April 16, 2010

Rites of Passage

The subject of masculine rights of passage came up recently on the Art of Manliness forum, which I recommend to anyone who needs a new source of procrastination. I have given this subject thought in the past. Towards the end of a somewhat trying two years in Berlin, I married into a family with German ties, and discovered that rites of passage still hold a place of importance in some cultures. I was struck by my sense of dislocation, but also by the feelings of new belonging. I therefore re-post what I wrote then, which was originally intended for a small private audience. I trust that this small public audience will find it of interest. Although I note here that this is my final word on Berlin, it seems that I am actually not quite done with that place. But more on that later...

Etwas ist los. Was?

I sat, an awkwardly English ambassador for the Canadian wing of the family, in a packed Evangelische Kirche, for three hours, watching a proxy cousin be Confirmed in a religious process I understood neither linguistically nor culturally. Yet, despite what should have been alienation, or at best culture shock, something felt very right. And this feeling of rightness means that something, somewhere else, must be very wrong.

Family and community are cards which trump language and distance. I hadn’t really realised that before. To the English, small distances are large; first cousins are distant; extended families the stuff of genealogy, not direct experience. Why should that be? I have a feeling, somehow, it’s got something to do with the church, or the lack of it. I’m not here talking about matters of faith. Belief is really nothing to the purpose. But a place and a reason to gather has long since died in the place from which I originally hail. And with it the ties that bind have slackened. Rites of passage used to be important – in some places they still are – but with what, I wonder, have we replaced these rites? How does one become a man anymore? How does a community formally recognise the emerging man? Outside of the ancient security of institutions I can only think of nefarious means, and nefarious means come with undesirable (social and personal) ends. And the alternative?

Here I dwell on the rites of passage through which I did not pass. The common malaise among my peers is that of ‘waiting for adulthood’: when shall I (here read an empathetic ‘I’) become an adult – really feel like one? The question would be ridiculous to our forebears, because the rite indicated the exact moment, and childhood (such as it was) ended. To be sure, there were atavisms, but essentially the moment was precisely defined. Most people I know have no such idea when and where they became adults. Unquestionably they are such, but in body only. The mind languishes in limbo, knowing not how to feel, and correspondingly, not how to act. Childhood and adolescence have received their sociological classifications, the distanced analytical gaze of the disinterested researcher. The consequence, catalysed by the effects of the disintegration of tradition, so it seems, is that ‘real’ childhood has lost its meaning, and, as a consequence, adulthood too.

Here is the positive conclusion to my secondment to Germany. To watch, in a passive role of elder, wiser, supporting relative, someone else go through a rite of passage: literally to become an adult – a man – (even if in all other respects to remain a boy), instilled in me the sense of adulthood and the concomitant awareness of the ties that bind that adulthood ought to imply. This has been dawning slowly, in part through the cracking of the cheap veneer of academic life, in part through my own sense of being in the wrong place. So as I leave Berlin, this being my final word on the subject of this city, it is with something of a renewed sense of self: an emergence. The difficulties and depressions, the space between indignation and pity, the sorrows, the unbearable knowledge of waste – all this has merely been my passing through the tree-trunk (there have been joys too, but joy has not been the leitmotiv). What I leave behind will have its place. I shall make narrative order where there was chaos; reduce bad experience to just experience; put things away, to be unfurled occasionally for a child: ‘let me tell you’ – I can already imagine saying it – ‘the story of when I used to live in Berlin…’

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