Some years ago, a dozen? Maybe more, I had an insight regarding ritual. I was thinking about the way Norse boatbuilders carved intricate designs on their craft. They were almost proto modern in so many other ways, creating boats that are still marvels when approached along our common notions of form following function.
The Norse decorated everything they made. I had thought that as a young culture – after all they invented the iconography of the modern teenager, covering every available surface in “Goth” scribbles… – they just had a mania for decoration as an outlet for an excess of glandular potency. What I realized was that taking the time to decorate what they made was a way of “paying the price” of their commitments. They didn’t make boats or helmets, or silver cups, or swords, or even rakes and scythes, just for utility’s sake. They made them as expressions of a way of life, a particular world view. Since all they did reflected and embodied that way of life, they needed a way to pay homage to deeper necessities than utility. One way to do this was to sacrifice the effort and attention required to decorate their production. In this way, these weren’t decorations at all, not in the way we tend to consider the term to mean an added layer of visual distraction. These were signs and effects of that which held meaning for them. In doing so, they showed their allegiance to the forces they gave importance to through their effort and attention which might have otherwise been spent on efficiency or leisure – both qualities they did admire. They also left these as signs to be read for what they were. In the hopes of showing others who followed in their wake a path that held its followers close to their values.
Ritual, sacrifice. Every appeal to anything Norse! These so often appear in perverted Aryan fantasies of oppression founded on twisted readings of myths taken in or out of context. Nothing here is intended in any way as support for any of that! In a way, that’s part of the problem with our common understanding of these terms. We see them as terrible truths or fantasies. Either is, I think, a misreading.
All we have to offer is our attention and our effort. It is through judgements and actions that allocate these two fundamental resources that we give value and meaning to our lives, or squander and lay waste to the same. Ritual, and the notion of sacrifice, is an important aspect of how these transactions are made and carried on through time. We tend to see these, when we deign to give them any credence, as some crude magical pleading for a quid pro quo from the heavens, that sacrifices are made in “payment” for favors from on high. Plenty today consider this the wink and the nod behind the whole belief game, whether they follow it or deny its importance. What if it were something else?
This is another way of looking at the question of impermanence, of make-shift stabs at “winning,” versus inhabiting a way of life that holds deep meaning while maintaining a direct contact with reality. It can be seen from within a context of utility. In a rather superficial way, looking at the quality of ritual decorations is a sign of the commitment and therefore the resulting competence of the practitioner who made the item in question. We see so much evidence of the opposite of this today in the total lack of attention and the resulting crap-quality of just about everything! It also touches on utility in a deeper sense. It is a sign that the maker understands what’s at stake in living, and has taken a certain spiritual due diligence. Of course at that level utility stops being a secondary attribute and becomes another way of stating our responsibilities connected with the act of Being.
Let’s look for a moment at a contemporary example that would like to be taken as a sign of quality. Let’s look at the fetish surrounding the opening of a new Apple product. In a hushed and reverential mood of satiated consumption we approach the pristine white package and marvel at every detail of its origami like unfolding. Decoration is spare and clean. It appeals to us as an emblem of a clean and simple approach to life and the acceptance of taking joy in what we might produce, at least in the tools that we chose. I’ve fallen under this spell many times. I must admit it’s only since I lost the wherewithal to maintain my Apple habit with regular infusions of cult-objects that I’ve been slowly able to see through the purpose behind it all. It’s telling to compare a Viking craft with the artifacts of Cupertino.
Apple, for all its Branding and message, exists to fulfill the will of its shareholders. It is now reaching an apotheosis of that will as the most highly “valued” company on earth. Every nuanced overture that is intended to communicate an understanding of and an alliance with their “users” is a calibrated attempt to meet a marketing goal. No other consideration is allowed to interfere. In this they are only better practitioners of the art of enticement and co option than their competitors or their ancestors in similar initiatives aimed at using whoever and whatever is at hand as a means to an end, a selfish end. There is no way that the “quality” of the decoration, of the effort, the results of attention paid, can be anything but servants to that end. These aren’t sacrifices, the making or the “appreciation” of the results of these efforts will never be a ritual in a true sense, but simply a cult-activity in which an agreement to dupe and be duped is carried out between complicit parties. An arrangement in which a lowly end is celebrated as a stand-in for the most exalted reason for Being. Our collusion taints us from the start. I say this while typing on an Apple keyboard staring at an Apple monitor hooked up to a MacBook Pro!
This is a dramatization of the particular futilities I deal with. Attempting to reconcile using a deeply compromised set of tools in a desperate attempt to reach out to others and enter into meaningful connections. The distance between that Norse boatbuilder and me is the distance between someone sure enough of that to which he has given his attention and effort, and someone who feels trapped into using what he knows to be made in bad faith to escape from a deadly condition. What we tend to ignore is that the way of life that respected ritual was lived in a closer entanglement between risk and danger. They were more likely to meet an untimely end than those of us privileged enough to be reading this. Yet they found the strength, while we find excuses…. This is part of the “play now, pay later” ethos of our day. We have seemingly avoided life’s arbitrary hazards only to ensure greater and more pervasive destruction will follow in our wakes. Like a soccer-mom keeping her kids “safe” in an SUV.
This connects back with our sense of futility. The dread of futility does not allow us to face our sacrifice of attention and effort with an open heart while we are caught in its grip. We can either flail away within complicity with all that we know to be in bad faith, or we can deny any connection and wallow in an unspecified malaise. What we cannot do is bring ourselves to believe in either choice and give our actions the weight of ritual. We crave this, hunger for the clear-conscience that would allow it, but we lack the standing, the sense that we have such a place of integrity on which to stand. In this we confront the lessons of ritual from the past, the example of those who came before. Our ridicule, as it always must, is there to hide our shame, even in the face of those berserker savages, a bunch of drunken Vikings, carving Ivy trellises on oaken planks.