which one is more correct an interpretation is actually beside the point.  These are all phenomena which we can witness in a sociological sense by observing various rites of passage from very primitive right up to modern societies.  In this sense they are of equal importance and the question of scientific truth is not relevant here at all, that is, in the sense that one or other of these rites of passage could be more correct than another, as they are all in their own way equally correct.  They perform a service or a function for humankind, and that is the essential truth of the matter!  To return to Professor Levine's direct quotation from van Gennep is again rewarding and insightful:

Rites of passage accomplish personal and social regeneration through symbolic death and re-birth.  In van Gennep's own words, "life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be re-born...the series of human indeed a cosmic conception that relates the stages of human existence to those of plant and animal life and... joins them to the great rhythms of the universe."  Ultimately these rituals have not only a social significance but a cosmic and ontological one.  (Poiesis., p. 49)
What surprises this reader here is how modern these words are, and the real surprise is that they were written in 1908.  They could be written by James Lovelock (See Lovelock's Webpage) in any one of his wonderful books on Gaia.  Van Gennep's words ring very modern, even post-modern, on these early twenty-first century ears.  He is in keeping with the thoughts of one of my favourite modern philosophers, Professor John Gray of Straw Dogs fame. (See this article on The Independent (London) website: David Gray meets John Gray.  I have given a sustained review of the thought of John Gray in Straw Dogs in this blog here: see Straw Dogs and following sixteen posts ).  The tenor of the thoughts of these famous thinkers from van Gennep to James Lovelock to John Gray to Professor Levine, I would argue, is that we humans have vastly over-rated our significance in the scheme of things, placed ourselves above and beyond the world of which we are an integral part.  Our sheer hubris and ego-centrism have both led us to the worst crimes in history and almost to the brink of self-destruction.  If we think we are so far above and beyond the very world we are part of, we are liable to lose the run of ourselves, to over-stretch our imagination to the point of self-destruction.  We need a new humility.  This is what I gain from reading these great thinkers.  What I love about them is that they are passionate about their subjects and beliefs and logical and reasonable about them too, neither dogmatic nor dictatorial.  They also are in no sense evangelical by attempting to ram their views down our throats like the fundamentalist religionists of the ultra-right wing or the equally fundamentalist scientists like Dawkins et al on the ultra-liberal wing.  Okay, dear readers, I hear you protesting already, I have indeed almost ridden my personal hobby horse almost to death here.  It is time for the poor old nag to take a breather if not a nose-bag! 

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