(Over the next week I will be posting several entries on ritual and initiation. This is the first installment.)
Men have a peculiar need for ritual. Of this I have become convinced.
It came home to me yet again while reading Chuck Palahniuk’s absorbing new book, Rant. The novel, written in a kind of documentary/oral-story format, follows the larger-than-life story of Rant Casey, a troubled Midwest male who intentionally contracts rabies, again and again, by sticking his arms down rodent boroughs. In the process he seems to develop unnatural abilities to “smell” people’s lives, concoct bizarre anti-social pranks, and, if the legends be true, figures out how to time travel. In his adult years he helps popularize a new form of entertainment called “party crashing,” where young adults dress up in alter-ego garb (wedding apparel, student drivers, etc.) and crash into other participants at low speeds in mock dramas. Bizarre circumstances surround Rant Casey’s life, including the poisoning of many of his family members and, ultimately, his disappearance in a supposedly-fatal crash. Most of the story is told from his colleagues, who report him to have achieved immortality – or have they just immortalized him in their minds? What is for sure is that Casey managed to spread his case of rabies far and wide, starting up a kind of rabies cult in the youth culture.
Palahniuk bombards the reader with a host of themes, but let me hone in on his outstanding presentation of initiation rituals in the late-modern world. Rant can be read as a necessary pairing to Fight Club in this respect.
Like Tyler Durden, Rant Casey is western society’s wake-up call. In his own diabolical way he challenges the status quo by plunging headlong into antisocial behavior. Rabies serves as the centerpoint for his anarchistic philosophy. He not only disturbs his own psychosomatic processes, but intentionally spreads the disease, as if to converts. It is unclear what kind of metaphysical powers are imparted by rabies, but at the very least it becomes the symbol for everything antiestablishment. Casey is contrasted with Wallace Boyer, a car salesman who, along with telling about his interaction with Casey, informs the reader about how a good salesman learns the art of mimicry. Selling cars means leading a potential buyer into thinking he or she is the warm, glowing center of the bourgeois universe. It means reinforcing his or her insulation from the hard reality of mediocrity-and-then-you-die. Not so with Casey. The good life means disrupting every system possible. Again, like Durden of Fight Club
, Casey is the paragon of “freedom,” secured through the most anti-corporate, anti-family, anti-society actions possible. Palahniuk clearly despises the bland religion of Martha Stewart living, and so manufactures another villain in service of the necessary shock therapy. We need to get out of our civilized malaise.
I’m interested in how Casey serves as the initiator of men in this disturbing existential quest. He seems to inspire men to emulate him in all sorts of ways. He spreads his thinking as a disease, and his disease as a new way of thinking. In an altogether unsexual way, he is willing to kiss men to give them rabies. His total willingness to play the role of the societal Other inspires men to do the same, to forfeit their comfortable lives in pursuit of a more authentic mode. In this sense Casey strikes me as a kind of pathological version of the Wild Man. Bly’s Iron John introduced us to this neo-archetype (I say “neo-” because it didn’t come into play until late in the psychology conversations; not even Jung attended to it), the hairy man who is able to initiate men precisely because he doesn’t play by any of the rules of civil society. Casey exists as a kind of enfleshed shadow hell-bent on pulling sissified boys from their (maternal?) worlds of pleasure and fear. He infects them. He reorients their patterns. He encourages them to pull pranks, to risk everything, even life and limb through vehicular collisions (again, the final initiatory rite in Fight Club
). He teaches men to stare straight into the face of death – and thus find themselves.
Like all Palahniuk’s novels, liminality plays an ambiguous role. By liminality I mean the kind of semi-conscious psychological “space” of rituals. This kind of detachment from the normal world provides an opportunity to liberate oneself and be rewired. In a ironic, self-critical way, Palahniuk finishes the novel by bringing out a host of fictional scholars to discuss the anthropological phenomenon of party crashing, even going so far as to quote Victor Turner’s definition of communitas. It isn’t real community. It’s a momentary sacred space powered by mutual participation. Party crashers engage in this behavior for the complex phenomenon of self-making in a temporary “liminoid” environment. While searching for someone to slam into, participants dress up and play roles, even unholy and unsavory roles, as an outlet for personal expression (think Halloween, Mardi Gras, masquerade balls). But the act ends there. They go back to their jobs and quiet little lives. I love how Palahniuk gets us wondering about how much antisocial behavior actually serves to uphold society. Party crashing is a release valve. Moreover, after Casey’s death, endless numbers of teenagers try to contract rabies, or at least fake having it. They want to be initiated into it, whatever it is. They want to challenge their identity and re-make themselves. But in this bizarre disease-embodying are they really “free” from society, from peer expectations, from death? This kind of ritualistic sublimation of oneself may be nothing more than a veneer. It all funnels back into society in a healthy way. That is, unless one is “really free,” like the immortal psychopath, Rant Casey.
In the days ahead I’ll explore how masculine rituals have been deployed in two rather different groups: the ManKind Project and evangelical Christian churches.
How does one initiate the guy in his cubicle existence?
Let me stop here and pose the questions for men’s studies. What kind of rituals do modern boys and men need in order to break free? From what are they breaking free? And why do they need them? Likewise, this novel raises huge questions for the issue of initiation. Who is supposed to be initiating boys and men? Into what are they being initiated? And how do they achieve liberation in a way that is generative, not destructive?