Saturday, 18 September 2010

Van Gennep's The Rites of Passage

I must confess that before reading this classical work I only knew of van Gennep through Victor Turner, which perhaps explains why I was surprised by quite a lot in it. And I don't just mean the differences in the way Turner and van Gennep use the term liminality (which is much broader in Turner who sees it as a component of practically all rites and much else besides). I'm also pleasantly surprised by van Gennep's extraordinary sensitivity to the “feel” of places, in particular in relation to situations involving crossing frontiers or thresholds, doors etc.

I'm stunned by how much here that might have been a direct inspiration to Amino Yoshihiko (and perhaps also Orikuchi Shinobu). Take Amino's fascination with the dôsojin, the stone objects placed outside villages in medieval Japan. In similar fashion, van Gennep writes about natural objects like rocks, stones or trees which could mark “magico-religious” borders or frontiers around premodern communities and which almost universally were associated with the phallus (van Gennep 1960:15f). The discussion about the “mana inherent in all strangers” (ibid 34f) is also echoed in Amino. The idea of muen seems to bear directly on the juridical license given to young people in transitional or liminal periods.
During the entire novitiate, the usual economic and legal ties are modified, sometimes broken altogether. The novices are outside society, and society has no power over them, especially since they are actually sacred and holy, and therefore untouchable and dangerous, just as gods would be. (ibid 114)
Hence the young could steal and pillage at will at the expense of the community (something van Gennep illustrates with examples from Liberia and the Bismarck Archipelago). Another similarity: take Amino's hypothesis that medieval Japanese covered their face with veils, straw hats or fans whenever they felt that they were in the presence of the sacred. He could well have taken his cue from Van Gennep, who writes that people in the ancient world veiled their head “to separate themselves from the profane and to live only in the sacred world” (ibid 168).

Another idea which seems directly translatable to Amino's discussion of muen is van Gennep's description of the zones between polities or communities, such as deserts, marshes or forests, which he describes as liminal zones with a sacred quality which were “sacred for the inhabitants of the adjacent territories. Whoever passes from one to the other finds himself physically and magico-religiously in a special situation for a certain length of time: he wavers between two worlds” (ibid 18). In Greece, such zones were used for market places or battlefields. Generally, such zone were free and open for anybody, a commons where everyone had full rights to travel and hunt.

There were also temporary magical zones. Such zones, which functioned as asylums, could be established between strangers by greetings, for instance by “pronouncing a word or a formula like the Moslem salaam” (ibid 32). Sometimes mere sight constituted sufficient contact for such a right of asylum to arise: “The Shammars never plunder a caravan within sight of their encampment, for as long as a stranger can see their tents they consider him their Dakheel”, e.g. he becomes protected (Layard, quoted in van Gennep 1960:32).

Why am I interested in this? Because I'm interested in exploring how a phenomenology of the sacred could be put to use in today, in our society. I strongly suspect that we can't do without such a phenomenology if we want to articulate a convincing idea of how we experience freedom. Freedom is not a principle or a political system, but neither is it a mere feeling. Freedom as an experienced reality is perhaps best described as a world, or realm of existence, lying beyond mundane considerations of utility and power and hence antithetical to capitalism and the state. The borderlines of that world are not sharp, to be sure, but as van Gennep shows, they were hardly sharp in premodern societies either. We can't see them clearly, but we can feel them - somewhat in the manner we feel changes in the air, or in temperature. Dérive is one way to track them down.


van Gennep, Arnold (1960) The Rites of Passage, London: Routledge and Kegal Paul.

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