Friday, April 1, 2011

rites of reversal, or maybe not

I've always been fond of rites of reversal — even more so than the rituals they frequently accompany, or just the regular 'straight' holidays that can be so dull and staid.

Arnold van Gennep (and then Victor Turner, of course) spent a good chunk of their careers analyzing such rites. And they came up with both their structure and functions. In the realm of structure and function, I'll take function any day. Structure might have a sense of grand symmetry, but it lacks the 'so what' of it all. And I've always been about the so-what.

Is Halloween just for fun? Is April Fool's Day or New Year's Eve?

These three are rites of reversal without being associated with any rites of passage at all. Instead, they're dispersed seasonally — giving us (van Gennep would say) some time to blow off steam fairly evenly spaced at the times of the year that we most need them.

The safety valve function of rites of reversal are different in each of these three. Yes, blowing-off-steam. But not in the same way.

April Fool's Day often allows us to say something to someone that we couldn't say otherwise. Or do something hurtful and get away with it. The 'just kidding' part is obnoxious, but the thing needed to be said or done. Right? On this day, you can get away with it. Tomorrow, you can't. They were asking for it, weren't they? They deserve it. Or somebody does. But still. Try it. Tell somebody what you really think. A boss. Parents. Teachers. Folks in authority, or those who are showing off their good fortune. They deserve a good dollop of truth, don't they? Or, on the other hand — there's that person you're just longing to say what you've been holding back for so long. Your longing itself, for example. This is not that day. We have another day for that.

Halloween allows us to be what we otherwise cannot be. We San Franciscans just love this one. It's clearly our forte. Especially when it entails dress-up. And sure. Kids get to do this, and it's terribly healthy for them to check out alternate ways of being in the world. But we supposed SF grownups seem to love it all the more. Except some of us are boringly and unbravely the same thing on Halloween each year. Not really brave enough for daily manifestation, we plan our Halloween persona the whole damned year, and act it all out in one night.

Safety valve. And generally it works okay.

New Year's Eve, on the other hand, allows us to do what we otherwise cannot do. And take no responsibility for it thereafter. Society's come down a bit harder on this one of late. Frowning on those actions when they lead to violence, stupidity, and fatal car wrecks. The problem with New Year's Eve is that it's blowing off steam in which the benefits no longer outweigh the costs. Bummer, but true. And being 'responsible' on New Year's Eve is no safety valve for the year at all. If you've spent the whole year being responsible, being good on NYE is no rite of reversal at all.

Of the three, I've never been interested in April Fool's Day, and I've worried about the pathetic folk who really need it. This is a quite uncharitable point of view. I've always said what was on my mind. And find it terribly dishonest not to. Recently, I've discovered that there are folks who really do much better if they keep their mouths shut. But this once a year (as long as they're just-kidding) they can finally tell the truth. There's this holiday in North Africa, for example — but don't get me started... Let me just say, that this kind of rite of reversal is powerful enough to prevent rebellion and even revolution.

And I've been equally grumpy about New Year's Eve — thinking surely people've outgrown the need to do such self destructive 'behaviors.'

But then there's Halloween.

Maybe I just happen to live in the right city for it. Maybe I live in San Francisco for this reason alone. Maybe I'm over-thinking the whole thing, and it's all just a bit of fun, what's the big deal.

On Halloween, I get to be me.

It feels like it's every other day of the year that I'm playing a form of dress-up. Here's what you wear to work. Here's what you wear on the cliffs and trails. Here's how you should look when you visit your mother. (I know. Weird, huh?). And yes, I just equated putting on different kinds of clothing with being someone. Or being someone different. As if we really can costume our identities. It might not be true at all. Maybe what I really like about Halloween is just the darkness of the night. Switching night for day works well for me. That's why I teach entirely night classes, when I can get away with it. I feel we're somehow more not less awake when we're paying attention in the dark. When we make our choices in the dark.

This might of course be very, very wrong.

So. On this day, the first of April, I suppose the thing to do is to say something to someone. Say something that's unbearably true. Call it a joke. Blow it off. Get away with it. Ha ha. Just kidding. And let them really hear it just before they let it go. If I really think about it, I'm not as brave as I think I am. And I don't stand up for truth. I do keep my bloody mouth shut, what else is there to do? Maybe I need April Fool's Day as much as the next fool.

On second thought. Maybe I'll just start thinking now about what to wear on Halloween next October. It'll probably entail veils... that's something new. Right?


  1. What kinds of New Year's Eve traditions have I been oblivious about all these years?

    I know NYE as the holiday where everybody drinks too much and is thus enabled to kiss too many people at midnight—where the only destructive behavior is that which is regretted the next morning, when nobody has enough ibuprofen, tylenol, aspirin, and Bloody Marys to ease the pain.

    Well, that and the drunk driving accidents for those too stupid to make safer arrangements for their transportation. Is that what you meant?

  2. Re: your reflections about costuming identities: I find it interesting how it's fun to shapeshift through clothes, et al, up to a point - when the costume takes on a life of its own and begins to take charge. Then the real transformational aha rites begin.

    Do the Greek Fisherman this Halloween, instead of the veils. And go out, inhabiting him; speaking as him. I double-dog dare you.

  3. Can't resist a double-dog dare. Maybe I'll surprise you for Halloween. Maybe I'll surprise myself. Maybe we should have a party and play really hard...

  4. Um, but the Greek fisherman scares me. I don't think I've got him in me anymore. Someone else will surely emerge.