Monday, February 19, 2007

The Irrelevance of Ritual in the Daily Life of The People of Toronto

While waiting for a bus on the corner of Dundas and Ossington, I was witness to a horrible moment. Indeed, I was perhaps the only witness.

As I stood there, a funeral procession turned north onto Ossington from Dundas, snaking its way north up Ossington to wherever this funeral procession was going. So the funerary limousine turned, followed by the hearse, the casket within in a dark reddish wood, brushed metal along the sides.

I remember the casket well because I knew someone lay there.


I have been reading, and enjoying, the three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire by John Julius Norwich. Like the eminent Mr. Roth, I do not much enjoy the act of reading. However, and perhaps it's the fact-loving little boy in me, I can down a 500-page history with ease and delight while my copy of Watt sits there, unopened and unthought.

Now for those of you unschooled in the history of Eastern Roman Empire, it is as blood-soaked as any. The richness of humanity's capacity for unbridled butchery is well represented in these chronicles.

However, the sweetness of the 2nd Viscount Norwich's prose makes even the tale of Krum the Bulgar turning Nikephoros I's skull into a drinking cup an altogether charming thing to do.

Shining through the gore is this wonderfully complex sense the Byzantians had that they were civilized. Indeed, they were civilization.

And this fact is part of our (you know what I mean here) common mythology about the past - when darkness set upon the Western Roman Empire, it was Byzantium who held up the cause of western civilization by just being there, waiting for the Italians to take it back 1000 years later.


So there I stood, in this most civilized city, almost unbearably civilized, Peter Ustinov's accursed scrap weighing heavily on nearly every utterance by our city fathers, when around five cars into the funeral procession comes a taxicab.

Unlike most major centres, Toronto still has a vibrant streetcar system throughout our downtown core. A streetcar stood there, motionless, and, having just let its passengers off, closed its doors. Sensing an opportunity in the way cabbies do, one of Toronto's many delightfully horrible cab drivers decided he simply could not wait any longer and slipped around the streetcar, and in front of the procession.

The light to cross Ossington now red, the funeral procession, who would in other circumstances be allowed to turn unimpeded (oh you poor deceased - where was your police detail?), are now stuck behind the cab stuck at a red light.

Green light. The cab barrels straight through, continuing on Dundas. Then, and this, my friends, is the point of the story, so does the first car of the funeral procession. So does the next one, each car crossing the threshold of the intersection, looking north up Ossington and quite obviously thinking to themselves "I think the cemetery's up that way".

I am watching all of this, and I am utterly powerless to stop it. I wave to some of them, attempting to get them to turn, but they look at me, waving to them in downtown Toronto, and they think I'm some nut waving to a death train like the circus is in town.

So I stop, and I think about the dead man and woman for whom this is all for, whose funeral procession has been ruined by a cab driver before my very eyes, and I wonder what has happened.

Is this blind necessity, or is it a manifestation of the civilized world of which I am a part, a world where people's lives are valued, but people's rituals are not? And then I realise that rituals often mean more to me than people, and I wonder for a moment if my spirit might not have been better off in Byzantium than here.


The Absurdity Miner said...

Maybe it's a flattening of excesses. There's less gore in modern Toronto than in old Byzantium, but you wouldn't find a Byzantine funeral march interrupted by a guy with a cart...

Gawain said...

oh, absurdity miner, but one CAN have both.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

I'm wondering who here is the more cynical of us.

Gawain said...

dear Otto:

the rituals (li), (the word is part of the complex limao, which means politeness) were, per old Chinese theories, that sort of sympathetic magic which held the world, and the society, in harmony. if the emperor failed in his rituals -- offerings to The Heaven -- understood perhaps as the universe itself -- and ancestors -- or even made a meremistake, the consequences could be dire: drought, famine, floods, rebellion, adultery among women and corruption among minor officials, and so forth.

this is familiar from our own past practices. these rites were not unlike the stuff that the likes of Ficino engaged in -- things like lighting candles in cardial directions to obscure or reverse or magnify posistions of stars ascendant in that quadrant.

but the rites also stipulated the performance of ritual music, whose structure harmonized with the forces of the universe (a concept familiar to us from pythagoras); and stylized ritual dances. gagaku, the old music of the T'ang court (to which I once tried to link yo in vain) still played at the imperial court of Japan, was played during those rites.

therefore, when the universe is out of joint (a phrase from Shakespeare -- King Lear I think -- which illustrates the same manner of thinking) what best way to cure it but put on a huge performance of something calming and harmonious, right?

this very idea lies behind Indic dance-drama, as practiced in India and Thailand and Bali: a grand staging of Ramayana, in the course of which the demonic forces are defeated, rebelious challengers to the monkey throne deposed, kidnapped wives returned to their husbands, is expected to cure the world of its evils, put it in order again.

rites are important.

and since news are bad from all quarters -- terrorism, sectarian strife, ethnic clensing, global warming, overfishing, melting snow-caps, oil and tobacco prices going through the roof, you name it -- i recommend we put something on. what do you think in our own cannon would be both big enough, grand enough, and, at the same time, healing enough?

(surely, not the nutcracker; or lady mcbeth of Mtsensk)

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Gawain, what an uplifting, learned comment!

When I was a choir director, I became very interested in the rituals of the church, especially since the Lutheran church I worked for appeared not to follow most of the rituals sanctioned by their governing body. It didn't make sense to me.

Nor does it make much sense to me how so many weddings are made up of two minute ceremonies so as not to get too much into the way of the celebrating. The rites of marriage are second to the drinking.

I wouldn't reverse them, but why not an equality? Why the hedonism without an appreciation of those moments of deliberate reflection, where every moment, or gesture, is supposed to mean something?

What would I recommend as a work to challenge this?

It would be easy of me to say Beethoven's 9th Symphony, but as the Japanese appear to have already turned it into an end of year rite, I'm going to go out on a limb (or perhaps not) and suggest Wagner's Parsifal.